Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Friday, March 28, 2014 


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Thursday, March 27, 2014 

Rocking all over Europe.

I decided to give last night's flyweight tussle between Nick n' Nige a miss (although I've since skipped through it). There are after all only so many times you can hear precisely the same arguments without then wanting to take a long jump off a short cliff. If there's been a week recently when Question Time hasn't discussed immigration, as the Europe debate has transmogrified into, then I can't recall it. Minds have long since been made up, and there's little in the way of middle ground: either you view open borders as an unalloyed good, for both economic and social reasons, with the negatives far outweighed by the positives; or as Farage does, you find the very fact 450 million people could move here tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do as both outrageous and dangerous.

Unsurprisingly then, the YouGov poll conducted after the debate suggested support for withdrawal had gone up by a meagre 2 points, within the margin of error.  The debate wasn't really about such things though; instead it was how the leaders of the third and fourth biggest political parties would come out of it.  While all agree he started well, Farage faded badly towards the end, getting increasingly agitated and sweating heavily, the decision to go for a pint beforehand perhaps not the best idea. Clegg by contrast was fairly consistent throughout, predictably enough considering this was his fourth appearance in such a format.  With the exception of a couple of major slips, such as his opening, where he all but repeated word for word the same message he gave four years ago, and his laughable assertion that three million jobs are dependent on the EU, he gave as good as he got.

Albeit not according to the audience, who fairly convincingly gave the debate to Farage.  Again however, this doesn't really tell us much, especially when the first three questions were pretty much gifts to the UKIPs, being on a referendum, then immigration, then benefits, only after moving onto Europe in the wider sense.  Add on Clegg's deserved unpopularity, and Farage being more popular than his party, and the disparity lessens.  Clegg's approval rating also went up, although frankly it could hardly have gone down much further.

Farage and UKIP's problem which as yet they haven't been forced to address is they're the equivalent of a band that can only play two chords.  The first of the chords, being anti-immigration, is a damn good one and it's served them really well.  The second, blaming everything on the European Union, isn't quite as good and only works when played sparingly.  When forced to rely on that second one, as Farage was towards the end last night, it no longer sounds as catchy.  Claiming that 75% of our laws originate in Europe is just completely absurd, and when he then said the EU had blood on its hands over Ukraine it revealed a complete lack of awareness.  Russia's intervention in Crimea is not about the EU, but instead all to do with Ukraine seeking its own path.  It was only when Yanukovych cancelled the agreement with the EU that the Maidan movement came onto the streets; the EU didn't push for it as much as it was ordinary Ukrainians demanding it and until his u-turn, the president favouring their offer of loans.  The idea anyone could want to be a part of the EU is so anathema to Farage and those he surrounds himself with that it blinds him to the easiest and right explanation.

As Clegg showed during the election debates, being the outsider works so long as you can continue playing the part.  Taken out of that comfort zone, as Farage was towards the end, when he whined that no other politician had "worked so many hours and had as little fun as me" after a questioner asked about his wife being on the EU gravy train he so opposes, he started looking remarkably similar to the rest of the political class, precisely because he embodies them just as much as Clegg does.  Besides, isn't his entire image meant to be of the laughing, jolly but still angry man of the people?  He's often photographed appearing to be having fun, pint in one hand, so is it all an act? Well, of course.

Quite how they're going to get another long debate out of the pair of them also perplexes.  There simply isn't that much about the EU to discuss, unless they really get stuck into the common fisheries/agricultural policies, which while important subjects aren't going to keep most audiences tuned in.  More fundamentally, for all the hype around Farage, all these debates are going to do is further cement him as a single issue politician.  Considering UKIP aspires to become the third party, or supposedly does, to actually win seats at Westminster it needs to at least expand its repertoire to a Quo challenging three chords.  There's been so sign of that whatsoever as yet, and you can't survive forever as the party of protest.  The Lib Dems have been there, done that, and part of Clegg's reason for agreeing to these debates was to shore up his own support.  In those terms, he's succeeded.  As for whether it will do the same to his party's vote in the European elections, he'd be advised not to hold his breath.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014 

Stratchclyde Partnership for Transport gives you wings.

It's fair to say that I am yet to be convinced by any of those arguing in favour of Scottish independence. Apart from how I find it extraordinarily difficult to separate narrow nationalism from short-sighted political chauvinism, being constantly reminded of Renton's outburst in Trainspotting, I simply don't follow the case made by the radical independence people.  Should Scotland vote yes it certainly won't mean that the SNP will be in government for perpetuity, but the idea this will open a gap for those further to the left just doesn't tally. The SNP is fundamentally an authoritarian party, albeit one closer to social democracy than Labour has been in two decades. It's made the exact same compromises though, as evidenced by Salmond's sucking up to Murdoch and pledges on corporation tax and air passenger duty.  Imagining that giving them their greatest ever victory will in turn result in a triumph for those opposed to neoliberalism is just wishful thinking.

This said, it's difficult not to be slightly overawed by the efforts of some on the Yes side, as epitomised by Wings Over Scotland. Having already crowdfunded two opinion polls, Stuart Campbell's last appeal for cash to keep up the site's campaigning brought in over £100,000, a sum which astonished everyone. With some of this extra money, Campbell booked an ad to run on the Glasgow subway, a simple yet bold design pointing out that not a single national or daily paper supports independence.

Almost entirely predictably, within hours of the ad appearing it was being pulled.  The reason? It's difficult to tell, as the advertising contractor Primesight and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport have now taken to blaming each other, but it seems as though the justification remains that the ad is "political". Except, as should be clear to anyone even passingly impartial, it's not. While you can quibble over the exact number of papers that are Scottish owned, with Campbell accepting he forgot about the Greenock Telegraph, no Scottish paper does support independence.  The Wings advert is no different from a newspaper declaring what its political affiliation in the same way; how anyone could claim that makes the advert itself political completely escapes me. If anything, it reminds of the Guardian's well known advert from the 80s, which also advocated taking a wider view.

Whether the decision itself was political, and it's difficult to shake the feeling it might well have been, the knock on effect has been just as predictable: news articles on the controversy mean that thousands more people than would ever have seen the ad on the tube are now aware of it and Wings Over Scotland (Wings has also had its money refunded).  It also shows the Tube operators in an extremely poor light, especially when the newspaper distributed on the network today carries an advert attacking, err, the Yes campaign and directs readers to a website. Even if the Yes campaign does fail, and while I suspect the end result will be far closer than most polls suggest you'd have to be a brave man to bet against an No, the Scottish media and their friends in power have been shown up as never before.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014 

This blog is fully in favour of fundamentally disrupting power relations and reframing the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable.*

Within hours of the budget last week, the Labour Uncut blog had a post up quoting a anonymous backbencher as saying such was Ed Miliband's response to George Osborne's pensions gambit, the way things were going the party would need a Devon Loch scenario to win a majority come the election.  For those under the age of 70 or who aren't much interested in the annual flogging a live horse round a deadly obstacle course soiree at Aintree, Devon Loch did a Bambi while just yards from the finishing post in the Grand National.  This rather strained metaphor ignores that for some time it's been Labour out in the front, not the Tories, but still.

Such is the way some of those on the right of the party have long responded to even the slightest of setbacks, or in this case less than that. Absolutely no one remembers the responses to budgets, and as it seems the coalition declined to provide Labour with the traditional redacted version of Osborne's speech in advance, Miliband would only have been able to respond to the specifics off the cuff.  Instead he went for a general critique, and while it wasn't great, it was nowhere near as poor as has been made out.

Nor is the rise in support for the Tories since the budget anything approaching a surprise. Osborne succeeded in presenting it as a giveaway, albeit "fiscally neutral", and reined in the austerity masochism as far as he could. There were no further painful cuts outlined, although whether they might well be needed when Osborne is spending money he hasn't properly allocated as the IFS pointed out remains to be seen.   Precision geared towards those already more likely to vote Tory, in effect bribing them with their own money, exactly the claim they used to throw at Gordon Brown, add on the changes to pensions and the bounce ought to have been expected.  The real question is whether the uptick remains over time, as it did for Labour long after the omnishambles of 2012.  As yet there's nothing so much as approaching an indication this will turn out to be the case.

For Dan Hodges and his ilk though this is the final proof Miliband is a loser, or rather, "isn't working".  Hodges has been pushing his the only way to win is to out-Tory the Tories shtick for so long now it's stopped being entertaining in the same way as watching a film that's so bad it's good is, and has just become incredibly boring.  Nonetheless, Hodges' line into the soul of the party is John Mann, who urges Ed to speak the language not of a Hampstead academic but of the average resident of Bassetlaw.  These would presumably be the same people telling Mann that what the country desperately needs is a vote on our membership of the European Union, a cause he insisted was top of their agendas just a couple of weeks back.

Thankfully for all concerned who should enter the fray at this precise moment other than a horde of think-tankers with their own views on how Labour should fight the 2015 election.  Or, as they describe themselves, "members of the progressive community".  Think my writing is turgid, highfalutin, unnecessarily verbose and arch?  You should try this unholy alliance, who take Birtspeak to extremes.  They want Labour to make all powerful institutions accountable to their "stakeholders", action on the causes of "our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems", something that requires a "holistic" approach, and obviously, the "empowerment of everybody".  Not aiming too high there, are you lads?  Apparently the time of politicians doing things to people are over (or at least prospective Lib Dem candidates must hope this to be the case), while the era of "building the capacity and platforms for people to do things for themselves, together is now upon us".  Translated, this essentially means they are in favour of devolution and localism, and while it all sounds suspiciously like the Big Society all over again, only rebooted for the crowdsourcing Twitter and Wikis can solve like, everything, man age, it isn't meant as a cover for cuts.  Only there's no money to pay for anything, so sisters people doing it for themselves does help matters immensely.

If like me you can recall the times when Luke Akehurst seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the Blairite tendency within Labour, it comes as a deep shock when his is the voice of reason.  He notes how the letter seems to leave room open for another coalition, suggesting everyone should just forget how the Lib Dems have rejoiced in ripping the state to shreds over the past 5 years, and more pertinently, that as much as localism excites a certain section of politicos, it's mostly deeply unpopular or treated with deserved suspicion by the voters.  Unlike the Hodges/Labour Uncut sect, he even suggests 5 policies which aren't the same old triangulation, nor are they obvious pipe dreams fluffed by arcane language.

All this is to rather ignore just how the Tories seem likely to fight the election.  When they tire of the country is saved thanks to us routine, they fall back on policies that are deeply divisive.  See Cameron returning to the theme of cutting inheritance tax, the coalition having wisely not touched it during this parliament.  The Conservatives have become a party that is openly in favour of oligarchy, the passing down of unearned wealth from generation to generation.  The Mail naturally thinks this is a huge vote winner, while anyone with half a brain can see that you simply can't go on saying you're the party of aspiration while doing everything in your power to screw over those who don't have comfortably off parents.  If Cameron couldn't win outright in 2010 on a centre-right ticket against Liability Brown, what makes him think they can do so on a right-wing ticket in 2015?  The obvious answer is that they can't.  Miliband and his ministers do need to flesh out many of their their policies, but to panic at this point or take advice from either extremely dubious faction would be a misstep.  The budget bounce will dissipate.  Everything is still to play for.

*Yes, that really is how the thinktank alliance conclude their letter to the Graun.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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Friday, March 21, 2014 


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Thursday, March 20, 2014 

The return of the stupid party.

There is only one thing to draw from the Tories' BINGO! ad, as tweeted by Michael Green Grant Shapps, and it's not that the party itself has a pretty dim view of those it's attempting to appeal to, as we already knew that. It's rather that the party's advisers and advertising partners seem to be similarly crass and thoughtless. Is this really the same party that, regardless of what you thought of it, could at least be relied on in the past to commission effective, even iconic campaigns? Compare it to the viral video released by Labour a few weeks back, which used the template of Facebook's otherwise deeply creepy auto-generated history videos to look back on the coalition's four years in an both amusing and critical manner.  Forget patronising, Shapps' tweet was downright stupid, the only surprise being it hasn't been deleted.

Thankfully, we don't just have to rely on the Tories' own chairman to show up the coalition, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has once again cast their eye over the budget. As last year, they condemn George Osborne in wonderfully understated language, as he continues to find money for tax cuts and spending without it being made clear where the money's going to come from.  "A Chancellor focussed on sound management of the public finances over the long tern would not make a habit of repeating these sort of manoeuvres," Paul Johnson said (PDF), but then it's been clear for some time that Osborne is no more focussed on the future beyond the next election than Gordon Brown ever was. The IFS notes there was again not even the slightest reflection on whether the scale of cuts required from non-protected departments are achievable, as they and many others doubt. Such shocks, whether they be tax rises, further cuts or both are to be left until after 2015.

Nor were the more widely praised changes to pensions spared. Despite the best efforts of the coalition and their supporters in the press to say so, it is not patronising to ask whether some will underestimate the amount they'll need to live on come retirement, nor whether the result will be a rise in the cost of annuities for those who do want them.  As Paul Johnson also pointed out, the Treasury expects the amount brought in from allowing people to cash out their pension pots if they so wish to increase in the short term, then reduce over time.  The real worry is not that those approaching retirement age will run out and buy Lamborghinis and then rely on the topped up state pension to live on, but as Tode says, it will spark a further round of buying to let, further limiting the opportunity of those on low incomes to purchase their own home.  Having already made it almost a right for parents to pass their homes on to their children, now it seems they'll be able to bequest their property portfolio as well.

Not that everything is entirely rosy for the comfortably off.  The additional 2 million who have found themselves dragged into the 40p tax band since 2010 have but one person to blame: the chancellor who has slashed corporation tax and abolished the 50p rate for the mega rich, meaning the shortfall has had to be made up somewhere.  Even so, the IFS makes clear whom has suffered the most under the coalition, and it sure isn't middle earners: with the exception of the top decile, who can more than shoulder their share, the poorest have been hit hardest.  It's worth remembering that this was Alistair Darling's plan for closing the deficit, almost the model of progression.  The coalition by contrast has assaulted the poor and got away with it, helped along by those who've focused on Benefits Street rather than the Square Mile.  Still, "they" can be bought off with beer and bingo, right?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014 

Very much a country for old men.

Well, now we know.  The Conservative plan to get re-elected is devastatingly simple: bribe older people, bribe them now, and bribe them often.

To give George Osborne some credit, today's budget was far smarter than just throwing money in the general direction of the 55+ vote.  It was also the work of a politician who still wears the scars on his back from the 2012 omnishambles, when he put into action almost every old suggestion made by the civil service, many previously rejected by Labour as being either a nightmare to enforce or liable to result in an almighty backlash.  Add on the scrapping of the 50p rate, something most people aren't attached to in the long run but was symbolic of the well off needing to pay their fair share, and the Tories still haven't fully recovered.

Whether it will have the desired effect is far more difficult to predict.  Where Osborne gives with one hand, he takes with the other.  He makes much of his new "pensioner bonds", where those over 65 can wedge a cool 10k of their savings and on a three-year deal expect a return of 4%, while those who want to take advantage of his doing away with the need to take out an annuity and instead take a cash lump sum will be heavily taxed for the privilege, a measure predicted to raise a very handy £1.2bn by 2018/19.  This is especially clever for the reason that it looks as though everyone with a pension or significant savings is a winner: as Rick pointed out last week, it's arguable that in some areas it's been spending by pensioners keeping whole towns afloat.  Making this cash even easier to access makes sense, at least in the short term, especially when the much trumpeted recovery has been been reliant (so far) on consumer spending.  That simply can't continue for too long, unless you make it attractive for those who previously haven't splashed out to do so.  Little wonder the more cautious are expressing concern at how this could mean the state having to step in should things go wrong, but this obviously doesn't worry Osborne when he's relying on an immediate gain.

Then there were the utterly shameless measures.  There's very little reason why the tax on bingo should be reduced by 10% while that on fixed odds betting machines should be increased to 25%, unless we're falling for the out of date stereotype that only little old ladies play bingo while just those who can't afford to shove their pounds into slot machines.  There's an arguable case that bingo halls offer a wider community benefit, but this ignores how most will now offer both side by side. By the same measure, it also bewilders why the alcohol duty escalator is being scrapped while the one on tobacco remains, especially when counterfeit tabs and tobacco are far more abundant than knocked off booze. Taking another penny off beer is the kind of gesture that costs money while not being passed on to the consumer, making it worse than useless. Makes for a good headline, though.  Just as dubious is yet another scrapped rise in fuel duty, making it all but unthinkable the next government could restore the polluter pays principle.

For pretty much everyone else there was very little to cheer in George Osborne's screed. We heard once again about how this was a budget for the makers, the march of the mallards makers previously announced having not yet materialised, with the Office for Budget Responsibility later setting out how the sector was likely to continue to decline. A further, belated £2bn was found for investment, the coalition having first cut it, without it being explained where the money was coming from. Welfare spending excluding pensions, JSA and linked housing benefit is to be capped at £119bn, rising with inflation, which while not as draconian as feared is only likely to be the first assault on tax credits and housing benefit for those in work, the Tory proposal to exclude the under-25s from claiming it a spectre in the background.

Unless Osborne is planning something truly spectacular for next year, by which point many will have already made up their minds, the reasons for why the young and the low to moderately paid should even consider voting for either coalition party continues to diminish. The reality is unless you're married, have children, you both work and can afford to save you might as well not exist in Osborne's "resilient" economy, as any gain from the further rise in the personal allowance is swiftly snatched back through the withdrawal of tax credits, while middle earners gain more. The Lib Dems seem to have realised their cherished policy isn't all it's cracked up to be, just too late to do anything about it.  There was nothing to help ease the housing crisis, just re-announced old pledges to build. Any hope the much heralded "surprise" would be cutting VAT was soon dashed.

Which leaves just the recovery itself. Delayed thanks to Osborne's austerity fetish, we are still 5 years from the elimination of the deficit he promised by the end of this parliament. As welcome as the continued drop in unemployment is, it masks how those on the various workfare schemes are counted as in work, while those sanctioned are removed from the JSA figures. What it can't hide is the massive rise in self-employment, which far from suggesting entrepreneurial zeal suggests desperation, as well as exploitation on the part of companies, locking new workers out from the usual benefits. 60% of the cuts are still to come, ones which look all but impossible in the timescale without the collapse of services, and while there are reasons to doubt Labour's figures, there's probably much truth in their claim that most people will be worse off in real terms come the election.

Who then can blame the Tories' gambit? It ought to be their only hope. The fear has to be of the most likely alternative: another hung parliament, another coalition. 5 more years of the Lib Dems pretending not to love the cuts. Should it happen, can someone please put me out of my misery?

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014 

No sympathy for the devil.

There's only one question editors should ask themselves when offered photographs of a famous figure who has just been told the most shattering news: how would I like to be splashed across the next morning's papers, grief etched across my face, in what ought to be regardless of it happening in a public place, an intensely private moment?

If they would truly answer that reporting the level of grief outweighs the considerations of not intruding into it, something that the PCC code makes clear should always be approached sensitively, then they should make that case themselves. More likely is as is so often the case, should any paper even dream of reporting on the private life of a fellow editor, there would soon be phone calls a plenty and threats flying, with both sides usually backing down. Hence why the tabloids didn't report on Rebekah Wade (as was) splitting up with Ross Kemp, let alone the employment tribunal finding that Andy Coulson bullied and unfairly dismissed Matt Driscoll from the News of the World.

However Paul Dacre and the editors at the Mirror and Star defended it to themselves, they must have seen just how distasteful it was to fill all but their entire front pages with the image of Mick Jagger in such obvious distress. The Sun, perhaps stung by the criticism it received following the death of Reeva Steenkamp, having decided an image of the model appearing to undo her bikini top was the best way to illustrate the news, opted for a far smaller inset of the image used by the others, still obviously objectionable but not on the same scale as using it to fill the page.

It does of course raises questions about what now is beyond the pale. The extremely long lens shots of the People's Kate sunbathing topless were, but the Sun decided Harry buck-ass naked in a hotel wasn't.  The tabloids had an attack of the vapours when an Italian documentary used the images of Princess Diana lying mortally injured in the back of the Mercedes, despite having arguably contributed to the crash, yet don't think an ashed faced rock star learning of a personal tragedy deserves the same protection. This isn't about Leveson, as you shouldn't need a judge to tell you to feel the most basic compassion and human empathy. It's about a tabloid press that has never set itself a boundary it hasn't subsequently broken.

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Monday, March 17, 2014 

Interventionists: the biters bit?

The more you consider recent Western foreign policy, the more it doesn't make even the slightest sense.  Or rather, it doesn't so long as you consider it from the viewpoint that within reason, we try and encourage the spread of freedom and human rights, a notion that has become fashionable over the past couple of decades.  One of the favourite arguments of interventionists when it came to Libya in response to critics saying why now and why not somewhere else was just because we can't act everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't take action when we can.

Our intervention against Gaddafi seems to gain ever more significance at the same time as the questions about why Libya increase with time.  How, when we have failed to intervene in Syria despite three years of brutal, horrific civil war, did we end up backing the Libyan rebels in the space of three weeks?  The stated reasoning, that Gaddafi was threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi seemingly carried enough cachet for both Russia and China to abstain on UNSC resolution 1973 and so allow what turned into NATO effectively acting as the air support for various militias.  Those militias duly summarily executed Gaddafi after NATO "protected" his fleeing convoy from the air, with the country remaining in utter turmoil a couple of years on, although it seems we don't much care any more.

The obvious answer is because we could.  Libya's military apparatus was in a far worse state than Syria's; we had significant business interests in the country whereas China and Russia had relatively few; Gaddafi had little in the way of actual support, relying on a hardcore of supporters backed up with hired mercenaries; and the military themselves it seems felt it was doable.  Despite seeming a success though, even if what actually happened went far beyond what UNSCR 1973 authorised, it also exposed a number of problems.  First, the Americans were not pleased at what they saw as having to do the heavy lifting when it had been the UK and France who had pushed for action with the most vigour.  Fatally for the Syrians perhaps, second is both Russia and China felt fooled by what NATO decided the resolution authorised, despite it calling for a ceasefire and negotiations.  While Russia would always have been more inclined to oppose action in Syria considering her long term ties with the Assad family, it emboldened opposition to any repeat.

My opinion remains that had we really wanted to intervene against Assad, we would have done.  By any measure there was a far stronger case for doing so as the civil war began in earnest, as compared to Libya when the action was meant to prevent a massacre, the Assad regime had already carried out mass killings.  It would have been far more difficult to be sure, and there has never been anything approaching a serious plan set out for how such an intervention would begin, but that has never stopped us in the past.  Indeed, as we came so close to doing something, although it was explained precisely what, there must have been contingencies in place.  The decision instead seems to have been made to do just enough not to invite the accusation of indifference while at the same time keeping up a false level of rhetoric: sort of arming the sort of moderates, and not a lot more.  Our real attitude was summed up by how the government had to be all but humiliated into allowing a tiny number of Syrian refugees into the country, the impossible aim of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands being far more important to the Tories than relieving incredible human suffering.

Which brings us to the Crimea and the truly laughable sanctions that have been imposed today after the weekend's phony referendum in the province.  For all the talk of illegality and standing in solidarity with the Ukraine, what it's amounted to is freezing the assets of a whole 32 people.  Taking the likes of Bill Hague at their word that more will follow if Russia continues to destabilise Ukraine or goes further and attempts to repeat the Crimean action in the east of the country, it still makes a mockery of how our leaders have puffed themselves up in ever greater flights of rhetorical fancy.  True enough, the media more than anyone else have tried to turn this into Cold War 2.0, but it doesn't excuse the nonsense we've heard or at times, the hypocrisy, even if the real hypocrites reside in Moscow.

It might be this is the best approach: Russia is isolated, China abstaining on the vote at the UN at the weekend, and the economy looks likely to continue to suffer.  The threat of far more stringent sanctions could well deter Putin from any repeat in the restive east, and the last thing we need at this point is an overreaction that would threaten the (slight) Eurozone recovery.  It does however stick in the craw: far from this being an example of what happens when we are weak, it's rather a perfect example of what happens when you abuse the sound in principle but unworkable in practice notion of responsibility to protect.  The west has spent the 2000s intervening wherever it feels like, most egregiously in Iraq, but has also had no qualms about violating national sovereignty across the entire globe under the pretext of rubbing out terrorists wherever they're to be found.  The US/UK actively encouraged Israel to decimate the south of Lebanon in 2006, and now have the temerity to complain when Russia stages an all but entirely bloodless annexation of a highly sympathetic area of a neighbouring state.  We also aren't averse to staging pointless referendums when it has come to both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands: in the case of the 2002 plebiscite in the former, 98.48% rejected the notion of sharing sovereignty with Spain, an absurdly high percentage that obviously didn't come close to reflecting real opinion.

One suspects that in a genuinely free vote not held under such intimidation and where the status quo had been offered an an option, the result would have been far closer.  A poll last month suggested only 41% wanted union with Russia, but whether the number of respondents from Crimea was statistically significant enough to make that an accurate barometer of opinion is open to question.  When it comes down to it, we're right to impose sanctions, and right to denounce what is a flagrant breach of international law by an aggressor state made to look foolish by the people of a nation who want to take their own path.  Our politicians though would do well not to make promises they cannot keep, while they should also take a long look at themselves and think about whether the positions they have taken over the past few years have encouraged others to also see the treaties of the 20th century as there to be broken without consequences.  Our own interventionists however tend to see no such shades of grey.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014 


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Friday, March 14, 2014 

Tony Benn 1925 - 2014.

Maximum respec Mr Benn. Maximum respec.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014 

Farage the traduced?

Owen Jones, bless his little cotton socks, thinks it's deeply unfair for poor old Nigel Farage to be subject to such slander as the allegation from former UKIPs MEP Nikki Sinclaire that as well as paying his wife out of EU taxpayers' money, his (former?) mistress Annabelle Fuller is also employed courtesy of the public purse.  Jones might have something of a point if this was an allegation being made purely by a newspaper, therefore bringing into question exactly where it had come from and why it's being pushed now, but as it came from the floor at Strasbourg you can't exactly blame the press in this instance from following it up.  Abuse of the EU parliament's equivalent of privilege or not, as well as there being plenty of reasons to doubt Sinclaire, the media would have covered any similar allegations made in such circumstances against a major politician, unless it was completely unbelievable and/or quick to find false.

Add in the misuse of expenses angle and there wasn't any reason not to cover it, although let's be honest, it's not a front page story as the Sun and Mail decided.  Jones goes to say that it is permissible if the allegation is an example of hypocrisy, which as we know has been used in the past to justify a multitude of irrelevancies coming to light.  This said, much as the private life of a politician should be irrelevant to how they do their job as long as it isn't having a direct impact on their ability to do so, as potential abuse of expenses is involved in this instance, and as Farage scaremongered completely irresponsibly last year over the lifting of controls on Romanians and Bulgarians last year, I'm finding it really hard to have much sympathy for him.  As UKIP has also opposed gay marriage for no other reason than the fact Cameron supported it, in spite of being a supposed libertarian party, there arguably is a case for holding those against equality to account when it comes to their views on the sanctity of the institution.

Jones also insists that such tactics, if there are indeed such tactics, won't work.  This is questionable: much as the UKIPs make it something of a badge of honour that they try and destroy the EU from the inside, as we saw with the Westminster expenses scandal genuine fraud or abuse does cause outrage.  It might be in this case that the allegations are transparently false, but along with the rest of the current press against the UKIPs, it could well have an effect.  It has to remembered that UKIP essentially is Farage: when he stepped down as leader the party faltered dramatically.  It's also more that UKIP is less a political party and more a feeling, where Europe and immigration collide with general discontent at modern life.  Unpicking that isn't easy, and even if UKIP does collapse post-2015, if say it fails to win a Westminster seat, someone or something is likely to take its place.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014 

Nothing changed.

Call me slow, but I'm just a trite confused by today's whole will we or won't we, shall we or shan't we announcement by Ed Miliband on a potential referendum on the European Union.  Not helped by how it was variously reported as meaning Miliband was in favour of a referendum when it's fairly obvious that he isn't, it also ignores that thanks to the wonderful stewardship of the coalition we have legislation on the statute books that requires a referendum in the event of any further power transferring to Brussels.  Technically that would be on whether that specific power should be given over, but not extending it to the question of EU membership entirely would both be seen as a betrayal and pointless.  May as well get the whole darned thing out of the way in one go.  As Labour has never suggested it would look to repeal that act of parliament, however perverse it is to legislate to hold a future government to do something, my assumption was always this was the party's position.

And so it has been confirmed.  The Tories, naturally, believe this is Labour walking straight into their trap.  The EU itself may rank extremely low on most people's list of pressing issues, but immigration is now consistently in the top three, for the precise reason one suspects that regardless of how we still have people insisting you can't discuss it at all no one seems capable of shutting the fuck up about it.  That leaving the EU over free movement of labour would be one of history's defining examples of cutting off your nose to spite your face, such is the way it works both ways, doesn't make much odds to those who have long loathed Europe for entirely different reasons. The thinking seems to be that Labour opposing a definite referendum will make the Tories the only party those who have defected to the UKIPs will even consider voting tactically for.

This, as has been gone over numerous times now, is to misunderstand where the UKIPs support has sprang from. It's not about Europe as much as it's a protest against the country they believe Britain has become, making it difficult to predict just how many of those who've voted UKIP once will go back to either Labour or Tory. There isn't the slightest amount of evidence that promising a referendum is a vote winner for those otherwise disengaged from Europe, despite the polls that suggest people want one, as they'll say that regardless of what the issue is. Moreover, Cameron has made himself a hostage to fortune as there are so many unknowns surrounding his pledge to renegotiate our membership. Even if he gets a few concessions, say on the working time directive, the Tories will be riven between those who just want out and the rest making the best of a bad job, a stay in vote by no means guaranteed.

It is by contrast easy to see why Miliband has clarified precisely what his policy is. The giveaway is the passage in his actually fairly decent speech, announcing how the CBI will be advising on where he should push for expansion to the single market. No surprises then that the CBI warmly welcomed Labour's stance, preferring the known regardless of its complaints about certain EU regulations, whereas the Institute of Directors was far more sniffy. With business otherwise predictably unimpressed by Miliband's positioning, it remains to be seen whether this one policy might make the difference. It's also exactly the same position as the Lib Dems', which should make things easier in case of another hung parliament.

The real point is that today changes nothing, the only caveat being if there really are legions of Labour supporters crying out for a referendum or reform as John Mann insists then it wasn't the wisest move. More likely is it just reinforces what we already knew: Labour and Lib Dems say they want a vote, but only on their terms; Cameron remains beholden to the whims of his backbenchers, and his ability to win a majority looks as dubious as ever; and the UKIPs are the UKIPs. At some point there will have to be a referendum, just not right now.  When that will be remains anyone's guess.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014 

Bob Crow has the last laugh.

It can mean only one thing when someone few had a good word for while alive is praised to the skies when they pass on: those making the tributes are glad their adversary is gone. The political figures marking the untimely death of Bob Crow know that the most visible and effective trade union leader in a generation will no longer be there to call their boneheaded, knee-jerk anti-worker nonsense out for exactly what it is.

There is little in politics that inspires hatred quite like success.  Time after time, thanks to knowing when to fight his battles and also, admittedly, due to how the RMT was one of the few unions left with the power to gridlock parts of the capital if it is so wished, Bob Crow succeeded in either saving the jobs of his members or improving their pay and conditions.  As is now only being made clear in the obituaries, he combined his outward militancy and apparent obstinacy with a willingness to compromise once the RMT had succeeded in getting the employers to the negotiating table. This was precisely what happened after last month's 48 hour tube stoppage: it was only once the strike started that there was any movement from London Underground Limited.

For doing his job well he was naturally vilified, albeit only by the ever backwards looking right-wing press, with the Tories following closely behind.  Constantly wanting to relive what they consider their past glories, believing that the overall fall in union membership obviously means that everyone hates the unions as much as they do, they only made themselves look ever more foolish.  It reached the stage last month when every time Boris Johnson appeared it was pointed out that if the same rules he demanded for unions, of a 50% support threshold for a strike to go ahead, were applied to the mayoral election then he wouldn't have won outright either.  As for the media, much the same was the case when journalists desperately tried to find commuters outraged at not being able to use the tube for a whole 2 days, amazed that the majority seemed sympathetic towards the opposition to the closing of ticket offices with staff being made redundant.

Not that even the likes of the Graun were averse to making it personal.  That despite earning £145,000 a year Crow continued to live in a council house was apparent evidence of his hypocrisy, as though his moving out would make the slightest difference to available housing stock or stop his political opponents attacking him.  Nor should he have gone on holiday just days before the strike when the paparazzo were just bound to follow him, instructed to follow an overweight middle-aged man to Brazil rather than do their usual job of sticking camera lenses up celebrities' skirts.

Crow's legacy ought to be obvious.  Far from him being the last of his kind, what's needed now more than ever are union leaders who aren't afraid to stand up for their members, who will make the case for the working classes, and who will fight for solidarity in the 21st century against those who all but suggest such organisations are no longer needed.  Also apparent is the Labour party is no longer the vehicle for such a stance, an indictment of where the party has ended up.  When Boris Johnson can make an on camera tribute, it is the height of cowardice for Ed Miliband not to, out of some apparent perverse fear that it will be later used against him.  Crow would have laughed at such behaviour, just as he so often had the last one.

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Monday, March 10, 2014 

Tell me what you hate, not what you love.

To get an idea of how divorced from reality the Liberal Democrats have become, you need only know they seem to have been genuinely delighted with Nick Clegg's speech at their spring conference.  Mostly a rehash of his and the party's rhetoric on how only they can save the country from the respective tyrannies of Labour's irresponsible statism and the Tories' selfish kicking away of the ladder, an argument only slightly undermined by how, err, the government they're in at the moment is doing precisely the things he thinks are so contemptible and will drag us backwards, the more interesting section was on what dear old Clegg loves about Britain.

This is now a recurring theme in speeches by the main party leaders.  Ed Miliband's done it, Cameron has waxed lyrical on a number of times on how great Britain is, and now we have Nick praising the BBC, the NHS, and err, how we queue abroad even if the locals don't.  He loves Britain for its contradictions, for how we're modest while at the same time proud.  Just as all litanies from politicians on why their particular country is the greatest on Earth are patronising, cringe-inducing bollocks, so was Clegg's.  According to Nick, Miriam loves to tell him how you don't get the feeling of freedom you get in Britain anywhere else.  Now, it'd be great to think this is Miriam being far too subtle for her husband, making the case that we have a very different sense of what freedom is to both the French and the Americans, and that we could learn something from both, but I suspect it's meant to be taken as is, as he then goes on to say how he loves living in a country "synonymous with human rights and the rule of law," for which try and control your sniggers.

Like Cameron, Clegg doesn't seem to realise that while we're not a worldwide laughing stock, no one takes pretty much anything we say seriously any more.  This isn't incidentally anything to do with weakness or perceived weakness of the Dan Hodges "we're not bombing a country at the moment hence clearly every tin pot dictator is getting ready to invade their neighbour" variety, more that just like most other nations, we're hypocrites and our politicians continue to pretend to be like the great elder statesmen of yesteryear when they are very much not.  There are only two great world leaders currently, and they are predictably enough from Germany and America.  Moreover, we ourselves recognise this, as the treatment given to Angela Merkel a couple of weeks back showed.

What's more, I really don't care what politicians love about the country.  Unless they love the country exactly as it is, which none of them do, telling me how much the admire the BBC, enjoy our love of the monarchy or the irreverence of Private Eye doesn't tell me anything.  What I really want to know is what they hate, and I mean really despite about the country and the world.  Not the obvious easy things, whether it be benefit cheats, bankers, Bashar Assad, or ignorance, I mean the stuff that annoys or outrages them on a daily basis.  It doesn't have to be strictly political; it can be television shows, music, culture or the media.  If they don't like football, beer or pop music it would be genuinely interesting to know.  So one-dimensional have our leaders become, both out of how they've been told to act by spin doctors and focus group gurus and how the media responds to them, that they feel obliged to pretend to like all of these things.  If they also loathe the things that are spectacularly wrong right now, such as how a country as rich as ours needs hundreds of food banks to feed the poorest, how hundreds of thousands are being punished for not being able to get a job despite there not being enough vacancies, and how millions of those in work are paid a pittance and don't know from one week to the next how many hours they will get, then all the better.  Let's go one step a time though.

More than anything, it would be great if we could move on from the Tony Blair-era of politics.  Clegg's speech said absolutely nothing that we don't already know about him or his party.  It did however contain the same empty platitudes, verbless sentences, and shaming mendacity we came to expect from one of his sermons.  The reason Nigel Farage appeals to some is he is the anti-Blair, and that's why Clegg's debate with the leader of the UKIPs (™ Stewart Lee) will be so utterly pointless when both sides have made their minds up already.  What we could really do with is a politician who talks straight and isn't a populist cretin.  Barring Boris, we might be waiting a while. 

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Friday, March 07, 2014 

Your native god.

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Thursday, March 06, 2014 

The not so shocking truth.

David Cameron is shocked. Theresa May is shocked. Ed Miliband is shocked. Doreen Lawrence is not shocked. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention will not be shocked. It turns out, hardly shockingly, that those in the Metropolitan police's Special Demonstration Squad, invested with the power it seems to do more or less as they saw fit when it came to infiltrating political protest groups, were allowed to carry out "minor crimes" to maintain their cover and that some went much further. Specifically when it comes to the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there are "reasonable grounds" on which to suspect one officer was potentially corrupt, while it seems the Lawrences were also personally spied on.

The two separate reports published today are a wonderful example of what happens when the police (although overseen by the IPCC) and an independent figure investigate the same thing. The interim Operation Herne report by Derbyshire chief constable Mick Creedon (PDF) goes out of its way to discredit Peter Francis.  It extends the familiar concept of neither confirming or denying that an officer was part of the SDS to Francis himself, despite how it is repeatedly made plainly obvious in the report that he clearly was with the unit, so all of his statements are referred to disingenuously and it might be said, disrespectfully, as claims.  Francis himself refused to have anything to do with Operation Herne, fearing that regardless of the promises made that he would be treated as a witness rather than a suspect, he could still face prosecution.  After receiving assurances from the attorney general he did co-operate with the Mark Elllison investigation, while refusing to allow the material from those interviews to be shared with Herne.

As a result Creedon's report repeatedly claims it could find no evidence to substantiate most of the allegations made by Francis.  It does this while not dwelling for a moment longer than necessary on the fact that the original intelligence files produced by SDS prior to 1998 were destroyed after the "sanitised" intelligence had been submitted or the operation ended, something that shouldn't be "viewed with suspicion", as this was SDS practice at the time.  Whether this should have been the practice or not doesn't seem to have occurred to Creedon.  It doesn't matter however as this sanitised intelligence was kept and has been located, and most of the SDS and Special Branch officers at the time did agree to be interviewed.  Unsurprisingly, only one of these officers provided anything amounting to to corroboration of Francis' most serious allegation, that the Lawrence family themselves had been spied on, and he is described as only having been recruited as DI in 2005, leaving in "discordant" circumstances in 2008.

Mark Ellison's report by contrast seems to be describing an entirely different world.  Having spoken to Francis and clearly found him to be a reliable and credible witness, something backed up by how even Creedon accepts that without Francis we wouldn't have known that the SDS stole the identities of children who had died as infants and that authorised or not, some SDS officers did have unacceptable long-term relationships with the activists in the groups they infiltrated, the same evidence is presented in a different light.  Ellison's report therefore attaches little weight to how "no record can be found to confirm any relevant aspect of claimed SDS activity" and so goes by what it has been able to uncover.  It finds that the on-going infiltration of one of the groups attached to the Lawrence campaign led to the passing of personal information back to the Met, and that a meeting in 1998 during a break in the Macpherson inquiry between the undercover officer and DI Walton, who had been seconded to the team involved in drafting the force's submission to the inquiry, was "wrong-headed" and at worst "completely improper".  Walton himself might not have been fully aware of what was he was being asked to do by meeting the officer, but it nonetheless leaves the impression of the Met spying on the Lawrences and attempting to gain intelligence on how they should respond at the inquiry.  Creedon's report, by contrast, accepts at face value the assurance of the undercover officer that "that the intention and actions of the SDS were to indirectly support the Stephen Lawrence family".  Of course.

On the specific allegation from Francis that he was tasked with gathering intelligence on the Lawrence campaign that could be used against the family, while agreeing there is no paper evidence and the other officers say otherwise, it notes there was a "strong feeling of indignation and a degree of hostility within the Met" towards the family and its statements. This was directed against the family itself rather than the groups that were also campaigning, such feelings possibly leading to a desire to collect information that could be used to correct the impression the force was incompetent or not putting sufficient effort into the search for Stephen's killers.  Combined with the fear that the campaign for justice could lead to public disorder, Ellison finds it believable that there may have been a desire to gather "collective" intelligence.  His overall conclusion is that only a public inquiry able to see and hear evidence can make a definitive finding on whose account is the more credible.

The response from the government to order just that makes perfectly clear which report Theresa May puts more stock in.  Nonetheless, Creedon's report which doubles as a criminal investigation will continue for another year, while Ellison will also conduct another inquiry into potential miscarriages of justice due to undeclared SDS involvement and both will have to be finished before the judge-led inquiry can begin.  This further delay could well mean that the full truth about the botched initial investigation into Stephen's murder will not be known until a quarter of a century after it took place, as appalling an indictment of the British justice and review system as it's possible to imagine. 

Just as the SDS was allowed to operate with almost nothing in the way of formal guidance, let alone legislation, so now the other section of the secret state, the intelligence agencies, are allowed to do almost as they please with little in the way of formal oversight.  If the development of facial recognition software could be hastened by tapping into the streams of webcam users, it was done.  No government minister however has so far commented on those allegations, as national security would be endangered by doing so.  Just as we attempt to finally get to the bottom of one national scandal, the door is slammed shut on one we could well still be dealing with in another 25 years' time.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014 

Don't save BBC Three.

Just before Christmas the Graun printed a piece by Neil Clark looking back fondly at the holiday TV schedule from 1978, the year before, in Clark's words, "Thatcherism arrived and changed everything".  In this brave old world the BBC found time to fit in six lectures from Leonard Bernstein; that well loved comedy Tea Ladies was about to start (for all of one, err, pilot episode); and the kids had Hungarian and Czechoslovakian cartoons to keep them amused.  Absent were any university educated comedians, the bastards soon to blight television screens with their "alternative" humour, and who needed them anyway when there was Michael Crawford, Ronnies Corbett and Barker, John Inman and Larry Grayson among others to entertain the nation?

Quite apart from Clark's insistence that all this was about to be smashed apart by neoliberalism, you'd have to be truly myopic to claim that the quality on offer made up for the lack of choice.  Television might not have been dumbed-down to the extent it has now, but did anyone really watch all six of those lectures from Bernstein?  Nostalgia, while great in small doses, rather obscures the reality that the shows still repeated now from decades past are in general the best those decades have to offer, at least in comedy.  There are undoubtedly some hidden gems that don't get the attention they deserve or which only lasted a series, Whoops Apocalypse one that comes to mind, yet we tend only to remember either the great or the completely rancid.  The merely bad or the average fall through the cracks in the mind.  Even the execrable fade in time; how many now can recall Curry and Chips, when plenty will know about Love Thy Neighbour?  It's also easy to forget one of the main reasons the UK was in the vanguard when it came to VCR ownership was to be able to record the good and avoid the bad, as well as to rent.

The news that the BBC is to close BBC Three reminds in a way of how spoilt we've become for choice, if not when it's come to Three for quality. It's that lack of quality that seems to have done for the channel, at least in the sense we know it, as its most popular shows will live on initally on the iPlayer, likely to then be repeated elsewhere. Rejecting calls from everyone's favourite tattooed elderly gent as well as others to merge BBC4 with 2, the reasoning seems to be that regardless of Three's relatively unique youth oriented remit, what 4 does it does very well, while the same just can't be said for its sister channel.

This has been rather proved by the struggle those seeking to defend the channel have had to point to the programmes we'll be deprived of should Tony Hall get his decision past the BBC Trust. Most are past glories, or not even that. There's no accounting for taste, but personally I'd hold Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain against the channel rather than present them as what it's capable of. There has been some magnificent original comedy produced, such as Monkey Dust, Nighty Night, Mongrels and The Revolution Will Be Televised, but for every critical or commercial hit there's been about four other stinkers. Just recently there's been Way to Go, Badults, Impractical Jokers, Cuckoo or anything featuring Jack Whitehall, while further back there was Grown Ups and Tittybangbang. Any goodwill generated by Being Human or some of the better documentaries is swiftly undone by Snog, Marry, Avoid or Don't Tell the Bride, let alone the dreck served up by Russell Kane on Live at the Electric or Nick Grimshaw with Greg James in tow.  For all the talk of how it reaches parts of the country the rest of the BBC doesn't, when the endlessly repeated Family Guy frequently turns up as one of the most watched shows it doesn't say much for the original content.

About the best case that can be made is the 16-34 demographic isn't served greatly elsewhere on the BBC away from Radio 1, and that whatever it's faults, BBC Three has established itself as the home of new comedy.  There's no reason however why the best of BBC Three can't flourish online, or why shows like TRWBT couldn't fit in on BBC2.  A general overhaul of television in general wouldn't go amiss; it wasn't that long ago BBC2 boasted of its comedy nights, and they could quickly return.  Getting rid of the deadwood such as Mock the Week and reducing the number of QI repeats would provide room for a start.  Of course, the BBC could also as Heydon Prowse suggests axe expensive copycat bilge like The Voice.  In an ideal world, moving Three online would also give E4 a boot up the backside, encouraging it to stop buying in the lamest sitcoms America has to offer and invest a little in upcoming UK talent.  It produced Misfits, after all.

In an ideal world though Three wouldn't be getting the chop at all.  This decision comes about as a direct result of the 2010 licence fee settlement that was provided to the corporation as a fait accompli, with there being little in the way of encouraging signs since that the charter renewal due in 2016 won't also be difficult.  It's also unclear exactly how much would be saved by taking Three off air and putting some of its content online; unless the plan is to let the channel quietly die, a sizeable amount of the overall £122m spent on it last year is still going to be spent rather than saved/redistributed.  If the idea was as the more cynical suspected when it came to the proposals to close 6 Music and Asian Network to generate campaigns to save them, it's dubious whether as many feel the same about Three as the fans of those far more targeted radio stations did.  Sad as it is to say, events have conspired against Three, and it's the most rational and reasonable thing to cut in the circumstances.  It still leaves TV in a far better place than it was 30 years ago, whatever the sentimentalists and revisionists would have you believe.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014 

The more things change, the more tiresome this line staying the same becomes.

You wait ages for a frontbench politician to so much as address the continuing Snowden files saga, and then two do (almost) at once.  Oddly, the Cleggster (who he?) and Yvette Cooper both came up with proposals that were almost identical.  Both said the Intelligence and Security Committee needed to be further beefed up, and while Cooper prevaricated somewhat, raising the possibility of emulating the Australian system of oversight, Clegg made clear he and his party are committed to the creation of an Inspector General.

Clegg's speech especially made all the right noises, with Cooper predictably saying national security had been damaged in an attempt to be even-handed, it was just there was a lack of reality about both.  Ed Miliband's Labour has become a different party in some ways, but really hasn't in plenty of others.  It takes a lot of chutzpah for instance for a party which has shown no sign whatsoever of regretting trying to foist ID cards on the country to criticise the government over the botched introduction of the new NHS database, even more so when Labour introduced its also controversial predecessor, Spine.  Up until now Labour had been almost as silent as the government itself on the Snowden revelations, with if anything less backbenchers speaking out.  The party has made the odd attempt to suggest it understands partially why it became so loathed for its disregard for civil liberties while in power, yet is no nearer now to modifying its approach than it was in 2010, as the response to the TPIMs absconders showed.

As for the Lib Dems, it's the same old story.  In power, and yet so clearly not at the same time.  In a position to do something about how the intelligence services, GCHQ especially, have been operating, and there isn't even the slightest signal that they've put any sort of pressure on their coalition partners to do anything about it.   Then again, this isn't surprising when Clegg himself seems caught in two minds, defending the arrest of David Miranda in almost exactly the same style as the Conservatives did, then saying err, actually, maybe we do need the sort of journalism Miranda was helping with after all.

It was always instructive how William Hague's first resort was the old "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" line, something brought into sharp relief by the Yahoo Webcam revelations, and there has not been the slightest indication since that anything has changed in either the minds of the securocrats or that of the government.  Nor is there any reason to believe Yvette Cooper would follow through on her fine words were Labour to return to power in just over a year's time.  Even as the technology and threats change, the spooks have an eerie way of preserving themselves.  Anyone would think they might have a few files on people.

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