Friday, January 26, 2007

The Wisdom of the Crowds #7

A new ICM poll found that 64 % believed gay couples should be allowed to adopt, as opposed to 32% who said they should not.

Asked if gay male couples should be able to adopt children, 55% of those polled answered that they should while 42% said they should not.

Those polled were also asked the same question relating specifically to gay female couples. 59% answered that they should be able to adopt children and 38% that they should not.

Reading comprehension

It is always dangerous to make reference to a book if you haven't read or understood it. This is a lesson Peter Wilby might have pondered before writing an article mentioning 'The Rise of the Meritocracy' by Michael Young, describing it, no less, as 'much misunderstood', and then writing an article about education policy including sentences like "Upward social mobility needs to be matched by at least some downward mobility if we are to have a true meritocracy", or "[a balanced intake] would raise standards at all levels and avoid creating schools, so common in urban areas, that have a preponderance of low-ability and unmotivated children, dragging down the few bright classmates they have as well as depressing their own ambitions. Labour MPs hope this will open a road to something resembling true meritocracy."

For those, like Peter Wilby, who haven't read (or have read, but not understood, though it isn't awfully difficult) the Rise of the Meritocracy, it is well worth a look. I don't think it spoils it to reveal that Michael Young's view is that meritocracy is, in fact, a Bad Thing, and the idea that social mobility is related to a true meritocracy is one which he would have found unutterably silly, and is, indeed, is one which he specifically demolished in the book.

Next week, Peter Wilby references George Orwell's 'much misunderstood 1984' to argue that the government has a duty to tackle the threats to our security posed by Eurasia and Emmanuel Goldstein.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a beautiful, independent,
self-assured princess happened upon a frog as she sat, contemplating
ecological issues on the shores of an unpolluted pond in a verdant
meadow near her castle.

A frog hopped into the princess' lap and said: Elegant Lady, I was
once a handsome prince, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me.

One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the dapper,
young Prince that I am and then, my sweet, we can marry and set up
housekeeping in your castle with my mother, where you can satisfy my
needs, prepare and serve my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children,
and forever feel grateful and happy doing so.

That night, as the princess dined sumptuously on lightly sautéed frog
legs seasoned in a white wine and onion cream sauce, she chuckled and
thought to herself:


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Campaign songs

I know this is slightly shameful to admit, but I get cheerful whenever 'Things Can Only Get Better' comes on the radio, as a memory of Happy Times. What's more, I bet I'm not alone.

Every election campaign has its share of special songs, whether from the CD which is playing in the car when driving around, or the song which is on the radio all the time during April and playing from every house when you go round delivering leaflets. I remember singing the Red Flag as a mournful dirge gathered with the other activists in a community centre when we lost control of the council for the first time in 20 years in 2000, and singing a joyful, raucous version in the Town Hall two years later when we regained control.

I particularly like it when there are amusingly inappropriate songs on during election time. I spent a decent part of 2001 going round suburban Reading with the radios playing 'F**k You (I Don't Want You Back)', happily not an omen for Martin Salter's re-election campaign (I don't know if it was Martin who arranged for the single F**k U Right Back to be released, but it wouldn't be surprising). In 2005 one of my favourites was 'Out of Touch' ("you're out of touch, you're out of time"), a song which fortunately turned out to be at most half true. When I was trying to work out what the campaign song would be for the 2006 locals (as I had been mainly listening to the same jangly guitar songs as for the General Election), our regional organiser suggested that there was some song called 'Crazy' which seemed to fit us quite well. I'd not heard it at the time, but since it spent all summer at number one, Labour Party Regional Organisers clearly know their stuff when it comes to tipping songs.

There is one song which I don't recommend for elections, though. At a party after the 2004 elections, I was chatting to some of our defeated candidates (we had had a terrible set of elections, so there were a lot of them). All of a sudden, an activist who will remain nameless decided that what was needed was some of Queen's Greatest Hits, and a few seconds later, the stereo started booming out:

'Another One Bites the Dust'.

So those are some of my favourites, leave your favourites, or the songs you remember campaigning to, in the comments.

Big Thinkers and Masters of the Detail

It occurred to me this afternoon while having a discussion about proposed changes designed to incentivise the private and third sector to design schemes to boost participation in the labour market (with reference to the different characteristics of the British and German welfare models) that there is a division amongst Labour (and probably political activists more generally) which is not often remarked on, between the Big Thinkers and Masters of the Detail.

Big Thinkers think Big Thoughts about Important Issues. The rise of socialism in South America, how society could be completely reordered, the need for a new progressive and internationalist coalition, radical reforms to the taxation system or the constitution, the failure of multiculturalism and other similar debates are fought over in newspapers and on the blogosphere. For Big Thinkers, politics is the clash of big ideas and great causes and the stakes are high. When occasionally a Big Thinker strays from foreign or constitutional policy and stumbles across social policy, they find a Big Idea to adopt, such as the cause of abolishing all benefits and replacing them with a universal basic income, and set about this idea with as much vigour as their other Big Ideas. Big Thinkers are found on the right and the left, and amongst leafleters and pamphleteers (though with a bias towards the pamphlet).

The Masters of the Detail have a different set of preoccupations. A complicated and technical tweak to a particular section of the welfare state or labour market, how a new planning policy guidance note could impact on residential intensification, or more or less any aspect of local government is what makes them tick. Whereas people who aren't that involved in politics can usually at least follow and contribute to the discussions of the Big Thinkers, many people with even quite a strong commitment to political activism have found their evenings ruined by sitting in on an exchange of local planning anecdotes followed by a heated discussion about some technical aspect of welfare reform. For the Masters of the Detail, politics is a matter of small but important improvements to existing policies and structures, based on a detailed understanding of the subject.

There is much greater mutual incomprehension between these two groups than between, say, right and left or leafleter and pamphleter. The Big Thinker cannot understand the parochialism of the Master of the Detail or why they would rather talk about some insignificant detail of some existing policy rather than see the bigger picture, while the Masters of the Detail would rather people stopped making pronouncements about Venezuala when it was obviously not based on any first hand knowledge.

There is no quicker way to turn a Big Thinker into a Master of the Detail than to persuade them to stand as a local councillor - the bright ideas for changing the world quickly disappear and get focused into 'my housing casework'. This is generally good news for their ward, and bad news for social acquaintances.

The best example that I've seen of the clash of cultures that can happen when the two groups come together was in a debate on multiculturalism. We were discussing a very lengthy and ideological motion condemning the 'political strategy of multiculturalism'. Exasperated by this distraction from actually relevant council business, one councillor got up and said to the proposer of the motion, "If we don't have multiculturalism, the only alternative is monoculturalism. Who is going to decide what this one culture that we all have to follow is. You?"

Monday, January 22, 2007

What Liberal Democrats say and what they mean, part 2: The BNP

"We are going to be, as Liberal Democrats, the party that people should vote for to keep the BNP out"

Lib Dem Cllr Martin Smith, Burnley, here

"IN reply to Coun. Mark Townsend's letter regarding Liberal Democrat councillors voting for the British National Party candidate.The Lib Dems are, by their very name, liberal-minded and democratic. We vote how we think the needs of the people are best-served. At the full council meeting on December 13th, a position came up for renewal. This was on the board of Padiham Life, which comes under the Small Towns Initiative and backed by the North West Regional Development Association to the tune of £1m.When it came to the vote, there was a choice of only two candidates – Sharon Wilkinson, BNP, who represents Hapton and Park ward, and Linda Gauton, Labour. Coun. Wilkinson is quite passionate about her ward members and was indeed shown in the Express recently supporting old people who had received threatening notices from the town council for not recycling properly. As the spokesman for her party she speaks up regularly for what she feels is right. To my mind, she is actively doing her job for the people who voted for her."

Lib Dem Cllr John Jones, Burnley, here

Hat tip: Political betting comments

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Socialist Youth Network

It will always be difficult for the Labour party while in government to persuade leftie young people to join and get involved. But it does seem to me important that there is a group which people can get involved in, is enjoyable to be part of, and which offers an alternative to the options of joining some small and often unpleasant group, not being able to get involved at all in political activity.

As part of John McDonnell's campaign, a group called Socialist Youth Network has been set up, and it held its founding conference last weekend. There were about 80-odd people there, and as far as I could see it was a good day, with speeches from John McDonnell, Tony Benn and Katy Clark and several hours spent discussing political ideas in a good natured way on a wide range of issues. Afterwards, many of the people attending stayed around to socialise, which is usually a good sign. Anyone who was wanting to find out more about leftie campaigning and ideas, but who hadn't previously been involved would, I think, have had a good time and wanted to get more involved.

I am writing about this because I read a couple of reports of the event which make it sound like it was a less enticing alternative to a visit to the dentist. Any network like this will always be a magnet for tiny groups which have failed to build a socialist alternative to Labour and who haven't grasped that their method of operating is part of the problem not part of the solution. But they weren't representative of the people attending, and didn't get the chance to spend hours disputing whether or not Hugo Chavez is a socialist or Bonapartist or other similar helpful activities. Much better reports on the event can be found here here and here.

There's more info on the website about upcoming events. To continue its good work requires more people to get involved who think it is important to reach out to young people who are disillusioned with the government but should be Labour supporters.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Wisdom of the Crowds #6

I think that, for the first time in many years, the Democratic Party have three good potential candidates for the presidency in Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. One advantage of having three serious and able candidates is that whoever gets the nomination will have proved themselves against tough opposition and therefore be well placed to take on the Republicans. But a poll in Newsweek shows the scale of the challenge which the Democratic candidate will face.

When asked by Newsweek whether, in general, people would prefer to see a Democrat or Republican elected as the next president, 49% say Democrat, and 28% say Republican (19% don't know). But in an election against Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, Clinton, Obama and Edwards poll between 45% and 48%, while the Republicans get between 43% and 48%. Polls by Rasmussen have McCain and Giuliani leading any of the leading Democrats by between 5% and 11%. In each case, there are a lot of people who identify with the Democrats, but who aren't at the moment planning to vote for them come the Presidential elections. It'll be interesting to see how the Democrat 'stars' deal with this problem over the next couple of years.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Social Housing

I was trying to find out what Jon Cruddas' policy on housing actually was - it is an issue which he has quite rightly highlighted as of great concern to a lot of people. I found a commitment to supporting Shelter's campaign calling for an extra 20,000 social rented homes per year, but not much else in the way of detail.

So here's my question. Social housing is no longer provided to meet general need, as it was fifty years ago. It is, by and large, only people in priority need who are allocated social housing. It is a sign of the appalling situation that there is a massive shortage even to provide enough housing for this purpose, and clearly building to meet this need is something worth supporting.

But building 20,000, or even double that, units of social housing will do little or nothing for the people who Cruddas suggests are switching to the BNP over the lack of housing - typically people who grew up in a council house which their parents bought, but who now have no hope of getting a council or housing association house, or of getting a mortgage. If anything, a massive building programme which helps rehouse families living in overcrowded accommodation, lone parents and people who are statutorily homeless but does nothing to meet general need is likely to increase, rather than decrease, resentment.

I am old fashioned, so I would like to see a return to the days when social housing was a much larger proportion of Britain's overall housing stock, and people who are not in priority need and earning average wages could realistically expect to be housed by the council, if that's what they chose. But even I accept that the reality is that there is an overwhelming preference for people to be able to own their homes rather than spend their lives renting. There are some direct trade-offs between providing housing for people in work to buy at an affordable, and providing for the most needy to rent, and to increase supply to meet both sets of demand would require a much larger building programme than Shelter are suggesting.

What worries me is that the call for 'build (some) more social housing' and 'let councils borrow to do up their existing council houses' are measures which are presented as a solution to the housing crisis, whereas they are good ideas but only a small part of addressing the problems that concern people. Reforming housing benefit, for example, should be a good opportunity to correct a horrendously complex and inefficient system, but instead the government's current plan is for a new stupid system called Local Housing Allowance (which involves paying claimants a flat fee and getting them to shop around in the housing market, rather than paying landlords the full cost of the rent directly), which apart from its intrinsic problems will do nothing to address the problem that Housing Benefit is one of the biggest benefit traps stopping people from working (because people are better off on benefit than working and paying the much higher rent).

If we could get a set of policies which end or substantially reduce the housing crisis, then quite apart from cutting away the support for the fascists and boosting our own fortunes, we would help to reduce one of the main sources of misery for millions of people (I imagine that many councillors find, like I did, that housing-related casework was the largest part of their caseload). But its one that I'd certainly like to hear more about from the different contenders for the deputy leadership, and simply identifying the problem isn't enough - they'll need to have some imaginative solutions to get my vote.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Good instinct

Luke reports Hazel Blears, speaking at her CLP, as saying:

“We must make sure that our language, concerns and instincts are the same as people on the streets and estates. Vandalism, graffiti, noise, schools, the NHS, immigration."

It's a good point, and one I largely agree with.

Just one question. Who thinks that our government's current language, concerns and instincts on, say, the NHS are the same as people on the streets and estates? Seeing as how, um, Hazel Blears doesn't.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Just look at what the British government has accomplished over the last decade"

It's always interesting to get a bit of perspective when looking at the successes and failures of the government, from people who are knowledgeable about a subject, but aren't caught up in the day to day arguments. Paul Krugman, a leftie American economist, wrote an article last Christmas called 'Helping the Poor, the British Way'. Here's his assessment:

"Government truly can be a force for good...The Blair years have shown that a government that seriously tries to reduce poverty can achieve a lot"

"Britain's poverty rate, if measured American-style - that is, in terms of a fixed poverty line, not a moving target that rises as the nation grows richer - has been cut in half since Labor came to power in 1997. Britain's war on poverty has been led by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and Mr. Blair's heir apparent. There's nothing exotic about his policies, many of which are inspired by American models. But in Britain, these policies are carried out with much more determination."

"It really helps to have politicians who are serious about governing, rather than devoting themselves entirely to amassing power and rewarding cronies"

"I was startled by the sheer rationality of British policy discussion."

"Instead of making grandiose promises that are quickly forgotten...British Labor politicians propose specific policies with well-defined goals. And when actual results fall short of those goals, they face the facts rather than trying to suppress them and sliming the critics."

It's like reading Labour Party News, only with a much improved writing style. You can read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What Lib Dems say and what they mean, part one in an occasional series

Camden Lib Dem councillor Alexis Rowell, last month:

"I believe Climate Change is by far the most important issue facing us all. However, after a detailed analysis, I concluded that that Liberal Democrats’ environmental policies were as strong as those espoused by the Greens.

Most importantly the reason I went into politics was to change the world for the better not just to shout about it. As part of the ruling Liberal Democrat group on Camden Council I have been able to set up the Camden Sustainability Task Force, a cross party body with a remit to green Camden. I hope we’ll be able to encourage Camden’s businesses, residents and organisations to move to a lower carbon lifestyle."

What he meant:

"According to a memo sent to all Camden councillors a pilot project, introduced by Labour 18 months ago and originally funded by government NRF money, to extend door to door recycling to estates in Somers Town, Kentish Town, Holborn and Covent Garden (e.g. the Bourne Estate) and King's Cross are to go.

In all this counts for 4,000 households."

Cutting recycling services to pay for a 0% rise in council tax. What better way for the Lib Dems to demonstrate that they feel that climate change is the most important issue of all, and to encourage residents to move to a lower carbon lifestyle.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Labour MP: Journalists biased in favour of asylum seekers

This post by a Labour MP appears to be arguing that Scottish journalists are guilty of being gullible and using extremist language in favour of asylum seekers, uncritically accepting their claims even when they are false.

Is it really right that the Scottish editions of national newspapers are full of stories like "The Sun Says: Let Them Stay" and headlines in the Daily Express comparing immigration officers to Nazi stormtroopers, or is this argument as completely off the wall as it appears?

"We're not fickle, we just don't like you"

Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell chose yesterday to antagonise a few more floating voters and attack Jon Cruddas with an article in the Guardian calling for the continuation of the New Labour strategy of the politics of aspiration and targeting centrist voters in the 48 super marginals as the best way to win the next election.

A minor point is that I don't understand why they put this article in the Guardian, where its effect will be to antagonise Lib/Lab swing voters, rather than in a newspaper which is read by the people who are Labour/Tory swing voters, who would presumably be more receptive to it.

My bigger concern is that I don't see how we can win an overall majority at the next election with this strategy. The polling at the moment suggests that David Cameron will be more appealing to these centrist swing voters than Michael Howard, and Gordon Brown or John Reid less appealing than Tony Blair, and that also our more traditional supporters are less likely to go and vote. The assumption must presumably be that these voters are considering voting Tory or not bothering at the moment midway between elections, but that with a robust message on the economy, public services and crime they will come back to Labour when the next election comes.

David O'Leary adopted a similar analysis when manager of Aston Villa, calling Villa fans fickle when they expressed displeasure with his management. They responded with a large banner - "We're not fickle, we just don't like you". My worry is that this is the message that the voters are trying to give us at the moment and that if we don't pay attention, then we could end up suffering O'Leary's fate.

This isn't to say that Byrne and Rammell's call for a New Labour strategy at the next election is necessarily wrong - after all there are plenty of alternatives which would guarantee a much heavier defeat (I never understand why some people think it is left-wing or principled not to focus campaigning in the seats we need to form a government), and their strategy has the advantage of having won us three elections in a row. But we need to be having a discussion at the very least about what the plan B is - if it becomes clear than under our new leader the centrist voters are switching to the Tories in sufficient numbers to make the New Labour strategy unviable for electoral success, how can we respond by getting other support and rebuilding the Labour coalition in order to stay in power and win the next election.

I have two thoughts to contribute in a small way to this. Part of this must involve being able to squeeze Lib Dem support. The 2005 election wasn't like 2001 or 1997, where Labour and the Lib Dems were basically on the same side and tacitly co-operated - and it is not possible next time to assume that people who vote Lib Dem in Labour/Tory marginals will automatically come back to vote for us (at the moment many are as likely to switch to the party which is trying to squeeze the Lib Dems - the Tories). There are about 6-8,000 people in each of the supermarginals who voted Lib Dem last time, and in elections which might be decided by at most a few hundred votes, being able to cut into that could be the difference between winning and losing. Similarly, we could hold or even increase our own level of support in every single supermarginal, but if the Lib Dem voters switch to the Tories, and if the Tories vote Lib Dem in Lab/Lib marginals, then we could lose power. If you think that is unlikely, think about how many local Lib Dem/Tory coalitions there were in local councils in 1997, and compare that to how many there are now.

The other group of people who will, I think, be crucial are non-voters. In every supermarginal, the number of non-voters is at least comparable to, and often outnumbers, the entire Labour or Tory vote. Non-voters are disproportionately likely to be Labour supporters, and yet in some areas apparently the strategy is not even to canvass people if they didn't vote at the last election. It's one thing doing that a month before an election when resources are tight, but there is plenty of time to call on people before the next general election. A close election is a good motivation for people to go and vote anyway, but we need to have better arguments to persuade people who have never voted before, or only vote occasionally, that they should go and vote for us next time.

This is deliberately not a set of policy recommendations, because I do not know what narrative or which policies would persuade a non voter in Crawley or a Lib Dem in Dartford to vote for us next time. But I think that finding out and acting on that knowledge is likely to give us a better chance than hoping that we can win the next election by saying that the Lib Dems are soft on crime and trying to appeal more than David Cameron to people in Battersea who work in marketing.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Libertarian Test

Here is a test to see if you are a libertarian. The scale is from 0 (good) to 160 (very libertarian).

I got 8, and I will be very impressed by anyone who can beat that. If you get more than about 30 then I am afraid you have to join the Liberal Democrats (Orange Book flavour) or suffer some other equally unpleasant fate. As ever, record your scores in the comments (Tim has the current record of 7, you are not allowed to cheat in order to try and beat that).

Deputy leadership update

Recent developments in the deputy leadership race, courtesy of a news service I receive entitled "For men with an unusual, and perculiar, interest":

Deputy Labour leadership latest

Snippets, rumours and gossip and the race to succeed Prescott


Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell devote an article in the Guardian to attacking Jon Cruddas - a sign that those at the top of government are waking up to the threat he poses.

Soft soap interview of Harman in the Daily Telegraph. Again she stresses family policy. Also she doesn't cook dinner for Jack Dromey.

Party officials have advised candidates that they will interpret the rules on nominations as meaning 44 nominations plus the candidate themselves.

The contest could resolve itself into a threeway Cruddas-Blears-Johnson contest.


New Year roundup:

Where to begin?

Straw seems to be out, no clear reason why, although malicious rumours of personal problems are circulating.

Much has been made of Blears protests against health cuts in Salford - more important perhaps has been her repudiation of Philips in the FT (08/01/07), especially as she is officially the lead labour negotiator.

Hain has enjoyed his moment of Lesbian and Gay glory pushing through the new equality regulations early in NI.

Cruddas now claims to have 44 nominations bolted down. Mainly drawn from old-school trade unionists and the 2001 and 2005 generation.

There was very brief Corbyn for Deputy campaign. Unfortunately reality took a hand. No sign of it doing so in the McDonnell for leader campaign.

Alan Johnson? All sides seem to agree he will get the highest number of nominations from MPs. No signs that a friendly journalist has yet explained to his SPADs that union members, or indeed Party members, get a vote.

Good Old Boy #23

From the comments on Antonia's blog, a contribution of great simplicity and compelling logic. I wish more people thought like this:

"I must start this comment with a statement: I’m a middle-class, married, straight, professional, strongly Blairite, former Tory-voting, 31-year-old white man. May as well be up front about it.

I started reading this post with the strong view that AWS [All Women Shortlists] were wholly wrong, and Kerron’s view was broadly mine. In a nutshell, my view was: people dislike discrimination, so they’d like instead to discriminate.

It’s the pro-death penalty argument - it’s wrong to kill, so we’ll kill you.

However, I’m taken by the strength of feeling for AWS, and the compelling argument that Ms Bance puts forward - how can a Parliament represent a people when it doesn’t (as a matter of fact) represent the people.

I wonder then why the policy isn’t taken to its logical conclusion. I agree with GaffaUK to an extent - in order to redress the balance, why aren’t all shortlists solely for (in shorthand) non-”me” candidates?

The Party could set ‘representative’ targets (on, say, gender, sexuality, ethnicity), and until they were filled, literally *no* other candidate like me could be selected for a seat.

Why not?

In the meantime also, let’s ensure that 51% (rounded down to 50%) of the leadership positions are female. Let’s devise a simple voting system whereby one of the two top Labour Party positions *has* to be filled by a woman.

I’m serious. Let’s stop “me” candidates until the balance is properly redressed, and let’s sort it out now, rather than wait 20 years.

And I’m really sorry Ed Balls, or any other highly capable male currently without a seat (another is my friend Paul Blanchard, a PPC at the 2005 election and a York Labour councillor) - we’ll just wait until the demographics have been repaired before contemplating electing the right “man” for the job."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Good Old Boys #199

Well done to the 199 members of the House of Lords who voted against the religious bigots and for equality. I thought that the former Tory Lord Chancellor, made a particularly good point in noting that "it could well mean that if you teach in a school, particularly in an advanced class, that homosexuality is wrong, you would be guilty of breaching these provisions", and that "by virtue of Regulation 16(8), it would appear that such a charity would not be entitled to use this exemption [to the law] while at the same time providing goods, services and facilities on behalf of and under contract with a local authority. Are we therefore going to see the end of state funding for many faith-based charitable organisations?"

The only small point on which he and I differ is that I think these are excellent arguments in favour of the anti-discrimination law, and he appears to disagree.

Spare a thought, though, for Richard Porter, author of the 2005 Lib Dem LGBT manifesto, who defected last month from the Lib Dems to the Tories. I wonder what he makes of the thoughts of his new friends raging in the comments about this 'totalitarian' law?

competence or ideology?

I've had the opportunity, over the years, to campaign for many excellent Labour candidates. I have also campaigned for a few rubbish ones. The former is far more enjoyable than the latter. When it comes to internal selections or elections, therefore, I think that there are other important things apart from deciding which candidate is closest to my political views.

For example, if the leadership election is between Gordon Brown and Michael Meacher as the candidate of the Left, then I will vote for Brown without any hesitation. If Brown decided that he didn't want to have all the bother of being Leader and the election was between John Reid and Meacher, then I would cry and then vote for Reid. As the winner of my competition put it, 'even a left-wing radical Green wouldn't vote for him as he is too bonkers'.

If John McDonnell stood, and if he continued getting people back to support Labour and putting forward leftie ideas in an effective way reaching out beyond those already persuaded (as he seems to be doing at the moment), then I'd happily vote for him.

Labour activists do no one except our opponents a favour when they vote for an incompetent member of their faction over a better candidate of another internal faction. This may sound obvious, but it has always been a cause of fierce debate amongst lefties that I've known (if any Tories are reading, this doesn't apply to you - you should pick candidates who reflect what you really think and ignore any carping that they might seem to be a bit extreme by the public).

I'm really only mentioning this because I got an e-mail today saying that the only reason why I have been criticising Michael Meacher is because I fear that Meacher might be a stronger Left candidate than McDonnell and hence might pose more of a threat to my real master Gordon Brown. This most certainly is not the case and Ed Balls told me that I should deny it absolutely.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Comedy Tories

It is a guilty pleasure to read Tory websites where their activists come up with policy ideas aimed at ending their long exile from power.

Here is an unintentionally amusing discussion about the need to strengthen the family by promoting heterosexual marriage against leftists who are trying undemocratically to promote homosexuality, which is a deviant kind of sexuality and not the norm, but, errm, that doesn't mean that we are calling gays deviants, look, we are talking about pro-creation here and all the reports show that marriage is important. But all this discussion of sexuality is really secondary to the main issue of the tax burden, as the final poster explained. "That is not to say homsexuals do not have rights. Far from it. I have always been in favour of civil partnerships. The main reason for this has been inheritance tax."

Better still is the suggestion that we should spend £2 billion on a six week residential course for sixteen year olds teaching them how to use a knife and fork properly. No, really. "A key element of the ‘Finishing School’ would be etiquette. For example, I cannot be the only person that gets quietly infuriated at the way some people hold their knives and forks." This policy will apparently be 'extremely popular with Middle England'.

What's Ruth Kelly done wrong?

I don't think it's very clever to get into the political position of slagging people off for doing what they think is best for their children. Establishing the principle that doing so is a sackable offence seems to me like an extremely effective way of deterring people from getting involved in politics. There are very few policy debates which benefit from being focused on the decision of one individual and this certainly isn't one of them - the effect is just to make it more poisonous.

There are good reasons why the government has been pursuing a policy of inclusion, with considerable support from disability campaigners amongst others, but there will always be some children with special needs for whom mainstream education isn't right and alternative private provision gives them a higher quality of life and education - I know from working on holiday playschemes how some children with moderate learning difficulties flourished and some had an absolutely terrible time from being in mainstream education. It is very hard to design a system which takes all of this into account, particularly with limited resources (how many people now calling for Ruth Kelly to resign were calling a year for more funding to support pupils with SEN in mainstream education or special schools as a spending priority compared to whatever the pet cause in the news was then?)

I think this does strengthen the case for MPs to be paid much closer to the average wage, so that when they are taking decisions about what is best for their children, their options are more like those which most people face. But let's have policy made on evidence, and ministers judged on what they do or don't do in office, not where their children go to school.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

failed asylum seekers

Tom Harris, in an otherwise entertaining blog, wrote just before Christmas:

"Dawn raids to remove failed asylum seekers are to continue during the festive season, and this is the subject of some criticism by certain organisations, media and individuals, including Roman Catholic Archbishop Mario Conti. What a shame that critics of the government’s asylum policies are never forced to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions...And here’s a truth that very few people dare speak: our asylum system is just."

The 'just' government policy is that 21 days after a final claim for asylum is refused, all benefits, accommodation and support are cut off. The theory is that absolute destitution will force people to return to their countries of origin, and you have to admire the courage of a member of Parliament daring to speak up against destitute asylum seekers and in favour of a policy supported by just about every national newspaper.

It might sound logical, and look good on leaflets attacking 'handouts for failed asylum seekers', but according to the National Audit Office, more than 150,000 are choosing to remain in Britain, sleeping rough, relying on the charity of friends, because even this is preferable to what they fear will happen if they return home. Cutting off all support means that destitute asylum-seekers lose touch with the Home Office, actually making it less likely that they will return (in practice, removing people to countries like Iraq and Somalia is extremely difficult and often not possible).

At the last meeting of the all party group on poverty (which Mr Harris is a member of, according to his website), refugees gave testimony about their experiences of going for days without food, being attacked while sleeping on the streets, and going to a police station to ask to be arrested because they couldn't face going hungry and sleeping out in the cold. One person spoke of being denied medical care until he had to be rushed to hospital, as a result of which he is now terminally ill and has at most months to live.

The 'critics' of this 'just' policy have drawn some logical conclusions from this, and are campaigning for the government to:

* Ensure that refused asylum seekers remain on the same financial support and accommodation as during the asylum process until their situation is resolved

* Grant temporary, renewable permission to stay in the country that allows refused asylum seekers, who cannot safely be returned to their countries of origin within six months, to stay in the UK, to work and to access medical care

* End the long-term limbo of refused asylum seekers still in the UK after several years, by granting them permission to stay in the country, as well as the right to work, to claim benefits and access medical care

* Ensure that the government’s asylum case-workers build in anti-destitution support measures as part of the so-called “New Asylum Model” where cases are managed from beginning to end

It's not like any of the above would lead to a flood of people coming to claim asylum in Britain, and it makes a mockery of social justice to have hundreds of thousands of people living here with absolutely nothing. Like Tom Harris says, what a shame that critics of the government's asylum policies aren't forced to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions, and what a shame that MPs won't support these arguments and stick up for the most vulnerable.


Someone recently asked:

"I look at the insights contained in Michael Meacher's "Politics of
Conviction". I look at his insights into the peak oil era and the
frailities of the Bush tyranny's conspiracy theory narrative regarding
the events of September 11th 2001, as exemplified by his interviews in
the film "Oil, Smoke and Mirrors". I look at his commitment to not
replacing Trident, a hopeless and unecessary waste of taxation given
that our Second World War lend-lease debt to the USA has now ended,
and that a potential reclamation of British foreign policy is now

Given all these three considerations, what is the ideological and
pragmatic opposition to Michael Meacher's potential stand as a Labour

In the spirit of Eugene Debs, who came up with the quote "I'd rather vote for something I want, and not get it, than vote for something I don't want, and get it," this question inspires a competition. The competition is to complete, in 25 words or fewer, the following sentence:

"The ideological and pragmatic opposition to Michael Meacher's potential stand as a Labour
leader is..."

My entry, for what it's worth, is...that he would be a terrible Prime Minister, whose government would be a total fiasco, followed swiftly by a crushing election defeat.

I appreciate that it would be possible to object to the above on the grounds that there is no way he would win a leadership contest (and that it doesn't mention his property portfolio, vote for the war on Iraq, conspiracy theory about 9/11 etc etc), but the minimum requirement to support someone in an election should surely be that you don't think it would be a disaster if they won, right?

Friday, January 05, 2007

"The Lib Dem nerds' paradise"

Cllr Mark Bennett, a councillor in Lambeth, has an excellent blog with thoughtful, fair and balanced recent posts such as "Lib Dems = Chaos", "Lib Dems - Wedded to weak Wardens", "Lib Dems and Tories threaten libraries", and my favourite, "The Lib Dem nerds' paradise".

The latter is about attempts to replace area committees with something which engages communities better. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who finds that their local area committee/forum/whatever is working well. The idea is for more open decision-making and more people to be involved in deciding priorities for their local services. I've never heard of any area where that actually happens, partly because Area Committees are top down structures which weren't planned to fit in with existing community groups and structures.

The one issue which Area Committees consistently managed to engage local people where I used to live was planning. Area Committees were given the power to consider planning applications, which is apparently an invaluable opportunity to educate local people in how planning policies are applied and the nature of quasi-judicial decision-making. I have to confess that I would struggle to recommend this system to comrades in Lambeth or elsewhere.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


I was reading Labour's number 1 political blogger, and I am now confused. A few months ago, he wrote something about how rubbish it was that Hemel Hempstead had an all women shortlist because it was personally inconvenient to his plans for a future political career.

Rather than either learning from the points made by others in response to this drivel or keeping quiet about the subject, he's chosen today to relate an anecdote about getting a letter with a misprinted date, as a way of reasserting his view that all women shortlists discriminate against him, and a link to remind people of how he got demolished last time he tried to argue this.

Obviously, different people choose to write about different things, and I like a lot of what Kerron writes, but it just seems strange to me, like a dog returning to its vomit or some such.

Far Fetched

Tony Blair used to be accused of being just an opportunist. On hearing this, Michael Foot retorted, "No rising hope who offered himself to the Labour Party at a time when I was its leader can be accused of opportunism". Although they came from very different political traditions, Foot did his best to offer support and help to prospective candidates of obvious talent such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and continued to do so for several years after their election.

I thought of this when reading Pickles of A Far Fetched Resolution's response to my post on boosting membership for the Labour Party. He doesn't think that 'throwing a few bones to the oppositionalists within the party' would make a difference. I have been having this discussion, on and off, for six years with Pickles, so here's my latest response.

Pickles argues that, "The reality is that some people simply cannot cope with being in a party of government. That might be for very good reasons. They may well be completely wedded to an ideology that no succesful government could demonstrate any commitment to. They may be psychologically more comfortable criticising the particular with reference to the universal, or acting as the voice of the voiceless or unjustly treated. That's all fair enough. But no governing party can cater to their whims. It's simply not possible." This is, I think, an attitude shared by many in the leadership, that there is a direct trade off between things which the majority of normal people want and those that the whingers want. It helps that I reckon there is at least one person in every CLP who conforms exactly to this stereotype.

Rather than dismissing members' concerns, or positively welcoming them as a sign that a policy must be a good one, I think that the last nine years have shown that very often members who raised concerns about particular government policies have had a good track record of highlighting policies which proved unpopular and/or had to be scrapped. Let's look at a few examples:

*Introduction of university tuition fees (scrapped by the government a few years later)
*Cutting lone parent benefit (reversed by government which has boosted income of lone parents massively - which has proved very popular with members)
*Trying to prevent Rhodri Morgan becoming Labour candidate for First Minister of Wales (Rhodri Morgan now first minister of Wales)
*Trying to prevent Ken Livingstone becoming Labour candidate for Mayor of London (following humiliating election defeat for Labour in 2000, Ken now Labour Mayor of London, praised by the Prime Minister)
*Introducing vouchers for asylum-seekers (vouchers now mostly abandoned)
*Councils being encouraged to stock transfer their houses, and not build new council housing (significant resistance to stock transfer from tenants, lack of social housing generally acknowledged as factor in BNP gains in support)

Obviously, not every leftie criticism of the leadership has been justified or proved correct. But in each of the above examples, the fact that there was widespread discontent amongst members(not just those on the 'traditional left') could have served as a kind of 'canary in cole mine', and it can't seriously be argued that dropping or substantially amended each of those measures would have turned out worse than what actually happened.

It isn't 'gesture politics' to listen when your supporters are unhappy, and valuing the opinions of Labour Party members works better than treating it as a sign of political strength to ignore them. Every government has to take controversial and unpopular decisions sometimes (Kosovo is, I think, one good example of this, and to a certain extent the current situation with the NHS). But particular when a party is in financial trouble and looking to renew itself after a decade in office, giving people who care enough about Labour to join us confidence that they will be listened to is a necessary strategy for survival.

When Luke Akehurst writes that he is unenthusiastic at trying to re-recruit the 1,000 or so members who have left the Hackney CLPs because they just paid their money or Reclaim Labour looks forward to the day when the Blairites can be purged from the Labour Party, I wonder whether in fact they care more about beating the Tories or winning an internal argument in the Labour Party. No faction in the Labour Party has a monopoly on wisdom or good ideas, and when lots of members are unhappy about a proposed policy, there's probably a good reason for it.

Good Old Boy of the year

Only a few hours before the end of 2006, I heard the following Good Old Boy story.

A friend of a friend was renting a flat in Liverpool, and found that he had been overcharged in his council tax bill. He contacted the council to complain, and was assured that it would be sorted out. When it wasn't, he got irritated and decided that the best course of action was to take the council to the small claims court. As the council didn't contest it, he won his case. By this stage, the council had got round to paying back the amount he had been overcharged, but there werecosts from the court action. To recover the debt, balliffs were sent to one of the council offices on five separate occasions (on one occasion they were told that the debtor could not be identified, rather surprisingly as the debtor was the council and the balliffs were in a council building). Eventually, just before Christmas, the balliffs recovered the money, including their own costs, and the case ended.

I reckon that sending the balliffs round to the council to enforce a court judgement about having to pay too much council tax is pretty much living the dream for any Good Old Boy, and therefore I have no hesitation in awarding this gentleman the prize of Good Old Boy 2006.

Bad Luck, Ahmed

Tim told me recently that back in the 80s, the Federation of Conservative Students had a campaign in response to Band Aid called 'Bad Luck, Ahmed', which ran as follows - "Ahmed is from Ethopia. Ahmed is starving. Bad Luck, Ahmed", the point being that it certainly isn't any of our business whether people in Africa starved or not, and we certainly shouldn't try to do anything about it.

I was idly wondering to myself what those Young Tories were doing now, and what they thought of Gordon Brown's campaign for free education for every child. Confirming all my prejudices about libertarians, the people here think that paying taxes to ensure every child can go to school is a form of slavery. I wonder if they have still got their 'Hang Nelson Mandela' badges?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Bad housing wrecks lives

There is lots that could be written about the sheer misery caused by bad housing and overcrowding. But more powerful than any amount of statistics is a short (8 minute) film which Shelter got made recently, showing the experience of two families in housing which is manifestly unsuitable for their needs (though it meets the legal definition to be deemed adequate). You can watch it here

There are millions of people in similar situations to those of those two families, which should be a useful reminder for those who need it that there is more to the debate about housing than preserving the Green Belt or helping young professionals be able to buy their first property - it would make a real difference to have housing policy based on those in most need, rather than the most vocal.

More info about Shelter can be found here

We Don't Do God

I think it is a sign of the bias which the media have against religion that the religious get the support of people like Neal Lawson, a man with a track record of inept and counter-productive support of a range of good causes. The responses to his article praising religious leaders for providing moral leadership have justly been less than complimentary.

One thing which has struck me in the past, though, is that many people who regularly attend a church or mosque or whatever 'get' collective community action in a way which most people, in my experience, don't. Particularly in areas where the local Labour Party, trade unions and other non-religious community groups are weak, having active supporters who are members of a faith group can be invaluable in building up a successful campaign. I went on a recent course on community organising, and all but three people present regularly attended one of the local churches.

It is also much better to have people put their efforts into campaigns against economic injustice than into the kinds of socially conservative campaigns initiated by the religious leaders whom Lawson praises. So keeping in touch with local faith groups is something I think lefties should do more of, for more or less the opposite reasons to those of Neal Lawson.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Expat Tories

Via Antonia, I found out about the weird and wonderful world of expat Tory bloggers today. Like most Tory bloggers, they are Very Angry about the most things, particularly the state of England, and don't even have day to day contact with how things actually are here to challenge their prejudices even slightly.

I don't recommend spending much time reading their stuff (that way lies madness), but to give an idea of the kind of contributions that they make to the common good, here is one complaining about the failure of newspapers to report allegations that John Prescott has a dossier about a love affair between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and here is one about how John McDonnell's policies are broadly similar to the BNP because they agree about restoring the link between pensions and earnings (there is a sort of acknowledgement that this is a load of shite later that day).

My favourite, though, is this one, a lengthy diatribe about how terrible it is that people are moving from the country they were born in to work in other countries...

...written by someone born in London and now living in Istanbul.