Tag Archives: government

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Reporting back from the Fabians: What not to spend

The Fabian Society kindly gave me a media registration for their new year conference and I spent last Saturday at Imperial College mingling with the Labour Party faithful. I sadly missed Gordon Brown’s morning address but sat in on two discussions: “What not to spend” – a discussion on what public spending cuts the government should make; and “Tribes or causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” Both featured Lib Dem speakers, and I attended the former to keep an eye on Vince Cable and the latter to support Evan Harris (or should that be the other way around?).

What not to spend was, of the two sessions, the most frustrating. This was partially because there was no Labour Minister there to give us their perspective, partially because the Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley failed spectacularly to stay on topic and partially because Vince himself was being incredibly cautious. My hope that Vince might give us a tantalising glimpse of what he thought needed cutting, beyond that which the party has announced and reannounced over the past few months ended up dashed (despite his tantalising flash of leg in Parliament the preceeding week). And because the Cult of Vince seems to have extended as far as both the audience and the other speakers (I don’t think anyone breathed a word of criticism of him during the entire 90 minutes), he wasn’t even pressed on the kite flying list of spending cuts he flagged up in his Reform pamphlet last September. A man suggests means-testing child benefit and doesn’t elicit even a single squeak from a Fabian audience; what is going on? Indeed, the one area there did seem to be some tentative agreement on was the rolling back of middle class welfare.

Instead of talking about the current economic situation, Stanley and Daley preferred to continue a traditional left-right ding-dong which you might have heard in any political meeting at any point over the last twenty years. Both, I have to say, were much more nuanced and less dogmatic than they might have been, but neither seemed interested in really addressing what savings government needed to make. To be fair on Stanley, as a TUC staffer, it wasn’t really his job on the panel to do that, but I did expect to hear something substantial from Daley. She made a dig at the start about “not defending David Cameron’s economic policy because I don’t know what it is” yet pretty much the alpha and omega of her own economic policy seemed to consist of one word: “vouchers”.

“Vouchers” – whether they are vouchers for education, healthcare or whatever – have been a real rallying cry for the right in recent years. The aforementioned Reform think tank was for a while obsessed with them. Speaking personally, I’ve always felt it is a bit of a cop out of an argument. We’re constantly invited to believe that the key to the success of the Swedish education system lies in the voucher system, not in the amount of cash each of those vouchers represents, and to believe that, somehow, a voucher based on UK spending levels would have the same effect. I don’t buy it. I can see how they could be made to work in, say, an inner city area where the population density is sufficiently high enough to create a genuine market, but how it would work in a rural area is something I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to.

Furthermore, while they might be a suitable topic for discussion in a debate about getting value for money from public services, I just can’t see how introducing them during an economic period where we are having to make cuts makes much sense at all. It won’t address any problems in the short term, and indeed the cost and bureaucracy that would be involved to establish the system would make it harder to introduce cuts.

The other area that troubled me was the aforementioned apparent consensus around the idea of scaling back the “middle class welfare state”. Some of this, I have very little trouble with. Creating a shorter taper for tax credits so that people earning £50,000 aren’t entitled to some tiny amount which is eclipsed by its own administration costs makes perfect sense. But that is the trouble with means-tested benefits. By contrast, there is a real danger in means-testing what few universal benefits we have left in the name of cutting costs. Partially, this is because you end up having to establish a whole new bureaucracy to administer the scheme, partially because it means that those most in need often end up failing to claim for it precisely because of that bureacracy, but also because it helps create a sense of solidarity between the comfortably off and the poor. As Sunder Katwala himself said at the Lib Dem conference last September “services for the poor will always be poor services“.

I hope that my concern about the comfort with this rhetoric proves to be unfounded and that things like child tax benefit won’t be regarded as low hanging fruit after the general election. But the way this idea seemed to be supported in the generality at the session did cause me some discomfort. It was the elephant in the room.

Revolution! MPs to question ministers shocker!!!!

I’m sure all the people involved are well meaning but there is something soul destryoing about this story on the front page of the Guardian today:

Lord Mandelson is set to make history by becoming the first cabinet minister from the House of Lords in modern times to answer questions in the Commons.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is planning to use his mandate as a moderniser to break centuries of tradition which have kept the Commons and Lords apart in an attempt to make ministers who sit in the upper house accountable to MPs.

Nicholas Watt goes on to describe, in miniscule detail, how the convention that MPs never talk to ministers sitting in “the other place” might be allowed to address the House of Commons (note how he writes all this down, seemingly irony free, yet can’t even grasp a basic fact such as whether the Alternative Vote system is proportional or not – it isn’t just MPs who are the problem here). As long as they don’t cross the bar, they’re safe. One can only speculate what might happen if the big toe of an ennobled minister were to inadvertantly slip over the line. Chaos! Apocalypse! Revolution!

For some reason I am reminded of Egon Spengler’s grave warning in Ghostbusters not to “cross the streamers” – of course at the end of the film it becomes necessary to do that to prevent the end of the world. Somehow I suspect Peter Mandelson setting foot in the House of Commons won’t be anything like as spectacular. Or involve quite as much marshmallow (I could be wrong about that last bit, I will concede).

The normally sensible (he has a blind spot when it comes to the House of Lords, it must be said) Vernon Bogdanor doesn’t exactly help, describing this move as “radical.”

I have to admit that I’m in two minds about this myself. On the one hand, clearly the House of Commons should be free to scrutinise any minister of state, in the House of Commons, without having to worry about bars or go off to the much smaller Westminster Hall. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be ANY ministers in the House of Lords full stop.

This convention about having to ennoble any non-MP who is to serve as a minister is total nonsense. It leads to people like Digby Jones getting a peerage simply for doing five months in the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (a department which itself existed for twelve months before Gordon Brown insisted on reprinting all the stationary yet again). The argument for it is that ministers must be accountable to Parliament – but they aren’t. They get to answer questions in Parliament – however lamentably – but they are only actually accountable to the Prime Minister.

If we want ministers to be accountable to Parliament then we should have confirmation hearings. Parliament should have the authority to throw out any nominee that it believes to be weak or incompetent. The quid pro quo of that would be that anyone in principle should be able to serve – and not be a parliamentarian. A side benefit, I suspect, is that reshuffles would be less frequent (as they would be become more bureaucratic) and thus ministers would be given the space to do a job rather than spend six months getting up to speed before the Prime Minister moves them somewhere else to cover up for his own failings.

Better ministers with more of an opportunity to do their job? I’m sure the reactionaries in Westminster would be outraged. It might just lead to better government for the rest of us though.

42, Northern Ireland and Cameron’s non-leadership

Is it me or is there a link between the government’s (possibly premature, possibly not) triumphalism about winning round the Labour rebels over the Terrorism Bill and the latest political crisis in Northern Ireland?

For weeks now, it has been well known that the Brown government has been courting the DUP with a view to persuading them to back them on the 42 days vote. If Jacqui Smith really did manage to sweet talk her own rebels last night however, then the DUP just lost their bargaining position. Cue: Sinn Fein raising the stakes and Shaun Woodward calling for devolution to be “completed“.

Obviously the arrival of Peter Robinson almost certainly is a catalyst as well, but I can’t help but feel Labour would be doing more to avoid this particular row this week if it didn’t feel confident about the terrorism bill next week.

No doubt they have also been bolstered by a breakaway group of Tories, lead by Ann Widdecombe who are planning to support the government plans. Widdecombe’s call for the act to be subject to an annual vote recalls the nonsense of the old Prevention of Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act. Introduced by Roy Jenkins in 1974, this “temporary” measure was annually renewed until 2000 when Labour decided to drop the farce and make it permanent. That’s the problem with “temporary” security measures. You can always find “exceptional” reasons to keep them, politicians like to look tough by supporting them, and pretty soon they just become an accepted way of life.

Once again of course we appear to be looking at Cameron failing to hold discipline within his own ranks. If he calls for the vote on detention without charge to be a free vote, we know we’re really fucked. I’ve been saying this for years now, but letting your own backbenchers run rings around you like this is not leadership. I like to think that if this vote ends up being won by a small margin in which the Tory rebels are the decisive factor, the media might actually wake up to this, but I doubt it. Heaven help us if/when he becomes Prime Minister.

Finally, just a quick note to link to this letter which was published in the Guardian today. The Terrorism Bill is about a lot more than detention without charge but it looks like everything else will simply be waved through.

Official response to green energy targets: lie

The Guardian’s expose of DBERR’s response to the EU’s 20% renewable energy target which Tony Blair signed us up to earlier this year is sadly reminiscent of Yes, Minister, replete with calls to reclassify solar panels in Africa and nuclear energy as counting towards our renewable target.

The worst thing about all this is that our partners on the mainland are making us look like chumps. The civil service response to every green target has always been to fudge it; now we are lagging behind to a cringe-making degree. Even if you are a climate change denier, surely decreasing the UK’s dependence on foreign oil has to be a good thing? And how can a relatively land-locked country like Germany be spanking us on windpower? Isn’t that just plain embarrassing?

To catch up, all it takes is the level of spending recommended by the Stern Review, launched with great aplomb by the then-Chancellor last autumn. Instead, we’re ploughing public investment into money pits like the M6.

The tragedy of environmental policy is that for all the rhetoric, our Government isn’t even prepared to do the basics. It then turns around, having sat on its hands, and insists that we have to stick with things like nuclear energy. Sadly, with time pressing, I fear this may be a bullet we can’t afford to dodge, but let’s be clear what this means. Never mind stuff about the safety of plants or disposal of waste, the real thing we should be worrying about is where all that uranium is going to come from if worldwide demand for it trebles (which is a conservative estimate); is switching from foreign oil dependency to foreign uranium dependency really progress? What does this mean for global security? Sadly, I’m not optimistic.

A final point: most of the level of renewable energy across the EU appears to be coming from energy from waste. Perhaps it is time that environmentalist groups who so dislike the oil, gas and nuclear options should start muting their opposition to such a rich potential source of energy?

Reshuffling to victory

It’s still sinking in, but first reactions?

  • Yay! 6 years since Straw left the post, we get to call someone Jack Boot again. Okay, Jacqui Boot.
  • Will Ruth Kelly abolish public transport on Sundays?
  • Des Browne to be defence AND Scotland? Are we going to be fortifying Hadrian’s Wall?
  • Geoff Hoon as Chief Whip. Not sure putting him in charge of the troops is a good idea. Look at Iraq.

How many newspapers and blogs will use the following headline: “A woman’s place is in the Home Office“? Is it even worth counting?

Technoprats

When the history books on New Labour are finally written, one subject that will fill volumes will undoubtedly be why it is that Labour are so obsessed with technological solutions to everything, and yet simultaneously so bloody awful at them.

So it is that their new passport system has fallen over after just 18,000 applications. Child Support Agency? Same story. Tax credits? Check.

Yet still they persist. We’re to have ID cards eventually, even if the date does keep getting pushed back. And John Reid insists he’s pressing ahead with merging police forces, claiming it will be more efficient, despite his unwillingness to spend a penny on the project.

At some point, surely, you would have thought they would realise that government is about more than just filing and categorising everything, and that the ICT companies have been laughing behind their backs (and all the way to the bank) for years now. Yet they press ahead.

It is even a characteristic of their backbenchers, with Claire Curtis-Thomas’ magic solution to the ills of lad mags being heaps of regulation and a quango to oversee it all. No doubt, were such proposals to be fully realised, they would include the creation of a National Grotmag Register, costing hundreds of millions of pounds and so ineptly built by Capita that it explodes the first time somebody attempted to scan in an image of Jodie Marsh.

All of this refutes the trendy notion in the 1990s that New Labour had abandoned socialism. While it is true they have finally come to reject the notion of a centralised, command-and-control economy, they continue to pursue this philosophy in all other areas with a passion that would make Stalin blush. It doesn’t work, but it is going to take a heavy defeat before it will be stopped. The ID card is the 21st century equivalent of the Ukranian tractor factory. And they call themselves progressive.