Thursday, November 30, 2006

Does anyone really think it would have been better if government had simply stood aside?

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband gave speeches recently about how the voluntary sector can flourish and play a part in tackling poverty. One speech was thoughtful, knowledgable and rooted in an understanding of the different strengths and weaknesses of the voluntary sector and the public sector, and the other was glib, built around soundbites rather than analysis and ducked the tough questions.

The speeches are here and here, and if you thought New Labour was too much about governing by soundbite, I shudder to think what a Cameron government would be like.

Miliband's speech is interesting on its own merits, but what I really like is how he demolishes Cameron's argument that what is needed is a shift 'from state to society', and that cutting back state welfare will lead to a 'fantastic flourishing of social enterprise'.

Miliband says, "There are things that the sector can do that the state cannot. I’ll be honest with you: I think there are things that the state can do that the sector can’t.

First, provide universality and equity in public services. In general, whatever the levels of innovation provided by the sector, it takes government to guarantee public services are available to all who need them.

Of course, this is because funding from general taxation is unique to government. But the partnership model suggests we should neither underestimate the importance of this, nor allow government to abdicate its responsibility for it.

The interesting thing about the history of a number of different services in this country, as I will explain, is that they were pioneered by the sector and then funded universally by the state.

Of course, the most famous examples are education, health and social security before the 1945 welfare state settlement. This is an example where the social progress that was made would not have been possible without the voluntary sector.

You pioneered new services, the campaign for them to be funded universally became overwhelming and then political change at the ballot box made it happen.

This takes me to the second attribute of the state: accountability. The fact that politicians nationally and locally are elected is basic but incredibly important.

The sector too provides accountability, speaking up, as I have said for the voiceless, but for it to work it must be matched by the political accountability that comes from local or central government. The third sector brings vibrancy and diversity; the state’s role must be to try and ensure all voices are equally represented. And ultimately it must do so because it is accountable.

In describing these different characteristics or attributes of state and sector, I hope I have given an indication of how they can complement each other. Each does things that the other finds difficult.


Take childcare. In childcare, it was the third sector that identified the new need twenty or thirty years ago and started providing childcare in small settings as women went out to work in increasing numbers.

The sector continued to provide that care but also recognised that voluntary activity would not meet the extent of the needs, so it campaigned for universal childcare.

And recently local authorities have been given a new duty in the Childcare Act to secure sufficient childcare to meet local needs. This means that they will work with Third Sector providers and others. Unlike in the case of the Beveridge settlement, the Act assumes that the state sector is a provider of last resort."

Does anyone doubt the improvement that has happened and does anyone really think it would have been better if government had simply stood aside?"

Provisional Daily Mail

Yet another example of the brilliance of Provisional BBC, five weeks after it ran a story 'Fresh Donor Row', about the row of a Labour donor accused of receiving privileged access to politicians because of her financial contributions to the Party, the Daily Mail ran a front page story about the corruption scandal of Labour Party members, erm, giving money to the Labour Party. Here is a composite, with some bits from each article, see if you can guess which are which:

"The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, donated £36 to Labour. She subsequently received invitations to meet prominent politicians and “have her say” in the drafting of the next Labour election manifesto."

"The scam - also under investigation by sleaze watchdogs – has been branded a "national disgrace", an "outrageous abuse of taxpayers' money" and an "affront to democracy"."

Party chair Hazel Blears faced immediate calls to name all others who donated under the controversial arrangements.

'It is a national disgrace. 'We are talking about millions of pounds a year going into the Labour Party war chest via the taxpayer - but without them even knowing. This is their money," said Bryn Sidaway, former leader of Sunderland Council.

James Frayne, campaign director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "The crisis in party funding has clearly made Labour officials completely lose the plot. This is obviously morally wrong and is an outrageous abuse of taxpayers' money. The Labour leadership should put a stop to this immediately and pay back anything that's been sent to the Party."

A party spokesman refused to comment on individual cases, but said the “membership” system was fully approved by the Electoral Commission. A Labour party spokesperson said: "Labour councillors agree to abide by Labour Party rules including the payment of a Group levy. This levy is from councillors personally and not the council."

Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell declared the Labour Party morally bankrupt. Though his party run a similar system, the pensioner proudly acknowledged there are no benefits to being a Lib Dem member. A Liberal Democrat spokesman confirmed that some LibDem councils, including Richmond in Surrey, run a voluntary programme in which their councillors hand over cash to fund party activities.

Tony Blair denied donors had a say in policy, arguing “Trade unions are our biggest donors, and we ignore everything they say.”

Wisdom of the crowds #5

I got an e-mail a couple of days ago pointing out that in the most recent Mori surveys, here and here, people were asked whether they were satisfied with the way various politicians and the government are doing their jobs (the question for Brown is about whether his policies will improve the long term prospects of the British economy, which in every poll since 1976 has given lower satisfaction levels than asking about satisfaction with the Chancellor's performance) :

Brown 39% Blair 27% Cameron 25% Campbell 23% government 22%

Brown is doing slightly better than he was four years ago, Blair is doing worse than at any time since 1994 except for May this year, Cameron is doing worse than at any time since becoming leader, and about the same as Michael Howard, and Campbell is doing worse than Kennedy was at any point during his leadership, and no better than when he was first elected. And the figure for the government's performance is the worst since February 1997.

More new friends: UKIP

Like Antonia and others, I got a friendly e-mail from UKIP asking if I wanted a conversation with them. As it happens, I don't, but only because I've had plenty of opportunities to have conversations with UKIP voters and activists:

In the run up to the last European elections, I was out canvassing for the noble and altruistic cause of trying to get myself re-elected. On one particularly miserable day, I went from door to door to door, speaking to people who had previously voted Labour but now weren't sure because of council tax/the war/immigration/whatever other issue happened to be uppermost in their minds. Towards the end of the evening, I canvassed someone who was actually pleased to see me.

"Oh yes, I think you've done a lot for the area, I do want to vote for you"

Then her brow furrowed.

"The only thing is, the UK Independence people were on the telly earlier, and I agree with what they are saying, so I'm not really sure who I'll end up voting for."

The right thing to do in this situation is to explain about how UKIP are right-wing loons and defend the fine record of Labour MEPs in helping to build a Social Europe which benefits us all. But I'm afraid I didn't do that. Instead what I said was, "You do know that there are two different elections, one for the council and one for what you think about Europe?" This cheered my constituent up, but was still a Bad Thing to do.

At the European election count, the day after the election, a friend decided to try to make friends with some UKIP activists. There was a young man in a sharp suit who was keen to explain that UKIP was unfairly portrayed as a right-wing organisation, and in fact it was open to anyone who didn't agree with a European superstate, and his comrade, a ruddy faced older gentleman wearing a blazer. Ignoring the young man, my friend introduced himself to this gentleman and asked if he could get his views on a couple of issues. Firstly, what did he think of the death penalty.

The old boy's face lit up, as he explained that obviously it should only be used for very serious crimes, but that, yes, he thought that reintroducing the death penalty was an excellent idea.

And what of school discipline, my friend enquired. Would giving teachers the right to cane naughty children help correct the bad manners which so many young people showed. Again, the man from UKIP agreed that he did indeed think that this was the case.

Just as my friend was about to ask about his views on a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, the younger man finally decided that there had been enough conversation and ushered his fellow activist away.

So, you see, they don't really want a proper conversation about important issues of social concern - they're just like all those other lying politicians.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Not Even Wrong

Did anyone else read Oliver Letwin's article in the Sunday Times? He was commenting on the fact that the number of people on 40% of the median income has risen under Labour and explaining what the Tories would do.

The reason for this rise in relative poverty under this definition is that under Labour a combination of the strong economy and targeted state action has benefited many children and pensioners, meaning that they are no longer living in poverty, but other groups of people, particularly single adults on benefits and asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, have fallen even further behind the average earner.

The Tory idea is that instead of the state taking action to help people out of poverty, social enterprises and voluntary organisations should help people in poverty, kind of like in the nineteenth century. Leave aside, for one moment, the fact that the Tories in local government are currently merrily cutting financial support for these kind of organisations, advice centres which help people with, for example, problems with debt in Oxford are just the latest example.

The particular question Oliver Letwin is interested in is how to stop risk-averse bureaucracy from making social enterprises fail. Apparently, a cause of poverty is monitoring organisations which the government gives money to "with bulwarks of procedure, forms and monitoring that will reduce risk". Instead, Letwin wants civil servants to be able to say, "I have been specifically commanded by Her Majesty’s Government to tell you that a significant amount of failure was anticipated, that if no failure had occurred this would have indicated that too little risk was being taken, and that what matters to HMG is not whether there are failures but whether local communities and locally based social enterprises are obtaining a high number of sustainable successes in lifting people out of traps of multiple deprivation.”

If this represents an actual policy idea, what it means is giving a lot more money to small organisations, and then not checking what they spend their money on, expecting a significant amount of it to be wasted. At the same time, government programmes which have helped people out of poverty, such as tax credits, would be slashed or abolished.

I was at a social enterprise yesterday which has been extremely successful in helping young people into work and making sure that they are able to stay in work and learn new skills. There would be scope to increase its funding and increase the range of its work. But social enterprises currently deal with a relatively small number of people, and certainly don't have the capacity to provide tailored help to all people living on 40% or below of the median income.

Even with the monitoring that goes on at the moment, a sizeable amount of the funding for the voluntary sector goes to organisations which are not very effective, or which do not have any capacity to expand, a point which people involved in this group made forcefully, with plenty of examples of money from the Capital of Culture or the council going to fund failing or ineffective projects. The idea that the way to reduce poverty is to cut back on what the state does, and instead expect social enterprises and voluntary sector organisations to fill the gap while not even bothering to check what they are spending their money on and expecting many of them to fail, is so feeble that it is not even wrong.

Evicted: the Hidden Homeless

If you're near a TV Wednesday night try to have a look at 'Evicted' on BBC1 at 10.35pm. It's the homelessness documentary - 40 years on from Ken Loach's seminal 1966 drama, 'Cathy Come Home', it seems little has changed in the real world.

Charlotte (13), Sarah (15) and Chloe (8) are homeless. No Home is devastating indictment of the failure of the government to adequately address the problem of homelessness in 21st century Britain. Through moving personal stories, this film exposes the shocking truth behind their search for a home as they struggle to survive on the edge of society.

More info about the programme here

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Help a London Child

I was down in London for the weekend, and saw posters for Capital Radio's Help a London Child campaign:

"This year the Appeal focused on the shocking fact that 1 in 3 children in London live below the poverty line. This means that many children living in London cannot afford a hot daily meal, clothing or haven’t even got a roof over their heads. Capital Radio’s Help a London Child (HALC) improves the lives of these vulnerable children and this year we need your help more than ever before."

Good on Capital Radio and all supporting this campaign, you can find out more (and donate) here

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Labour and Socialists

There doesn't seem to have been much discussion of the Dutch election results, which is a shame because there are probably more lessons for us from them than from the American elections earlier this month. Labour lost a lot of support to the Socialist Party, a far right anti-immigration party won nine seats despite immigration being less of a big deal than four years ago, and the final result is a big mess with no obvious coalition possible (a Christian Democrat-Labour-Socialist coalition has been suggested). What this means for the Netherlands, I don't know, but there are interesting parallels relevant to our own political scene.

I think it is a great strength of the Labour Party in Britain that it contains as members and supporters a much wider range of people than the sister parties in Germany, Netherlands or France. In Germany, for example, leftish 'urban intellectuals' and students tend to be in a separate party from the trade unions, and they campaign separately against each other in elections. It would be a shame to see the Labour Party split in this way, even if the electoral system didn't penalise splits as it does.

Voters who think that the Dutch Labour Party, or the SPD in Germany, betrayed traditional left-wing principles, or were angry about welfare reform or globalisation switched to the Socialist Party or the Greens and PDS. The French tried the same trick and ended up with a run off between Chirac and Le Pen.

This is a useful reminder that the challenges that we face in trying to regain support are not uniquely the fault of New Labour and that there are plenty of European governments with much more unpleasant policies on the issues of social security spending or immigration. Looking at the effect of these challenges on the parties which formed the other left-wing governments in Europe in 1998 shows how impressive an achievement it actually has been for Labour to remain in power in Britain over the past nine years.

But for Labour to retain power at the next election, we need to find a better solution than the SPD or the Dutch Labour Party has managed at keeping the support of people who are attracted by calls for a return to a more traditional left-wing programme and an abandonment of neo-liberal reforms. Even without the alternative of another viable political party, we already know that we can lose to the Tories if people who have supported us in the past don't choose to go and vote.

At a minimum, this will mean reflecting the diversity of the Labour coalition in government priorities and policies. No one faction within the party has a monopoly of good ideas, and we will need spokespeople and policies capable of appealing to all of the different groups of people whose support we need to win.

my new liberal democrat friend

I've just discovered a Liberal Democrat reader who was inspired by a commenter here to write a piece called 'Why I Hate the Labour Party (Part One of Many)'. Apparently, some comrades were rude and aggressive to him when he was defeated by us in the May elections. Thankfully, he was decent enough to congratulate the successful candidate, and he is obviously not at all still bitter at losing. Other Liberal Democrats have joined in this group therapy session to explain that they also hate the Labour Party for reasons such as Jane Griffiths being de-selected. They aren't bitter either.

My new friend has written other excellent pieces such as 'I find I am in sympathy with a Tory peer' and 'I find I am in sympathy with another Tory peer!', which starts "I’ve been finding myself nodding with approval at Norman Tebbit recently. At the Conservative Party conference he made an impassioned plea for tax cuts that should have struck a cord with all liberals".

I don't know whether it was Cllr John Getgood, Cllr Peter Fookes or Cllr Karen Roberts who was rude and aggressive in defeating my friend, but well done to all three of them.

The ratchet effect on poverty

Tom from Newer Labour is worried by the Tories acknowledging that relative poverty exists. I think it is great news.

For years and years, we've seen examples of Labour conceding that the Tories were right - on privatisation, lower tax rates for the rich, the right to buy and loads more. It must surely, therefore, be a good thing when the Tories start conceding that they were wrong and we were right about whether relative poverty exists. I think this is called the ratchet effect, where a party is in power for long enough that they are able to shift the terms of the debate, and it is good to see it going our way for once.

It is an interesting calculation by the Tories that they have to admit that relative poverty exists (I don't for a minute believe that they genuinely believe this any more than they did when in power, particularly as their paper has nothing at all about what they would actually do to reduce poverty), as a lot of the research into public attitudes suggests that lots of people don't believe that poverty exists in Britain, or if it does then only amongst children and pensioners.

There has never been an election in Britain in which one of the main things that people are thinking about when going to vote is which party has the best ideas for reducing poverty. There is definitely an opportunity here, to convert from 'doing good by stealth' to making a big deal about what Labour's done, and also doing a lot more in the next three years. Warm words are easy, but forcing the Tories either to do a U-turn or to support significantly increasing spending on reducing poverty is an enticing prospect.

Bob Piper has more, including a song that I like a lot.

'Let's call the whole thing off'

John Spellar has described the Deputy Leadership contest as a 'waste of time and money', saying, "Why do we want to spend the best part of £2million on a non job which has no real role. Let's call the whole thing off."

It's not going to happen, but I think he is right. It might be different if there was a big difference between the candidates and there would be a big difference depending on who gets elected, but all the candidates appear to agree with each other about almost everything, which means that it will be nine months or more of navel-gazing diverting ministers, MPs and activists into internal campaigning rather than getting on with governing and taking on the real enemy.

I know that internal elections and talking exclusively to people who are already Labour Party members is much more fun than having to talk to people who aren't already Labour and persuade them, or taking difficult decisions, but it does seem a bit self-indulgent.

Estate schemes saw crime fall

I mentioned before about the holiday activities in deprived areas of Oxford which Labour councillors got the city council to pay for this year. The report shows that as a result vandalism fell dramatically, down by more than 60% in one area, and 50% in another. As one local PC beat officer said, "We're really pleased about the impact this holiday scheme has had - we actively support schemes like this."

Getting these schemes set up and funded was one of the main things that I worked on as a councillor, so I'm delighted that they worked as well as they have, and that we put the money in the budget to expand the scheme in future years. Let's just hope that the Lib Dems (who voted against the holiday activities) don't decide to cut the funding now that they are in charge of the council.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Spectacularly bad

Yesterday I praised one article by Compass Youth. But the latest offering, a strategy for taking on the Tories', is astonishingly muddle-headed.

The strategy is aimed at 'urban intellectuals' who might be attracted by Cameron's current rhetoric, and what it calls 'C1/C2 voters', which appear to be skilled white working-class voters who voted for Thatcher in the '80s.

The key for Labour to win back this coalition is apparently the adoption of 'helping people to help themselves' policies, such as 'hypothecated welfare' [whatever that may be], splitting up the National Health Service with elected boards and other measures to adjust the welfare state to 'give people a hand up, not a hand out'.

There are three rather serious objections to this. Firstly, the individual policies suggested are ones which would not work very well. Secondly, and more importantly, neither urban intellectuals nor 'C1/C2 voters' are very interested in the idea of a campaign based on gimmicky policies to tinker with the Welfare State [urban intellectuals are much more interested in foreign policy and the environment, to take but two examples, while C1/C2 voters are more interested in crime, jobs and immigration].

But most importantly, I just can't understand the point of writing a strategy for Labour which doesn't include working-class voters. There are not very many urban intellectuals, and the fact that many of them read the Guardian does not mean that their opinions should count for more. In contrast there are millions of people who work in low-income jobs, who may still vote Labour or may have stopped voting at all, and any strategy for the Labour Party must surely start with their priorities and their needs.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Amongst John McDonnell's supporters are a number of Trotskyists. That I can see, they have had no input into policy or the strategy of the campaign, but have been happy to get involved and help with organising and campaigning. I've been following the lively discussion about this today, and was pleased to discover that the new incarnation of the Militant Tendency are not involved because they've decided to set up their own party instead - good riddance.

Unlike people who want to re-enact the 1980's now in 2006 by focusing on the internal fights in the Labour Party, I don't think that it is a good idea to turn anyone away who is an effective campaigner and able to work with other members of the Labour Party in a comradely manner, and I know plenty of people who happen to be Trotskyists who are like that. If their analysis involves an end goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but along the way they help Labour win elections and get new people involved, then for the forseeable future that is fine, and they can shoot me or whatever at the appropriate moment of the class struggle.

Any left-wing challenger for the leadership has two very different groups of people that she or he needs to appeal to. One is to win back to Labour people who have become disaffected, and the other is people who are still Labour, but who would like to see a more left-wing leadership. There is inevitably a tension here, because people who have left Labour often think that anyone who is still involved must be a total Blairite and therefore resistant to hearing from a leftie Labour campaigner, and people who have worked hard and stayed loyal to Labour equally understandably resent being ignored by a candidate who seems more interested in courting people who deserted Labour.

Both groups are crucial to our success in the General Election - we need to win back people who have stopped voting Labour since 1997, while also not losing the support of the people whose hard work has kept Labour going in recent years. It is a difficult balance to keep, and the decision about how to relate to Trotskyists is a part of it.

One thing that I would be interested in is what people who might consider voting for John McDonnell, or who generally find that they are closer on policy issues to him than Gordon Brown, but aren't planning to vote for McDonnell, think about all this. What, specifically, would persuade you to vote for McDonnell - is the problem that you are not convinced that he could win a General Election, that his election would split the party, that he is under the thumb of the far left, that you don't like a particular policy that he has, or a combination of these and other things?

What were you reading when you were 18?

I'm reading the excellent Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky (highly recommended). In the introduction he talks about how when he was growing up all writings about how to transform society are written by communists, and quotes Supreme Court Justice William Douglas:

"On trips to Asia I often asked men in their thirties and forties what they read when they were eighteen. They usually answered 'Karl Marx', and when I asked them why, they replied, 'We were under colonial rule, seeking a way out. We wanted our independence. To get it we had to make a revolution. The only books on revolution were published by communists'. These men almost invariably had repudiated communism as a political cult, retaining, however, a tinge of socialism. As I talked with them, I came to realise the great opportunities we missed when we became preoccupied in fighting communism with bombs and with dollars, rather than with ideas of revolution, of freedom, of justice."

Someone who is growing up in Sudan, in Egypt, in Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Indonesia today is unlikely to be reading Karl Marx. But they are just as likely to be seeking independence and to see the way of getting it as through revolution, and most of them will seek it through radical Islamism. And these will be the leaders across the Islamic world of the next ten and twenty years.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could start fighting Islamism with ideas of revolution, of freedom, of justice, and the internet makes it easier than ever before to spread and debate ideas. But rather than presenting the choice as a clash of civilisations, the alternative needs to be one which will appeal to idealistic 18 year olds who have no time either for American imperialism or for the people who run their country.

Minimum wage

Compass Youth are calling for an end to the 'Development Rate' of the minimum wage, under which it is legal to pay workers aged 16 to 21 at a lower rate than those over the age of 21.

The argument against this is that if employers had to pay the same rate to everyone, irrespective of age, they would not hire unskilled and unqualified young workers, leading to a rise in youth unemployment. This is an argument which is worth considering, but which would have more substantially more force if employers actually offered training and support to young workers who they are paying the lower wages to.

This is an area of regular debate for the Low Pay Commission, with the trade unions calling for equalisation and the CBI against. 84% of 18 to 21 year old workers already get paid at or above the adult rate of the minimum wage, and the Commission suggests that the lower rate should apply to 18 to 20 year olds, on the grounds of their lower levels of skills.

I can see the case for leaving a lower rate for the moment for 16 and 17 year olds, and looking at what the effect would be of a higher minimum wage on people carrying on in full time education. An equalisation of the minimum wage for young people at this age might also need, for example, an equivalent increase in Educational Maintenance Allowances.

This issue of training and skills is particularly important because there are a lot of workers who find work, immediately discover that all the support which the government has put in place to help reduce unemployment is taken away from them, and find it really hard to stay in work, with the result that they lose that job, spend time out of work looking for another job which they stay in for a few weeks or months and so on.

If the argument from employers that they need to be effectively compensated for hiring unskilled workers is going to be accepted, then they need to help these workers gain more skills and get the training that they need. It is a nonsense that this argument about a lack of skills results in young people with plenty of qualifications and skills being paid less than £5.35 an hour, while the people who this policy is designed to help don't get the training and support that they need to help them out of poverty.

The policy of equalising the minimum wage is a good one, but alongside it needs to be more support for people who might end up losing out.


I read the Daily regularly, and usually find it interesting and entertaining. But as a quick tip, the way to follow up a three part analysis about why women are less likely to support Labour is not to describe a disagreement between two female politicians as 'an outbreak of handbags'.

I'd have thought this would be obvious, but anyone who doesn't understand why should read what Jo has to say.

UPDATE: It's now been changed, which is :)

Questions which answer themselves #1

Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price asks, “What’s the point of concentrating on one age group [by eradicating child poverty] if in subsequent years young people can’t afford to go to University; can’t buy a house and face a legacy of ill health because of Labour’s policies of school meals on the cheap, the sale of school playing fields and a crisis in NHS dentistry?"

When attacking a decision to prioritise eradicating child poverty as 'narrow', it is best not to follow up with three examples (educational attainment, housing, and health) where eradicating child poverty would make a massive difference.

But I do feel sorry for Adam and chums. To get votes they want to present themselves as being on the left of Labour. So they can't support Labour's pledge to eradicate child poverty, and they have to think of some way of criticising it without appearing to be more interested in constitutional reform than in reducing poverty and inequality. It's a dilemma which we should create for our opponents more often.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Euston Manifesto

Never Trust a Hippy writes that:

"My experience of the blogosphere is one of finding perspectives that are entirely unrepresented in the MSM - and ones that Taylor would be very glad to see discussed in the irrelevant newspapers that he reads.

Perspectives such as that found in the Euston Manifesto - surely* the first effective political movement to grow out of the blogosphere"

The thing that I never really understood about the Euston Manifesto was the idea that it represented a new political movement, given that there was nothing in it which differed particularly from the foreign policy of the Labour Party since 1997 (except possibly for the bit about open source, I don't know what Labour policies have been like on that).

This policy was, in general, quite successful from 1997 until about 2003, with most of the criticism coming from when the government failed to live up to its principles (e.g. arms sales to Indonesia), or opposition to the wars on Serbia and Afghanistan. I opposed both of these wars at the time, and by 2002 I thought that on balance the predictions made by the supporters of these wars had been proved right and the predictions made by me and the other anti-war people hadn't.

Since then, the foreign policy of the government has proved much less successful, increasingly unpopular in Britain, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating, and with the likelihood of it being politically possible for a future British government to support military intervention to prevent genocide or overthrow repressive regimes almost non-existent.

I think that this is in many ways regrettable, as the ethical foreign policy was, at its best, a radical and thoughtful alternative to traditional Foreign Office diplomacy and a bold attempt to use the power of the British state and build alliances to extend democracy and freedom. It would be much preferable if, for example, Iraq were now a stable democracy and if the current strategy for containing radical Islamism did not involve making deals with a variety of dictators and human rights abusers. But to describe the Euston Manifesto as 'an effective political movement' seems a very curious assessment, like describing the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2005 as 'an effective political party'. If supporting the policies of the government during a time when support for them is collapsing is success, I would hate to see what failure looks like.


Going on about Tory cuts based on what they did between 1979 and 1997 might be losing its potency, but there is no need to go back a decade for examples of Tories claiming to support services while voting to cut them.

David Cameron writes in Voluntary Sector magazine about the importance of the voluntary sector and social enterprises. But whether London-wide, or in Camden, the Tories and their Lib Dem allies have consistently been voting for massive cuts in grants to voluntary sector organisations. I think that not enough people know about this, and that fewer people would vote Tory (and Lib Dem) if they did know this.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Councillors and blogs

Mike Ion writes that "what we need to do is encourage responsible blogging and that we need to encourage (insist?) that elected representatives use blogs to reconnect with their constituents." I don't agree with that.

Some councillors write very good blogs, but no councillor uses a blog to reconnect with their constituents, because 99+% of constituents don't read blogs. The people who read councillors' blogs are their political opponents, and if the blogs are good, people who live around the country and around the world.

Having a website, with information about the local area and contact details, is useful - people in my ward used to contact me because Tim designed one for me. And I got a lot of e-mails, which are a good way of keeping in touch with constituents.

A related idea that is also bad is the idea that councillors should put a record of all the meetings that they have attended on a blog. Most meetings which councillors attend are quite boring, and even the ones that are important and which it is possible to write about (i.e. ones without confidential information) are only of interest to a small number of people. If, for example, there is a meeting about sorting out a local park, then instead of writing about it on the internet, it is much better to write a quick report about it, print off copies and put them through the doors of the people who live nearby, with a note explaining that you thought they might find it interesting, and your contact details if they want to find out more.

Blogs which are written by people because they feel that they ought to, or for a purpose which blogs are not very well suited to, are not very successful. If you read Antonia or Stephen's blogs, then you won't find out all that much about what they do on a day-to-day basis as a councillor, but you get to see what motivates them, what they care about and via the comments you can have the chance to chat to them about these things. This is great, but being realistic not many councillors will be able to do this, and it is an optional extra for people who like that sort of thing rather than something which makes councillors more effective.

Much more important to make sure that if someone wants to find out about how to contact their councillor, or what they have been up to, that there is a website which they can google or which they know about from regular leaflets which they can use to access this information.

Good Old Boy #21

From the BBC:

John Reid accepting Spectator Politician of the Year from (previous years winner) David Cameron:

“Thanks David. You were the future once.”

The Best of Liberal Opinion, Commentary and Ideas

Just a quick note to say 'hi' to my new Liberal Democrat readers, who have come to visit from the Liberal Review, the Best of Liberal Opinion, Commentary and Ideas. The editors of the Liberal Review were kind enough to say that my advice "isn't all stupid, and it might be worth keeping an eye on it", though being spoilsports they tell their readers not to leave a comment to tell me what I have got wrong (I like the fact that they must think that without this warning, Lib Dem campaign organisers would have come to explain all their strategies to me and help improve the guide to beating them).

Part two coming up as and when, but in the meantime fairdealphil and elephunt have lots more good stuff in the comments.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

An interactive guide to beating the Lib Dems, part 1

This is intended in the first of a series to help explain how the Lib Dems campaign, and how to beat them. While focused on the Lib Dems, the techniques mentioned are also relevant whether your local opponents are Tories, fascists, Greens, Respect, nationalists, independents or whatever. The interactive element is that people are encouraged to leave examples of successful Lib Dem campaigning that they have suffered from, and examples of how they've managed to beat the Lib Dems. I'll update this guide regularly with the information which other Labour campaigners provide. This first post will just be a general overview. It is based on camapigning against the Lib Dems, reading their campaign manuals, and one very enlightening local by-election campaign signed up to their campaign e-mail list (I sent them a thank you e-mail the day after we beat them in that election).

The Liberals used to be known for their 'pavement politics', and it is quite interesting that over the last thirty years, they have largely abandoned this in favour of a generic campaign strategy which they apply everywhere - a Lib Dem leaflet in London, in Oxford, in Liverpool looks very similar and is based on implementing the same basic strategy. Because they have an extremely small 'core vote', something like 2% of the population, they have to build a coalition at every single election based not on a common set of values, but on uniting people who are against something. That's why they have their bar charts, which are always designed to persuade everyone who is opposed to Labour to vote for them, and they always pick one or at most two issues which they will claim the election is 'about', which might be local: 'vote Lib Dem to save the local hospital', or national: 'vote Lib Dem to send a message to Tony Blair'. A variant on this which they sometimes use is to send round leaflets which appear to be from Labour, saying that a vote for Labour is a vote for the war on Iraq, higher council tax and so on. These messages are always required to fit into a simple set of '3 things to remember' which they repeat on all their leaflets. Because they are building a coalition of people without referring to any consistent set of values, they have no problem in agreeing with whatever the voter who they are talking to happens to think, even if it is the opposite of what the previous person who they have agreed with thinks.

But at the same time as running an essentially negative campaign relying on uniting people to vote against things, they also try to appear to be 'not like the other politicians'. They'll often claim to be running a positive campaign and will mention local improvements and claim credit for them whether or not it is justified. Their election material, at its most sophisticated, includes 'handwritten' letters from their candidates with the addresses of the electors handwritten by volunteers (which don't look anything like political leaflets) and therefore get read by people who throw leaflets straight in the bin.

There's lots more to their campaigning, but that is enough to be getting on with - whenever you face the Lib Dems, they will be running a negative campaign while spinning that they are being positive. It is very effective, and because it is generic and doesn't require a lot of local skill, is a strategy which they can run anywhere in the country. To kick off the discussion, here's some suggestions about how to respond:

1. Don't let them decide what the election is about.

Going into any election, you have to know what the main issues that people who will be voting care about, and keep your campaign about these issues. The Tories in the hilariously bad campaign in Bromley decided to spend the last week talking about the EU, which is exactly the way not to beat the Lib Dems. To find out what people care about, you have to go and talk to them. One weakness of Lib Dem campaigning is that they often don't do this - they assume that council tax or George Bush are what people must be interested in because those are the main issues on the Today programme. The test for this is whether your leaflets are about the same things that people are raising on the doorstep. If they are not, then they need changing. People won't vote for us unless they have a positive reason to do so.

2. Don't let them take the credit for Labour achievements.

The only people to blame if the Lib Dems get the credit for things that we have done is...

Us. If good things happen as a result of Labour policies, then we have to tell people about them, whinging that people think that the Lib Dems have done these things when we have sat back and expected people to work it out by some weird form of osmosis is worse than useless. More people get their information about the local area from leaflets than from the local newspaper or radio, if you do something good then you have to tell people about it. Over and over again.

In my ward there was a community resource centre which lots of people cared about. I wrote about it on all my leaflets, got a story about it with my picture in the local paper about every three months, and kept on going on about it to the point where other Labour councillors would groan audibly at having to sit through yet another update. When the Lib Dems took control of the council, they voted to stop funding the centre, and then put out leaflets blaming 'Labour's mismanagement'. In this case, though, no one believed it because they had never heard the Lib Dems talking about it before, and had heard masses from us.

3. Learn from their good ideas.

One complaint that I hear sometimes is that the Lib Dems put forward candidates who 'weren't even party members of theirs'. Turns out that getting people to stand for the council who are well known in their community is quite effective. We should get much better at finding people who haven't joined up but who would be good Labour councillors (one difference is that we would only want to do this with people who share our values).

Another clever trick the Lib Dems have is that they put on their leaflets 'the person who usually delivers this leaflet in your street has recently moved away. If you would be interested in helping keep people informed by delivering leaflets, contact us'. Now often when the Lib Dems do this, it is just a lie, but it helps to give their leaflets a 'community' feel and reinforces the idea that they aren't like other politicians. Getting local deliverers, regular leaflets outside of election time, and making our leaflets less party political and more about local community news should all be priorities.

4. Break up their coalition of support.

Because they have very little core vote, the Lib Dems are very vulnerable to people finding out about what they really stand for. In particular, in most urban areas, their vote is a combination of people who used to vote Tory in the 1980's and early 90's and people who think Labour has got too right-wing. These people think diametrically opposite things. In many areas, Labour has used the issue of crime and anti-social behaviour very effectively, because the Lib Dem policy on this issue is way out of line with what their voters think. But these aren't 'magic bullet' issues, because if people think that we have done nothing about crime in an area, or if it is not a major issue for them, then they aren't going to be persuaded.

5. Don't get mad, get even.

Campaigning against the Lib Dems can be infuriating, with their dishonest bar charts, leaflets claiming credit for things that they had nothing to do with, campaigns urging people to send a message on an issue which local councils have no control over. But while these are cynical and ruthless campaign techniques, they only work where we let them by failing to persuade enough people that we are on their side and that we have the best ideas for their local area.

That's enough for now. But I've only scratched the surface of Lib Dem tactics, and of ways to beat them. So leave your problems or solutions in the comments.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Red Lines

In a really rather good article by David Aaronovitch (not a sentence I write often), he quotes Alan Bennett as saying, “I don’t claim to know how higher education should be paid for; all I know is that it’s morally wrong to expect students to get into debt.”

Everyone interested in politics has 'lines-in-the-sand', particular areas of policy where they will absolutely refuse to support particular courses of action. Some of the most difficult times for any politician is when the party they support adopts policies which cross these lines, or when two different principles come into conflict. For example, in Oxford, council tenants decided that they wanted to continue to have the council as their landlord, rather than a housing association. In situations like this, I think that going against the clearly expressed wish of people about who their landlord should be is a no-no. But the only way to make this possible was to agree to sell off a few council properties each year to help fund the improvements to meet the Decent Home Standard. In this case, the principle of abiding by tenants' wishes and the principle of never supporting any reduction in the number of council houses in the area were directly incompatible.

One of the 'nice' things about being a local councillor or other kind of elected politician is discovering these kinds of dilemmas. I'd be interested in hearing about what 'red lines' other Labour supporters have - what are the issues which you feel so strongly about that nothing could persuade you to support anything that goes against them.

For what it's worth, my lines-in-the-sand are around discrimination against people on grounds of age, sexuality, gender, ethnicity or income. I used to have an absolute opposition to privatising public services, but while I still think privatisation is usually a bad thing, I've encountered cases where it is the least worst option, the same goes for fighting wars. But for all that I don't agree with tuition or top-up fees, I can't agree with Alan Bennett that it is morally wrong for students to have to get into debt.

Good Old Boys #20

Good use of American funds provided to undermine Fidel Castro:

"Cuban dissidents who were given millions of dollars by the US government to support democracy in their homeland instead blew money on computer games, cashmere sweaters, crabmeat and expensive chocolates, which were then sent to the island.

The Miami-based Acción Democrática Cubana spent money on a chainsaw, Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations, mountain bikes, leather coats and Godiva chocolates, which the group says were all sent to Cuba. “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there,” Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, told the Miami Herald. He also defended the purchase of a chainsaw he said he needed to cut a tree that had blocked access to his office in a hurricane, and said that the leather jackets and cashmere sweaters were bought in a sale.

Frank Hernandez Trujillo, executive director of Grupo De Apoyo a la Democracia (Group for the Support of Democracy), said his organisation received more than $7m from USAID, a programme that has formed a central piece of President George Bush’s policy on Cuba.

“I’ll defend that until I die,” Mr Hernandez Trujillo said of his decision to spend part of his group’s allocation on boxes of computer games. “That’s part of our job, to show the people in Cuba what they could attain if they were not under that system."


More Labour MPs rebelled against the government in the past year than in any previous year under this government or any other.

Some think this is bad, some think it is good, but what I want to know is this. If we are meant to be so good at spin, how come people still say that they won't vote Labour because backbench Labour MPs are all sheep who just follow the government unthinkingly without using their judgement, when this is demonstrably about as wrong as it is possible to be?

Even if you agree with every time that John McDonnell (no #1 rebel) has voted against the government, if he becomes Leader it is quite hard to see how he could complain if Labour MPs who disagree with him rebelled against any of his government's bills. Even the most independently minded and individually popular Labour MP gets the bulk of their votes because they are standing as the candidate of the Labour Party, even if there are a small but significant number of people who decide their vote on an individual's hard work locally or championing of particular causes or independence of mind.

That said, Luke's analogy with a council Labour group is not quite right. Any Labour Group which was run with only a small group around the leadership and their unelected friends deciding policy, putting forward poorly drafted proposals without consultation and then seeking to withdraw the whip from any councillor who didn't support the line without seeking any amendments (as has happened on the bulk of occasions when there have been significant numbers of rebels) would not last long. For decision-making to be collective requires not just that every elected member plays follow the leader, but that they are involved in making the policies and have the opportunity to make amendments and suggestions before being required to vote on policies. This system still requires that people sometimes vote for policies which they have privately argued against - that is an essential part of collective action, but it would have avoided some of the biggest rebellions against the government, such as over top-up fees.

Collective decision-making also needs to apply when the leadership has lost the argument and policies which it doesn't like are adopted as party policy. It is unreasonable to castigate lefties for rebelling against the government if the leadership reserve the right to ignore any decisions that they don't agree with, and equally it is just as unreasonable for lefties to praise Campaign Group MPs for rebelling against the whip and then demand that the leadership introduce policies agreed by Conference.

There is a diversity of views in the Labour Party and amongst Labour MPs. There is no one point of view which claim a monopoly of wisdom over the past nine years, and whoever the next leader is, it is unhealthy to have one faction decide which policies get put forward, and people who disagree with that faction vote with the Tories and the Lib Dems to defeat it. John McDonnell should vote for the Legislative Reform and Regulatory Bill, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown should introduce legislation to let councils invest in improving council housing on the same terms as housing associations.

Queen's Speech

Nye Bevan's quote that 'the language of priorities is the religion of socialism' sums up the central challenge for any Labour government, how to ensure that amongst all the competing challenges and demands we keep our focus on the changes that will make the most difference and meet the aspirations of our supporters.

As an experiment, I decided to do a comparison between the priorities which the government set out in the Queen's Speech for legislation over the next year, and the priorities which people on low incomes identified through the 'Get Heard' project, which was meant to inform government policies on social inclusion. You can read the Queen's Speech here, and the summary of Get Heard, 40-odd pages of policy suggestions on a wide range of different issues made by people living in poverty, here.

Here are the measures in the Queen's Speech which are also found in Get Heard :


reform of the criminal justice system, giving the police and probation services new powers to protect the public from violent offenders and anti-social behaviour.


reform the welfare system to reduce poverty. [though presumably that this means the welfare reform bill, which most certainly isn't driven or informed by suggestions from people living in poverty]

improve the system of child support.



reform the further education system so that it can better equip people with the skills that they and the economy need.


And that's it.

Not every bill in a legislative programme is going to be concerned with social inclusion and reducing poverty and inequality, but a lot of what is in the Queen's Speech seems at best to be curious things to prioritise (regulation of estate agents?)

It's not that there is a shortage of things that need doing, or ideas for popular reforms. There just seems to be a gap between what the government has decided are its priorities and what its supporters care most about, and it's sad to see the opportunities which we have while there is a Labour government being wasted in this way.

Greedy bankers

First Direct are planning to charge a £10 monthly fee for customers who pay less than £1500 into their account each month or have an average monthly balance of less than £1500, with other banks looking on to see how this goes.

The government says that part of tackling debt and helping people on low incomes is persuading people to get a bank account. Being able to pay in £1500 a month requires earning an income of roughly £28,000, more than the average wage, so if other banks follow First Direct's lead then most people will end up paying extra charges to bankers who already make billions of pounds of profits. Banks already charge people living in more deprived areas every time they need to withdraw cash from an ATM.

Provisional BBC has a good joke article on the call for new taxes on people for being poor, it seems like the bankers read that and thought 'what a good idea'.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Driving them underground

I support tougher race hate laws, and using them to prosecute racists.

I don't think that this is an alternative to campaigning in local communities against the BNP, which is essential, but I don't see why we can't do both.

I don't see how it helps the BNP if some of their leaders are put in prison.

I think that many people who might vote BNP think crime is an important issue and I note that campaigns which point out how many convicted criminals are active BNP members are often successful.

I think we should build lots more affordable housing, do more to protect workers on low income jobs rather than letting bosses drive wages and working conditions down and close the gap between rich and poor but the Labour government should do these things because they are the right thing to do, not because some fascists are trying to exploit these issues.

I know for a fact that it is not the case that the BNP just gets its votes from former Labour supporters, or that it only does well in the most deprived areas. A majority of BNP voters have never voted Labour, and beating them is about motivating our supporters and persuading them to go out to vote as it is about trying to win over people who vote BNP.

I think it is a good thing when other, democratic parties campaign to offer an alternative for anti-Labour votes, but I think it is a bad thing when people tell me that they are voting Lib Dem because 'Labour is just on the side of the blacks'.

And I think that this, from a friend who is a long time anti-fascist organiser, is a good point:

"Some people say that if you don't give fascists a platform for their views it just drives them underground.


Six feet underground, preferably."

Unfurling the Red Flag

Via Huw Lewis, this is very, very good:

"Labour Party members adopted a promise to end child poverty with one of the first made-in- Wales laws that will become possible with extra powers coming into effect next May.

Delegates voted for a plan to "child-poverty proof" everything the Assembly Government does after the election. Policies and initiatives will be dropped if they do not help the goal of meeting the aim of eliminating child poverty by 2020."

Read the rest of the Western Mail's report on the Welsh Labour conference here

Good Old Boy / Gal

A DEFIANT war veteran who was jailed for refusing to pay his council tax incurred more than the wrath of a local authority yesterday.

As Richard Fitzmaurice, 75, stood his ground before King’s Lynn magistrates, his family rallied round him — apart from his wife, Rita, 76, who was left fuming at home.

“He’s an idiot,” she said. “He has rung me from the cells and he’s full of himself. But he has put me through a lot and at my age I can’t be doing with it.
“I’m certainly not going to visit him. I can’t drive. I depend on him. I’m really rather angry with him. He thinks it’s going to be a laugh. He’s a silly old . . . oh, I nearly sweared.”

Mrs Fitzmaurice stayed in the couple’s £300,000, three-bedroomed home as her husband arrived at court. “I’ve brought a spare pair of pants and my shaving things. I am quite prepared to go to prison,” he said.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I discovered the leader of the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, John Dobson, had legal fees of £23,000 paid with local taxpayers’ money. I am wilfully refusing to pay the tax.”

More here

Monday, November 13, 2006

I feel ill

Thanks to Anonymous in the comments for alerting me to this, the blog of the Lib Dem councillors for Belsize ward in Camden. As a warning, before clicking on any of the links you should be aware that reading too much of it can lead to acute nausea and feelings of rage.

Check out in particular 'My First Planning Committee Meeting' - "The previous Labour administration simply weren't interested in the environment. Thankfully they've been voted out. Now we can get on with saving the planet." or "The Lib Dem-led Executive, which runs the Council, is composed of six Lib Dems and four Tories. And Jill Fraser - who works part-time in a chip shop on Queen's Crescent - is the first ever Lib Dem Mayor of Camden. All very satisfactory really."

If you can get down to help Labour in the upcoming by-election, contact the local Labour Party. And remember, unless we work hard over the next few years, we could wake up the day after the next election to find that it is not just Camden but the whole of Britain which is run by these sort of loons and their Tory mates.

No Enemies on the Left?

Robin Cook used to refer to the divide in politics as being between 'cosmopolitans' and 'chauvanists'. To (mis)appropriate that idea, there are plenty of cosmopolitan lefties - people with a strong commitment to social justice, involved in a range of single-issue campaigns, willing to work with others who share their values without denouncing them for real or imaginary betrayals. I've met people like that amongst Trotskyists, Greens, Lib Dems and most of all in the Labour Party. Then there are the chauvanists, the humourless dogmatists with their doctrinal disputes, the pious holier-than-thous who attack Labour for having betrayed left-wing principles and then throw themselves into campaigning against new affordable homes if they would be built anywhere near them, the people who are full of complaints but never to be found when help is needed in building a campaign, and the people on both sides of the Labour Party who want to re-enact the internal fights of twenty five years ago.

This post is inspired by Antonia's report of the John McDonnell meeting in Oxford. I'd signed up for live text message coverage from Antonia of the event, and was particularly struck by what she said about "how the Labour left is accused of being disloyal, of collaborating with entryists and co-operating with those outside the party".

John McDonnell's campaign has decided not just to focus on people who are currently members of the Labour Party, but also lefties who are not currently members but who the campaign hopes to enthuse to join up. This seems like a perfectly sensible strategy to me, because especially while Labour is in government there will be quite a number of people who share Labour's aims and values, would be an asset to the Labour Party and would enjoy getting involved, but who are currently members of the Greens, Respect, the Lib Dems or not a member of any political party at all, the leftie cosmopolitans.

But the point is not to try to attract the support of any old idiot who is 'on the left'. Opening up the campaign beyond party members does attract people who have no interest in helping Labour, like the clowns from the Socialist Party that Antonia mentions. There is no reason to have people who are present to try to recruit for a different political party present at a John McDonnell meeting.

There are a lot of people who might be receptive to what John is standing for, but who don't think that everything that the government has done is bad and won't support a campaign which just seems interested in listening to people who don't support Labour and who have some other agenda. John himself says that what he wants to see is a Labour Party which draws ideas from the Right, the Centre and the Left of the Labour Party - it's a moderate programme with widespread potential appeal, not exactly the abolition of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Four Year Rule

The Four Year Rule was thought up by a former colleague of mine, who had been involved in organising and campaigning in hundreds of different local elections across the South East. It is this:

Any ward, anywhere in the country, in which four activists campaign properly over a period of four years can be won by a Labour candidate.

Now clearly there are some areas which will be more challenging than others, but if a local Labour Party keeps in touch with local residents, puts out regular newsletters about the things which people are most interested in, and identifies its supporters, then even areas where people aren't tribally Labour can be won over. There are enough people prepared to vote for the person who they think is best, regardless of party affiliation, at a local level. In most wards, four years' worth of campaigning is enough to meet personally just about every single voter, and with a team of four people then delivering a leaflet every 2-3 months is not too time consuming. There will be some years that national circumstances or a popular and effective opponent might prove too difficult to beat, but often other political parties are just as complacent in their safe wards as us at our worst.

The campaigning does have to happen all year round, not just at election time. There was one council by-election where a Lib Dem councillor stepped down in a ward which Labour had done nothing for several years, and the local Labour Party decided to try to target it intensively. They put out something like 6 leaflets to every household in the 3 weeks of the campaign...and their vote went down.

There was a study which looked at this particular area, interviewing voters, and it turned out that because people were used to receiving regular leaflets from the Lib Dems (and none from any of the other parties), they just assumed that when they were getting all these extra leaflets that they were from the Lib Dems. So their vote went up, and that of their opponents fell.

I don't think Howard Dean can help us win the 2007 elections, but if he can help us develop our own version of his '50 state strategy' and start to make sure that right across the country local Labour parties are getting into the habit of getting leaflets out and keeping in touch with the electorate - whether an election is coming up or not, then we will be in a much better shape for future elections.


Anyone who receives incapacity benefit is only allowed to earn £20 a week from paid employment before losing benefits. Because this hasn't risen in line with inflation, people are being forced to cut the number of hours that they work because of rises in the minimum wage.

Although working 4-5 hours a week might not seem like much, it can be really beneficial and a good stepping stone for people who have had a long term illness or disability who are trying to get back into work (which is, after all, something the government wants to encourage).

Campaigners want the amount which people can earn without losing benefits raised from £20 to £25, and if, like me, you think that a rising minimum wage shouldn't create a benefit trap for people who want to work, click here and sign the petition.

Stop. Being. Silly.

Being a charitable soul, I usually assume that if I read something which appears deeply obnoxiously stupid, that I must have misunderstood the point that the writer was attempting to make. This is not, I have to say, an approach which has served me well when it comes to the 'blogosphere', but I'd appreciate some help with one particular case.

I don't usually read Henry Porter's column in the Observer, because he writes the same column about New Labour's attack on our civil liberties every single week and it wasn't that good the first time. But this week I was drawn in by the opener:

"It is plain that the two great menaces to liberal democracy are Islamist fascism - I use that word without worry - and the reaction to that threat from either those who exploit it to reduce personal liberty or those too blinded by panic to consider the qualities that liberal democracy must retain in order to survive."

I don't think that either of these are actually particularly serious 'menaces', and I thought that the new style guide for Observer columnists required at the very least that climate change would get a mention. But anyway, I continued reading, until I got to the final bit, which is the bit which I still can't quite believe that someone who thinks of themself as a defender of liberal democracy would write:

"If the perpetrators of these outrages are Muslim - sometimes rather well-to-do Muslims, it seems - and the members of the 200- odd cells that MI5 is investigating are Muslim, it is not good enough for Muslims to fall back on bristling victimhood. To the rest of us, it simply seems nonsensical that a community which is the source of such a great menace, and which has offered support to it, can at the same time claim persecution. We need leadership from British Muslims and a contract between their community and the vast majority, in which the same ideals of peace, law and order are agreed upon without reference to religious needs.

For this is not a religious matter; it is about law and order in a secular society.
Is this illiberal? No, and nor is the concern that Islamic faith schools are being used to distance a generation of young people from the values of the surrounding society, to say nothing about the recruitment that was described by the head of MI5. These schools are undesirable in the extreme and steps should be taken to end the separate development that they posit. But the government would rather reduce all liberties than be seen to target a minority.

They forget that one of the values of liberal democracy is discretion - the ability to concentrate the power of the state on a problem and make the distinction between those who are likely to break the law and those who aren't."

In other words, what Henry Porter doesn't like about restrictions on civil liberties is that they apply to everyone, and not just to Muslims, who should stop pretending to be victims claiming persecution and realise that to the vast majority of 'us' they are a source of great menace.

My faith in human nature is such that I find it hard to believe someone could write such ignorant, bigoted rubbish without some sense of shame at ending up as a bad Melanie Phillips impersonator. He can't really mean this, can he?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

How much trouble are the Lib Dems in?

The Tories are going to be selecting a candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon on Monday. I don't know how typical this seat is of Lib/Tory marginals, but it is often referred to as a Lib Dem safe seat. If this is really the case, then the Lib Dems are in more trouble at the next general election than I'd thought.

The Lib Dem majority is just over 7,000, a result of a ruthless squeeze of Labour voters and some stunningly inept Tory campaigning over the years (comedy Tory candidate Ed Matts stood here in 2001 before moving on to fail to win Labour's most marginal seat in 2005). Next year their councillors in the council which makes up a large part of the constituency will be defeated when the Tories take back control of the council, and the boundaries change at the next election in a way which is unfavourable to the Lib Dems. And whereas Michael Howard's 'dog whistle' campaign, let alone William Hague, could almost have been designed to put off potential swing voters here, Dave Cameron is likely to be much more congenial to people who switched from Tory to Lib Dem in 1997.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have somehow to keep the votes both of people who will support them tactically because they want to keep a Labour government, and the people who are sick of a Labour government and want a change.

All of which means that if the Tories select an effective candidate and get their activists from the surrounding safe Tory seats to help out, this is a constituency which starts to look very bad for the Lib Dems, in what is theoretically one of their safer seats.

Of course, given the choice between the Tories and the Lib Dems, I hope they both lose.

Farepak #2

Frank Dobson was once said to have been accused of displaying the 'politics of envy' when talking about company directors. His reply:

"Yes it's the politics of envy. We're envious of their wealth. These people are incompetent, greedy, thieving scum."

Inspired by this, I have an idea for a new policy towards the directors of Farepak. It's called, 'If it isn't hurting, it isn't working".

Occupational Hazards

I was out leafleting for the 'Reclaim our streets' march next weekend, which is part of Labour's campaign to get the council and other agencies to take proper action against anti-social behaviour locally and to provide a lot more for young people to do. The leaflet has a large picture of a hoodie-wearing yob.

As I was going down one road, three young men came in the other direction (I think they were students). They stopped to ask if the leaflet was from the Lib Dems, so I explained it was a Labour leaflet, and they took one to have a look at.

The slightly awkward thing was that one of them was wearing the same top as the yob in the leaflet (though minus the threatening pose). If he noticed the coincidence, then he didn't come back to check, and I finished off my leaflet round.

I'm familiar with most of the hazards of leafleting, like the stealth dogs which only announce themselves when you open the letter box, or the razor sharp letter boxes, but this was a new one for me.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Good Old Boy #19

"Well, I think that Britain is a better place than it was before the Labour party took over. Personally, I'd have loved Neil Kinnock to get in. He was gonna rip Margaret Thatcher's head off and shit down her neck." - Noel Gallagher

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Labour Against Poverty

To the best of my knowledge, there is no group which is specifically campaigning within the Labour Party to end poverty in Britain, along the lines of Labour Against the War or the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights. One of the main reasons that I joined the Labour Party, and I'm sure this is true for many other people, was because I don't think it is right that 1 in 5 people in Britain live in poverty and I wanted to work with others to do something about that.

What I want to know is whether anyone else would be interested in joining up to a Labour Against Poverty campaign. It would be a campaign open to all Labour members and supporters, and its aim would be very simple, to get the Labour Party to make reducing and ending poverty in Britain a top priority.

This might involve local Labour parties organising and campaigning in deprived communities, putting forward policies through GCs and the affiliated unions to annual conference, and trying to change public perceptions of poverty and get a Labour government re-elected which will end poverty in Britain.

Gordon Brown says that he wants campaigners to put pressure on the government to take more action on poverty, so let's take him up on that. If you're interested in joining a Labour Against Poverty campaign, please leave a comment here, or write about it on your own blog and spread the word.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

If we can't beat this lot...

I wrote a while back that even the dimmest bigots now realised that explaining away racist comments with the excuse that they could not be prejudiced 'because some of my best friends are Asian' just made them look stupid. A reader has contacted me to demand a correction.

It is rarely wise to overestimate the self awareness of wannabe Tory MPs, and, sure enough, Tory parliamentary candidate, Ellenor Bland, did, indeed, defend herself from allegations of racism after e-mailing round a racist poem about asylum-seekers by claiming "some of my best friends are Asian", and that they weren't offended.

It turns out that Ala Uddin, the Asian friend to whom she was referring, was, in fact, offended, saying: "This kind of poem can be damaging. It is wrong, and it should not be sent around as a joke"…"I think that most Asian people come here properly and pay their taxes."

Meanwhile, Bernard Jenkin, when questioned about having told Tory A-lister Ali Miraj that "I would be shocked if they didn't pick a white middle-class male," explained that "You know, there are lots of candidates who may be coloured or may be white who get disappointed in selections." He was sacked from his role of recruiting ethnic minority, or as Bernard would no doubt term it, 'coloured' candidates for the Tories.

like ralph nader, but in reverse

It was good to see the Libertarian Party doing their best to offer an electoral alternative for Americans who think that the Republican Party does not do enough to defend property rights.

In two Senate races which will help decide who runs the Senate, the Democrats are ahead in Missouri by about 42,000 votes, and the Libertarian candidate has polled 46,000. Better still, in Montana, the Democrats lead by 1700, with just over 10,000 choosing the Libertarians instead.

As for the Greens, their 26,000 votes in Virginia looks likely to have narrowly failed to help racist Republican George Allen get re-elected and keep the Senate under the control of George Bush.

I can, understand, though running a Green candidate against a centrist Democrat who used to work for Ronald Reagan. What is puzzling, though, is choosing to stand in Vermont against Bernie Sanders, who is actually a socialist. It didn't matter, because Sanders won by 80,000 votes and the Greens got 1400, but if ever there were a case for stepping aside in an election, surely that would be it?

Modern dilemmas

On the one hand, there is very little actual information at the moment about the American elections, there won't be for several hours, and I have to go to work tomorrow. There is also the risk of being severely disappointed if the exit polls are wrong again.

On the other hand, I never get to watch election results on the telly because I am usually at some count or other, the internet has been providing a never ending flow of speculation to keep me interested, a socialist just got elected to the Senate, and it looks like the Republican Party might get thumped really, really badly.

What to do?

Update: Just when it looked like the Republicans were going to win Virginia, CNN reported that the Democrats were ahead by 10 votes (out of 1.5 million-ish counted). Five minutes later the Republicans were back to winning by 10,000. Hmph.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Wisdom of the Crowds #4

There is something worrying me, which I would like reassurance about.

Luke Akehurst wrote today that "the Tories are not going to get anywhere near winning if they can only manage a 3% lead at this stage in the electoral cycle (despite shiny new leader). Cameron is 11 months into his leadership. When Blair had been leader of the opposition for 11 months he was 19% ahead," echoing received wisdom that British governments tend to do worse in mid term polling and then do better closer to an election. But this doesn't appear to be true.

I had a quick look at opinion polls from ICM and MORI, and compared the polls eighteen months after the last election to the next election result (i.e. the situation we are now in). In every case bar one, what happened was that the Tories increased their support as an election got closer, and Labour did worse. This was the case irrespective of which party was in power.

In November 1980, Labour were 14% ahead, and lost the next election by 16%
In December 1984 Labour were 4% behind according to Mori and 9% according to ICM, and lost the next election by 11%
In December 1988 Labour were behind by 10% (Mori) and 6% (ICM), and lost the next election by 8%
In October 1993 Labour were ahead by 16% (Mori) and 3% (ICM), and won the next election by 13%
In November 1998 Labour were ahead by 24% and 22% and won the next election by 9%
In December 2002 Labour were ahead by 14% in both polls and won the next election by 3%

Monday, November 06, 2006

The causes of crime

Jackie Ashley, writing in the Guardian today, attacks the government for playing politics with the issue of crime by scaring the public. Instead of attacking Cameron for wanting to 'hug a hoodie', she suggests that government ministers should explain that crime is falling and that what is needed is more rehabilitation and fewer people in prison.

The idea that people wouldn't be worried about crime if the government didn't spend so much time talking about it is not remotely convincing - people get their views on crime from the telly, newspapers and personal conversations and experience, not from Home Office ministers. Then there is the incoherence of complaining that the government's policies and priorities are motivated by politics rather than doing the right thing, and that instead the government should explain how these policies have been successful in, errm, reducing crime.

The problem with this argument is that it starts from the premise that most people are ill-informed and misguided and that the government should stop 'pandering' to them. I can't see the sense in this approach - Labour politicians already spend too much time quoting statistics and appearing out of touch with people's day to day experiences, and this can't be the way to persuade people to support a major shift in criminal justice policy.

For all the talk of young people being demonised and being objects of fear and hatred to many older people, I have always found massive support for any proposals to provide more for young people to do. This is actually an obvious example of a problem caused by market failure. For instance during school holidays, children of rich parents have lots of options about what to do, whereas young people living in more deprived areas often have nothing to do and are bored. When I was working on the council's budget late last year, I found that it costs about £5,000 for a week's worth of high quality holiday activities for young people in a ward. Many families can't afford to pay the full costs of the private companies who run these activities, but for a local council the cost is relatively small. Labour councillors voted through spending of about £500,000 over three years to run playschemes through the Easter and Summer holidays in some of the more deprived areas of Oxford, as well as another £300,000 to make access to the council's swimming pools free for under 17's (against Lib Dem opposition, naturally).

The activities were popular with young people, with parents and with older people who had been most affected by anti-social behaviour. The police reported a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour - providing fun stuff for young people to do does help cut crime just like we thought. But running these activities also showed how much unmet need there was, and how much more could and should be done.

What this taught me is firstly that giving young people something fun to do is a vital part of cutting crime and anti-social behaviour, and that it is something that people will support. To do it properly, though, requires a vast increase in spending on youth services, and because this is money which would go to working-class young people, the Lib Dems and Tories won't ever support it. So when the Queen's Speech announces a whole load of new crime bills, let's hope at least one is about a massive expansion of providing things which young people find fun to do. And once people can see how Labour's policies have helped cut crime in their area significantly, then they might trust us if we explain about the need to reduce the number of people in prison.


Nick Cohen writes that, "Everyone now condemns past governments for allowing London to become 'Londonistan', a centre for Islamist exiles"

To the best of my knowledge, only very right-wing Americans who choose to spend their time writing on the internet about Muslims (and Melanie Phillips) use the word 'Londonistan'. The idea that there is a consensus about the existence of 'Londonistan', and that is a failing of successive governments, shows what can happen through making excessive use of the internet to read only websites that you agree with.

Perhaps this explains why someone who used to make a living from attacking New Labour for eroding civil liberties, and more recently attacking the French for putting national interest ahead of universal principles of justice now thinks that in the case of deporting people to face torture, we should, er, prioritise our national interest ahead of protection of liberties.

Good Old Boy #18

The News of the World have a columnist called Fraser Nelson, who writes a variety of articles about the need to cut taxes and punish criminals more (I understand he is a Thatcherite). He did have one good joke in his column yesterday, though.

"Apparently, Gordon Brown is not going to face any serious challenge for the Labour leadership. Meanwhile, more than half a dozen ministers are planning to run for the Deputy Leadership.

What does it say about the Labour Party that only one person wants to be the next Tony Blair, but instead they are queuing up to try to be the next John Prescott?"

"Prejudice against Nazis"

Managers at a pub have apparently cancelled an anti-racist gig because the publicity featured 'prejudice against the Nazis'.

"An anti-racist gig, planned by young people from Basildon featuring some of the UK's most talented up and coming young performers has suddenly been left in doubt after managers at the venue decided they did not want to be associated with the event.

The Love Music Hate Racism event was originally to take place on Sat 2nd December at the Towngate pub, one of the few live music venues in Basildon. The event was planned in response to the arson attack on the Islamic centre and the increased activity of the racist British National Party in the area: to demonstrate that young people in Basildon prefer good music to racist Nazis.

Despite numerous planning meetings to discuss the event, managers at the Towngate pub have suddenly cancelled the event. The stated reasons for cancelling the event, were concerns about: "what the publicity leaflet says", claiming it was "prejudice against Nazis and the British National Party" and that the pub "could not afford to be seen to be against the BNP" or they might "have no pub left".

Basildon resident and co-organiser of the event Suki Banwait said: "Music brings people together: racism divides us. Love Music Hate Racism is a well respected organisation backed by trade unions, faith groups, musicians and anti-racist campaigns such as UNITE against Fascism. Frankly, we are astonished and disappointed by the decision taken by the Towngate pub. We are now left without a venue for this gig but send out an appeal to any venue, band, dj or promoter in the Basildon area. Can you help us? Are you prepared to support Love Music Hate Racism and provide a venue for the event?""

I suppose by the same logic, wearing a poppy for Remembrance Sunday is a sign of 'prejudice against the Nazis'. Quite incredible.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Let's find some rich people to pick on

I liked it when the government banned fox hunting. It put us on the side of the millions of people whose care deeply about animal welfare, and put the Tories on the side of a grotesque collection of sadists whose behaviour revolted even people who didn't care about the issue itself.

Part of the business of governing is about taking difficult decisions, running services well and communicating effectively. But being able to show what we are against, as well as what we are for, is also important, particularly when the opposition has given up on saying what they really think in the quest for power. Or, in other words, let's find some rich people to pick on.

People who live in Chelsea and drive big cars are one local example for London - their behaviour is anti-social and harmful, most people think that charging them more is a good idea, but they are powerful and rich enough to be able to make sure that they get plenty of local media attention and the support of the local Tories, thus boosting significantly the chances of Labour success in the elections in 2008. Part of the response to climate change could be to identify other examples of harmful things which rich people like to do which could usefully be banned or taxed.

Another example are the people who have got rich by buying up houses and renting them out. They have made a massive windfall profit, often without doing any work beyond contacting a lettings agency to manage the business of letting and managing their property for them. Some landlords are conscientious, but everyone knows examples of landlords who behave badly towards their tenants, or let their properties fall into disrepair and havens for anti-social behaviour. There are all sorts of good uses that a levy of their excessive profits could be put to like increasing the energy efficiency of homes through better insulation or building more affordable housing, but whatever the money gets spent on, the simple process of taking it away from people whose wealth has increased massively in the past 5-10 years and who own lots of homes would help to reduce inequality.

I don't know how representative this is, but where I used to live, the problems caused by houses owned by bad landlords came out as the second most important issue for people after crime, and something like 98% wanted more action to be taken against bad landlords (I suspect that this is slightly more likely to be seen as a priority in the South East than elsewhere). At the same time, I think the landlords' lobby is probably quite influential and I would bet that quite a few Tories have done their fair bit of profiting through buy-to-let, so hopefully they would prove to be opposition as worthy as the Countryside Alliance.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


People ringing up the government for help with paying fuel bills and for benefit hotlines were having to pay for the calls, because the phone number was an 0845 number. The phone lines have had an income of £268,000 - money which people on low incomes were paying in order to find out about benefits to which they are entitled.

This was highlighted a month ago via a Freedom of Information request, and a couple of days ago the DWP announced that in future calls would be on the free 0800 number.

It would have been even better if the government had spotted this before introducing their phone lines (as per the idea of 'poverty proofing' policies), but at least they've now changed the policy.

Good Old Boy #17

Ahead of the American elections next week, a Good Old Boy columnist in the Johnson County Sun in Kansas explains his paper's endorsements:

"As we prepare ourselves to make political endorsements in subsequent issues, I can tell you unequivocally that this newspaper has never endorsed so many Democrats. Not even close.
In the 56 years we have been publishing in Johnson County, this basically has been a Republican newspaper.

I can name on two hands over a half century the number of Democrats we have endorsed for public office.

I always beat up on Democrats in my columns. I have called them leftists, socialists, and every other name in the book, because I thought they were flat-out wrong.

And, for the most part, I still do. I am opposed to big government. I have little use for unions. I never liked the welfare plans. I am opposed to weak-kneed defense policies. I have always been for fiscal prudence. I think back to the policies of most Democrats, and I cringe.

But everything else adds up to priorities that have nothing to do with the Republican Party I once knew.

That's why, in the absence of so-called traditional Republican candidates, the choice comes down to right-wing Republicans or conservative Democrats.

And now you know why we have been forced to move left."

Read the whole thing here

I have a question. If the Democrats beat the Republicans next week because the Democrat candidates are closer to traditional conservative values than the Republicans, is that good or bad?