Archive for December, 2013

Labour is winning the economic argument? Pull the other one.

18/12/2013, 09:20:15 PM

by David Talbot

When the shadow chancellor declared on Sky’s Dermot Murnaghan programme that Labour was winning the economic argument, one can be forgiven for thinking that not even he believed the words he had just uttered.

He certainly hadn’t convinced the Commons the Thursday before, standing up to a wall of noise the previously iron-clad shadow chancellor delivered a puce-faced riposte that fell flat in the chamber and barely reverberated outside. Osborne, grinning and preening himself like his newly purchased cat, luxuriated in his adversary’s obvious discomfort – recognising not only the personal but the political challenges the shadow chancellor has to slay.

And, earlier today, at the year’s final PMQs, the sight of rows of silent, doleful Labour MPs, arms folded, as the prime minister ran through his stand-up repartee at Ed Balls’ expense, told its own story.

After three years of stagnation, the economy is showing tentative signs of recovery. Growth may be unbalanced and anaemic, but the threat of returning recession has been averted. A change of mood is altering the terms of political argument in British politics, and with it Labour’s much-heralded ‘cost of living’ campaign appears increasingly redundant.

To say the least, it remains highly questionable as to whether the living standards argument will enable Labour to make incursions into the electorate where the party’s appeal has so far been rather limited. The voters Labour have to win over to achieve outright victory in 2015 appear far less persuaded about its core arguments on the ‘cost of living crisis’, and are increasingly optimistic about the general state of the economy.

Labour has done nowhere near enough to address the basic charge of economic mismanagement; from the ludicrously long leadership hustings, which allowed the coalition government an unrivalled opportunity to set the political narrative for four whole months, to Balls’ stupid delight in his ‘flat-lining’ gesture, the damage has been done and is yet to be repaired. Voters may have been prepared to rethink some now entrenched assumptions about Labour’s responsibility for the economic crisis, but only if the party showed that it too was rethinking and reflecting, including being humble about its own failings.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

For Labour, the “cost of living” debate is dead

17/12/2013, 09:53:44 AM

by Alex Chalmers

A month ago, the next election was going to be decided by “the cost of living crisis”; the electorate would see through the economic growth figures, feel the pinch, and elevate Ed Miliband, scourge of the energy fat-cats, to Downing Street. The government’s response to the energy price freeze was inconsistent and unintelligible, the public seemed to love the policy, and for a moment, the opposition looked like it had a leader. Yet within a few weeks, Labour’s poll resurgence had turned into full-on retreat. Today, YouGov has Labour’s lead down to 2 points.

So what went wrong? On a very simplistic level, elections are not won or lost on one policy. An idea, even a popular one, cannot hold media or public attention for more than a fairly short period of time. Unless it is part of a broader theme or narrative, and is followed by a series of other well-timed announcements, it will quickly become buried under a tide of other news stories. Labour cannot agree on one policy and prepare to collect the keys to Number 10. The public liked the sound of it, some other things happened, and then they moved on. If Miliband truly wishes to define the next election in terms of the cost of living, then he has to say a lot more about it.

Unfortunately, this is something of a recurring theme. At the height of the NHS reorganisation fiasco, the next election was going to be about that, but once the reforms started to be implemented, the party suddenly quietened down. A limp half-hearted campaign based on the Twitter hashtag #dropthebill unsurprisingly made little impact. Retweeting to the converted does not an election win. Nothing was made of the collapsing patient satisfaction ratings, whilst the attempts to focus on staffing levels were wrought with statistical errors and easily batted away by the government. The NHS is now in the headlines again, but Labour appears to be making no effort to communicate its message. In the days of New Labour, the media operation would have been ruthlessly hammering five key pledges home, trying to make sure the issue caught the public imagination. Ed Miliband’s “Zen-like calm” interspersed with cries of, “same old Tories” is simply no substitute.

The party’s strategy of choosing a key issue and promptly forgetting it is going to cost it dear come the next election. For the vast majority of its term in office, the coalition has managed to frame the main debates. It has managed to paint Labour as the public spending bingers and the friends of the scroungers.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Heads, not hearts, must guide UK drug policy. We must decriminalise now.

16/12/2013, 09:17:20 AM

by Callum Anderson

The decision by the Uruguayan government to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana – becoming the first country in the world to do so – has been widely reported in the media. With this in mind, how governments all over the world tackle drug use and drug addiction has been thrust back into the spotlight. Indeed, it is one of the most emotive and polarising issues in politics.

Many experts, including the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy have concluded that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ cannot be won. Indeed, I believe that the time has come for drug policy to be led by our policy makers’ heads, and not their hearts. Drug use and drug addiction must primarily be treated as a public health (and an economic) issue, not a criminal one.

It is an indisputable fact that drugs affect all of us, whether directly or indirectly. There are many of us, who have witnessed the stranglehold that drugs can have on an individual. It is, of course, a somewhat more painful experience if that individual is a relative, a friend or a partner. The seemingly unstoppable unravelling of ones life. The growing disconnection between the addiction and what really matters – family, work and friendship – is truly agonising.

In addition, there are indirect costs. Research by the Home Office has found that the economic and social costs of drug use are estimated to be around £15.4 billion a year in England and Wales alone, with drug related crime constituting 90 per cent. These facts are reflected in the Ministry of Justice’s figures, which show that the custody rate for drug offences have risen from 16.9 per cent in 1993, to 17.3 per cent in 2011, with the average custodial sentence rising from 28.3 months to 31.3 months in the same period. This has resulted in 14 per cent of prisoners being incarcerated due to drugs.

I do not deny that the case for decriminalisation is a tough sell to the British public: recent polling suggests the majority of people support the current law, which criminalises the sale, possession and use of drugs.

What then, does this all entail?

Well, let’s take a look at Portugal.

In 2001, the Portuguese (centre-left) government took the step of decriminalising the possession and use of drugs including cocaine and heroin. Instead of seeking to diminish use by punishing users, the new measures considered drugs illegal, but no longer treated drug consumption as a criminal offence. In addition, Portugal’s drugs reforms included a wide range of measures such as prevention and social education to discourage the use of drugs, as well as providing treatment for drug dependent people and assisting their reintegration into society.

So, what happened to drug usage rates in Portugal?


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Letter from Wales: Understanding the threat from Welsh Liberal Democrats

13/12/2013, 12:26:00 PM

by Julian Ruck

In previous columns I have alluded to the essential job specs a politician needs in order to be successful ie humour and charm. Tony Blair had it in spades – I am immediately reminded here of his sacking of  Ron “Clapham Common” Davies as recorded in his autobiography – and Boris has enough of both to see him breaching the security gates of No 10, if only he will admit it.

On a personal level I have always felt that if more women were calling the shots of sovereignty, the world would undoubtedly be a more peaceful place. Margaret Thatcher, Cleopatra and Catherine the Great notwithstanding.

Readers will know that I recently interviewed Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly. Well, a week ago I also interviewed Kirsty Williams, her opposite for the Liberal Democrats. Before going further, I am compelled to point out that both politicos were full of steam and passion and were also able to laugh out loud at my occasional political heresies eg my claiming that of course the Valleys will vote Plaid, the voters up there are still pouring Strongbow super-strength onto their cornflakes for want of anything better to do.

So, what is Kirsty and her party all about?

She’s a Swansea girl through and through and like most Welsh girls (Leanne included) full of the verbals but with a lump of Welshy charm thrown in for good measure. She is possessed of a genuine love for Wales but it must be said, a love that now seethes with anger and disappointment at what is being done to it and its people.

It was of course irresistible to explore with Kirsty the implications of the PISA report and Welsh political life generally. Her views were refreshingly bold and unequivocal, firebrand time again and nothing wrong with this, it’s long overdue in Welsh politics  – she has never been a Cardiff university madrassa alumna either!

“For anyone watching the 10 0’ Clock News last night,” she began, “the Pisa report will have dire consequences for the Welsh economy. We have the highest levels of low skilled youth in the UK. Companies will not invest here. The Welsh government is bereft of new and fresh ideas, the funding gap per pupil between Wales and England is not being addressed properly and my frustration with all this is that Labour is obsessed with consultations, commissions and reports but nothing ever happens. It’s the rugby club mentality; it doesn’t matter if we lose boys, as long as we lose with a bit of hwyl (spirit) that’s alright.”

The old ways are just not delivering anymore There are issues with the Welsh civil service too. It doesn’t like being challenged by politicians or new ideas. Crachach time again. The Welsh government has no ambition, Wales should be at the forefront, the Welsh are being let down!”


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

The left should focus on the prejudice BAME Brits face instead of playing political football with Mandela’s death

12/12/2013, 12:11:05 PM

by Rene Anjeh

Tuesday was the day of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. World leaders, politicians, celebrities and ordinary South Africans gathered in Soweto’s FNB stadium.   It is worth remembering that over 37 years ago, in that very town, the Soweto riots took place.  It was not just a day of mourning but a day of celebrating the life of truly magnificent individual.

I remember when I heard the news of Mandela’s death.  I was playing pool with a friend but the game was interrupted by a text. “Apparently Nelson Mandela is dead,” my friend said in disbelief.  I put down the pool cue and checked the BBC website to see for myself.

Tears started to stream down my face as if a close relative, or even a grandfather, had passed away.  Nelson Mandela was a hero who personified the last great struggle for racial equality in the twentieth century.   Mandela set an example to the four black Labour MPs elected in 1987. Mandela arguably paved the way for Barack Obama to become president of the United States almost twenty years after his release.  Mandela reminds everyone – especially the BAME community – that many of the rights that we enjoy have been fought for and won.

Which is why it was saddening to see certain members of the Twitterati play political football with this great man’s death.

One prime example was from Michael Chessum. For those of you who don’t know, Chessum is the president of University of London Union (a fellow London Young Labour comrade too) who has recently been arrested for protesting against the closure of ULU in this academic year.  He tweeted:

Nelson Mandela was made honorary President of ULU when the British government said he was terrorist. He’d be on our side #copsoffcampus

Personally, I could not care less about Chessum’s protests, in fact I am completely unsympathetic as it was he who banned ULU student officials from wearing poppies or attending a remembrance day service.  However, it was his decision to use Mandela’s death to make a petty point that was really annoying.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

The Tories who failed to support Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” were not bad, merely wrong

11/12/2013, 11:24:54 AM

by Rob Marchant

With the thousands of pieces being written around the world about the death of a political giant, this is not about the great man himself – there are plenty of people better-qualified to write that one.

But it’s worth pausing to think about Mandela’s relationship with Labour.

Like many, I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s constantly hearing about some or other horrific injustice from apartheid South Africa on the 6 o’clock news. We were too young for the Sharpeville massacre or the imprisonment of Mandela himself, but not too young to learn of the death of Steve Biko in police custody. In fact, you had only to listen to switch on Radio One – Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, Little Steven’s “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” or The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” – to be aware of what was going on.

It’s probably fair to say that one of the things which made me realise that it was Labour, and not the Tories, that would be my party of choice was the fact that the Tories seemed perfectly content with tolerating a regime where black people were not valued the same as white people. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher was rather dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing limited sanctions against the all-white Botha regime, whilst black citizens were still not eligible to vote. Others in her party continued to resist even that token action.

Different reasons appealed to the Tories for why it was best not to upset the applecart with Pretoria. There was, of course, the odd not-very-nice Tory who had business interests to protect, or simply a quasi-identification with the idea of blacks as second-class citizens. But more common were those who had not yet experienced the fall of communism and genuinely thought that “engagement” was the way to gradually improve things; or – a little less forgivably – that we should not interfere in “foreign cultures” which we didn’t understand.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour’s poll lead is slipping again. Here’s why

10/12/2013, 12:28:22 PM

by Atul Hatwal

In a momentous week for news, one development has understandably slipped by without major comment: the shift in the polls since the Autumn Statement.

The Sunday Times YouGov poll had Labour’s lead at 5 points, today’s Sun YouGov poll similarly has the lead at 5 points and today’s ICM poll in the Guardian also registers a lead of 5. In comparison, the average YouGov lead in the week before the Autumn Statement was 8 while the November’s ICM poll also had Labour 8 points up.

A drop of 3 points in Labour’s lead, across 3 different polls suggests something has changed since the Autumn Statement.

Although caution is advisable given it is just a week’s polling, this shift has been expected by many and if confirmed in the coming weeks, will presage significant problems for the party.

In the two months since Ed Miliband’s conference speech, politics has been defined by Labour’s energy price freeze commitment.

Regardless of the economics, it has been politically successful in driving debate within the Westminster bubble. Countless column inches and interview minutes have been expended on the fall-out from the announcement. So much so that politics became polarised around support or opposition to the price freeze.

And this is part of the problem.

Labour’s year long slide in the polls appeared to have been arrested in October and November, but the profile of the price freeze has been such that the polls in these months virtually became referendums on whether action should be taken to reduce energy prices rather than predictions of voting at the next election.

The shift in the polls over the past week suggests the impact of the energy price freeze is now diminishing.

There is a precedent for this type of development.

In September 2000, for one month, politics was turned upside down. William Hague’s Conservative opposition reversed months of double digit ICM poll deficits to leap into a 4 point lead. The cause was the fuel crisis.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Cameron’s conduct in China was bad politics, bad ethics and exceptionally bad foreign policy

09/12/2013, 01:34:28 PM

by Sam Fowles

It’s that time of year again: Winter enough for the christmas lights to go up on Clapham High Street but still autumn enough for everyone to complain about it. The time of year when the fact that the hot water cylinder in my four person house only produces enough hot water for three stops becoming “something we’ll laugh about later in life” and starts becoming a significant cause of frostbite. Basically it’s getting cold. It’s the time of year when we all start wistfully staring at summer breaks in between the usual workplace internet pastimes of Buzzfeed and cat videos.

David Cameron, of course, isn’t restrained by such limitations. With winter descending on London he took 100 of his closest friends on a field trip to China. There to engage in such hi jinks as fungus banquets, playing with puppet horses (actually this one sounds pretty fun) and not talking about human rights.

I’m being flippant but there’s a serious point here. Cameron’s trip to China and his pledge that Britain will be China’s “biggest advocate in the West”, was bad politics, bad ethics and exceptionally bad foreign policy.

I’m not about to join in the various comparison’s of China to a string of historical baddies (although the Kaiser simile in the FT is particularly fun). China is a danger to the world because of it’s actions in the here and now. Even more of a threat are international lightweights like Cameron who think that jet setting around the world’s ugliest regimes with a carpet bag full of British products and a plastic smile makes them a statesman. Those with democratic mandates were conspicuous by their absence amongst the Prime Ministers “representatives of Britain. Evil may flourish when good men do nothing, but it’s certainly helped when mediocre men give it a round of applause.

The bad politics has been fairly well covered. Cameron came into office advocating a tougher stance on China’s human rights violations. He met with the Dalai Lama, prompting a diplomatic freeze from Beijing. Then he tried to row back, prompting some particularly unstatesmanlike groveling. This is amateur. You can’t imagine Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or even Francois Hollande accepting the sort of snubs that Cameron has suffered while in China. Yet our Prime Minister smiles and laps up what scraps of friendship the Chinese are prepared to toss his way like the desperate cousin at a wedding. Cameron’s obsequiousness has raised the status of the Chinese leaders at his own expense. You don’t need a degree in international relations to see that this is a pretty poor negotiating tactic.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Autumn Statement review: It’s Reagan ’84 vs Reagan ’80

06/12/2013, 12:05:49 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Barack Obama’s second term was meant to pivot. From the Middle East which has sapped American military resources and moral authority, to the Pacific, the new crucible of economic and political power. Then the Arab Spring was followed by the disintegration of Syria, the reassertion of Egyptian military rule and such intense strife that the US could not pivot from the Middle East. Even as the rivalry between China and Japan gets hotter.

Barack Obama couldn’t pivot but George Osborne wants to. From pessimism to optimism. From recession to renewal. From the micro to the macro. There are a series of pivots that the Autumn Statement attempts, which are a claim for the most prized piece of political real estate that no one in this parliament has been able to make their own: the future.

88% of Chinese have an optimistic economic outlook, according to Pew. In contrast, only 15% of Britons do. This doesn’t tell of the innate sunny outlook of the Chinese and the persistent gloominess of the British. It tells us that people can see what is in front of their eyes.

The dizzying skyscrapers and rapid economic change convince the Chinese that the future is theirs. The British fear that our best days are behind us. That our children will not enjoy the opportunities that we’ve had. That the country that gave the world the industrial revolution can no longer earn its crust in the era of the digital revolution.

In advance of the Autumn Statement, David Cameron led a trade delegation to China. The Statement revealed improving growth and public finances figures. It remains to be seen whether these figures and initiatives like this delegation come to convince us to believe in the future.

Labour’s successful campaigning on the cost of living militates against this. Last month, a Populus survey found that 38 per cent of voters agree that there is a national economic recovery under way but that only 11 per cent feel part of it, as Matthew D’Ancona has noted. We increasing see a recovery, which the Statement re-stressed to us, but it seems a recovery for the few, not the many, which Labour’s cost of living campaign wants us to think.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Letter from Wales: Understanding the threat from Plaid

05/12/2013, 06:30:26 PM

by Julian Ruck

The Welsh Labour government has 30 seats in the Assembly, with the opposition parties holding the other 30. Its grip on the electorate is as firm as the arthritic hands of an ageing amateur golfer. It will only take one of the opposition parties to clobber another seat in the Welsh Assembly for old Labour torpor, towering complacency and democratic violation to be nobbled once and for all.

Red water no longer comes into it, neither indeed does a thin red line of political obstinacy.

Old Welsh Labour is out of ideas, out of imagination and most certainly out of touch. This may have something to do with Carwyn’s honourable escape from the insecure financial vicissitudes of the Bar, to the less frenetic and undoubtedly more salubrious corridors of the Cardiff university madrassa – those who can’t, teach perhaps? Either way, lawyers are hardly renowned for creative energy and innovative thinking, albeit that Parliament is awash them. Well trained and sophisticated impudence and slyness may well have something to do with this.

Last week I interviewed Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly. A Valleys girl to her core, with the sense of humour to match. It was a straight, no nonsense and honest interview, which is a damn sight more than can said for Welsh government ministers and their apparatchiks.

I had trouble getting a word in, that’s a Valleys girl for you but let’s not hold this against her. The lady did come up with a policy that even I have to admit, is both laudable and well thought out – Ruck agreeing with Plaid? Yes I know, but indulge me for a moment or two.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon