Thursday, 25 June 2009

The curse of Barack Obama

Barack Obama has a history of seeing his political opponents bite the dust following revelations about their personal lives. It happened to his opponent in the 2004 Senate race- Jack Ryan- whose ex-wife revealed some unsavory facts about their sex life. The well-financed and surging campaign of Blair Hull for the Democratic nomination had already been seen off by allegations of domestic abuse.

Now South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanfod- seen as a possible Republican runner in 2012- has been ejected from the running as his affair comes into the open. Chris Matthews speculates whether there is a Tutankhamun effect of the 2012 nomination for Republicans. Personally, I think it's the curse of Barack Obama. How did it work in 2008 presidential election? It made John McCain select Sarah Palin as running-mate. Beware.

Time to free Michael Shields

Michael Savage has an excellent piece in The Independent on the dilemma facing Jack Straw regarding the decision about whether or not to free Michael Shields, the Liverpool fan wrongly convicted of killing a Bulgarian bar-tender with a paving slab in 2005. Most Liverpool fans still dream of that night on May 25th 2005 when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit to lift the Champions League trophy for the fifth time. For Michael Shields, who maintains that he was in bed at the time of the attack, it was the beginning of a four year nightmare.

The dilemma for Jack Straw, as dissected by Savage, is whether to free Shields and risk others not being extradited to Britain as we may be seen as a soft option or to keep him incarcerated until he has served the remainder of his 10 year prison sentence. The High Court already ruled that the Lord Chancellor does indeed have the power to issue a pardon in December of last year. So it's in Mr Straw's hands.

I just don't see how the wider impact of the decision can justify keeping an innocent man in prison. It is simply wrong. The fact that significant new evidence has come to light- including eye witness statements and Shields has taken a lie detector test also- provides the cover to make the decision. He would not be disrespecting the Bulgarian legal system by overturning its decision. Goodness me, our legal system gets it wrong also- just ask Colin Stagg or Barry Bulsara. Any diplomatic fall-out could be managed. Even if it could not, it is still no reason not to acquit Michael Shields.

This one is a simple case of doing the right thing. Michael Shields will be acquitted if there is any justice in the decision.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The ego has landed......

Here is my LabourList column on.......John Bercow and democratic reform. It begins with the sentence, 'I like John Bercow.' There, it's out there.

The ego has landed- can he change politics?

Revolution in rural England

Last night, I gave a talk on Barack Obama at the truly excellent Lowdham Book Festival. During the ensuing discussion, we inevitably turned to British politics. While I wouldn't want to make assumptions about the political make-up of the around 100 strong audience who were locals in the main, it seems a fair estimate to assume that a good chunk were natural Conservatives. In the County Council elections a few weeks ago the Conservatives took Farnsfield and Lowdham 3333 to Labour's 879.

First thing to say is that the enthusiasm in rural Nottinghamshire for Barack Obama's story and the politics that he represents is just as great as anywhere else I have spoken in the UK. That didn't surprise me.

What truly surprised me was that the notion of political change wasn't something that the audience thought should be reserved for the other side of the Atlantic. They are demanding change here too. And it is not just a change of Government that they were interested in. It was a change in the whole way of doing politics. The general consensus seemed to be that an intolerable chasm had opened up between people and their representatives. They want more say- including the introduction of primaries- and they've had enough.

Parliament has to realise quickly that there now is not only a consensus for major political change but there is a demand for it as well. The election of the new speaker has done absolutely nothing to change that. Sorry guys and girls- if MPs think for a moment that this can simply be brushed under the carpet they have another thing coming. It is strange when you have a Labour writer and activist in a natural Tory stronghold and they enthusiastically agree with one other. Interesting times.......

Post script: Thank you to the BTBS- the book trade charity- for sponsoring the event.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Hague the ill-informed

William Hague in a characteristic act of out of touch delusion has accused those who question the on-the-record views of the parties in the Tories' new Conservative and Reformist Group in the European Parliament as 'ill-informed and out of date.'

I particularly enjoyed his assertion that while the Polish Law and Justice Party had banned gay marches, many parties in Poland held 'conservative' views on the issue. So is homophobia a 'conservative' position?Interesting. There are other homophobic politicians in Poland, so that's alright then? The absence of logic is astounding.

You can see what both the Polish Law and Justice Party and the Czech Civic Democrats have said about Barack Obama, homosexuality and climate change in my last post.

It is quite clear that it is not the views of the Tories' critics who are ill-informed and out of date. It is the views of the Tories' new European political bed-fellows. That the Tories are willing to tolerate it demonstrates just how much they have failed to reform even after a dozen years of opposition.

The Tories' new mates in Europe

Here's some quotes from a few of the Tories' new mates in the EU:

Polish Law and Justice Party

Artur Gorski, a Polish MP from the rightwing PiS party, warned that the victory of the ‘black messiah of the new left [Barack Obama]’, a ‘buddy of a leftwing terrorist’ would mean ‘an impending catastrophe, the end of the civilisation of the white man.'

Homosexuals have been accused by the party of being a cultural and biological threat to the Polish nation, a threat to ‘natural law, marriage and family.’ Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw has announced that ‘homosexuals should not be allowed to teach’. Jaroslaw's twin brother Lech is the President of Poland. Jaroslaw once said, ‘The affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilisation.’”

The Czech Civic Democrats

Vaclav Klaus, founder of the ODS, "Global warming is a false myth and every serious person and scientist says so."

There will be much more. Here is the full list (from PoliticsHome):

Belgium: Lijst Dedecker (LDD), with 1 MEP in the New Group

Czech Republic: Civic Democratic Party (ODS), with 9 MEPs

Finland: The Centre Party (Keskusta) sits in the Liberal (ALDE) group but one of its MEPs is now joining the New Group.

Hungary: Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) with 1 MEP

Latvia: Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK) with 1 MEP

The Netherlands: ChristianUnion (ChristenUnie) with 1 MEP

Poland: Law & Justice (PiS) with 15 MEPs

Iran's elections- a US foreign policy disaster

It is clear that Iran's elections were not free and fair. Any sensible analysis of the result such as that conducted by Ali Ansari in the Guardian this morning underline the fact that it simply beggars belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured 63% of the vote.

There has been a much quoted poll by the not for profit group Terror Free Tomorrow which- on the face of it- foresaw Ahmadinejad's winning margin . However, the poll which contained 41% of respondees who 'didn't know' or 'wouldn't say' how they were going to vote has been largely discredited as an accurate predictor of the result. Nate Silver- yes he who had the most incredible polling analysis of the US presidential election- dismisses the poll thus: "Rather than giving one more confidence in the official results, the poll raises more questions than it resolves."

Is Ahmadinejad the rightful election victor? It is impossible to say. It is absolutely clear that these elections were not free and fair. Whatever the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei believes these sham elections will achieve, they will be very damaging for Iran. They have handed a propaganda victory to those who want a more hardline response to Iran.

It will be much more difficult for President Obama to pursue a more open policy towards Iran. Indeed, he has been- rightly- forced into using ever harder language in relation to the election results. Others will now be pushing harder to get him to pursue a tougher line on Iran's nuclear programme. Republicans are describing him as timid and bungling is his handling of this issue- with the clear message that a harder line has to be pursued in general towards Iran.

And yesterday, a gleeful and smug Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on Meet the Press. Iran has been 'unmasked' he said. To hear him gloat about freedom just a few months after Gaza was exceedingly difficult to stomach. The full clip is below:

So all in all, this election has been an utter disaster: for Iran, for regional stability, for US foreign policy, and for the Obama administration. The correct policy of 'engagement without preconditions' becomes difficult to sustain in this context. It also makes open criticism of Israel- such as President Obama made of the expansion of West Bank settlements- more difficult. So these elections are disastrous for democracy in Iran. The consequences will, however, go much further.

Post script: Nokia Siemens Networks are supplying the Iranian regime with an electronic surveillance system. Explain yourselves.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Obama- where are we at?

An interesting piece by Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books this week does a quick analysis of where President Obama is and where his administration is going. 'The Unencumbered Man' looks at how Barack Obama interplays with the political factions within the Democratic Party in Congress and comes to the conclusion that his independence from both the liberal and centrist wings is a political asset. Tomasky quotes Will Marshall of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council:
"He's the least experienced president we've had in some time, but he's turned that into an asset. He comes in with no great mortgages held by any of the party factions."
So he keeps the liberal wing of his party in check by refusing to release torture photos and hold an independent inquiry into torture (mistakenly in my view but that's another matter.) On healthcare and the environment he will disappoint many. How the Obama administration maintains its political capital will depend in large part on the willingness of the left in the United States to take a glass half-full rather than half-empty attitude. As John Podesta, puts it in the Tomasky piece:
"I fundamentally disagree with this idea that we're accepting warmed-over spit and that he's only moving an inch at a time. Insuring 30 million people? The equivalent of taking 500 million cars off the road [in reference to the proposed cap and trade legislation]. These are big, huge deals."
In foreign policy also, the administration is setting out its stall- criticism of expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements, reaching out to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech, positively influencing the Lebanese elections in so doing helping to prevent Hezbollah's coalition from winning, reaching a successful conclusion on a G20 Summit deal. However, if the measure is going to be the creation of Palestinian state, Iran falling into line, or the final defeat of the Taliban then the bar is set too high.

This is a pragmatic administration but one which is grounded in US liberalism. Its starting point is in the liberal terrain. Where it ends up will be closer to a centrist position. This is in marked contrast to the Clinton administration which often started in the centre and too often ended up nowhere- and often found itself in complete reactive mode. Because of its starting point, and the favourable congressional dynamics, the Obama administrations has every opportunity to achieve things that liberals have been unable to since the 1960s. What a tragedy it would be if, despite monumental achievements, it was still to face all too predictable accusations of betrayal. The administration's pragmatism is essential. Let's hope US liberal politics- while not sacrificing its responsibility to engage in constructive criticism- manifests a similar pragmatism.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Getting serious about climate change

So now we know what climate change means for us in the UK- within a range- from today's publication of UK climate projections. The UK will be a hotter country, wetter in Winter, dryer in Summer, and temperatures seem set to rise by 3.9°C taking the South East as an example by 2080 on the 50% scenario. Chris Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency, has an even starker warning:

"These new projections remind us starkly of the choices we face in ensuring a sustainable future for our fragile planet. A failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions will lead to a battle for survival for mankind and many other species across the globe by the end of this century; and we will feel the effects here in the UK too."

For the UK, in practical terms this means more deaths from heat-waves, a change in our eco-system with unknown effects, more floods, and massive economic adaptation costs. And we are one of the lucky ones. Imagine if you are in Bangladesh, or Kenya, or the Middle East. Imagine how ferocious the competition for resources will become: food, land, water, energy. And yet world leaders continue to act as if climate change is like a household chore- something we'll get round to manana, willing to say anything to assuage the naggings of one's partner.

Actually, the British government have rapidly cottoned on to the importance of climate change. However, there is still quite a way to go. It is fine for us to manage our emissions. But what of our emissions elsewhere? I have done a number of Google searches in writing this blog, but where was the energy from those searches emitted? In the Nevadan desert somewhere? The computer I'm using was made in China. Surely I should bear the costs of the emissions used in making it and the externalities of the transport to get it to me? It should be a matter of the polluter pays.

Beyond that, we are only half-heartedly developing the green economy. This is where the Green party has a real contribution to make in proposing a Green New Deal that will lead to the creation of 1 million jobs. Thomas Friedman in his Hot, Flat and Crowded wrote that he wanted the US to become the Saudi Arabia of green. Well, that should be us.

The numbers are huge- the Green's plan will cost £45billion but at least they have kick started a debate about a different tomorrow- one where we avoid these large and potentially catastrophic climate increases. It will also mean that we need to develop a different approach to our society and become a nation that values investment and the long-term more than short-termism and consumption.

In the European elections I did a number of hustings on the environment and got to debate against Felicity Norman and Vicky Dunn who were candidates for the Green party in the West Midlands. They were both extremely articulate, measured, knowledgeable and clear. There was none of the 'capitalism is evil' rhetoric I was expecting. If this is the type of Green party that we will see in the future then their voice is an important one on the political scene. It makes electoral reform even more of an issue as these voices have an articulate case that needs to be heard within our political system, not just in campaign hustings.

We need to do everything we can to combat climate change- it is going to leave our world in an unimaginable mess. The international cooperation, the investment, the challenge to the lives we lead, the new way of thinking about ourselves and our relation to the world are all desirable anyway. We know it's right so let's find a way of arguing it convincingly and placing it at the forefront of a national mission for change.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A Twitter revolution? No, but revolutionaries tweet

Here is my latest LabourList column which discusses technology and politics. It looks at the G20 Summit protests, Obama '08, ID Cards, and the Iranian uprising. Having not really written about technology and politics for eight years I've now done so twice in a day!

A few years ago I edited a book on all this called Viral Politics: communication in the new media era. It discusses how new media could change politics. It was published by Iain Dale who may have picked up one or two tips.......or maybe not.

Digital Britain misses a trick

"The internet is a global phenomenon." So states para 14 of the Digital Britain report. Thanks. Against my better instincts I ploughed on regardless. It turns out that it's not a bad effort after all.

I like the levy to fund to next generation of broadband internet. If the first generation added 0.5%-1% to GDP, it is well worth the public intervention and investment.

Channel 4 will remain in public ownership and could even receive a slice of the license fee pie. Good. Its 4iP innovation fund is exactly the type of smart thinking we need if we are to secure the massive opportunities offered by ever-faster internet for all. Projects such as Talk about Local would not be able to innovate without the investment. A new way of thinking about public service media indeed and 4iP are leading us in the right direction.

Which leads me to my major criticism of the report. It wrestles with two concurrent concepts- there are infrastructure providers who are commercial then there are content providers who are a mixture of things but who find it much more difficult to survive commercially unless they have a off-line parent (e.g. Guardian online.) This division stifles creativity and public service.

The monumental historical error was the privatisation of the BT network (as opposed to the service provider elements.) In so doing, the government lost control of the ability to engender creativity. Whoever your service provider, if they are providing it over BT's lines they are able to cream off a line rental. The growth of Virgin Media has lessened to issue to a certain extent- at least there is now choice. But the choice is between two commercial providers who simply care about getting you to subscribe to as many of their services as possible- TV, phone, internet. They don't have a public or community ethos at heart.

Alongside this, you have the possibility for truly creative rich online content. Not just the news content that the Digital Britain report seems obsessed with but also new ways of delivering public services, new community services, new ways of receiving expanding reservoirs of information (including government data which the report mentions), and communicating with one another. These things are often non-commercial. So it's fine if the Guardian or BBC or the Government funds them- though in the latter case they have been woefully unimaginative. But what if you want to provide rich community content or local authorities want to unite with other local service providers, e.g. NHS, schools, and colleges to improve community life through use of the internet?

Well, these services are not commercially viable so the creativity doesn't happen. But what if the content was linked to the profitable bit, i.e. the infrastructure? What if community or public service content was provided in conjunction with the pipe? What if chunks of the infrastructure were loaned out at competitive rates to allow such content to thrive? A private company would have difficulty doing that- their concern is maximising shareholder value.

For this innovation to happen there needs to be a more imaginative approach than private companies will normally provide. There needs to be an understanding about how innovation can improve the quality of life for people in communities. We missed a trick with BT and the growth of Virgin Media subsequently means that the time has passed.

Digital Britain doesn't confront this central structural issue: the people who make the money from infrastructure are not currently those who are best placed to facilitate the innovation that enables communities to grow in imaginative ways. But if there is to be public investment through a levy in the next generation of broadband, why not use the leverage from that to secure richer community and public service content- even for imaginative local newspapers? The recipients of the investment should demonstrate that they have worked to make such content commercially viable by, for example, allowing content providers to provide broadband services at competitive rates.

It is a economy driven report in many respects which is an observation not a criticism. It will have a positive impact on the British economy and the quality of British life and should be applauded for that. But it is disappointingly cautious and rooted in many ways in the world that we are moving away from rather than the world to which we could be heading. Still we are not convincingly entering the internet age in terms of how in can radically improve our quality of life as opposed to simply making us wealthier. Digital Britain is more quantity than quality driven but at least this report means that we won't be left behind.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The irony of American history

I am halfway through an obscure little book from 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. It is a discussion about the nature of the American project and how it has been able to avert disaster through the limits imposed on itself by its republican constitution and love of individual liberty. It shares the messianic arrogance of other powers but an elegant messiness in arranging its affairs have prevented it from acquiring the power to hurtle itself towards nemesis.

Well, as I say, it was written in 1952 and George W Bush had not been president at that point. If there was just one thing that could have saved America from its foreign policy and military disasters over the last few years, it is this book. The introduction is written by Andrew Bacevich whose book, The Limits of American Power called for a neo-Niebuhrism. It was that book and an anecdote from the the New York Times columnist, David Brooks, in which he described being taken aback when the new president demonstrated a strong grasp of Niebuhrian philosophy in a passing conversation that alerted me to Niebuhr.

Now, I could quote endlessly from this book. It actually is much broader in scope than even its sweeping title suggests. It flows into religion, psychology, as well as politics and foreign relations. The most astounding passage of the book so far is Niebuhr's discussion of happiness about which he states: "happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit, and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent." So flash a wry smile at anyone who sees politics as being about making people happy. The Declaration of Independence and its 'inalienable right' of the 'pursuit of happiness' is about the best we can hope for.

I would like to quote one passage which literally took my breath away. If you can't be contemplative on a Sunday when can you be?
"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
The Irony of American History (2008 edition, p.63)
Hope, faith, love, forgiveness- there you are: some things to chew over with a Sunday roast. The limits of history, its ironies, and the inherent dangers of messianic creeds come into sharp focus with the situation in Iran. There is a regime that lacks the intrinsic humility that is necessary for virtue. Niebuhr could teach their elites a great deal as they hurtle towards domestic disaster and international humiliation.

Let the true Iran flourish

Iran's reformers are being suffocated. Not only is Hossein Mousavi apparently being held under house arrest, major figures such as Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Majlis have come out in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejed, while at least a 100 leading reformers have been arrested. This BBC report by John Simpson expertly summarises the situation- some of his earlier reporting had been confiscated:

BBC in Tehran

Mousavi's campaign had used the tools of the internet- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter- extensively. Now they become tools in resisting oppression. However, the Iranian regime- and that is what it is- is slowly strangling the net and mobile telephony. But the net is too organic to be entirely defeated. Take this Twitter feed from @jadi who sounds like a man drowning as he runs out of the air of the internet. Somehow he keeps breathing and so we can understand what is happening: @jadi. @mousavi1388 also tweets- is this the voice of Mousavi himself?
Dear Iranian People, Mousavi has not left you alone, he has been put under house arrest by Ministry of Intelligence
I don't know whether the election results were falsified or not- I strongly suspect so. But the violent suppression of dissent and free speech in their aftermath is showing the regime for what it is- a brutal theocractic dictatorship masquerading as a democracy. Even though President Ahmadinejad was reelected Iran has changed today. Quite simply, it is a young society that no longer accepts theocracy. Consequently, it is a nation that will turn on itself and goodness knows what consequences that will have internationally. I hate to apply what I see to have become the rule of Middle-Eastern politics but it seems apt: imagine the worst case scenario and that will be the scenario most proximate to the actual outcome.

All we can do is give voice to people like @jadi- follow them, disseminate their words, and support them. An Iran that is true to itself is in all our interests. True democracy is not about win or lose elections. It is about properly representing the will of the people- all the people. Iran's sham presidential election, its aftermath and their oafish leader, are a world apart from that. One day we hope that we can see the true Iran- the great Iran- flourish once more.

Post script: Here are pictures from around Iran of the resistance courtesy of @mousavi1388:

I have started following a number of Iranian protesters- look at my 'following' list to see them:

Also turn your Twitter avatar green as a show of support. Image below if you want to save and upload:

Friday, 12 June 2009

Time for the left to face reality

So how on earth did a crisis of capitalism become a crisis of the left? In France, Spain, Germany, Italy and in the UK the major parties of the left suffered a trouncing in the European elections last week. The global financial meltdown was supposed to usher in a new social democratic renaissance. Neo-liberalism as a creed was meant to have failed. Where would voters turn? To the left. Only they didn't.

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times sees the left's travails as a series of tactical defeats but also cautions against a naive adoption of command and control economics. He is right that the leadership of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have moved smartly onto ground opened up by the financial crisis. What this has meant in practice is that there has been very little wriggle room for the PS in France and the SPD in Germany- even if they wanted it. However, I don't see a new wave of statism in Europe's mainstream leftist parties as Stephens seems to suggest. They have simply been outmanoeuvred.

In the case of the British Labour party, as the party of government they have been left carrying the can. Labour's message and identity had become woven into neo-liberal globalisation. That is partly down to London's position as leading global financial centre- a cash cow that Labour just didn't want to scare. So when the whole thing came crashing down with the consequence that the British taxpayer has been left to shoulder a monumental burden for global collapse, it was inevitable that the government would suffer politically. There are other well established local factors- expenses etc- for the collapse in the government's support.

However, there does seem to be one common factor behind the left's decline across Europe. Its social foundation is melting beneath its feet making it ever more difficult to sustain winning coalitions. Martin Kettle in the Guardian points to the same factors mentioned by Eric Hobsbawm in the Guardian on Tuesday. I also mentioned the same thing in my LabourList piece earlier this week. Here is Hobsbawm on this:
The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency.
Kettle's conclusion is:
Labour is behaving in the same historically demoralised way as most centre-left parties across Europe. Blair's solutions to this fatalism belonged to a different conjuncture from ours. He produced no eternal programmatic template. But in the end, New Labour was far more right than wrong. The centre-left will have few days in the sun over the next decade unless and until it rediscovers the instinct for creative adaptation that Blair taught it.
This is exactly right and I argued on Wednesday that:
A political project that combines social democracy with environmentalism and liberalism seems to be the best hope. It would seek to reach, for want of better descriptions, both the working class and liberal professionals. It is not about the Labour Party alone. It has to be based around a broad movement for social and environmental justice and rooted in the bonding institutions of civil society: trade unions, churches, community and environmental groups. Democratic reform will be essential to the emergence of such a force.
Of course, there is more than an element of guesswork in this. I don't know anymore than the next person whether such a programme can work to build a sufficient coalition for the left. Instinctively, it feels right and such a programme and approach worked for Obama when disseminated using the force of a movement based party. What I do know, as Kettle argues, is that the Labour party has reached a point where fundamental renewal is now a necessity. From the broadest tent imaginable in 1997, it has been reduced to a rump. Like the rest of Europe there not is an easy demographic for it to reignite and lean on- the error made by those who argue for a 'core vote' strategy. The traditional working class has shrunk and become fragmented.

And as Philip Stephens argues, the parties of the right in Europe are becoming pretty adept at consuming the oxygen of the mainstream left- in Sweden, France, Germany, and, yes, the UK's 'progressive conservative' Cameron Tories. The New Labour coalition doesn't provide the answer either strategically or politically- the point of this is to combat climate change, economic volatility, and social inequality and alienation. So a new politics based around a new coalition has to be constructed. Ground can not be conceded to the right. This is a New Labour insight but the answer is not New Labour.

Sound like an enormous task? Yes, it is. Who has the answers? Nobody at this stage. I would be very suspicious indeed about anyone who claimed to have the answers. We are at the very beginning of the discussion but we must adopt the attitude that the left has to fundamentally reconfigure itself. If it does not then the future will be conceded to the tactically lithe right. That just won't be enough to confront the massive issues that we as a society are facing. Time for change? You betcha.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

HuffPo, Labour and the BNP

Just some mopping up from yesterday. Firstly, I had my first piece on the Huffington Post. The online publication is one of the sites that I have used religiously for the past year or so and is one of the world's biggest current affairs sites. It is bursting with content and that is probably why it has survived the post-US election cull of my favourites. Anyway, it was all down to Alex Smith at LabourList who has developed a relationship with HuffPo. The article is below:

Out of date, out of touch: British politics in turmoil

I am writing a weekly column for LabourList. The website has moved beyond the Derek Draper 'smeargate' fiasco and is rapidly establishing itself as a credible and independent site for Labour and 'progressive' politics. If you are Labour or left inclined I'd recommend giving the site another go if you were turned off a couple of months ago. This week's column is below:

How we can learn the lessons of defeat and build a new movement of the left

Finally, I meant to reference the fascinating piece by Anthony Wells on the nature of the BNP vote yesterday. It would seem that BNP voters are not natural Labour voters at all. Rather, they are what used to be called the Tory working class. This suggests that any strategy to 'win them back for Labour' is doomed to failure. A better strategy is to prevent voters falling into their hands in the first place. This involves both the dam building tactics that the Hope not Hate campaign has been pursuing. But Labour spectacularly failed to motivate its vote last Thursday. That is the major issue and that is why the BNP now have two seats. Sorry to be so blunt but that's the reality. The key analysis from Anthony Wells is in the following paragraph:
If BNP supporters are traditional Labour, male working class voters therefore, the natural conclusion that it’s Labour they are taking support from. This falls down, however, on some other questions - asked if they’d rather have Cameron or Brown as PM, BNP voters opt for Cameron by 59% to 17%. Asked to place themselves on the political spectrum they put themselves right of centre, in roughly the same place as they do the Tories. 22% of them think the Tories care about people like themselves, only 6% say the same about Labour. In short, the people the BNP seem to appeal to are actually “working class Tories” - the sort of traditional working class voters who under other circumstances might shift over to the Conservatives.
The full analysis which I'd highly recommend is available here.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Electoral reform- keep the BNP at bay

So we are going to have a discussion about introducing an Alternative Vote system of voting for the House of Commons. This is electoral reform but not proportional representation. The virtue of AV is that it forces candidates to build an ongoing relationship with a greater portion of their voters. It also has more volatile aspects to it than first past the post which is a good thing: it makes representatives more accountable.

Electoral reform in this manner is a good thing because it increases popular sovereignty. Proportional representation is a bad thing for the same reason. It actually diminishes popular sovereignty as it hands power to political elites who distribute the spoils in accordance with an elite bargaining game. Danny Alexander of the Lib Dems laments that the current system is 'unfair.' Yes, from the perspective of his party- self-interest always weighs heavily in this debate- it is. But fairness to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens or UKIP or the BNP is not the overriding concern. Popular sovereignty is.

What the expenses scandal has shown is that there is dangerous distance between MPs and their constituents and this is partly caused by the excessive stability of first past the post. If you lose, it is because your party has lost. It is very rarely because of your performance as an MP. This is unacceptable. If AV facilitates more independence amongst MPs then even better. That would be one of the means of increasing the independence of Parliament and holding the executive to account. All these things are a thoroughly good idea. So let's not have a discussion Prime Minister- these things have been debated in infinite detail. Let's get on with it for goodness sake.

Now, you'll notice the BNP creeping into this post above. There is a misconception that electoral reform means that the BNP will find their way into Parliament. I would be surprised if they could get into Parliament needing more than 50 per cent of the vote in any single constituency. In fact, I would say that the safeguards against BNP representation are even greater in AV than in the current system. It is very important to differentiate AV and PR in this debate.

But there is a broader issue here. Yes, the BNP wouldn't have 2 MEPs if there had not been a system of PR in these European elections. But they wouldn't had the Labour vote not collapsed either- both staying at home and going to a whole host of other parties. That is a bigger issue which I've addressed in my LabourList column which I'll link to later.

So, AV yes. PR no. And AV will keep the BNP at bay.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Labour leadership: don't let us down

I've had a highly enriching and enthusing few weeks as a European parliamentary candidate. It's been tough in many ways but nowhere near as tough as might be supposed given the political context. Actually, the people I've had the great pleasure to meet- both party activists/ supporters and the general public- have been engaging, sympathetic and often even empathetic. I've thoroughly enjoyed myself and would recommend the experience to anyone.

On Thursday, I campaigned in two safe Labour county divisions in Rugby. With three great candidates standing, Jeff Coupe, Maggie O'Rourke and Doug Hodkinson, and given the reaction we were getting on the doorstep- positive in the main- I thought that we had won. We lost. The one thing that had been giving me a nagging doubt during the day was that I was having to do more persuading on the doorstep than normal. Though it was working, we clearly couldn't persuade enough. So very sorry to not see Jeff, Maggie and Doug on Warwickshire County Council. Had it not been for the expenses scandal, they would have been.

Arriving back to my parents' house in Stourbridge on Thursday night I already knew the political maelstrom that was awaiting. I'd been tipped off about James Purnell's decision to resign the afternoon of the election. It was about midnight and The Politics Show was on so I thought I'd catch that. It was a perfect predictive picture for what Friday was going to be like. Dianne Abbott was shrill in her attack on the perfidy of James Purnell and 'Blairites' (as if that was not a legitimate Labour party viewpoint- get over it Diane, it's been 15 years!) and was airing this argument that a new leader would have to instantly call a general election. Michael Portillo was smiling from ear to ear and was merrily going along with the immediate general election argument. Andrew Rawnsley, while sustaining a few blows himself, was gleefully looking on. That is where we began- resignations, hysterical reaction, smirking Tory elation, and journalists like kids in a sweet shop- and that is where the discussion remained throughout Friday.

Of course, the Tories just love this 'there must be a general election' argument. At the moment they are willing to hang that on just about everything: health metrics from Wigan, late delivery of post in Nottingham, Home Office driver found asleep in his Jaguar, England losing to the Netherlands at cricket. OK, I can see their point on the last one but as ever the Tories don't go far enough- nothing short of Jacobin revolution will sort that one out!

Briefly, Douglas Alexander managed to elevate the discussion on the Today programme. He at least acknowledged that there was a discussion going on then made his case in an intelligent and sober way. But soon after, chaos ensued and that is where we remain. So we are left scrambling around for some sanity amidst the madness. Scramble and stumble and grab and crawl. Then suddenly a shaft of light pokes through a crack in the darkness. Steve Richards, arise.

His piece in The Independent this morning is exactly the type of sober analysis that we could have done with yesterday. The choice is not, as Nick Robinson melodramatically put it yesterday, between instant or long, slow death. The choice- and there is a choice- is between the experience of a Brown/Mandelson team to steer the economy and the Labour party towards recovery or an as yet unspecified alternative. To the discredit of the Prime Minister's supporters a leadership election would not precipitate implosion and instant death in the form of a necessary general election. To the discredit of his opponents, there is not a floor on how low Labour can go so any alternative is not a better alternative.

Can there ever have been a leader-in-waiting more unconvinced of his capabilities than Alan Johnson? He's so unconvinced that I'm almost certainly persuaded of his unsuitability. So yes, it can get worse. And, as Steve Richards points out, regicide always lingers.

What is lacking in this whole process is an honest broker. Sorry to harp on about things American but remember how poisonous the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had become just over a year ago? For a time, it seemed that the Democratic party might consume its own golden opportunity and excrete it into the Potomac River. How were they able to turn back from the brink? Well, there was an independent adjudicator of standing, a political player in his own right. That was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean. He applied the rules fairly and- contrary to his hot-head image- poured oil on troubled waters while remaining aloof. There were several other senior Democratic party figures who served the same function.

The problem in British politics- and Lord Kinnock's words in support of the Prime Minister have just popped up on twitter as I write this- is that everyone is a player. We need adjudicators and people who are going to uphold the fairness of the process as well. The intersection of personal and party interest and the process is deeply unhealthy. The good thing about process is that it extracts the poison. And it comes to a conclusion. I deeply fear that the situation that the Labour party has got itself into will mean that the poison will remain and it will be internal conflict without end. This is a battle with multiple armies, samurai, allegiances shifting by the minute, and with no rules of engagement. It feels like a never-ending Kurosawa movie.

So the best thing now would be to have the discussion, have it fast, and then resolve it. But who will be the honest broker calling fouls, keeping time, letting the game flow, then blowing the final whistle? No, we are in a game with no time limit, no fouls, and no officials. Who'd want to play in that? Who'd want to watch that other than the sadistic?

Actually, for all the talk about the next general election there is a bigger issue at stake here that I hope all players in this unending game remember. That is that the Labour party is the greatest vehicle for transforming the lives of the powerless and needy seen in the history of Britain. We need it. Those without a stake and without a voice need it. There is a duty to protect it and preserve it so the next generation can have use of it too. We can't allow British politics to descend into a one and two half party system where the cause of building a better and more just Britain is hampered for decades. Our values and our party are intertwined. They can not exist independently. As we resolve the leadership over the next few days and weeks we must never forget these basic facts.

So we need an honest and frank exchange of views. We need to be respectful and not dismiss people because of which wing or faction they come from. We should avoid questioning people's motives. We should respect the process of democratic disagreement.

It seems exceedingly likely to me that the Brown/Mandelson ticket will endure. There will come a point when that is clear and then the rebels must accept that and unite and throw their lot in behind the Labour party securing the best result possible at the next general election.

Where do I stand? I'm in pure listening mode. I don't have a voice. It is purely down to the Parliamentary party. My only concern is that Labour continues to do the right things in office- and they are in the main- and that it remains a competitive force in the immediate and longer term future. That is more in the balance. It depends on there being a respectful conversation with closure over the next few days.

But please remember, Jeff, Doug and Maggie would have made incredible county councillors. They have a wealth of experience in education, local government and health and were dedicated to serving people. How a number of the parliamentary party conducted themselves on expenses meant that they are not able to do so. Now, how the parliamentary party conducts itself on this leadership discussion will determine whether the likes of Jeff, Doug and Maggie are able to use their talents, commitment and experience to serve their communities in the future. Please don't let us down.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

President Obama is Israel's true friend

I had the pleasure of being interviewed on BBC Radio Wales alongside Sir Andrew Green, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who seemed relatively upbeat about the start made by President Barack Obama with respect to the Middle East. His point that any attack on Iran would engulf the entire region in flames is absolutely right and the points he made about tone and diplomacy mattering were equally well made.

The link is here and our interview commences about 2 hrs 35 mins into the show. (note: BBC- isn't it about time to provided embedded content?)

One thing that has been heartening over the past week is the more assertive line that the president has taken towards Israel. The Bush administration got this spectacularly wrong. Israel- to protect its own security and interests- must surely adopt a different approach towards the Palestinians. Where President Bush went wrong was to provide a protective canopy for Israel to act in the most impulsive and destructive ways. The demand that Israel cease the construction of new settlements in the West Bank or even expand existing settlements is a assertive policy that communicates to the new Israeli government that, while the US is still its friend and ally, it will no longer be uncritical on issues of Palestinian-Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

Of course, the Israel can do no wrong, the Palestinians are perfidious lobby in both the US and the UK are up in arms. Melanie Phillips is typical with a selective take on international law (to say the least). But my feeling is that it is President Obama who remains a true friend to Israel rather than more unquestioning voices.

There is a deal on the table as a starting point- the Arab Peace Initiative- which involves Israel returning to the 1967 borders amongst other things in exchange for peace and acceptance. That's a good deal and it is where Israel will end up anyway whether it is now or after more years of bloodshed. Apparently, the Obama administration tactic is to bring down the Netanyahu government. I very much doubt this- it is a recalibration of US foreign policy to a more balanced and open position. However, if that is the effect of the 'settlements gambit' then so be it. Prime Minister Netanyahu is hardly beneficial to either the Middle East or Israel itself.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Bogdanor, you're hired!

Vernon Bogdanor, who yesterday I touted as the ideal pick to head a Constitutional Convention has called for major constitutional reform led by a Royal Commission. I don't like the grandiosity of Royal Commissions but his model is basically the model I suggested yesterday. He continues to talk himself into the job. Bogdanor, you're hired.

And let me repeat the brief for a constitutional convention:

"to design a package of constitutional reforms that give the citizens of the United Kingdom a greater say over how they are governed to be put to a referendum within 12 months of the Convention's establishment."