21 January 2011

Firing on all cylinders (finally)

Great news about Ed Balls - who should really have been Shadow Chancellor in the first place (although I'd argue there was also a strong case for either Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham).

As a naturally cynical individual my first thought when Alan Johnson said he was quitting the front bench for personal reasons was, "he's been told to jump or be pushed". But in this case it really does seem to be for personal reasons - marriage break-up. Whatever the problems he's had as Shadow Chancellor (and much of that may in fact be because he's had a lot of other stuff on his plate to deal with), I wish Alan all the best - he's a good guy and has made a huge contribution to British politics over the last decade.

What remains, though, could be the best shadow front bench Labour has ever had. Although much of the media will be hostile to Balls, his knowledge of economic policy makes George Osborne look like the cheap sneering punk that he is and, to paraphrase Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Ensign, Labour's chances of winning the next election may have just doubled. Already - just a few hours in the job - Ed B was sounding more convincing on fighting the cuts than Alan managed to be in three months.

The fact that Balls has many critics on the Blairite wing of the party and commentariat - Rentoul, Kettle, Blair, all the usual suspects really - just makes him even more credible and likeable.

One is beginning to feel that the ghost of Blairism - the dreadful tendency to say "I'll vote for any right wing crap just as long as it's got a red rosette on it" is being exorcised. However, to win the next election, the ghost of Brown - or at least the quasi Blairite neo-liberalism of the Brown years - need to be exorcised as well. What needs to remain is the good side of Brown - a passionate commitment to social justice and the good society. Brown - unlike Blair - was always a walking contradiction and so there are several different ways to interpret his legacy. Now that the key positions in the Shadow Cabinet are all held by Brownites, I just hope they can choose the correct way to go forward.

18 January 2011

Tony Blair - a truly bizarre role model

Is it just me who thinks that Dave Cameron arguing that he is the heir to Tony Blair is a poor choice of tactics?

In terms of the ideological content - destroying the NHS state education and local government services through break-up and sell-off to private contractors - I'd agree that there is very little here that ultra-Blairites could disagree with. And that's because Blair (at least, post-2001) was just a Tory under another name anyway.

However, Cameron seems to be forgetting that the arrogance, sleaze and hubris of Blair - not just the Iraq war but his whole governing project - turned voters off big-time from 2003 or thereabouts onwards. In Blair's last election victory in 2005 Labour secured only 35% of the vote - about the same as the Tories in 2010. People criticise Gordon Brown for leading Labour into the sub-30% disaster zone, and it's true that Labour only got 29% in 2010. But more than half of the decline in the Labour vote share since 1997 took place under Blair, not Brown.

So why would Cameron choose as his inspiration a figure who is such obviously damaged goods, with an ideology to match? I think the reason has to do with the recent electoral history of the Conservative party. Just as Margaret Thatcher, Labour's 1980s electoral nemesis, had a huge influence on the birth New Labour in the 1990s, so Tony Blair had a huge influence on the birth of the Cameronite New Tory party. Tories of the Cameron/Osborne/Gove generation appear to have considered Blair as some kind of electoral genius, to be emulated at the first opportunity. No matter that his recent autobiography A Journey reveals him to be a delusional neo-con maniac; maybe that's just the kind of role model Dave Cameron is comfortable with.

In 2001, or even 2005, this pitch might have made a lot of electoral sense for the Tories. But now it just looks severely old hat - 2005's politics in 2010. And by 2015 it will look prehistoric. So I do think the Tories are making a major misjudgement here in terms of tactics. I'd also add that the whole reform strategy on public services is likely to be a disaster as it combines very radical structural change with a complete lack of resources to accomplish any transformation; but then, you knew that anyway. I think they must be banking on Ed Miliband to be so crap that he won't be able to formulate a convincing alternative at the next election. Which is possible, but (I would argue) very unlikely. Of course, how much Labour can salvage from the train-wreck of public services in 2015 (if that is when the next election is held) is impossible to say at present.

15 January 2011

Political conferences in mid-January? Believe.

I went along to the Fabian Society's New Year conference for the first time today. In previous years I've never felt enthusiastic enough about anything to do with the Labour Party to bother to go, but Labour being in opposition makes the whole thing a bit more exciting (at least in theory) and certainly a lot of people seem to feel the same way, as tickets were completely sold out and the Logan Hall at the Institute of Education was packed for Ed Miliband's keynote address.

I thought it was pretty good without being spectacular, which I think is more or less what I said about Ed's speech at the Fabian post-election conference back in May, when he first announced he was running for Labour leader. I still can't quite believe he won, even though on this blog I was actually predicting it as far back as the day of that May 2010 Fabian speech. In fact in one post from just before Ed announced his candidacy I suggested placing a bet on him at 11/1 for the Labour leadership. If only...

The old shirt-sleeves strolling about delivery beloved of DaveCam, which Ed is an old lag at, seems to have disappeared - at least for now - as it was a fairly conventional lectern-and-tie speech, complete with Tony Blair/David Miliband dropped "t"s and Gordon Brown "I wanna be a goalkeeper" hand movements. The delivery was a LOT better than Brown though, and there was also a sense of setting out a vision; several people I spoke to were impressed with that, not all of them natural Ed Miliband fanclub material by any means. So Ed is not a "son of Brown" but is mapping out a distinctive identity, set apart from New Labour. At least a bit (let's not exaggerate too much here...)

The speech was pretty light on specifics - I'd have liked to see some commitment to support the big anti-cuts protests planned for later in the year, for example, and commitments to reverse the worst of the Tory-led govt's cuts (e.g. benefits for disabled people). But it held out promise for the future, and. combined with the massive victory in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, it looks like Ed's leadership is safe and secure at least until the next general election. Iain Duncan Smith he isn't.

The best breakout session I went to was about how the Left can learn from the Right's campaigning tactics. From the right we had Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers' Alliance (sorry, I can't bring myself to link to them) and Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, both of whom were actually quite interesting in terms of explaining where they thought the Right had done a good job of campaigning the last few years and where they were still relatively weak. The left was represented by MPs Jon Cruddas (thoughtful and philosophically deep as always) and Chuka Umanna (articulate and suave as hell - will probably be leader 10 years from now, if not before, and maybe the UK's first non-white prime minister). And also by Laurie Penny of New Statesman whose stuff I often enjoy reading, and made a powerful contribution.

Anyway that's quite enough politics for today... I'll get back to watching BBC4, currently showing Bruce Springsteen Live in Houston, 1978. Ya gotta love The Boss.

13 January 2011

May 2011 election? Total insanity

I very much enjoyed reading Tom Watson's piece arguing that Dave Cameron is a few months away from calling a snap election to dump the burnt-out Lib Dems and secure a mandate for a majority Tory government.

That doesn't mean I agree with the article of course: Like much of Labour Uncut, it's preposterous.

Most obviously because as far as I know, no PM has ever called an early election with his or her party behind in the polls. Even in the case of the famous misjudgements of Harold Wilson in 1970 and Ted Heath in February 1974, their respective parties were well ahead in the polls at the start of the campaign, and the mood only turned against them later. The Labour government of 1974-9 didn't run a full term but that was because it was defeated on a motion of no confidence, not because Jim Callaghan wanted an early election.

OK, so on some polls Labour is only a couple of points in front but why the hell would Cameron take the risk? Even if he thinks the polls are going to get much worse for the Tories very soon (and they will), this Tory-led govt still has 4 years to run.

But what about if the coalition collapses? Would that trigger an election? A look at the arithmetic suggests probably not. There are probably at least a dozen 'Orange Booker' Lib Dems who would support Cameron come what may. The Tories have 307 seats. Add together the Orange Bookers and a few Northern Irish Unionists and then they have a majority, even if a painfully thin one.

Watson does the best he can with the thesis but it's still a non-starter in my opinion.

And in a way I'm relieved. Obviously the ConDems are a crapshower and we would be better off without them, but anyone who thinks Ed Miliband is anywhere near ready to lead a government yet is a certified lunatic (and to be fair, Watson recognises this). It will take time for Labour to work up an alternative strategy, and I think they are planning on the basis that this Parliament will run its full course to 2015. In the circumstances I think that's sensible - although if the coalition does fragment, if not collapse, it makes it much harder to them to win key parliamentary votes and the opposition tends to prosper in such a situation (as in 1974-9 and 1992-7). So Ed will probably bide his time and wait for these guys to screw up. Which they are doing, big time.

11 January 2011

Best iPad justification I have yet seen

I must say that I do love TV programme review sites, sad bastard that I am. A link on the currently rather inactive (but very good) Jammer's Reviews site took me to the AV Club which has years' worth of reading material on pretty much every US sci-fi TV show of the last 25 years or so.

I am a sucker for reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation (a rather Ed Miliband-sounding title in retrospect) Seasons 1 or 2, which were largely diabolical but with occasional glimpses of how good the programme would later become. it's pretty much always more fun reading reviews of something shit rather than a classic. I must try writing some reviews of Space: 1999 sometime (particularly the 'difficult' Season 2).

But that isn't the main point of this post, which arrives during a review of three mostly poor Season 1 episodes (the reviewer groups the episodes into threes at this stage, possibly because they're so bad he can't face tackling them individually). The comment that caught my attention is the best justification for an iPad (or indeed Android Tablet) I've yet seen:

I've read a ton of reviews of the iPad, and I understand the criticisms. It's beyond my price range right now, and I admit, I'm not sure I'd have a huge need for it even if I could afford it. But I want one because it's the closest we've come yet to the junk Geordi and Data and the others use on the Enterprise. I want Star Trek technology in my living room.

Amen to that. But why no market for phasers? (except in the guitar pedal fraternity...)

If you expected anything better from George Osborne, you're a fool

I refer, of course, to the Tory-led govt's cave-in over bank bonuses. While the previous Labour administration was hardly doing a Wolfie Smith on the bankers' asses in this regard, the ConDems' surrender in the face of flyweights like Barclays' Bob Diamond is breathtaking - or at least it would have been if I had believed anything the govt said since May.

Is there anybody out there who really believed that George Osborne wasn't umbilically linked to the financial sector? If so, what drugs are you on? Something like the guy from Fringe (which I received the Seasons 1 and 2 box set of for Xmas and have just finished watching them... will post on it soon as it's awesome).

Sunder Katwala over at Next Left produced his best piece in months with a sardonic takedown of the ConDems' capitulation to Big Banking. Best line: ">Diamond - whose "bankers should stop apologising" performance today suggested he may just be an undercover sleeper agent for his local Constituency Labour Party..."

Sunder also mentions the Lib Dems' latest (last?) line of defence against the charge of being spineless collaborators. Defending every policy decision the govt has taken, no matter how crazed or right-wing, has been a disaster; but at the same time, the Vince Cable overgrown teenage punk approach of "I can take down the Coalition any time I want to" was risible, and removed the narrow bargaining power Cable had. So now it's time for agitprop and regrets: "listen guv, we really think these Tory policies are bleedin' dreadful, and we BLOODY SAID SO OURSELVES!! But did they listen? Nah mate."

Sliding from a crisis into complete irrelevance. I love the Lib Dems. They've unified the British Left by Kindly Leaving The Stage.

(Reassured to find this is the first time the label 'George Osborne' has been used on this blog...)

10 January 2011

Some very interesting bloggers' tips from Netroots

If you are a political blogger or someone who reads blogs a lot, it's well worth reading the excellent post from Richard Murphy yesterday on what he learned from Netroots about current trends in blogging, and comment moderation in particular.

It transpires that a lot of the political blogs out there edit the comments so that some of the political spectrum isn't represented. For example, Taxpayers Alliance tend to edit out the left-of-centre comment, while Richard Murphy's Tax Research UK blog edits out the libertarian far right. There are arguments for and against doing this, I guess. On one hand it can focus debates more and stops an endless repitition of (say) libertarian vs social-democratic arguments which are usually pretty fruitless because the two sides start from such different perspectives. On the other hand, clearly it's, within the context of the blog, an impediment to free speech. Obviously it's not a global impediment to free speech because people are free to comment elsewhere, or set up their own blog. But nonetheless it does close off debate somewhat, and something like the Guardian's Comment is Free is more eclectic as you do get a wider range of perspectives (although one always has to put up with a particularly high percentage of omnipresent right-wing trolls, and this tends to turn a lot of left-wingers I know off CiF, so paradoxically, free speech can discourage comments as well).

For my part, giroscope only edits out obvious spam comments and other stuff which is so defamatory as to be outrageously offensive (I don't think I've ever had a single comment of the latter type in 4 and a half years, though). Partly because I find that a lot of the nutters who crop up add variety, and stop it being just me talking to myself. So do feel free to comment away.

08 January 2011

Good luck to NetRoots - only my own incompetence means I can't be there

I think the NetRoots UK conference in London today could be the start of something really big.... so big, in fact, that I wasn't actually able to get a ticket! I left it far too late and they had allocated all the 400 or so spaces by then. But this is a very exciting opportunity for left activists, bloggers, students, trade unions, and other civil society groups to get together and map out a campaigning strategy against the cuts and the extremism of the Tory-led government. Hopefully if there are some people from the Labour party there as well, NetRoots can show them how it should be done.

Much of the conference will be webcasted and liveblogged so if you haven't got a ticket, you can still see what went on. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

I am going to the Fabian Society new year conference next year - keynote speaker Ed Miliband - which is at least some consolation.

06 January 2011

Byelection predictions

First a disclaimer: Byelections are way overrated and rarely, if ever, have any bearing on general election results. They get more interesting if you have a minority govt - for example if the Tories hadn't managed to co-opt the Lib Dems into being spineless collaborators and Cameron was leading a minority govt then they would matter a lot more.

That said, it's probably the only electoral feedback we'll have on national politics until the AV referendum in May. So here are some predictions.

  • Labour will win.
  • The Lib Dems will be a long way behind - basically, for probably the first time ever, we'll see an anti Lib-Dem protest vote.
  • The Tory vote will actually hold up reasonably well, but...
  • ...there will be a strong UKIP showing, maybe 10% of the votes or so, which will mainly damage the Tories.
More on this in a week's time.

04 January 2011

A quick 11-point plan for Ed Miliband in 2011

In keeping with my New Year desire for keeping thing sharp and focused, here's 11 things that Ed Miliband should do in 2011 (in no particular order):

  1. Move Alan Johnson (I'd recommend replacing him with Andy Burnham, if Ed Balls is judged too much of a threat).
  2. Cultivate much closer links with anti-cuts groups such as UK Uncut and False Economy. And start going on some demonstrations while you're at it.
  3. Bang on hard and repeatedly about the failure of Osborne's 'Plan A' for fiscal consolidation when his forecasts for the path of the deficit turn out to be way too optimistic (as they will be).
  4. Get Labour talking about multinational corporate power as the main threat to democracy and economic stability - including finance capital for sure, but broadening out the critique.
  5. Read what Duncan Weldon is saying about an alternative economic strategy (sorry Duncan, but I've always liked that phrase so it's time to rehabilitate it) and take it on board in the policy review.
  6. Draw attention to the ConDems' plan to dismember the BBC and hand Rupert Murdoch more or less complete control of television.
  7. Try to change the Labour Party's constitution to get rid of Shadow Cabinet elections - always a stupid idea, now a potential disaster zone.
  8. Cultivate much closer links with the Greens - in a close election, a pre-election pact in key constituencies could pay off (we could easily end up with Red/Green vs Blue/Yellow in 2015).
  9. Continue to rebuild Labour as a mass movement after the great hollowing-out of the New Labour years - the organisational skills of Neal Lawson (currently of Compass) would be a huge help here.
  10. Stick up a lot harder for working age benefit claimants - long-term unemployed and disabled people in particular - who are effectively being treated as subhuman by this government. Yes, that means going on demonstrations etc! Don't be afraid.
  11. Commit Labour to a wide range of (re-) nationalisations of assets which have been stripped by the ConDems or their Tory predecessors: forests, public transport, utilities. Call it "retaking the family silver".
Obviously loads more to say about all of those but those are my recommendations to Ed and his team. They'll still be way out in front in the polls even if they follow none of them; but they won't have a coherent progressive platform for government unless they embrace at least most of them.

Don't let us down, Ed.

02 January 2011

Some more 2010 (and 2011) round-ups

Trying to start the new year with shorter, sharper, more frequent posts - call it the blogger's equivalent of the punk explosion if you like, or at least Dr Feelgood - so here are a couple more New Year related items I've found:

  1. A round-up of 2010 by Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society. Now, Sunder is an excellent political thinker but if anyone needs a blogger's punk explosion, it's him. If this blog is moving towards Dr Feelgood, Sunder is very much stuck in Rick Wakeman territory - the prog-rock triple album. His 2010 review is about 2,400 words long - that's not a blog post, that's an article. His point is basically that Dave Cameron fought a poor election campaign against a useless incumbent PM, and has lucked out with the coalition - mainly on account of the Lib Dems being so spineless - but Dave will have to maintain the same level of luck (at least) to stay successful. There's a lot in this but Sunder ignores the fact that Dave is busy making his own luck: constituency boundary changes, and the various benefit reforms designed to relocate poor people into ghettoes, will probably mean that a re-run of the 2010 vote shares will give the Tories a substantial majority next time round, AV or no AV. Certainly, I would suggest Labour needs to be maybe 6 points or so ahead of the Tories in 2015 to get an overall majority - certainly not impossible, but neither is it a cakewalk.
  2. a spoof round up of 2011 by David Mitchell in the Observer which is hilarious. The Lib Dem mass suicides and Stephen Hawking on Strictly Come Dancing were brilliant but the best bit has to be the Coalition's plan to give Toby Young his own hospital. People who know what an annoying f***er Young is (which is to say, anyone who's had any contact with or read anything by the guy at all) will be in stitches (no pun intended) after reading that paragraph.
OT: Blogger seems to insert a hell of a lot of "div" statements into the HTML when I use lists of any kind. Are they trying to tell me something?

01 January 2011

People saying "happy new decade" today will never convince me

Not because I don't think the decade is necessarily going to be unhappy (although there is at least some chance of that, let's face it) but because the 2010s began in 2010, not 2011.

Yes, I know: cue flame war from the people who missed out on the party of a lifetime on December 31st, 1999 because "the millennium started in 2001". You poor bastards. My advice - always - is to take to the streets first chance you get.

So why didn't the decade start in 2009 then? Because that would have been damn silly.