What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

June 28, 2006

A last post (for a few days)

No more blogging for a week - I'm off to re-charge my batteries west of the Tamar in good Lib Dem territory.

But I shall have my ear glued to the radio late Thursday night for news from the electoral B&B of Blaenau and Bromley.

Is Cameron bovvered? Yes, apparently

The luminous Simon Hoggart clearly struck home last week when he chided David Cameron for his old-school comedy references:

He declared that the prime minister was wobbling over the new EU constitution, which his own representative on the committee had said was "dead, deceased and no more".

"The government is starting to sound like a Monty Python sketch - so it is time to say, 'now for something completely different'."

Why do politicians always use such whiskery pop culture references? Monty Python was 30-odd years ago. Mr Cameron may need classes in modern televisual references, eg: "Am I bovvered? Does my face look bovvered?" It would give him a tiny bit more cred.

Today he rather tangentially accused Mr Blair of being the "David Brent of Downing Street". No, I didn't get it either. Perhaps the old jokes really are the best.

Shocked and floored

According to thegrauniad, Margaret Becket was more than a little taken aback by Tony Blair's decision to promote the former Tribune and CND supporter, and one-time left-wing firebrand, to the lofty position of Foreign Secretary:

'Fuck, I'm stunned,' new foreign secretary told Blair

Just imagine what the rest of us thought, Margaret.

Beyond Their Ken

Ken Clarke was, of course, the putative Tory leader the Lib Dems really feared; and he proved exactly why again today:

Former Conservative Chancellor Ken Clarke has said David Cameron's plans for a British Bill of Rights are "xenophobic and legal nonsense".

Mr Clarke said the Tory leader would find it difficult to find lawyers who would agree with his plan to replace the Human Rights Act with the new Bill. ... He said he was not saying Mr Cameron hated foreigners. But he argued: "His remarks were anti-foreigner." ...

The Human Rights Act has come under fire in some newspapers, who believe it has put the rights of criminals above those of victims of crime. But Mr Clarke said: "In these home affairs things I think occasionally it's the duty of politicians on both sides to turn round to the tabloids and right-wing newspapers and say 'you have your facts wrong and you're whipping up facts which are inaccurate'."

Nothing wrong with advocating a Bill of Rights - as others have already noted this has long been Lib Dem policy. It's just a shame Mr Cameron is doing so with a dog-whistle clamped firmly to his mouth.

June 27, 2006

Clarke's shoes are made for walking

What is perhaps most damaging about Charles Clarke’s “get angry, get even” attack on his successor as Home Secretary, John Reid, is the way the Labour Government appears now to be wholly fixated on bickering amongst themselves.

It’s pretty much a given that, after a long-ish period in government, any party would struggle to appear always be listening to us, the public. But it would be nice if they could at least talk to us, rather than constantly squabbling about who had the car keys last, or whose turn it is to change the nappy.

Charles Clarke was, of course, wrong to cling to office following the row about foreign prisoners not being considered for deportation on release. He should have announced his exit when his department’s systemic failures became apparent. Had he done so, he would have left with his honour and reputation enhanced. Instead his blast at John Reid - whose über-macho style of attack dog politics will surely be his deserved undoing - comes across as the sulky revenge of yesterday’s man.

This episode spotlights two other issues.

First, Tony Blair’s appalling performance management of his own Government. His reshuffles have all-bar-none descended into farce and chaos: whether abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor without consultation, or the Orwellian re-naming of the DTI as the Department for Productivity.

Let’s remember: Charles Clarke and John Reid are (or were) among the most ardent Blairites in the Cabinet, heavyweight checks to Gordon Brown’s supremacy. To set those two at loggerheads by displacing Mr Clarke in favour of Mr Reid displays Mr Blair’s remarkable reverse Midas personnel touch.

But the second, perhaps more fascinating question is this: why did Mr Clarke pull his punch? Why did he not ‘do a Geoffrey Howe’, and stick the knife firmly into Mr Blair’s back? Indeed, why has the Cabinet not yet staged a coup? After all, there surely cannot be anyone in the Labour Party who now believes Mr Blair is capable of renewing his Government? So what are they waiting for?

The Labour cabinet knows what they are waiting for: a Gordon Brown premiership - and that is why many of them are quite happy to keep waiting. For if Mr Blair’s style of management has too often gone awol, Mr Brown’s never even signed up for duty. Obsessive, brooding and secretive, Mr Brown has rarely troubled to spare his colleagues' feelings.

That those who know the Chancellor best, those who work with him daily, are lukewarm about his accession to the Top Job is a warning to us all. Most of all, it’s a warning to Gordon Brown.

June 25, 2006

Why choice in education works

It’s probably because I went to a single-sex school (for boys, I hasten to add) that I am utterly opposed to single-sex education.

Nothing seems so guaranteed to perpetuate the sex war than to separate boys and girls during their most formative years, only to re-unite them once their ideas about social interaction are firmly fixed. All kids deserve an all-round education that prepares them for their life to come. How some kind of perverse Platonic experiment in social engineering is designed to achieve that has never been clear to me.

Two weeks ago, St Hilda’s - Oxford University’s last single-sex college - finally bowed to the inevitable, and agreed to admit male tutors and students through its doors. Why? Certainly Oxford’s recruitment policies (unlike those of Cambridge) made it more difficult for St Hilda’s to attract high-calibre staff, especially in the sciences. But it was also, and more importantly, because fewer and fewer female Oxford applicants were choosing St Hilda’s as their preferred college. Today’s young women simply do not see why they should need to be segregated from the boys to be able to get on in life.

I work for St Anne’s College, one of the first of the women’s colleges to elect to go mixed, a generation ago, in 1978. Highly controversial at the time, there are still a handful of alumnae (albeit a diminishing number) who have never quite forgiven the College. Yet those with daughters now about to apply to Oxford, are often struck by the bemused indifference with which the prospect of ending up at an all-women college is regarded. The sex-war is by no means over, but sex apartheid is no longer seen to be the relevant battleground.

And with good reason. The single most important educational inequality today - and one which hits boys and girls alike - is social inequality: that is what is most likely to determine success or failure at school.

This is one of the conclusions which appears to have been reached by Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, who was commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses' Conference to investigate the world-wide effects of single-sex education on pupils’ attainments. The findings have today been published in The Observer:
“The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables,” said Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research. “But they are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils.” Their success should not be used to argue it is better to separate girls and boys in other settings, he added. Smithers said headteachers made “exaggerated claims” about the benefits of girl-only schools because they were under threat.
Crucial to the success of single-sex schools - whether for boys or girls - is the active engagement of parents in choosing where their child will be educated. Those parents who seek out a school for their child, for whatever reason - whether for religious, sex, ethos or curriculum reasons - are likely to be more motivated to see their child achieve.

The logic is clear. We need a range of schools which cater for the individual and various needs of children so that parents and children, together, can choose the school which best fits their aspirations. Though all schools should deliver the teaching needed for core literacy and numeracy, each school should be able to specialise, to develop ways to add value to the wider experience of its pupils.

Yes, every child should have access to a good local school. But we should recognise that for many children and their parents that is simply not enough any more. Parents want greater choice. And the evidence is that when they have that choice their children perform better.

The divine Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy - the popular musical beat combo, not Dante Alighieri's epic poem, m'lud - divide music fans and critics alike.

Those who cannot stand them find their lyrics poncy, archly knowing, just too damn clever-by-half; and their music a retro-pastiche melding Scott Walker, the Beach Boys and Debussy. All of which means that those of us who love them can happily agree with those who don't.

Neil Hannon is the Divine Comedy, its musical auteur. His love of language, widely read gawkiness, and raunchy politeness, are never far from the surface. Here's a typical DivCom lyric, exemplifying his fey, punning, lustily aching soulfulness:

I cannot remember
The last time that I saw such a young ballerina
In love with the loveless
In tune with a tuneless old upright piano
Standing en pointe
Going through each position with gentle precision
She measures each movement
Her classical features and elegant waistline
Are going to waste as she pleases her parents

('I was born yesterday', Liberation (1993))

Hannon refuses ever to countenance taking anything too seriously, constantly under-cutting even the most heartfelt emotional agonies. Here's a breathlessly intense journey into the dark soul of a lothario whose life has no meaning except its own momentum:
"You deserve to be horse-whipped
But I've no horse", that joke's so shit
And whips would only make it worse
Don't tempt the lonely and perverse
The casualties of casual sex
The child of three with X-ray specs
The conman low in self esteem
The Casanova in your dreams
I'll scream and scream and scream until
I've made myself critically ill
In hospital, in case you're there
In uniform, intensive care
I know you'll be the death of me
But what a cool death that would be
I'd rather die than be deprived
Of Wonderbras and thunder thighs
('Through a long and sleepless night', Casanova (1996))

DivCom's latest album, their ninth - Victory For The Comic Muse - has just been released, and is another triumph. Hannon has a gift for recognising the lonely sullenness of adolescent yearnings - many of which we never grow out of - and to translate these into touchingly funny universal truths.

The first track from the album, 'To Die A Virgin' - as well as having the best orchestral arrangement you will hear this year - brilliantly recalls a teenage boy's seedy frustration (updating the desperate sophistry so familiar from Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'):
With all the bombs and the bird-flu
We're probably gonna be dead soon
And here we are in your bedroom
Oh did I tell you I love you I love you
I love you
I can feel your heart beating
And your breathing increasing
Your folks are out for the evening
I really hope I'm not dreaming
I don't want to die a virgin.
(Listen to it here.)

Hannon is proof that cleverness and intelligence in pop music are not antithetical. But that the combination is not always welcomed.

June 23, 2006

Giving tryst to the people

Graffiti artist, Banksy, has been at it again - this time painting overnight an 'interrupted tryst' 10 metres up a council office wall in Bristol.

Having seen the picture of it in today's thegrauniad, left, I think it looks abso-bloody-lutely fantastic.

Just as good, the Council has promised the issue of whether this work of art stays or goes will be decided by a vote among local residents.

In agreeing to respect the popular will, Bristol City Council is dealing rather better with the issue than some humourless Labour city councillors in Oxford did, back in the 1980s, when they sought to have removed the now world-famous Headington shark.

Designed by sculptor, John Buckley, and commissioned by cinema impresario (and now BBC Radio Oxford presenter), Bill Heine, this 25-foot long fibreglass sculpture was winched into its very domestic terraced setting in 1986.

Commenting on his inspiration, Mr Heine remarked at the time:

"The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation.... It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki."

The City Council (including Andrew Smith, now Labour MP for Oxford East, then a city councillor) repeatedly attempted to have the scupture removed, apparently fearing some kind of mass Dr Who-style invasion of 'copy-cat' sharks throughout the city.

The six-year legal battle culminated in the 1992 decision by Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for the Environment, that it could stay, "having concluded that the shark does not cause such demonstrable harm to visual amenity as to justify refusing consent for its retention". (Though Heseltine also decided that its popularity among neighbours was irrelevant, sniffily intoning: "the case must be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to 'utilitarianism' in the sense of the greatest good of the greatest number.")

Planning should not seek to impose rigid conformity, still less to stamp out creativity and originality. I hope the residents of Bristol give Banksy's efforts a resounding vote of approval, and demand the Council continues to maintain his graffito as a work of art.

(Hat-tip to Headington.org.uk for the Shark photo and background information.)

Footling memories

One of the more interesting aspects of the current de rigeur meme splattering the interweb - what’s your first political memory? - is finding out how old various bloggers are. Such is the anonymous timelessness of the digital age.

As a silver jubilee baby, born in ’77, the first news story to make an impression on me was the 1981 marriage of Charles and Diana - mainly because my parents bought a new colour telly especially for it. (I can still remember my mum criticising the number of creases in the train of Princess Di’s Elizabeth Emmanuelle dress.)

I was an arch-royalist back in those days - indeed, I even compiled a scrap-book to commemorate the occasion. Aged four is probably about the right time to grow out of it.

My first political memory is kinda sketchy, and hard to date.

For some reason, Michael Foot had made a big impression on me, so I suspect this must have occurred after his controversial sporting of a donkey jacket at the cenotaph in November 1982. I cannot think what else would have motivated me to grab one of the old-fashioned dish-mops in my grandparents’ kitchen, lean out of the window, and shout, “It’s Michael Foot.”

Which was harsh judgment on one of the most distinguished Parliamentarians of our age. But that’s kids for you.

(Two pictures, left, as an aid for younger readers.)

June 22, 2006

Warning: arguing about smoking can damage your health

The Financial Times's Martin Wolf today turns his economist’s mind to analysing the risks of passive smoking, and challenges the authoritarian thinking which underpinned the recent legislation banning smoking in ‘public’ places:

As a life-long non-smoker, I wonder what is driving these assaults. Is it an attempt to improve public health, as campaigners suggest? Or do smokers serve a need every society seems to have – for a group of pariahs that all right-thinking people can condemn? I strongly suspect the latter.

John Stuart Mill himself said that: “As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it.” The discovery of passive smoking has, for this reason, given the anti-tobacco lobby its success. It has overwhelmed the protests of libertarians. Riding a tide of moral indignation, the government has enacted a draconian law banning smoking even in private clubs.

Now it plans to extend that ban outdoors. So how many lives might this extension “save” (or, more precisely, prolong)? Indeed, how many lives might the ban itself save?

Now here comes the science:

According to a survey [Smoking in Public Places] published in 2003 by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, a mere seven out of 37 studies showed a statistically significant impact of passive smoking on lung cancer. But pooling the results of all the studies indicated that passive smoking increases the risk of death from lung cancer by 25 per cent. This sounds dramatic. But these studies probably contain biased or inaccurate samples: some smokers may, for example, be classified as non-smokers. Moreover, the risk for non-smokers of death from lung cancer is itself only 10 per 100,000. So the increase generated by passive smoking comes to just 2.5 per 100,000.

If every non-smoker were exposed to sufficient quantities of second-hand smoke this would amount to a maximum of 1,000 deaths a year in England, since it contains some 40m non-smokers (both children and adults). Even 1,000 a year would be less than 0.2 per cent of all deaths in the country. In practice, however, the exposure – and so the number of extra deaths from lung cancer caused by passive smoking – must be very much smaller than this. Many people already live in an overwhelmingly tobacco-free environment. Indeed, if that were not the case, studies comparing those having low exposure to tobacco smoke with those having high exposure would be impossible.

All of which might sound like the kind of thing you’d expect an economist to write - it’s perhaps easier to dismiss 1,000 deaths if your trade is academic journalism, rather than competitive politics.

But the fundamental point Mr Wolf goes on to make is resolutely sound: that if those who argue for a ban on smoking in public had the courage of their convictions they would argue for a ban on smoking in the home, the place where children (who are most vulnerable to prolonged exposure) are most likely to be affected. This is the only measure that would have any real impact on the number of deaths from passive smoking.

If the UK government were engaged in a serious health endeavour, as opposed to gesture politics, it would outlaw smoking in the home. This would be perfectly feasible, or at least as feasible as the much discussed possibility of banning smacking. Children could be encouraged to “shop” their parents. Random visits could be arranged. Surely a government that has given us the antisocial behaviour order would find it neither difficult nor, still less, inappropriate to police the behaviour of adults in their homes.

In reality, of course, no political party would ever attempt anything so draconian. Why? Because it would be too unpopular, and because prohibition has never worked anywhere, ever. So, instead, politicians have chosen to sublimate their health concerns by voting into force a law which deliberately fails to tackle the killer issue.

As I said here last year:

I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health - whether they like it or not - we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.

A ban on smoking in public places will have a negligible effect on the number of deaths from smoking. So we should stop kidding ourselves that this is a serious health proposal. It's not. It's simply a half-hearted gesture. A Silk Cut Ultra argument dressed up as a Capston Full Strength measure.

June 21, 2006

Supermarket sweep

Simon Hoggart reports, rather deliciously, in today’s thegrauniad on David Cameron’s speech championing “the new politics” at the National Family and Parenting institute:

"We have got to big up Asda!" he told us, excitedly. I wondered which Tory leaders would have brought the same message to the people. "Swan and Edgar - Respec'!" Churchill might have said. Or "Let us give due esteem to Sir Thomas Lipton's Emporium of Quality Comestibles!" as Disraeli never tired of saying.
Indeed, supermarkets were big-upped - or is it bigged-up? - no end today. Daniel Finkelstein, who I’m sure used to be called Danny, was unequivocal in The Times:

Every battle for liberty has a front line. In the battle for economic liberty, many of my friends believe that the front line is the rate of tax. And I certainly agree that this is important. But for me the front line is the freedom of supermarkets — big, fat, galumphing, supermarkets with 26 varieties of Coco Pops and large car parks — to conduct their business.
The thing is, I agree with Danny, sorry, Daniel.

Indeed, not to do so would be entirely hypocritical, given almost all my food shopping takes place at my local Tesco, 30 seconds’ walk from my flat. It would be possible for me to buy everything I need (pretty much) at shops other than Tesco. But it would be more inconvenient, take me longer, and cuesta mucho dinero.

Am I guilty of rational self-interest in its most negative form? Perhaps, yet Finkelstein mounts a breathless, slightly glib, but robustly reasonable defence:

Concerned about food prices? Supermarkets drive them down. About inequality? Studies in the US have shown that the creation of superstores (particularly Wal-Mart) has disproportionately benefited those on low incomes. The environment? There is far more chance of persuading the big chains to accept their responsibilities than the old corner grocer. Concerned about pay and conditions for shop workers? Organic food? Labelling? Supermarket chains have raised the bar in all of these areas. And most important of all, they sell things, high-quality items and downmarket items alike, that consumers want to buy.
The ideal is, of course, a diversity of local retailers, so that the small, independent shops can co-exist happily alongside the large chains. Local and national government, in establishing regulatory frameworks, can both help to ensure the high street lions and lambs play happily together.

The larger role, though, is acted by us as consumers. The single biggest reason why local shops close is because fewer people are shopping there. We might lament the fact; but it would be more useful to face it, and understand why.

(I will also parenthetically add that, in my own council ward, Headington, though the large student population is sometimes unpopular with local residents, they are at least regular patrons of the local shops. They are not the ones driving to the out-of-town supermarkets, or ordering their weekly shop via the Internet.)

Supermarkets exist, and are popular, because they are good at giving people what they want. Simply to diss them - see, Mr Cameron, I can get down wiv da kidz’ argot as well - is to miss the point, or deliberately to avoid it. They are a creation of society’s aspirations to have a choice of quality foodstuffs available at reasonable cost whenever we need them.

Have a cheap pop at Tesco or Asda if you want - but at least address how else you would enable people to fulfil that basic want.

June 19, 2006

In his own sweet time

Things are getting bad for Labour - so bad, even Jackie Ashley in today’s thegrauniad is worried:

So low is morale that once-ambitious ministers are heard openly discussing the upside of spending a few years out of government, rebuilding friendships and family links, or simply getting some proper sleep.
The solution, argues Ms Ashley, is simple: the Prime Minister should announce his timetable for an “orderly transition” at Labour’s party conference in September. This sounds right to me. Mr Blair is now a busted flush, his power draining daily.

Where I part company with Ms Ashley is here:

Whatever view you take of Blair, his decision to pre-announce a post-election departure at some unexplained moment now looks like one of the worst tactical mistakes of his career. Downing Street is despairing about the endless speculation but it started right there.
Virtual history always makes for fascinatingly pointless conjecture. But - putting to one side the blindingly obvious that Iraq was Mr Blair’s greatest political, strategic and tactical mistake - this strikes me as misleading 20/20 hindsight.

Consider what might have happened had Mr Blair not pre-announced his departure.

First, would Gordon Brown still be sulkily biding his time; or would he have attempted to force events?

Secondly, would Mr Blair have achieved a healthy-if-wounding 66 seat Commons majority? Surely many Labour voters stuck, reluctantly, by Team Tony precisely because they were reassured his shelf-life was limited?

Thirdly, is it really likely that - but for his pre-announcement - there would currently be no speculation surrounding Mr Blair’s future? There was plenty surrounding Margaret Thatcher in her third term, despite her repeated protestations she would go “on and on and on”.

Fourthly, what more pressure would Mr Blair be presently under if he had not confirmed his departure? Every single scandal, resignation, cock-up and defeat would add to the tumult that Mr Blair should go. It’s hard to get too exercised when the question is not whether, but when.

Finally, I doubt Mr Blair ever expected to serve a full third term. He is a realist with the best political mind of his generation, bar none. By saying he might go on for up to five years, he hoped to buy himself two or three. He’ll probably manage the lower end of his expectations - which seems an apt epitaph for his Premiership.

June 18, 2006

Tough love to end child poverty?

Can Labour deliver its 1999 pledge to halve child poverty by 2010-11? That's the question The Economist posed this week, noting that - though the number has fallen by an impressive 700,000 since then - the Government missed both its 2004-05 targets:
In 2004-05 there were 2.4m poor children, 100,000 above the goal of 2.3m when measured before housing costs, and 3.4m poor children after housing costs, 400,000 more than the milestone of 3m.
This might look like nit-picking - but missing early targets will make it that much more difficult to hit the later ones, especially as public finances are squeezed from 2008 onwards.

Until now, the Government has relied chiefly on the introduction of tax credits to ease the plight of children in poor families. In the future, argues The Economist, they need to incentivise poorer parents back into the work-place, as unemployment is the chief cause of child poverty:
... recent British figures highlight how crucial joblessness is in determining child poverty. In 2004-05, lone parents without work were raising 13% of all children but 31% of poor children. Jobless couples were bringing up 6% of all children but 19% of poor children. Together, the two groups accounted for only a fifth of all children but a half of poor ones.

What this suggests is that the priority should now be to get poor jobless parents back to work. The government has been trying to encourage this by providing extra financial support for working parents. Such help is now among the most generous for low-paid employees in the OECD.

These financial incentives appear to be having some success. The lone-parent employment rate, for example, has risen quite sharply over the past five years. Steep increases in the minimum wage are making work more worthwhile, although there is increasing worry that they may also raise unemployment.

What is crucial now, says Mr Whiteford [of the OECD], is for the state to exert more pressure on lone parents to work while continuing to help them with child care. Britain is unusual in not requiring single parents to look for jobs until their youngest child is 16. Australia, which also has a high proportion of lone parents who are not working, has a similar rule. In most other countries in the OECD, by contrast, single parents have to seek employment much sooner. In July, Australia will change its rule and make new lone parents look for work once their youngest child is six.

Such a reform will seem harsh to many of Labour's supporters. But the Government has invested political capital in its campaign to end child poverty and it will soon have to take difficult decisions. This may be a time for some tough love.
Astute Lib Dem readers will recall just this measure being put forward by Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, David Laws, last March.

As Mr Laws argued then: "To deliver social justice we will need economic dynamism and economic discipline. We need to show how we can create wealth, as well as redistribute it, and make tough choices and not just the easy ones."

Vote blue, own goal

If you've quite finished laughing at France snatching a draw from the jaws of victory, flick over to the BBC's Politics Show website, which is runing a poll to find out the biggest political own goal this season (ie, since September 2005).

When last I voted, the top 3 were:

  • Walter Wolfgang being ejected from Labour conference = 23.30%
  • George Galloway in the Big Brother house = 17.27%
  • Patricia Hewitt 'NHS is enjoying its best year ever' = 17.16%

Me, I voted for Dave Cameron's shoe chauffeur (16.25%) - which reference is all the excuse I need to reproduce this peach of a photo from Bromley Extra:

(Hat-tip: Paul Walter.)

June 16, 2006

When you're in a hole, you don't need a spade

My favourite commentator (probably), the Financial Times's Philip Stephens, published a fascinating article last Thursday, The UN serves US interests, noting the pained emasculation of the USA's ambassador to the UN - the neo-con's neocon - John Bolton:
The ambassador, I have heard a US official observe, is one of those people who calls a spade a spade. The downside, this official lamented, was that to Mr Bolton’s eye almost everything looks like a spade.
The cataclysmic failure of US and British foreign policy in Iraq has, of necessity, altered views in the Bush administration. Slowly, the President and his top advisors are beginning to work out the realpolitik of why America should seek engagement with the UN:
As an official in the state department, [Mr Bolton] epitomised the assertive nationalism that drove US foreign policy during Mr Bush’s first term. Scornful of international institutions and law, he openly celebrated America’s muscular unilateralism.

The administration has travelled halfway back from this position. It has accepted, albeit grudgingly, the value of legitimacy in the exercise of power. It still instinctively favours coalitions of the willing over rules-based multilateralism but has at least begun to make the effort. ...

If the wilder ambitions of Mr Bolton have been decisively checked by Iraq, America remains the indispensable power. How it exercises that power determines the shape and stability of the global system. We can probably expect no more of this administration than its reluctant conversion to pragmatism. But one of these days an American president needs to explain that Roosevelt and Truman were not altruists. They built the UN because, for all its inevitable flaws, it serves American interests.

Perceiving Gordon Brown

That perception is everything (or very nearly) is, I imagine, the most depressing canon for those actively involved in public life. It must be a thought that frequently troubles our Chancellor, and Premier-apparent, Gordon Brown.

Today’s thread over at PoliticalBetting.com poses the question, “What’s Gordon like under fire?” and observes that his likely assumption-without-challenge of the Labour leadership is a potentially dangerous prospect for his party:

If, as is his plan, he manages to move into the top job without having to go through the ardours of fighting a leadership election he will have managed to by-pass, yet again, situations where he would have faced fierce questioning.
At the time of the last Labour leadership election, Mr Brown avoided trial by media by declining to stand. He had read the writing on the wall. It is fascinating now to recall that, when, in May 1994, MORI asked the general public who they thought would be the best Labour leader, Mr Blair had the support of 32%, John Prescott 19%, Margaret Beckett 14%, Gordon Brown 9%, and Robin Cook 5%. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

For all the controversy of the so-called ‘Granita Pact’, when Mr Blair and Mr Brown are supposed to have reached concord that Mr Blair would be the modernising candidate, there is one simple reason why Mr Brown sat on his hands: Mr Blair would have beaten him.

To understand why this was so, let me quote from Nicholas Jones’s excellent 1996 tome, Soundbites & Spin Doctors:

Aware of criticism that his delivery could be stilted and that he sometimes had a wooden appearance, Brown went to inordinate lengths to inject vitality into his answers. During a hectic round of interviews in the week of the 1992 autumn spending statement, a television studio technician observed the care with which he practised what was obviously the key sentence of his reply, repeating it a dozen times before deciding which words should get more emphasis. Such assiduity had its disadvantages: once he had memorised a soundbite, Brown had a tendency to keep repeating it whatever the subsequent questions. Some programme editors grew reluctant to accept his contributions, claiming they were predictable and repetitive. For a time, producers on the BBC’s One o‘Clock News were told to do their utmost to find other Labour voices: Brown was considered to have become over-exposed.
The appointment of Charlie Whelan as his press officer in January 1994 curbed the worst of Mr Brown’s media obsession. But John Smith’s untimely death triggered a leadership contest at the worst possible time for Mr Brown. As Mr Jones records:

… although [Mr Whelan] had gone some way towards repairing the damage to the shadow Chancellor’s reputation, the leadership contest reopened the debate about Brown’s addiction to soundbites. As the party started assessing the value of the likely contenders, there were powerful voices in the Labour hierarchy who said Brown was too lightweight to become leader.
A lightweight leader addicted to soundbites, eh? Up with that, Labour would never put. Perception, it seems, can indeed change.

Looking through posts on my website, and other political blogs, I’ve been struck by our collective disregard for the man who will be this country’s next Prime Minister. In contrast, screeds have been written about both Ming Campbell and David Cameron. Why this indifference?

First, Mr Brown’s brief is economic policy: much of it is, therefore, concerned with facts and figures: eminently disputable, frequently dull. The Chancellor’s best decision was his first: to declare the Bank of England independent.

By out-sourcing macro-economic policy at a stroke, he helped assure “the longest period of sustained economic growth in this country for over 200 years”. Interestingly, in the USA it is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank who gets the credit for such success: here we still praise the Chancellor.

Secondly, both Sir Menzies and Mr Cameron are new to the leaderships of their respective parties: that novelty makes what they have to say more interesting. Mr Brown’s speeches - though they range more widely than economic policy - can only hint at what his approach as Labour leader would be.

And, even then, most lefty Labour supporters appear to be living happily in a state of self-denial that the man who gave them PFI, the 75p pension increase, and tuition fees is a closet socialist.

By carefully absenting himself from the media during times of trouble, most notably the Iraq war, Mr Brown has allowed people to gaze into the blankness and see whatever they wish. While Mr Cameron says anything to anyone, Mr Brown says nothing to no-one. Both are building up expectations they are bound to disappoint.

The third reason why little heed is currently paid to Mr Brown is simple. I have written two articles devoted to Mr Brown - here
and here - and I cannot think of anything more to say. Indeed, there is so little to say about Mr Brown that I see I was reduced in my second article to quoting a couple of paragraphs from my first article. They still stand:

… when Mr Brown becomes Prime Minister, a flashlight will be shone on his personality and his policies. He will have to make decisions, unpopular ones, and defend them in public. He will no longer be able to use Mr Blair as a lightning rod to earth him from the electric shocks of political opponents' attacks. Nor can he persist in his schizophrenic audience-pleasing. He will have to make choices: is he Atlanticist or socialist, pro-business or trade unionist, anti-European or progressive, liberal or authoritarian? For a man who's been Chancellor for eight years, there are still an awful lot of unanswered questions.

Mr Brown is able, for now, to surf the tide of Mr Blair's unpopularity. But Mr Brown cannot forever define himself by what he is not. At some point, and soon, he will need to show he understands that, to be Prime Minister, you need to be more than just clever, and that range is as important as depth.
The danger for Mr Brown is that the perception of him as a dour, Presbyterian killjoy will stick when he becomes Prime Minister. The opportunity for Mr Brown is that the perception of him as a serious, experienced, successful politician (how different from Mr Cameron) might endure.

Two perceptions, two equal possibilities. The time of reckoning is near.

Small mercies: count 'em

Whatever else might be said about our Prime Minister, Tony Blair, we can at least be grateful he's not George W. Bush.

The President's gauche exchange with LA Times reporter Peter Wallsten has unsurprisingly attracted some adverse comment, not least from the ever-brilliant Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Watch it here. And weep.

June 15, 2006

Reality bites

It's four weeks to the day since I was elected to Oxford City Council's Lib Dem-run Executive Board as portfolio holder for Better Finances. What do I think of it so far? Bloody knackering.

I'd spent the previous two years chairing the City's Finance Scrutiny Committee during a minority Labour administration. In a No-Overall-Control council, scrutiny committees can be influential and have to be taken seriously by the Executive - so most of the issues are pretty familiar to me.

What I wasn't prepared for was the unremitting e-mails needing to be dealt with immediately rather than at the week-end, which is when I used to catch up on paperwork. This hit home last Wednesday, when, at 10.40 pm, I opened a report I needed urgently to approve (or not) , and discovered 41 pages of appendices crammed full of Best Value Performance Indicators with which to familiarise myself.

I'm relieved to be still on top of all my ward case-work (which is of course a very different thing from saying it's sorted). And I'm grateful my ever-understanding employers have continued to be understanding of my commitments. (Or, perhaps more honestly, ignorant. Until they read this.)

But I'm still reading the same novel I was three weeks ago (and I will add that Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho is not the most relaxing book to wind down with). My plans to learn Spanish before I visit Cadiz in August have taken a back seat. I have also missed both England's World Cup matches owing to meetings: at work last Saturday, and in Council tonight.

I remarked on some of this to a colleague yesterday. He said - and I think he meant it consolingly - "Still, at least you're single so have the time." Cause and effect, was my polite reply (rather than, are you taking the piss?).

Of course, if anyone's thinking of getting more involved in local politics, standing for Council, and one day holding an executive position - I wouldn't want any of the above to discourage you. Perish the thought.

PS: I promise to allow myself only one such whiny post a year.


... my 'proper' website, www.stephentall.org.uk, has made the final four of the New Statesman's New Media Awards 2006 in the Elected Representative category. It's up against three MPs' websites:

David Miliband (Labour)
Derek Wyatt (Labour), and
Jo Swinson (Lib Dem)

You can see all the runners and riders in the various different categories at the Staggers' site here.

That, and a 2-0 win - for what more can a boy ask?

Finally, I want to give a 'blog-up' to my fellow Lib Dem blogger-nominees - Cllr Mary Reid, Lynne Featherstone MP and Peter Black AM.

June 13, 2006

Cameron and the EPP: on the road to nowhere

Nine months ago, back when few had heard of David Cameron, his Tory leadership campaign was spluttering to a halt: all the talk was of a Ken Clarke versus David Davis showdown.

Mr Cameron and his team knew they had to do something, and do it fast. But what? It needed to be a touchstone issue, something which would grab Tory MPs by the short 'n' curlies, a piercing ‘dog whistle’: it had to be Europe - which, to most Tory minds, conjures up dystopian images that would have made even Dante blanch.

Their ruse was to withdraw British Conservative MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) on the grounds that some of its members, such as Germany’s Christian Democrats, support a federalist agenda. Under a Cameron leadership Tory MEPs would sit only with non-federalists.

Then came the Tories’ ‘Pop Idol’ conference, and ‘Dave’ won the audience vote. Indeed, he won it so decisively it soon became clear his concession to those right-wing Europhobic MPs he had earlier been so desperate to court was quite unnecessary. But still Mr Cameron stuck by his pledge: a policy commitment is a policy commitment (especially if it’s your only one).

If it had been quietly dropped, barely anyone would have raised an eyebrow. It is, after all, a technical issue about voting blocs in the European Parliament: it is hardly the Dreyfus Affair. This is something Mr Cameron himself has accepted, albeit tetchily; Rachel Sylvester, writing in today’s Torygraph, recalls:

When Alice Thomson and I last interviewed him, about three months ago, we mentioned, in passing, his commitment to pull his MEPs out of the European People's Party.

In return we got an absolute diatribe. "Can we please not talk about the EPP?" he barked, with genuine anger in his voice. "I'm sick to death of the EPP. It's so boring."
So the warning lights were flashing even then. But still Mr Cameron ploughs ahead with a policy which has split his MEPs down the middle, and antagonised the two centre-right European leaders who are likely to dominate the political stage in the next five years: Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s President-presumptive, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He has left his Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, scrabbling around for someone, anyone, who will join with the Euro Tories and ensure they don’t become an impotent, inconsequential irrelevance at the decision-making margins. The most likely candidates, to date, are not the kind of company the supposedly New Tory Party would like to be seen out with: they are ultra-nationalists, often with sexist and homophobic prejudices.

So how has this silly little squabble come to pass? Why has someone as apparently astute as Mr Cameron allowed an unimportant issue like this to sour his current honeymoon? It could be, of course, that Mr Cameron harbours deeply Eurosceptic beliefs, and is simply following his compass.

Philip Stephens, in today’s Financial Times, posits an alternative theory:

I am not sure how deep [David Cameron's] doubts run. What is clear is that foreign policy is not his strong suit. He has not travelled widely and has met precious few political leaders from overseas. It shows. Mr Cameron has been heard to refer to one such meeting as being with the president of “Czechoslovakia”. Gaps like that, though deeply embarrassing, can be filled.

To leave the EPP would display a more profound lack of understanding. The prospect of a European superstate exists now only in the recurring nightmares of the europhobes. The task for serious European politicians during the next five or 10 years will be to forge a new concordat between nation states, the Union and globalisation. Many of the elements of this new bargain will be attractive to Britain. A modern Conservative party, free of the demons of the past, could make a substantial contribution. It is that or the fruitcakes [of Ukip].
Mr Cameron’s EPP kerfuffle is small beer. But it reveals two wider problems, about his leadership, and the Tory Party.

First, this issue - of zero importance to the vast majority of Britons - has already occupied far too much of Mr Cameron’s and Mr Hague’s attention. If they aspire to govern, they need to set priorities that will benefit the country, not spend their first six months sorting out an internal party mess caused by an over-hasty promise by a young man in a hurry.

Secondly, with the EU constitution dormant and forgotten, the Tories have yet to grasp the opportunity to drive the new European agenda in the direction they would wish it to go. Mr Cameron should be using this time to work closely with Ms Merkel (and perhaps Mr Sarkozy) to forge a new consensus which promotes the liberal economy across Europe’s nation states, battling against protectionism and over-regulation. Instead, he has become distracted by his attempts to pacify his own party.

For all the Tories’ present optimism - and for all Mr Cameron’s smoothness - the new leader’s failure to draw the curtain down on this side-show suggests he has yet to work out what his vision of Britain’s role in Europe should be.

The road is going to seem a lot bumpier if he doesn’t know where he’s heading.

June 12, 2006

POLL: favourite 'must read' British political commentator

As trailed last week, I've uploaded a new poll onto m'other gaff, posing the question: "Who is your favourite 'must-read' British political commentator?"

My thanks to those who lobbied to get your favourites included - though in the end I pretty much ignored you all, and went with my own list: a real NuLabour piece of community consultation. But, fair's fair: I allowed only one entry per newspaper, and tried to give a mix of left/right/liberal/authoritarian journalists.

Anyway, enough of such blather: get over there, and get voting...

June 11, 2006

Streets ahead

thegrauniad’s Weekend Magazine last Saturday carried a diverting interview with Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, probably this country’s most brilliantly acute lyricist-cum-rapper. His Mercury award-winning first album, 'original pirate material', declared war on pop pap:

You say that everything sounds the same
Then you go buy them! There's no excuses my friend
Let's Push Things Forward.
As a fan of pop pap myself (Girls Aloud and Robbie nestle alongside the more down wiv da kidz Franz Ferdinand and The Killers on my CD racks), I was relieved and disconcerted in equal measure to read that his favourite ballad is ‘She’s Like The Wind’ from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

What marks Skinner out from the urban crowd - and why he has rightly been likened to Eminem - is his ability to speak uncomfortable truths, and then to undercut his knowing crassness with some blisteringly self-deprecating jokes.

The lightest, funniest track on OPM is ‘the irony of it all’
in which he mockingly stages a drugs debate between a boorish boozer, Terry:
I'm a law abider
There's nothing I like more than getting fired up on beer
And when the weekends here I to exercise my right to get paralytic and fight
and a hemp-high liberal wiener, Tim:
… we're friendly peaceful people
We're not the ones out there causing trouble.
We just sit in this hazy bubble with our quarters
Discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is.
The follow-up concept album, 'a grand don’t come for free', took The Streets to another level, earning high praise from a slightly unlikely source, John Sutherland (again in thegrauniad):
Skinner's world, one has to say, is horrible. … It lacks culture, learning, grace, courtesy, spirituality, style, ceremony, direction, aspiration, occupation. All it has is vitality. … There are no doubts about his artistic ability. This second album (as hard to pull off as a successful second novel) should establish The Streets as a significant voice in British music (it's not easy to see a big breakthrough in America).
It’s a rich album crammed with brutal honesty, from the observational comedy of ‘Could well be in’:
I saw this thing on ITV the other week,
Said, that if she played with her hair, she's probably keen
She's playin' with her hair, well regularly,
So I reckon I could well be in.
... to the blokeish detachment of ‘Fit but you know it’:
See I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9,
Maybe even 9 and a half in four beers time.
That blue TopShop top you've got on IS nice,
Bit too much fake tan though - but, yeah, you score high.
and the soul-bearing vulnerability of being dumped, in ‘DRY YOUR EYES’:
Please let me show you where we could only just be, for us
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she's lookin' straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she's lookin' down at her feet.
But the latest album, 'the hardest way to make an easy living', is the best yet, despite the partial (and boringly inevitable) critical backlash.

All the old Skinner tics are there in abundance: for example, the sweary undercutting of his lifestyle, now as a rich celebrity, in 'Memento mori':
Memento mori, memento mori
It's Latin and it says we must all die
I tried it for a while but it's a load of boring shite
So I buy buy buy buy buy buy
… the faux laddishness:
When you're a famous boy, it gets really easy to get girls,
it's all so easy you get a bit spoilt.
But, when you try to pull a girl, who is also famous too,
it feels just like when you wasn't famous.
… and the smart-arse bon mot:
In spread betting it's easy to draw a small fortune start
With a big fortune and lose into a small fortune.
But it’s the latest single, ‘never went to church’, which is the stand-out track - a soulful eulogy to Skinner’s dad, who died two years ago, and whose influence clearly endures:
I never cared about God when life was sailin' in the calm,
So I said I'd get my head down and I'd deal with the ache in my heart,
And for that if God exists I'd reckon he'd pay me regard,
Mom says me and you are the same from the start.
I guess than you did leave me something to remind me of you,
Everytime I interrupt someone like you used to,
When I do something like you you'll be on my mind or through,
'Cause I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you.
But, despite my fandom, I was a tad perturbed by his closing quote in thegrauniad:
There are two lines on an axis. One of them is creativity and the other is skill. And I think that throughout your life, you are gradually losing creativity and gaining skill. And I think that at some stage, they say it's around 29, that's when it happens; I'm still getting there, still getting better, to the point where they'll meet.
So, another 9 months to go, then it's downhill all the way for me...

June 09, 2006

What the papers say

Enough of thegrauniad: they're on their own today anyway - the other papers are full of praise for Ming Campbell's speech yesterday.

I was especially please to see the Financial Times's warm endorsement of the Lib Dem approach:

... it is good to see tax policy go beyond the tired question of whether tax should go up or down. The Liberal Democrats deserve praise for this. Even better, the rough shape of the new policy makes good sense.

The Financial Times strongly supports the principle of environmental taxes. It is far better to raise revenue by taxing activities that do harm, such as burning fuel, than taxing hard work. The Liberal Democrats propose higher taxes on air travel, and taxes based on the emissions of aircraft rather than on the number of passengers. That makes sense. ...

The main messages of simplification and green taxation are welcome. So is emphasis on the best way to raise taxes, rather than how high they should be. The Liberal Democrats have not worked out the answers. They have asked the right questions.

But the FT was not alone.
The Times also welcomed the move:

Ming is finding his feet. An assured performance on Wednesday [at PMQs] was followed yesterday with the most significant move of his tenure. Sir Menzies talked tax, and instead of the ambiguous waffling of the Conservatives, he talked about cutting taxes. ...

Change was “overdue, necessary and urgent” if the party wanted to be credible. Under his leadership, Liberal Democrats needed to be “bolder, more ambitious and more thoughtful”: no more the luxury of apparently principled but impractical platforms. Government should “regulate less, legislate less and tax less”.

This is robust medicine for a party that, realistically in the past four elections, has not had to concern itself with the prospect of actually enacting generous promises. It is still vital if Sir Menzies and the Lib Dems are to present themselves as plausible partners in power come next polling day. ...

While the Tories’ own recent baggage persuades Mr Cameron that it is hard for him to promise tax cuts and be taken seriously, Sir Menzies has pounced. Taking three million low-paid workers and pensioners out of tax altogether, and rescuing a further million dragged into the top rate of income tax, are eye-catching moves.

Even the
Torygraph found it in themselves to say well done:
... the Lib Dems were against the war from the first, and this entitles Sir Menzies to comment on subsequent developments with a freedom and straightforwardness that are denied to Mr Cameron.

On Wednesday, he embarrassed Tony Blair by asking him at Prime Minister's Questions whether Britain had done anything to aid and abet the American policy of extraordinary rendition, a subject on which many Tories also feel deep unease. As usual, Mr Blair was unable to give anything like a proper answer.

Sir Menzies also regretted, in a grim aside, how often the Prime Minister has to start these Wednesday sessions by sending condolences to the family and friends of British soldiers who have been killed in the past week. ...

It is fashionable to scoff at Sir Menzies because he is not young and hip and groovy, but ... he could yet turn out to be the most astute Liberal leader for generations.

The Indy also made nice, but of course it's pointless linking to their firewalled website. Even The Sun managed to report it accurately, so there's hope for thegrauniad yet.

Not thegrauniad's bit on the side

thegrauniad has taken to being rather scratchy about the Lib Dems in recent weeks. Ten days ago its editorial unfairly dismissed Ming Campbell’s impressive speech on crime without seeming to have troubled to read it. Today, it is just as sceptical about the priorities for a liberal Britain Ming yesterday outlined:
What - and whom - are [the Lib Dems] for? Hunting for a maturity justified by the 6 million votes won at the last election, the party risks blunting its brave edge, especially with the loss of the 50p top rate. … Sir Menzies wants a reputation for clear thinking and authority. He will need to fill in yesterday's blanks and make it clear his party cannot cherry-pick his plans if they are to be seen as something more than a bribe for the votes of middle England.
What is interesting is to compare thegrauniad’s disdain for Ming’s “hunting for maturity” with what the newspaper has previously argued the Lib Dems should be striving to achieve.

For example, in its absurdly wet and hand-wringing leader article in May 2005, justifying re-electing Labour on a “don’t mention the war” ticket, thegrauniad praised the Lib Dems’ anti-war stance, and our vigilant tenacity in sticking up for civil liberties. But, ultimately, it argued the Lib Dems were not yet fit for government:
There is too much that is unconvincing about Liberal Democrat thinking on too many important subjects. The party needs to stare more unflinchingly at the possibility and reality of power than it has yet done.
Six months previously, in September 2004, thegrauniad's editorial commended what it termed “the emergence of a new tougher and more market-oriented approach on economic and social policy, notably on tax and public spending”. It continued:

The old tendency to fall back on big government solutions, embodied in the post-1997 criticism of Labour for not spending enough on health and education, has been rethought. Mr Kennedy has simultaneously reasserted his leadership, encouraged a new generation of spokesmen (not enough women at the top), and has worked hard to have the party cohere around him. This week will be a big test of whether the activist grassroots can learn to love the new Lib Dem party that the leadership is fashioning.
I think the phrase is: damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

What perhaps thegrauniad should realise is that the Lib Dems do not exist to salve its political conscience, allowing a supposedly progressive newspaper to feel better for continuing to support this monstrously illiberal pro-war Labour government.

We are not their ‘bit on the side’, available for easy pleasure without the fear of commitment.

What Ming and the rest of the Lib Dems are seeking to be is a forceful political player, a mainstream party, with serious policies and serious leadership. thegrauniad will just have to get used to it.

June 08, 2006

Ask Ming...

Liberal Review is offering you the opportunity to put a question direct to Ming Campbell following today's well-received keynote speech - click over here to to find out how.

Here's what I asked: "Three ingredients seem, to me, to be crucial in helping deliver successful public services: decent funding, local autonomy, and competition between providers. Do you agree?"

(Y'see, I thought I should steer clear of anything controversial...)

June 07, 2006

Telegraph's 6-month verdict on Cameron: better than Hague, worse than IDS

Today's Torygraph has a fascinating article by Prof Anthony King putting into context how the last seven Labour and Tory opposition leaders have fared in the polls in their first six months in charge.

It might just give some hyper-Tories, convinced David Cameron is about to lead their party to a great election victory, some pause for thought.

It shows that Labour's opposition leaders have performed best - though for both Neil Kinnock and John Smith it also indicates what a parlous condition their party was in when they first took up the reins.

(Peter, over at Liberal Review's
Apollo Blog, yesterday noted the surprising similarities in the way Mr Kinnock's early performance as Labour leader was judged, compared with initial perceptions of Mr Cameron today.)

Tony Blair, as befits the most talented politician of his generation, leads the way. That he boosted his party's support by 10% in his first 24 weeks is all the more startling given Labour was consistently polling at over 40% under his predecessor.

Mr Blair was a phenomenon, albeit one who benefited from extraordinarily propitious circumstances. His transformation of Labour eviscerated the Tories. Mr Cameron has, as yet, done next-to-nothing to earn his own self-awarded soubriquet of the 'heir to Blair'.

The headline I gave this post is, of course, accurate but unfair ('tis the mark of a blogger). There is no doubt that Mr Cameron has boosted his party beyond anything that either William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith achieved. He has self-consciously set out to re-position the Tory party. As Prof King relates, "Not surprisingly, voters are bemused. Thousands are not quite sure they can believe their eyes."

His real success is in at least enabling the Tories to get a fair hearing from those people, both in the media and the real world, who might once have dismissed anything that issued forth from a Tory leader's mouth.

But this will only get him so far. The phrase, 'Clause IV moment' has, perhaps, become too much of a cliché: every political leader now looks to 'do a Blair', and accomplish something that is both bold and substantial, which signals strongly a real change in direction. But that should not lessen the importance of achieving just such a moment. Mr Cameron's
best effort so far was little more than a bit of not-so-nifty marketing bullshit.

Of course he has no need to sit down today and write the next Tory Party manifesto. But that does not mean he will long be able to get away with mouthing Hallmark platitudes such as there is "more to life than money". It may be helping to keep his party united, and his popularity relatively high - but he is simply storing up trouble for the days of reckoning ahead.

He needs to be able to answer, clearly and concisely: ‘What would a Tory Britain be like?’

And when he does answer that, then we will see of what sort of stuff Mr Cameron is made. We will find out if his currently loyal troops will stay so even if he dares not utter the shibboleths, Europe, immigration and tax cuts. And we will see what the British public really makes of Mr Cameron as our next-but-one Prime Minister.

June 05, 2006

The setting Sun

Cristina Odone has an interesting take on The Sun's current little local difficulties in today's mediagrauniad:
The paper failed to expose the scandals surrounding Prescott, from his romps with Tracey Temple (a Mirror scoop) to croquet on the lawn at Dorneywood (Mail on Sunday). Kate Moss's coke habit (Mirror) and Heather and Paul McCartney's split (Mirror again) were also missed opportunities.
Such failures to lead the news agenda are, apparently, placing Rebekah Wade, the paper's editor, in some jeopardy:
"After the Mirror got its Prescott scoop," one hack remembers, "there was a sense of 'batten down the hatches, boys, she's coming to get you'."
Of course, all newspapers are under the kosh right now. The red-tops are haemorrhaging readers, both to the Internet and to the mid-market Mail; the middle-brows are eyeing nervously the invasion of the former broadsheets onto their terrain; while the Torygraph, Times, grauniad and Indy are all leading on a Mail-plus news agenda.

However, I cannot help but feel that Ms Odone over-eggs the pudding just a little when she claims The Sun's readers
are finding the paper's politics increasingly perplexing: does the Sun want Blair out now? Does it support Brown over Blair? Cameron over both?
I accept media commentators may find the paper's political positioning "increasingly perplexing", but its readers...? In any case, sorting this out will not be down to Ms Wade:
The editorial team admits the decision is not Wade's to make: [Rupert Murdoch] calls the shots.
As if we were ever in any doubt.

June 04, 2006

Your nominations, please...

I'm going to out up a new poll over at m'other gaff soon, asking the question: who is your favourite must-read British political commentator? I'm going to short-list seven, probably from among the following (in alphabetical order):
  • David Aaronovitch (The Guardian)
  • Nick Cohen (The Observer)
  • Matthew d'Ancona (Sunday Telegraph / Spectator)
  • Danny Finkelstein (The Times)
  • Simon Heffer (Daily Telegraph)
  • Simon Jenkins (The Guardian / Sunday Times)
  • Boris Johnson (Daily Telegraph)
  • Dominic Lawson (The Independent)
  • Matthew Parris (The Times)
  • Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail)
  • Andrew Rawnsley (The Observer)
  • John Rentoul (The Independent)
  • Philip Stephens (Financial Times)
  • Alan Watkins (Independent on Sunday)
I've tried to give a reasonable spread, both of newspapers and of viewpoint (without resorting to the inclusion of 'look at me' controversialists, like Littlejohn).

Have I missed any? Want to lobby for one of those to make the cut? If so, let me know in the comments box.

Meanwhile, there's still time to vote in my current online poll to say when you think Tony Blair - and seemingly, by extension, John Prescott - should step down. A clear majority are currently urging 'Immediately', but there's a disturbing number of masochists who believe he should 'go on and on and on'. (Or perhaps you're really sadists, and think it's a punishment that fits the crime.)

June 03, 2006

Receding intellectual beginnings

The Tory Party seems to have been stung by comments that their policy larder is looking a bit bare. The last two days has seen a whole two policy announcements - though the coolness with which they have been greeted perhaps explains why David Cameron has been putting off the evil day when he has to stop simpering and start clarifying.

First, came George Osbourne’s ‘tax pledge’, in which he boldly declared that he would have a long, hard look at tax codes, and see, y’know, if there was some stuff he could do. As George himself said, “This is quite an ambition.” When even a politician moderates what is billed as a major policy announcement with the qualifier ‘quite’, you can be pretty damn sure even he realises it’s a little bit of a damp squib.

The response from those two true blue voices of Neolithic Toryism, The Daily Telegraph and ConservativeHome.com, was unequivocal: “… by refusing to promise a redistribution of wealth from the state to the private sector, [Mr Osborne] shows that the Conservative Party simply hasn't grasped the financial imperatives of the modern world,” proclaimed Friday’s Torygraph leader
. ConservativeHome’s Tory Diary was even more cruel, deriding not only the Shadow Chancellor’s “economic illiteracy”, but also the muddled way in which the speech was handled by Tory spin-doctors.

Then, secondly, John Redwood - the Tories' very own Banquo's ghost - could be heard this morning telling BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the Tory Party had worked out how to solve Britain’s economic competitiveness, and our pollution worries: legalizing left-hand turns at traffic lights. Though the RAC’s executive director, Edmund King, was a little more sceptical that this trans-Atlantic import is practical: "It works in places like Los Angeles because there you've got very wide roads, very few pedestrians, and virtually no cyclists."

What is intriguing about Mr Redwood’s notion is not just the small beer-ness of the policy (with its ironically eerie echoes of John Major’s traffic cones hotline), but the way the Tories so quickly, easily, happily revert to type.

I’ve little doubt that there are places in Britain where allowing vehicles to turn left at traffic lights will ease congestion, so speeding up journey times and cutting pollution. There may also be merit in some of the other ideas Mr Redwood mooted: bus lanes which only operate during rush hours; introducing changeable speed limits according to the time of day, so that 20mph zones outside schools only apply at the beginning and end of the day; and putting cycle lanes on pavements.

But it is stating-the-bleedin'-obvious to point out that the success or failure of each of these policies will depend on the prevailing local circumstances - in some areas, any or all of these ideas might work. In other places, they could be a complete disaster. It is up to local communities to determine what applies best to their neighbourhood, not for national politicians to wake up one morning and think, “Hmmm, there’s a populist agenda. I’m going to hire me some of that.”

In this regard, Mr Redwood wouold have done well to have heeded some wise words from his fellow Tory, Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart, Chairman of the Local Government Association, writing in Friday’s thegrauniad:

Central government must learn to give up the ingrained habits of decades. It must shift the balance of power and policymaking to locally-based government, so that power can be exercised with and for local people.

Similarly, councils must rise to the challenge of a more devolved system. They must be ambitious for their communities, be determined to devolve power further, relentless in driving for continuous improvement, and fearless in shifting responsibility and accountability from government to council leaders.
The homepage of the Conservative website promises the Party is ‘Beginning intellectual renewal’. If this is the best they can do, let’s hope it’s the end of the beginning.

June 02, 2006

A simile is like a metaphor with pictures

I came across the story of Mike (The Headless Chicken) on Wikipedia today:

Mike (The Headless Chicken) (194547) was a Wyandotte rooster (cockerel) that lived for 18 months after his head had been cut off.

Now if that isn't a metaphor for the post-Blair New Labour government, I don't know what is.

Breathing old life into New Labour?

Back in my days as a Labour member, in June 1994, I undertook a week’s work experience in the Liverpool regional HQ in Walton.

It was a quiet time, owing to the Euro elections having been just fought, so the office was in the usual post-campaign wind-down, though the leadership elections provided some enjoyable background gossip. It was there I met Peter Kilfoyle, the thinking man’s John Prescott (in a good way), with whose constituency office the HQ doubled-up.

I had, and have, a lot of time for him - the more so after reading his brilliant and brave account of the brutal defeat of the city's Militant Tendency, Left Behind. A battler and a bruiser, for sure (with a real antipathy for Peter Mandelson); but also an intelligent guy, whose resignation in 2000 was the first real sign of the splintering of what had been New Labour.

Not for the first time, he uses a column in today’s the grauniad to launch a broadside against Tony Blair, this time against his recent foreign policy speeches - what Mr Kilfoyle terms, “our Great Leader's musings on the future of the planet, a teleological triptych adumbrated in London, Australia and the United States”:

... as the prime minister urged us, in the third of his speeches, at Georgetown University, "let us go back to the immediate issue: Iraq". His practised line was repeated: that the war was about removing Saddam (wrong - it was sold on the erroneous basis that Saddam threatened us with weapons of mass destruction). He once more inferred that terrorism was an Iraqi problem before the illegal war was commenced. This is a purely American construct - no one saw Saddam as a sponsor of international terrorism in the fashion of al-Qaida other than the zealots of the present American administration.

Naturally, Blair did not "want to reopen past arguments". He sang the praises of the new Iraqi government whose members he had met - safely ensconced within the heavily guarded "green zone". His rhetoric became stratospheric about these guardians of Iraq's fledgling democracy, and their struggle to bring western concepts to the heart of the Arabic and Islamic world. Just one sentence, one line, mentioned the price being paid by ordinary Iraqis, the principal sacrificial lambs in this great geopolitical game. No mention of the daily assault of Sunni on Shia, or of Shia or Sunni; a stony silence on the Kurdish oppression of the Assyrians.

Instead, we heard the same tired cliches about Blair's worthy, if nebulous, aspirations for a better world.

When the history of the rise, plateau, decline and fall of New Labour comes to be written - it may be sooner rather than later - one could do worse than begin with the names of the first two Labour MPs to nominate Tony Blair for the leadership of the Party: Peter Kilfoyle and Mo Mowlam.

Mr Kilfoyle's resignation speech cited New Labour’s failure to address the needs of the so-called ‘heartlands’; Dr Mowlam was resigned by Mr Blair for becoming just too damn popular.

It’s too late for Mo; but I see that Peter’s tipped for a return under Gordon Brown, according to his Ask Aristotle profile: “Since his resignation he is said to have become closer to the Brownites. If the chancellor ever gets the top job Mr Kilfoyle may yet return to government.” His resurrection, together with that of John Denham, might just demonstrate New Labour has a bit of renewable energy left in it yet.