GRASSROOTS: Labour is dangerously complacent about winning back London post-Boris

14/08/2014, 11:32:25 AM

by Samuel Dale

It was the worst kept secret in Westminster but Boris is finally on his way back.

After years burnishing his profile as Mayor of London, he is looking for a Commons seat next year.

Inevitably the focus has been on the implications for Cameron, Osborne and the battle for the Tory leadership.

But it also confirms – almost certainly – that Johnson will not run again as Mayor of London in 2016.

This is leading to a dangerous complacency from Labour.

The theory goes like this: London is a Labour voting city that has been twice charmed by the charismatic Boris but when he goes the mayoralty will slip back to its rightful owners, Labour.

This belief is fuelled by electoral successes.

Labour did surprisingly well in London in the 2010 general election, costing the Tories a majority.

In the intervening years, it has also won back control of councils and had record breaking results in areas such as Camden in May.

But the mayoralty is different. In their own ways Ken Livingstone and Boris have made the Mayor Of London a big job.

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UNCUT: When it comes to minorities, woo, don’t appease

13/08/2014, 04:31:32 PM

by Kevin Meagher

How far should a political party go in trying to win over ethnic minority voters? Baroness Warsi is clear that the Conservatives can’t win next year’s general election without more of them, while senior Labour figures like Sadiq Khan and David Lammy have raised the prospect of all-minority shortlists for parliamentary selections.

If nothing else, demography suggests it is smart politics for all parties to win a commanding share of what is now a growing market. The 2011 Census shows that around eight million people – 14 per cent of the population – are now non-White, (with half of that total – 7.5 per cent – being Asian/ Asian British). Academics at Leeds University reckon this figure will rise to 20 per cent of the UK population by 2051 while the Policy Exchange think tank reckons the figure will be nearer to a third.

But politicians need to be clear that they don’t succumb to a conceptual fallacy. When they talk of “making politics look more like the electorate” they are speaking in code for promoting candidates because of their skin colour. This is hopelessly naïve and horribly tokenistic.

Minority ethnic communities are not simply ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’. Indeed, the impact of large-scale European immigration over the past decade makes that a nonsense. As does the growth in people from mixed-race backgrounds, who are now said to make up the second largest minority ethnic group.

Instead of descending into gesture politics with the promotion of ethnic-only shortlists, or treating minorities like electoral blocs, parties should focus on providing a fair and transparent policy offer to woo them instead.

Despite the diversity, there are often common issues of concern. Take public health. We know that South Asians have a higher propensity towards Type Two diabetes and that Afro-Carribbean people are three to five times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. Meanwhile the Irish, a predominantly White ethnic group (and, arguably, the UK’s largest), suffer from a higher preponderance to genetic conditions like coeliac disease and haemochromatosis.

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UNCUT: Labour risks being on the wrong side of history over Islamism

13/08/2014, 11:17:44 AM

by Rob Marchant

No-one could exactly accuse President Obama of rushing into military action to deal with the resurgent Islamists of ISIS in Iraq, currently massacring local Christians and Yazidis. No, if there were a perfect illustration for the phrase “dragged kicking and screaming”, this would surely be it.

But Iraq’s apparent political and military meltdown is, ironically, drawing the “troops out” Obama administration – and could yet conceivably draw our own – into some kind of ring-fenced, belated rear-guard action in the Middle East. Whatever the rights and wrongs of any such action might be, the cause is, again, the phenomenon which has dominated the first decade-and-a-half of this century’s foreign policy and may yet come to dominate the rest of it: jihadism, the extreme version of political Islam.

As the years have worn on from 9/11 and 7/7, it has been easy for the world to retreat into the comfortable delusion that the threat has gone. It has not. Taking a bit longer in the airport security queue has not made everyone safe. Islamist terrorism is still happening, just not on our shores. And the fundamental problem is not Islam per se, of course; it is Islam as the basis for an illiberal form of politics and government.

If further evidence were needed of how Islamism seems destined always to end in some kind of madness, then it could certainly be provided by recent events in Gaza, where Hamas has spent recent weeks using civilians as human shields. Or in Nigeria, where Boko Haram is busy kidnapping its schoolgirls for use as slaves, as our politicians take decisive action to fight them via, er, Twitter.

But it’s not just such visibly extreme Islamism; look closer to home, to a “moderate” administration governing a historical ally of the West, where Turkey’s government has been slowly sliding into an increasingly unpleasant authoritarianism. If you want an indication of the current direction of a country which had previously made great strides towards modernisation, try reading recent comments by deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who recently opined that “women should not laugh in public”. This from the “acceptable face” of Islamism.

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UNCUT: Our MPs are deeply unhappy people. Mark Simmonds just did something about it

12/08/2014, 03:15:46 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Ever since Norman Fowler resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family (although he didn’t quite use that phrase) resigning from ministerial office for reasons other than sexual exposure, financial corruption or manifest incompetence has been something of a curiosity in Westminster.

Yesterday, foreign office minister Mark Simmonds “did a Fowler,” quitting the government in the pursuit of a happier life. At just 50 and with a desirable job and safe seat (from which he had previously announced he was retiring at the next election), Simmonds seemed to have it all going for him. Yet his farewell to politics is evidence that he does not have it all; certainly not the balanced existence he craves.

For him, the ephemeral buzz of high office gave way to the practicalities of family life. Explaining his move, Simmonds said:

“The allowances that enable Members of Parliament to stay in London while they are away from their families – my family lives in Lincolnshire in my constituency – does not allow me to rent a flat which can accommodate my family, so I very rarely see my family and I have to put family life first.”

“Mr Simmonds” reported the BBC “said the idea of spending another five years rarely seeing his children and staying in a different hotel room each night “’fills me with horror’”.

It’s easy to mock his decision – 90k minister can’t rent a plush London crash pad – but Simmonds has exposed an unsayable aspect at the heart of life in Westminster – that so many MPs, on all sides, are deeply unhappy people.

Many feel they are trying to juggle an important job that doesn’t pay particularly well (sorry, it doesn’t) while clinging on to some kind of a family life and, usually, running two homes (or, in Simmonds’s case a home and a procession of hotel rooms). To this add in the perennial demands of constituents, party workers, and whips, the nagging worry of electoral defeat and the glare of unrelenting media scrutiny.

Of course, MPs will never say any of this for two perfectly understandable reasons. The first is that a hundred other people would happily crawl across broken glass (and much worse besides) to replace them. The second is that the public simply doesn’t give a stuff about how miserable their MPs are. In fact, the more disconsolate they are, the better.

Forget about work-life balance; the political life is all-consuming. It’s a wonder that any MPs’ marriages hold together or that there kids even recognise them. This is why so many compensate by having spouses and children work for them. (This, in turn, earns them a bucket of ordure for milking the expenses system and turning their office into a family business).

Sunday’s Observer reported that 15 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party will resign at next year’s election – twice the rate that retired before Labour’s 1997 landslide. There will of course be a range of individual reasons, but more and more MPs seem to be realising that the all-too-common experience of resentful partners and distant children are sacrifices that are not, in the final analysis, worth making.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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UNCUT: If Yvette wants to be leader she needs to tell us what she stands for

12/08/2014, 08:10:46 AM

by David Talbot

What else is there to do in the long summer months than speculate on the next leader of the Labour party? Last summer, of course, events in Falkirk consumed the body politic. This year, with nowhere near as much excitement to hold the nerve during the month of news-austerity that is August, commentators have turned their eye to much more familiar ground; leadership speculation. As Boris Johnson confirms that he had been fibbing all this time and is positively squeaking with ambition to become the next Conservative leader, so too the next roll-call of Labour leadership hopefuls is being sized up. This is predicated, of course, on a Labour loss next year. But that argument is for another day.

Step forward one D Hodges, formerly of the Uncut parish, and now musing from his perch at the Telegraph. Hodges has written a blog suggesting that Rachel Reeves has utilised her ‘boring snoring’ credentials to propel herself into the position of a credible contender for future leadership of the Labour party. Reeves , we are told, for no one actually noticed at the time, launched the latest salvo in Labour’s “the choice” summer campaign last week. Reeves no doubt has a serious and illustrious career ahead of her in the Labour party and, when she genuinely is not being quite so boring, could one day make leader. But the secondary, and all the more intriguing, observation was the slow demise of Yvette Cooper.

Cooper has long been seen as the one serious contender to take on the might of the Umunna machine. Her abstention during the last Labour leadership contest, with the announcement that it wasn’t “the right time”, was rightly seen as the barely-disguised motions of someone who given the chance would run for leader. The reasons for her prominence are well known, and her CV reads like so many of her current Labour contemporaries; First Class degree in PPE at Oxford, Harvard, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Harriet Harman’s office via the Independent and emerging as Labour’s Member of Parliament for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.

Her rise through the ministerial ranks was systematic and impressive; from underling at the Department of Health to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Given New Labour’s obsession with reshuffles, Cooper was a member of the government in no less than 6 departments holding 8 positions. The depth and breadth of her experience is enviable. As shadow Home Secretary she has at times forensically dissected the arguments and machinations of her government counterpart, Theresa May, who is widely regarded as one of the Conservative’s best performers and strongly tipped for their throne.

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UNCUT: Sofa government has ended in Scotland. This needs to happen in the rest of the UK

11/08/2014, 05:41:12 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“When this is over, I am not going back to my sofa,” said a working class grandmother, who’d never previously been politically active, of the Scottish referendum. She made this remark to Robin McAlpine of Common Weal – “a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First” – and he reported it to BBC Radio 4 last week. The legacy of the referendum campaign, irrespective of its outcome, observed McAlpine, is the widespread popular desire for “a politics that involves us and which we get involved in”.

The latest polling gives Better Together a 13 percent lead. While the pro-independence grandmother got active because the referendum was “too important to the future of her grandchildren”, it seems to be moving toward the outcome that she opposes. Nonetheless, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now all committed to additional powers for the Scottish Executive and Parliament. Scotland seems likely to say “no thanks” but the consensus between the political parties means that such an outcome will lead to some form of “devo-max“.

As grandmothers refuse to return to their sofas, more power will be brought closer to them within a new devolution settlement. Which is why Neal Ascherson seems justified in concluding in the current edition of Prospect that “whichever way the referendum vote goes on that Thursday in September, Scotland on the Friday morning will already be living in some form of independence”.

I have worried that post-referendum Scotland will be a fractious place, with festering grievances and bridges to be built. This might be part of the picture. But the whole picture may well contain positives: a highly engaged electorate with new powers to shape their future.

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UNCUT: If we can’t access GPs, do we really have a health service at all?

11/08/2014, 10:54:08 AM

by Kevin Meagher

As I sit here nursing a nasty chest infection that I can’t seem to shake off, the crisis in the NHS is brought home to me all too clearly. I can’t get an appointment to see my GP before the end of next week, begging the question that if I cannot access basic healthcare at the point of need, do we in fact have a National Health Service in any meaningful sense at all?

As Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has pointed out, the slump in service standards “is more marked in general practice than anywhere else in the NHS: in 2009/10, four out of five people said they saw a GP within 48 hours; now it is just two in five.”

And it’s set to get worse. A recent poll of GPs suggests average waiting times for a basic appointment are going to stretch to 13 days by next April. Apparently, I should have had the forethought to make an appointment after the first cough.

In response, the government’s NHS Choices website (“Your health, your choices”) suggests that people like me should “consider the alternatives” before bothering their GP. Thankfully, this is just a range of staggeringly inane and nannying ‘advice’ rather than an invitation to seek out a consultation with the village wise woman or medicine man.

Instead of seeing the doctor, “[t]he pharmacist behind the counter at your local chemist may be able to give you the help you need, so you won’t have to spend time waiting for an appointment.” Discussing your medical history within earshot of the queue in Boots certainly offers an interesting approach to patient confidentiality.

If, however, you feel compelled to seek out the kind of informed medical support that we pay our taxes to access when we are ill, the advice is not to forget your manners, especially to the support staff. “Be polite to receptionists. They are busy people who often have to deal with unhappy patients. Being polite to them will encourage them to help you.”

What is the corollary of this extraordinary statement? Patients are not busy people and if some receptionist does not consider a patient to be sufficiently ‘polite’ they will not help them?

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UNCUT: There are not two sides to every story. We should not have entered the First World War.

08/08/2014, 02:36:55 PM

by Sam Fowles

The “balance fallacy” in the commemorations of the First World War means we forget the real reason millions died.

“There are two sides to every story and this is my side. The true side.” said Emma Stone at the beginning of the (highly underrated) teen comedy “Easy A”.

The mantra that “there are two sides to every story” is embodied to a fault in the anniversary coverage of the First World War. This is dangerous. January’s controversy about the origins of the war has been smoothed over with references to “complexity”. Every mention of tragedy is mitigated by the platitude that “no one” was expecting the nature of the war. Apparently it was no one’s fault.

Except that it was. To say that the slaughter was senseless and some were more to blame than others isn’t to ignore the complexity of diplomatic and military history. Sometimes history is not balanced. Sometimes the merits of one side of the argument so monumentally outweigh the other that the imbalance must be acknowledged.

In a History Today blog in January I said that the study of history is the search, not for truth but, for understanding. But the belief that the sun orbits the earth does little to advance one’s understanding of the solar system.

Understanding history is important because history is inherently political. Imagine historians agree that “A happened, therefore B action was taken and C was the catastrophic result”. The next time A happens we, as a voting public, will be understandably skeptical of anyone who suggests doing B or of anything suggested by the people who suggested B in the first place.

This creates a problem for those original decision makers (or their political descendants) who don’t wish to lose power. Or if doing B again remains in the interests of certain powerful groups despite its catastrophic consequences for society in general.

There’s a fable amongst lawyers about the Harvard Civil Procedure professor who tells his students: “If the facts are on your side argue the facts, if the law is on your side argue the law and if neither the facts nor the law are on your side bang your fist down on the defence table and make enough noise until everyone forgets you’re in the wrong.” If you want history to forget how you screwed up, create enough contradictory accounts that it looks like a debate with “no right answer” rather than a cataclysmic failure of judgment. Create legitimacy with noise rather than academic rigour.

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UNCUT: The legacy of Gaza will be a one state solution, with all that entails

05/08/2014, 05:36:17 PM

by Atul Hatwal

The carnage has ceased for the moment in Gaza. The guns are silent. We’ve been here before: the anguish on both sides, the depths of bitterness and the certainty that at some point in the next few years, we’ll be here again.

However, while it has been a visceral and traumatic few weeks, in terms of the underlying politics, Gaza has not fundamentally changed the situation in Israel and the occupied territories. Rather, it has accelerated existing trends and entrenched current positions.

The Israeli public, which has consistently voted for governing coalitions that cannot deliver a two state solution, will be even less likely to countenance the compromises needed. The pain of tens of thousands of settlers being forcibly removed by the Israeli army, in the West Bank, is now inconceivable. No coalition could deliver it, even if somehow enough politicians could be persuaded, because the public do not want it.

The Palestinians will be equally hostile to compromise. The concessions needed to rebuild any confidence within Israel that the first acts of new Palestinian state would not involve more tunnels, rockets and terror, will not be forthcoming from any Palestinian government that wants to hold onto any legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

Gaza has finally killed the two state solution. There can and will only be one state, which raises an existential question for Israel. One for which military superiority alone cannot provide a ready answer: what will be this state’s nature?

Currently in Israel and the occupied territories, there are roughly 12.5m people, just over half are Jewish Israelis, just under half either Arab Israelis or Palestinian.

At the moment, while the vague hope for a two state deal nominally flickers on, the Palestinian population of the occupied territories are not considered part of Israel.

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UNCUT: Labour is tying itself in knots over Gaza

31/07/2014, 08:05:41 AM

by Rob Marchant

Britain, it is perennially noted, is an island nation and often behaves accordingly.

It is a feature of modern British politics that, unlike some other countries whose very existence depends on their relations with larger, closer neighbours with whom they share a land border, foreign policy counts for little in the calculations of Westminster life. Elections are certainly not won or lost on it, mainly because polling shows that it features so low on the list of voters’ priorities.

So, a strange phenomenon occurs: since a governing party is chosen to govern based on everything but their foreign policy, one can find that, as the new tenants arrive at No. 10 and the FCO, what results in practice is a bit of a lucky dip. One can equally find the shrill nationalism of a Thatcher; the shameful isolationism of a Major; the strident interventionism of a Blair; or the “I want to, but I can’t” of a Cameron.

It’s a shame, because the world is clearly undergoing one of its most dangerously unstable periods since the cold war. Syria, Ukraine, Iraq and now Gaza underline how the West is facing two serious threats simultaneously: the rearrangement of geo-political powers into a multi-polar world, its most notable feature the re-emergence of Russia as a foe rather than a friend; and the seemingly ineradicable virus of jihadism.

Nowhere is that lucky dip truer than in today’s Labour party. If Cameron’s foreign policy has been paralysed by cuts to military resources and political support, Miliband’s has seemingly been by its lack of ambition and often, well, coherence. Dan Hodges, formerly of this parish, quoted a Miliband observer last week: “he’s got next to no interest in foreign policy”. While this is just one opinion, it is one that resonates.

Certainly, last year’s Syria vote is something best forgotten for Labour. But as an example of how disjointed is the policy of a party which could conceivably, in just over eight months, have a seat at the top table in world politics, we need look no further than its recent moves over Gaza.

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