Category: politics

Still the Omnishambles government

Con trick. £30bn extra cuts. That lower immigration thing is no longer operative. Voting on the European Arrest Warrant or maybe not. They get precisely nothing from their “renegotiation” and then the courts take the whole point away.

Miliband goes to the CBI and the members hiss a journalist for talking leadership crisis. The Libyan recruits in Bassingbourn turn out to be so bad the only good news is that here we keep the rifles locked up, so they can’t set up checkpoints on the roads like they did in Jordan. Even so, the army sends half a battalion of Royal Highland Fusiliers to keep them in line until they can get rid of them.

The government announces a revival of their awful national roaming scheme because of Crimson Dave’s dropped calls, but then they launch the consultation on the next lot of spectrum without a coverage requirement.

Can anyone smell omnishambles?

Never give up.

A bit more Guardian journamalism. Here’s Nicholas Watt having at “Ed Miliband’s supporters”. You might not notice that he managed to report one of the two “plotters” backing out of the plot, but buried the lede right down to the very last par.

The internal critics agreed. But they took issue with the leadership’s response to criticism…..Another MP [i.e. one of the internal critics] said: “People are concerned about Labour’s standing in the polls and are worried about Ed’s ability to persuade people. But there is no organised coup or plot because there are no alternative candidates.”

From 20 frontbenchers to this.

Anyway, Miliband’s response to it reminded me of something Daniel Davies blogged years ago, to the effect that he thought Gina Ford’s parenting advice could be usefully adapted to politics. Rather than The Contented Little Baby, we could aim at The Contented Little Politician. In fact, it wasn’t Daniel Davies but Jenny Colgan, although I think Dsquared added something original to it. In this case, the insight was controlled crying. Rather than striking down on the rebels with great vengeance, he let them moan until it bored them.

Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland

Here’s an astonishing piece of journalism from last weekend’s Labour mini-crisis. Daniel Boffy, The Obscurer‘s policy editor tells us:

Even more significantly, this newspaper has learned that 20 Labour frontbenchers have indicated they are “actively considering Ed Miliband’s future”. The information came from a senior Labour MP who last week canvassed the parliamentary Labour party for support for a coup. “There isn’t a letter. But there could be one very quickly,” the Labour MP said.

Boffy was re-using a quote from Nicholas Watt at the Guardian earlier in the week. So much for the Observer being a totally different paper to the Guardian.

But why would anybody care if there was a “letter” or if 20 MPs, not a penny more, not a penny less, signed it? In the Conservative Party, 20 MPs can write to the 1922 Committee chair in order to start the leadership election process. This is, though, something that exists in the Tory charter and nowhere else. The process to elect a Labour leader is as different as it could be and the number 20 is not significant. Neither are MPs as such.

Actually, the number is 15% these days although I think it used to be either 20% or 20. See Nick Barlow’s comment below

The rule book states that the leader is re-elected by the party conference, annually, and that’s it. (Where were these guys at conference, then?) In between times, the only mechanism I can see to initiate a leadership election would be if the National Executive Committee were to call a special conference, with the Conference Arrangements Committee putting the matter on the agenda.

This is a pretty high bar as the plotters would need a majority of both committees as well as among the MPs, the union members, and the activists. When the party is in government, the bar is set higher still, as a simple majority of conference is required on a card vote to have an election at all. Where the Tory charter gives a great deal of power to backbench MPs to overthrow the leader, the Labour one gives them very little and involves the membership early on. In the Tory system, the MP makes the party; in the Labour one, the party or rather the movement makes the MP.

You’d think being familiar with the main political parties’ constitutions, at least as they apply to something as fundamental as sacking the party leader, would be a basic skill for a political journalist. But apparently not. After all, Alan Watkins maintained a reputation as a sage for many years by pointing out that you need a hands-up vote at conference to sack a Labour prime minister, and therefore this week’s ration of Blair/Brown drama was going nowhere. They never learned, though.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that if you’re a national political journo, there is no story that is more exciting or more suited to your contacts book than a party leadership crisis. Because the Tories have more of them, everyone in the business has learned all the drills for a Tory crisis. Are there 20 MPs? Is there a letter? (Note that there are only 24 frontbenchers, so they were either bullshitting or counting has-beens.) You’ll notice that no coverage at all last weekend even mentioned the NEC or any of its members.

In this light it’s unlikely indeed we’ll get any meaningful reporting from Scotland. Scotland? Yes. Look at this chart. I was arguing with various people on Twitter about this, and I pointed out that if you want to argue that the Labour poll lead is collapsing it helps to trim the X-axis so you only get the exciting bit. Trust me – I used to be a Lib Dem, so I know all about dodgy charts. Here’s a plot of poll leads since the 15th September.

Screenshot from 2014-11-16 20:04:53

First point: Wow, there’s a lot of noise in there. Second point: I’ve marked the Labour conference between 21-24 September on the chart – that’s the first grey box. The Tories were the week after. Didn’t we do well? If there’s been a “melting” of the lead, it sure as hell didn’t happen at conference and in fact it happened in mid-October, which leads us to the second grey box. That’s the week Johann Lamont resigned as Labour leader in Scotland.

If you look at the Ipsos-MORI poll (the green triangle on the chart), about 11 per cent of the weighted total sample is Scottish. Therefore, the 39 percentage point uplift in the SNP share of vote they picked up in the November political monitor translates to 4.3 percentage points of national voting intention.

So it’s just a pity it’s practically an official secret that the Tories have given up on English-votes-for-English-laws. Labour said “no deal”; William Hague made a fuss; and Ed Miliband got his way.

representatives from all parties agreed on Wednesday that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional on the conclusion of other political negotiations elsewhere in the UK”.

This is what I predicted would happen. But EVEL as a scare seems to have worked up to a point, by sticking a rocket under what seems to be the SNP’s “whatever it takes to get revenge on Labour” strategy. I do think, though, that Scottish Labour politics at the moment has become very important and nobody seems to care.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

Moazzam Begg, always in the paper, rarely reported.

Am I right in thinking that Moazzam Begg’s political role is getting more complicated, more important, and more impressive? Here’s a story. It kicks off with:

British jihadi fighters desperate to return home from Syria and Iraq are being issued with death threats by the leadership of Islamic State (Isis), the Observer has learned.

A source with extensive contacts among Syrian rebel groups said senior Isis figures were threatening Britons who were attempting to travel home. He said: “There are Britons who upon wanting to leave have been threatened with death, either directly or indirectly.”

The source is apparently the Observer‘s home affairs editor’s source, rather than a foreign correspondent’s source, so you might well wonder what kind of anonymous source is based in London, has contacts in Syrian rebel groups, and is very, very keen to get the message out that ISIS might kill international volunteers, specifically British ones, who want to leave.

Begg now appears in the story. It’s impossible to know whether there is any logical link between the source and Begg, or whether the Observer writer juxtaposed them to make it look like they support each other, an old hack’s trick. But if you want to reach potential jihadi volunteers with the message that they can’t trust ISIS, an ex-Guantanamo detainee would be a more convincing representative than almost anyone else. He would be a classic “surprising validator”.

Reading down, it seems he certainly knows that some wannabe jihadis have been held against their will in Syria, but any association with the “source” is either the Observer‘s gloss on it, or else that of someone who briefed them.

Begg seems to be moving from a campaign for the release of Guantanamo prisoners, to a campaign both for forgiveness towards volunteers in Syria and to prevent them going in the first place. Both are necessary. But I really wonder about the complex politics emerging around him.

He is the face of the dissident campaign demanding an end to the extralegal punishment that defines the War on Terror. He is also something like a spokesman for people who would like to leave the jihadi movement. These two are mutually consistent. But he is also increasingly a voice for de-radicalisation and prevention as a strategy.

This makes sense as an alternative policy proposal, but it also involves him in the underreported bureaucratic fight between the community-policing (in every sense) people sponsored by DCLG since Hazel Blears’ time, and the traditional intelligence services. One side is focused on prevention, policing by the community (of people who are described as a community), and works with the police and social services. The other is focused on technical surveillance and agent-running. With less money about, the two have been fighting like cats in a sack since 2010.

Mark Townsend’s piece seems to be using quotes from him to further a briefing campaign against ISIS recruiting, and also to back the DCLG-Contest-Prevent people in government versus the hard security lobby.

Then, I also wonder about the mission to Syria that landed him back in jail in 2013. When he set out on that mission, we were still supporting Syrian rebels and especially the FSA, rather than flying close air support for the FSA and the regime at the same time. More than a few testimonies from returned British jihadis mention that they believed the Syrian adventure had some sort of official Western blessing.

So, we have Begg, ex-prisoner and cause célébre. We have Begg, peace activist. We have Begg, de-radicaliser. We have Begg, continuing Islamic aid worker. We have Begg, still a target of police surveillance. Do we have any other roles? I imagine they make sense as a wider whole to the man himself.

I can see every reason to run the best possible propaganda campaign to stop people signing up with ISIS. (I’m not quite as cynical as John Dolan, whose piece is pretty good even if he thinks Luton is in Yorkshire.) But this is complicated, risky, and ambiguous stuff and wants more scrutiny than it gets.

Begg has grown into a bigger and more interesting political role than just that of wannabe jihadi or Rumsfeld victim, the Islamic adventurer the lads wish they were, but at the same time, the wise old head and voice of reason, a figure of the debatable lands. If he doesn’t get killed, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him as an enduring national figure of some sort. But where is he going with it, and how far does he control it?

Gaming out devolution

What’s the central fact of the debate about how to renegotiate the union after #indyref? Here it comes: there is a hard deadline in May 2015, when there must be a general election.

This is important because it changes all the actors’ bargaining positions.

The situation

Usually, in British parliamentary politics, a majority can do pretty much anything, but the minority can stall for time up to about a year, when the Parliament Act kicks in. But this changes when an election is coming; everything that was left on the agenda automatically falls when Parliament is prorogued.

It’s possible to pass leftover legislation through the so-called washup. Basically this means that if all parties agree on a text, it can be passed. That’s another way of saying that when there is less than a year left to ago before an election, the minority’s power to delay is effectively upgraded to a power to spike. If everyone has to agree to something, everyone has a veto.

If you have a very big majority you can hurry things up, although the House of Lords can still cause trouble. If you have time, you can force it. But at the moment, nobody has a big majority, and the election is in May.

The model

All parties have committed to passing a Scotland bill, implementing more devolution. The Tories want a biscuit in exchange for this, something like “English votes for English laws”. Labour, for their part, would like regional devolution. And there is a deadline. Because of the deadline, the Tory-led government can’t just pass what it wants.

First of all, there may not be a majority in the Commons for EVEL, as I think I will call it, although there may be for evil. Labour hates it; the Scots, Welsh, and Irish hate it; several Lib Dem ministers, notably Danny Alexander, would have to resign immediately if it passed because they couldn’t vote or speak on their own ministerial business. The Tories are in favour but I’m not sure if they are unanimous about it. That doesn’t give you a majority.

Even if you somehow got one, though, there isn’t enough majority to pass it quickly, before the deadline. That needs either a big and stable majority, or the opposition agreeing to co-operate. So, pretty much everyone involved has a veto on passing anything substantial.

That means the question is “Deal, or no deal?”, or in political science jargon, “is this better than the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement, BATNA?” The alternative for all parties is “go to the country with our proposal on the manifesto”.

The parameters

The Tory proposal is either EVEL or some sort of “English parliament”. If, like all other devolved administrations, it was elected on proportional representation, I can see this turning out quite shitty for the Tories, with Labour, Liberals, left-of-Labour, Greens, and ‘kippers all over the place. It might also ruin the game for Tory county councils, aka Tory MPs at an earlier stage in their careers. And it would be very difficult to defend something that parallels Westminster 90% of the time as a sensible use of public money. So I think they would go for EVEL rather than EP.

The Labour one looks like some sort of regional devolution, whether city regions or even a Northern entity. This would obviously be just great for Labour (and possibly also both left-of-Labour and ‘kippers). I don’t know about you but “a powerful voice for more regen and infrastructure money in your community” beats “we solved the West Lothian question” as a slogan in my opinion.

The Tories also have the problem of trying to appeal to pro-Union sentiment – which turns out to be a thing! – by taking Scots’ and Welshmen’s votes away.

Even if EVEL polls reasonably well, it may be rather like Euroscepticism in being an issue a lot of people agree with, vaguely, but don’t care about much. Tories seem to have a fatal attraction to those. I tentatively think EVEL would help in Tory-UKIP fights, although the ‘kippers might pick up EP as a counter-offer. They are a protest party and it’s a more strident protest, and if it happened they would probably have better chances of actual influence in it. On the other hand, regdev would help Labour mobilise pretty much everywhere there are substantial numbers of Labour voters.

The output

Well, that would suggest Labour’s BATNA is better than the Tories’, so the Tories would be advised to make a deal that gets something passed before the 2015 GE, rather than see them walk. Of course, there is a potential rogue actor in that some of the Tories might rebel. From a Labour point of view, that would just be gravy. Question the parameters if you like, but this does seem to be what Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are doing.

See here, and here.

Voluntary neo-colonial

Simon Hattenstone interviews Gordon Brown and thank God turns off his faux-naif shtick for a once or so. Brown:

Going it alone, while still using the pound? “Instead of creating the levers of power for an independent Scotland, the SNP is suggesting a voluntary neo-colonial relationship with the rest of Britain. Scotland wouldn’t have any control of the pound.”

Right. The whole point of the SNP, as relaunched when Brown was writing the Red Paper on Scotland, was to get rid of the City-Treasury influence on monetary policy, concealed by the symbols of Ukania. I republish a post from December.

the token person who sits and smiles in the background

There’s something wrong with the Lib Dems isn’t there? I mean, apart from the whole “inflicting David Cameron on the country” thing.

Pearce said that she would remain in the party in a more modest role. “So at the moment, not knowing quite where I fit in the party, I have still decided to remain a Lib Dem because I believe in a lot of the Lib Dem values and policies, so I will stick with them right to the end. But I realise my place is not go for any high positions within the party. I’ll just stay and be the token person who sits and smiles in the background and do my community activism that I always do.”

I think comment is superfluous here. Just read it. The Tories have a horrible record of picking up black people, especially women, and dropping them (I did a case study back in 2010 for Stable & Principled and this story refers, and some of the free school people are going the same way) but I expected a bit better from the Liberals.

But of course there’s Rennard.

Jobs through Your Local Budget are 400% of GDP!

Is there anyone who didn’t predict that the Big Society would descend into shameless grantsmanship, chancerism, and possibly illegal party financing? Go read; the list of projects is unimprovable, The Thick of It meets Siobhan Sharpe meets the Alan Partridge pitch scene. Much of the money ended up with Tories or ex-Tories and some of that seems to have been donated back into the Tory campaign funds.

Some of this is pukka taxpayer’s money out of Cabinet Office funds, and the civil servants involved seem to have been put under the gun to hand it out. Accounting responsibility is utterly central to the structure of the civil service, however, seeing as the minister is Francis Maude and the permanent secretary and therefore accounting officer is Bob Kerslake you can probably whistle.

Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, meanwhile, is suing the Henry Jackson Society, the rather late UK branch of organised neo-conservatism, over some event she asked them to put on and went out rattling the tin for. Now there are a lot of unpaid bills, and missing money.

In the States, meanwhile, Krugman notices that top Murdoch executives’ employees look to them for revenge, as if they were gangsters or something. Ahem.

Hoare was furious with him one time when Hoare brought in a story about a famous actress only to find that Coulson, first, refused to publish it; second, took the famous actress on holiday; third, was clearly being rewarded in her bed; fourth, and worst of all, told the famous actress how Hoare had managed to get the story in the first place, with the result that the source was exposed and lost forever.

When Hoare discovered all this, he told Coulson direct and to his face that he was a “complete cunt”. Coulson replied with a line which became a regular catchphrase as he worked his way upwards: “I’ll make it up to you, mate.”

And although Brad DeLong’s Koka-Dancing Good-Time Snake-Handlin’ Thinkotheque offers grants, not one conservative bothered to apply. What links all this?

Well, perhaps, we could have a look at this parliamentary debate and specifically Esther McVey’s contributions.

While Labour was in office, it gradually wore away the financial strength of this country, eroding its savings and savings culture, and then it crashed the economy. Gas bills doubled, council tax doubled and fuel duty went up 12 times. The only things that grew under Labour were debt and overspending.

Apparently there was some huge pool of savings on deposit in 1997 that got spent by government. I remember a £28bn budget deficit. Funny! Also, I thought energy prices were all about the market now.

Let us not get away from how this started under Labour. What each and every one of us does is important. I have heard nothing from Opposition Members about the news that, because of our welfare-to-work programme, 30 million people are in jobs today. We know that under Labour, the number of households with nobody working doubled—[Interruption.]

There are 60-odd million people in the UK.

If one thing came out of the disastrous years that made our country more vulnerable because of the disastrous finances of the Labour Government it was the fact that not only are this Government doing more to get people into work—I will say it again, although I heard no positive sounds from the Labour Benches before: there are 30 million people in work—and that businesses have helped to support people and have taken them on, but that the community has come together to support one another

There are still 60-odd million people in the UK.

In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect. [Hon. Members: “ Give way!”] No. Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.

It is important to look at what is happening around the world. The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust. In Germany, however, with a population of 82 million, there are 1.5 million users of food banks. Canada has population of 35 million, and there are 830,000 monthly users of the Trussell Trust.

Who knew that the government was trying to reduce its deficit in order to pay down personal debt? What could that possibly even mean? Also, does the Trussell Trust operate in Canada?

We must put everything in context and look at what happened, whether that is the overspending and not being able to balance the books from 2002, or the financial crash of 2007. [Interruption.] We must look at how much we have done to balance and rebalance the economy, and get it on a stable footing.

Balance it! And then rebalance it! It sounds like something in the circus. You wonder what she actually thinks a chart of the public sector budget looks like over the last few years.

Let us be honest. One thing the Opposition do not understand is that disposable income is different from income. What have we done to support people with disposable income?

Several hon. Members rose—

I bet they did. I’m only surprised Esther McVey’s intern hadn’t provided talking points on what the coalition has done for people with disposable income. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult. The sting here is that the debate is about food banks and it’s not just the Labour MPs speaking; it’s the Tories. Story after hellish story of humiliation and despair pours in, and McVey responds in much the same way.

It’s a mixture, as above, of unbelievable lightness – the welfare to work programme is responsible for 30 million jobs, half the UK population – and hyper-extreme partisanship – Labour is making it all up, teh debt is really 400% of GDP, and if there are food banks which there aren’t then they’re Labour’s secret foodbanks. On the one hand, the chancer, on the other, the thug. Welcome to the emerging low-trust society, or did I say that before?

heywoood, always up to no goood

There’s a bit more on the war of Coulson’s Clearance here, from Robert Peston, who I seem to remember attracted attention back in 2011 as being oddly pro-Murdoch.

I know the answer to why Coulson was not given top level security vetting in 2010.

What happened was that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had decided that too many special advisers had access to the highest level of security clearance and wanted to reduce their number.

So he made a policy decision, without pressure from David Cameron, not to get Coulson cleared for access to such material. At the same time, Mr Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn was given the most vigorous degree of vetting, because of his foreign policy role.

Sir Jeremy simply felt it was inappropriate for large numbers of SPADs – as special advisers are known at Westminster – to have access to this material.

He subsequently decided Coulson was a good egg and could have access to this top secret sensitive material, even though he had not been cleared. So if anyone is going to be embarrassed by the failure to vet Coulson, and Labour’s investigation into this, it will be Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood

We already knew, since July 2011, that there was a degree of pushback on vetting Coulson and others, supposedly for cost reasons. But I think the first 3 paragraphs here are probably accurate, although the tone Peston gives them is tendentious. I know the reason – closing out the story much?

Taken literally, Heywood didn’t think Coulson should have access to anything sensitive. Neither did he think other special advisers should have such access. This doesn’t, of course, reflect positively on Coulson.

Also, it sounds as if the civil service as personified by Heywood wanted to roll back the integration of the No.10 press operation with the political/operational staff. No.10 is where the wiring for the intelligence community, the civil service policy machinery, certain bits of MOD, and the prime minister’s media support come together. Revoking the spin doctors’ access to secrets would dramatically reduce their power, and increase that of the institutions.

The last paragraph must be read in parallel with the rest of the news. We know that Coulson was eventually put forward for his clearance, and we can reason that it happened in the autumn of 2010. Clearly, Heywood didn’t somehow neglect to have him investigated, because after all it happened. We also know that Coulson did indeed get access to high-level secrets – whether from the possibly accidental “strap one” mention or his own words.

So an exception was made for him. Some media actors will want to blame Heywood for granting it. Others will ask who requested it. The process requires that the department that employs you acts as “sponsor” and presumably pays the bill. Coulson’s sponsoring department would be…you guessed it. The Prime Minister’s Office is a thing these days, with a domain name and all. It sits in the Cabinet Office administratively, Francis Maude’s ministry.

Since the Tories’ re-org of the civil service, the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service have been split up, and the new one of the No.10 permanent secretary added. Heywood has emerged as first among equals from this position. Therefore, I give you three options – Heywood, Cameron, or Maude. But Cameron is the customer for the communications director. It’s his interests that are served.

Interestingly, we learn from this that it wasn’t only Blair who gave such access to his press secretary; counting back from Coulson, doesn’t the statement that the last four No.10 press secretaries had it take us into the Major years?