Blind defenders of ‘free movement’ sound like US gun nuts

20/10/2014, 02:18:17 PM

by Kevin Meagher

“When the facts change” John Maynard-Keynes famously remarked, “I change my mind”. No such intellectual pragmatism informs the thinking of outgoing EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.

He has been in valedictory mood, telling a gathering at Chatham House today that David Cameron’s wish to reform the EU’s provision for the free movement of people – partly responsible for Britain’s three million extra immigrants over the past decade or so – is “illegal”. Moreover, an arbitrary cap on EU migrant workers coming to Britain “can never be accepted.”

Given all political change involves altering laws, he is technically correct on the legality point; but he’s also being obtuse. For Eurocrats like Barroso, free movement is an inviolable principle and he will brook no dissent. His mind is closed to the possibility of change – and that there is even a problem to address at all. (Although I dare say it helps that he comes from a country like Portugal, not particularly noted as an economic powerhouse sucking in migrant workers).

It certainly used to be a benign enough principle, in the days when it meant handfuls of Belgian architects could go and work on French hydro-electric projects. It was an affordable sop to Euro-integrationists in a union of 12 or 15 countries with economies that, while different, were not wildly so.

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Labour HQ is the place where political narratives go to die

15/10/2014, 10:03:50 AM

by Alexander Shea

Last month’s Conference represented a nadir for Ed Miliband’s Labour party. It was a graveyard of narrative, an abandonment of the political.

Labour relapsed into ‘itemised politics’, presenting a praiseworthy plan for the protection of the NHS yet failing to encompass it within a wider coherent and compelling narrative of what is fundamentally wrong with this country and how Labour proposes to put it right.

As the shock of the Heywood and Middleton by-election has shown, an electoral strategy comprised of a single-issue focus on the NHS is not going to cut the mustard. Narrow, itemised politics is not the way forward. To win in 2015, Labour needs to think big.

Establishing a clear and firm policy line on the NHS was necessary. As polls have shown it is the most important issue in the upcoming election to 34% of voters, making it the leading issue for 2015.

But it is precisely in these polling figures that the sheer lack of ambition or political message that Labour conveyed by making the NHS its marquee policy, is able to be sensed. It smacked of a 35 percent strategy: a timid desire to play it safe politically- to score on ‘open goal’ policy issues such as the NHS- in the knowledge that due to an electoral quirk, Labour will win a majority in the next Parliament if it breaks the 35 percent threshold. What better way to implement such a 35 percent strategy than by banking on an issue that 35 percent of the electorate prioritise.

Pursuing such a timid approach, however, is the height of folly. John Prescott is right. Rather than scoring an ‘open goal’ on the NHS, by pursuing itemized politics Labour has sacrificed the potential for a broader political message, and consequently scored a massive own goal.

They presented David Cameron with a gilt-edged opportunity at his party conference in Birmingham. At a time when Cameron should have been on the back foot over Brooks Newmark’s sexting and Mark Reckless’ defection to UKIP, Labour effectively presented Cameron with the opportunity to use his party conference speech as a platform from which to project a narrative of British politics, that of ‘economism’ in which the twin gods of economic growth and welfare cuts are reified at the expense of humanistic politics, the latter focusing not on objective economic data but the subjective experience of living in austerity Britain: the cost of living crisis, the bedroom tax, childcare allowance and so on.

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Fifty years on, Harold Wilson’s triumph offers important lessons for Ed

14/10/2014, 10:12:31 AM

by Rob Philpot

The similarities between Ed Miliband and Harold Wilson, who became prime minister for the first time fifty years ago this week, are not immediately obvious. While Wilson’s father had been an active Liberal, his Huddersfield upbringing had little in common with the north London childhood, steeped in politics, of the current Labour leader. Wilson’s studied ‘man of the people’ persona – the Yorkshire accent, Gannex raincoat and pipe, love of HP Sauce, and support for Huddersfield Town – is hardly one shared by Miliband. And few would currently wager a bet on Miliband challenging Wilson’s record of four general election victories.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s premiership offers some important lessons for Miliband. When Labour returned to power in October 1964 it did so with a majority of just four. Miliband could face similarly tricky parliamentary arithmetic in six month’s time. With the arrival of fixed-term parliaments, he will not have the luxury afforded Wilson of governing for 18 months before going back to the country and asking for a majority to ‘finish the job’.

But Wilson’s strategy of reassurance during the short parliament of 1964-1966 – the focus on making Labour the ‘natural party of government’ and the determination to reach out to middle-class voters whose support was crucial if a bigger majority was to be attainted – is instructive. It was one which paid rich dividends: fighting on a slogan of ‘you know Labour government works’, Wilson went back to the country in March 1966 and won a majority of 97, secured seats that have only ever fallen to the party in 1945 and under Tony Blair, and, at 48 per cent, polled the party’s second highest ever share of the vote. As Ben Pimlott suggested, Labour had been rewarded for ‘a sense of movement and freshness, and a reforming zeal limited only by a tight economy and a very tight majority’. Wilson’s government had ‘ceased to alarm the electorate, yet succeeded in remaining the party of promise’.  Crucially, he continues, ‘not only had the Labour government handled the economy better than the Tories, its proven ability in this field was the real point of the election.’

Miliband should, though, balance a reassurance strategy with a willingness to take tough decisions early. Wilson’s determination that Labour should not again be seen as ‘the party of devaluation’ – he had been central to the debates in Attlee’s cabinet when it decided to devalue in 1949 – led him to postpone that painful but necessary decision for three years. Devaluing when Labour had first come into office could – with good justification – have been laid at the door of the policies of the outgoing Tory government. By 1967, Labour was landed with the entire blame. The fallout from that contributed to the party’s defeat in 1970.

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Where will we be in May 2015?

13/10/2014, 07:07:21 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Amid the fierce urgency of now, I look at possibilities beyond next May.

Labour majority

“Politics in Britain today,” according to a statement from Neal Lawson, Compass chair, “is not really about UKIP but about the failure of Labour in particular to present a coherent, desirable and feasible alternative to the Tories.” This was broadly the argument made by Atul Hatwal after the European elections and Ranjit Sidhu after the recent by-elections. As Sidhu was writing, John McTernan was bemoaning our politics’ lack of “lift, hope, ambition and above all life”. After the European election results, he told us that they meant Ed Miliband would be prime minister, while after recent by-elections, he laments that Labour is “in deep, deep trouble”.

McTernan’s seeming evolving view might denote the diminishing possibility of a Labour majority, while the repeated references to a lack of hope – straddling all from Compass to Progress – reminds us that many see little prospect of their lives improving. The major parties also suffer deficits of authenticity – widely presumed to be insincere and ineffectual – and public money – the fiscal position constrains resources to build hope where it is most lacking.

To secure a Labour majority, the deficits in hope, authenticity and public money must be overcome to not lose traditional supporters in Scotland to the SNP and in the north of England to UKIP, while gaining Conservative inclined voters in marginal seats in the south. Labour majority depends upon sufficient numbers of these disparate groups seeing the party as the bridge to a better tomorrow.

Reading Luke Akehurst suggests we seem reluctant to even sketch this bridge in Rochester and Strood, and does little to dispel Mark Wallace’s charge that Labour is “soft-pedalling” there. “Our mentality this close to general election ought to be that we are an unstoppable force,” Akehurst correctly notes, “not a party too scared of Nigel Farage to take him on in a seat we held until the last election”. As dispiriting as Labour appear in Rochester and Strood, Wallace is right that this by-election and Heywood and Middleton prompt resource challenges.

Does Labour have the capacity to successfully defend northern seats that UKIP will target and to robustly challenge for marginal seats in the south?

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that Labour fundraising may be improved by learning from ActBlue, an organisation raising funds for Democratic candidates. Whether this advance and others that Labour require comes quickly enough to secure a majority remains to be seen.

Labour as largest party in hung parliament

Martin Kettle reports that Labour has “a hard core of backbenchers [who] would … regard a coalition [with the Liberal Democrats] as a betrayal and would work against it”. Equally, he quotes a senior Labour source, “we haven’t thought [minority government] through”. Even short of coalition, such a government would probably require a supply and confidence arrangement with the Liberal Democrats – an option which Uncut’s sources say the Liberal Democrats are disinclined toward, seeing it as carrying all the costs of coalition without the benefits, posing another headache for Miliband.

Conservative majority   (more…)

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After Heywood and Middleton, Labour needs to make tough choices on immigration, the economy and the leader

10/10/2014, 08:20:35 PM

by Atul Hatwal

On one point, Douglas Carswell is right: the big result last night wasn’t Clacton, but Heywood and Middleton.

Shell-shocked Labour spokespeople have been on the airwaves giving the official line: the vote held up, no complacency, blah, blah, blah.

What they are saying doesn’t matter. They can’t tell the truth because the truth is toxic for the party. There are three reasons Heywood and Middleton happened: immigration, the economy and Ed Miliband’s leadership.

On each of the three, Labour needs to make a hard choice, if it is to avoid an almighty crash next May.

1. Immigration

Every canvasser who went to Heywood and Middleton came back with the same doorstep story: the voters wanted to talk about immigration. But Labour ploughed on with its line on the NHS. Disastrous.

Now, Labour will have to face up to having the difficult conversation on immigration, and it can go one of two ways:  it can either tack right towards Ukip or it can make a case for its actual policy.

The former is the seductive option. It means that on the doorstep, canvassers can agree with voters. There’s no need for any tricky disagreement. All Labour representatives need do is to nod sympathetically, promise to be tough and hey presto, all is solved.

Except of course, it isn’t.

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Leadership challenge? You can’t be serious

08/10/2014, 01:15:34 PM

by Rob Marchant

It is always a little unwise to make predictions, as us bloggers occasionally find some time later, to our shame and embarrassment.

But perhaps we can venture one now. If there is a silly season within conference season, it is surely within Lib Dem conference. And this year, a few MPs and journalists have used its abject pointlessness as an excuse to take a break from serious politics.

And, indeed, from reality altogether: they have convinced themselves that a Labour leadership challenge is in the air, as these pieces from the Telegraph and the Mail show.

Only it’s not. Or, at least, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Oh, that’s not to say that some aren’t thinking about it, some even vaguely seriously. It’s always good to check where one’s political stock is, and a dip in the polls is an attractive time to do so.

But there are a lot of good reasons why it is merely fanciful thinking – more a crying into one’s beer in a Manchester hotel bar than a serious, credible campaign briefing.

First, history. Unlike the Tories, Labour is the anti-nasty party; one which gives a sometimes annoying level of benefit-of-the-doubt. It does not generally dump leaders before they have had a chance to lose an election (in fact, it sometimes doesn’t even dump them afterwards, as the 1987 election taught us, even if it really should).

Second, if a leadership challenge has not happened by a half-year before the election, it is a particularly dumb time to try and have one. No-one has time to put together a hole-free policy program in that time, which reflects their own personal stamp.

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The Tories Don’t Understand Human Rights

08/10/2014, 10:33:42 AM

by Sam Fowles

Forced to abandon NHS bashing for the sake of the election, David Cameron needed to feed the right some red meat. He chose the European Convention on Human Rights, promising to repeal the Human Rights Act, which allows English judges to incorporate the dicta of the Strasbourg court into their rulings, and allow Parliament to ignore the European Court of Human Rights.  This is more than simply wrong; it shows a fundamental failure to understand of the role human rights play in international law and politics.

The international law of human rights is based on the premise that there is something fundamentally valuable about each individual human. In this light Cameron’s idea of a “British Bill of Rights” seems absurd. People are not inherently valuable because they are British or French or Afghan. We are valuable because we are human. For this reason that the ECHR applies to British troops fighting abroad. To suggest that people should lose value in our eyes because they are non-European is an attitude redolent of the 13th Century not the 21st.

The ECHR is itself based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It doesn’t invent “European Rights”. It allows citizens of European states direct access to universal rights. It’s worth noting that the UK would remain bound by a plethora of international human rights conventions even if it were to secede from the ECHR (as the Conservatives threaten). The government’s legal obligations wouldn’t fundamentally change; they would just get more complex.

In practice human rights law protects the vulnerable from the powerful. This is why a bill of rights decided purely by the parliamentary majority is so dangerous. Human rights act as a check on the majority. Courts should make decisions (such as giving prisoners the vote) with which most of us disagree. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be a check on the majority.

This is important because, in a democracy, the majority should be able to change. If the power of a majority is not checked then there is nothing to stop that majority taking steps to make itself permanent. Cameron is asking us to trust to powerful to set limits to their own power. For a man who supposedly venerates the Magna Carter he sounds suspiciously like Prince John.

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The Vietnam doctrine and the Powell doctrine

07/10/2014, 12:33:04 PM

by Pat McFadden 

As the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries struggle to put together a strategy to combat Isis the question arises, has the West lost the will to implement the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and is it by default reverting to the Vietnam doctrine of escalation in steps, with the danger that the steps are not big enough or decisive enough?

The question matters because the decision to engage in military action In Iraq and (for the US) Syria has been characterised as much by what is ruled out as what is ruled in.  Haunted by recent long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Britain and the US have emphasised at all times their unwillingness to put “boots on the ground”.

What does ruling out boots on the ground mean in practical terms?  There should be little doubt that the leaders of both the US and UK would sanction special forces operations to hunt down the Isis killing squad who are beheading innocent hostages if they knew where they were.  Those special forces would be wearing boots.  And, for a time at least, they would be on the ground.

By talking about no boots on the ground our leaders don’t actually therefore mean no boots on the ground.  They mean something that doesn’t look like an army as in the long and visible military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

But when we consider special forces, advisers and other means of co-ordinating military action from the air, and the imperative of stopping Isis establishing a caliphate, it is possible that these lines could become more blurred.

Philip Bobbit, the highly respected US author and academic wrote recently that ruling out boots on the ground was a necessary price for President Obama to pay to get approval for the action from the air that he sanctioned.

Perhaps, but two questions arise.  First, will the line between what is actually happening and what has become ruled out become more blurred as the action escalates?  And if it does, what questions will that raise about honesty and treating the public as adults?  Secondly, if the goal is to do serious damage to Isis and impair its ability to act, does the politics of ruling out boots on the ground conflict with the action necessary to make this goal more achievable?

In other words, is war weariness pushing the West back into an unwitting adoption of the Vietnam doctrine of escalation by degree rather than Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force which replaced it?

For our leaders haunted by the recent experience of Iraq and Afghanistan it is worth remembering, the past did not begin in 2003.

Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East

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We must recover our capacity for shared sacrifice

06/10/2014, 10:08:03 AM

by Jonathan Todd

I’ve got taxis to Eccles. I stayed there for a Labour Party conference. In a B&B where a Christmas card signed by the Ron Atkinson era Manchester United squad was framed. This wasn’t vintage chic. It just hadn’t been decorated since 1984. Which was weird. But the Eccles streets weren’t. They were resolutely normal.

Morrissey’s autobiography begins with him describing his childhood as “streets upon streets upon streets”. The unexceptional Eccles streets were part of this youth’s tapestry. Streets like so many other streets. As a taxi driver from Eccles, Alan Henning undertook an unremarkable occupation on unremarkable streets. He died seeking to do something remarkable: relieving Syria’s stricken.

I felt the most powerful words in Ed Miliband’s conference speech concerned “someone from just down the road from here”. Henning was an everyman figure, in circumstances beyond comprehension. I’d have liked Miliband to move from this strong opening to a detailed account of how ISIL should be countered and an appraisal of Britain’s place in the world. How the man who would be King sees us amid ISIL, Putin and China. Instead he concluded a brief section on ISIL by deferring to UN, effectively granting Russia and China a veto over us even as they refuse to be checked by the UN.

Little is easy about defeating ISIL. Or bringing wider Middle East peace. Or order to a world showing signs not so much of a liberal happy ever after, as anticipated by Francis Fukuyama in 1992’s The End of History, but political decay, as he rightly worries about in his newly published tome. In this context, only a fool would deny the wisdom of J. K. Galbraith’s dictum that politics consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. But Miliband should at least communicate how he discerns them.

Miliband invariably seems to be saying that he’d identify the little man and the big man and line up behind the little man. Except he wouldn’t be so boorish as to cast the choice in such gender loaded terms. On occasion, like when defending the victims of phone hacking, this posture has worked. But it risks absurdity when overdone.

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If Labour were credible on the deficit, Cameron’s speech would have been a disaster

02/10/2014, 11:53:39 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Lucky David Cameron.

Lucky, because the global economic upturn has dealt him a kind hand on the economy, just as the crash dealt Labour a dud.

Lucky, because the lack of serious alternatives within the parliamentary Conservative party has assured his tenure as leader, no matter how jittery or demented his backbenchers have become (imagine how different the situation would have been had there been a Heseltine or Portillo lurking in the Commons’ corridors instead of Adam Afriye.)

And, most of all, lucky because David Cameron faces Ed Miliband’s Labour party.

A party so denuded of economic credibility that the Tories can increase the deficit by £75bn, miss all of their fiscal targets, and still maintain a double digit poll lead over Labour, on who is most trusted to manage the economy.

It’s why David Cameron could make the speech he did yesterday. A speech offering an unfunded £7bn+ tax cut just 48 hours after George Osborne talked up the need for an extra £25bn in cuts.

We have passed through the looking glass and entered a world of Wonderland economics: where tax cuts are all self-funding and public spending cuts have no consequence.

If Labour had done what it needed to four years ago; demonstrated that it understood the public’s anxieties over spending with the last Labour government, and moved to win back public trust, then David Cameron would now be in serious trouble.

The public would be listening as Labour spokespeople point out the political hypocrisy and economic insanity at the heart of David Cameron’s speech.

Years of Tory message discipline on the need for fiscal rectitude would be lying in ruins. Mistrust of the Tories on public spending would be taking off in the polls.

But none of that is happening.

Instead, as far as the public is concerned, Labour remains on mute. Whatever the party says on the economy is tuned out because of the deeply held belief that however bad the Tories are – and there’s lots of evidence that the public have little faith or confidence in Cameron and Osborne’s economic judgement – Labour will be worse.

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