Monthly Archives: October 2015

The anti-people’s budget and the constitutional crisis that isn’t

The government rhetoric about the House of Lords’ threat to derail their cherished plan to cut tax credits has been extraordinary over the last few days. To believe it, you would have to think that we are in the deadlocked position Parliament found itself between 1909 and 1911, when the then Liberal government attempted to force through David Lloyd George’s so-called “People’s Budget,” which established the foundations of the modern welfare state and, less successfully, sought to introduce a new system of taxation based on land values. It resulted in a constitutional showdown and eventually the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the powers of the Lords and sought to eventually replace it with a chamber “constituted on a popular basis”.

Then, the landed gentry clubbed together in the Lords to thwart a popular mandate for a more caring system of welfare for the working poor. Now, the Conservative government (which includes a number of members of the landed gentry) are throwing a hissy fit because our semi-reformed House of Lords is threatening to block an attempt to penalise the working poor. We aren’t talking about legislation here, which the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from being able to block, but an unamendable and thus unscrutinisable statutory instrument, which the government could retable the very next day if it wished to. In the past, governments have got extremely frustrated by the parliamentary ping-pong which has necessitated when the House of Lords and House of Commons disagree. Here, the government is losing its shit before the first serving volley has been fired.

I suspect this rather shrill reaction has more to do with George Osborne’s insecurities – possibly related to him seeing his future Prime Ministerial career retreating into the sunset – than it has to do with any true constitutional outrage. It was therefore extraordinary to hear this morning that Corbyn’s Labour have already capitulated. Of course, it is reasonable for Labour and the Lib Dems to have a fall back position to support if the crossbenchers are not prepared to support the fatal motion to kill the SI; but to go one step further and adopt the Tory position on constitutional sclerosis is bizarre. This puts Jeremy Corbyn in the odd position of a man who won’t bend the knee before the Queen but is all too eager to prostrate himself before the Prime Minister.

It should not be too hard to see that the Tory position on this is all bluff and bluster. The Tories can’t unilaterally suspend the Lords, as they were suggesting a few days ago. To change the powers of the Lords would require a new Parliament Act and re-open the can of worms on Lords reform, which they insisted was not a priority three years ago. To stuff the Lords with Tory peers would be an act of political suicide; it would make democratic reform of the Lords almost inevitable and make Cameron and the Tories look like the most corrupt administration in parliamentary history; don’t forget that even the Liberal threat to do the same in 1911 was part of an electoral pledge in the face of an overwhelming majority of flagrantly self-serving hereditary peers sitting in the Lords. Even Cameron cannot believe he is in the same position, not matter how great his powers of wishful thinking might be.

If this is their threat, I say bring it on. Fortunately, so does Tim Farron. I’m baffled that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t similarly energised at the prospect; just what is the point of him?

Lordi

Labour’s headbangers: rebels without a cause

There’s a curious subset of democratic reform campaigners who maintain that the number one most significant reform we could make to our voting system would be to introduce a “none of the above” option. Apparently, at a stroke, this would solve all our problems as politicians face up to their massive unpopularity.

I am, it is fair to say, sceptical. But one thing I will give them is that this does seem to be the theme of our age. Opting out is what we do in modern society. We are all Pontius Pilate now.

This, it would appear, now extends to the significant elements of the Labour Party. After getting themselves into a mess at the start of the summer, agreeing to abstain on the welfare bill and thus expose the moral vacuum at the party’s heart which Jeremy Corbyn was more than happy to fill, 21 Labour MPs decided to do exactly the same thing in response to the government’s ridiculous Charter for Budget Responsibility.

(As an aside, John Major’s government was obsessed with “charters“; what does it say about modern politics that something that resembles a desperate gimmick during the fag end of the last Tory government is now something that Labour can tie themselves into knots over?)

None of this is to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few days. McDonnell’s u-turn over the charter is possibly the most inept act I’ve ever seen by a major party leader in British politics, and I’m including Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Iain Duncan Smith in that (feel free to list more inept actions in the comments below). It is perfectly understandable why the Labour Parliamentary Party was as angry as it was at the beginning of the week.

But anger doesn’t justify anything, and nor does “well Corbyn and McDonnell used to be serial rebels so I can be too,” unless you never took their rebellions seriously in the first place. Not everyone agrees with Corbynomics, but pretty much everyone understands the charter to be a gimmick and a political trap. The fact that McDonnell got caught in it is a reason to not leap into it yourself. All the Labour rebels did last night was make themselves look stupid and angry.

I hesitate to call them Blairites, but it is a better term than their apparently preferred label, “moderates”. They are anything but. The brigade within Labour that are fixated on bringing Corbyn down as quickly as possible have, for a long time, resemble the headbanger mindset, albeit a group of headbangers without a cause. At least you can quickly tick off a list of what the Tory headbangers believe in; it is hard to discern what the Labour headbangers actually want to achieve.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair, because at times it seems that whenever David Cameron manages to leave the house without forgetting to put his trousers on, there’s a throng of Labour right wingers who are quick to lavish praise on his latest act of political cunning and guile. Last week, Cameron made a few vaguely leftish comments in his conference speech. Completely ignoring the week in which the party defended its policies to cut the income of the working poor and make some blood curdling comments about immigration, Dan Hodges and John Rentoul could not have been more delighted.

Nor is this a new, post-Corbyn change of heart. Throughout the Ed Miliband era, Labour’s headbangers spent their time nursing perceived grievance after perceived grievance. Even after Miliband moderated his approach to appease his own right flank, the highly vocal attacks and grumblings persisted. What we never saw during that era was any kind of positive vision for what a “moderate”, “centrist” Labour might look like. All we heard was sneering.

And then there was Liz Kendall. Initially hailed as a potential game changer, Kendall’s leadership bid quickly ran out of steam. The reason? Because her vision for Labour was about as constructive and coherent as a typical Hodges or Rentoul whinge-fest. She had literally nothing to say beyond “we’re all doomed unless we sign up to all of the Tories’ most popular policies”. A more coherent Blairite might have challenged Corbyn; as it stood Kendall helped Corbyn hoover up more votes every time she opened her mouth.

I’ve yet to see an ounce of contrition by the headbangers over this. The constant anti-Corbyn refrain is that it is no good having principles if you can’t win a general election. This is true. But it is equally true that it is no good being a moderate if you can’t carry your own party with you. If you expect people to give up a serious amount of their time and income supporting your bid to win an election, not being able to offer even the most paltry vision of how you would do things different from your political opponents is a fundamental deal breaker. Yet somehow this fairly mundane idea escapes the so-called Labour moderates, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to examine how they might to anything different any time soon.

As Zoe Williams wrote during the leadership contest, in terms of offering hope, Corbyn is more Blairite than the Blairites. What’s really odd is that with Corbyn’s leadership set to potentially end as soon as the elections next May end, you’d think that the headbangers would be more focused on finding and building up a potential replacement rather than toxifying themselves in the eyes of their colleagues. As it stands, if Corbyn does go down in a blaze of glory, what we’re likely to see is him replaced by a candidate who does at better job at bridging the divide between the parliamentary party and membership, only for the headbangers to spend all their time attempting to bring that leader down as well.

It is an odd form of political nihilism. While cast out in the political wilderness, the hard left at least had an agenda. The hard right complain about moves within the party to oust them; but shouldn’t they find a purpose before complaining about plots?

Tom Watson and the mob

Tom Watson has been mired in controversy recently, following last week’s Panorama documentary raising doubts about the Dolphin Square paedophile ring allegations. The allegation is that he abused his position using parliamentary privilege to highlight rape allegations being made against Leon Brittan. Following an intervention by David Cameron, Watson has now hit back swinging, arguing that the people who deserve an apology are the victims of abuse.

There’s a risk that the issue has now become so hopelessly politicised that we may never see any justice coming out of it. I agree with Watson, up to a point. The focus really needs to be on helping the victims of abuse, not the reputations of politicians.

Where I depart from Watson’s analysis is that I’m not convinced the victims’ interests have been best served by Exaro and Watson’s intervention. There appears to have been pressure on child abuse victims to identify Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor et al despite a paucity of actual evidence. Getting them justice is one thing; using them to target VIPs, using fallout from the Jimmy Savile atrocity as cover is quite another. Using survivors of child abuse to advance your political agenda and career is a pretty egregious act. So excuse me if I resist the temptation to pick Watson’s side in this latest row (or any side at all for that matter).

The thing with Tom Watson is that he has form. In 2004, Watson ran Liam Byrne’s by-election campaign in Birmingham Hodge Hill. The “pro-technology” MP ran a campaign attacking the Lib Dem candidate for being too pro-phone masts. Somewhat more notoriously, his England flag-adorned, anti-immigrant leaflets managed the feat of uniting both Nick Cohen and the Socialist Worker Party in condemnation.

As a party activist at the time, one of the most striking aspects of the Tom Watson era of by-election campaigning was the practice of following rival candidates around with mobs. It reached the point where candidates had to be surrounded by an entourage at all times ready to protect the candidate. It may be Jeremy Corbyn who is identified with the sort of behaviour we saw outside the Conservative Party conference last week, but Watson has been a keen proponent of this tactic in the past – except in his case this had nothing to do with keeping an issue in the public eye but a more straightforward form of intimidation and bullying.

The thing is, if you follow his career, Watson is quite partial to the mob. Whether it is the hacking scandal or child abuse, wherever there is a large amount of righteous moral outrage, Watson unfailingly places himself at the centre of it. With his more recent campaigns, we can at least console ourselves that the targets tend to be the powerful, but his practice remains the same; stoking up anger and hyperbole rather than being the voice of reason.

Like a lot of people, I suspect Tom Watson’s affinity for moral indignation has a little bit too much to do with what he gets out of it than the issues themselves, and it is fair to say that he has done very well out of the campaigns he has tied himself to. But it is reasonable to question whether demagogues really have the people they are superficially championing at heart.

The Revolting Left

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the protests outside the Conservative Party conference and direct action more generally. This has coincided with the release of a new film about the Suffragette movement, which I haven’t seen yet.

It strikes me that much of the debate surrounding direct action and protest exists inside of a bubble in which neither side is especially interested in the truth. We’ve had a week in which journalists and Tory delegates have been acting mortally offended at being called “Tory scum” and spat at and have rushed to draw a direct link between these protests and Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, Corbyn supporters have been downplaying the connection between the two and talking about how these protests reflect genuine anger at Conservative austerity measures.

Both sides are full of it.

While I doubt that the protesters have exactly improved Corbyn’s public image, they have probably not done him any harm either. Both sides are simply too entrenched. Swing voters, watching it from afar, might well not exactly be impressed by the actions but it is unlikely to make them form a strong opinion of a party leader who has publicly called for a “kinder, gentler” politics the other week. The connection between the two can be made, but it is the political class who will make it, not floating voters.

Meanwhile, the people who claim this is some spontaneous outpouring of outrage are downplaying the fact that this is a deliberate strategy. And it is a strategy which, broadly speaking, has worked. It is hard to believe that the pressure on Cameron and Osborne about tax credits would have been anything like as intense if the conference hadn’t had a backdrop of angry protest. Yes, journalists complained about being spat at – but they also went out and spoke to the protestors, who had plenty to say about tax credits, benefits, housing and poverty more generally. It might be pretty unpleasant to be have to endure, and you can ask questions about what motivates someone to spend a week shouting angrily at passers by, but the fact is that it kept the issue they wanted on the agenda. If they hadn’t been there, Cameron et al would have had a much easier time of it.

The Westminster circus has a vested interest in dismissing the effectiveness of direct action, but the fact is that this sort of protest time and again simply works. The problem is that its most keen proponents all too often believe it is the only thing that works, and that all you need to do to win any campaign is get into a punch up outside Downing Street. I remember talking at a People and Planet conference a few years ago in which my fellow speaker extolled precisely this position. Among other things, he claimed, the woman’s right to vote was solely won because of the Suffragettes’ hunger strikes, damage to property and self-sacrifice.

He has a point. The suffrage movement had reached an impasse in 1906 due to the perfidy of the Liberal government. They managed to keep the issue alive at a time when decades of patient political action had reached an impasse. Here’s the thing though: the came after decades of political action, and it didn’t actually lead to women getting the vote. That happened later, after World War I and four years after the Suffragettes had ceased their actions. And it was another decade after that before we had universal suffrage.

This isn’t to disparage the Suffragettes, merely to point out that the heart of their success was rooted in the fact that their actions slotted into a wider political movement. One of the most frustrating things over the last five years has been watching the modern protest “movement” attempting to make similar progress without any interest in conventional political lobbying. UK Uncut is widely credited for pushing tax avoidance up the pole, but again there was already a political movement making waves about that topic (and it’s both low-hanging fruit and a political El Dorado which seldom delivers because it doesn’t look at the more structural problems with tax; but that’s another topic). Other than that, protestors have made a lot of noise but very little substantial progress over the past half decade.

The rise of Corbyn, in theory at least, could bridge that divide. If both Labour and the protest movement are both pushing in the same direction, then it could prove effective. My problem with this however, is that I think Corbyn represents a leap too far in the opposite direction. While it is great for the protest movement to have “one of their own” leading Labour, the benefits for Labour are less clear. And Corbyn has seldom demonstrated much interest in the boring work of actually persuading people inside his party – let alone across the Commons floor. At this stage I’m not ruling anything out, but I struggle to see how the optimism currently rippling through the hard left has much basis in reality.

If the hard left is going to really make progress, I suspect it will need to meet the centre left halfway rather than simply bypassing it altogether. A bit of pragmatism all round would be helpful.

Trident, Corbyn, nirvana and hell

This article by Ian Leslie in the New Statesman reminded me of an idea I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about for a long time. That is, that politics is in the state it is because our society is split between people who think politics and policy is impossibly easy – and thus the fact that bad things happen is because politicians are fundamentally bad people – and the people who think politics and policy is impossibly hard – and thus everything needs to be left to the Serious Men.

Ian Leslie gets it half right; I recognise plenty of the nirvana fallacy in a lot of what Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have to say. But there’s also the other fallacy. I don’t know if it has an official name, but its the idea that because a problem is superficially hard, only the most nihilistic and misanthropic solution is the answer.

I’m a terrible fence sitter, and as I get older I’m getting worse. That accounts for a lot for why I don’t blog as much these days. When it comes to both Trident and the Middle East, my position is that… I’m not sure. I get the argument that Ian Leslie puts forward here against unilateral disarmament. But the counter argument is that maybe, if the Superpowers weren’t around to slap anyone down who starts threatening nuclear war themselves, the sabre rattlers would be forced to take responsibility for themselves. The logic of mutually assured destruction is that the world has to live in a state of perpetual infantilism with Grown Up colonising forces effectively watching over us. And that idea works fine as long as the Superpowers themselves aren’t run by bloodthirsty sabre rattlers like, er, Donald Trump. Or Vladimir Putin.

I’m not convinced that supporters of unilateral disarmament are blind to the fact that someone deciding to press the button knowing that they won’t receive any retaliation isn’t a very real threat. It’s just that, well, we sort of live under that threat anyway; what if some rogue state just becomes so nihilistic that it decides to unleash hell anyway? I just don’t buy this idea that people exist who hate humanity so much that they’d be willing to kill millions yet are dissuaded by the threat of their own annihilation. And it doesn’t take a nuclear weapon to kill a tinpot dictator: I guarantee you that any tinpot general who lets off a nuclear bomb will have at most six months to live before the special forces of the country they aim their weapons at knocks them out.

I’m not saying anything new here. It was all summed up in Dr. Strangelove 51 years ago. And that was about the logic of MAD on the US. The UK’s own nuclear arsenal is just a plaything in comparison. The big joke about Trident is that it literally serves no purpose. It’s not there to reinforce mutually assured destruction if “necessary” – it’s a “strategic” weapons systems designed to, er, what exactly? Just what are we planning to blow up that the US and Russia don’t already have in their sights? If we set off a Trident missile for any reason, the UK gets annihilated. If someone sets off a nuclear missile aimed at the UK, they’re dead even if Trident gets dismantled. We aren’t part of the group of “grown up” nations who get to decide if humanity gets to continue to exist or not; we’re the big children who have been allowed to sit at the big table because we behaved ourselves.

Is it more complicated than that? Maybe (remember my point about being a fence sitter?). I’m glad I’ll never be Prime Minister because I too could never press the button; the moral weight of the decision would destroy me. But the idea that it is as simple as Ian Leslie suggests – that our nuclear arsenal is a bulwark stopping the whole edifice from collapsing – is more intelligence insulting than any anti-nuclear argument I’ve heard. But it’s seductive because it comes across as hard nosed and realpolitik. If Corbyn’s thinking is the “nirvana fallacy” then this is the “hell fallacy”: we can never have nice things because the world is horrible.

This “shut up and eat your dinner” argument is a common one in modern politics. It’s why we apparently have to let the intelligence services read our emails. It’s why we can’t reform our financial services. It’s why we have to force the most vulnerable people to take a cut in benefits and hunt for non-existent jobs. It isn’t the start of intellectual inquiry; it’s the shutting down of intellectual inquiry. And yes, people on the other side of the argument are also frequently to blame for being similarly simplistic and dismissing their opponents’ arguments. But that doesn’t make one side more valid than the other.