Monday, September 30, 2013 




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Friday, September 20, 2013 


Also, I'm not here next week. Enjoy yourselves.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013 

We all know what happens to people who stand in the middle etc.

To get a sense of the current flights of fancy afflicting some Lib Dems, you only need to see Ed Davey worrying about how the party might need to introduce all-women shortlists after 2015 to increase their miserable number of female MPs. You might have thought they should be more concerned about the number of MPs they'll have in total after the election, but such is the apparent belief that regardless of how bleak the polls look, everything will be all right on the night.

After all, this time round it won't be the other party leaders agreeing with Nick, it'll be him agreeing with him.  Or so went the feeble joke in his truly dismal keynote speech, Nick agreeing that Dave only cares about the rich while Ed is too irresponsible to be trusted with the economy.  Just as Danny Alexander seems to have found an interesting electoral strategy in saying that the Tories couldn't have kept the economy stagnating for three years without them, so it seems Clegg has decided that the voters will come streaming back if he realigns his party as being the ultimate moderating factor.  They'll be dead centre on the political spectrum, preventing Labour from going too far to the left and the Tories to the right!  Why, just look at what they've stopped the Tories from doing so far!

To give them some credit, Clegg's list of 16 policies they've halted isn't entirely without merit.  His putting his foot down probably has meant the Human Rights Act still exists, that Michael Gove hasn't got entirely his own way as education secretary, although frankly the damage is fairly devastating as it is, and Liz Truss hasn't managed to turn the nation's playgroups into the Ayn Rand School for Tots.  It's that what they've gone along with has been far worse: the axing of the 50p top rate of tax, which the party this week endorsed; the outrageous waste of time and money which was the reorganisation of the NHS; the bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy, as only the government calls it) where 50% of those affected are now in arrears; the scraping of the Future Jobs Fund and the support for the spectacularly useless Work programme as its replacement; and most grievous of all, the backing to the hilt of George Osborne's austerity plan, which will now not end until 2018 at the earliest.  Tim Farron, the party's chairman and supposed conscience even has the gall to claim that the recovery wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for them.

Having abandoned all the positions that made them different to the Tories and Labour, most recently deciding that our "independent nuclear deterrent" is worth keeping after all, just with one less submarine to help cut costs and salve previously troubled minds, all Clegg's left to argue is that his party isn't quite as bad as the other two and this is exactly why it deserves to stay in government.  It seems to work, just about, with the Lib Dem faithful, much as telling people how fantastic they are and how brilliant the stuff they've achieved is does in the short term.  As for everyone else, you can't help but think the party is going to soon get an extremely rude awakening.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013 

It's not over till the tremulant sings.

There are few more terrifying lines to come out of a politician's mouth than "we should have a national debate [about this]".  It's the ultimate sanction for every ignorant pub bore in the land to get on the phone to 5 Live and share their wisdom with the world, usually in the most belligerent and arrogant terms.  It's an invitation to newspapers and columnists to do much the same, publishing their informed stupidity for the man on the street to hastily flip over on the way to the sports page.  And of course, it's also the perfect subject for many tortured blog posts, none of which reach any firm conclusion and will go unread by everyone except the writer's dog.

Yes, we are yet again discussing the veil.  Or the niqab, as few still want to give it its proper name.  That saying the veil is confusing because it encompasses all the different types and styles of hijab Muslim women wear doesn't seem to matter, as niqab is obviously an alien word.  Nor do we ever seem to get any sense of perspective: the number of women who wear the niqab in this country is probably in the tens of thousands, if that.  Those who wear it also tend to be clustered in localised areas, due to either those who emigrated from one country choosing to settle in the same area, or the mosque they attend.  Despite living close to an area with a sizeable Pakistani diaspora, I think I've probably seen only one or two women wearing it over the years.  It really isn't anything approaching a major problem or issue.  It may be in those few communities where many do wear it, but making it into something it isn't doesn't help in the slightest.

We keep returning to the subject because it excites opinion about "the other" in our midst.  I disagree with those who refer to it as mark of separation, as I don't believe that many of those who wear the niqab do so to cut themselves off from the world at large; we however do see it as such because it so goes against our sensibilities about how we communicate and interact with each other, to say nothing about the aesthetics of shrouding yourself when plenty take the first opportunity they get to shed unnecessary clothing.  It also feeds into the whole tendency some have to instantly begin complaining about how if we couldn't live as we do here back in their "home land" that they shouldn't be able to import their ways either.  That this confuses governments and states, often authoritarian and completely unrepresentative, with the people they rule over naturally doesn't enter into the equation.

The Heresiarch superbly covers just about every argument and counter-argument there is for and against either tolerating or putting restrictions on the wearing of the niqab.  My view is the classically liberal, boring, one that mostly it should be decided on a case by case basis.  In the specific instance of "D", as she is being referred to, I think Judge Peter Murphy has been too willing to accede to what looks like special pleading on her behalf.  It might be different if "D" wasn't charged with intimidation, but I see no reason whatsoever why she should be allowed to cover her face when not giving evidence when she is in an enclosed space in a court of law.  She's not in public, she's facing a serious charge and the jury and judge should be able to see her reactions to the evidence given against her if they so wish.  She could still wear a hijab, so it's not as if she's being asked to completely discard her religious beliefs, just her specific interpretation that modesty means a complete face covering.  I don't accept that would in any way infringe her rights under the HRA or ECHR, as France and Belgium have both banned the wearing of the niqab in public completely, and as yet there has been no ruling on whether that is in breach of Article 9.  As a letter in the Graun points out, it seems ridiculous that we can be tying ourselves up in such knots over this when judges and the police continue to persecute the naked rambler in what has turned into an absurdly wasteful battle of wills.

On the other controversy over the weekend, that of Birmingham Metropolitan College dropping its ban on the niqab almost as soon as it was introduced, it's not quite as clear cut.  I have no problem with schools banning the niqab, whether for pupils or teachers, but when it's a 16+ institution where attendance is by choice, being more forgiving of personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies in dress ought to be the way to go.  You can understand the safety aspects of a ban, but that's hardly an insurmountable problem when everyone will soon get used to who does and doesn't normally wear a niqab.  Such a policy would surely also further understanding rather than the opposite; giving those who choose to wear it the possibility of only attending Islamic institutions doesn't help anyone in the long term.

The thing that most annoys is that as before, this entire episode was began by a politician claiming that they were speaking up for those who are being forced into wearing the niqab.  Apart from there being little to no evidence for this being the case, even if such a statement was accurate it rather ignores the fact that far more women and girls will have little to no choice when it comes to wearing the hijab.  One of the most depressing sights I've seen in recent times was a double page spread of photos of London schoolchildren in the Graun, and the number of girls pictured that were already covering their hair, despite not having yet reached 10 years of age.  We don't however question the hijab as opposed to the niqab, as we mostly accept it as an inherent part of Islam (internal differences considered), personal dislike for the practice or religion in general aside.

What we really don't need is the front page of the Sun DEMANDING action, even if those DEMANDS weren't completely outrageous.  Legislation isn't needed, unless it really does become a major issue in courtrooms, where hopefully Judge Murphy's compromise won't necessarily set an overall precedent.  Banks and other places can come up with their own policies without parliament intervening, as the Border Force or whatever it's called now already has.  Within reason we ought to be able to walk around in public wearing what we please; just as I often wear a hood in the winter and usually cover my mouth as well, which some claim intimidates them (although I'm just about the least intimidating person to walk on a pair of legs), so if someone wishes to only have their eyes visible out of adherence to a scripture written hundreds of years ago, they can.  If it does no harm to anyone else, live and let live.  And tone down the rhetoric.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013 

Is that the sound of gunfire?

There's something almost touching about the general mood prevailing at the Liberal Democrat conference up in Glasgow.  For a party that is still looking electoral oblivion in the face, they seem to have managed to convince themselves that things will be fine. Really. Honestly. Everything will turn out okay in the end. 

To be fair for at least a couple of sentences, their reasoning isn't completely irrational.  Buoyed by the victory in the Eastleigh by-election, which seemingly proved that local organisation and popularity will trump the vote nationally, they're fairly confident that they can hold on in at least their Tory marginal seats.  This appears to be backed up by Lord Ashcroft's latest batch of polls in those constituencies (which also suggests Labour have increased their lead where they need to win, despite Ashcroft saying the results make him slightly more optimistic for his side's chances), and combined with the changing economic weather, those who have always favoured the coalition have something resembling a message to make about all the pain having been worth it.

Except, if you so much as bother to look slightly more broadly, the positives are clearly outweighed by the negatives.  About the only policy contribution the public look positively on is the rise in the personal allowance, and even then less than half think they deserve credit for it.  If I wanted to be completely factitious I'd suggest this is because it's always been a policy that looks good in principle but doesn't work as well in practice, especially when a cut in VAT would be more progressive, but more likely is that people, regardless of their party allegiance, are simply turned off by the party the Lib Dems have become.

For if there's one that goes in their favour, it's that they still talk a good game.  There's something to be said for seeing ordinary delegates speak for their motions (Sure you don't want to rephrase that? Ed.) on the news bulletins, like the Tories and Labour also did prior to their discovery that party democracy means splits and differences of opinion and both are Very Bad Things Indeed.  The problem for them is that having said these things, they promptly do the opposite when it comes down to it.  Having done nothing to stop the secret courts bill from becoming law, they've now decided they're against it.  The same seems certain to happen with the proposed "default on" filtering of internet pornography; they voted it down, but they hardly seem likely to make a stand on it within government.  Now according to a leaked email they want the rich to pay more in tax (although apparently almost double the average wage doesn't make you well off), despite having, err, went along with the ideological decision by George Osborne to cut the 50p rate before it had a chance to prove its potential worth just a year ago.

The veritable king of this approach is the man once referred to as the sage of Twickenham, the oracle himself, Vince Cable.  Like the many who have gone before him, briefly intriguing the media, Vince seems to have began to believe his own hype.  And just as they gradually turned into their adversaries, so Cable is morphing bit by bit into Gordon Brown. Every year dear old Gordie used to go to conference and deliver a speech that gave the impression he could do a better job than our Tone, and so too now does Cable. Nothing was too hypocritical for him yesterday, as he set about reprising the nasty Tories riff, denouncing their approach to immigration, benefits, and the trade unions to name but three.  All true, naturally, but just a bit redundant when you're either facilitating those policies or doing nothing whatsoever to stop or alter them.  Nor does it reflect well on him when he doesn't seem to have the courage of his convictions. Regardless of whether or not Clegg engineered a vote on economic policy to trap him, speaking up for continued intervention then voting with the party rather than staying away as he planned looks pathetic.

It does however make more sense than the actual party line, which is to claim equal credit for the "recovery". Saying the Tories couldn't have done it on their own is certainly one strategy, but it isn't one you'd recommend unless electoral suicide is the ultimate goal. The hope presumably is that by the election most will have forgotten the three years of stagnation and drift and be optimistic for the future instead. This rather forgets that it's thanks to the flatlining economy that austerity will continue well into the next parliament. Cable's warnings about the type of recovery we're seeing would surely be the correct line to take, yet he's been dismissed as talking nonsense by the same man who wants to share the blame with Dave 'n' George.

The same thinking is behind the "compromise" which will see the Lib Dems claim credit for funding free school meals for primary school students while the Tories get their marriage tax allowance. Decent and praiseworthy policy as a free lunch for kids is, it's hardly worth going along with the Tory bung to the middle classes for. The Tories will simply claim they came up with both, while Clegg and friends will be saddled with a backwards looking piece of bourgeois social engineering.

Lib Dem strategy is built around the belief that this sort of compromise, however unpopular, will stand the party in good stead if another hung parliament ends up being the result of the next election.  This rather ignores just how this particular coalition has put people off them, and yet still the rhetoric is that without their influence, either Labour would ruin the "recovery" or the Tories would go off the deep end into out and out social conservatism.  Dislike it as they may, "coalition" is not going to be an option on the ballot paper.  By abandoning all pretence of winning a majority, despite the prospect being unthinkable, the Lib Dems encourage the belief that their manifesto won't be worth the paper it will be printed on (even more so than already).  Three years ago it seemed as though the party was going to make a true electoral breakthrough.  It didn't, but still gained some semblance of power.  We shouldn't be surprised in two years' time if the predicted by some but scorned by others wipeout becomes reality. 

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Monday, September 16, 2013 

The slightest of silver linings.

Much (including by yours truly) was written in the aftermath of the coalition losing the vote that would have led, supposedly, to a second vote on whether the UK should join potential military action in Syria.  This understandably focused on why it was that a government with a more than healthy majority by historical standards could manage to lose a motion on foreign policy, something that had the anoraks digging in their books to find the last example of, and what it meant for the main three parties.

Almost three weeks on, and with a deal having been reached between the US and Russia over Syria documenting and then handing over their chemical weapon stocks for destruction, the vote has become even more significant.  In their rush to get on board with what looked to be imminent US military strikes, the deadly duo of Cameron and Hague recalled parliament without so much as having the basics of a case for war.  True, they just about managed to get the joint intelligence committee and attorney general on their side, even if the reports from both were fairly pitiful, but as for why we had to intervene now and whether we could avoid being drawn into a protracted civil war, answers came there none.  Fingers of blame were pointed at Ed Miliband for his supposed preference for party politics over the "national interest", when the real reason the vote was lost was the prime minister's failure to convince his own backbenchers.

Thanks then to the miserable failure of Cameron, Hague and Clegg, you can make a reasonable case that another Middle Eastern adventure was avoided.  Without Cameron immediately granting a vote, apparently confident he would win it, there wouldn't have been the demands on Obama to consult Congress.  Obama, unlike Cameron, realised reasonably quickly that he was unlikely to win a vote, and unprepared to either ignore Congress or suffer the humiliation of such a loss, he and John Kerry sought out a Plan B.  Whether Obama ever truly wanted to get involved militarily in Syria is open to question; he had to be persuaded to act in Libya.  It would though have been an even bigger loss of face to not do something having seen his "red line" breached.  By focusing on chemical weapons rather than the removal of Assad or an increase in help for the rebels, there was always the possibility of a compromise, and that seems to have just about been reached.

As for whether or not Cameron will be thanked by the president is far more difficult to ascertain.  On the surface, it looks like a good deal if all goes as agreed.  Assad loses the weapons that sort of deterred Israel from interfering too heavily in the country, and which also struck a certain amount of fear into the rebels; it doesn't stop the US from increasing aid to the rebels, and there are reports that the long promised weapons have started to arrive; and the US avoids "owning" another sectarian conflict, having successfully engineered one that continues to rage in Iraq.  It could even lead to a break in the impasse over the Iran nuclear programme, if a splash in a certain liberal newspaper is to be believed.

Not everything looks quite so rosy, though.  Should the deal either fall through or Syria attempt to prevaricate, the US has all but boxed itself in to some sort of military action.  All the same problems with an attack on Syria as there were when it looked imminent will still apply.  Moreover, regardless of how it came about, backing down after it looked as though they were only days away from strikes will be seen as weakness at home.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the US public were against intervention, or indeed that the Republicans had just as much of a role as anyone else in making a vote seem unwinnable, we're already seeing the usual suspects whining, having believed they were going to get another notch on their "countries attacked" bedpost.  That it was done with the loathed Russians and while the even more despised Putin lurked in the shadows, having last week dared to suggest the US is anything but an "exceptional" nation, won't have improved their mood.

It feels especially incongruous when the UN inspection team has confirmed definitively that sarin was used in the attack on Ghouta in Damascus on the 21st of August.  Their report doesn't say it in as many words, but the inference is clear that the attack was carried out by the military, rather than the rebels.  This doesn't of course mean that the use of chemical weapons was ordered by Assad himself, or that the attack wasn't a "mistake", with those who prepared it getting the mixture wrong, although obviously the president is ultimately responsible.  It does though bring further into focus just how foolish the mad rush towards intervention was; why could the US, French and UK not wait until the inspectors had carried out their work?  The conflict in Syria has been so coloured with lies and propaganda from both sides that relatively unbiased evidence was crucial.  Like it or not, our own intelligence agencies simply aren't trusted any more, and for good reason.  It's difficult to believe that had any vote on action been delayed until now that a majority still wouldn't have been found, misgivings about another intervention in an Arab country or not.

In truth, it's a fitting sort of end to our entire policy on Syria.  From the very beginning William Hague and the coalition have been either unclear or deliberately misleading in what they've been trying to achieve, recognising the rebels, supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, all while refusing to put pressure on them to attend negotiations which the regime was prepared to enter into.  We say we want a diplomatic solution, yet we make no effort whatsoever to get one.  Instead, we allowed or tacitly supported the arming of the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, then acted surprised when they went to Salafists and other Islamists.  Now we seem to be hoping the "moderate" rebels will fight the likes of al-Nusra and the ISIS, and are training some to do so.  We cry crocodile tears about children and refugees, while seemingly not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.  The best that can be said is that thanks to the US-Russia agreement, things are unlikely to get any worse for the moment.  They won't however get any better.  Hague and Cameron have however succeeded in making themselves look like idiots, as well as the most unreliable of allies.  The very slightest of silver linings.

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Friday, September 13, 2013 

Take the lead.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013 

A funny kind of isolationism.

Of those sympathetic towards liberal interventionism, Timothy Garton Ash is usually among the most eloquent and sound in his reasoning, and hardly ever resorts to the glib, emotional arguments of others.  He doesn't do so in his latest piece either, but he does rather misrepresent Democrat and Republican objections to intervention in Syria:

"Isolationism" is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

First off, I don't think the fear of decline has entered into the debate at all, or rather if it has, it's been used by those pushing for intervention as what could happen if they don't act.  Second, while some such as Rand Paul are classical isolationists in modern libertarian clothing, it's hardly the case that the majority of legislators are leaning in that direction.  It has to be remembered that over the past few years America has sent its drones into Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan; has intervened in Libya; withdrew from Iraq; and is in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan, although will most certainly retain a long-term presence in the country.  Obama and the Pentagon have done most of this with barely a murmur of disquiet from either the Senate or the House of Representatives, with the likes of John McCain and other hawks pushing for the military to go further in some instances.

Indeed, Obama has only stepped back in this instance because he faced a humiliation worse than the doing a deal with the Russians: losing the vote.  And again, this wouldn't be down to creeping isolationism or "withdrawalism" as much as the fact that the Obama administration has made a dreadful case for intervention, off the back of a red line that it's clear the president wished he had never drew.  To say it once again, this was never about chemical weapons; it was about politics.  Luckily, the Russians seem to have found a way to get him somewhat off the hook.  As Ash recounts, the real interest for the US is for the war to continue, hence why the rebels have never been put under any pressure to come to the negotiating table.  Letting the jihadis and US-trained rebels fight it out far away from any real strategic US interests makes sense, at least for now. What happens in the years to come we can worry about then.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013 

Another in the yearly series of Mercury prize whinges.

I'm probably just getting forgetful in my old age, but I genuinely thought I hadn't even bothered to comment on the nominations for last year's Mercury. With 2012 likely to go down as one of the worst years in recent memory for mainstream popular music, it seemed as though the judges decided not to bother either. We don't of course know which albums were actually submitted for consideration, as it remains the increasingly absurd case that record companies have to pay for their nominees to be considered, but the exclusion of Rustie's debut, if submitted, was unforgivable. Alt-J won, perhaps because their record was the polar opposite to the victor the previous year, PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. Where her record was impassioned and urgent, Alt-J's An Awesome Wave jangled inconsequentially. As well as the Mercury, they received an accolade of an entirely different order: they were on the "mix tape" our down with the kids prime minister gave to Obama as an example of great British music.

Having completely ignored UK bass last year, the panel of judges could hardly do the same this time with everyone declaring this the year that disco, house and something approximate to UK garage have returned to the fore, and they duly haven't. So what have they plumped for? Did they go truly leftfield (by their standards) and nominate Andy Stott's Luxury Problems?  Maybe Mala in Cuba, if that wasn't left out of last year's list as it came out right on the eve of the nominations?  Or how about Dasaflex by Dusk and Blackdown?

Of course not.  They chose Rudimental and Disclosure.  Disclosure's inclusion was probably inevitable, considering how the media seemingly decided that despite their music being a facsimile of the bass trends of the last few years they were the ones who should take all the accolades, but Rudimental?  Really?  They make DJ Fresh's chart-topping efforts, and he was at least once upon a time a part of drum and bass legends Bad Company, sound positively subversive.  There isn't anything Rudimental have done that others within the actual D&B world haven't a million times before, and they've always been ignored.  With Disclosure you can't deny they've been a success story, it's the why they have that's more interesting.  Why them when there are literally dozens of other producers putting out far superior music in the same vein?

The answer, obviously enough, is that it's money and all that goes with it, the marketing, the PR, the creation of hype that still makes the difference.  More perplexing still is why the likes of Pitchfork and the Graun have both fallen for it, despite both usually being more cynical and informed about where the scene has been heading.

One positive that can be taken is that the Mercury is clearly entering what ought to be a existential crisis.  When news reports make clear the way that record companies have to be pay for their artists to be included, and how an album has to have had a physical release also, it's surely time that the playing field is levelled if the award is going to retain any credibility.  It's ridiculous that the award can be sponsored by Barclays and yet the deal apparently doesn't cover the relatively slight expenses that would be incurred were the entry conditions either dropped or lessened.  It's also deeply revealing that the chair of judges is the same as it was when the prize was launched in 92, especially when the entire panel changes every year for the literary world's equivalent, the Booker.

Again, we can't know whether or not they were entered, but it seems bizarre that These New Puritans again missed out, as they did with their previous album Hidden, as has also this time Bat for Lashes.  Albums by Jake Bugg and Foals have though made the list, when Holy Fire is by far Foals' weakest and Jake Bugg is damned with the faint praise that he's the "old person's young singer".  Small mercies are that Bumford and Sons haven't made their list, nor Bastille or Tom Odell, the latter of whom might just make a certain end of year round-up.  It is though yet another conservative list, which while preferable to Speech Debelle emerging the victor, simply renders the award increasingly irrelevant.  It's a shame when with a bit more radicalism on the part of the judges, it could rival the aforementioned Booker for both credibility and impact.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013 

Boring, boring Labour.

Considering the BBC's problems at the moment, it wasn't the best idea for the new Newsnight editor to "accidentally" tweet how boring Rachel Reeves was on the programme last night.  That no one who actually saw the segment featuring the Labour shadow treasury spokesman could possibly disagree doesn't matter when this was quite obviously bias in its most latent form, and the party richly deserved the apology it quickly received.  Little things like objectivity simply don't enter into such proceedings.  True, the fault doesn't so much lie with the person as it does with Katz and his underlings: Reeves has never been anything other than stultifingly dull; expecting her to have suddenly become devastatingly witty and incisive in analysis was asking a bit much.

The problem for Labour is that Reeves is the rule rather than the exception. For all the silliness of the summer and whispering against Ed, the party appears listless.  If it wasn't for Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Chris Bryant, all of whom, love them or loathe, can make an impact, things would be even worse. With the party having to drop the investigation into what did or didn't happen in Falkirk after those accusing Unite of skulduggery withdrew their evidence, it looks increasingly like the response from the party had been drawn up for just such an eventuality. Unable to back down without giving yet more ammunition to the Tories, having pretty much put a "kick me" sign on their own backs already, the media were clearly hoping Miliband was going to be received at the TUC much like a bank note campaigner at a police station.

Predictably enough, the brothers didn't oblige. Not that this was down to Miliband winning over his audience with the sheer force of his argument, as err, he didn't bother to make one.  Listening to Ed you wouldn't think this was about the breaking of the historic link with the unions, the very organisations that created the party in the first place; no, this was about a "change", an "exciting idea" that would lead not to 200,000 Labour members but 500,000, a genuine, living breathing movement!  Who could disagree with that?  How the "change" would work in practice, whether it would mean a funding shortfall for Labour or a loss of influence on either side wasn't up for discussion.

Instead Ed delivered what has become his standard speech.  Yes, the opening was lively enough, with a fairly spirited attack on Cameron for something he might have said, as frankly I can't recall Dave describing the trade union movement as a "threat to our economy", at least in those exact terms, but then it just descended into the One Nation mush that has become the Labour's leader boilerplate message.  We still of course don't know what a One Nation Labour party is, as it looks unbelievably similar to the one we had prior to Ed deciding appropriating the old Tory mantle was a good wheeze.  After all, the policies are the same, the ministers are the same, and the message is the same.  Ed could have delivered his speech today at any point this year or last, and yet the closing section seems like something approaching the sort of pitch Miliband will have to make prior to the election.  It doesn't just come across as that word, weak, it's completely and utterly lacking.

As George Osborne tried to set out yesterday, however risibly, the coalition now has that horrible thing, a narrative.  The recovery is real, Labour wanted us to change course, they can't be trusted.  It might yet become a bit more subtle, and it seems likely there's going to be some movement on living standards, whether through alterations to the minimum wage or otherwise, but that's essentially going to be the message over the next year and a half as long as the economy keeps growing.  It's still going to be an uphill struggle for the Tories to win a majority when the odds are stacked against them, yet stranger things have surely happened.  Miliband could be the next prime minister, but he's starting to leave it late on why he deserves to be and how his party would govern better than the current shower.  A good place to start would be sacking his current speech writer.  And letting Reeves loose on the TV sparingly.

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Monday, September 09, 2013 

The PPE approach.

From the inestimable Flying Rodent:

And we'll finish with a minor point - our politicians are so keen to cast their own actions as vitally important and historic that it's difficult to avoid concluding that they're victims of narcissism.

Without wanting to completely disagree, I'd argue that politicians constantly invoke yesterday's battles because it's one of the few things they do know about.  We get all the references to appeasement and the comparisons of today's dictators to Hitler not just because WW2 is the gold standard for the "good war", but due to how the PPE graduates who reign over us seem to imagine that such talk is impressive.  It doesn't matter how outrageous the allusions are when you examine them, with John Kerry daring to make a connection between Hitler, who was responsible for the deaths of millions, Saddam Hussein, who presided over the deaths of (probably) hundreds of thousands and gassed around 5,000 Kurds (with either US support or acquiescence) and Assad, who may have given the orders for the use of chemical weapons that killed either hundreds or in the region of 1,000, it's that you create the image in people's heads that the only way to deal with such leaders is force.

By the same token, to draw back or think again is to be pitifully weak, to set a precedent that every enemy or potential enemy will never forget.  To do nothing is to be Neville Chamberlain, to allow the destruction of a country far away of which we know little.  That this doesn't make even the slightest logical sense, especially when you set the "red line" yourself is rarely brought up in response because on the international stage we must always walk tall.  It's why David Cameron had to respond to a Russian minister referring to the UK as a small country with a Love Actually-esque riff instead of just dismissing it as unworthy of response.  As a letter writer in the Graun noted, the irony of claiming to have defeated fascism while in the nation that did the most to destroy the Nazi war machine couldn't have said more about the ridiculous way our politicians continue to puff themselves up.

It wouldn't be so bad if humanitarianism genuinely was at least one motivation behind the proposed US strike.  I was against intervention in Libya, but I always recognised that the desire to protect Benghazi was real.  With Syria, as Shuggy alludes to, what we're getting is pro-war moralism.  If you're against or undecided, dead children will be shoved under your nose.  I can remember during the Lebanon war the Evening Standard openly claiming that children were being used as shields; this time round, when we know for a fact that the rebels have used children as fighters, and when children's bodies are placed together for maximum effect (and I have no objection to that, but it should at least be recognised that's what's being done) we're meant to regard the use of chemical weapons as a unique evil that cannot be tolerated.  We could ask the average Vietnamese what he or she thinks about the United States suddenly discovering the inhumanity of the use of unconventional weapons, but they'd probably be too busy laughing.

In reality, this long stopped being about the plight of the average Syrian, and it's not about chemical weapons either.  In descending order, it's about Obama having to do something because of his dumb red line, about attempting to undermine Iran and about ensuring the civil war continues.  As Juan Cole writes, the concern is that Assad could fall too quickly rather than too late, with the jihadists amongst the opposition the beneficiaries.  Seeing as even some of those we consider not to be aligned with the ISI or al-Nusra want a caliphate, it's little wonder they apparently wish to repeat the Awakening experience of Iraq.  Far from wanting an end to the violence, we seem to be hoping the conflict gets bloodier.

Such is the low we've reached that this speech by Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, is described as being the case for intervention without moralising or confusion.  In her second paragraph she brings Iran and Hezbollah into it, and already you don't need to read any further.  While the overriding reason for public opposition to a strike is war-weariness, whether here or in the US, it also has to be the case that many are fed up with being taken for fools.  You don't have to so much as followed the conflict in Syria to know that Hezbollah intervened only after the conflict had been turned sectarian by the Qatari and Saudi funded rebels, in turn supported and funded by our good selves.  You don't need to be even slightly astute to see much of the coverage, including in the broadsheets and on the BBC, to be hopelessly biased or heavily influenced by the most base propaganda.  And when you've been lied to on such a scale as we were over Iraq and WMD, it takes a lot to convince that we should get involved in a conflict where it looks as those both sides are equally caked in blood.  The Russian/Syrian offer of being putting chemical weapons under international control offers very slight hope, but only that.  Our leaders might be able to spin war, but spinning a climb down after all this?  It would be the most abject display of weakness.  We can't have that.

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Friday, September 06, 2013 

Renegade stares.

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Thursday, September 05, 2013 

The model of a charmless man.

Back in the deep mists of time (or eleven years ago, as it was, a period we seem to be returning to a lot lately) Iain Duncan Smith asked his party not to underestimate the determination of a quiet man.  The Tories responded by getting rid of him as leader a year later, turning instead to the talents of a man described by Ann Widdecombe, of all people, as having something of the night about him.  Suitably chastened by his experience, Duncan Smith went off and launched the Centre for Social Justice, having been deeply troubled by a visit as leader to the Easterhouse estate.

Flash forward a decade and rather than the quiet man we have the man who is never wrong.  Whether it's using statistics in the most misleading fashion imaginable, justifying himself on the basis that he "believes" he's right, or as seen today when putting all the blame for the problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit on faceless civil servants, his hubris seems to know no bounds.  Unsurprisingly, one of the main findings of the National Audit Office's study into the scheme found that there was a "fortress" culture, where only good news circulated, and those involved felt they couldn't raise concerns.  The main fault however was that the plan was far too ambitious in the first place: Duncan Smith and his department wanted all new claimants to be put on UC starting this October, and continued to claim they would be until the full scale of the chaos within the DWP became clear a few months ago.  As Liam Byrne argued in the Commons, the level of chicanery involved is quite something even for a government department struggling with IT systems: IDS claimed back in March that UC was proceeding as planned despite the programme having undergone a "reset" just a month before.

Nor is IDS even prepared to accept that the timetable for full implementation, scheduled for 2017, still might not be met, despite the NAO heavily hinting this will be the case.  Rather, just as sophistry has been repeatedly employed to claim the Olympics came in under budget despite the fact they cost far more than the original estimate as presented at the time, so now IDS claims UC will be "delivered" as planned and on budget.  Appropriately, the same man who helmed the "under budget" handover of the Olympic Park is now the one in charge of the scheme.

Most agree that in principle, UC has the potential to simplify the benefits system.  Far less clear is whether it will make work pay as the coalition claims.  If anything, it looks likely to make life even more miserable for those whom can only work part-time, or who can't get more hours, as a new conditionality regime is to be implemented alongside it.  With ever more people being pushed onto zero hours contracts, the aim appears not to be to help but to dismantle Gordon Brown's hated tax credits step by step.

Similarly to how Michael Gove is protected from most criticism due to his former life as journalist, IDS enjoys such overwhelming support from the right-wing press for his policies, for which see the Mail's preference for prejudice over facts that he can continue claiming black is in fact white.  Indeed, when the media class as a whole seems to have decided that something must be done about "benefits culture", as confirmed by Channel 4's fatuously premised Benefits Britain 1949, the cover is there for failure on a grand scale, regardless of the damage being done to some of the most vulnerable.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013 

Rachel Manning: some justice, at last.

The conviction of Shahidul Ahmed for the murder of Rachel Manning at last lifts any remaining cloud of suspicion from her boyfriend Barri White and his friend Keith Hyatt.  White and Hyatt were convicted of murder and perverting the cause of justice respectively back in 2002, the victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in recent years. White would almost certainly still be in prison if it wasn't for the BBC's Rough Justice programme, which in its last edition comprehensively dismantled the case against the two men.  Key to White and Hyatt's successful appeal was the debunking of the forensic evidence used by the prosecution, which was found by an independent reviewer to not only be wrong, but to have not been conducted sufficiently to have proven anything.

Not that the miscarriage of justice was purely down to the failings of the forensic lab. For White and Hyatt to have been in the area where Manning was attacked and then acted as described by the prosecution, they would have needed to do so in a incredibly short timeframe. As the BBC reporter Mark Daly put it after trying himself to recreate their alleged movements and failing, they would have needed to be commandos to have pulled it off. Nor was it explained why the pair first put Manning's body in the front of the Hyatt's van, from which the samples of material were taken, before then putting her in the back.

The only motive advanced for White's actions was that he had killed his girlfriend in a fit of anger after the two separated on bad terms following an argument in a nightclub.  For this to be the case, White would have needed to have stalked Manning after they had separated, unless he happened to come across her by chance.  He would also have had to struck within a couple of minutes of Manning phoning her flatmate, before phone calls were then made from the same phone box to Hyatt's home, which the prosecution claimed were from White rather than Manning.  Despite all these inconsistencies, Thames Valley police either ignored them entirely or brushed them aside.  To give them the most possible credit, as Mark Daly again puts it, they seem to have approached the murder with a "lack of open-minded vigour".  That almost no one in Milton Keynes believed White or Hyatt were guilty was also of little apparent concern.

Nor was the reopened case after the clearing of White getting anywhere until Ahmed carried out another opportunistic crime, sexually assaulting a woman who got into his car, wrongly believing it to be a taxi.  Even so, and perhaps because of the disproved forensic evidence used at White's trial, the jury at Ahmed's first prosecution failed to reach a verdict.  In spite of the lack of an apology or so far compensation for their own ordeal, White and Hyatt gave evidence for the prosecution at both trials, and were once again accused of being responsible under defence cross-examination.  The defence even went so far as to call a witness who claimed White had confessed to his guilt in prison, a witness whose testimony was only slightly undermined by his own conviction for murder, as well as how he's currently applying for parole for a third time.

With justice having finally been done as Manning's actual murderer begins a life sentence, it's surely time for that apology to be made.  The Manning family are entitled to hold the opinion they do, that had White not left Manning on her own in an area she wasn't familiar with she would still be alive, as they are also that the police have always "followed the evidence" (they complained at the time about the Rough Justice programme, believing White to be guilty), but Thames Valley police and the CPS shouldn't be allowed to hide behind those sentiments as they appear to be attempting to.  What was already a tragedy was turned into something far worse for three families through incompetence and an apparent eagerness to pin the blame on the "bit of a lad" boyfriend.  Lessons hopefully have been learned.  Those mistakes should now be properly recognised.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013 

How not to tackle the next big scandal.

When a government of any stripe wants to either bury bad news or in this instance, let loose a bad bill, it usually releases it just before parliament goes into recess.  Infamously, on the day Tony Blair was interviewed by the police over the loans for peerages scandal, the government published a veritable boatload of reviews and initiatives, in one of the most transparent attempts to distract attention away from the boss getting a visit from Inspector Knacker.  Only rarely though does it then follow up this attempt at subterfuge by attempting to ram in through the Commons almost as soon as MPs have returned to Westminster.  Instinct alone then ought to suggest that the transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill is a wretched piece of legislation.

Sadly, such is the level Polly Toynbee has reduced herself to, and I speak as someone who is still sympathetic towards her comment pieces (meaning I will at least read them, unlike those scraped together by Zoe Williams), when she writes about how terrible something is, I find it hard not to suspect it perhaps isn't as awful as she's making it out to be.  Then you read the reservations the Electoral Commission, the independent body meant to implement it has (PDF), and it becomes clear that if anything, on this occasion Polly has actually undersold how dreadful the bill could be in practice.

What's at stake most certainly isn't being helped by the BBC's lackadasical reporting of the bill.  The only figure they mention is the overall cap on spending by third-party organisations of £390,000, which is only accurate if the spending is spread across the UK as a whole.  The actual limits are £320,000 in England, 35k in Scotland, 24k in Wales and 11k in Northern Ireland.  What's more, the limits before you have to register with the EC in the year prior to an election seem ridiculously low outside of England: £5,000 is a 50% reduction on the limit as it is, but this falls to a mere £2,000 in Wales, Scotland or NI.  The activities deemed to be political have also been considerably widened, to encompass rallies, media work, polling and "transport for the purpose of obtaining publicity".

How a bill that was supposed to deal with "next big scandal waiting to happen" has transmogrified into an act that looks to muzzle charities, third parties and trade unions isn't initially clear, but it can certainly be guessed at.  With the reforms to constituencies and party funding both deadlocked thanks respectively to the coalition bust-up and intransigence on all sides, the coalition seems to have hit on the next best thing.  Unwilling to accept that the spending by Lord Ashcroft and the Midlands Industrial Council in individual constituencies is akin to that of Unison, the Tories are looking to staunch it by the back door.  Additionally, despite having come into office promising to boost the Big Society, the coalition has also swiftly recognised that come the election, charities, while not advocating a vote for any particular party as the Charities Act prohibits from doing so, are going to be blunt about just how austerity has affected the most vulnerable in society (the Lib Dems especially are worried about how the NUS will campaign on their u-turn on tuition fees).  By making the rules on what is or isn't spending on "political purposes" as clear as mud, they seem determined to frighten organisations into saying as little as possible.

Andrew Lansley certainly didn't go out of his way to deny that this was precisely what the second part of the bill was intended to do, merely that people were scaremongering and that charities shouldn't be running campaigns that look to be partisan without registering in the first place.  As the EC briefing sets out, the potential impact could be draconian.  A local campaign on a planning issue within Wales for instance could have to register, and as spending on employees is included, they could quickly find themselves over first the £2,000 limit and then the £9,750 within a constituency.  As the campaigns against the pylons needed to connect wind farms to the national grid, HS2 and fracking are likely to metastasise between now and the election, a whole new regulatory burden is swiftly going to be placed on activist groups.  The same is the case when it comes to the larger blogs: Wings Over Scotland recently crowd-funded a poll on independence, despite not having any direct affiliation to a party.  Any blog that follows suit should this bill pass will almost certainly have to register, while it's more than possible that other blogs could also be caught up in the regulations, hence why Guido is up in arms.

Quite apart from the potential impact on freedom of speech itself, or indeed the ability of the electorate to be able to make an informed choice on who to vote for, as independent fact checking organisations are also likely to be hit, what really surprises is just how open the coalition seems to be about the direction this takes politics in.  At the same time as some MPs have realised that the old closed off world of Westminster only breeds apathy or worse, others seem to want to turn the clock back to when debate was between parties and the established media only, and for nothing other than the potential of short-term gain.  Shameless, shameful and shaming doesn't even begin to cover it.  And failing a major rebellion, or a rethink from a government that doesn't appear to have any intention of doing so, it looks set to become law.

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Monday, September 02, 2013 

Syria: the coalition is officially butthurt.

The coalition is exhibiting all the symptoms of what the internet has come to define as "butthurt".  Either unwilling or unable to bring itself to admit that the failure of the Syria vote was all down to them, whether due to the piss poor case they made, the apparent failure to detect massive opposition within their own parties or just plain old fashioned messing up, they've instead decided to pin all the blame on Ed Miliband.  Doncha know, if it hadn't been for the "cynical partisanship" of the Labour leader then Cameron and Hague could now be getting their war on.  According to George Osborne, Red Ed now looks even less like a future prime minister, and Osborne ought to know, considering he's about as likely to follow on from Dave as I'm to be next Pope.

It's fairly pointless looking to opinion polls now, as the results show the public to be as hopelessly confused as usual on who's come out of it well, meaning that they either don't know or don't care, but even before the vote there looked to be a fairly massive majority against any strike on Syria.  Taking this into account, it seems just a little bit silly to be presenting Miliband as the one who put a stop to our taking part in an intervention, as, err, that could just increase his popularity.  The whole partisan argument doesn't even stand up to the slightest scrutiny in any case: the motions were all but identical for goodness sake, just that Labour's asked for more time.  If the coalition had read the situation properly, they could have switched to the Labour motion and still gotten their war.  As it was, both were defeated.

The problem for Cameron and Hague, but Hague especially, is this shows that apart from the keyboard warriors online and the bomb flingers of Fleet Street, his approach to Syria is incredibly unpopular.  If there was widespread opposition to arming the rebels, as there was, why did either think that inconclusive reports of the use of chemical weapons, horrific images from the scene or not, would change people's minds so drastically?  Their policy hasn't made any sense for months, and it's actually got even more ridiculous as time has gone by.  As Simon Jenkins writes, you don't punish a country's government for using chemical weapons by killing more innocent people on the ground, as such an intervention inevitably would.  You either don't get involved at all and push for a diplomatic solution, or you plan an assault that will make a genuine difference.

Which is precisely why John Kerry's sermon last Friday was so incongruous.  There he was making this great moral case for how the world couldn't ignore a crime against humanity, when there isn't the slightest evidence that what's actually being proposed would prevent another such use of gas.  If he was personally persuasive, the intelligence released alongside his speech was almost identical to that produced by our own spooks, and raised just as many questions as it answered.  He also gave the game away when he brought Iran and Hezbollah into it, those other actors in Syria who were mentioned while Saudi Arabia and Qatar were ignored.  If Hezbollah did want chemical weapons, they most surely could have got them by now, while the JIC briefing last week said rebel groups did want to get their hands on them.  Personally, I'm far more concerned about what al-Qaida and its friends could do with Sarin or VX than I am Hezbollah, but then al-Qaida only kills anyone it feels like while Hezbollah, err, defends Lebanon against Israel.  Israel, meanwhile, continues to neither confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons, while it most likely has chemical/biological weapons programmes too.

One conclusion to be reached is that rather than wanting to bring the civil war to an end, we actually want it to continue.  Israel, we are told, remains ambivalent, not surprisingly considering the lack of trouble Assad has caused the country, in spite of the continuing occupation of the Golan Heights.  It doesn't like his support for Hezbollah, but he's probably preferable to either the instability of what would come after, or indeed the Islamist regime that would be the most likely outcome.  We ourselves might follow Saudi policy in the region, but we don't particularly want the jihadis to have another potential safe haven, even if it means a dilution of Iranian power.  The conflict might have led to around 2 million people fleeing, but for now they mostly haven't tried to reach our shores, instead going to either Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.  And as long as they're fighting each other, they're less concerned about targeting the West.

It would certainly explain why we favour only minimally striking Assad for the use of CW, when we went after Iraq not having the first idea how the war there would pan out.  It would also mean that despite all the rhetoric of how something must be done and the use of the most emotional language, we really couldn't care less about the Syrians themselves, something I've felt has been the case from the very beginning.

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