Daily Mail

The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.

Philip Hollobone – Heroic Prophet or Complete Idiot?

Brace yourself for the outrage (it’s already off to a flier in the ‘comments’ section of the Daily Mail’s online content). Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP for Kettering, has been warned that he may fall foul of the Equality Act as a result of his claim that he will refuse to meet constituents who wear a burqa or a niqab. You can be reasonably sure that the Little Englanders and self-righteous warriors against ‘political correctness’ will have a field day defending this objectionable little toad’s ‘right’ to create division and enforce lazy stereotypes in the name of protecting Britain’s national culture.

This often tends to be the culture of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ which Hollobone and his ilk like to boast about when they puff their chests out and become all dewy-eyed when the Union Flag is waved around at Tory conference time, but it appears you should only be free and tolerated if you’re white and Christian – anything that differs from the formula must be treated with suspicion and thinly-veiled (no pun intended) hate.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has already voiced his concerns about breathing the same political air as the ‘toxic’ Tories, and it isn’t difficult to see why when an idiot like Hollobone crawls out of the woodwork. For all the work David Cameron has done trying to portray his party as modern and liberal, there is always the suspicion that you don’t have to look too far to find an army of Hollobones lurking on the Tory benches, foaming at the mouth about family values, tradition and ‘uncontrolled’ immigration.

And of course, immigration is what this issue is all about. Hollobone’s prejudices tap into deeply held suspicions whipped up by the tabloid press that foreigners are coming ‘over here’ and taking all our jobs while selling our British, Christian identity down the river as they ruthlessly construct their Islamic state. This analysis coveniently avoids any discussion of what the British ‘identity’ really is, of course. No mention here of the historical influx of Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Normans and the like – perhaps the BNP should persuade their friends in the press to have a crack at this ‘menace’ while they’re doing such sterling work on burkas.

Hollobone isn’t the first idiot to emerge from the Tory backbenches and he certainly won’t be the last. While some of the Conservative grassroots understand the concept of appealing to the centre ground of politics, there are just as many who believe the Richard Littlejohns of this world are the straight-talking prophets who warn of Britain’s impending doom at the hands of the foreigners and queers who secretly plot the overthrow of everything they hold dear. Now, in Philip Hollobone, it seems they may have stumbled upon a new hero.

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The courage to change

Many things are uncertain over the coming days. Will there be a hung parliament? Will Labour finish third? Will Cameron pull it off at the last? Are the Liberal Democrats on the brink of a role in government? How would a coalition government look? How would electoral reform change the way our political process takes place? These are all good questions about the coming ‘change’, and I am in the uncomfortable position of having the answers to none of them.

That’s the thing about change generally – deep down most of us don’t really like it. We’re suspicious of it, we tend to wonder why things can’t stay as they are and, if change is forced upon us, we worry about how we will be affected by the new way of doing things.

Even the most casual observer will have noticed that ‘change’ has been the most over-used word of the 2010 General Election (the candidates’ homage to the 2008 Obama campaign) but each of the three main parties have a very different view of what that word means.

The Tories seem to think it simply means a change back to their way of doing things. They view the period since 1997 as an aberration, an electoral mistake that ushered in an era of ‘political correctness’, ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ and ‘feminazism’. Not for them the touchy-feely, faux-empathy of the Blair sofa government years – people must be governed, not related to.

But, as far as the Tories are concerned, by far the worst thing about the last thirteen years is that they haven’t been in charge. The sole purpose of the 2010 Tory campaign is, in their eyes, to put that right. This is the arrogance born of their long eighteen year stint in charge under Thatcher and Major, and the programme for government they offer this time appears little more than a reheating of their 1980s persona but with a slightly less shrill tone. We have the über-vacuous “Big Society” (essentially “rolling back the state” and hoping the slack is picked up by volunteers); the ageless Tory passion for shifting the emphasis of taxation away from the wealthy and (through indirect means, such as an inevitable hike in VAT) back onto the less well-off; a thinly hidden agenda of dismantling public services; moralising, meaningless and prescriptive nonsense about marriage.

Simply turning the clock back doesn’t look much like change from where I’m standing.

Of course the reform the Conservatives will have absolutely no truck with is a move to a fair voting system. Liberal Democrats have long believed in an electoral system where everyone’s vote counts, as opposed to the current medieval system where the votes of only a few thousand electors in marginal constituencies decide who governs us. Funnily enough, the Tories – as beneficiaries of the system – see no need to interfere with the current arrangements. They dishonestly peddle the argument that with first-past-the-post you can “throw a government out” while ignoring the obvious point that making everyone’s vote count would do more than anything else to engage people in the political life of the country. Perhaps David Cameron’s attitude to renewal is best summed up in this week’s (superb) Observer editorial: “He defines change in politics as the old system preserved – but run by the Tories”.

Labour’s claims of renewal are left sounding all the more hollow after thirteen years of failure and missed opportunity. To be fair to Labour, there is much that they can be proud of (the minimum wage, for example) but their 2010 campaign seemingly consists of pointing to the things they did well and scaremongering about any change to their way of doing things. Their death bed conversion to partial electoral reform only serves to highlight their failure to fulfill their 1997 promise (which I voted for at the time) to hold a referendum on proportional representation. Instead their term of government has been stained with authoritarianism (ID cards, detention without trial) and illegal foreign wars. To try to claim now that their’s really is a progressive philosophy is frankly laughable.

The only real change on offer in this election comes from the Liberal Democrats. The theme that runs through everything is fairness – a fairer tax system, a fresh look at education, a genuine commitment to the environment, a Freedom Bill to restore and protect civil liberties, an honest dialogue about immigration (as opposed to the hysterical dogwhistling of Labour and the Tories) and proper, meaningful reform of the political system.

Predictably the Tory press have waded in to this wide-open election with unprecedented levels of bile being heaped on Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and any notion of a hung parliament. The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph et al may have had their say, but there are signs too that they have had their day. Murdoch, in particular, knows that if the Tories don’t get in then he and his media empire will be cast adrift for the first time in a generation – another change worth voting for.

The truth is that the crisis at the heart of the government and the financial system is such that we need people to work together to put it right. Labour and the Conservatives have each taken turns to run the economy over the last sixty-five years, and this is where it’s led us. The old ways haven’t worked – it’s time for a fresh look, a new approach.

It takes courage to change, but change is what this country needs. We need to take a bold step towards real change at the ballot box this Thursday. The Tories can’t offer anything other than a return to an even older way of doing things than that offered by an exhausted Labour Party. There’s only one way to make a real difference this week: vote Liberal Democrat.

The Second Leaders’ Debate

Last night Bristol hosted the second televised Leaders’ Debate of the 2010 General Election. The event was staged by Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News but, unlike ITV, NewsCorp did allow the live footage to be streamed to the BBC News Channel. However, interest seems to have dipped as early indications suggest that combined viewing figures were in the region of 4 million (compared with figures of 9.9 million for the previous week).

Indeed, there did seem to be less of an edge to last night’s event, as if the novelty of seeing our party leaders debating on television had already worn off. Perhaps there will be a raising of expectations for the third, and final, debate on the BBC next week as the choices become starker and the stakes become higher.

Clegg maintained the standard he set in the first debate at Manchester. Considering the tone of yesterday’s media coverage (in particular the Telegraph, Sun and Mail) and the weight that the level of Tory press smearing must have put on his shoulders, he showed real strength to top all but one of the post debate polls. I can only imagine the pressure that must have been on Clegg to perform to the same level as last time, but perform he did. He stuck to the same tactic of directly addressing the viewing public, seemed relaxed, and his answers were clear and to the point. Perhaps his main triumph was to look more human than Brown and less condescending than Cameron.

Both Brown and Cameron tried to play the “look at those two” card that Clegg carried off so well the previous week, but when they did it it looked like a focus-grouped tactic that each had suddenly remembered to deploy. Clegg does it naturally because the Lib Dems truly are the outsiders in Westminster politics.

Cameron certainly improved on the workmanlike performance he put in in Manchester, but Tory talk in the run-up to the debate of him “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” still looked wildly optimistic. Of course, the Tory press (still in denial over its total lack of influence over this election) has tried to spin their man to victory in the morning papers but the truth is that Cameron is still having nowhere near the impact on the campaign that had been predicted by just about everybody. Perhaps, in the heat of the campaign, people have started to see through the personality cult and the Blairesque spin. Indeed this is backed up by ICM’s poll straight after the debate which found that 47% believed Cameron was more spin than substance compared to 28% for Brown and just 19% for Clegg. The Tory leader has one last televised debate to find that rabbit.

Considering he is still – for two more weeks at least – the Prime Minister, it’s surprising just how quickly Gordon Brown has become the forgotten man of the debates. You could argue this works in his favour as he likes to paint himself as a man who simply gets on with the real job, a man who has no time for the flashy superficiality of Cameron, but in truth the Brown Premiership is dying a slow death before our eyes. Here he was plodding and over-technical, and his occasional attempts at humour looked desperately over-rehearsed. Perhaps the most damning thing I could say about any Prime Minister is that I feel sorry for him, but this is indeed the case now for Brown.

Adam Boulton was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night. Right from the start he appeared to be more nervous than any of the party leaders, and he did seem to develop a knack of talking over all three for no apparent reason. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the ‘silent audience’ rule which governs the debate. I think it would be unedifying in the extreme to have the leaders heckled by party stooges. At least this way we are free to make up our own minds.

And so we look to the Midlands for next week’s BBC debate. Clegg will look to maintain his level of performance whereas Cameron has a final chance to put in the performance everyone has expected. Brown, it seems, will simply be glad it’s all over.

Leave the BBC alone

In my (occasionally humble) opinion the BBC is one of the very best things about living on this island. The news coverage is second to none; radio, documentary, drama and comedy output is far superior to the British commercial networks; the website is just about the best there is, and you only have to suffer five minutes of Clive Tyldesley’s infuriating, moronic football commentary (“remember that night in Barcelona”) to know that the quality of sports coverage on the BBC is unrivalled, even if the other networks wield a greater budget.

You wouldn’t think that, of course, if you had endured regular exposure to the right-wing press over the past few decades. In the world of Murdoch, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the BBC is nothing short of a subversive plot to overturn everything that is decent and traditional in Britain; it’s a hotbed for raving left-wing homosexuals who spend their every waking hour plotting to giftwrap our freedom and identity and hand it all over to those sinister imperialists on mainland Europe and the international Islamic conspiracy.

The BBC is constantly under assault from these quarters and there seems to be an eternal stream of spineless politicians who are more than happy to play along. There are never-ending accusations of bias against the BBC, ludicrously from all sides of the political spectrum. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw recently accused the BBC of “feeble” coverage of planned Tory spending cuts only to be ticked off by Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative Shadow, for “interfering in the BBC’s day-to-day political coverage”. Hunt, of course, had conveniently forgotten his own call a few weeks earlier for the Corporation to recruit more Tories to their news-gathering team, but who said you had to be fair when sticking the boot into the BBC? The truth is that the BBC is soft on everyone these days for the simple reason that, as an institution, it is terrified.

Murdoch has been circling for some time now, and he has a willing accomplice in David Cameron, a man who gives the impression of being so desperate for a favourable mention in The Sun’s ‘Page Three Briefs’ that he is more than happy to oversee the carving up of the BBC into bitesized chunks. (Anything to help his fairweather friend have his wicked way with Britain’s media.) You get the impression that the BBC don’t want to give the – essentially empty – Tory project a hard time because they fear what may be on the way.

Of course, the BBC isn’t perfect. It’s had its difficulties (Ross/Brand, Gilligan etc) and it’s a struggle to justify the continued existence of BBC Three, but do I think the licence fee represents value for money? You bet I do. Compare the expense of Murdoch’s Sky (which still comes with adverts, yet demonstrates no gain in quality in spite of all the extra revenue) to the TV licence and there’s only one winner.

The BBC is easily Britain’s strongest overseas ‘brand’, a name known and trusted all over the world, yet we are constantly taught by the press barons that we should hold it in contempt. So switch the BBC off for a week and see how you get on. Enjoy Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” FOX News or the rather sneakier Sky News, revel in the sporting insight of Tyldesley and Beglin, or maybe you’d enjoy an afternoon diet of adverts for consolidation loans and ambulance chasers. After seven days of such mediocrity it might become a touch clearer that perhaps the BBC isn’t so bad after all.

So what was that all about then?

I was astonished to find myself on the front page of the Western Morning News today as part of a curious ‘process’ story on the use of Twitter from Council meetings. I haven’t actually seen it myself, as I tend not to buy confused right-wing newspapers, but I have seen the online version. That’s right, it’s your basic slow-news-day hatchet job and I shouldn’t really complain because I’ve written far worse about other people on these very pages.

What was perhaps most surprising was that the news editor at this esteemed (Daily Mail owned) publication felt that publishing ‘tweets’ from a meeting that took place ten days ago was actually (a) news, and (b) worthy of the front page. What was less surprising was that the ubiquitous Tax Payers’ Alliance were wheeled out to foam at the mouth about… well, they weren’t quite sure really, but something was definitely an outrage. (I must confess to feeling slightly proud to have finally won my ‘TPA wings’.)

Life will go on and all of this will no doubt blow over in a day or two. While I’m still not entirely sure what the whole thing was about, I have at least learned one valuable lesson: beware the phone call from a friendly journalist on a slow news day.

See also: A Slow News Day

The Tories, Tax and Marriage

“I like you guys who wanna reduce the size of government – make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.” Josh Lyman, The West Wing.

I’ll never learn. I wasted half an hour this morning listening to a radio phone-in about David Cameron’s plans to “recognise marriage through the tax system” or, as FiveLive’s Nicky Campbell billed it, “Is wedlock the bedrock?”. Quite. Inevitably I ended up shouting at the usual reactionary Daily Mail nonsense that spewed out of many of the ‘contributors’ prissy, moralising mouths until I realised with disgust that I had allowed their Middle England rage to push my buttons. The thing is, if the Tories get in this year I’ll have to be prepared for much more of the same as there will no doubt be an endless stream of core vote-pleasing guff emanating from Downing Street.

What annoys me most about the policy of tax breaks for married people is the interference with people’s private lives and choices. The Conservative Party have spent much of the past twelve years moaning about the ‘Nanny State’ yet don’t see the irony in proposals which foist their own version of morality onto everyone else. The unspoken part of the deal is that, if you’re co-habiting, divorced or simply choose to live alone, you are somehow inferior to those (like me) who have decided to get married. It’s classic, old-fashioned, prescriptive Toryism and it’s one of those things that the people who are flirting with voting for Cameron have completely overlooked.

It’s not as if there is an unarguable case that marriage makes everything better. The Tories seem more than willing to pin all of society’s problems on the declining popularity of the traditional family unit without any solid evidence to back it up. They conveniently ignore the role that basic old-fashioned poverty may have to play in crime and social division (problems that their eighteen-year period in office did much to exacerbate) instead choosing to believe that a ring on the finger will make it all better. It is, of course, patronising nonsense aimed at the already affluent and (coupled with the inheritance tax giveaway to the very wealthy) gives a fairly clear indication of the direction Cameron aims to take us in, not that it was ever really in any doubt.

UPDATE: 9th April 2010. The Tories have put some flesh on the bones of this daft policy now that the election campaign is under way – it equates to £3 a week. £3 a week may well be useful to many, but it’s hardly likely to cause a stampede in the direction of the registry office. Wouldn’t that money be better spent helping people who are struggling – married or not?

The Death Penalty – why it’s a really bad idea.

China’s execution of Akmal Shaikh for heroin smuggling has once again re-opened that thorny old debate on the topic of capital punishment. The radio phone-ins were alive this morning with most of the contributors concluding that China had acted perfectly within its rights and that Shaikh’s fate was entirely of his own making. Leo McKinstry was keen to join the charge, posting this typically vile piece in the Daily Mail, which demonstrated both a lack of humanity and a lack of humility which have become the trademarks of Fleet Street’s most poisonous rag over the years. It would seem that, aside from the usual ‘liberal’ suspects, the majority of the British public are more in tune with McKinstry than they are with Amnesty International.

Much of the debate has centred around Shaikh’s bi-polar disorder and his unsuitability for trial or execution, which in any criminal trial should surely be a fair enough point, and China’s human rights record has once again come under scrutiny. However, surprisingly little has been said about the basic principle of putting people to death for their alleged crimes.

I absolutely, fundamentally believe the death penalty to be wrong, regardless of the nature of the crime involved. I don’t believe it acts as a deterrent, I don’t believe any country in the world can guarantee a judicial system which is immune to miscarriages of justice, but most of all I simply don’t believe it is right to kill another person.

America still persists with the death penalty in many of its States, but that seems to have very little impact on their record levels of violent crime. The strongest deterrent against crime is detection, not sentence – offenders tend to commit crime because they don’t believe they will be caught. Is a knife-wielding killer really weighing up in his mind which is more preferable between a life sentence and the death penalty, or is he thinking how likely he is to get away with it?

As for the soundness of convictions, the UK is hardly the place to start when looking for good practice in this field. The Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater Three – they and countless others wrongly accused would all have been sent to the gallows if the British legal system still included capital punishment. Once carried out, the death penalty is final and irrevocable – there is no margin for error.

So what of the victims? How would I feel about the death penalty if someone close to me was murdered? The honest answer is that if one of my loved ones was the victim then I imagine no punishment would be too harsh – I would probably want the murderer hanging from the highest tree. But that is precisely the reason why judges and juries with no prior knowledge of the individuals concerned are appointed to carry out trials, and exactly the same logic should always be extended to sentencing. Of course, the flip-side of this argument is how would those baying for the blood of every criminal react if their own son or daughter was accused?

The bottom line for me is that it is wrong to kill people, unless it is the only way to stop them killing others. The death penalty belongs to another age, an age when people took the Old Testament literally, when trial by drowning was an acceptable method of dealing with witchcraft. It is not something that should have a place in a modern society. It saddens me when I read and hear people from this country (which, for all its flaws, still upholds free speech) holding China up as a shining example of how things should be done.

Most countries in the world have turned their back on the death penalty. In time I hope that the two most powerful nations on the planet, China and the United States, will do the same. I’m sorry about what happened to Akmal Shaikh, regardless of what he did or why he did it, but I hope that one day his story will come to be seen as part of the narrative that led to the worldwide end of capital punishment.

David Cameron: A Mindless, Irrational Hatchet Job

Oh David Cameron. Where do I start with you? How do I give you (and the repulsive, narrow-minded, self-interested guff cloud of a party you lead) the kicking you fully deserve without resorting to the usual clichés about silver spoons, policy vacuums and the Bullingdon Club?

Maybe I should critique the few policies you and Gideon have allowed to seep out, or maybe I should have a pop at the slippery-looking bunch of chancers, tobacco-peddlers and after-dinner speakers who make up your Shadow (or should that be Shallow) Cabinet; a government-in-waiting staffed by the likes of George Osborne, Ken Clarke, William Hague and Eric Pickles. Perhaps I should point out that your MPs had by far the most egregious record on expenses of any party and that, despite your flowery rhetoric, you’ve offered no concrete proposal which will deal with this issue in any way, shape or form.

I suppose I could concentrate on the Ashcroft millions which are being poured into marginal constituencies in a naked attempt to distort the electoral process. I could make reference to your repeated claim to be ‘the Party of the NHS’ (how you and your hired bully, Andy Coulson, must have laughed when you cooked that line up). Somewhere in this piece I could probably find room to point out that every call you and Gideon have made on the economy over the last couple of years has been completely, disastrously wrong. I could even allude to the natural Tory ‘default mode’ of mercilessly shafting public services and the poor in order to give your wealthy backers the tax cuts they plainly don’t deserve.

But I won’t do any of those things. No, I’m going to be a lot less rational than that.

I just can’t bear you, Dave. I can’t stand your face, I can’t stand your voice and I especially can’t stand the way you continue to lead in the opinion polls in spite of all the evidence which points to a Tory government being a complete disaster. I despise the arrogant, born-to-rule air that wafts from your party at the moment. I loathe the easy ride the media give you, from the crap-by-the-bucket-load spewing forth from the newly-sycophantic Murdoch press, via the shrill family values nonsense belched out by the Daily Mail, to the total lack of adequate policy scrutiny from an organisation like the BBC, of which we are entitled to expect more.

But, if I’m being completely honest, my greatest fear is watching Tories celebrate an election victory next year. It’s been seventeen years since I’ve had to suffer that, and John Major was nowhere near as irritating as you are, Dave. It is my desperate, yet fading, hope that the electorate (at least the ones you are targetting in the marginal constituencies) will wake up to the insipid Blair Mark II project you are trying to pull off. I’d love the voters to prove to you and Gideon that government is not your birthright. Sadly, life’s not fair like that, is it Dave?