Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Meagher’

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’s strategy for dealing with The Sun is ludicrous

29/09/2014, 12:15:05 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Last week, The Sun newspaper ran a feature inviting each party leader to wear a wristband showing their support for the Help for Heroes charity. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage featured. Ed Miliband did not.

There are conflicting accounts about exactly what happened, with the paper maintaining it made several attempts to secure the Labour Leader’s buy-in; while party sources claim they weren’t given enough time to comply with the request. In the event, the paper ran its front page piece, with a blank space reserved for Miliband, blaming his no-show on a “fear of offending Labour lefties.”

Amid the accusations and counter-accusations, what is clear is that the party’s explanation for not co-operating – citing Ed Miliband’s prior diary commitments – was disingenuous nonsense. It would have taken a press officer five seconds to grab a quick photo. But worse than being disingenuous, it was stupid, too, given the paper would inevitably “empty chair” Miliband for refusing to participate.

In fact, it was so obvious how things would turn out that there must have been a deeper motive. Indeed, there remain many voices in the party that want to boycott the paper as punishment for its coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy as well as the illegal phone-hacking scandal; and the party’s strategy is clearly driven by these considerations.

But boycotting The Sun is a disastrous tactic, the worst form of gesture politics. What’s the desired result? To make a principled stand against the quality of its journalism? To hurt Rupert Murdoch commercially? Of course, if anyone’s serious about punishing Murdoch or boycotting The Sun, then why not its News UK stablemate, The Times, as well? Or, better still, cancel your Sky subscription.

Worse, Labour’s approach is unevenly implemented. Ed Miliband was content to pose with a World Cup edition of the paper back in June before u-turning and apologising for doing so after ruffling the feathers of some within the party.

Disgusting though The Sun’s coverage of Hillsborough was, many other papers at the time published similar slurs against Liverpool football fans, egged on by media briefings given by South Yorkshire Police. And now the Mirror Group has conceded that some if its staff were also eavesdropping on private voicemails, so will Labour figures shun The Mirror, too?

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Labour shouldn’t stand a candidate against Mark Reckless

28/09/2014, 08:30:51 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Everything about politics is relative and after a stinker of a week for Labour, it’s clear the Tories’ conference this week is going to be even worse after the shock defection of Rochester and Strood MP, Mark Reckless, to Ukip.

All those sneering gags about Ed Miliband that David Cameron had planned for this week will fall flat as the edges of the Prime Minister’s authority over his own party continue to fray and his future now firmly lies in the hands of Ukip’s “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

In saying that, it is only fair to concede that by resigning his seat as part of his defection, Reckless is allowing the electorate to determine what they make of his decision. It takes bravado, and, frankly, some measure of integrity to do so. Defecting Labour and Tory MPs have never taken the risk of triggering a by-election in such circumstances.

So this is a high-wire act for Ukip and if they fail to win Clacton in two weeks’ time and now Rochester and Strood, then they will land hard. But if they win, the political pay-off will be enormous, and their insurgency will quicken.

How should Labour react? Party chiefs need to make a quick calculation about whether they can benefit from a Conservative-Ukip dog-fight and sneak through the middle. Conversely, the risk is that failing to win this by-election will serve to dampen expectations about Labour’s ability to win southern English seats more generally.

In 2010, Labour came second in Rochester and Strood with 28.5 per cent of the vote. This belies the fact that the seat (or most of it before boundary changes) was represented between 1997 and 2010 by maverick Labour MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews.

But if not now deemed winnable, Labour should move quickly to rule out standing a candidate. Ukip didn’t field anyone against Reckless in 2010 because of his strong Eurosceptic credentials. Labour should recycle the tactic for its own benefit.

This has two effects. First, it guarantees the race turns into a slugfest between Reckless and the Tories and, just as importantly, it insulates Labour from the charge that it isn’t making headway in seats it once used to hold. (A stark reminder is Newark, which Labour held between 1997 and 2001, yet could only manage a dismal third place in last June’s by-election).

In fact, putting up token resistance could see Labour aid the Tories in holding the seat, with Anthony Wells from UK Polling Report cautioning that it won’t be a “walk in the park” for Ukip. Better to give Cameron a few more of those sleepness nights about Ukip that Ed Miliband joked about last week.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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What we need to hear from Ed

23/09/2014, 11:13:15 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Given the tumultuous events in Scotland, Ed Miliband can be forgiven if he’s already ripped-up several drafts of his leader’s speech as he still works out how to respond. But putting that to one side, what is today about? What do we need to hear from Ed and what should he be looking to get out of his annual address to his party?

Ed needs to galvanise the Labour tribe. After all, that is technically why we are all here this week. Yet there’s a flat feeling to this conference. While many express cautious optimism that Labour will win next May, the next conversation comes with predictions of electoral doom, as Lib Dem floaters return home and Cameron rallies. Ed needs to convey, if not vision, then optimism about next year and transmit a sense of confidence that his troops can buy into.

He needs to transcend the party and speak to the electorate at large. This is now the real purpose of a leader’s conference speech. For one day a year, the spotlight falls on the Labour leader, who is given an opportunity to try and set the political agenda, and, even more importantly, show us what kind of person he is. Dog breeders would call it temperament. And while you can train yourself to recite a speech without notes, (a skill that’s frankly lost on a television audience) being likeable and spontaneous is a tad more difficult. But that’s what most non-committed voters will be looking for. This conference, the last before the general election, is, essentially, a job interview for becoming prime minister. So no pressure then.

Show Labour gets the need for further devolution. Calling for a constitutional convention – hitherto Labour’s response to the Scottish devolution result and demands for similar moves for England – is all very well, but it lacks urgency. Ed needs to use his speech to set out the principles that will inform his approach in coming months. Positioning Labour against the ridiculous idea of an English parliament is a start, but Ed needs to go further today and set out the conceptual framework for how power is devolved in England. If he doesn’t, he risks letting Cameron frame the agenda in his conference speech. So is it regions, city regions, strengthened local government or something else?

Do something to address the issue around leadership and economic credibility. Although the party maintains a steady opinion poll lead, the deficits the party continues to run on leadership and economic credibility makes many nervous that the headline poll lead will hold water the closer we get to next May. Let’s be clear: this is a legacy that anyone leading the Labour party would face, but it is, ultimately, Ed Miliband’s problem to fix. And, to put it bluntly, nowhere near enough has been done over the last four years. No-one in their heart of hearts will truly believe the party is set to win next year until these gaps narrow. (more…)

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If Labour’s serious about devolution, why not enshrine the commitment in a new Clause Four?

21/09/2014, 04:14:42 PM

by Kevin Meagher

It’s quite feasible that the Scottish independence referendum may be seen, in time, as merely a prelude to a much bigger reconfiguration where power sits and how it is used in Britain. For now, at least, the battle is on to grab the commanding heights of the debate about how we devolve power from Westminster and Whitehall to English localities.

Yet, the pursuit of English devolution, or localism, (or whatever we’re calling it these days) does not fit neatly on either the right or left of British politics. Both parties have had their moments. Labour introduced regional development agencies and planning strategies while the Tories have given councils more economic freedom through their city deals.

Equally, both have black marks against them. The last Labour government loved its top-down targets, while the Tories have always been happiest governing from the centre, stripping councils of their powers (particularly with the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s) and even going as far as abolishing the Greater London Council.

For Labour to fend off siren calls for an English Parliament, Ed Miliband needs to embrace devolution from first principles, accepting that in future the centre should not be able to dictate to local and devolved authorities and this may, in turn, lead to postcode lotteries in service provision.

Yet, the very thought of not being able to use the machinery of the state to drive micro-outcomes offends the Fabianist impulses of many Labour politicians. After all, it was Labour minister Douglas Jay who remarked that “the gentleman in Whitehall is usually right”.

Its twenty years ago since Tony Blair stood before the Labour party conference and signalled his intention to rewrite Labour’s constitution to “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Ed Miliband needs to do something similar this week. He could use his leader’s speech on Tuesday to make the case that Labour ‘s default impulse is now to devolve power from the centre to the lowest practicable level.

The revised version of Clause Four that was finally agreed by the party in 1995 pledged to create a society where “…power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”. Miliband could propose an alteration, committing his government to building a country where:

“…wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, and where power is exercised at the lowest possible level at all times.”

A political race is now on to make sense of our lopsided devolution settlement and symbolism matters. If Labour is serious about winning it, then, once again, it needs to say what it means and mean what it says.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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The No campaign will squeak home, but, really, it shouldn’t have been this close

18/09/2014, 07:00:12 AM

by Kevin Meagher

There are no perfect campaigns and while it’s a tad premature to start the post-mortem, you have to ask why Better Together ends this race wheezing and red-faced.

At the start of August it was leading Yes Scotland by 20 points. Yet despite superior assets in terms of money and foot soldiers, as well as existing relationships with the electorate, the multi-party No campaign has not been able to make these structural advantages count and that lead has melted away.  So it’s not just Gordon Brown biting his nails to the stump.

Majoring on technocratic arguments, Better Together has lacked emotional punch as well as good basic organisation. The evidence? Brown’s last-minute rescue operation promising “devo-max” after postal ballots had been sent to a fifth of the electorate. A panicked move that, to be properly effective, should have come weeks before. (As, indeed, should Brown, who was left on the subs bench for too long. His speech yesterday is described by Steve Richards in The Guardian as “mesmerising”).

So, in a spirit of evaluating why we are where we are and positing why we shouldn’t actually be here, let me offer the following:

1) It should never have been this close. Alistair Darling is fond of saying that he warned people it would go “down to the wire”. If, indeed, Darling was planning for a tight race then he has got this campaign wrong, strategically, from the very start. The aim should have been a thumping victory to close the issue down for good and avoid the so-called “neverendum”. If devolution in 1998 has given nearly half of Scots a taste for full independence just 15 years later, what sort of ratchet effect will “devo max” have on Scottish voters’ identity and sense of otherness in a few years’ time? If as many as 45 per cent of them vote for independence today, the matter will not rest. Make no mistake; we’ll be back here again within a decade.

2) Westminster should have been alive to the danger much earlier. Since 2010, there have been three secretaries of state for Scotland. Each of them, Danny Alexander, Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael are Liberal Democrats. And each of them has been asleep at the wheel. The role should have been used to help counter the SNP’s advance in the Scottish Parliament. (It would be fascinating to see the Secretary of State’s diary entries between 2010 and 2014 because so little of value to this campaign seems to have been achieved in that time). Carmichael, especially, should have been galvanising the Cabinet to tee-up a more considered “devo max” offer much earlier, or, indeed, have that option put on the ballot paper.

3) The Tories have not delivered. Despite David Cameron’s heartfelt please to Scots in recent days, his party’s meltdown in Scotland in recent decades has meant that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has, incongruously, had limited purchase in this debate. That said, despite only having a single MP, half a million Scots still voted Conservative at the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections. Tory strategists should have spent the last few years cultivating this base and their party’s organisation for this very moment. Unfortunately, David Cameron’s detoxification of his party never included a meaningful attempt to regain a foothold in Scotland. (This is presumably why he surrendered the Scottish Office to the Lib Dems). (more…)

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The shadow of Northern Ireland looms over the last days of the referendum campaign

09/09/2014, 07:55:52 AM

by Kevin Meagher

There’s a fascinating essay in the current Demos Quarterly that looks at the various ethnicities in modern Scotland and how these cultural identities may impact on next Thursday’s vote on independence.

The study, written by Richard Webber from the Department of Geography at Kings College London and former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Philips, draws particular attention to the reaction of ethnically Irish Catholics in Scotland.

The authors reveal that it was much to their “surprise” that “the strongest majority support for independence was not among ‘pure’ historic Scots, but among people of Irish Catholic descent”.

Given Irish Catholic-heritage voters support Labour “more consistently than any other group in Scotland” why are many of them ignoring the party’s entreaties that we’re “Better Together” and opting for independence? As the authors point out:

“When one considers that electors from the same cultural heritage form the backbone of the Sinn Fein vote in West Belfast, this rejection of Labour’s position can be interpreted as a visceral opposition to the Union, to the Tory establishment and to Westminster. Thus ‘Yes’ voters among this group are likely to have very different motivations and to be expressing very different identities than the typical voter with an English or Welsh name; in fact they are supporting independence for the same reasons that they support Labour, a historic sense of oppression. What is significant is that the appeal of independence is driven more strongly by cultural and political considerations than socio-economic ones.”

Our middle class Westminster political and media elite, so utterly bewildered at the turn of events in recent days, simply don’t understand the power of identity and historical grievance in driving working class politics north of the border. (This is, of course, why none of them cares much about what goes on in Northern Ireland).

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Tenacious, principled, and effective, Jim Dobbin fought for the marginalised and forgotten

07/09/2014, 08:36:35 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Truly, Jim Dobbin was one of Parliament’s nice guys. A quiet and genial man, he was also a principled and effective Member of Parliament and tireless campaigner. His sad death today at 73, while on a Council of Europe trip to Poland, is a huge loss to a range of issues and causes that could always count on Jim as a reliable supporter.

A coal miner’s son from Fife, Jim was a committed Catholic and, as Ed Miliband has noted, his faith informed every aspect of his politics.

As chairman of the all-party pro-life group, Jim nailed his colours firmly to the mast on all the most contentious issues; abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriage. He pursued what he believed in tenaciously, but respectfully towards those he disagreed with.

The news section of his website tells its own tale: Gaza, better palliative care, audio-visual facilities on buses for blind and partially-sighted people, better cancer awareness, support for those with dementia, help for the disabled. Jim was pro-life is the very widest sense of the term.

Indeed, like all the best backbenchers, he was an active campaigner on overlooked issues. Whether it was championing better polio immunisation for children in Syria, or calling for an annual Windrush Day to remember the contribution of the first-generation Caribbean community, Jim Dobbin took an interest in the marginalised and forgotten.

As a lobbyist, I dealt with him on many occasions and my abiding impression of him was as a wise, kind and unfailing courteous man. But like all softly-spoken Scots in Labour politics, there was steel there too. Quiet and modest, but tough and wily with it.

I once sat in his constituency office trying to persuade Jim to back a controversial wind farm project. He smiled as he explained why there was no chance of him backing it, but helpfully went through how the scheme could be improved. His advice was gratefully received.

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We need a dose of PR to improve our municipal one-party states

04/09/2014, 01:47:35 PM

by Kevin Meagher

One of the unremarked parts of Alexis Jay’s shocking report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham was her finding that the council’s scrutiny function had completely failed to do its job.

As in so many areas where a single party dominates the electoral landscape (Labour has 49 out of 63 seats on Rotherham council), responsibility for keeping tabs on the decisions of the council falls to councillors of the same party. The problem with this arrangement should be obvious enough.

Labour has controlled the town for 80 years. Even a bruising by-election campaign back in 2012, when it’s MP, Denis MacShane, was sent to jail for fiddling his expenses, did little to stop the Labour juggernaut, with current Labour MP, Sarah Champion, slotting in as his replacement.

It’s worth considering, however, that the Conservatives received 9.5 per cent of the votes back in June’s local elections, but won nothing for their trouble. ‘That’s how it works’ comes the unsympathetic reply, but the uncomfortable fact remains that big majorities in politics seldom create better administrations.

Rather than producing strong, outward-looking leaders who need to compete to succeed, stacking-up large majorities can result in fiefs run by complacent, inward-looking political hacks instead.

The effort needed to manage a large group absorbs political energy. Stymieing internal dissent becomes a preoccupation. There are only so many top jobs to gift to people, so cliques form. Back-biting begins. Fixing becomes a necessity.

In the interests of administrative efficiency, electoral fairness and voter engagement, a bit of competition can mix things up.

This is where the impulse of any political party to hoover-up seats and dominate all it surveys intersects messily with the need for good government and political plurality.

However, rather than try to remedy the situation with a move to full-blown proportional representation, which would shatter the valuable link between politician and local community, there is a simple hybrid reform to level the playing field a bit that could be applied to larger, three-member ward unitary councils.

Two seats in each ward should be contested on the usual first-past-the-post system with the remaining third of council seats allotted on the basis of parties’ share of the vote across the borough. (In Rotherham, this would leave the Tories with six seats out of sixty-three).

This would be fairer, energise the local political culture, create some useful political competition and lead to better scrutiny of council decisions. At the very least, it would force governing parties to up their game.

After all, Rotherham shows us what happens when that doesn’t happen.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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“Better Together” is turning into David Miliband’s campaign for the Labour leadership

03/09/2014, 07:00:35 PM

by Kevin Meagher

There’s an air of inevitability about the poll showing Alex Salmond’s Yes campaign is potentially just inches away from victory in the Scottish referendum, hitting a new high of 47 per cent. To those of us watching from the outside, the No team doesn’t seem to have any clear message, other than, well we’re “better together”.

It’s a complacent, technocratic, flat-pack Westminster standard affair. A combination of convoluted arguments about the currency – which must leave most voters cold – and the usual student politics-level stuff looking to exploit perceived gaffes. All sadly predictable and all tragically inadequate, given the way the polls are moving.

Despite their massively lopsided advantages, the No campaign’s money, organisation and establishment support are counting for little against a lesser-equipped but better motivated Yes campaign with a simple proposition.

When have we seen this happen before in our recent political history? Ah yes, the 2010 Labour leadership election. In essence, the No campaign has become a carbon copy of David Miliband’s bid to become Labour leader. An earnest, top-down effort to make the voters listen to sense and political reality, with a brusque appeal to ignore the romantic, siren voices.

Like David Miliband, the Yes campaign has the same air of presumption about the outcome. The same inability to make superior assets count. The same patrician stuffiness. The same underestimation of the opposition.

Just as David Miliband was disastrously pigeon-holed as the “heir to Blair”, so, too, the No campaign can’t seem to shake off the accusation that it’s a front operation for the business-as-usual Westminster elite. This is unfair, but it’s an accusation that sticks, given the leaders of the three main Westminster parties are effectively neutered because of their Englishness and privileged backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Labour is paying the price of fielding a B-team in Scotland for the past decade, allowing Salmond to wipe the floor with the local political class who simply aren’t in his league. Also, the famous (and often parodied) remark that Ed Miliband “speaks human” could equally be applied to Salmond.

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