Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Obama Surprisingly Well Placed for 2012

I say 'surprisingly' because, don't know about you, I rather thought that since the midterms in 2010 his star was in decline. The Tea Party's noisy populism, plus the ubiquitous awfulness of Sarah Palin had given me the impression the Republicans had already established their claim to the White House next time around. So I was delighted to read this is not the case. Refusing to pay a digital fee to Murdoch I cannot link Andrew Sullivan's piece from the last ST but the essence of it relates to two factors.

Firstly, the Republicans have lost some popularity since their mid-term triumphs they have found that 'actually having to be a part of the government' did not sit well with their 'constant railing'. They have lost support. A poll last week showed Obama versus a 'generic' Republican presidential opponent winning 47-37- a remarkable figure I thought.

Secondly their messages, such as they are, are quintessentially white. Exit polls showed Obama lost the white vote in 2008 43-55 and if the proportion of whites had been the same as in 1958, McCain would have easily triumphed. But it's not. Ethnic minorities are increasingly a force in the electorate. Hispanics are now 16% of all Americans; in five states they form one quarter of voters. Mixed race voters also grew 50% over the last ten years. Republicans have stressed policies like extreme hostility to illegal immigrants and the Tea Party in its weird patriotism, has emphasized the original 'pristine' constitution which excludes African Americans who were than slaves. Polls show Obama leading a Republican candidate 66-16 among hispanics and a staggering 92% among blacks.

Republican have also gone over the top in their efforts to demonise Obama: Gary Younge's piece cites a poll showing over half of Republicans believing Obama was not born in Hawaii(and not therefore the US citizen every president has to be), despite repeated evidence of a genuine birth certificate proving that he was.

Attitudes towards race have not ameliorated since Obama entered the White House- if anything they have sharpened. But ironically it is Obama who is benefiting politically as he receives ever more fervent support from ethnic minorities. And they are growing in numbers while the white constituency is reducing by comparison. Obama reflects America's mixed race composition perfectly and there is nothing the right can do about it apart from resort to crude name calling and lies. And the person whom Obama would trounce more emphatically than any other possible candidate? Sarah Palin. A reason to be cheerful indeed.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Osborne got the Politics right- it's the Economics bit which worries me

The poll in The Guardian today, shown left, reveal that even if the economic future looks grim, the Coalition government has managed the politics side of it really well. If those who favour even more cuts are taken into account, it means 57% support current cuts or even more. Yet those who think it will harm the economy, outnumber those who think it will provide a boost by 9%. Even odder 48% think it will make no difference. I go with the fortyeighters personally.

Osborne has been very astute in dripping in the really tough changes bit by bit so that consumers came to accept them, even if with ill grace. What have we accepted in this way? Well here's the list:

a) public spending will be cut by £81bn over four years entailing: the loss of half a million public sector jobs; the raising of pension ages; cutting of housing benefit; and increases in rail fares.

b) Raising VAT to 20% is the biggest single taxation hit on our finances.

c) child benefit is frozen and will be withdrawn from higher earners as of April 2013.

d) national insurance will rise to 12% 6th April and some three quarters of a million people will become higher rate income tax payers when the limit is lowered to £42,475.

Journalist Patrick Collinson suggests George might have substituted the following cheery message for his one hour speech which caused Ken Clarke to fall asleep:

"There's no money left, so we have to raise taxes. But only the working and middle classes really pay up, so we've also raised VAT, and now we're going to hit you with more income tax, although we're calling it national insurance in the hope you won't notice. There's also 1p off a litre of unleaded from tonight, and a small bung on your income tax, but not for another year. Fight among yourselves over the fact that we're whipping child benefit and tax credits away from some of the slightly better-off among you. See you next year, got to go and close some schools, hospitals and libraries. Bye."

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Much Sound and Fury b ut There's Little in the Budget Apart from Political Gimmicks

'They now ring their bells, but they will soon wring their hands', is a quote from Sir Robert Walpole(whose excellent biography by Edward Pearce I am currently reading), came to mind when I heard Tory MPs baying their approval at George Osborne's budget speech. Certainly it was delivered with chutzpah, if not elan, confirming his emergence as a dominant Chancellor and a heavyweight politician. But even a cursory examination of what he has done reveals the tiny room for manoeuvre he has and the size of gamble he continues to make. He agreed with James Naughtie on Today that this was a 'neutral' budget which gave only scraps away.

The concession on petrol was produced in a Gordon like surprise at the end of his speech on the presumed political assumption that voters don't think much of oil companies. They don't but they think even less of bankers who escaped, yet again, almost scot=free from the annual budgeting process. Osborne has gambled everything on his deficit reduction plan coming off by 2015 but already the consequences of his cuts are evident in the economic statistics. Growth predictions have been scaled down for this year from 2.1% to 1.7%. In his best speech I have yet heard since he became leader, Ed Miliband, laid some telling blows:

But one fact says it all. Growth down last year, this year and next year. It is the same old Tories. It's hurting but it isn't working. What did he say last year about growth? Judge me on the figures. Well judge him we will Every time he comes to this House, growth is downgraded. Last June, 2011 growth down from 2.6% to 2.3%. In November, down again. In January what did the Prime Minister say? His three priorities for this year were growth, growth, growth And what happened? Growth is down, down, down.

In addition to that, of course, inflation is up, up up and so is unemployment.The Labour leader pressed on to assert the cuts had been 'too deep too fast'. It is impossible to predict if George has got it right but it's clear he doesn't have a clue either, and offers us mere promises of solutions by 2015. Interestingly the confirmation of a fixed term election until that year, is currently before the Lords and it is clear he needs this time for his gamble to have any chance. If reduced to four years, as Labour peers are seeking, he might be left high and dry in the polls. Tim Montgomerie of Conservatrive Home, predicted on Today yesterday that the Tories, 10% behind in the polls now, might fall as low as 20% once the cuts really bite. That year will be crucial. Some political gamble, but it's the economic one which will affect all us us and for some time.

The Chancellor made some measures to inspire growth but they were awfully reminiscent of most governments failed initiatives over the last two decades. he held out a Germany like rebalancing of the economy- something which Labour should have sought to do when they were kow-towing to the City- but such a process will take more than 5 years, more like 25.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


UN Resolution Judged by Blair's 1999 Tests of Admissability

Malcolm Rifkind, an unusually wise old Tory owl, writes in The Guardian today in support of UN Resolution 1973:

The resolution is expansive, providing explicit authorisation to member states to take all means necessary – long a euphemism for military force – to protect Libyan towns and cities. Its effect was felt quickly, prompting Gaddafi's decision to order a ceasefire.

He goes on to assert:

If the declared ceasefire is not honoured by the Gaddafi regime, military action will follow swiftly.

The Guardian's editorial is less confident that extensive military action will follow or indeed the wisdom of such a course of action.

Tony Blair warmly supports the move against his sometime new-found Middle Eastern mate, but I wonder how his 1999 Chicago speech which outlined the conditions on which his vision of liberal interventionism, would match with the UN resolution and its implied corollary actions. This speech insisted any action had to meet five conditions:

1. Are we sure of our case? There seems no doubt that, despite his specious denials Gadaffi has been seeking to slaughter those who are seeking to assert their human rights to protest against a cruel and oppressive regime.

2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Well, as the mad colonel refuses to allow anyone into his country and has promised to 'kill' his opposing fellow Libyans without 'mercy or pity' I think we can assume he is not open to any more polite diplomatic overtures

3. Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? the resolution talks of 'all means necessary', a euphemism for military action- to prevent loss of innocent lives, but rules out any occupation- the key element of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations which produced bloody stalemates.

4. Are we prepared for the long-term? So far nobody is talking about this far ahead and it is hoped a ringing condemnation of Gadaffi's regime will encourage defections from the his clique which will eventually lead to his removal from the scene.

5. Are there national interests involved? Cameron argues there are national and European interests at stake:

Gaddafi's attacks on his own people succeed, Libya will become once again a pariah state, festering on Europe's border, a source of instability, exporting strife beyond her borders. A state from which literally hundreds of thousands of citizens could seek to escape, putting huge pressure on us in Europe.

Blair's conditions, axccording to my reckoning, barely gained three out of ticks in the case of his Iraq war but, by wisely limiting its objectives this resolution would easily pass muster. What is more, the Arab League has crucially agreed the UN endorsed action. Looking further ahead, the colonel has declared a ceasefire in response to the UN's call but few would feel confident it will presage an early settlement of the struggle.

Gaddafi and his sons will continue to use any and every weapon to those who dared to question his right to rule. Hard to believe but there still appear to be considerable numbers of people, not all of them beneficiaries of regime's largesse, who believe this barking mad joke of leader to be the best possible leader of the oil rich country. It could yet be a struggle which continues for weeks or months.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


AV Referendum Raises Hard Choices for all Parties

The dilemmas facing all three parties over the AV referendum are just so wonderfully full of conflict. For the Conservatives Cameron cannot fight too hard against it as loss might lead Clegg and his troops out of the coalition. Yet if the vote is won Tory MP Peter Bone says there 'absolutely' could be a leadership challenge.

For Labour a victory would please its leader but not the majority of his MPs including three of his Shadow Cabinet. However their spat over sharing a platform with Clegg has been solved. Ed didn't fancy it partly because Clegg is so hated in his party and partly because Clegg is probably right now the worst person as an advocate for anything let alone a major constitutional change. Charles Kennedy will now share the platform instead having at first been banned from doing so by Clegg.

Clegg probably acceded to pressure from his own MPs to allow this joint activity as his dilemma is that while victory would cement his party behind him defeat will probably cause it to walk away from the coalition and ruin the party's chance of sitting in ministerial limos for the indefinite future. So much rides on this vote for all three parties yet, I reckon a visitor to this country would be forgiven for not realising it is taking place, so low key is the issue given dramatic overseas events in the Arab world and in Japan.

Monday, March 14, 2011


The Big Fat Windsor Wedding - Black Sheep on Both Sides

Can't say I've been even slightly excited by the upcoming Big Fat Windsor Wedding, but Catherine Bennett in yesterday's Observer(from whose wonderful article I lifted the last phrase) has changed my mind. I had no idea the NoW's 'Fake Sheik'(aka Mazher Mahmood) had done a number on Kate Middleton's uncle Gary who lives in a house called La Maison de Bang Bang in Ibiza. [I promise you I am not making this up.]

Nor did I know he is a tattoed property developer, who collects glass pyramids and who alleges the first words he used to Prince William were: "Oi, you fucker, did you break my glass pyramids?". In addition to this, however, he was hospitable enough to offer journalists both cocaine and prostitutes. The question the discovery of Mrs Middleton's younger brother raises is, deliciously: 'Oh My God! will the Windsor's feel able to invite him to the wedding? The damage such a person could do is incalculable and could provide the plot of an impossibly funny Hollywood comedy.

Bennet, however, does not miss the chance to point out that it is uncouth Gary who might feel he does not want to accept any invitation to spend time with the Windsors. Deploying the vituperative skills for which such Sunday hacks are paid hugely comfortable salaries, she sets about the royals with a enthusiasm. She begins by wondering if Mrs Middleton would like her daughter to reconsider marrying into a family:

where everyone, including the older males, relies on handouts from an elderly matriarch or the state. Hardly surprising, given their lifetime of dependency, that so many of William's relations have become resentful, infantilised, irresponsible. Not just Andrew – one thinks, in particular, of Princess Anne, repeatedly convicted for speeding, and once for owning a dangerous dog, Dotty, which having been acquitted in court of canine "malice" after biting two children, went on to kill one of her mother's corgis.

Another broadside is directed at the tendency of the royals to befriend princes "from despotic, corrupt, viciously misogynistic Arab states in which the routine torture, public executions and repression equal anything witnessed in the English middle ages"

Well into her stride by this point in her piece Bennett concludes:

For Kate... these tyrants will become cherished family friends, as they already are for her mentor and Diana's nemesis: Camilla. Factor in the Windsor family's divorce rate, its binge-drinking princesses, racist grandad and trashy uncles, and the only comfort for the Middletons is that this parasitic, feckless, ferociously right-wing family from hell, emblematic of so much that is amiss with Broken Britain, is not actually moving in next door.

Bravo! Fabulous stuff and enough to make me think this forthcoming sustained excressence of deference to royalty might contain some satirical gems nobody could have possibly ever made up.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Labour Could do so Much Better says Pollster

An article by pollster Peter Kellner (left), recently took Labour to task for underperforming. He cited evidence from the latest ST yougov poll:

"54% disapprove of the Government’s record to date; only 32% approve – a net score of minus 22. Immediately after George Osborne’s first Budget last June, its net score was plus 21
• Just 23% think ‘this Coalition Government will be good for people like you’, down from 41% last June
• Only 35% think the Government is managing the economy well, down from 50% last June
• The ‘feel-good factor’ – the proportion expecting their financial situation to improve over the next six months minus the proportion expecting it to worsen – has deteriorated to minus 56; this is far worse than the minus 19 recorded during last year’s election campaign
• Following last week’s disappointing figures for Britain’s national income, 57% now think it likely that Britain will slide back into recession."

Kellner argues that given the dire state of the government in public estimation, the only opposition party should be cleaning up. And, at only just above 40%, it's not. The Conservatives meanwhile, continue to poll 37%, the same as at the election. The Lib Dems have suffered as their left of centre faction has deserted to Labour, leaving them on a measly 8%. Yet Ed Miliband's rating at minus 6 only looks bad until you realise in early January it was -21%.

These figures are given added point by Jonathan Freedland's recent piece, where he argues the Conservative led coalition is beginning to build a reputation for incompetence.

This government is already developing a competence problem. The evidence is there in the bonfire David Cameron had to make of his own forestry sell-off policy, in the bungled announcements last summer of which schools would and would not face the axe to their planned buildings programme – a list that had to be issued and then re-issued no fewer than four times – and in the blaming of an economic contraction on the wrong kind of snow.

The prime minister, who rightly won plaudits for his graceful apology following the Bloody Sunday inquiry, seems to have developed a taste for saying the hardest word. And "sorry" certainly has its uses. It casts him as a different kind of Tory PM, reasonable and listening where Margaret Thatcher was stubborn and dogmatic. But apology is a coinage that gets debased through overuse. Do it too often and the public soon comes to believe the serial apologisers are alarmingly accident-prone.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Monbiot's Alternative Prospectus for the Left

George Monbiot anticipated the 26th March protest rally in London recently by bemoaning the lack of a coherent and viable set of alternative aims by the protesters. He aimed to help by suggesting a series of objectives which he hoped would set the ball rolling. I agree with some of them- not others but thought it an idea to record them on the blog.

1. Change the balance between cuts and taxes- currently 3-1; our regressive national insurance needs to be recalibrated:

On earnings of up to £844 a week, you currently pay 11% national insurance. On earnings beyond that point, you pay 1%. We should raise the national insurance rate for higher earnings from 1% to 15%. This would help to address a wider injustice: the poorest 10% of Britain's households pay proportionately more tax (direct and indirect) than the richest 10%.

2. Close the tax gap-only the very rich can afford the sharp accountants who minimize their liability.

The tax gap amounts to between £40bn and £120bn a year. Not all this money can be reclaimed. We need a national target to claw back £25bn a year. Staffing levels at HM Revenue and Customs should be raised accordingly.

3. A Robin Hood tax-this financial transaction tax would be easy to collect and would fall upon the those most able to afford it.

A tax of 0.005% on financial transactions could raise a net £13bn a year; a tax of 0.01%, £25bn.

4 Green Taxes- by 2020 levies on damage to the environment should amount to 20% of the tax take with commensurate reductions in taxation upon the poorest.

5. End tax exemption for private schools:

The tax exemption for private schools must end. This costs us £100m a year – to grant unfair advantages to the children of the rich.

6. Transfer national debt to the very rich:

This could be done through a one-off tax averaging 20% on total assets worth more than £1m. It would be graduated, so that the richest people are charged at a higher rate than mere seven-figure millionaires. And it wouldn't have to be paid immediately: the asset-holders could choose to pay only the interest on the debt until they died, whereupon the capital would go to the state. This ensures, as the government has promised, that "the broadest shoulders should carry the greatest burden"

7. Reduce the Gini coefficent- the internationally recognised index of inequality- by 0.5 a year.

To this end it should raise the minimum wage by inflation plus 5% each year until it reaches the level identified by the Living Wage campaign. We also need an official high pay commission, whose purpose is to identify – as a multiple of the living wage – the maximum remuneration anyone in the UK should receive.

8.Scrap defence projects:

the Trident weapons system; aircraft carriers; Eurofighter jets. The Barrow shipyard, where new nuclear submarines were to be built, should be redeployed to produce offshore renewables: wind, wave and tide turbines. The money saved should be spent on a new public housing programme.

Radical ? Unrealistic? Maybe all are or maybe some more than others. But as a rough draft of an alternative left-wing agenda, it's a start and would no doubt incense those right-wing ideologues who, to be fair, at least have a clearer current idea of where they want to go than those on the Labour/Greenleft.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Where do Lib Dems Go from Here?

Riddell's wonderful cartoon captures something of the Liberal Democrats dilemma, not to mention Clegg's. Rawnsley lists their woes: firstly they came 6th in the Barnsley by-election, their lowest ever result in such a contest and behind UKIP, the BNP and an independent miner candidate. All in all, 5 out of 6 voters in May 2010 decided not to vote that way in the by-election.

Secondly, this has to be a pointer for the May local elections, which, for better or worse, are always viewed as a pointer to what happens during Westminster elections. Thirdly the 'No' to AV camp is now 10 points in the lead, meaning that in the wake of awful local elections, the very rationale for entering the coalition will be snatched rudely from Lib Dem hands. Fourthly Clegg's poll rating is plumbing the depths, his effigy has been burnt in the streets and Rawnsley estimates that once the softer support is discounted 'core' support is no higher than 5%.

The problem is that the party of protest is now a party of government; protesters can find a handy little protest party seeking to get bigger in the form of UKIP, as Barnsley voters discovered. Personally I find Nigel Farage almost repellent but I have to admit he is a nimble and clever politician who might well fulfill his stated objective for his party of replacing the LDs as the 'third' political force in the UK. I say this also because each major European country now manifests a growing right-wing party which eschews violence. Officially so does the BNP but those videos of their supporters fighting on the pavements of Barking last May, not to mention their 'brutes in suits' image, rather opens the field up to Nigel's really very nicely presented outfit.

Where to for the Lib Dems? Definitely not upwards for the short and medium term future and maybe Simon Jenkins' prediction they are headed for oblivion will be fulfilled. A breakaway faction from the Coalition might have a chance of surviving as Clegg goes down with his ship but so far there are only a few discordant voices- no sign of schisms. Rawnsley suggests their only hope is to hope trhey can benefit from Colaition success in 2015:

Their best hope is to win credit if the coalition is broadly seen to have been a success by the time of the next election. By demonstrating that they are no longer a wasted vote and can be credible wielders of power, the Lib Dems may then find a new constituency among centre-ground and swing voters, including some who have not taken them seriously in the past and have reluctantly voted Labour or Tory instead because they didn't believe the Lib Dems had a chance.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


Depressing Aspect of Globalisation

The worry I've always had about globalisation was mkade evben more so by Peter Wilby recently. It's this. Th9ommas Friedman in his book, The Flat Earth, outlined the advantages of this development for us. True, economic functions would be out sourced: manufacturing, call centres, even accounting services, but many more would be left to us and we would benefit from the humungously cheaper goods and services which outsourcing would deliver. We would be able to exploit the high tech activities dependent on t4her high levels of education we were able to provide. So that's alright then, I thought. But I had a worry.

And it's this. Given that countries like China and India and South Korea have been so successful in hoovering up all these functions, and given the fact that British universities can scarcely move for Asian students, isn't it reasonable to suppose Asian countries will soon be outperforming us in terms of the highest levels of education? Wilby's, heart sinkingly depressing article confirms that this is indeed so:

But why shouldn't developing countries leapfrog the west? Asia now produces more scientists and engineers than the EU and the US put together. By 2012, on current trends, the Chinese will patent more inventions than any other nation. As a new book – The Global Auction (by sociologists Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton) – argues, the next generation of innovative companies may not be American or British and, even if they are, they may not employ American or British workers.

As well as fewer jobs for our grandchildren, they will also be less intedresting to perform:

Aspirant graduates face the prospect not only of lower wages, smaller pensions and less job security than their parents enjoyed but also of less satisfying careers. True, every profession and company will retain a cadre of thinkers and decision-makers at the top – perhaps 10% or 15% of the total – but the mass of employees, whether or not they hold high qualifications, will perform routine functions for modest wages. Only for those with elite qualifications from elite universities (not all in Europe or America) will education deliver the promised rewards.

The final depressing glimpse into pour future is provided by this paragraph:

The effects of the financial squeeze and deficit reduction programme will threaten much more than this government's survival. We shall see, in all probability, a permanent reduction in British living standards that can't be arrested by educational reform. Neoliberalism, already badly dented by the financial meltdown, will be almost entirely discredited. Governments will then need to rethink their attitudes to education, inequality and the state's economic role.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Osborne a Formidable Opponent for Labour to Best

Peter Mandelson has recently criticised Ed Miliband regarding his apparent distancing himself from New Labour. In a new chapter to the paperback version of his memoirs, Mandy says:

"When Ed pronounced New Labour 'dead' he was not only being more categorical than was wise, but quite possibly more than he really intended … Even allowing for the tactical choices he had made in his bid to become leader, however, I was struck by the fact that he had given no strong clue during the campaign as to what alternative to New Labour he envisaged. He was quick to say what he was against: essentially, Tory policies and Tony's policies. But he rarely said what he was for, apart from a belief in greater social mobility and equal chances in life for the young, more strategic government intervention in the economy, and primacy for individual rights in counter-terrorist law. I would sum up his position as being an egalitarian social liberal – different from Tony, yet not a reversion to old Labour."

I have to say I rather agree with Mandelson. It was a clever ploy, maybe, to reposition from an unpopular brand but the result has not exactly been clarity. And Mandelson is right to say that Labour will not regenerate support merely by waiting for the coalition to implode. Firstly, it may well prove to last the course and secondly oppositions never revive unless they have a genuine agenda to offer the voters.

So far, it has to be said, Ed Miliband has not really excelled as Leader of the Opposition. I voted for him but think maybe his brother might not have been such a bad choice after all. It has to be said that making an impact in this role is notoriously difficult but that is what he needs to do and he has not emulated to any degree the impacts made by Blair and Cameron when they took on the same job.

I also thought George Osborne's piece in The Guardian today was pretty formidable stuff. He is widely reviled by the left but as a politician is developing into a genuine class act. Ed will have to raise his game substantially just to match let alone best him. Re-establishing economic credibility is Ed's first task and that will involve finding convincing answers to Osborne's critique. Then he can start focusing on topics like the continuing impunity of the bankers about whom genuine anger still runs very deep and wide.

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