Saturday, 21 July 2012

Cosmetic coalition

When Gordon Brown was 'squatting' in Downing St. after the 2010 general election, like some paler, plumper Julius Caesar at the gates of Rome, David Cameron's very own Mark Antony, George Osborne, was busy blending a heady mix of the Liberal manifesto, champagne and a huge dose of cronyism, into a coalition smoothy. Except, the outcome hasn't actually been that smooth, has it?

From the start the coalition has suffered from a major problem with its composition, even before the seed of a policy has so much as germinated in the mind of some bespectacled technocrat in Whitehall. The top of government is simply too Tory heavy. The key cabinet posts - Chancellor (Osborne), Home Secretary (May), Foreign Secretary (Hague) - are all taken up by Tories, who also happen to be key Cameron allies. Similar is the story with the Education Secretary (Gove) and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Duncan-Smith).

During the coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats succeeded in getting their people in to almost every department of government, and to their credit, and the annoyance of traditional Tory supporters, they have been winning small and medium policy battles across government ever since. However, the problem is these efforts go largely unnoticed and Tory heads are taking credit for Lib Dem leg-work.

You're surrounded: Mr. Cameron should change his top team

At present, whilst senior Liberal Democrats and their policy boffins slap 'high-fives' and wax lyrical in their cliches about their policy victories, voters remain utterly oblivious to such inner-workings of government. The simple lesson for any minor coalition partner is to opt for 'depth' over 'breadth' with ministerial posts.

Nick Clegg is an anomaly, the role of Deputy Prime Minister may seem grand, but in truth he occupies a redundant and almost powerless office, and with his credibility pitifully low, he is one Liberal Democrat the country needs to see less of, not more.

House of Lords reform, Mr. Clegg's marquee legislation, and the change that he feels will see him looked favourably upon in the history books, is ill-thought through, will almost certainly be talked-out by the Commons, and the speech delivered by Mr. Clegg to champion the change was weak and strikingly naive for a self-confessed 'political obsessive'.

Furthermore, it is a subject that the public find mind-boggling, exhausting and plain boring. Should the legislation fail, which it is doomed to do, Mr. Clegg would be left critically damaged, without a purpose and vulnerable to a rival challenge. One would wonder how hard he would resist after an exhausting and embarrassing time in government.

As much as the endless re-shuffles of the Blair years are to be discouraged, the present government is tired, disliked and the deck is in need of a slight shuffle if it is to operate more effectively.

Furthermore, if Mr. Cameron is to appease the Liberal Democrats fears of a wipe-out at the next general election, which will only intensify as the election grows closer, he must lift the Liberal Democrats out of their consistent single figure opinion poll ratings, as much as it may feel counter-productive to help improve the fortunes of a rival party. The simplest way to do this is to promote several Liberal Democrats to key cabinet positions.

Vince Cable is one obvious contender, who opts to remain largely silent in the coalition at present, as is the impressive Tim Farron, who is so disappointingly wasted in the anonymous role as President of the Liberal Democrats. There is some disquiet on the Tory backbenches regarding George Osborne's position as Chancellor but Mr. Cameron will not be so bold as to remove his friend and ally to make way for Mr. Cable. Candidates for the chop are more likely to include the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke or perhaps Home Secretary Theresa May.

Mr. Cameron has though, been determined to avoid re-shuffles thus far during his time in office and his position is unlikely to change. Sadly, the government is therefore doomed to 'succeed' in its current form.

With the aid of the ludicrous Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the government can rest easy in the knowledge that it could limp on until 2015 regardless. David Cameron will still be leader of the Conservative Party, Nick Clegg will still 'lead' the Liberals in his own uniquely hopeless style, and otherwise sensible people will, almost inconceivably, return hundreds of the most unimpressive individuals to parliament on election day 2015.

It would be hopelessly optimistic to think these slavishly obedient MPs will force Mr. Cameron's hand and cause enough trouble to make a re-shuffle inevitable.


Small wonder Mr. Cameron has been keeping in contact with Mr. Blair lately. I wrote recently how there seemed to be a lack of 'spin' or 'image management' on part of the Tories, and how they're convinced their problem is with 'communicating with the public'. Here lies the problem, politics is just a game to governments these days, about tactics, maneuvering the opposition and conning the public. Perish the thought that the problem might just be their disastrous policies.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

My kind of politicians

Does anyone remember the jackpot game at the end of Michael Barrymore's late 90's / early 00's show My Kind of Music? Where contestants had to work out a musical family based on some clues? I like to play it with politicians. Michael Smith's My Kind of Politicians (it doesn't mean I actually like them, by the way) Politicians = guff.

Rt Hon Cheryl Elise Kendall Gillan MP, 
Secretary of State for Wales
(Mother) AKA Baroness Basset

Rt Hon George Gideon Oliver Osborne
Massacre of the Exchequer


Mummy's girl - (Daughter)


BJ at your service - Mayor of London (Son)

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Anti-establishment rhetoric earns Galloway a place at the establishment

Galloway exposes Labour weakness in northern England

With respect to matters such as the budget or notable by-election results, and particularly when a politician uses the word 'historic' as George Galloway did in his victory speech at Bradford West, I always find it best to let the dust settle before moving in to conduct a post-mortem. Rushing in amid heady celebrations and hysteria can only result in inaccurate reporting and, if you care about the content you put out, a deep feeling of embarrassment about those errors later, however small the audience may be.

Saying that, I could have started writing this article before the ballot boxes were delivered to Bradford West because I knew Mr. Galloway was going to win, and I have the betting slip to prove it. Ladbrokes, not best known for their political nous, report that they will be digging over £100,000 out of their deep pockets to reward the punters who saw odds of 6-1 for a George Galloway victory as uncharacteristically generous.

Sadly, and as is far too often the case, I should have bet more on the outcome.

Still, I'll be collecting my £18 from the bookies later on, whilst hoping the woman working behind the counter doesn't think I'm too sad or weird for betting on politics instead of the horses or football.

The result was certainly more comprehensive than I had expected, with Mr. Galloway taking 56% of all votes cast - quite different from his assertion that 'half the people of Bradford West' had voted for him, but it was a substantial victory nonetheless.

However, this was not the 'historic' success that George Galloway and the media have hailed it. Mr. Galloway's belief that his victory is a signal of an impending meltdown of the main Westminster parties nationwide is nothing more than wishful thinking. We've heard this sort of heady rhetoric throughout political history, but sadly the big parties have always triumphed in the end. 

Labour may have dropped 20% of their previous vote at Bradford West, but during the infamous, and now slightly ironic Bermondsey by-election of 1983, Simon Hughes, who has since been outed as bi-sexual, made much of Peter Tatchell's homosexuality, and Labour lost almost 40% of their vote from the ballet in the 1979 general election - this was a much more surprising and damaging loss than Bradford West will prove to be.

More similar to Galloway's triumph was the Lincoln by-election of 1973, when Dick Taverne stood down as the constituency's Labour MP only to re-elected as the Democratic Labour MP. Taverne's individual triumph over the party machine caused panic in the Labour Party and was greeted with similar hysteria by the press. Less than 18 months later however there was another shock as Labour re-gained the seat with relative ease.

Whilst by-elections are notoriously skewed when it comes to judging the overall political climate, we can say with some confidence that Labour are becoming increasingly vulnerable in the north of England. The reasons are many and complicated, but If the party are to make a swift return in Bradford West much will need to change, and quickly.

For many voters in constituencies throughout the north of England, voting Labour is based on an out-dated, shorthand assumption that the Labour Party represent working-class people. In safe Labour seats, where opponents put up little resistance, many northerners are given little alternative but to vote Labour, anything else, they are told, could 'contribute towards a victory for the Tories'. 

This is beginning to change, however. The north, like Scotland before it, is slowly turning its back on what is perceived as an increasingly out-of-touch Labour party dominated by upper-class technocrats like Ed Miliband who don't care about, or understand, the north of England. Where there is strong competition from a candidate like George Galloway, Labour will begin to see the loyalty of northern voters shifting. 

Mr. Galloway is an adaptable and skillful orator, capable of poking the sores of any given voter. In a constituency like Bradford West, which has been hit disproportionately by the Tory spending cuts and benefited little when Labour were in office, it only takes a small dose of Mr. Galloway's anti-establishment rhetoric to rouse an already disillusioned public. 

Mundane: Miliband has failed to connect in the north
On reflection, it was obvious that the pregnant conditions needed for a result like this existed in abundance in Bradford.

Firstly, it is important to stress how woefully inept the tactics of Mr. Galloway's opposition were. The Tories were barely seen out on the streets, despite having a fully staffed office in Yorkshire. Labour's appalling pro-war record was exposed in a constituency with a high percentage of Muslim constituents. As was their tired, complacent assumptions about how to campaign to voters in the north of England. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile, seem to be in free-fall throughout the entire country.

Secondly, the mundane candidates offered up by the big political parties played straight into the hands of Mr. Galloway, whose impassioned, wholehearted rhetoric in the causes he chooses to champion is a noticeable break from the shackles of party politics. His in-exhaustive fund of enthusiasm, dynamism as a public speaker and a knack of rattling the political cage are capable of galvanising any audience. As much as his ideologies are questionable, he believes in his arguments, and voters can sense that sort of genuine agenda that traditional party politicians so often lack.

Galloway was able to use all his skill and cleverness in evading being corrupted by the views that he shares with his nasty, little party, Respect, as well as avoiding tricky issues such as his second home in the Algarve and his gleeful support for some of the most abhorrent regimes in the Middle-East. Much of that however, was the fault of Labour, whose appallingly targeted campaign leaflets (which I have seen), predominantly concentrated on attacking the Tories, who were never going to win anyway - their vote dropped to just 8%, after hovering between 30 - 40% for over 40 years.

Also crucial to this tale was the constituency of Bradford West itself, which has one of the most unpredictable recent electoral histories of any UK constituency. In 1979, they rejected Mrs. Thatcher and swung towards Labour, during the election of New Labour's first landslide in 1997 they swung towards the Tories, and then in 2010 the seat was one of handful where Labour increased their majority.

Like the initial win for Stuart Drummond in 2002, who was elevated to the office of Hartlepool mayor after campaigning as the town's football mascot, H'angus the monkey, this was the right man (or monkey) in the right place, at the right time. The next trick for Mr. Galloway is to follow Drummond, who has now won 3 elections, and compile successive victories.

His big test will be the 2015 general election when a big draw for Bradford West voters will be Labour's assertion that only a vote for them can displace the Tories and 'stop the cuts'. Until then, Labour have little to offer those who live in the north of England. 

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Are we entering a 'post-spin' environment or is Mr. Cameron simply out-of-touch?

Since 1997, Britons have been living in a post truth environment. We have become accustomed to politicians no longer speaking frankly or honestly, instead, day in, day out, we see realities manipulated, utterances carefully constructed, and the desired political narratives created.

It is important to first note that all governments have told lies and massaged the truth, 
John Major's 1992 administration contained liars such as Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitkin, not to mention the worst of them all, the compulsive liar, Jeffrey Archer, who lied about practically anything and everything. Before that, Margaret Thatcher lied about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War as well as during the bungled Westland affair of 1986. And the lies of Ted Heath, the most useless of all modern prime ministers, seriously mislead Britain ahead of joining the EEC in 1973. 

However, under Mr. Blair, New Labour elevated spin, media management and 'being economical with the truth' to almost an art-form. Being able to untangle Labour's thick web of spin became a basic necessity if one wished to get anywhere near the truth of a story. 

Writing in The Times in 1987, Mr. Blair, showcasing his party's obsession with press bias, gave rise to the bizarre sort of moral logic that he and his party might have used to justify the unprecedented amount of lies they would go on to tell the public. "The truth becomes almost impossible to communicate because total frankness, relayed in the shorthand of the mass media becomes simply a weapon in the hands of opponents." 

Many, including myself, thought Mr. Blair's murky approach to 'the truth' would leave Downing St. along with him in 2007. Yet, the Brown years were spoiled by the type of damaging gimmicks, smears and spin that the public had grown suspicious, vigilant and guarded against after a decade of Mr. Blair. 

As George W. Bush said (or attempted to say once) 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me' 

Ironically, it has been left to the self-confessed 'Heir to Blair', Mr. Cameron, to do away with Mr. Blair's murky approach to the truth. Albeit, by default. 

Since taking office, the coalition governments attempts at selling policy to the public have been most un-Blair like, and, at times, almost embarrassing. Given their reputation as PR-savvy operators, team Cameron's use of spin and sympathetic contacts in the press have been surprisingly lacking.

Policies such as the housing benefit cap, the NHS reforms, the cut in the top rate of income tax, as well the previous u-turns on the scrapping of free school milk, the privatisation of the UK's forests, the free books for kids scheme, and the cuts to child benefit are all questionable policies that have not been aided by their rather patchy presentation. 

Similarly, the government's bungling over the potential strikes by fuel drivers today has exposed a lack of forethought about the consequences of their statements. First, drivers were told to fill up their cars, next they were told to fill up and keep spare petrol in 'jerrycans' (which have rocketed in sales) and finally, after causing absolute chaos on petrol forecourts, the government said only drivers with less than a half full tank needed to fill up, 

Is this an indicator that the government simply doesn't care about 'spinning' policy or carefully  constructing their statements? Or is Mr. Cameron simply losing his grasp of what is likely to cause a political storm?

As if it wasn't insult enough to the families of two dead British servicemen that their loved ones were sent to their deaths earlier this week for a futile and utterly pointless cause in Afghanistan, it now emerges that the British government couldn't even bring themselves to wait until the tributes to the brave men were paid before they announced their intention to set-up a British military training academy in Qarga, west of Kabul, next year - a camp where more British men and women will suffer the same fate as the two soldiers this week and be shot in the back by the very people they are training. 

Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond counters by saying attacks of these sorts are 'few and far between' - an insulting response, given that these attacks should not be happening at all. Data shows that 1 in 7 attacks on NATO forces are now carried out by these despicable traitors.

If this academy is to go ahead, and doubtless it will, at the cost of more lives and despite military redundancies for our own soldiers, then better background checks must be performed to ensure the Afghan soldiers that our troops share dorms and weapons with are not the enemy within. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

Time to talk to the tyrants

The rigid foreign policy of the United States is keeping the North Korean regime in power and the North Korean people poor and hungry

History teaches us that, eventually, all Communist dictatorships yield to the pressure of the outside world. Robert Guest's brilliant book Borderless Economics demonstrated how the mighty power of globalisation, continued advancement of technology, and the free movement of people, now make it near impossible for communist despots to keep their subjects ignorant of a free and prosperous world beyond their borders.

The best have tried and failed to create the kind of will-breaking, all powerful State that George Orwell chillingly portrayed in Nineteen eighty-four. Mao’s China, Ferdinand Marcos’ despicable rule in the Philippines and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin were all regimes that tried relentlessly to suffocate their subjects of anything outside State approval.

None though, have come closer to succeeding than the ongoing regime in North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the second beneficiary of the country’s unique Marxist-Leninist style hereditary monarchy, has said numerous times already that the oppressive policies of his father and grandfather will continue under his own leadership.

Predictably, and as the North Korean hierarchy no doubt anticipated, his ascension to leader sent the world’s media into further frenzy about the intentions of a ‘dangerous and volatile nuclear State.’

Yet the truth about this tiny, bankrupt country, run by the so-called ‘first family’ like their own private estate, could not be any more different. For all their noisy riff raff, this is an administration that poses more of a threat to its own starving and neglected people than it does to other parts of the world.

The staged processions of soldiers uniformly marching as far as the eye can see, the suspect claims of advanced nuclear technology and the power of a ‘million-strong’ military are all shown to be hollow when the surface is scratched a little.

With this in mind, why is it that the United States continues to bite?

The Obama administration, which has made no progress from its predecessor in dealing with foreign despots, suggested in November that "If they [North Korea] choose to fulfil their international obligations and commitments to the international community, they will have the chance to offer their people lives of growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty"

Seeing red: Mr. Obama on the border of North Korea
Mr. Obama was at it again today, peering across the border from behind bulletproof glass in no-man's-land between North and South Korea, he suggested food aid would be immediately cut if North Korea go ahead with their apparent plans to test a long range missile.

Bizarrely, the United States continues to advocate this unimaginative, one dimensional foreign policy that only serves to aid the cause of the North Korean command. George W. Bush's rather 'cut-and-dry', one size fits all foreign policy should have been ditched by the Obama administration some time ago, yet, the truth of the matter is that they have enthusiastically embraced Mr. Bush's failed model that, in this case, does nothing but ensure North Koreans remain poor, hungry and, crucially, in the fight for a democratic future, more vulnerable to their government’s continuous dose of anti-American propaganda.

The North Korean hierarchy’s survival is almost wholly dependent on the continuation of American hostilities. Without the United States who could the regime tell their people are to blame for their empty bellies and empty pockets? Who would they blame for the need to spend more than a quarter of all GDP on the military to ‘protect’ their people and stand up to the Americans?

Until the United States ends its belligerent rhetoric and obsession with North Korea’s modest weapons program the last bastion of communism will continue to struggle on, and millions of starving North Koreans will pay the price with their lives. The United States must use the opportunity afforded to them by the death of Kim Jong-il and begin to work closely with a still new, inexperienced leader in Kim Jong-un. Would he be willing to give up power with a guaranteed quiet exit before the entrapments of power stain his hands with blood? It’s not unreasonable to think so, given what he will have seen happen to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

However, the North Korean regime should know that it has nothing to fear from the United States, who are morally and financially bankrupt and would be incapable of carrying their battle beaten.

What the North Korean hierarchy fear most is the emancipation of the hearts and minds of their people. They are afraid of them knowing that, beyond the high walls of ‘the fatherland’, exists a land of greater liberty and prosperity. The regime will be aware of the Eastern Europeans of the 1980’s who knew of this land and forced down the Berlin Wall to embrace it.

It is time for the United States to discuss a deal with North Korea whereby food and energy aid, as well as a guarantee to respect North Korea’s sovereignty and allay the regimes fear of being swallowed up by China, could be exchanged for a steady opening up of the country to foreign aid workers, greater press freedom and the transition to a multi-party state. The previous policy against negotiating with ‘rogue’ states has shown to only harm the innocent civilians of those countries and must be reversed. The lives of millions of North Koreans depend on it.

This morning, I heard a surprisingly weak and misguided argument from the chief economist at CentreForum, Tim Leunig, who told me last week's budget was the sole intellectual property of Chancellor George Osborne. This was a 'Tory budget from a Tory Chancellor', he declared.

Osborne was careful not to rock the boat
The thing is, he's completely wrong. Even the most basic outline of the budget should allow for anyone to see that this budget is Liberal Democrat authored.

The reduction in the tax free allowance for pensioners will create State dependency, the lowering of the 40p threshold hits middle England, the quiet disappearance of the Tory idea of 'enterprise zones' has gone unnoticed, and what about taking over the liabilities of the Royal Mail? Since when was nationalisation a Tory policy?

Most bizarrely, given he is a historian who has written on railways, Mr. Leunig also failed to notice the expensive upgrade afforded to the railway between Manchester and Sheffield, the latter being Nick Clegg's personal constituency, and both being cities where there is not a single Tory MP.

This budget is splashed with yellow, Liberal Democrat yellow, and equally, that of the yellow-bellied Tory front-bench, too cowardly to write their own budget for fear of rocking the foundations of the coalition.

And another thing, Mr Cameron...