Thursday, 13 November 2014

People will like Ed's policies. But they're looking for something more.

Most of us go through life trying to reconcile the rational part of our brain with our emotional gut instinct. You know you really should go for that run, but something tells you that it’s going to be very cold and unpleasant out there tonight and it just isn’t going to happen.

Ed Miliband really should be the next Prime Minister.All the electoral arithmetic is in his favour because of the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system and the concentration of his traditional voters in towns and cities. He can actually win an outright majority with a lower share of the popular vote than you might imagine. Probably somewhere in the mid-30s. Not too much of an ask after five years of austerity, you might think.

Ed has come up with a decent set of policy proposals too. In his speech and subsequent emails today, he outlines plans to reverse the Tory tax cuts for millionaires, to freeze electricity bills, reform the banks and raise the minimum wage. Amen to all that.

But there’s a problem.Although he is set to win on paper. many people don't feel it in their water. This includes, of course, three quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is why we’ve had such a dose of the pre-election heebie-jeebies over the past 10 days.

Sometimes, the whole can be less than the sum of its parts. Ed Miliband is the guy who ticks all the boxes when you present him as a future boyfriend. He has a steady job, no criminal convictions, minds his Ps and Qs and seems very respectable. But your mum thinks you can do better. It’s not that she can fault him on any specifics. It’s just that he’s lacking a certain something and she isn’t able to put her finger on it.

Politics is absolutely brutal like this. Miliband is a decent man with worthy motives, but when he says he sees a Prime Minister staring back at him in the mirror, some cynics may start to wonder whether pressure of work has delayed his annual check-up with the optician.

There’s a story being spun by his minders right now, which goes something like this: Ed is the victim of a concerted smear campaign because he is challenging vested interests. Here’s a man who threatened the media with regulation, told the energy companies they’d have to freeze their prices and that he’d crack down on banking excesses. No wonder, his supporters say, he’s become a scapegoat.

In pursuing this argument, Ed’s supporters are in danger of treating the electorate as fools. While I’m not naive enough to think that these vested interests are praying for a Labour victory, I don’t for one moment believe they see Miliband as the slightest threat.

Take the freezing of energy prices for 18 months, for instance. Some big players in the sector have already adjusted their charges to take account of the possible imposition of a new regime. And they are so profitable that they can happily wait until 2017 for another price hike. The proposed regulation of the press after Leveson failed to materialise and I don’t for one moment think that Labour would prioritise this after a victory in 2015.

Think back to 1997. Tony Blair won the support of the media and the wider business establishment despite pledging a windfall tax on the ‘excess profits of the privatised utilities’. Funny how he could tackle vested interests and win a landslide victory, isn’t it? 

Looking back at the manifesto of 1997 though, one of the most striking things about it is actually the positive feel of all the pledges and policies. It was highly aspirational in a motherhood and apple pie kind of way. Contrast this with the first four promises on my email from Miliband today, which are to ‘scrap, scrap, scrap and reverse’ things that the Tories have done.

Ed is still too much speaking to the core Labour supporter who hates everything the coalition stands for. Sadly, it’s the strategy that brought defeat to Labour in the 1980s rather than the strategy which brought them victory in the 1990s. So while my rational brain keeps telling me that common sense will prevail and the maths will work itself out, a butterfly menagerie is busily flapping away in my stomach.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Another coalition of the willing? It's probably the only way to stop IS.

In the world of realpolitik, your enemy’s enemy is, of course, your friend.

Funny to think that we’re now best of buddies with President Assad in Syria, because his murderous regime – although reprehensible – has decided to get stuck into the fight against the self-styled Islamic State. We hate these fundamentalists more than we hate the smartly-dressed Syrian strongman, although ironically the growth of ISIS was actually fuelled by our lack of willingness to support the more legitimate opposition to Assad’s authoritarian regime.

If you’re confused, it’s not really that surprising. The shifts of allegiance in the turbulent landscape of 2014 have all the hallmarks of an Orwellian dystopia. One day, Oceania is at war with Eurasia. The next, it’s in alliance with Eurasia to defeat Eastasia.

Politicians such as David Cameron are not really cut out for the international challenges faced by the UK in 2014. The British Prime Minister's politics are shaped by the bluster that comes with privilege and are completely lacking in substance. Platitudes on the economy and immigration are one thing. But when it comes to major international threats, he seems very lightweight in comparison with his immediate predecessors.

President Obama has more of an idea of the threats and a better sense of what is needed to tackle them, but is caught in an impossible situation. The American public’s appetite for military intervention is understandably at rock bottom and he’s forced to couch any justification for action in terms of US national interests. When he first authorised airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, it was ostensibly to protect American diplomats in the city of Irbil. Stopping the genocide of the Yazidis was presented as a nice bonus.

The barbaric execution of US journalist James Foley might possibly be a game changer, but there are many limitations on what we can reasonably expect Obama to do. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if Islamic State could be turned back by the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters? We can pretend that all they need are some American and European arms and a few token airstrikes, but any gains will be short-lived. Islamic State will continue to expand to fill the vacuum that exists in Iraq and capitalise on the chaos that prevails in Syria. As they gain in confidence, they will try to destabilise Lebanon and Jordan.

It could be argued that there was only one bigger mistake than sending British and American troops into Iraq in 2003 and that was to take them away. The sectarian Shiite leadership in Baghdad has been hopelessly incompetent and managed through its deliberate actions to alienate large sections of the Sunni population. It’s this discontent which acts as oxygen for Islamic State as it charges through the region.

IS will not be stopped until it is confronted by a superior military force. There are really only three candidates.

The first is Iran, which will probably act if it looks as if the whole of Iraq is under threat and Shiite holy sites are being destroyed. The sectarian conflict which might ensue would be disastrous.

The second is Israel. Although preoccupied by its bloody conflict with the Sunni militants of Hamas in Gaza (and the latent threat of the Iranian-backed Shiites in Lebanon’s Hezbollah), Israel is well aware of the potential dangers posed by ISIS. The long-term objective of the most fanatical supporters of the ‘Caliphate’ is, after all, to head to Jerusalem. I doubt very much that Israel will act until such time as they perceive a very direct threat, but they will be watching developments closely.

The third option is a coalition of the willing, ideally under the auspices of the United Nations. In most instances, it’s very difficult to imagine any unanimity among the permanent members of the Security Council. Relations with Russia are at an all-time low because of the situation in Ukraine. But the fanaticism of Islamic State is anathema to Moscow, which has had its own issues with Islamic fundamentalism. China has faced terrorism from alienated Muslim minorities and, perhaps more significantly, has extensive economic interests in the Middle East and Africa.

Could it be that the threat posed by Islamic State is the one thing on which all the major powers might actually agree? It's possible that with time, people will come together. But time is the one thing we probably lack.