Archive for February, 2013

In praise of…the hardy souls that fight these by-elections

28/02/2013, 07:00:52 AM

by Peter Watt

Early this morning there will have been alarm clocks (or more likely alarms on mobile phones) going off in hotels and guest houses in Eastleigh and beyond.  Activists will have woken from their slumbers in order to do the polling morning delivery.  Ideally they’ll be delivered before the polls open at 7 but in many cases it will still be being delivered later.  Committee rooms will be being set up members and supporters houses as the culmination of a few weeks frantic campaigning is reached.

The parliamentary by-election is a very special event for all dedicated political activists.  It’s where you often learn your trade and hone new skills.  It’s where war stories are shared from previous electoral battles and new scars are earned.

My first by-election was the south east staffordshire by-election held in April 1996.  I was nursing in Dorset at the time but politics was my true love.  I used up four days of annual leave and pootled on up to Tamworth.  Angela Wilkins was the running the committee room that I was allocated to and Fiona Gordon was running the show.  I delivered leaflets, knocked on doors and glared at the odd Tory I saw on the streets.  And on my final day there I went to a local pub on my own to support Liverpool against Aston Villa in the FA cup semi.  I hadn’t realised until I walked in it was Villa country!

Every by-election that I have been involved in has had a core team of staff and volunteers who become a little community.  They share a space and share an experience that bonds them.  The early days are the best when like pioneers you arrive and need to learn about the alien environment that you have moved into.  You print the maps and find a campaign HQ.  Wards are allocated and the leafleting and door knocking begins.  Maybe you get the odd frontbencher turning up and perhaps even a few local members get involved.  But it’s you against the Party HQ and the hours are long.  And then others start arriving and you pretend to be pleased but secretly it’s irritating that others are intruding.  Experts start arriving to help with press and writing copy.  The campaign HQ fills up with the great and the good whilst the real work is still going on from the campaign centres dotted across the constituency.

Then there are the by-election characters, every by-election has them.  There are the geeky students who turn up on day three and stay right until the end.  They somehow always find somewhere to stay and people always buy them drinks.  They are incredibly enthusiastic and will do whatever is asked.  There is the local member (or whole groups of members) who hates the whole by-election team as outsiders who ‘don’t what it’s like around here’.  They have never needed all of this fancy nonsense before and they certainly don’t need it now!  They probably wanted to be the candidate but were blocked by the NEC.  Then there is the local member who simply can’t do enough for the campaign.  They open up their house and put people up; they share local intelligence and translate the local political spats.

There is always at least one romance, and generally more, the campaign pub and everyone’s favourite Indian restaurant.   The campaign stories develop as they are retold; the dog that nearly bashed down the door when leafleting, the Tory who was persuaded to switch and the government minister that was lost in the labyrinthine estate.


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Dear liberals, political correctness needs to extend to Catholics too

27/02/2013, 11:18:56 AM

by Kevin Meagher

It’s a strange time to be a Catholic in Britain. Beset by internal turmoil and out of kilter with liberal-left thinking on a range of issues; my co-religionists can be forgiven for circling the wagons in the face of what feels like incessant hostility.

Yesterday’s Daily Mirror front page photo showed Cardinal Keith O’Brien stood next to a reclining Jimmy Savile, posing at some charity photo opportunity more than a decade ago. The photo was used gratuitously and bore no relation to the news report which focused on O’Brien’s resignation – amid accusations of “improper conduct” towards a number of priests. But the snide implication was clear enough. Clear – as well as tawdry and unjustified.

There is something happening to British Catholics at the moment; a growing sense among the poor bloody infantry that they need to justify their faith in the face of a pervasive threat. Friends in a range of workplaces and professions now complain of casual verbal insults – snide digs and asides – that would never be countenanced (rightly) against any other minority community. For many Catholics these days, it pays to keep your head down.

Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was pilloried recently for stupidly holding “the Jews” accountable for the actions of the Israeli government. The accusation of Islamophobia is enough to reduce any self-respecting liberal a fit of the vapours. Yet Catholics are now fair game – worthy targets of scorn – as the Mirror’s front page testifies.

But we’re a minority too. We’re not the ones with representatives in the House of Lords, or the ones with all those nice stone churches people want to get married in. We’re the other lot. The elderly Irish widows. The lonely young Polish girls, over here working for buttons. The family of Eritrean asylum seekers. For them and many others like them, the church provides a spiritual and social lifeline. It supports and inspires and, if needed, feeds and clothes.

Not to forget the plucky bands of English, Scots and Welsh believers whose forebears faced 250 years of outrageous state-sponsored persecution after the Reformation. This church is not the powerful, privileged monolith of liberal misconception.


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Labour history uncut: the moment Labour replaced the Liberals

26/02/2013, 04:44:11 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

Labour’s new constitution had radically reformed the party. Re-founded it, even. The party entered spring 1918 busily setting up new constituency organisations and selecting candidates.

The war may have still been going, but Britain had been more than 7 years without an election and millions of new voters had just been empowered by the recent extension of the franchise. As a result, all the parties were like a householder waiting for the builder – they knew a poll was on the way.

By April Labour had selected 115 candidates with 131 selections pending. At the start of the month there was a slight hitch when it appeared candidates might soon require a good grasp of German – the allies were forced back 60 miles in German spring offensive. But by May the tide had been turned back and everyone could pack away their Rosetta Stone CDs.

For the first time since the start of the war, thoughts across the parties began to turn to what might happen after victory.

To that end, in June 1919, Sidney Webb released his policy document “Labour and the New Social Order”. Although it didn’t exactly trouble the bestseller lists and the planned sequel, “Labour and the Chamber Of Secrets” was put on hold, it did set out a policy platform which would become the core of Labour manifestos for most of the next century.

This included Labour staples such as comprehensive free education, the establishment of separate legislatures for Scotland and Wales, generous provision of health services, nationalisation of mines, railways and electrical power, a commitment to full employment and a living wage, a major housebuilding programme and regular conflicts between the leadership and the left.

Sidney Webb teaches his newly-enfranchised wife how to vote

This was an important document for the party, but as the end of the war approached, Labour faced a decision even more important than the platform. They had to decide whether to fight the election as part of the coalition or to stand in opposition?


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No one should be making political capital out of what’s happening to the Lib Dems

26/02/2013, 09:34:58 AM

by Ian Stewart

Over the past two years or so a succession of awful scandals have come to light regarding sex and politics. Julian Assange and the defence of him by George Galloway have hit Respect hard. Then the truly horrific parody of “justice” SWP style as regards the “Comrade X” affair, along with other long standing members, including possibly a late leading member, and the scandal in its German affiliate party.

Then the Liberal Democrats. First the list of allegations of abuse by the late Cyril Smith, going back decades finally saw the light of day – remember that only Private Eye had kept up any pressure to have these looked into in the national media – after all Sir Cyril was a national treasure. Now Lord Rennard faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour within party HQ.

There is a temptation within politics to use any and every bit of bad news to give our opponents a knock. Those of us who remember John Major and “Back to Basics” also remember various cabinet ministers subsequently being caught having affairs – much hilarity ensued as hypocrites were caught out. True enough, some lives and families were ruined, but they were Tory lives, so who cares eh? Lets face it, those scandals of the eighties and nineties seemed to fit the Profumo template that seemingly has no end – Tory bigwig playing away whilst promoting family values. A bit of slap and tickle for the tabloids. Of course as in so many things, New Labour triangulated itself into the mix after 1997.

The recent allegations levelled at Liberals and leftists are far more serious. We are talking about the abuse of power by older men perpetrated on younger women and in some cases boys. We are talking about the use of idealism and loyalty to a cause or a party to shut the victims up. In some cases, we are talking about bullying and rape. This should never in any way be used to make political capital.

When Julian Assange fled from allegations of rape in Sweden, too few on the left made the point that the real victims were probably the two women who went to the police. After Galloway made his infamous comments, this number grew, Salma Yaqoob and others left Galloway in disgust. Recently, other high-profile supporters of saint Julian have distanced themselves from him, although some, like Jemima Khan still seem ready to defend him in extremis.


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Labour must be careful: Osborne wasn’t downgraded for cutting, but cutting the wrong way

25/02/2013, 07:00:53 AM

by Jonathan Todd

John Moody first offered credit rating services in the US in 1909. By this time, Dutch investors had been buying bonds for three centuries, English investors for two, and American investors for one century. Investors have, therefore, prospered for long periods without credit rating agencies.

Many would argue that they could again. The agencies did not facilitate wise investment by giving triple A ratings to the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that were at the heart of the financial crisis. CDOs are, however, complex financial instruments. While the ratings were misplaced, it is understandable that financiers would place value on independent assessment of credit worthiness in the face of such complexity.

The UK is less complicated. We are, obviously, struggling. National wealth has not increased since George Osborne became Chancellor. But national debt has increased by over 30 per cent, taking it over one trillion pounds for the first time in history.

Osborne likes household analogies. His UK is a household with no more wealth than it had almost three years ago and little likelihood that this wealth will significantly increase in the near term. But ballooning credit card debts. This is the kind of household that finds it very difficult to get a mortgage in Osborne’s Britain.

Osborne has not practised the “arithmetic” that Bill Clinton beautifully described and praised in his speech to the Democratic National Convention last year. And we hardly need credit rating agencies to tell us this. Those trading in UK debt certainly don’t. This is why – like France and the US before us – a downgrade may have little impact upon the cost of UK debt. The factors that have led to the downgrade have already been factored into the price.

While the downgrade told us what we already knew, Osborne might privately lament: “The agencies told me to cut or be downgraded, so I cut. Then we didn’t grow and they downgraded me, anyway.” Not only are agencies discredited after their poor assessments of instruments like CDOs, they also urged cuts upon Osborne and welcomed his willingness to go further and faster than Alistair Darling had proposed. Osborne may be frustrated for being punished for following this path.

Up to a point, Chancellor, more balanced counsel would insist. What matters is not only that cuts are made but what is cut. The composition of public spending matters, as well as its level. Net public investment for 2015-16 was cut to just 1.1 per cent of GDP from 3.5 per cent in 2009-10 in Osborne’s 2010 budget.


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Let the bastards be bastards and builders be builders

22/02/2013, 12:09:37 PM

by Dan McCurry

What character from the history of film and literature most reminds you of an ordinary member of the Labour party?

For me, it’s Michael Palin’s character in the Life of Brian, whose job is to direct prisoners to their crucifixion. “Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.”

This is a man who has a horrible job to do, but he’s still diligent and treats each prisoner with respect. He’s a nice guy. He cares. He’s the kind of bloke you or I might hang out with. You can easily imagine him as secretary of your local branch. If we brought a motion calling for crucifixion to be banned, the idea would be so radical that he’d initially be shocked, but once he realised that such a thing is possible he would become a passionate advocate.


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Labour history uncut: Labour’s first clause four moment

21/02/2013, 08:18:08 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

September 1917 was a new beginning for the Labour party. A month earlier, Arthur Henderson had experienced an unceremonious ejection from the wartime cabinet.

Free from having to toe the government line and support the latest innovations in war strategy aka new and efficient ways to squander human life (the battle of Passchendale was days away), Henderson was able to devote his time to the Labour party.

It provided an opportunity to bridge the gulf at the heart of the party which had pitted Arthur Henderson, master of the party machine and supporter of the war, against Ramsay Macdonald’s anti-war alliance of radicals and socialists.

Henderson and Macdonald make their way to the 1917 Tin Tin convention

Henderson was determined to make changes. In September 1917, he set up two sub-committees of the NEC. One was tasked with developing Labour’s alternative approach to ending the war and the other was established to reorganise the Labour party so that it was fit to fight the next election.

Yes, even in 1917 the modernisers were at work, creating the new Labour. Or Old New Labour. Or New Old Labour. Or something.

Both sub-committees included seats for the perennial favourites including Arthur Henderson, Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabians’ Beatrice and Sidney Webb. So basically it was just the same people, but every now and then they’d change the sign on the door. (more…)

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Naming our streets after fallen heroes is a meaningful mark of respect

21/02/2013, 11:08:28 AM

by Jim Murphy

The armed forces are based on individual acts of courage working in skilled unity for the sake of national security. Each sacrifice is an individual lost, a family mourning and a nation wounded by the personal patriotism of those that serve. It is not only right but essential that we meaningfully recognise and commemorate those who lose their lives in the line of duty. That is why today my colleague Hilary Benn and I are writing to every council leader in Britain to urge that they offer families the chance to name local streets after their fallen loved ones.

On a recent visit to Barking and Dagenham I was told of a scheme where the council offers families the opportunity to choose a street or local location to be named in memory of a loved one lost while serving. In consultation with the family and local residents the location and precise name of a road or street is decided upon.  The council also offers to organise an official opening ceremony, to which members of the community, family and friends as well as service charities could be invited.  Two locations in the Borough have been named in this way and a third family has recently also chosen to do so.

A lasting personal memorial of this kind can demonstrate the value we place on those who have been lost in the defence of our country. They will of course always be remembered by their families, but changing a community’s physical environment would be a chance for their names to live publicly and forever.  While this is a personal issue it is also right, should the families choose it, that we enable communities to show sensitive solidarity and sympathy to those who lose their lives in service.

Rather than wait until Labour is in government, we wanted to urge councils to take this step now.  The forthcoming end of combat operations in Afghanistan does not mean an end to our forces being asked to act upon the responsibilities we have beyond our borders – Libya and Mali are testament to that.  Their role will be enduring, as should our efforts to seek meaningful commemorations. Labour is out of office, but not without power, and we hope this move could spur a collective, cross-party resolve in favour of street naming.


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Our political parties need to be honest about NHS rationing

21/02/2013, 07:00:40 AM

by Peter Watt

Yesterday saw the publication by NICE of their latest guidance on the use of IVF by the NHS.  It said that women should be able to access IVF quicker (ie younger) and also that the upper range of women able to access the treatment rises from 39-42 in England and Wales.  This has to be seen as a good thing, a reflection of the continued advances in medical treatment.  What was in the past impossible becomes possible.

Except read the small print.  What NICE are doing is providing advice to NHS Trusts as to what they can do if they choose to.  As Dr Sue Avery from the British Fertility Society told the BBC:

“It’s good that there’s the possibility there, but the funding does not match. I can’t see any prospect of it happening immediately. Our biggest concern is hanging on to the funding we’ve got.”

Now quick declaration of interest here; my wife Vilma and I underwent IVF.  Initially we had treatment on the NHS and then went privately.  We were successful and have a beautiful daughter as a result.  But at the time we were incredibly lucky that where we lived was still offering treatment on the NHS.  Plenty of others no longer did or offered a much more limited service.  Because the reality of the NHS is that on a whole variety of fronts it rations treatment.

On Tuesday there was a story about a man who had had a gastric band on the NHS but who was left with large amounts of excessive abdominal skin.  His local health service had refused to pay for his apronectomy and he was facing a bill of some £15-20,000.


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Isn’t it time Labour stopped facing both ways on Islamist extremism?

20/02/2013, 11:33:32 AM

by Rob Marchant

In the Labour party, we have, last week, been shocked at how one of our members of Parliament, Sadiq Khan, can receive death threats from freaks who believe they are licensed to make him vote against gay marriage by force including, apparently, murder. And Khan is apparently not the only one: Labour List reports that “Rushanara Ali, Shabana Mahmood, Anas Sarwar…are all believed to have been similarly targeted”. Bravely, none of them wavered in their commitment to their own values, of equality for all under the law.

Yet, at the same time, we have other MPs, who invite a preacher who laughs about taunting his Jewish high school teacher with a swastika, who thinks being gay is a “great crime” that signals “the start of the collapse of every society, and who is convicted of funding a terrorist organisation, to speak at the mother of all parliaments.

In the Labour party, we are shocked to read in the Observer at how supporters of extremist group Jamaat-e-Islami throw stones at a crowd of people in London’s East End, demonstrating against the theocracy which is killing their homeland, Bangladesh. They stone a crowd containing old people and children. Many of those demonstrating are Muslim women, who rightly reject this misogynistic cabal who would happily bring Sharia to the East End.

Yet, at the same time, we last year campaigned to re-elect a candidate who, as former Mayor, in 2004 welcomed to London a particularly vile preacher. A preacher who, apart from his views on rape and wife-beating, feels entirely comfortable with the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation.


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