Monday, December 31, 2007


We all have to pull Together it is Then

I bumped into a former Labour minister yesterday whilst doing my social rounds and enjoyed an interesting chat. He agreed that morale in Westminster in the party had seldom been lower; Gordon had somehow lost the knack of getting things right and that his too small coterie of mates had not served him well with advice, especially over the event called off on 6th October. But he was not despondent about the new year which he hoped would see a revival of Labour fortunes and a finding out of Cameron's essential shallowness.

He also, in passing confirmed that most of those past stories about Brown-obstructionist, petulant, Stalinist- were more than justified from his own experience. Yet, in common with other Blairites (which I guess he must be)he seems to have taken the advice of Stephen Byers and decided to swallow any bitterness in support of the wider cause. Jackie Ashley today suggests Gordon might do the same. Having expressed my own disappointment with Gordon in this blog on several occasions, I now feel that in my humble 'footsoldier' capacity, I have to do something similar as a new year looms which everyone rightly predicts is going to be pivotal for Labour. Trying to be wholly objective, this is not as hard as I thought it would be:

1. The most recent polls by Yougov and ICM both show Labour only 5 points behind the Tories- not good but much better than the 'meltdown' scenario of 13 points a week or so ago. Clearly the polls are highly volatile at the moment. Psephologists have been telling us this for some time-the result of voters abandoning their close moorings to 'their party'- but hitherto there has been nothing quite like the yo-yoing of this past autumn. Both leads and trailings have to seen for what they are: temporary reflections of a kaleidoscope public opinion.

2. Labour still has a comfortable majority- Major, recall, had less than two dozen after 1992 and this desperately reduced his options while laying him open to eurosceptic rebels.

3. Labour is not bitterly divided as the Tories were under Major. There are no overwhelming ideological issues to divide the party; Blair has eschewed any Thatcher-style 'back seat driving'; and Byers', as we have seen, has tried to call a halt to surviving bitterness from the Brown-Blair feud.

4. Gordon may not have 'plenty' of time to recover, but he surely has enough- up until early 2010 if needs be.

Against this Gordon has to overcome: the government's recent lamentable record of incompetence; Cameron's rise and rise and apparent mastery over him at PMQs (my former minister emphasised how vital this is to party morale); and the danger of economic problems in the new year. He also has to avoid own goals of the kind he has been netting so disastrously in recent months. He could make a start on that by abandoning plans to extend the 28 day detention limit to 42 and ID Cards. Then we might just have a chance, in 12 months time, of contemplating four in a row when the time comes.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Should the Commons Decide on when we should go to War?

Anyone wishing to encourage the growth of more democracy in our political system would be likely to support the idea of the Commons having the right to vote on when Britain goes to war. Brown suggested this would be a right the Commons would receive under his new 'era of change'; yet it would seem at least two former luminaries of the defence world think otherwise. In an interview with Peter Hennessy, Lord Guthrie, Blair's former chief of the defence staff, and Sir Kevin Tebbitt-cousin of Norman and Cambridge mate of Hennessy-former MOD Permanent Secretary, both oppose any Commons final say on deployment of troops abroad. Their reasons?

1. Any debate might prejudice the military effort through release of intelligence and, how much, anyway, should the government tell MPs?

2. Allies might well baulk at military decisions being dependent on the 'amateurs' in a legislature and the morale of the troops might be adversely affected.

3. The precise definition of when a 'state of war' has arrived is not easy to define; a peace-keeping role might suddenly escalate into a military action but surely no local commander should be kept waiting while MPs debate? As Guthrie comments; 'What we do is slide into war, you cannot avoid that'.

4. 'Tebbit suggests a debate here about a war powers act is redundant. "No prime minister is able to deploy forces without a parliamentary majority." Therefore, the government is already accountable to parliament, he claims. The US was different. Unlike in Britain, there is a separation of powers in the US between the president, the commander in chief, and Congress.'

It follows from all this that a US style 'War Powers Act' , such as Gordon Brown has suggested, would be counter productive. It occurs to me that maybe it would be better to delay Commons approval so that it is given retrospectively, when the pros and cons can be clearly identified-yet this would frustrate the whole idea of parliamentary approval. If this is neither possible or wise, then it seems to me the defence boys' apparently 'anti-democracy' arguments are hard to refute.

Friday, December 28, 2007


All Blacks win no Prizes for General Knowledge

I rarely read The Daily Mail, for obvious reasons, given my distaste for the messages it specializes in peddling, but today, in a coffee shop I found myself reading sports hack Peter Jackson's article on some memorably dumb quotes made by All Black rugby union players. As an end of year corrective to the appalling weather we suffered yesterday and as a continuation of sorts with the sporting theme of yesterday, I offer the section embodying the quotations, plus the splendid accompanying pic:

In an abnormally competitive global list of contenders for Quote of the Year, All Blacks occupy the first four places with Jono Gibbes, the Waikato Chiefs captain who played a part in crushing the Lions, topping the lot.
Philosophising is most definitely not one of his many attributes.

"Nobody in rugby should be called a genius," said Gibbes during New Zealand's indefinite state of mourning over another failed World Cup mission. And he added... "A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

Now, even allowing for a liberal dose of seasonal goodwill and assuming there was such a person, he would have undoubtedly been as thick as two short planks compared to the bright spark known as Albert, especially when expounding the theory of relativity.

For the record, the Nobel prize winner in physics, whose many spheres of expertise included relativistic cosmology and atomic transition probabilities, did not have any brothers, let alone one called Norman.

Gibbes has made no attempt to laugh off his gaffe as a facetious aside and nor, it seems, did the World Cup back rower Chris Masoe on the subject of one of the seven wonders of the world.

Asked if he had been to the Pyramids during a sightseeing trip in Egypt, Masoe's reported reply takes onedimensionalism to a new level: "I can't really remember the names of the clubs we went to."

Then there is the example of another All Blacks forward, Auckland Blues lock Troy Flavell, as recounted by the team's head coach, Australian David Nucifora: "I told him: 'Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy? "And he said: 'David, I don't know and I don't care.”'

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Hunting thrives since ban says Telegraph

One has to be careful of the biased source but today's Telegraph tells us that hunting is alive and well and thriving, and all thanks to the ban which came into force in spring 2005. According to the article there are: 322 packs of hounds in the country; 320,000 who turned out to last year's Boxing Day meets; 8000 people employed full-time directly in the activity; and only one huntsman convicted under the act and even this was overturned on appeal. In addition the article tells us that since the act 215 out of 563 Masters and joint Master of Foxhounds have been confirmed in post.

Given the symbolism of the day, this is clearly a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the Labour government's Hunting Act. Yet I'd guess the figures probably near enough correct. Should Labour supporters feel any chagrin or angst? Well, it depends on how you regarded the act in the first place. Personally I was agnostic and felt a huge amount of time and emotion were being expended to little effect. I feel sure many Labour MPs were enthusiastic for the measure because it was bound to get up the noses of Labour's traditional enemies in the 'hunting and shooting' classes.

In other words, it was more about class spite than concern for the poor old fox. When more urgent measures, relating to ordinary families and children, were being backed up by this apparently endless process, I could not raise much enthusiasm for it. It was also clear, as I tell my students when we cover the role of pressure groups, that the Countryside Alliance organised a massive and effective campaign which surprised Blair and his ministers with its force and wide bases of support. Its success extended the time-scale, modified the act and brought comfort to a Conservative party way down in morale overt signs of revival.

So I'm not so surprised or distraught at the report. Whether hunts properly abide by the nebulous 'exempt hunting' rules laid down by the act, is unclear though Barry Hugill of the League Against Cruel Sports, whilst possibly being naive, seems happy enough:

"If it is the case that membership is going up - and I am sceptical - could it not be that people are happy to go trail hunting without killing animals?"

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Prediction: Gordon Will Lose Vote on 42 Days Detention

I've always liked Diane Abott as an engaging, outspoken kind of politician who teams up well with Michael Portillo on The Week with Andrew Neil. She claims the good chemistry is all about them all being products of grammar schools. However the sharpness of the other two do tend to expose the fact that she rarely says anything which is perceptive or memorable.

However,in her guest 'week's diary' slot in The Observer today she rightly bemoans the proposed 42 day limit for terrorist suspects,

It is one of the most depressing things that Gordon Brown has announced. It is purely about political positioning, so the Prime Minister can look 'tough' on terrorism. The safeguards proposed are worthless. And interning young Muslims without trial will do lasting damage to community relations.

She confesses that she has missed a meeting on the topic organised by veteran rebel, Frank Dobson:

I'm overcome with guilt at missing this important meeting (What will I tell Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty?) So I scour the building to find someone who has been and can tell me what happened. Fortunately, it was well attended and opposition remains solid

I can reveal-scarcely a scoop- that a Bloomberg journalist who rang me last week to chat about the topic, had done a telephone poll of Labour rebels and had found well over 30(enough to wipe out the majority) of them pledging to vote against the measure. There is still time for Gordon to row back from digging that pit ever bigger but maybe appearing macho is more important for his floundering government right now, than appearing merely foolish.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Meltdown Threatens

My suggestion yesterday that Brown had six months to try to remove the image of incompetence which has adhered to him over recent months, has to be updated in the light of today's poll in the Telegraph. We find that now that only 14% rate Gordon's performance as PM as either 'good' or 'very good'; 51% rate his performance as 'poor'. How this must mortify this proud high achieving Scot who so hates to be criticised.

Tony King observes that whilst so many thought his Chancellorship was just brilliant, the magic has fled away now that he is PM. And it is the economy where future worries lie. A majority now favour the Conservatives as the party 'more likely to run Britain's economy well' and 60% are to some degree 'worried' about an economic recession. Poll figures also show that such worries are affecting consumer confidence regarding future spending, meaning that a recession is even more likely to come about.

On the police pay dispute King has this to say:

Ministers may wish to attribute the gathering economic gloom to the worldwide credit crunch but the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary cannot escape responsibility for what appears to have been a substantial political blunder: the decision to phase in over several months the English and Welsh police officer's pay award. In order to save money, the Government seems to have decided to put at risk any reputation it had for fair dealing.Given the high value most Britons place on fairness, that decision would appear to have been politically reckless.

Maybe the comment made by fellow blogger Paul Linford on my yesterday's post is closer to the truth: that Gordon has closer to six weeks than six months to turn things around and change the way his premiership is being perceived. If not then Labour has to prepare itself for a 'meltdown' of an election which might see it lose 100 seats.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Next Six Months Crucial for Gordon

Roy Hattersley has had a curious relationship with New Labour. From the start he saw it as having sold its soul to Mammon/Thatcher/the market and he may have been right. But when Brown announced that huge splurge of public spending, he confessed himself pleased the government had come to its senses and (presumably) returned to Old Labour style tax and spend big government. He reckons it was all Tony's fault:

Tony Blair's view of society was, for Labour, a temporary aberration. Brown believes in something different and better. It is essential he says so.

Yet any close study of Brown's biography reveals he was just as complicit as Blair, in embracing the market and welcoming it into the public sector to improve productivity and save money. What Roy hopes for is not going to happen- the reverse is more likely to occur in my view. Meanwhile other columnists continue to attack Brown's character. Anatole Kaletsky argues that the mistakes that have been made since the autumn have been down to his inherent flaws of:

stubbornness and inflexibility, solipsism and tunnel vision — in other words, a refusal or inability to imagine what might happen if one's assumptions were mistaken or how the world might look from other people's points of view.

Given the withering attack by Simon Jenkins in yesterday's Guardian on government incompetence and Matthew Parris's comments in todsay's Times, there does not seem much left for a Labour supporter tom pick up off the floor. As always, it takes Peter Riddell in The Times to inject some common sense into the debate. he dismisses Brown's explanations-that these problems are purely ephemeral- as too trite and observes most of Gordon's problems since the autumn have been of his own making. But he concludes that all is not lost:

Talk of Mr Brown going or being forced out before the next election is baloney. No credible successor exists, certainly not yet among the younger Cabinet generation. They all have yet to prove themselves. Labour’s mood is still one of disappointment, sorrow rather than anger. Above all, Mr Brown has time to recover: an election could be delayed until May 2010.

I'm not so sure. I reckon Brown has no more than the next six months to prevent the perception of burnt out incompetence becoming the default perception of his government and the reason for its terminal decline to defeat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Can Democracy Save the World?

My title is a bit apocalyptic, I know, but it's prompted by a recent conversation with journalist friend whose judgement I respect, in which he argued that democracy is not equipped to save the world from the problems it faces. What problems? Well how about, for starters: global warming, terrorism, water shortage, food shortages, international crime, massive migrations and the exhaustion of world's finite resources.

His argument is that democracy is wholly ill equipped to cope with these problems for the following reasons:

i) It deals in the short-term, not the long term. Democratic politicians tend to think only of getting into power for the next four or five years, and major issues requiring long term solutions tend to attract rhetoric but no real action.

ii)It is compromised by vested interests in society which finance democratic government but at the cost of insulating them against, for example, the sort of damage which carbon emission caps would inflict on the energy industries in the USA.

iii) It is voters who put governments into power in democracies but they are addicted to materialism- shopping, cars, cheap air travel etc- and will not vote for any party willing to take the brutal measures necessary.

In other words: 'We're all F**ked'. I hate to say this- being a dyed in the wool optimistic liberal- but I find it hard to refute this line of argument. For example, Madeleine Bunting recently wrote in The Guardian that the only way to solve global warming is via some form of rationing. Now she is probably right, but which party is going to offer rationing as a rallying cry to voters? The situation is not yet desperate enough for people to accept let alone advocate such privations.

So what is the alternative? Nicholas Stern's report said we had a decade available to combat climate change and that we can probably save the world if we are prepared to spend 1% of GDP on such a purpose. I hope that the time available is enough to convince the ranks of the indifferent and narrowly selfish that their own comfortable personal survival during their lifetimes is not a legitimate end when it is the whole of humanity's future which is at stake. But it is very hard not to be pessimistic, especially after the Bali conference where real action was shunned in favour of vague resolutions that will achieve very little.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Dave makes his Play for Lib Dem support

Stand by for some serious party on party wooing action by Dave Cameron in relation to the Lib Dems. Huhne or Clegg should wear their chastity belts when Dave comes to call, as he is clearly looking for a serious relationship as a hedge against not gaining an overall majority in 2009. Given his performance in the polls- 13 points according to Yougov in the Sunday Times- he would head the biggest party but would probably still lack the overall majority he needs to form a safe government. The inbuilt bias in the voting system means means he needs regular poll leads in the high forties and early fifties-as Blair enjoyed in the late seventies- to be sure of victory. Hence we see him setting his cap at the third party which might well control the balance of power.

The reaction from the Huhne side of the latter's leadership contest seems unimpressed:

'David Cameron's claims to be pushing the green agenda are just as hollow as Gordon Brown's. In the summer of 2006 we had to break off our attempts to come up with joint policies because the Conservatives were not prepared to talk seriously about green taxes.'

But what would he say to a deal after an election producing a hung parliament? It would depend on a)how much the Lib Dems wanted a share of power and b) whether the Tories had managed to change its brand more than Cameron has so far managed. To this latter end we see Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt are publishing a pamphlet next week: Who's Progressive Now, Why the Conservatives Offer the best Hope for Progressive Politics This argues that the Tories have regularly taken on vested interests and taken enormous challenges head on to achieve necessary change. Whereas Labour sees the state as its chosen instrument of change, for Conservatives it is 'society':

Cameron is less likely to talk about what a Conservative government would do than to highlight what is being done by charities, social enterprises and other voluntary organisations.

It hardly needs to be said that Labour supporters are likely to treat such optimism as, well, optimistic. If I were a struggling single mother it would not reassure me all that much to hear that the support I desperately needed was going to be dependent on the vagaries of charitable endeavours. Dave has much work to convince voters, let alone the Lib Dems that his is a stock worth investing in.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The Question is Still Gordon's Character

I think Patrick Wintour is on the money when he writes:

'The Conservative strategy is to hit Brown as hard as possible for as long as possible until he is so damaged he cannot recover. Once Brown is broken, the government is broken.'

Gordon's startling decline has been documented in this blog and by zilliions of articles and editorials. But it is Brown's suitability to lead the nation that lies at the centre of the current Tory case against the government. I was interested in the views of Tom Bower yesterday, where he reprises some observations from his biography of our PM who claims to owe so much to his clergyman father:

i)'By refusing to admit responsibility, blaming others for his own mistakes, pursuing vendettas and protecting wrongdoers, Gordon Brown has not only ignored his father's parable-'to find goodness in everyone'- but compounded doubts about his virtues.'

ii)'Casting aside such insider reports about the prime minister's abusive language, grudges, and reliance on cronies, his admirers are perplexed that the son of the manse consistently ignores the fundamental Christian value of truthfulness. Was there, they ask, an aspect of life in the Rev Brown's manse fuelling his son's refusal to accept blame and blindness towards the dishonesty of his cronies'?

iii)i>'A university student by the age of 16, and scarred soon after by the threat of blindness caused by a rugby accident, Brown missed the natural progression from teenager to adult. His sober life was compounded by the legacy of rebukes at home'.

iv)'Treasury officials routinely complained about Brown's refusal to listen to criticism or warnings. For years, his stonewalling was blamed on stubborness or lack of trust. The Northern Rock saga suggests another explanation: namely, Brown doesn't understand financial complexities.'

Wintour suggests the recent week has seen some of the damage limited and a fight-back in progress. But he also mentions the 'serious concerns' high up in the government of a 'malfunctioning Downing St', with poor party structures and a PM trying to do too much and thus making mistakes. If Gordon can make it to Christmas mistake free, he has a chance to start the New Year with some chance of redemption. But on the basis of the past few weeks this would represent quite an achievement.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Class and Education

Why some children are inspired to study and others are not is a fascinating conundrum. The grandparents of myself and my partner were: plumber, tailoress, cobbler and factory worker. Yet these grandparents had children who went on to join the tiny elite who went to university in the thirties and they, in turn, encouraged us to do the same. We learn from the Sutton trust that social mobility is currently 'at a standstill'. Their research shows that the 'least gifted of children from wealthy homes' outperform the 'brightest in Britain's poorest homes' by the time they are seven. The report concludes that:

'The advantages of being born in a privileged home have not changed in 30 years. The study found that 44% of young people from the richest fifth of the population had a degree in 2002, compared with only 10% from the poorest fifth.'

Such findings are depressing of course; one only has to walk around Stockport town centre on a weekday to see the black shell suited, baseball capped products of the latter fifth, complacently wagging off school and thereby helping our stagnant social mobility to stagnate even more. There is nothing written in the stars which makes these young lads and girls spurn study or training, only a domestic environment which fails to encourage it, and a popular peer group culture, perhaps, which fails to place due value on such route-ways out of the council estates. Visiting other European countries reinforces the Trust's chairman, Sir Peter Lampl's observation that:

"Shamefully, Britain remains stuck at the bottom of the international league tables."

Yet in the 19th century material and spiritual poverty afflicted much larger groups of people and little by little their resistance to educational advancement receded- witness the personal provenances cited above. The problem is, in the globalized market place, we do not have the time or the resources to allow such a casual rate of progress to continue. Lampl calls for an 'independent inquiry on how to break down the UK's rigid class barriers.' That might be a constructive start, though I doubt if it will tell us much we do not already know.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Another of Gordon's 'Pathological flaws' is Revealed

Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown, makes many points about the character of the man: the energy, the drive for perfection, the precocious intellect, the towering ambition and so on. But he also talks of the indecision and the lack of bottle when big questions arrive on his desk. The indecision over the November election was a catastrophe from which he has yet to recover but we read today of his half hearted attitude towards the Lisbon Treaty which some see as the old rejected draft constitution in another form, others as the necessary streamlining which the EU needs now it has 27 members.

Brown has decided to sign it but has baulked at joining in the ceremony; instead he will sign it in private! Apparently Merkel and Barosso are in 'despair' at his dithering. One diplomat quoted reckoned he had copped the worst of both worlds:

"To anti-Europeans he's simply run away and accepted the signing of the treaty, to pro-Europeans he has simply refused to stand his ground and fight, and for the rest he has opted out.His reputation in Europe among heads of government is hanging by a thread. He has no position in Europe, he occupies no ground. If he wants to send a Euro-signal that he's indecisive, he's just sent it."

William Hague was offered an open goal:

The shadow foreign secretary, said last night: "Some people say Gordon Brown's problems are that he isn't decisive and he lacks political courage. He couldn't have done more to confirm that than this ridiculous fudge. He's dithered over it for a week and now he decided that he'll sign this treaty but he doesn't have the guts to do it in public."

Number 10's spokesman avowed that Brown was 'incredulous' that this decision was dominating the talk at Lisbon, which if true, is perhaps, even more worrying.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Should we Give Voters Money Prizes for Voting?

It seems the Councillor's Commission (set up earlier in the year to examine ways of 'incentivising' voting) has suggested that voters be entered in a special lottery with cash prizes just to reward them for voting. My reaction is an anguished, 'Has it come to this?' one. As readers of this blog might have divined, I think the right to vote- won during a thousand year's evolution of government from absolute monarch to representative democracy- carries with it an absolute obligation to vote, if only to pay respect to the thousands who died or suffered so that we could have the opportunity to throw out our rulers when we choose.

But it seems few share my views and even good, highly intelligent, friends of mine have refused to vote in recent elections on the grounds that they didn't like Tony Blair. In those circumstances I think, rather than stay at home, voters should visit the polling station and spoil their vote- just to show they support the system if not those who seek to control it at the present time. However, I wonder if any of these attempts to hoist up the turnout are worthwhile? They do after all, deal only with the symptom and not the cause.

Yet one point of view suggests we waste our time trying artificially to prime the pump of turnout. Professor Anthony King, of Essex University and Daily Telegraph polls analyst, is sure that if voters had a:

'closely fought election at which a great deal is at stake, and, make no mistake, they will again turnout in droves'(see my Politics UK page 347)

Well, I hope this is correct but the decline set in in 1997 when the great landslide entailed was won on the back of a 71% turnout- well down on the average for the previous two decades; it was the 59% in 2001 which really rang the alarm bells. Was this part of a long term trend or was it a blip caused by a peculiar concatenation of circumstances? Well, the 2005 election managed only to increase it to 62%, which scarcely proves anything. King might say the issues were not sufficiently vital to drag the voters out. Maybe, but I think giving prizes for voting demeans the whole process and would contribute eventually to further decline rather than revival.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Can Lib Dems dominate the 'next decade'?

Martin Kettle today suggests the next century, despite their low teens poll rating, might just belong to the Liberal Democrats. He cites in evidence, what we must assume was the near alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems in 1997 when Ashdown might well have landed a Cabinet post had things gone according to Blair's earlier plans. He also points out how a small party can exceed its apparent reach at an election and actually by gain power: witness Alex Salmond in Scotland.

However, apart from these somewhat nebulous points Kettle does not offer any other justification for his prediction apart from this also somewhat nebulous observation:

The next 10 years will be full of temptations and dilemmas for that broad centrist majority of British voters who want to combine economic efficiency with social justice, individual liberty and internationalism.

The current contest for the Lib Dem leadership, has not yet suggested that Huhne and Clegg have cast on the waters anything approaching the message required to reel in that 'broad centrist majority'. I suspect that whoever is elected will plough a furrow not so very different from either Ashdown or Kennedy in that their policies will be determined in relation to the other two bigger parties.

And this, as before is because it will be the progress or lack of it for Labour or the Conservatives which will determine how far away from power Huhne or Clegg(I think it'll be the latter by the way) will end up in 209-10. Indeed the only way the third party can climb the mountain will be via a reform of the voting system- justified as it is but opposed by the party which most benefits by it- Labour- and by the one which refuses to consider the alternatives, the Tories. Labour might well have passed its 'tipping point' of support as Kettle suggests, but in 2009 Gordon might still be able to deny Cameron an overall majority given the inbuilt bias of the system towards the governing party.

In such a situation the Lib Dems will be able to allow both suitors to mark their card for future collaboration and, like a Jane Austen heroine, choose the one who makes the best offer i.e. the one which promises PR. Then the century might have a chance of belonging to the Liberal Democrats, but, not, I feel sure, before this crucial political transaction has happened.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Is the Surge in Iraq Working?

Quite a few reports are coming out of Iraq which suggest that the so-called 'surge' of 30,000 extra US troops is working. General David Petraeus(pictured), commander of US forces in Iraq, is very bullish about the 80% reduction in murders and the halting of increases in military casualties. The Guardian's Gaith Abdul-Ahad in two astonishing recent articles, describes one of the reasons why violence is on the decline: US forces are paying local militia to fight al Qaida forces. These militia commanders,m like Abu-Abed seem to be like out of control psychopaths, ready to shoot anyone whom they might not take a shine to. But, their terrifying manner might well be a factor in their efficacy in sorting out those other psychos in al Qaida. If the surge does indeed work, contrary to expectations of most of us this side of the Atlantic, a number of surprising things might happen:

i) Republican candidates in the US race to the White House might begin to acquire credibility while Democrats falter.
ii) Even Bush and Blair might find their reputations beginning to be rehabilitated. His rejection of the Iraq Study Group's advice to initiate multilateral diplomacy in favour of 'one more heave', was ridiculed at the time but may turn out to have been well judged, brave and prescient.
iii) The US might find its role in Iraq transformed from 'occupier' to 'peace-keeper'.

But to start looking forward to such outcomes overlooks the things that might/probably will go wrong:

i) the militias might just be playing a waiting game: once the surge is over they will continue seeking advantage through terror.
ii) Some reports suggest the murders have merely shifted from the cities to other areas.
iii) Iran, if it wishes, could easily drive up the temperature should it think it worth its while.
iv) the murder and casualty rates are still way too high by any standard.

So it is far too early to say anything is 'working' in Iraq but, with some polls in the US showing nearly half respondents think the war is going well, don't expect that this will deter Bush and his supporters from claiming the corner has been turned.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


How Much Worse can it get for Gordon?

I have to confess that I've been disappointed with Brown, after his early highly promising start, and have watched frozen with alarm as he has allowed himself to slide into a deeper and deeper hole. However I have only been watching through my own left of centre perspective. A peek through the blue in tooth and claw Janet Daley's political lens produces an even more worrying result when reviewing Cameron's performances against brown in PMQs:

There is an understandable, and democratically legitimate, impulse to go in for the kill when your political opponents are sinking - but that is not quite the same thing as deliberately winding up a man whose personal fragility has become embarrassingly, painfully visible. Mr Cameron has traded heavily - and successfully - on being a nice guy. Looking like the sadist of the lower sixth egging on a baying gang of henchmen is not consistent with his engaging New Conservative image and particularly not with the year and a half that was devoted to the Not-The-Nasty-Party-Any-More public relations campaign.

Have we really come to the point when Gordon's enemies are feeling it incumbent on them to chide their leader with, 'Come on Dave, lay off him, he's had enough'? On reflection, probably not. Daley possibly thought this nice additional line of faux concern would pile on a little more agony. Her readers, as evidenced by their comments clearly did not think so- witness the injunctions from her Telegraph readers' comments for Dave to 'put the boot in' with even greater venom.

Yet, perhaps even more distressing were those who genuinely agreed that Cameron had already done too much 'Bullingdon Bullying' and ought to hold back punishing a man who was clearly unravelling in public. The comment which was most to the point however, reminded us the Janet who had been so effusive in her praise of Gordon way back in July, should not be taken too seriously when taking an opposite tack a couple of months later. At heart she's just a hackette seeking to fill her word allocation for the day.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Chavez's Attempted Referendum 'Coup' Defeated

The Guardian today tells us that Hugo Chavez is 'on to a winner' with his referendum gamble. Once again- remember our 1992 election?- the curse of the exit polls strikes. The real outcome was that Chavez lost the vote 51-49% and now has at least a small portion portion of humble pie to eat as a result.

I've tended to side with those who approved of Chavez until recently; anyone who directs oil revenue away from the fat cats and towards the poor as well as resisting US foreign policy, must be, at least marginally, on the side of the angels rather than any alternative. But his proposal to extend presidential terms, enshrine socialism in the constitution and aspire to rule until 2030, was several steps too far for anyone who values democracy and suspects that a president who was once a paratrooper needs to be kept on a pretty tight leash.

His referendum was essentially an attempted coup over the constitution of his country. It is a relief that Venezuelan voters, albeit a low percentage of them, should have rejected this bid for 'presidency for life' by the Castro admiring Chavez. It was a thin margin but thankfully on the side of democracy rather than the tyranny towards which Chavez had seemed to be heading. King Juan Carlos of Spain, who recently told the garrulous president to 'shut up' in public, must be well pleased. But The Guardian's Caracas correspondent, Rory Carrol, will have learnt an important lesson about treating exit polls as no more than an indication: not the real result.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Odd-Ball Abrahams Spells Even More Danger for Future

What a mess! Talk about things going pear-shaped, Brown's government seems to have the patent on turning political gold into dross, though the emergence of David Abrahams from the murky swamps of Labour's North-eastern redoubt, is something few could have prophesied. As sources of party funding have dried up, it could be said that recourse to such dodgy geezers was predictable and, as Andrew Rawnsley suggests in today's Observer:

Every time there is one of these reputation-shredding scandals, even fewer people are prepared to donate to political parties. The fewer the donors, the less the inclination to ask questions of those who are still prepared to write cheques. Politics has become trapped in a downward spiral in which each funding scandal leads on to another.

Brown is currently locked into that spiral and further dangers are flagged up in today's papers.

It seems Abrahams, whose extremely odd-ball character should have set alarm bells ringing much earlier, had fallen out with Jon Mendelsohn, Labour's chief fund raiser, and his recent article in the The Guardian made it clear he blames Labour for their failure to apply their own law. In the circumstances his threat to release letters to him from grateful Labour recipients of his largesse, augurs not at all well for how this story will develop. And there is also the little matter of how Abraham's Durham Green Development- blocked for ten years by the Highways Agency- suddenly received a green light. Not a peerage this time, but maybe a lucrative shopping mall development? Alastair Campbell used to say that if no new developments have occurred in a story after 12 days, it is effectively over; personally, I can't see this one stop running this side of Christmas, unless, that is, something even worse crops up.

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