Tag Archives: labour

Quaequam Blog! Not dead but…

I haven’t updated this blog for over a month. For people used to my more loquacious periods, that may seem odd. The reason for not blogging much however is quite straightforward: I don’t have anything to say.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have opinions about stuff, in particular how our new coalition government is faring. I’ve got “reckons” coming out of my ears. I just don’t think they’re particularly worth broadcasting beyond the occasional sarcastic tweet.

I have had, I have to admit, a bit of a crisis of confidence. How I steer a course through this political brave new world isn’t something that I’ve managed to get a particularly strong handle on yet. Do I defend the Lib Dems and champion the various things that we are getting out of this deal? There are numerous things that I support and possibly even more things that I’m prepared to accept, but I didn’t get into this blogging lark to simply echo the party line and I don’t see any reason to start now. Equally, I have no wish to turn this blog into one long whingefest about all the things that are happening (effectively in my name, natch, since I signed up to this) that I am less than comfortable about.

In theory it is all a question of balance, but in fact I think it is about more than that. Political commentary over the past few months has become something I have become increasingly intolerant. So much of it is little more than noise; a succession of cliches that don’t fundamentally add anything. Fundamentally, I’ve become very conscious of the fact that I need to choose my fights carefully; I just haven’t fully worked out what exactly those fights should be.

After 100 days of the coalition, I can’t deny that my overwhelming emotion is one of frustration. I’m frustrated with a government which seems to be lead by a small coterie of people more interested in expressing their mutual admiration than being clear about what they are doing and in what direction they are planning to take the country. I’m frustrated by ‘deficit porn’ – of talking about cuts as if they are the answer to every single question instead of questioning rigourously where cuts may in fact prove to be a false economy (both in the sense of cuts leading to a double dip recession – on which the jury is distinctly out – and in the sense of creating cuts in social care and anti-fuel poverty measures that end up creating more strain on the health service, which is theoretically ringfenced). I’m frustrated that the vision, such as it is, for what we want to see the country look like after we emerge from this economic crisis, is so tepid. This appears to be mainly because, despite all this florid talk of how united Clegg and Cameron are, this is the one area where the coalition fundamentally disagrees. Yet that makes it all the more important that we start talking about it instead of limiting it to lowest common denominator stuff like “social mobility”.

And I am especially frustrated with the opposition, such as it is. My fears that Labour would end up getting trapped into a mindset of “what’s bad for the coalition is good for us” have proven to be well founded, and it is an infection which has spread across the board, even among some relatively sensible types. A perfect example is AV. Leaving aside the rather tedious row about boundary changes (which, aside from some of the legitimate social justice issues at stake, amounts to two parties with a rather inflated sense of entitlement arguing about which party should be given the greatest unfair advantage), the idea that losing the AV referendum will damage the coalition is quite mistaken. It will certainly damage the Liberal Democrats, but we’ll have nowhere to go. Our only recourse will be batten down the hatches, refocus on Lords reform and a handful of other reforms, and hope for the best. It will be the Tory right that will hold all the cards, not Labour. The idea that suddenly we’ll decide to pull out of the coalition and meet our doom in an early general election is pure fantasy.

By contrast, what better way to undermine the Clegg-Cameron love in than for Labour to champion AV, and win? The Tory right will be damaged, Labour will come out smelling of roses and the Lib Dems’ influence within the coalition will increase. For many Tories, that will be simply unscionable. An unruly Tory backbench will make Lib-Lab cooperation in Parliament far easier. This is the prize Labour have within their grasp; yet they are so obsessed with ‘betrayal’ they simply can’t see it. I can only look on in despair.

On the economy, Labour are simply in la-la land. Let’s be clear: Labour pledged at the last election to halve the deficit within four years; the coalition plan to half the deficit within three years. Labour planned a 70:30 cuts:tax rises package and conspicuously didn’t rule out raising VAT; the Coalition plan a 77:23 cut:tax rises package which includes raising VAT. While the Coalition’s cuts are undeniable steeper than what Labour intended, Labour has made it clear that they oppose number of cuts to non-frontline services that the Coalition is introducing – specifically by scrapping the National Identity Register, ContactPoint and prison places. These ringfenced spending plans would have to be paid for out of increased cuts to frontline services.

The Labour leadership candidates have been remarkable. The four men (Diane Abbot is the exception to all rules here) have all indicated that they think the economic policy Labour fought the election over this year was mistaken, to a less or greater extent. At some point, surely, someone should ask the question: if four of the supposedly most talented and articulate members of the last cabinet opposed that economic policy, why was it adopted? Surely they had the numbers on their side; surely they could have forced Brown and Darling to back down? Their radical convictions fail to convince in another area: for all this talk of increasing taxes on the rich, I’ve yet to hear any of them call for anything more radical than keeping the 50p rate on higher levels of income tax after it is due to be scrapped in a few years time. The Robin Hood Tax (how I hate that name)? Nice idea in theory but how will you introduce a financial transaction tax without international cooperation? And how long will that take? And let’s not kid ourselves that this is a tax on rich bankers; it’s a tax on bank accounts. I’m afraid that none of the leadership candidates have come up with anything even mildly radical when it comes to progressive tax measures, even failing by the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto’s own modest standards.

It is now clear that Labour never intended to win the election and feared what might have happened had it done so. None of the parties published adequately detailed spending plans, but Labour’s plans were the most opaque. In doing so, they have a blank slate from which to work from and can spend the next five years opposing every single cut while knowing that they would had to have made most of them. That’s the plan anyway, but I’m not convinced that it will do them any good. However painful and wrongly targeted the Coalition’s cuts may be, by 2015 most of them will be history. The narrative of taking the hard decisions sorting out Labour’s mess has a great deal of merit to it even if you discount the nonsense about increasing spending immediately after the credit crunch (which was almost certainly the only option). I’m not convinced it will ultimately get them anywhere. Worse, by keeping their activist base in a bubble of unreality, I suspect that any attempt to start adopting a more responsible line is likely to cause any new leader a great deal of difficulty.

But most of all, I am frustrated by the shrillness of it all. Over on Twitter, we’ve been having some fun taking the michael out of the absurd, over the top nonsense emanating from Labour at the moment in the form of #labourbingo (note to self: must make up some cards for the conference season), which in turn has resulted in Ryan Cullen’s Labour-o-matic. It is the only meaningful response I’ve come across to all this patent absurdity. At least the ridiculous ZaNuLieBore lunacy emanating from the rightwing blogosphere was ultimately only articulated by a distinct minority of wingnuts during the last Parliament; within Labour, unironic talk about ConDemNation and allusions to Nazi collaborators has become common currency. Only a tiny handful of people within Labour seem to realise quite how overblown it all is.

The real problem I am having with all this hysteria is that it is ultimately muting my own concerns about the coalition. Exposing myself to this tirade (and the alternative is to shut myself off from reading all tweets, blogs and articles written by any Labour activists, which would almost certainly be worse) simply shuts down all my critical faculties and puts me on defensive mode. I realise it is a bad habit to get into but after three months of it, my inclination to even think about engaging positively with anyone in the Labour Party has reached an all time low. Perhaps that’s just a problem I will have to work out myself, but it would be nice if there was at least some self-awareness of quite how over the top it has all become.

What am I doing positively? Well, I’m pleased to be moving a motion to conference this autumn entitled “fairness at a time of austerity” which seeks to put forward a series of positive objectives the Lib Dems should be fighting for in coalition (including making the Office of Budget Responsibility genuinely independent, making the case for wealth taxes, investing in housing, preventing the creation of a ‘lost generation’ and ending child poverty). The Social Liberal Forum has a good line up of fringe meetings at this autumn conference. I’m also becoming established as a quite shameless media tart. Beyond that, I’m doing a lot of thinking offline and trying to get my head around it all.

I never thought I was going to enjoy a coalition with the Conservatives and thus it has proven to be. But lest there be any doubt, however much I might be uncomfortable I am clear that it is better than all the alternatives. The problems we face as a country are problems that all three parties are currently failing to grasp and both the Lib Dems and I personally have never been in a better position to do something about that. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not entirely clear what that needs to be.

“Good God, they might just do it!”

That was my reaction to the Sunday Times/YouGov poll today suggesting that Labour had managed to close the Tory lead down to just 2 points. While I expected the polls to close as election day drew nearer, and wouldn’t even be surprised by a margin such as that come 6 May, I never expect it to happen so quickly. You’ve got to hand it to Labour; they are starting to get the wind in their sales again.

But then, however much of a shambles the Tories may be at the moment, I’ve got to admit that they have a point when they ask, as they have been today, could you really face another five years of Gordon Brown? The idea fills me with dread. The silver lining on the Tory cloud was at least that there was a chance to remodel Labour along more liberal, less tribal and genuinely progressive lines. There are plenty of people in Labour I would happily see the Lib Dems working with in government; the current hegemony in charge at the top are a notable exception. That hegemony faces oblivion if Labour lose the election; if, hope against hope, they win, it will be another five years of one of most apocalyptically bad administrations we’ve ever seen.

I like to think that if Labour won they would unsentimentally ditch Brown as quickly as possible; he certainly has remarkably few genuine allies in the party. But that would not be without its problems either. Brown would have a personal mandate and it would be regicide on a scale that would make Thatcher’s assassins blush. The result would likely be a Brownite replacement who would quite possibly make Brown seem to be a wise sage in comparison (Balls, anyone?). The best we could hope for is a handful of reforms – including to the House of Lords – that Labour simply cannot continue putting off any longer (although Jack Straw will have a good go) and the prospect that a reduced majority will make it harder for the Brownite hegemony to continue to get its own way. The AV referendum will be a lost cause (the facts that it won’t survive if the Tories win and is highly unlikely to deliver a ‘yes’ vote explain why I struggle to get motivated by it either way).

For me, the most telling part of Peter Watt’s Inside Out was the section in which he describes how George Osborne wrong-footed Labour by announcing his plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold in 2007. No-one at the top of Labour had a clue how to respond to this (including, it has to be said, Watt). The same team were responsible for the 10p income tax rout a couple of months later. For these people, “fairness” is nothing more than an empty slogan designed to engender votes. It’s a branding exercise with no substance which they would ditch in a second if it had served its purpose. The only thing that makes Labour better in my eyes than the Tories is that there are a clutch of consciences sitting on their frontbench which occasionally remind the party of the principles it claims to expound (the baying mob on the Tory benches who are similarly keen to remind Cameron of Conservative principles could never be legitimately described as “consciences”).

I just don’t want either of the fuckers. To the 45% of the population living in a constituency where the Lib Dems are in first or second place: please. We might not be perfect but surely it’s the better option by a wide margin?

Nick Clegg: well hung?

I meant to report back from the “Tribes or Causes: Can we campaign across party boundaries?” session at the Fabian conference last week but, as you may have noticed, I’m not exactly blog-heavy at the moment and time has moved on.

It left me in two minds. On the one hand, a clear consensus for political reform emerged on the platform. All four speakers (which in addition to Evan Harris included David Babbs from 38 Degrees, Will Straw from Left Foot Forward and Jessica Asato from Progress) seemed to agree on the need for a more proportional voting system (note: not AV), the Wright Commission proposals and the importance of internal party democracy. On the other hand, it is fairly safe to say that this is not only not a consensus position within Labour itself, but in all three cases is a position that is being actively opposed by the Labour Party at the most senior level at the moment (in the case of the Wright Commission proposals, if I hear Harriet Harman coming up with yet another weasily formulation for why she can’t simply say if she supports them or not, I may have to start causing somebody grevious bodily harm).

And this, in a nutshell, is why Labour supporters can’t and won’t get the Lib Dems to come out and announce their intention to support Labour in the event of a hung parliament*. The fact that Nick Clegg won’t say this causes a lot of Labourites much consternation. James Macintyre, who asked Evan a particularly sappy question about equidistance at the Fabian conference, has written about this in the New Statesman this week, suggesting there is something of a split amongst senior Lib Dem figures on the topic. Over at Tribune, Ian Hernon prefers to simply heap ordure on Clegg.

The simplistic analysis, as advanced by Darrell Goodliffe (who has recently defected from the Lib Dems to Labour), is that Clegg secretly wants to sidle the Lib Dems up to David Cameron and negotiate a deal to form a Lib-Con coalition government. Exhibit A in this case is Clegg’s repeated statement that, in the case of a hung parliament, he would acknowledge that whichever party had the biggest mandate would have “the first right to seek to govern”.

Yet, while this is bandied about as a veritable smoking gun on a proverbial grassy knoll, and while I am not exactly known to be Clegg’s most uncritical of friends, I just don’t see it. James MacIntyre is simply talking balls to suggest that the by adopting this stance, Clegg is pretending the Lib Dems do not have more in common with Labour than the Tories. Clegg himself could not have been clearer in his Demos pamphlet last year when he stated that Labour were rivals whilst the Tories were the traditional foe. The Lib Dems haven’t had a policy of “equidistance” since the mid-nineties. And note that Clegg has very carefully stated that the party with the biggest mandate only has dibs on the right to seek to govern. That is a very qualified statement. It doesn’t commit the Lib Dems to doing anything other than to try to advance its agenda as much as possible. Far from being unprincipled, as Ian Hernon suggests, this is about advancing the Lib Dems principles as much as possible. While I would be the first to acknowledge that Nick Clegg has nursed some curious delusions over the last couple of years, there is simple no way it has escaped his attention that majority of his parliamentary party would simply not accept a coalition with the Tories unless they made some pretty phenomenal concessions. And finally, there is the simple observation that Clegg’s dislike for Cameron is visceral and personal. Partly that is because so many lazy commentators have drawn lazy comparisions between the two, which he has understandably sought to rebut. But a lot of his criticisms of Cameron hold water: it is the case that while Thatcher was at her height, Clegg was working for people like Christopher Hitchens while Cameron was sliding into a government job. Clegg has defined himself as an internationalist in terms of both his career path, his background and even his family life; Cameron is a little Englander to the core.

So, bearing all that in mind, why doesn’t Clegg just do the decent thing and admit that the only likely partner in the case of a hung parliament is Labour? I would have thought that to Labour supporters, steeped as they are in trade unionism (ha ha), that would be obvious: you don’t begin negotiations by giving up your bargaining position. If the Lib Dems were to start openly ruling out a deal with the Tories, all pressure on Brown to begin conceding ground to the more liberal wing of his party would be lost and the Tory accusation that a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour would have far greater force. In essence, the Lib Dems would become pawns in a bipartisan bunfight and all hope of carving out a distinctive agenda would be lost.

But it would ignore certain other political realities. Speaking personally, it will surprise no-one to know that I would really like to see a Lib-Lab coalition and see this as a positive way of moving forward after years of drift and in the face of a Tory party which is nothing like as reconstituted as it claims to be. But I fear that my own price would be too high for the Labour Party to be prepared to pay. It would involve them shifting so much ground in terms of civil liberties and democratic reform that I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. And even then, I can’t see how the Lib Dems could practically enter a government lead by Gordon Brown, the most incompetent leader this country has had in my lifetime by a comfortable margin. If I feel that way, you can bet it is a problem for Nick Clegg even more.

I think it is highly doubtful that, in the event of a hung parliament, any coalition government will be forthcoming. Neither Labour nor the Tories have shown any real interest in hinting what they would be prepared to compromise on; understandably so. Labour’s dithering and navel gazing over whether or not to support the Alternative Voting system shows them up to be appalling potential partners. Currently, it looks as if it will amount to little more than a manifesto commitment to a referendum, and we know how much Labour manifesto commitments for referendums are worth (not much). Even if they did legislate for it, it doesn’t particularly get us anywhere. While it is possible that the Lib Dems will settle for AV (indeed, several Lib Dem parliamentarians would prefer it if we did), it is more likely it will be up for negotiation. In that sense, the Labour MPs who fear that AV is the thin end of the PR-wedge are correct.

The current political system in Westminster is not designed for coalition government; indeed many elements are specifically designed to prevent them. I suspect that the most likely scenario is that, after much negotiating, either Labour or the Tories formed a minority government and a fresh election was called within two years. What is more interesting is what would happen then. If a single winner emerges then clearly it will be business as usual. But if the public votes for another hung parliament then the stakes would be considerably higher and the chances of a formal coalition will significantly increase.

There is of course the argument that a long period of political instability would panic the markets (as if they need any help). But in such a scenario, it becomes no more incumbant on the Lib Dems to be part of a coalition as it would be for Labour and the Tories to come together, as Martin Kettle has pointed out. Both Tory and Labour supporters scoff at this idea, yet no one seems capable of explaining why the Lib Dems should be more prepared to sacrifice principle in the name of pragmatism than any other party. Either a hung parliament is the sort of apocalyptic scenario foretold by people such as Ken Clarke, or it isn’t.

In short, if we do end up in a hung parliament situation, all bets are off. It is ludicrious to try framing the debate in terms of whether the Lib Dems would do a deal with Labour and/or the Tories; any number of alternative scenarios might arise. Expecting the Lib Dems to painstakingly spell out their terms in advance of an election is therefore mere cant, especially when it comes (as it usually does) from people who aren’t prepared to do so themselves and do not criticise Brown and Cameron equally for not doing likewise. But it looks set to continue with the launch of Charter 2010, a new website which is dedicated to making the prospect of a hung parliament the number one election issue. Can you think of anything worse? Endless chin scratching speculation about something that has a good chance of not happening, lead by David Owen – the man who wrote the book (both figuratively and literally) on political egomania – it would redefine voter apathy.

I would politely suggest that speculation on this topic should be suspended until after the election and to instead focus on what the various parties do and don’t stand for. I know it is futile of me to do so, but I can try. But if you do insist on playing this game, then please start by telling me what you think your side should be bringing to the table instead of demanding that my party does all the heavy lifting for you. Cheers.

* I appreciate that “hung parliament” is a pejorative term and that “parliament with no single party with a workable majority” is more neutral, but it is useful shorthand.

Tears for Blears

You can tell it is a slow news day when the BBC decide that a bit of vandalism counts as major national news.

I also have to admit to a bit of sympathy for Hazel Blears. Whichever way you add it up, she is a victim here and doesn’t deserve being paraded on public display in the way that the BBC and the Manchester Evening News have done here. It is neither big nor clever to broadcast that mobile phone footage.

However, my sympathy ran out as soon as I read her statement:

This was an act of anti-social behaviour by some youths, the same kind of anti-social behaviour unfortunately many of my constituents have to put up with.

No it isn’t. It is criminal behaviour. Labour introduced the concept of anti-social behaviour in the run up to the 1997 general election. Before then, it was was a psychiatric term with a precise and narrow definition.

These days it can mean absolutely anything, from not giving up your seat on a bus to cold blooded murder. Ironically, it can even be made to refer to parking on a double-yellow line – something that Blears can clearly be seen to have done. It is a sad testament to Labour’s 12 years in office that senior politicians like Blears feel they can no longer call a spade a shovel and label this a “crime.” Instead they have to resort to this essentially meaningless jargon. This pretty much sums up the failure of Blears’ career as a Blairite Ultra for me.

This obsession with anti-social behaviour has not only lead to an increasing number of people being locked up for no good reason but seems to have left us feeling less safe than ever before. It is a categorical failure. The best thing that could happen after the 2010 general election is for this concept to be buried once and for all and for us to stop criminalising basic naughtiness. But can anyone imagine David Cameron doing that (or, to be fair, even Nick Clegg)?

Jacqui Smith: It’s not my fault, it’s my contractors that are rubbish (whinge, whinge…)

Jacqui Smith’s startling insight into how the details of 84,000 prisoners managed to wind up on a memory stick which promptly went missing:

“This was data that was being held in a secure form, but was downloaded onto a memory stick by an external contractor,” she said.

“It runs against the rules set down both for the holding of government data and set down by the external contractor and certainly set down in the contract that we had with the external contractor.”

Well, duh.

wrong-mike.jpg
more animals

You’ve got to marvel at how these bozos get out of the house in the morning. Based on this statement I can only assume that Jacqui Smith doesn’t actually walk around with her door keys on her, but instead keeps them under a potted plant by the door. To avoid being burgled she has figured out the genius ruse of writing personally to her neighbours and insisting that they don’t break in without her permission.

The point, Smith, is that if it is possible for a private contractor to leave the office with sensitive data on a flashdrive, your system isn’t fucking secure. Almost a year after the Customs and Excise debacle and you still haven’t figured that one out. And now you want to put the exact same fuckwits in charge of a national identity database??!?!?!?

Give. Me. Strength.

Oh dear, Livingstone is lost in his own mythologising

Ken Livingstone won the London Mayoral election last week. Well, okay, he doesn’t actually claim that in his Guardian article yesterday, but he comes pretty close:

Nationally Labour’s vote fell by 2% compared to 2004, but in London the percentage of first preference votes I received in the mayoral election went up very fractionally. The increase in the absolute number of votes was striking – up by 220,000, or 30%. There was no Labour “stay at home” factor in London. Four years ago I polled 10.8% ahead of Labour nationally – a week ago this increased to 13%. I received slightly more second preference votes than Boris Johnson. On the London assembly Labour made one net gain.

All of which points to a phenomenally high profile election in which the national and London media helped put out a squeeze message on a daily basis. There are plenty of Labour held seats across the country where they bucked the national trend for the same simple reason: it was clear to the electorate that it was a choice between two candidates.

If the acme of Labour’s ambitions is to come a very good second place in the next general election, they should listen to Livingstone. Otherwise, I suggest they look further afield.

His comments on the Lib Dems are more interesting:

Lib Dem failure in London was massive. They chose to stay outside the progressive alliance of Labour and the Greens. As a result they failed even to reach double-figure support in the mayoral election, and their London assembly seats fell from five to three. Hopefully this suicidal orientation will be reversed in the next four years.

The scale of the Lib Dems’ failure is undeniable (well, undeniable for anyone apart from Mike Tuffrey who sent out an email last week claiming that “actually when the final tally is examined, I think we’ll find that in many areas the total number of people we persuaded to vote for us was up. But that success was masked by a much higher turnout, spurred on by the mayoral Punch and Judy show.” – if only those pesky voters didn’t turn up, we’d have won! No lessons being learned there I fear). I’m not convinced that Livingstone’s prescription for success would have had any effect however. The Lib Dems are a national party which can’t afford to behave like the Greens and avoid scrutiny in the same way. Sian Berry can get away with broadcasting the message “Vote Green, Get Brown“; Brian Paddick and Nick Clegg could not. If we had done so, we would have mortgaged all our potential successes in the local elections across the country, helping the Tories push the message that they were the only alternative to Labour.

There certainly is an argument that we concentrated too much on the Mayoral election and didn’t consider how we could consolidate our standing on the Assembly anything like enough. As a third party which is no longer the repository for protest votes it once was, we have a peculiar problem with the AMS system where people feel they can split their ticket by giving the Lib Dems a vote in the constituency and, say, the Greens a vote in the London-wide ballot and be helping us (solution: our London-wide message in future has to focus relentlessly on the list). But hitching ourselves to the Green-Brown love-in would have done us no good at all.

It might have got Mayor Ken re-elected so one can understand why he thinks it has such appeal, but however much I might have preferred him to be at City Hall right now rather than Bozza, performing the role of Mayoral figleaf has very little appeal for me. Perhaps if Livingstone had understood that, rather than adopt this Bush-style “you’re either with us or against us” approach, he might have been able to come up with a counter-stratagem.

Wannabe hereditary MP calls opponent a toff

Tory Boy TimpsonI am indebted to Jo Anglezarke for directing me to this page from The Hon. Tamsin Dunwoody’s website.

The fact that Dunwoody is standing in her mother’s former seat and kickstarted the by-election before her mother was in the ground says everything you need to know about Labour’s sense of entitlement and distaste for fair competition. To run a rotten borough-style campaign while finger wagging at the Tory opponent for being too posh does at least suggest she has inherited some of her mother’s chutzpah. But I seem to recall Gwyneth having rather better judgement and being rather less shameless.

UPDATE: I’ve just noticed they are splurging on the Google ads to attack “Tory Boy Timpson”. This appears to be Labour’s only line of attack. Is this all the party has left to say? Are they going to lose badly, or are they going to lose badly?

The 10p rate “compromise” stinks to me

Since I’ve been blogging light in recent weeks, I’ve not commented on the ongoing mess that Labour have got themselves into over the scrapping of the 10p rate of income tax. There isn’t much I can add that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. It is of course ludicrous that the Labour backbenchers have suddenly woken from their slumber on this issue, a year after we warned them what the implications of this reform would be. That the BBC have given the rebels such an easy ride for their johnny-come-lately rebellion is just par for the course.

But they do appear to have been bought off remarkably easily. The main measures for helping those hurt by scrapping the 10p rate seem like a total crock.

Let’s start with the retrospective raising of the winter fuel allowance. This is going to apply to all pensioners between 60 and 64, including my partner’s mother who is already roughly £50 a week month* better off due to her enjoying the full impact of cutting the basic rate from 22p to 20p. This is just throwing money around at random in the hope that some of it will stick.

And then there is the pledge to raise the national minimum wage for younger workers. First of all, this will only help those earning the absolute minimum wage for 18-21s. Someone working full time on the London “living wage” (£7.20 an hour) will still be whacked by the tax rise and yet only earns £13,000 a year. Secondly, it should be pointed out that any such an increase will mean that at least some of the cost of raising the winter fuel allowance is going to be paid out of increased tax revenue generated from young earners. The very lowest earners are going to be subsidising a benefits rise that will help many of the wealthiest (and yes, I do accept that the winter fuel allowance helps poor people as well, but still).

I’m all for raising the NMW for young people so it is comparable to the NMW for older workers, but this rise is happening for all the wrong reasons: getting the government out of a fix rather than doing what is right in the first place.

Surely it is unacceptable to have people on minimum wage paying income tax anyway? It is just a deadweight cost to the economy. The government should be working to narrow the gap between personal allowance and the NMW, not widen it. What possible economic reason is there to make employment even more expensive and wages even more inflationary?

But my greatest fear is that if the Labour rebels really are so easily bought off, they will capitulate over 42 days quite easily as well. They really are a useless shower. Give them a totemic act of class warfare like fox hunting to get self-righteous about and they will push the government to the limit. But helping poor people? Defending civil liberties and the rule of law? What is the bloody point of them?

* Oops! Good job I corrected that before anyone else spotted it.

Swinsongate Goes National…

Front page of Young Labour websiteThree weeks on from the original Swinsongate and Young Labour are still claiming the veracity of the story on the front page of their national website.

Of course, this puts Omar Salem in the uncomfortable position of having one version of the press release on the national website and another, contradictory, version on the London website.

Jo Swinson news story on Young Labour websiteJust to recap: Jo Swinson a) has never been the party’s youth affairs spokesperson and b) has never been LDYS’s Chair. To top it all, she’s been promoted, not sacked, and so has Jenny Willott (who is now the martyr in the London Young Labour version).

None of this exactly suggests that Young Labour is a vibrant, go-getting organisation these days, does it?

Policy by smoke signal

The confusion over whether the government is or isn’t going to support moves to scrap the blasphemy libel laws has reminded me of the ongoing debate over the government’s plans to make it illegal to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In a bad case of wanting to have it both ways, Peter Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance told the Today programme this morning said that while he accepted that “everybody knows it’s not really going to be used again,” he was concerned that scrapping the law would “send out a signal.”

Much of the debate over the proposed law against inciting hatred of gay hatred has been characterised in similar terms, and of course we had people arguing against scrapping Section 28 in the recent past on the grounds of symbolism. Gordon Brown is a big fan of symbolism. His plan to re-reclassify cannabis has nothing to do with changing a failed policy (it’s arguably been successful, which is why he may have to overrule his own advisory body in order to do it) and everything to do with sending signals. Brown could save himself all this parliamentary time simply by installing two large neon signs outside Number 10 – a thumbs up and a thumbs down – and light up each one at various times depending on the issue of the day.

The symbolism issue is key when it comes to the gay hatred law. I accept David Heath’s argument that the law isn’t fundamentally illiberal; I’m more sceptical about his insistence that it isn’t symbolic. As Gavin Whenman points out, we already have legislation against incitement; what is so peculiar about gay hate that requires specific legislation? I’m prepared to be convinced here, but my sense is that at the heart of the Lib Dem’s reluctance to oppose this law is a fear that Labour will simply throw it in our faces in the puerile manner that they regularly do over our limited opposition to their (failed and again largely symbolic) anti-social behaviour legislation.

The sad fact is, such symbolism works. It gives the media something they can communicate easily; it makes it look as if the government are keeping themselves busy. But just as Labour’s gimmickry about crime hasn’t actually made anyone feel safer, exploiting prejudices through symbolism ultimately just makes people feel more and more divorced from the political process.