Archive for December, 2012

Osborne lays the trap. Enter Labour, not walking but running

12/12/2012, 03:29:50 PM

by Rob Marchant

The weekend before last, I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the classic kids’ film of my own childhood, with my five year-old for the first time. When the famous “child catcher” scene came on, and the children were being tempted into the evil kiddy catcher’s van with sweets and lollipops, it ended with genuine, heartfelt cries of “no, noooooooo…!” as she vainly urged Jeremy and Jemima to see the danger. The bright colours and bunting suddenly fall from the van to reveal a cage, inside which the children are helplessly trapped (the point at which, as I remember, I was usually to be found hiding behind the sofa).

This last weekend, then, on seeing the media coverage of a mooted Miliband “war” on benefit cuts, the cage metaphor already seemed like déjà vu. And the Commons statement by Ed Balls, confirming that Labour will vote against the welfare bill, seemed to be accompanied by the clunk of a big door closing.

Labour does not, of course, really think that people should be allowed to “scrounge”, and there is a genuine, balanced debate to be had on how to prevent abuses and dependency while continuing to protect the vulnerable. But there is also a realpolitik argument of ensuring that your argument can be painted in primary colours. Shades of grey can and will be twisted.

The logic is not subtle. It is not about nuance. It is about how well our subtle argument will fare in the political joust against a brutal cudgel of one: that Labour is “on the side of the scroungers”. And the answer is not very well, if the relative success of the competing economic narratives – “too far, too fast” versus “Labour maxed out the credit card” – is anything to go by.


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If gay couples can’t get married, my parents shouldn’t have been able to either

12/12/2012, 07:00:19 AM

by Mark Stockwell

At a recent event for “Conservatives in communications”, I was gently upbraided (cruelly mocked, some would say) by culture minister Ed Vaizey for my all-too-apparent ignorance of the fact that the government’s proposals on same-sex marriage would fall under the remit of his boss at DCMS, Maria Miller. In common with most of the population, I simply hadn’t given the issue a moment’s thought. So it had not occurred to me that the culture secretary, in her dual role as minister for women and equality, would be responsible for the legislation.

In all honesty, I’d rather not be writing this. I’ve got Christmas shopping to do, for one thing. And it’s not as if I’ve got skin in the game. I’m pretty certain I’m not gay. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I’m not married either. As for the religious aspect, well, the closest I come to belief in the power of a supernatural being is my blind, unquestioning Tory faith in the guiding force of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

In other words, the whole issue just didn’t seem that important to me. Certainly not important enough to spend time thinking or writing about. Until now.

I’m not sure whom I should blame for the fact that I now find myself hunched over my laptop typing this when I could be hunched over my laptop buying overpriced wooden toys for my nieces and nephews, and working out how to ship some of them to New Zealand in time for the big day. (Just in case my niece and nephew in NZ are reading this, yes, of course Santa will bring all your presents and no, he’s not a supernatural being, he’s absolutely real. I’m afraid you’ll have to ask your mum what “gay” means.)


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Labour history uncut: Labour discovers the fun in factions and the value of big friends

11/12/2012, 10:19:55 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Following the 1906 election, a new dawn seemed to have broken. 29 Labour MPs had been swept into parliament, a huge step forward.

Even the monarchy noticed the Labour influx. “I see,” wrote the prince of Wales to Edward VII, “that a great number of Labour members have been returned which is a rather dangerous sign, but I hope not all are socialists.”

Which just goes to show why princes of Wales shouldn’t be allowed writing desks

Nonetheless, the prince did have a small point.

Critics suggested the Labour Party’s 1906 version of Reservoir Dogs suffered from too many characters

It was true, there were a number of actual socialists in the Labour party. These were generally idealists, who had entered the movement via the independent Labour party (ILP) or social democratic federation (SDF).  They had spent years discussing big ideas like smashing capitalism and now in parliament, were eager to get cracking on the new workers’ utopia that was just around the corner.

On the other side were pragmatic union folk. They had spent a similar number of years getting up in the morning to go to work, so hadn’t had much time to think about economic systems, although they did know you couldn’t feed the wife and kids on big ideas.


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Unmanned “drone” technology is vital, which is why we should be open about it

11/12/2012, 02:36:30 PM

by Kevan Jones

UK defence policy must aim to meet key objectives when making decisions over military equipment and its deployment: maximising strategic advantage over our enemy; protecting UK service personnel; minimising civilian casualties; acting at all times within humanitarian and international law; ensuring value for money; and making sure that deployment is in line with our national security interest and right to self-defence, as well as our commitment to conflict prevention and the protection of universal rights.

It is the shadow defence team’s judgement that the UK’s current position in relation to the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs” or  drones) meets these criteria, but we must continually ensure this remains the case.

For the record, it is worth outlining current UK policy on unmanned technology.

The UK is one of 76 countries who operate UAVs.  Today we deploy four drones in Afghanistan only.  One of these, the Reaper, is armed.

The benefits of unmanned technology are clear.  It can be more cost effective than manned.  UAVs provide significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.  They can minimise collateral damage and civilian casualty through precision.  They limit danger to UK personnel by reducing the number of personnel in theatre.  By providing greater speed and height than conventional aircraft UAVs can hugely improve an equipment programme that today must prioritise adaptability and agility.

There are of course weaknesses, for example costs may rise, but while unmanned technology is no silver bullet they will be an increasingly predominant feature of UK defence, supporting all three services.


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Loyalism’s one-sided love affair with the British state

11/12/2012, 07:00:19 AM

by Kevin Meagher

The troubles have ended, but Northern Ireland’s culture war is in full swing.

Last week’s vote by Belfast city council to limit flying the union flag above the city hall and a couple of other municipal buildings from 365 days a year to twenty has resulted in a week of rioting, attacks on the police and death threats to moderate politicians of the Alliance party.

Last night a police car parked outside the office of its deputy party leader, East Belfast MP Naomi Long, was set on fire by a loyalist gang – while an officer was still inside (thankfully he escaped unhurt). There was also rioting in south Belfast, causing the police service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to deploy water cannons (which have never been used in Britain).

A trifle of an issue for most Britons, the decision over the flag was, for a loyalist community that famously paints its kerbstones red, white and blue, a decision that cut to the wick. Loyalism, a creed that is filled with suspicion and the narrative of betrayal – both real and imagined – now believes the Fenian hordes are banging at the gate.

One by one their cherished citadels fall. Stormont, that bulwark of unionist ascendancy, is now home to a power-sharing arrangement that sees unionists sit down not only with Catholics, but former IRA men.

The “right” of their loyal orders to parade (never march) through predominantly Catholic areas is now curtailed by the hated parades commission, (surely the British state’s most idiosyncratic quango?)


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Where is the tax justice in our economy?

10/12/2012, 01:28:03 PM

by Amanda Ramsay

When it comes to the economy, George Osborne has failed this country on all levels. He’s failed on debt reduction, on deficit reduction and failed to bring growth or jobs. The price we pay is cuts to our services, employment rights and employment prospects.

The Autumn financial statement poured more cold water on Keynesian hopes, eager for a “do something government,” not a laissez-faire-do-nothing-but-cut-government. Yet in the morass of commentary and analysis since the chancellor sat down last Wednesday, I am still asking myself: why is it acceptable that tax payers end-up subsidising low wages by means of tax credits, housing benefit and all manner of other fiscal instruments to supplement people on poverty pay?

I ask this not because the recipients don’t deserve the help they need to make ends meet, of course they do, but they are only necessary because employers and companies are not paying adequate salaries and wages in the first place.

Someone who has the gumption to start a company and create jobs should be congratulated and supported but without a mandatory living wage, companies are allowed to let profit win over decency in how they pay their staff.

Low pay is forcing people into the arms of the nanny state; to house, feed, clothe and pay for transport to get themselves to work, let alone heat their homes.

Where’s the fairness in that?


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George Osborne has learned his trade from Gordon Brown

10/12/2012, 09:07:19 AM

by David Talbot

“To bring all these decisions for many benefits over many years together,” Osborne told the House of Commons last Wednesday, “we will introduce into parliament primary legislation – the welfare uprating bill. I hope it commands support from both sides of the House of Commons”.

At that moment a thin smile seemed to escape the chancellor’s lips. Or if it didn’t, it should have done. For it represented the Damascene conversion of George Osborne to the scriptures of a once imperious Gordon Brown. And it was a moment of horribly low cunning that was eerily familiar for the Labour benches.

The announcement managed the near politically impossible. It will raise money, it will be popular and it will trap the opposition. It is vintage Gordon Brown, from the days when he was still known as the iron chancellor rather than the flailing prime minister of more recent memory. Yes, it’s easy to forget, but at one time, Brown was the political master of all he surveyed.

The guttural roar that greeted Osborne’s announcement from the Tory backbenches signified wholehearted approval of their chancellor’s ruse.  Budgets are meant to be about economics. But for the two most political chancellors of the modern era, everything is politics. The statistics, forecasts, tax and public spending changes are immaterial for the political battleground with their hated opposition.


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The Sunday review: Starbucks

09/12/2012, 08:00:58 AM

by Anthony Painter

I imagine the first Starbucks store that opened in Pike Place market in Seattle was quite an exciting affair. The coffee was probably great. It must have been a remarkable local institution. Four decades later, Starbucks is now synonymous with corporate greed. What a few weeks it’s had – a long way from Pike Place.

What has taken place shows that direct action works. No, not UK Uncut. But that of MPs. Step forward Margaret Hodge, a name mostly associated with New Labour. Who’d have thought it? But when a special report appeared on Reuters in the middle of October, it was the House of Commons public accounts committee that reacted. A few weeks later and Starbucks is £20 million out of pocket. Investigative journalism and a backbench House of Commons committee – it doesn’t get much more old politics than that but it did the trick.

Starbucks seem pretty par for the course when it comes to multinational tax avoidance. In this case, moral outrage seems to have done the trick as thousands turned away from Starbucks, helped by campaigns such as 38 Degrees (UK Uncut have a habit of putting people off rather than encouraging them to join their campaigns – whatever the claims of the direct action left or paranoid right). But moral outrage only goes so far. Starbucks will be hoping it’s all died down in a couple of years and then get back to business as usual.


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We need to take action on the tax shirking oligarchs of the internet

07/12/2012, 07:00:20 AM

by Dan McCurry

Rather like in ancient Rome or the end of the Soviet Union, the sudden expansion of the internet has produced a small number of oligarchs controlling a huge amount of industry.

It was only a matter of time before the moral and ethical questions began to pile up. Initially, they destroyed traditional industry with little or no objection from policy makers or the public, as this was a new and super-efficient way to market goods and services, and we must not stand in the way of progress.

But then the abuse allegations began to mount. Google is accused of using its search engine to guide traffic towards its own services rather than that of its rivals. Amazon is accused of using its dominance to bully publishers. Apple dominates downloads of music and other digital content, creating questions on the state of competition.

Then we discovered that Google and Amazon were using their ability to cross borders unchecked as a tool to avoid tax, and therefore have an unfair advantage over the existing competition.

In fairness, the multinationals invented the rules that the internet giants appear to be feasting on. Starbucks claims to make no profit due to the huge amounts of royalties it has to pay to its subsidiary in low-tax Luxembourg. The royalties are for the right to use its own logo.

Maybe Starbucks should drop serving coffees and stick to its core business of charging customers for a napkin with the logo on. The customer can sit down at a table, with their logo embossed napkin and stroke it for 20 minutes before leaving? Their position is so absurd it’s no wonder that after a modicum of public scrutiny they have volunteered to pay more tax.


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In yesterday’s debate, George Osborne had a clear script, Ed Balls didn’t

06/12/2012, 10:00:08 AM

by Jonathan Todd

“It was just like a budget”. This was the immediate reaction of the ever perceptive Nigel Lawson when the Daily Politics sought it soon after the Autumn statement. Ming Campbell – the only other participant on a very balanced panel – concurred. That said; they had a point. Not only was the stagecraft familiar. The content was too.

The Conservatives have a script, you see. China is rising but the skivers aren’t, so further welfare reform is needed to prevent China eating all our dinners. The global race will be won by strivers, not drunken layabouts. And reform of our schools will create a nation of strivers. That’s if Johnny Foreigner and his euro don’t do what the last government and our “mess” could not quite do and do for us good and proper.

This script has been obvious since Conservative party conference. It has, in its own parlance, stayed the course. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was served up again yesterday. That’s the thing with political scripts. Politicians disembark on one that feels right, feelings which polling confirms. Then they keep saying it and saying it and saying it some more. Finally, maybe, it hits home with the electorate. By which time, certainly, they have bored themselves and the lobby into a stupor.

It was never really in doubt, consequently, what Osborne’s key messages would be. Any sentient political observer should have long known. We know its villains: the last government and the bed we made; welfare recipients and the beds that they lie in; the rest of Europe and their siesta.

But Osborne’s heroes shun and abhor all such lazy, flabby, debt-sodden indulgence. It is the strivers that have doubled exports to major emerging economies since 2009 and created over a million jobs in the private sector since he became chancellor.

Politics is the ceaseless clash of narratives: many half-baked, most never reaching a real terminus but the endless grafting of perceptions unto realities. So, what story did Ed Balls tell in rebutting this tale of striving heroes and shirking villains?


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