Archive for June, 2012

Englishness? Whimsy and Billy Bragg songs. Look local instead

14/06/2012, 02:39:09 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Like the inhabitants of Laputa who were embarked on the task of extracting sunbeams from cucumbers in Gulliver’s Travels, picking over the mysteries of Englishness in search of an intelligible definition is a similarly laborious – and quite pointless – endeavour.

Yet it remains a vogueish pursuit. Last week Ed Miliband made a long speech on the subject, laying heavy emphasis on his own idiosyncratic background as the son of Jewish immigrant parents who was born and grew up in different places, engendering multiple identities and loyalties (“a Leeds supporter, from North London”).

Rather than nailing a coherent version of Englishness, however, the speech served to show how variegated the term is.

Our island story is nothing of the sort. We are many tribes and have many, often conflicting accounts. We should call off the search for an agreed, top-down national narrative.

Princes and paupers, Cornish and cockney; there is little practical mortar unifying a sense of Englishness in either our geography or class. A working class Brummie has traditionally had more in common with a working-class Glaswegian than he has with an Englishman from a different social class.


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Does anyone outside the Westminster village give a damn about Leveson?

14/06/2012, 07:00:44 AM

by Peter Watt

People are suffering out there.  Families’ finances are under pressure as prices rise while their incomes remain static.  The numbers who are unemployed keeps rising and the fear of losing your job is very real for many more.

It manifests itself in small ways for many families, perhaps the occasional meal out has stopped.  Or the much loved and deserved annual holiday has been downgraded or cancelled.  The car costs more to fill up and that credit card bill suddenly seems a real worry as money runs out sooner in the month than it did.  The news is full of rumblings of worse to come as the dark clouds of possible Euro meltdown gather.  It all adds to up to a great deal of worry that is being quietly borne in millions of homes across the country.

People don’t expect to be told “it will all be alright” by their politicians.  And even if politicians did say that they wouldn’t be believed anyway.  But they have every right to expect that politicians are working tirelessly for them and on their behalf.

So imagine how you must have felt this week as you realised that there was still a couple of weeks to go until pay-day and the kids needed new shoes or the tax on the car was due.  And then you flicked on the news and saw that once again the entire political class appeared to have its collective head stuck up its own arse once again!


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Policy in the pub with Maria Eagle

13/06/2012, 12:30:58 PM

This month it’s transport. Pragmatic Radicalism is hosting a “Top of the Policies” session chaired by shadow secretary of state for transport, Maria Eagle, tonight, in the pub.

The fun and games will run from 18.30 to 20.30  at the St Stephen’s Tavern (upstairs restaurant), 10 Bridge Street, Westminster, London, SW1A 2JR (next to Portcullis House) 2 mins walking distance from Parliament.

The “Top of the Policies” debates feature a series of speakers with 90 seconds each to set out a policy proposal of their choice, followed by three minutes of Q&A.

At the end of the session there is a vote for the top policy, prizes and the winner will get to write up their idea for inclusion in Pragmatic Radicalism’s forthcoming policy pamphlet.

It’s all to play for.

In the words of Connor Macleod, “there can only be one (policy)”.

See you in the pub.

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We shouldn’t stop at Responsibility To Protect

13/06/2012, 07:00:31 AM

by Rob Marchant

There have been plenty of column inches in recent weeks dedicated to why the world should intervene in Syria: for most of us the unspeakable pictures of children with their throats cut from the massacre in Houla is enough. It seems undeniable that the world should do something in the face of genocide or likely genocide, but something – especially since Iraq – holds many of us back on the left from saying so.

So perhaps it’s useful to step back and look at a more fundamental, perhaps more philosophical point: how can we on the left not feel obliged to stop genocide in general, and not just its implementation within the constraints of the UN, via its doctrine of Responsibility To Protect (RTP)?

Does it not sometimes feel like people still see human life through a nineteenth century prism, where the nation state is all we care about? When it was simply not possible to make military interventions without mass loss of British life, and our interest in intervention was pure colonialism (as, in Diane Abbott’s parallel universe , it probably still is)?

But this is the twenty-first century. We no longer only care about other Britons, our colonial possessions and our allies. Many of us travel widely and form strong relationships with others from across the world, who we may just not want to be massacred.

The simple fact is that it is no longer appropriate, if it ever was, to behave as if we value the life of a single Briton more than multiple lives in a foreign country. We cannot make the daily grind of everyone in the developing world better. But we can at least try to stop them being deliberately killed by murderous regimes.

We feel moved and touched when we remember the Holocaust. Many of us feel guilty about Bosnia and Rwanda. But unless we learn to channel these feelings into a constructive, repeatable act, we will not prevent genocide on anything more than the current, haphazard basis.

There are two ways of reconciling ourselves to this, the most basic and justifiable reason for intervention.

The hard way is this: accept the awkward truth that there is a moral obligation to try to intervene in all circumstances where there is genocide or likely genocide.

If we cannot within the UN, it is perfectly legitimate to build a coalition outside the UN. It can work, and it did in Libya and elsewhere. That would be a true example of the “ethical foreign policy” that we as a party once promised.

The easy way is this, and it’s the way we often choose: there are a number of obvious reasons why we might decide, in our hearts, that we lack the will to intervene: be it isolationism, pacifism, anti-Americanism or something else. Then, armed with the subconscious motive, we set about looking for reasons in our heads as to why action is not possible, each of them wrong.


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Revealed: MoD slashes compensation for injured troops by 9% in the past year

12/06/2012, 06:00:46 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Shocking new figures uncovered by Uncut reveal how the Ministry of Defence has slashed payments to injured troops by 9% over the past year.

Between 2010/11 and 2011/12, claims to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme – the support fund for servicemen and  women who are injured in the line of duty– rose by 20% from 7335 to 8830. But at the same time, the number of claims where compensation was awarded remained virtually static, rising slightly from 3,890 to 3925

This means that the proportion of injured soldiers, sailors and aircrew who received compensation fell from 53% in 2010/11 to 44% in 2011/12, a drop of 9%.

The size of the fall will prompt speculation that money and not troops’ welfare is dictating compensation policy.

The latest figures were buried in an obscure statistical release that was issued by the MoD without a press release or any detail about the striking fall in awards in the summary.

News of the plunging levels of compensation comes weeks after the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body warned that impending pay cuts would be “damaging for…motivation”.

The combined impact of lower pay and reduced support if injured will likely hit the forces’ already fragile morale.

Worse still, as the cuts bite for frontline troops, the litany of bungled spending and wasted resources  keeps mounting up for the MoD.

A damning report earlier this year from the Public Accounts Committee found the cost of Britain’s biggest military programmes had soared by £500million in a year because “wasteful” defence chiefs failed to “live within their means”.

And just last month it emerged that the MoD’s decision to change the planes to be used on the new aircraft carriers, reverting back to the original choice made by the last Labour government, will cost £250 million.

Despite these disasters, and the impact of cuts on forces’ morale, the government has pressed ahead with its ever deeper programme of cuts to the military.

The secretary of state for defence, Phillip Hammond, proudly boasted to parliament that the government would be able to balance the defence budget as a result of their efficiencies.

But with the drop in forces’ compensation now evident, the extent of the cuts seems to be even deeper than previously admitted.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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The diversity deficit in the European parliament is undermining its legitimacy

11/06/2012, 05:00:24 PM

by Robbie Scot

Before the Labour party begins selecting candidates for the European elections in 2014 a serious effort needs to be made to attract candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds. The chronic under-representation of ethnic minorities in the EU parliament has reached such a height that it casts serious doubt on the ability of the chamber to properly represent voters.

The UK sends 72 MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg; four come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Out of 736 MEPs 15 of them come from ethnic minority backgrounds.  We could squeeze them all onto a minibus.

At a time when the BRICS are the fastest growing economies in the world a European parliament that looks more like an imperial court than a 21st century legislative chamber hardly does much for Europe’s standing on the international stage. The scale of underrepresentation in the European parliament is intractable and will not be redressed with anti-discrimination laws alone. Affirmative action is needed if we’re going to overcome this diversity deficit.

There are 13 Labour MEPs in the European Parliament – London’s Claude Moraes is our only ethnic minority MEP, the Liberal Democrats have none and the Conservatives 3. Regional parties should work closely with ethnic minority party members and sitting councillors to increase their exposure to European issues some years before the selection process.

This hasn’t happened and I doubt we’ll see a breakthrough in the coming year. When the UK sends two more ethnic minority representatives to the European Parliament than the BNP I think the time for access schemes and talking has finished. This is where Labour can make a difference.


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Back to business in the Lords

11/06/2012, 07:00:06 AM

by Angela Smith

After the extended Whitsun recess, the new parliamentary session gets well and truly underway this week for those of us on the red benches, with three Second Readings of new Bills, Labour-led debates on the floor of the House and the continuing scrutiny of government through the Lords daily question time and secondary legislation debates in committee.

First up of the Second Readings is the Financial Services Bill, debated later today, and attracting Labour’s many economic experts.  It will be an opportunity for the minister, Lord Sassoon to once again, to wide derision from our benches, try to lay all the blame of the country’s economic woes at the door of the last government. Unless of course, he’s keeping up with current Tory thinking, which now seems to have shifted the blame onto the Eurozone.

Local Government Finance and Civil Aviation are the other Second Readings in the Lords this week, tomorrow and Wednesday respectively.  Both bills will excite wider interest, but the increasingly pressured financial environment in which many of our local authorities now operate has the potential for the council funding Bill to become the most high profile piece of legislation this side of the summer. Labour are also fortunate in that not much gets past our Lords lead on the issue, Bill MacKenzie.


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Sunday Review: Ed Miliband on Englishness

10/06/2012, 07:00:33 AM

by Anthony Painter

The Labour party approaches the politics of Englishness rather as Perseus would have approached the Medusa – best avoided if at all possible and if it has to be encountered then no eye contact should be made at any cost. Last Thursday, Ed Miliband talked confidently about the Medusa but thought it best not to enter the cave.

Unfortunately, the Medusa still must be slain.

The speech had quite a nice pace to it and succeeded in many of its rhetorical flourishes. If in doubt, talk about common humanity, Morris, Ruskin and pulling together. This will always be safe ground for a Labour orator – and it does provide some significant crossover into English romanticism too.

No harm done – it can’t, as Miliband argued, be all pounds and pence. The romantics would have been distraught at the omission of shillings but time moves on. On the negative side, we can only hope that the phrase ‘progressive patriotism’ will never be uttered again. Overall though, I’m glad he made the speech – it needed to be done and was long overdue from a Labour leader.

Miliband skidded between the cultural and the political as if there was no distinction between them when it came to his analysis of Scottish nationalism. Unless I’ve misread modern Scottish nationalism I’m not sure if Alex Salmond is really in the business of forcing people to choose between their Scottishness and Britishness. That would certainly seem to sit rather oddly with the passage from his Hugo Young Lecture of early this year where he argued that there would always be a ‘social union’ based on ‘our shared economic interests, our cultural ties, our many friendships and family relationships’. He is asking Scotland to (with notable exceptions such as the currency and the monarchy) choose Scottish political institutions over the British state.

The speech was rather more definitive when it came to distinguishing English culture and political institutions. For Miliband, English cultural expression is “not about an English Parliament or an English Assembly.” So wave the flag of St.George like Bobby Moore was still captain of England but don’t get all political about it. We’ll have none of that.

In this argument was the speech’s central weakness. This would have been a good speech in 1996. Things have moved on considerably since. It is now clear that Scottish devolution was not only the culmination of one process – a creation of institutions to match a rejuvenated civic Scottishness – but the beginning of another process. The claim on ever greater powers for Scotland may or may not result in independence.


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Hang on, did Ed Miliband just change Labour’s local government policy?

08/06/2012, 03:22:19 PM

by Atul Hatwal

The headlines for Ed Miliband’s speech at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday have focused on English identity. Understandably so. But in the roll-out of this initiative, Labour’s leader seems to have slipped in a surreptitious policy change. One that has not been trailed or widely discussed.

Until now, the Labour party has backed city mayors. The policy was in the last Labour manifesto and supported in parliament: in January, Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, was clear, “we believe that elected mayors can offer a highly effective form of local leadership”.

That was then.

Following up yesterday’s speech, Ed Miliband has penned an article for the Daily Telegraph today, entitled, “The England I love is defined by its spirit”. In this piece, he makes a very specific point,

“…we should get on with devolving power away from Westminster to English local authorities and the people, without the need for mayoral referendums or such-like.”

At the Festival Hall there was no mention of “mayoral referendums or such-like”.

This isn’t a glib insertion. Each word in an article such as this is carefully weighed. During the drafting it will have been seriously discussed before being included.

Clearly, the public rejection of mayors in city referenda in May by all cities except Bristol was a problem, but this was as much to do with the government’s ludicrous refusal to fully define what powers the mayors would actually have.

It’s hard to ask people to back a change if it isn’t clear what the change will be.

On the assumption that any extension of directly elected city mayors would require a public vote, Miliband’s words mean that Labour has shifted policy so that the party now accepts the status quo of local government.

Bye-bye direct democracy.

For Ed Miliband personally, this issue has always been a difficult one. In his own constituency, the local Labour party has been implacably opposed to directly elected mayors. It meant that in the run-up to the referenda on mayors, Labour’s leader was supporting them while his own local party was in opposition.

Within the party, it prompted a widespread sense of incredulity that the leader of the Labour party could not prevail on his own local party to back a flagship Labour policy on local government at the local elections.

It would seem that this is a problem Ed Milliband will not have to face again.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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We must be the pragmatists now

08/06/2012, 01:31:28 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Pragmatism, of course, as Kevin Meagher has previously noted, was how Winston Churchill ushered in 13 years of Conservative government in 1951, fully 43 years after he first held ministerial office and six years after a sea change election had swept him from Downing Street. No ideological hang-ups kept him from accepting what needed to be accepted to make his party electable.

In contrast, a leading advisor to the last government can now observe to Uncut that “ideology is the worst thing to have happened to the modern Tory Party”.

Louise Mensch may rush to do the bidding of her frontbench and defend Jeremy Hunt’s indefensible transgressions. But most Tory backbenchers seem quicker to quibble with their frontbench than please it.

They appear to prefer the ideological purity of opposition to tough choices of government. And their past and their future encourage them in this indulgence.

Their past is of voting against their whip early in this parliament in votes that seemed relatively inconsequential at the time, but which have become habit forming, dangerously so as the votes get more consequential.

Their future isn’t on the frontbench. Liberal Democrats and more pliable sorts, like Mensch, block their path. Their future may, due to the unprecedented boundary review, be in selection battles, which they will require the support of typically ideologically-committed activists to win.

Where’s the harm in scratching the itch to rebel when you have no ministerial career to seek and a seat to save?

Not even Winston could have done it with this lot. It is not simply the political realities of diminished prospects for advancement within a multi-party government and the boundary review that have reduced them. It is something deeper in the gut of the right than that.


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