Saturday, 31 August 2013

Obama has lost his way. And the world is a more frightening place.

President Obama is a true enigma. He falls into the intellectual camp of US Presidents, which in modern times has been predominantly Democrat and largely progressive. He will always be remembered for his incredible achievement in becoming the first-ever African American leader of the USA. And yet...

After seeing off Mitt Romney in last year’s election, Obama should be buoyant. Things hadn’t been good economically for the US in the aftermath of the financial crash and to triumph in spite of all that was fantastic. But we don’t see a confident victor. On the contrary. We are presented with a nervy, vacillating, agonising figure, who has now become embroiled in a developing fiasco over Syria.

A word of advice to world leaders. If you worry that people will cross your red lines, then don’t paint them in the first place.

When the first evidence emerged of Assad’s regime using chemical weapons, the President was desperate to say that it should all be looked into very, very slowly. So the vicious Syrian dictator saw that the famous red line was no trip wire. It was possible, he calculated, to act with impunity.

When the recent attack happened, it was on a scale that no one could ignore, although there was still a period of 48 hours in which there was a fair bit of head scratching and navel-gazing. Eventually, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were stung into action and decided that something had to be done.

But the political pressure at home in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan is immense. When Obama gives interviews on Syria, he feels obliged to present any potential strike as the defence of American national interests, whereas actually the only logical justification for military action is as a humanitarian gesture and a deterrent to the tormentors of innocent people. Anything he does will be ‘narrow’ and ‘focused’, which could very easily be read as useless. If the missiles strikes when they come fail to destabilise Assad, then they will probably make the situation worse.

The comment threads online from the US are truly fascinating. Beyond the usual crowd of nuts who just hate Obama and everything he stands for, there is a fierce strand of strident isolationism. Why should we sort out other people’s problems? Why do we have to be the world’s policeman? Let them all go to hell.

Well, the reason America has to be the world’s policeman is because there would otherwise be a vacancy. I don’t like it any more than the next person. But no policing means anarchy.

The Russians act as the dozy, corrupt sheriff who pretends he hasn’t seen the crimes committed by his friends in the local saloon bar. The Chinese are pretty distant from a lot of the issues, preoccupied with local territorial disputes, domestic politics, the management of their powerhouse economy and international trade relations. And without those two nations on board, the United Nations is completely bankrupt as an institution. Its Security Council is paralysed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes.

The only solution – as in Kosovo – is a coalition of the willing. But then we find that it’s actually a coalition of the dithering. The UK parliament vote was absolutely extraordinary. While it is perfectly legitimate for MPs to vote against military action and speak up for the concerns of their constituents, Cameron had already conceded that they were NOT voting on the question of military force. He made it easy for them to come out and say in principle that they held Assad accountable for his despicable actions. But they couldn’t even manage that. Cameron looks like a fool and, yes, Miliband looks just a little bit like the ‘copper-bottomed s**t’ they paint him. In the long run, I don’t think either man will gain from what has happened in the past week.

And now, the dithering is catching. Obama – looking for two or three days like a relatively decisive leader who’d stand on principle – has decided that he needs the backing of Congress before giving the order to his troops. There might be another week or ten days for Assad to plan his response to what is now the most telegraphed military operation in history.

Of course, Congress will ultimately back the President. But members will come under immense pressure in the meantime from their constituents, who don’t like the idea of the Syrian escapade one little bit. And the very fact that the whole thing notionally hangs in the balance makes Obama look like the weakest president on foreign policy in over 30 years. Jimmy Carter may be remembered for his terrible misjudgement over the Iranian hostage crisis. But at least he made a decision.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Crunch time for Labour

I first met Chris Bryant over twenty years ago, when he was working for the Labour Party in Camden, north London. As one of the officers in Frank Dobson’s constituency of Holborn & St Pancras, I remember being quite tickled at the idea we’d chosen to employ an ordained Church of England vicar to organise our campaigns.

Chris was always bright and ambitious. And although he has tripped up once or twice along the way, his rise within the Labour Party has been pretty steady over the years.

Until this week, of course.

One can only hope that the former curate still finds solace in prayer, as his performance as Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration has left the whole of the Labour Party in need of divine intervention.

In the course of 24 hours, he managed to convince corporations that Labour didn’t understand business and make liberal supporters of the party squirm as he seemed to appropriate the language of the right. At the same time, he confirmed to potential UKIP voters that the British left has nothing coherent to say on the subject of border control. It was a triple whammy of epic proportions.

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if Labour were doing better generally. But the runes cast in the past week or two look very ominous indeed. There’s been talk of Ed Miliband reshuffling his shadow cabinet again, which simply draws attention to his own inadequacies as a leader.

Meanwhile, the latest poll from ICM makes desperate reading. Between June and August, the percentage of the population agreeing that the Tories were best trusted to manage the economy has risen from 28% to 40%. Trust in Labour’s economic competence has risen too, but not by nearly as much. And from a much lower base. The Conservatives are, in fact, a full 16% ahead of Labour on this critical indicator.

Don’t be fooled by the headline figures which still put Labour marginally ahead of the Tories in voting intentions. I am prepared to say quite categorically that if Labour continues to lag so far behind the Tories on economic competence, there is no way they will win an election in 2015. Those with long memories will remember Neil Kinnock’s well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous, bids for power in 1987 and 1992. History repeats itself, although probably not quite in the way Karl Marx predicted. The farce was in the 1980s and the tragedy is staring Labour in the face right now.

How can it be that Labour finds itself in such a mess? The ConDem coalition is staggeringly out of touch, scarily ideological, largely incompetent and run by a cabinet of millionaires. Miliband should be making mincemeat of them, surely?

Complacency has been the ruination of Labour in the past three years. They thought that the Coalition would bury itself in the economic quagmire of austerity. And although unemployment didn’t rise quite as high as some analysts had predicted (largely due to phenomena such as an increase in part-time working and the adoption of controversial zero-hours contracts), most of the indicators embarrassed the Tories.

There was the double-dip recession, or at least the appearance of one. No lending from banks to small businesses. Lack of availability of mortgages. Inflation eroding people’s savings and placing extra pressure on families. All Labour needed to do was keep pointing this stuff out and wait for things to get steadily worse.

The problem is that we’ve reached the middle of 2013 and things aren’t getting steadily worse any more. We can’t pretend that everything in the garden is rosy, but most impartial observers agree that are genuine signs of recovery. Record export figures reported. The construction sector showing signs of a pick up. Not to mention that old chestnut of rising house prices. Apparently, they’re now increasing at a level not seen since the halcyon days of 2006.

Of course, the good news may not be sustained. Some of it is froth. God knows another housing bubble is the last thing we need. But there’s no doubting the political death knell that the figures sound for Labour.

Austerity has undoubtedly inhibited growth. My sense, however, is that the UK economy is resilient enough to have weathered the worst of it. The Eurozone – representing about half our export market – has also steadied itself more effectively than many people imagined. Labour cannot win the general election by relying on the Coalition being perceived as an economic failure. The question is whether the politicians who have pursued this mantra are able to find a new theme. Or whether they would have the confidence of the public even if they did.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Winning the arguments against British isolationism

Back in the 1980s, I seem to remember the Militant newspaper often quoting from the Financial Times. The thinking of the Trotskyist editors was that the title represented the authentic voice of the bosses. If you wanted to have a true insight into the devious and calculating minds of the capitalist enemy, you needed to read the FT.

David Cameron should try reading it too. The letters page has recently been full of people explaining why leaving the EU is a bad idea. The arguments are various. One contributor explains the damage that an exit would do to the UK’s non-EU exports. (That’s because we currently benefit from dozens of trade treaties, which we’d have to renegotiate single-handed. ) Another talks of the improbability of our being able to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with the EU when we exit. A third points out the madness of threatening Scotland with potential isolation outside the European bloc if it votes for independence, while planning for the whole UK to withdraw.

Of course, all this is just scratching the surface. But it’s indicative of the mood of folk who actually think about these things. People who tend to be significant executives or proprietors of major businesses, economists and so on.

Clearly, it’s not an auspicious time for politicians to embrace a pro-European line. The majority of the population is highly sceptical of the EU and the UK Independence Party is riding high in the polls. The Daily Express, grandma’s journalistic comfort blanket, is currently running a ‘crusade’ – not a campaign, a crusade – for British withdrawal. The problems with the EU are pretty easy to outline. The broader picture discussed by the readers of the FT is rather esoteric and technical in comparison.

It’s going to very difficult to avoid a referendum. The Labour Party can’t be seen to oppose a public vote on this vexed question. So how are the pro-European elements in the political and business world going to make their case? Surely they are heading for a catastrophic defeat?

I’m actually not so sure. Observing the recent debate, I see two lights shining at the end of the Channel Tunnel. The first concerns the personalities who are lining up to demand the UK’s exit from the EU. And the second is the self-defeating arguments they seem inclined to advance.

Notice how excited the Tory backbenchers became when they discovered that Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson had both declared themselves in favour of withdrawal. These ‘heavyweight’ endorsements were supposed to show that the bandwagon was on a roll. The reality, of course, is that these Tory grandees carry no weight with anyone apart from Eurosceptic Conservatives.

Those old enough to remember Baron Lawson of Blaby will recall that he presided over the late 80s bubble, which was followed by high inflation and rising interest rates. His personal position was constantly undermined by Margaret Thatcher’s retention of her own economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters. Baron Lamont of Lerwick has even less credibility, as he’s forever associated with the UK’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism during his own tenure as Chancellor under John Major.

The fact that Michael Gove and Philip Hammond are prepared to go part of the way to endorsing the former finance ministers is hardly cause for concern. Gove is another character whose beauty only exists in the eye of the geriatric beholders in the Tory shires. Defence Secretary Hammond is someone who looks as if he’s had his charisma bulldozed by a Challenger tank.

So far, so good. But we’ve also had a glimpse of the way in which this rather motley crew intends to frame its arguments. When Nigel Lawson made his intervention, one of his major points was that the European Union is far too restrictive and interventionist when it comes to the UK’s financial sector. ‘Hands off our bankers!’ he rails. Well, I think we know exactly how popular the banking community is since the debacle in 2008. The idea that people will be voting to leave the EU so that bankers are given free rein is so wildly off target that one wonders if Lawson is a secret agent for the pro-European cause.

There’s plenty of water to flow under the Bridge of Sighs before the UK votes whether it wants to distance itself from its continental partners. But those of us who understand and value the political and economic importance of European integration must make sure to present the anti-EU campaign for the high-risk, free-market strategy that it is.

Another piece of good news is that younger people are decidedly more pro-European than the older generations. In a recent Fabian Policy Report, sponsored by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Peter Kellner of YouGov shows data suggesting that 18-34 year-olds are noticeably more favourable to co-operation than the over 60s.

I say this is good news, but we know that the over 60s are probably much more likely to vote in a referendum. That’s why the pro-EU lobby must relentlessly target younger people and talk to them about the things that really matter to them. The ability to move and work freely across borders. The entrenchment of rights in the workplace. And, of course, the need for collective action to protect the environment.

Although it’s a game that some of us would rather not play, everything is now up for grabs. British isolationism would be so disastrous that the political stakes in the UK are now higher than at any time in 30 years. Let’s make sure we get it right.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Reflections on the Thatcher era

I sat through the extended BBC news bulletin on the death of Margaret Thatcher and can’t say I really learnt anything much I didn’t already know. One of the problems with such huge figures is that their lives have already been so analysed and picked over that there is nothing much left to say when they finally pop their clogs.

For me, the announcement of the Iron Lady’s demise actually provokes surprisingly little emotion. If I do feel anything, it’s probably at a personal, sentimental level. It’s about the people I knew and the places I visited as a left-wing teenage activist in the 1980s. Memories of a time in which in which Thatcher was dominant and omnipresent. A malign force which banded us together. There was a great camaraderie among activists involved in organisations such as CND and Anti-Apartheid, although on occasions it seemed like the camaraderie of the damned. Maggie really did go on and on and those years passed excruciatingly slowly.

The first demonstration I ever went on was against the war in the Falklands. A friend and I came back from Trafalgar Square clutching a placard, having listened to worthy speeches from the likes of Tony Benn and Dame Judith Hart, who’d been ministers under Harold Wilson. I remember the turn-out being pretty dismal and the fact that people were shouting the slogan “Falklands, Malvinas... they are Argentina’s!” Even as a 14-year-old, I realised this kind of pro-Argentinian posturing would get the campaign nowhere and I certainly didn’t join in. But I had been outraged by the jingoistic fervour stirred up by the tabloid press in favour of the war and was glad to be able to protest.

Within a year, I was actively involved in CND and took charge of running a street stall for the campaign in a south-western suburb of London. This involved stocking up on endless supplies of badges. If you didn’t wear a badge or two at that time, you weren’t a committed activist. I guess the modern-day equivalent is adding some kind of ribbon to your Twitter profile.

It’s important to remember what those years were actually like. People would literally spit at me in the street for selling those CND badges. 1983 was the year Peter Tatchell unsuccessfully fought a by-election in Bermondsey and was subjected to an outrageous campaign of intimidation and abuse, simply because he was gay and left-wing. In fact, the climate was poisonous. And by the time another year had rolled by, the miners were on strike.

My personal view is that this period was an epic low point for the UK. Probably the lowest point since the days of the Blitz. We were a nation in flux, caught between the stifling collectivism and union domination of the 60s and 70s and the brutal free-market philosophy of the new right. When these tectonic plates crashed against each other, all hell broke loose.

As Thatcher worked to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers, she simultaneously pursued a campaign to abolish the democratically elected Greater London Council. Although Ken Livingstone had a much better understanding of the way in which the world was changing than Arthur Scargill – and managed to fight a much more sophisticated campaign against Thatcher – he still ultimately lost the battle. Britain’s first woman Prime Minister seemed to be all-powerful. Perhaps even superhuman, given her remarkable ability to step out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton alive after the IRA bombed it in October 1984. (I was in Brighton a week later and saw the hole they blasted in that building. To this day, I find it hard to understand how she survived.)

And the conflict went on. Riots in 1985 on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and a number of other locations around the UK. The print dispute at Wapping a year later. I remember going down to the picket lines on a couple of occasions and pushing against lines of riot police in the dark. I think there was some vague idea of stopping ‘scab’ lorries driving in and out of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper plant, but it shows you just what a crazy time this really was. Here was a middle-class boy from the suburbs, travelling across London with fellow students from his further education college and risking getting hit over the head with a police baton in support of a completely doomed cause.

That was the 80s in a nutshell for me. Lots of very good, well-meaning people doing their best to stop the bad guys prevailing. But losing. Time after time after time.

It wasn’t until the late 80s that the tide started to turn for the left. There were two major issues on which they were more in tune with the public mood than Thatcher. The first – a warm-up, if you like, because it was international rather than domestic – was Apartheid. Thatcher’s support for the bankrupt racist regime in Pretoria ran counter to most people’s ideas of basic justice. There’s no doubt that popular campaigns to boycott companies which invested in the South African regime helped to play a part in its ultimate downfall. By the time Botha resigned in 1989 and De Klerk took over as leader, the writing was on the wall. Thatcher had invested a lot of time and political capital defending the indefensible. But she looked more and more isolated and out of touch on this key international issue as the years rolled on.

Then came the poll tax. Don’t be fooled when people tell you that Europe finally finished Thatcher. Europe was the rift that was starting to tear the Tory Party apart, but it was the popular anger surrounding her local government ‘community charge’ that really acted as the trigger for her downfall. It gave those people such as Heseltine, who opposed her views on Europe, an opportunity to attack. At last, the Iron Lady could be shown to be seriously out of touch. Someone who was no longer a winner, but a liability.

Perhaps one day I’ll be an old man and people will talk to me about the 80s as a period of long-distant history. My own memories will probably not be as sharp as they are today. But my over-riding image will, I think, be of a nation at war with itself. Driven apart by ideology and locked into a cycle of endless, unproductive battles.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how far Thatcher’s policies were necessary and inevitable. But the manner in which she pursued those policies was brutal. So when she’s given her ceremonial send-off, I won’t be yelling through a megaphone from the side of the street, but forgive me if I don’t get my flag out.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Welfare, Philpott and the dangers for Labour

I remember going on a media training course well over 20 years ago, run by a lady who was a hard-bitten Fleet Street hack of the old school. The kind of person who could type 40 wpm with two fingers, while chain-smoking Silk Cut. She started by explaining that there were only three things that qualified a story as news: sex, death and conflict. How salient her observation seems to be in the light of the extraordinary case of Mick Philpott – ‘Shameless Mick’ as he’s branded by The Daily Mail – whose conviction for the manslaughter has thrown up a generous helping of all her three criteria.

Philpott would have been big news at the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times in the UK. On the week his trial concluded, the government introduced cuts in welfare benefits which are going to leave a lot of people poorer. Amid the polarised debate, the trial set another sinister fire raging in pubs, workplaces and social networking sites. Just how far was Philpott’s lifestyle symptomatic of a wider malaise? To what extent was his life a morality tale which underlined the bankruptcy of the welfare state?

When George Osborne and David Cameron joined sections of the right-wing press in suggesting the Philpott case raised serious questions, the left reacted vehemently. They correctly pointed out that one violent, misogynistic man with 17 children is hardly typical of most welfare recipients. The vast majority of people on benefits and tax credits are everyday folk, who happen to be poorer than others. They are us. There but for the grace of God. If any one of us happens to lose our jobs or fall sick, we then become the ones reliant on support.

Actual levels of recorded benefit fraud are pretty low. And for every extreme example of someone milking the system, there will be countless examples of others playing by the rules.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Indeed, I’ve seen at first hand the wider effect of government austerity measures, as my wife – who works in the voluntary sector helping the elderly and people with disabilities – is currently in a dispute with her employer about the erosion of her terms and conditions of employment. It’s not only people on benefits who are suffering, but many of the lower-paid workers (often women) who are there to support them. They are victims of squeezed budgets, outsourced contracts, redundancies and wage cuts.

Where the left has to very careful is in being seen as a defender of the status quo. In other words, there’s a massive trap into which Eds Miliband and Balls might all too easily walk: saying that there is nothing wrong with the structure of the current benefits system, that no improvements can be made and that we can learn nothing from extreme cases. Owen Jones, for instance, who is one of the most visible and articulate defenders of the current system, has drawn an analogy with Harold Shipman. We don’t blame doctors as a whole for the crazy antics of one mass murderer, so why should we draw general conclusions about the welfare system from the state-subsidised life of one outlandish and terrible individual?

This sounds a superficially plausible argument, but once you start to pick it apart, it’s riddled with holes. The Shipman Inquiry made a number of recommendations for improvements in the light of the case. Better training for coroners. More control over access to controlled drugs by doctors and pharmacists. It even drew wider conclusions about the role of the General Medical Council and the way in which medics are overseen. It is possible to recognise that the vast majority of doctors are not like Harold Shipman while realising there was a system in place which had allowed Harold Shipman to exist. Perhaps we shouldn’t care about phone hacking? After all, it’s only the extreme actions of a few rogue tabloid journalists and it would be wrong to tar anyone else with the same brush? It’s an argument which goes absolutely nowhere intellectually.

God knows Philpott’s motives for having so many kids. (Or – given his reported personal hygiene habits – the willingness of so many different women to accommodate his desires.) Some people have speculated it was about controlling further the women whose lives he dominated and although I’m not a psychologist, that seems pretty plausible. Perhaps his motives were not – as the right-wing press likes to suggests – to bring in more money. But the left cannot shy away from the fact that more money did flow into the household with every child. And given the man’s violent history and conviction for attempted murder, doesn’t society have a right to draw the line somewhere?

Owen Jones says there are fewer than 200 families in the system like this. But this is a little disingenuous. He’s taking 10 children as the benchmark. There are actually 40,000 families in receipt of benefits who have over five kids. So is it a taboo subject to ask whether the state should support people so far, but no further?

This is the profound danger for the left. Dismissing every question as an attack on the welfare state or part of some right-wing ideological agenda. Of course, the Coalition government is ideological. They do intend to do real harm to the poorest in society, while disgracefully supporting tax cuts for the super rich, including members of the Cabinet. We should feel rightly angry about this. But anger alone and defence of the status quo will lead to disaster, just as surely as it did in the Thatcher era.

I spent the whole of the 1980s marching for causes that failed to resonate with the majority of the population. Meanwhile, the Conservatives won large majorities in the 1983 and the 1987 elections. It was only when the left was better in tune with the views of the public that it managed to score victories. Apartheid was one example. Perhaps the most obvious one though was the poll tax, which led to Thatcher’s downfall. She misjudged the public mood very badly and paid the price.

Are politicians there to lead or to follow? The truth is they need to do both. This is what makes politics such a difficult balancing act. Labour can lead the debate on welfare and help to defend the most vulnerable in society. But not if it fails to recognise where most ordinary people are right now. Not if it fails to read the polls which show support for the welfare state in steady decline since the early 1990s. It can only succeed if it creates its own positive vision for change that resonates more strongly with the electorate. At the moment, there is no sign of this happening. And that’s the worst possible news for the people who rely on the welfare state the most.