Archive for March, 2013

Whip’s notebook: Does Cameron now have two Chief Whips?

28/03/2013, 05:56:03 PM

by Jon Ashworth

Any self respecting whip has to go and see the superb This House by James Graham at the National Theatre bringing to the stresses and strains as Labour whips tried desperately to keep the Wilson/Callaghan show on the road while their Tory counterparts plot to bring it all crashing down.

While the lapels might have changed and the culture is certainly less macho, there still is a lot that remain the same.  We all work the phone and prowl the corridors to make sure all our flock are there to vote at the right time because simply as John Smith used to say ‘votes is the currency of politics.’

A prime minister can’t govern if he or she can’t command a majority. David Cameron has already lost big major votes on Europe, on the boundaries and everyone knows he would have lost on Leveson. With a group of Tory backbenchers more rebellious than ever Cameron desperately needs a whips office he can trust but who also crucially enjoy a the goodwill of his backbench troops.

But we all know that his troops aren’t happy. Whispers persist that 20 odd Tory MPs have fired off missives of no confidence to the Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee. The rebels openly talk with Tory MPs and Labour MPs (me included) of their frustrations with the prime minister in Commons corridors.

Meanwhile the chancellor who used to be cheered to the rafters by Tory MPs looks increasingly deserted at his Commons outing at Treasury questions and budget debates. Incidentally I’ve noticed more Tory MPs showing up for the Home Office questions.

Perhaps it’s rumblings and low morale that has forced the prime minister to switch John Hayes from his role as energy minister to become his “senior parliamentary adviser.” But it’s not entirely clear how the role differs from the unpaid post of prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary. I’m surprised therefore that Jeremy Heywood has agreed this new post should be remunerated with a ministerial salary. But such matters don’t seem to worry Cameron too much, he has now appointed three MPs to effectively none jobs –  “ministers without portfolio”  – but all with handsome government salaries. Talk about all being in it together eh?!


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Our politicians should tell the truth about immigration: it’s good for Britain

28/03/2013, 07:00:01 AM

by Peter Watt

The immigration debate is very much alive again.   UKIP in particular have attempted to tap into the rise in concern amongst some of the issues.   Lurid headlines warn of hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians about to pour across the sea, hot on the heels of the Poles and the Lithuanians.  And in response the three main party leaders have followed suit as they all seek to be tough on the issue.  The result is a lot of heat and not a lot of light.

The debate focuses on a number of key themes:

  • Does immigration benefit or costs the economy?
  • Do immigrants get preferential treatment?
  • The extent to which we can “control” our borders as members of the EU.
  • Is there an increase in pressure on public services?
  • The alleged abuse of asylum status.
  • The extent to which immigration changes communities and people’s attitudes to this change.

The answers are complex and much debated in homes, streets and indeed by our politicians.  The truth is that of course we are economically benefitting from immigration.  On the whole those arriving are younger and are employed.  They pay taxes and don’t really need to access health services and rarely claim benefits.  But also that there are some areas where there has been pressure on local services that were initially ill prepared like GPs and schools.   The impact of “changing communities” is however harder to gauge.

Personally I am completely unconcerned that the number of accents that I hear in shops or on the bus has increased massively.  I like the fact that my children have friends from a huge variety of different backgrounds – certainly they aren’t worried! And I am very proud of our history of welcoming those fleeing persecution.  I suspect that many people feel the same as me.

But I also know that there are plenty of people who are increasingly wary of the changes that they see.  They worry about losing control of their way of life and feel that their area is being “taken over”.

They are nostalgic about the good old days and feel strongly that someone is to blame for letting this happen because they sure as hell weren’t asked.  For them, the proliferation of eastern European accents is a manifestation of their worries and reinforces a sense of powerlessness in the face of change.


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More social housing, not a bedroom tax, is the answer to our housing shortage

27/03/2013, 04:24:06 PM

by Helen Godwin Teige

We know that economics alone cannot dictate the shape of our society and despite living under the most regressive government in modern times, we expect human considerations to be included in coalition policy. In the case of the “bedroom tax” it seems that Cameron’s Tories have reached a low ebb in disregarding those who require help from the government.

Growing up in the 1980’s on a small, very green and very pleasant housing estate around a third of the inhabitants had taken up the right to buy option. The street was a mix of young families and older couples, rehoused from post war prefabs. There was no sense of the temporary in our street, owner occupiers and tenants lived, worked and played together; only the council paint palette on the front doors gave away which houses were still local authority owned. Gardens were manicured, hanging baskets tended and everyone looked after each other.

My point is not one of nostalgia; but rather that this world does still exist. The current governments obsession with demonizing those in social housing or claiming housing benefit threatens to tear apart the very fabric of communities across Britain through the bedroom tax which will force people to leave their homes; or face a further financial penalty during some of the toughest times in decades. It is also prudent to highlight that many commentators have little understanding of the benefit of this policy, given the lack of smaller housing stock., confirming that this policy is purely a fiscal one and will do little ease the demand on social housing. Rather, as we all know, the answer is to build new social housing and pull together communities through job creation, renewed confidence and ambition.


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Labour was right to abstain on workfare

27/03/2013, 10:00:17 AM

by Ann Sinnott

The workfare court ruling deemed unlawful the regulations governing JSA-sanctions imposed on claimants Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson and thus opened the door to repayment of lost benefits to 230,000 other sanctioned jobseekers, a total of £130m. In response, the government rapidly drew up an emergency bill to retrospectively make those same regulations lawful; a shocking and unprecedented Kafkaesque step that, when Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson take their case to the Supreme Court, may well be challenged under EU Human Rights legislation.

Labour’s decision to abstain from voting on the emergency bill left many non-plussed, induced rage in others and generated a frenzy of press and blogger coverage running over several days. It goes without saying that “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” is part of the Labour party’s DNA, so for Labour not to reject a Bill that will prevent the repayment of withheld JSA is counter-intuitive; but look closer.

Drafted by swift-acting machiavellian brains (judging by Vince Cables’s more than usually self-satisfied smile the next day, his among them), the bill was neatly packaged-up and calculated to cause maximum trouble for Labour.  It was effective and a stark display of the art of politics at its darkest.

The court not only ruled in favour of the two claimants but also removed from the DWP the right to impose sanctions, a power the department had held since 1911. The emergency bill will reinstate the DWP’s power of sanction. Labour supports fair and proportionate sanctions, though in the context of a guaranteed six-month minimum-waged job, so what better way to tie-in their support, tacit or otherwise?

If Labour had walked into the “Nos” lobby it would have been voting against its own policy. Bad enough, but just imagine the headlines and the everlasting government taunts: “Labour U-turn on sanctions for shirkers!”, “Labour lets skivers off the hook!”, “No need to work under Labour!”, and permutations thereof.

Some Labour critics have said, “Sod the headlines!” – but, with a largely right-wing press and public opinion still largely suckered by the government myth that Labour ran the country into the ground, headlines really do matter.


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Au revoir David Miliband

27/03/2013, 07:11:02 AM

by Kevin Meagher

There’s an air not just of finality to David Miliband’s announcement that he is quitting British politics but also of inevitability.

Ever since he lost the Labour leadership to his brother in 2010 he has been searching for a meaningful role. For an intelligent, experienced and talented man in the prime of his political career, the taste of defeat was bitter; all the more so when his forward propulsion was stopped dead in its tracks by his own brother.

Such is politics. His campaign to succeed Gordon Brown wasn’t helped by his repeated, misjudged attempts to undermine him from the cabinet table. He waved the dagger but couldn’t thrust it.

In recent times Miliband has taken to saying his role was “on the frontline, not on the frontbench”. By taking up a position (yet undefined) with the New York-based NGO the International Rescue Committee, he will be leading efforts to provide emergency humanitarian relief and human rights advocacy around the world. It is to his credit that his lucrative speechifying and corporate sinecures were clearly not enough to hold his interest.


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Labour history uncut: Now that’s what I call austerity

26/03/2013, 11:03:49 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

The defeat of the miners’ in June 1921 marked the end of the threat of massive industrial action. It opened the way for the government to indulge itself. With recession biting, tax revenues falling and debt rising, they doubled down on plan A – to cut, cut and cut again.

That’s Tory-Liberal coalitions for you

Now the miners had been seen off, the coalition turned to the housing problem. They decided there wasn’t one.

Existing homes were deemed already fit for heroes, and what is a “slum” anyway – just another word for ‘bijou housing with earthy charm,’ right? The massive housebuilding programme started in 1919 was abruptly stopped.

Oddly enough, as capital spending by the government was slashed, the recession just seemed to get deeper. Unemployment soared to top two million workless.

Hmm. Cuts applied, recession follows. What could the problem be?

“Squandermania,” according to the Daily Mail.  This was much like “Beatlemania”, but instead of teenage girls screaming, it was Tories and the right wing press. Tales abounded of a wasteful public sector where staff lounged on golden sofas, snacking on government-funded caviar and sipping state champagne.

The owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere went even further. He founded a new political party who, apparently keen to sound like a posse of vigilante litter pickers, were called the Anti-Waste League. They even won three by-elections in 1921.

In February 1922, eager to close off the threat from this 1920s UKIP, the coalition unveiled the Geddes axe. This was not, unfortunately for everyone, a cute photo of a baby playing heavy metal guitar, but a powerful implement for hacking at the economy.

Sir Eric Geddes was the head of a committee of businessmen who had been tasked with securing government efficiencies. Efficiencies, in this case, being a long word for cuts.

Eric Geddes: “The pound in your pocket has not been devalued. You just don’t have as many of them. Sorry.”

The Geddes axe was swung with relish across all of public sector – in today’s money £100bn was cut.


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“The Spirit of ’45” shows us there is an alternative

26/03/2013, 10:41:54 AM

by Amanda Ramsay

On Sunday I had the pleasure of watching Ken Loach’s new film The Spirit of ’45. It’s still on at cinemas across the UK and the DVD comes out on 15 April. If you do one thing this Easter weekend, it should be to see this film.

Combining archive footage and interviews with current and historic figures, we hear first-hand what life was like back then, socially and politically. The grim living conditions of the slums and unaffordable health care, with medicine and doctors out of the question for many.

Focusing on the pre-war enemies of poverty and unemployment, this documentary also points to the social changes the second world war heralded, like the whole scale need for women in the work force.

This was the beginning of a change in the order of things. Before the war everything in Britain was ‘run by rich people for rich people’, as one interviewee points out but the general election of 1945 saw Labour win a landslide majority and used this electoral might to introduce the welfare state, nationalise key industries and guarantee full employment.

A confident and ambitious Labour party brought in our much loved NHS, an ambitious housing programme, nationalised the rail system, water and energy and delivered full employment to the nation.

With energy and water bills sky high now and rail travel in the UK usually more expensive than flying to foreign lands (nearly £200 to get to London from Bristol return) Labour’s next government needs to show a similar boldness and confidence to that of the spirit of ’45.

In the face of war torn and indebted post-world war Britain, Labour had the determination and vision to take on huge infrastructure projects that have become the cornerstones of our modern British society. This is a film about the triumph of optimism over cynicism, hope over greed, collectivism over the self-obsession of the individual, that erosive Thatcherite philosophy.

Resonating with current policy debates, attacks on the welfare state, mammoth cuts, the privatisation of healthcare and threats to the NHS, this documentary explores the creation and development of social welfare institutions in the UK by the Labour government after the second world war.


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Childcare needs to be at heart of welfare state

25/03/2013, 03:01:11 PM

by Sarah Rabbitts

When the welfare state was established by the Labour party in 1945, it didn’t include childcare because the role of women was still defined in the home.  In fact, it wasn’t in Labour’s manifesto ahead of the 1997 election either. It must be at the heart of Labour’s commitments ahead of the 2015 election.

Since the 1960s, women’s role in the workplace has changed radically – but there is still pressure on mothers to stay at home because of escalating childcare prices and the gender pay gap. Helen Kersley, from the new economics foundation, confirms that women will still earn significantly less than men, with or without children, and this can deter women from returning to work.

It’s been universally acknowledged that last week’s budget won’t benefit a large number of low-income families. The government has announced 20% tax relief on childcare costs of £1,200 a year for each child from 2015. However, this scheme is flawed and will benefit the better off. The resolution foundation says that only four in ten low income families will receive 85% of the childcare bill from the Government. The foundation’s analysis also suggests that 564,000 low income families will see 85% of their childcare bills paid but more than 900,000 would receive only the current 70% – the rebate which applies when one or both parents earn too little to pay income tax because many women work part-time.

This is a hard message, following the recent announcement that a single nursery worker should be able to look after four babies, below the age of two. Understandably, Elizabeth Truss’s policy was met with concern from parents, childcare providers and industry experts.


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What does “one nation” mean? Anyone?

25/03/2013, 09:31:11 AM

by David Talbot

Dark warnings permeated throughout Westminster last week that the chancellor had been put on final notice. Osborne, it was said, had been politely but firmly informed that restless Conservative MPs had earmarked his fourth budget as the last opportunity to restore economic and political credibility before the countdown to the general election in 2015. In marked contrast to last year, the chancellor and his team imposed tight discipline on his preparations to ensure none of the headlines contained a variant of the word “shambles.”

To that end, the chancellor can be relatively pleased. In the run up to the budget he had made, and had deliberately been seen to be making, a concerted effort to court long-neglected Conservative MPs. The frequency with which Osborne systematically name-checked colleagues in marginal seats, who had miraculously succeeded in planting their pet projects into the budget, would suggest a chancellor who, firstly, knows he is unpopular and secondly, who rightly recognises that the government is dangerously listless.

The “aspiration nation” is the Conservative response to Ed Miliband’s much-heralded “one nation” Labour party. It’s difficult to envisage a way in which you could abuse the English language more efficiently, but clearly the Conservative elders are pleased with their effort. For they desperately need something – even a slogan – to inject impetus into a moribund government that is fighting itself, rather than for the country.

The catalogue of errors that are now strewn across the government’s record is now so damaging it threatens the basic concept of governance. Cameron capitulated over Leveson, despite having established the inquiry. Under pressure last year at PMQs he announced the government will force energy companies to provide cheaper tariffs, with no idea how. In 2010 he came into government promising no top-down reorganisation of the NHS and has embarked on precisely that. He emptily vetoed the EU budget last December, and under pressure from UKIP promised a referendum – raising the prospect that the UK might leave the EU, a prospect he is on record as saying he does not want to happen.

The biggest beneficiary of all this buffoonery has been Labour. But the strong national polling figures mask the poor intellectual shape the party is in. As the Eastleigh by-election proved, where the party added a dismal 0.2% to its already bad 2010 total, the warning signs for Labour are there.

“One nation” may have played well to the media and the party faithful, but its lack of policy grit is beginning to hurt.


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Leveson will protect the little guy

23/03/2013, 05:55:28 PM

by Horario Mortimer

Simon Jenkins, Peter Preston and Nick Cohen have all written vigorous dissents of the Leveson agreement in (on?) the Guardian this week.  Preston laments the vitriol that has infected the debate; while Cohen vents spleen at liberals with short-term aims of binding right wing tabloids at the expense of basic freedoms. Simon Jenkins rails against one-sided justice drawn up by victims.

All of them claim a victory for the establishment. Preston asks what

“independence” means in a quangoid Britain where the same cast of great and good characters, retired judges, retired permanent secretaries, Oxbridge dignitaries, shift sweetly from one padded committee seat to the next ?”

And then Cohen:

“Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power? …Can you not see an establishment stitching up a winding sheet for our freedoms in front of your very eyes?”

And Sir Simon Jenkins:

“the cheering across town this week is from the rich, the celebrated and the powerful”

This is a classic example of the maxim that power is always somewhere else. As Peter Jukes tweeted it :

“Fleet Street bias and entitlement is a bit like white privilege, invisible if you’re an unconscious beneficiary of it.”

The three of them are in the privileged position of being given a platform from which, week in week out, they can shout out whatever they like right across the establishment and reach every sympathetic influential ear.

Their unusual freedom blinds them to the fact that the press is a very long way from being a conduit of free expression.


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