Friday, July 27, 2012


Labour Certainly Needs a 'New' Tony Blair But Definitely not the Old One

Going back to 1997, the year in which the picture on the left was taken, I felt sure the handsome, articulate and clearly very able politician just elected as Prime Minister, would remove the stain of the Major years and initiate a new era in British national life. Well, foolish I know but I wasn't alone and many others felt as depressed and let down as I did some six or seven years later. Disillusion is as cruel for the voter as it must surely be for the politician who causes it. Except that Tony Blair, tanned, fit, healthy and still to celebrate his 60th birthday, seems not to have suffered from any feelings of acute contrition or guilt. Indeed, he been been so bold as to suggest, on a number of carefully chosen occasions, that he thinks that he- now wiser and much better versed in the ways of the world- could still make a contribution: he'd like to be PM again.

Simon Jenkins is a somewhat unusual columnist: extremely well informed and a first class writer, he pulls no punches in his analysis of a Blair comeback. Jenkins notes that many former leaders- Macmillan, Heath, even Callaghan, harboured dreams of the nation calling them back from the sidelines to enjoy a twilight period of power; Blair seems to be merely the latest to enjoy this particular fantasy. I was desperately keen to believe Blair on Iraq but as the facts emerged regarding WMD, the risibly spun version of the dangers we faced and the awful cost in military and civilian life, I had to part company with the most gifted communicator in the democratic world, with the possible exception of Clinton(another keen to exercise power again, if only through the medium of his wife).

Since his departure I have been repelled by his craven pursuit of material reward-£20million earned last year from a variety of sources including the bank JP Morgan- but the final nails in the coffin of my respect for him were applied via his work for the hopelsssly dictatorial government of Kazakhstan; Jenkins gives the details:

The Kazakh dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, apparently paid him $13m to eulogise his odious regime in a state video and applaud him for "subtlety and ingenuity … in a region fraught with difficulties".

Yet still, after all these crimes against the spirit and principle of his adopted party, he thinks he has a chance to be accepted and lead it once again. What planet is he living on? Clearly not the British part of this one. Jenkins delivers his harsh but justified verdict:

A Guardian poll this week was a cruel reality check. It suggested Blair as leader would knock three points off Labour's rating under Miliband. He must surely realise he has moved on, into a nirvana of limousines, bodyguards, private jets and perma-tans for which he always seemed destined. Blair is the Sepp Blatter of British politics. The world has an appetite for vague platitudes and glamorous hogwash, and is happy to pay him for it.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Coalition Leaders Under Attack

Everyone knows the government is not doing too well in the polls but this report shows: Labour 'roaring' ahead on 44%; the Conservatives on 31%; only 28% thinking the government is handling the economic crisis effectively; and over half of voters believing the Coalition will not last until 2015. No doubt the squabbles between the two parts of the coalition, help explain doubts as to longevity while the flat as a pancake economy explains much else. Labour is now at last creeping ahead on economic competence and Ed Miliband's personal rating shows he is less unpopular than the Prime Minister.

Back in April Clegg's personal rating was a horrifying minus 53 points. Following the row about House of Lords reform - a reform the public don't want but the Lib Dems currently see as their raison d'etre for being in the coalition- the junior partner's future seems dire indeed. Just to add to his party leader's discomfiture, Vince Cable has signaled he is prepared to stand for the party leadership. He commented to the FT that “The worship of youth has diminished – perhaps generally – in recent years”.

As for David Cameron he was savaged by David Starkey in the ST yesterday and, more importantly criticised by Bagehot in The Economist:

Voters increasingly deem the Tory leader woebegone. Mr Cameron remains tolerated as a leader. But a poll by YouGov shows the proportion of Britons who think he “sticks to what he believes in” has collapsed, from 30% in late January to just 17%. Worse still, a different survey showed Labour was considered the most competent of the three big parties for the first time since the coalition was forged in May 2010.

And the awful state of the economy, despite claims by some that GDP is actually increasing- hence increasing employment- mean knives are out for Osborne. The influential Peter Oborne in The Telegraph has called for his sacking as Chancellor; Lord (Nigel) Lawson has argued he should give up his strategic role advising Cameron and stick to his 'day-job of running the economy; senior Tory Tim Yeo has lambasted him for betraying the government's Green Agenda; and yesterday John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, representing 100,000 UK firms lambasted Osborne for 'indecision, equivocation and short termism'.

With problems like these I would say the chances of the Coalition lasting the course, are fast diminishing. Inevitably both parties will jump ship before the election to work on maximising their own support, but the way things are going a much earlier break than intended might prove a convenient excuse for ending this mismatch partnership.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Neither Public nor Private Seem to be Able to Provide Good Public Services

In Monday's Times, William Waldegrave warned Conservatives "never to make the mistake of falling in love with free enterprise"...people who think private companies are always more efficient than the public service have never worked in real private enterprise".

What a strange world we are suddenly in. Not so long ago, there was a near consensus that 'private' would always beat 'public' sector in terms of efficiency and value for money. I grew up in the area of nationalisation, working as a porter for 6 months for nationalized British Rail as a porter on Shrewsbury station. What I saw there scarcely impressed me with the merits of collective ownership.
Later, up in Manchester I realised the Gas Board fitters offered consumers an official price for their work and the 'foreigner' one if they came in early and did the job off books at a lower rate. So the nationalized industries were both inefficient and corrupt. The idea that private was preferable to public grew up partly as a result of the perceived failure of Britain's version of socialism: nationalization.

However, things began to change. Rail privatization has never worked properly; journeys are up, demand is high but our rail travel is the most expensive in Europe and not especially efficient. Private Finance Initiative (PFI) projects whereby private companies built hospitals and schools then leased them back to the state, kept costs off apparent government debt but increased the real price of such public facilities by some £25bn. Tories invented PFI but we had Gordon Brown to thank for making it an orthodox technique of gove2rnment; despite its excoriation of Brown on this point, the Coalition continue to initiate PFI projects which our children will be paying for long after our generation has passed into history.

Then we had G4 in the 1990s,hired to transport prisoners yet failing to do so without a risible level of escapes. Next came the total failure of the banks to manage their industry, allowing their own greed and incompetence to cause a meltdown comparable with the Great Depression. Then we had A4e, the company championed by Cameron and founded by its pouting chairperson Emma Harrison, took millions of taxpayers cash but was subject to widespread fraud as it failed to find jobs for the unemployed.

Finally we have the modern version of G4, G4S, a worldwide corporation operating in 10 countries and given the hugely valuable contract to guard the Olympics. Unable to provide the promised personnel, its hapless CEO, Nick Buckles was torn to shreds by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday, where he had to confess his company's conduct had been a 'humiliating shambles'. Sounds familiar? Inefficient and corrupt? Private sector business was supposed to lead us out of recession according to Osborne. The result has been another humiliating shambles so far. Privatisation as an panacea is clearly sadly lacking: government of whatever stripe has got to find a blend of public and private which gives taxpayers the services they deserve without ripping them off.

Let me conclude by quoting Waldegrave's excellent piece again: 'My experience tells me there is no incompetence whatsoever of which the public sector is capable that cannot be matched by the private sector.'

Friday, July 13, 2012

John Major in 1992 said he wanted a 'genuinely classless society'; few would say he made any real progress towards this objective. Apart from those within the Tory Party who calculate that by denying any difference between the classes helps defer any interest in investigating such contentious issues. Previous Conservative Prime Ministers were not so coy.

'The Class War is over and we have won it' claimed Harold Macmillan in 1959. Perhaps even more persuasive is the mega rich financier, Warren Buffet who observed: There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning".

One young man, from my very own current home town, Stockport, has written a compelling book about the reality of a class war. He's Owen Jones and his impressive book is 'Chavs' (Verso Books); his subtitle is 'The Demonization of the Working Class'. His argument is that society is divided into a small, rich, property owning elite who dominate, through its privately educated progeny, most of the key positions in society. They have sought to propagate the narrative that the old traditional aspirational working class has melted away into the middle class, leaving an 'underclass' rump of feckless undeserving poor. By demonizing this partially invented grouping, the right wing hope to undermine attempts by the left to organise any widespread political opposition.

He gives examples of this popular 'tarring and feathering' of the poor. Karen Mathews, the Dewsbury mother of several children by different fathers, arranged for her daughter to be kidnapped so that she could reap a financial reward. Jones argues that her appearances on television released a wave of class hatred, focused on the very poor living in areas like Dewsbury Moor. One journalist, Carole Malone is quoted, saying that Mathews' estate was very much like the one close by where she lived:

"It was full of people like Karen Mathews. People who'd never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had - not to mention their drink drup and smoking habits. Their houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere."

Jones claims that individual offenders were held up as typical of a whole class, who therefore could safely be condemned in the public presses. The real extent of such behaviour he claims, is minuscule compared with the huge sums involved in middle class tax avoidance and other white collar crimes. Conveniently actions which are probably the result of poverty and empty lives were used by the right to smear and blame millions of the poorest, blaming them for their own poverty, rather than conditions created by corporations aided and abetted by government.

My own view is that: there has been a class war in progress for several centuries in which the rich have sought to maintain and justify their privileges, particularly via the creation of a party designed to represent and bolster such privilege: the Conservatives. It is also true that middle class people greatly enjoy making fun of working class caricatures- witness the popularity of Shameless and Little Britain sketches featuring the likes of Vicky Pollard.

But one cannot deny that there are people like Karen Mathews, even the fictional Vicky Pollard. I recall the exposure of the Bardsleys, a family earning $40K from benfits whereby the fearsomely able bodied Mark Bardsley who had been drawing invalidity benefit in respect of depression brought on by grief at this father's death no less than six years earlier. The genuine question also remains as to whether values like self reliance have been severely eroded by the culture of welfare benefits.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Picking the Bones out of the Coalition's Lords Rebellion

In my picture, are they waving hello or goodbye? Well, the House of Lords debate did not end with a shattered coalition as I thought it might, but it maybe inflicted huge damage which will only manifest itself later on. Today Martin Kettle does a good job of picking the bones out of the House of Lords rebellion. He harks back to 1977 when the Callaghan government tried to push through devolution. Lessons to be learned from that experience include:
"Put big constitutional reform on the agenda at the start of a parliament when authority is high, not halfway through, when authority is slipping away. Hold a referendum first, on the principle of the thing, so that MPs are cowed and rebels have less room to make mischief. Don't go to a referendum afterwards, when the vote becomes a verdict on the government not the reform. Nick Clegg should have learned from that".

How has the rebellion affected British politics?

1. The current plans for reforming the Lords are effectively dead. Cameron will attempt to re-sussitate them but with 110 MPs signed up Jesse Norman rebels, this seems like hoping pigs will fly.

2. This could be the beginning of the end for the Coalition. Certainly,m it has lost much authority with both PM and his deputy ignored and in the latter's case, humiliated.

3. The Lib Dems will almost certainly vote against the Tory's own constitutional reform plans of reducing the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs, an exercise in boundary readjustments believed should secure a vital extra 20 seats for the Conservatives. This alone explains why Labour keen on Lords reform, was so keen to vote against these plans.

4. All talk of a continuing coalition now seems dead. Quite possibly the arithmetic in 2015 will require another deal between the parties but this particular one's chances never seemed auspicious and perhaps has done well to survive thus far.

5 Defining party positions more sharply is one thing but Cameron and Clegg are still bound together until the election campaign offers them liberation to be themselves again.

Kettle concludes by wondering how far Labour's policy of negative oppositionism- he calls it 'School of Brown politics'- can take them, especially as:

" Brownism has no conception of the national good that is not strictly predicated on its own power"

Monday, July 09, 2012


House of Lords Reform Proposal could bring down Coalition

This morning Dame Betty Boothroyd, the former Speaker, excoriated the reform proposals on behalf of the traditionalists in the Lords. She insists the Lords is a revising chamber and as such does a really good job. If it is elected it will eventually find that on the really major issues its members will argue that as an elected chamber its legitimacy is on a par with the Commons and that will create deadlock. Such immobilism, she argues, will prove detrimental to the good governance of the country.

She is not alone. A fair swathe of fellow members think along these lines together with around a hundred Tory MPs, who are threatening to rebel tomorrow when a motion is debated to time limit the debate. If the rebels join Labour then the motion will fall and the way opened up for opponents to filibuster the reform into inevitable failure.

But the politics of the situation contain a number of additional elements, making it deliciously complex. Firstly, the Lib Dems are desperate to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives to help them improve their disastrous poll ratings which are barely in double figures. Having failed miserably to achieve their AV voting reform in the ill-fated May 2010 referendum, Clegg is also intent on chalking up at least one major part of the Lib Dem Coalition Agreement objectives; they can scarcely expect voters to be galvanised to vote for them on the basis of a battle cry of:

‘Er..we think we’ve prevented the Tories from being nastier than they otherwise would have been’

Clegg is adamant that Tory MPs are whipped to support this measure and vote for the time limit as well as the principles of the reform: 80% elected for once only 15 year terms in a 450 strong chamber. If he is let down he might well pull the plug on the deal and decide his party is better off allocating support to a minority Conservative government issue by issue. That would enable them to define a distinct profile and build up support for a 2015 vote.

Cameron is in an almost equally difficult position. Since the March budget nothing has gone right for him: the re-toxification of the ‘nasty party’ brand; the economy is still in a fairly deep recession and shows little sign of fulfilling expectations of resuming growth any time soon; and finally, Labour has refused to implode into internecine squabbling and not only leads the Tories overall but is catching up on the ‘economic competence’ rating while Cameron’s personal rating is falling rapidly. Finally, many Conservatives are really fed up with Clegg and his party. Never having overcome their disappointment at not winning he last election outright and furious at the restraints imposed upon them by the Deputy Prime Minister, they want their prime minister to be a true Conservative and reject the Liberal Democrats.

So the stage is set tomorrow for a confrontation as important for the coalition as yesterday’s Wimbledon clash was for Andy Murray. If Lords reform is aborted the Coalition’s life might be limited to days rather than weeks or months.

Monday, July 02, 2012


Diamond Will Go Eventually- and Soon I Hope

The best comment on the Barclays scandal was made by Jonathan Freedland, in my opinion First he ridicules Diamond's use of the word 'inappropriate' to describe activity which affected $350 trillion worth of deals. Secondly he recalls that:

"It was the same Bob Diamond who last year told MPs, "There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over" – calling time on the era of bankers' penitence before most thought it had begun."

As Dominic Lawson in the ST yesterday observed, it was Diamond, the investment banker, who was responsible for his mafia cohort of rogue traders, who, it might be pointed out, helped to earn the huge bonuses he drew to much criticism for receiving in previous years. The notion that bankers deserved anything like such huge rewards, or are blessed with out of the ordinary skills, has been blown cleaqr out of the water by these recent revelations. They are no more skilled than the average bank robbers, who at least might own up if caught bang to rights. Diamond's refusal to resign with dignity exposes a man with no integrity though, I suspect, a man typical of his profession.

I thought Freedland's most telling point was contained in the following paragraph

"It's quite a contrast with the severity of punishment meted out to those guilty of more visible crimes, starting with the 1,292 people jailed for their part in last summer's riots, including the man imprisoned for six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50. There was no question of the authorities lacking a proper remit then, nor did any rioter have the chance to tell a parliamentary committee it was time we all moved on."

He'd better be on top form on Wednesday when he answers questions posed by the formidable Andrew Tyrie's Treasury Committee. His future depends on how convincing his 'It wasn't me guv' defence proves to be.

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