Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Sharon Shoesmith, David Nicholson, BBC Execs: rewarding failure is now endemic

Rewarding failure is something we’re getting very good at in this country. At the height of the crash in 2008 eye-watering bonuses paid to discredited bank bosses symbolised all that was wrong with extreme laissez faire capitalism. We bailed out the banks, and in turn they thanked us by bailing out their own. To the sum of millions.

Recent years the spotlight has shone on the public sector and on the failings of those at the top. Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of Haringey children’s services, who oversaw the department at the time of the Baby P scandal, has walked away with compensation believed to be around £600,000. Compensation that is for what she saw as her unfair dismissal. She was reportedly after a cool £1million.
Of course she didn’t actually kill one year-old Peter Connelly, but time after time people working under her spectacularly failed even to administer the most basic duties of care. They were there to protect vulnerable children, report any warning signs, and they didn’t. Miss Shoesmith was their boss. Rather than resign with good grace and a heartfelt apology, she felt hard done by. Scapegoated. As head, everyone was answerable to her. She clearly believed she was answerable to nobody.

Sir David Nicholson, the man at the top when the Mid Staffs hospital scandal occurred. For two years he led the strategic healthy authority that oversaw Stafford hospital. A hospital where up to 1,200 people needlessly died after appalling standards of care. Neglect doesn’t even begin to describe how some of the patients were treated. His reward? He’s gone on to become chief executive of NHS England with a salary (including bonuses) just shy of £300,000. When he leaves next March he’ll do so with a £2million pension pot.
George Entwistle, BBC DG for all of 54 days, resigned last November following a disastrous Newsnight report which led to former Tory Treasurer Lord McApline being wrongly accused of child abuse, with the latter’s name and reputation kicked in the dirt for weeks after. Entwistle quit £450,000 richer, on a full year’s salary, rather than the six months he should have got.

It seems that for those in charge taking responsibility no longer applies in any literal sense, but up to a point. When things get hard, all sense of authority conveniently withers away as those at the top make their excuses. As long as they walk away, handsomely remunerated, resigning isn’t really such a big deal anymore.
HS2: Labour are playing games with the government. And enjoying it.

Labour must be enjoying themselves with this HS2 lark. In government they were the brains behind it. In opposition they’ve been for it, sort of for it, wary of it, and now both for or against it depending on which Shadow Cabinet member you speak to. We’re told Ed Miliband is still behind it, but Ed Balls has done everything except pull the plug on Labour’s backing.
As David Cameron admitted, this monster of a project can only succeed with cross-party support. With every caveat imposed by the opposition, the likelihood of it ever getting built gets smaller by the speech.

Labour are well aware that they don’t want to be seen to be anti-business or anti-growth, but they shouldn’t worry. HS2 takes a beating from business leaders on a monthly basis. Opposing it makes economic and business sense.
My feeling is that Miliband is waiting for a moment when he senses the government may be vulnerable, and then be ready to pounce. Shortly after their drubbing at next year’s European elections might do the trick.

It’s indicative of the mess of HS2 that Labour can no longer give it their unconditional backing. And hardly surprising. The last thing they want is this untamed beast waiting for them should they find themselves in government in 18 months’ time.
Energy Prices: Labour still have the best answer

Realistic or not, likely to ever be enacted or not, Labour’s energy price freeze still reverberates around Westminster. The government’s response so far has consisted of telling people to switch suppliers. To who? Now we know they’re all as bad as each other. And expressing its disappointment at the big sixes’ outrageous price hikes. The environment’s now getting it in the neck. Green levies singled out.
Fortunately for Labour, a whopping 80% of the public back their energy stance - who on earth in the poll opposed lower energy bills? Unfortunately for Labour, only 41% think Ed Miliband would carry it through if he became PM. I wouldn’t worry too much though, Ed. The public have long stopped trusting pledges made by any party leader.

This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 30th October 2013

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Forget the swingers. Miliband is staking all on his core vote strategy

You have to admire Ed Miliband. Most would be desperate to rid themselves of the “Red Ed” tag. He seems to take it in his stride. In fact, I think he quite likes it. Being to the left of the public doesn’t seem to faze him. It spurs him on. The public don’t know what’s good for them. He’ll drag them to his way of thinking even if it kills him.

Before his speech, I did my usual “10 things I hope to hear” on Twitter bit. Two were answered. Partly. Number 1: to spell out how he’d help people struggling with the cost of living. And number 9: “two shamefully populist policies.”  I got half my wish on this one.
Whatever the energy companies say, however loudly they protest (the “unreliable witnesses” as Ed has called them), this one will be warmly welcomed by all voters. Whether it stands up in the face of scrutiny, time will tell. We should know once the Tory attack dogs are out in force and the PM’s had his go at conference.

The second – lowering the voting age – reeks of pub politics. A few pals get together down their local and thrash out some raw ideas about how they intend to capture the youth vote. This probably makes most people’s top five. Personally, I’m undecided on this issue, but if pushed, would say that 16 just seems too young to be allowed to vote. Yes, you can die for your country, but only with parental consent.
I was at conference last year (my first) and thought Ed delivered a quite brilliant speech. His attacks on the coalition were down to a tee. I watched this year’s online, and in order to ensure any opinions weren’t polluted by minute by minute commentary on Twitter, turned all social media off. Without having time to gauge the politicos’ instant reactions, my first thoughts were that the Ed I saw last year was an Ed at the peak of his powers. This year’s was an excellent performance: accomplished, smooth, self-deprecating (something Ed is very good at), but one for the activists.

This wasn’t the speech of a future prime minister, but of a Labour leader who bit by bit is remaking the party in his image. Members, supporters, councillors (who seem to be disproportionally on the party’s left wing) lapped it up. This was the Ed they voted for, Blairism and New Labour has been extinguished once and for all.
Ed Miliband is clearly staking everything on winning his core vote, hoping grumbly Liberals fall in line, and that UKIP do their worst to the Cameroons. It’s a huge risk, but a calculated one. Ed is used to taking risks. This is the thing I admire about him. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll pay off. Ignore the daily opinion polls. The only poll this year worth paying any attention to was the local election results in May. Labour won 29% of the vote. As they did at the last general election. In three years, they’ve stood still. Time and again it is worth repeating: Labour’s traditional base are an unreliable lot.

Ed knows this too. That was why the Lib Dems got only one mention. There’s no point being too nasty. Many Labour voters want blood. But, in 2015 they’re going to need their yellow friends. As a best case scenario.
The reaction this morning to the energy freeze proposals was to be expected. But, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of economic populism as David Clark over at Shifting Grounds calls it:

“The remarkable thing about these measures is that while both of them [the second, directed at landowners, asking them to either build on or give up empty land] will be attacked by opponents as a lurch to the left, they will nevertheless prove hugely popular with the public.”  
In this respect David Clark is right. The public remain stubborn ‘small c’ conservatives, but retain a mischievous left wing streak. Most would renationalise the railways tomorrow if they could.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of easy populism. I’ve been pleading to see more of it. The odd tough on crime measure would be nice.
What Ed’s speech has shown is that he has pretty much abandoned trying to woo the swing voter. He obviously thinks they won’t be necessary. He may still capture the ex Lib Dems, but after yesterday’s showing he’ll be able to count on the backing of disgruntled Tories on one hand.

I was pleased to see the environment getting a mention and a nod to one million green jobs, however unrealistic this appears. Green issues have been scandalously sidelined by this government. Short termism always wins the day.
The passages on Murdoch and the NHS shamelessly played to the gallery. I’m afraid I thought some of his comments on the NHS were ill judged. This has not been a good year for health professionals. Whether you believe the coalition wish to privatise the hell out of the NHS or not, shouldn’t detract from recent or past cases of negligence and appalling standards of care that have made headlines.

The reaction by GPs at being told they should work out of hours and on weekends in return for their ample salary has been unedifying. Miliband was right that Labour resuscitated the NHS, but the needlessly overgenerous salaries to GPs and consultants is evidence of money not well spent when times were good.

I’m getting increasingly irritated by the “We Love the NHS” mantra that all Labour supporters feel we must chant ad nauseum. The NHS is a vital institution that needs to be preserved. It does some things extremely well, and others not so. It is not beyond criticism. A little humility for scandals such as Mid-Staffs, which happened on Labour’s watch, wouldn’t go amiss.
My overall worry is that this speech will keep the status-quo as it is. Those who loved it were going to vote Labour anyway. Those unsure of Ed Miliband may have been impressed by his delivery, his warmth, but still scratching their heads as to why they should vote for him. Decent guy, likeable guy, they would have thought, but my future PM? Unlikely.

Again, this leaves us as we were, but now three and a half years on.
What Ed’s performance did do was convince me further that Labour must do all they can to push for the leaders’ debates on TV. I think Ed will come out of them well. This will be essential floating voter territory. A couple more populist ideas are a must. Think public transport and those weary commuters in the South-East. Their votes are sorely needed. Or maybe not, if yesterday is anything to go by.

This comment piece was first published on Labour Uncut on Wednesday 25th September 2013

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Enough weasel words and deflection. Time for Twitter to stand up for the women abused on its own site.

Imagine how you’d feel after taking on one of Britain’s most powerful organisations. And won. Elated, delirious, vindicated. Now imagine how you’d feel if less than 24 hours later - still basking in the warm glow of having made a difference - you were subject to a sustained campaign of online abuse.

Abuse that ranges from the sexist to the outright threatening. We’re not talking about a few nasty comments. We’re not even talking about things which are offensive or even downright cruel. Not even the work of a few pathetic trolls with nothing better to do with their time than wind somebody up. No, this is much worse.  The abuse that the indefatigable Caroline Criado-Perez has received -  moments after she succeeded in getting the Bank of England to perform the u-turn of all u-turns in ensuring a woman will continue to grace England’s bank notes – is something no person would ever want to be privy to.
Not just the misogyny, (an inevitable consequence of being politically active and a woman. Heaven forbid) but the sexual abuse. The threats of rape, of other forms of sexual violence. Spurred on by others of a similar sick mindset, these people hunt in packs. They pick their latest victim and unleash a tide of the most hideous and twisted abuse.

Women being targeted and threatened with all manner of abuse is of course nothing new. The internet and social media has given these perpetrators the notoriety and platform some of them crave.
So, what are people like Caroline and many many other women like her supposed to do in response? The answer is simple: nothing. They shouldn’t have to do anything. It shouldn’t be up to victims to have to badger (for want of a better word) Twitter, and its collection of directors, to take action. They should be doing something already. It’s not good enough to fob women off and tell them to report the abuse to the police. Yes, the police need to act too, but they will inevitably have to work in conjunction with Twitter. Twitter holds the details of all its users, their email addresses, it monitors their tweets.

It’s about time big organisations acknowledged their responsibility and yes, a duty of care, to its users, and those subjected to campaign after campaign of abuse. Too often very rich CEOs hide away pleading impotence. We’ll suspend their account. Temporarily. This seems to be the best they’re willing to do. But, it’s not enough.  It’s not nearly enough. Many of these people are breaking the law. You are not allowed to threaten people in “real life.” If the laws of libel are the same offline as they are online, this must surely apply to the above.
Twitter needs to permanently disable these users’ accounts and ensure that any attempt to set up another (many online abusers operate from multiple accounts) from the same email address, even better from the same computer, is similarly declined.

Yesterday, I sent Caroline a message advising she took a break from Twitter. If only to preserve her own sanity and not have to read anymore of this stuff. In response she said: “nope, not backing down. This is the last time a woman puts up with this.” I instantly felt bad, and a bit stupid for what I’d said. Said with the best of intentions, but probably a little insensitive, because I knew Caroline was right. Why should she be the one who hides away and is driven from Twitter?  As she says, time to stand up to these people and time to stand up to Twitter.
There’s also part of me that takes the “don’t feed the trolls” approach. I don’t mean not responding to their abuse, but not retweeting it. These people love the publicity. Some of them get off on it. No doubt, literally. Retweeting it alerts their fellow abusers who use it as a chance to re-double their efforts. But I completely understand why people do retweet. If only to draw attention to the threats, show other people that they are not alone, and in the (vague) hope that Twitter and/or the police do something.

Incredibly, Caroline had her own account temporarily suspended by Twitter. For having the audacity to bring her users’ attention to what she was having to put up with. Whilst the abusers had free rein to continue. The logic of blaming the rape victim for going out and daring to wear a short skirt in public. Rather than tackle the abusers head on, Twitter reverted to self-preservation: its reputation meant silencing the abused. When Caroline alerted Twitter’s manager of news and journalism, rather than offer to help, he locked his account so only people he followed could communicate with him.
Part of me would like to see an end to anonymity on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. I’d extend that to people leaving comments on newspapers online and blogs. I realise some choose the anonymity to protect themselves. Unfortunately others use it to say things they may not have had the guts to say without the mask.

It’s important that male users of forums like Twitter stand up in solidarity with women having to face this torrent of abuse on an almost daily basis. Yes, men sometimes find themselves on the receiving end, but it’s nothing compared to what women have to put up with. I know several who have been scared away from contributing to blogs or any online conversations due to the experience of others. But, we can only do so much.
Most critically, it’s time for Twitter, like Facebook before it, to get a grip with what’s being written on its site. Weasel words, deflecting responsibility, cowering behind the police won’t do. You control the site. You pull the strings. You can pull the plug. You have a moral duty to protect all of your users.  Get the names of all those who abuse women, who threaten to rape and do other unspeakable things to them, and work with the police to ensure they receive the maximum possible punishment. Because women like Caroline aren’t going anywhere sometime soon.  And nor should they.

This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Saturday 27th July 2013

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The case for open primaries grows stronger by the scandal

Labour’s Unite shenanigans (see today’s Times (£), and comments on Unite and GMB influence over selections here, here (£) and here) have further convinced me (if I ever needed convincing), that open primaries are the best way to ensure we have an open and transparent system when selecting parliamentary candidates. Let’s go the whole hog and have it in place when selecting candidates for local elections too. But let’s start with Westminster and work our way backwards.
Candidates are selected and then fight to become elected representatives. If you’re lucky enough to be fighting in a safe seat, you can be guaranteed to be stuck on the Green Benches for as long as you like. Even complacency or laziness won’t stop you getting re-elected. Electing an MP is a big deal. Everyone with an interest (or without) should be given the chance to have their say.
David Cameron signalled his desire for primaries in opposition. In 2009, he was a strong advocate, describing them as “an exciting opportunity.” The Coalition Agreement vowed:
“We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years."
But, the election of the outspoken and refreshing newbie in 2010, Dr Sarah Wollaston, via an open primary, has probably seen the government shelve plans for any more. Why? Because it could, heaven help us, lead to more independent-minded MPs.
MPs who dare to criticise their own parties. MPs who believe that their duty first and foremost is to represent their constituents, and not to climb the greasy ministerial poll. MPs who won’t be cowed into silence, or bullied by the whips.
Surely, we should be encouraging such people into politics? Not those who seem to revel in losing all sense of identity once they walk into the Commons.
Here are five reasons why all political parties and the public should embrace open primaries:
1.      An open, transparent and corrupt-free system for all to see. No more closed door hustings where only a couple of hundred party members (if you’re lucky) get to make such an important decision.
2.      Voting open to all (party members, members of other parties, and members of none), would boost overall voter turnout. Knowing they had a say in selecting a candidate (from each party) is a sure fire way of reinvigorating the democratic process.
3.      Challenge the dangerous notion of the safe seat. Candidates would have to work for their votes and not rely on people voting for them simply because other candidates don’t stand a chance of winning.
4.      Someone selected by people from all political backgrounds (and none) would have had to have had broad appeal to win. Rather than just parroting bog-standard party lines, or slamming the opposition without even thinking, they’d have to show they were someone prepared to listen to and take on a wide spectrum of views. This is what representing your constituents actually means.
5.      They would encourage a different sort of candidate to put his/her name forward, which would give us a more diverse system. Diverse in the sense of views, and not just of gender or colour, for example.
The only thing we have to fear from primaries are voters. Lots of them. And that’s a good thing.
This post first appeared on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 3rd July 2014

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

MPs already well paid? No, they’re not paid enough

Let’s be honest, there never will be a good time for MPs to get a pay rise. The public would rather see their pay fall than rise. The expenses scandal was the final nail in the coffin for most. Any remaining shreds of sympathy gone. Although I’m inclined to agree with what Labour MP Tom Harris has on his Twitter bio: “MPs are hated; always have been, always will be. C'est la vie.”
And he’s probably right. MPs could work for free and it still wouldn’t be good enough. At least they tried to detoxify the issue of MPs setting their own pay by passing on this responsibility to the Commons expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
Fat lot of good that did. As Harris notes:

“People initially liked the idea of an independent body doing the job, but not if their independent decisions were going to include giving MPs a big pay hike.”

It does make you wonder what kind of people run the IPSA. According to their website: In everything we do, we focus on our main duty; to serve the interests of the public.” The IPSA hasn’t yet officially come out and recommended MPs get a £10,000 pay rise, and even if they were to go back on their verdict (unlikely), the damage has already been done.
As argued on this site yesterday, how on earth can we justify pay increases of 1% on public sector workers, whilst the (mostly) men and women who impose them walk away with a 15% increase? In 2013, we can’t.
But, let’s stop for a moment and look at the salary paid to the IPSA’s chair, Sir Ian Kennedy: remunerated the handsome sum of£700 a day for a 3 day week. For simplicity’s sake, assuming he’s paid for all 52 weeks a year, this equates to a salary of £109,200. Considerably more than MPs currently get, and still greater than they’d receive even with their inflated pay rise.
Are we really saying that the man charged with cleaning up parliament should be paid that much more than the folk who sit in it and decide how our schools and health service is run, or how best to tackle crime and protect us from terrorist attacks? This is before we get on to what are undoubtedly healthy sums paid to the IPSA’s Director of Communications and its other PR and Marketing bods.
Top civil servants, head teachers, GPs, anyone who’s a big cheese in the private sector, are all paid salaries that dwarf that of your average backbench MP. The issue isn’t that MPs are paid too much, it’s that they aren’t paid enough.
Critics (i.e. most of us) will point out that they’re privileged to be doing the job they do. Even if they’re hated for doing it. And they are in a wonderfully unique position. Working in the corridors of power must be a thrilling feeling. I know one MP, who lost their seat in 2005, who says that on an almost weekly basis they lament the fact that they’ll never be privy to such a life again.
As things stand, it’d be wrong for MPs to get a pay rise above that handed down to the rest of the public sector, even though they deserve one. Pay restraint looks to be with us for a generation.
Talk of MPs’ expenses is fraught with danger, but there are certain expenses that are integral to an MP. We should look at increasing the budget they have for paying staff. At present, London-based MPs receive £144,000 a year and those based outside the capital get £137,200. Individual salaries are at an MP’s discretion although there are agreed pay scales as guidance. Wages can vary between £16-25,000, sometimes more, based on experience and expertise. If for argument sake, a London MP employed six full-time staff, he/she could only afford to pay them £24,000, well short of the city’s average salary. A recent study found that Londoners need to be earning £38,000 just to be able to afford to rent a one bedroom flat.
Of course MPs don’t divvy up staff salaries in equal amounts. Many hire part-time staff; some rely on (paid and unpaid) internships and volunteers. £144,000 may sound like a large figure but it won’t get you very far when split between four or six people. Non-London MPs get even less to pay staff at Westminster and in their constituencies. Naturally, their staff in London can expect to be paid more, meaning less is available for constituency employees.
MPs work stupid hours. They’re rarely not working. Life in politics plays havoc with personal relationships. One out of every six Tory MPs elected in 2010 has split from a partner or seen their marriage breakdown.
There is no job description. They just keep on going until they drop. In some cases, sadly, literally. They need more support. In the current climate, there’s no way they’re going to get their 15% pay rise. Increasing the amount of paid help they get would be a decent compromise.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Tuesday 2nd July 2013

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

By accepting Tory spending cuts, Labour will be left to fight the election with its Achilles’ heel: Ed Miliband.

The thing that makes us politicos a little different from everyone else (i.e. normal folk) is our ability to fight the charge that “they’re all the same.” On the radio, on TV, on the doorstep, such words never tire. Mainly used as an attack on politicians, it could equally be applied to the lack of policy distinction between parties. Never mind it being tiring to hear, it’s tiring to defend, because it’s getting harder to do.

Labour has spent the last few weeks back on planet earth. After a three year detour on Planet Unelectable, and its belief that the Crash has moved the world left, they’re back where they started. That is, back in the early days of Blairism. In other words, more where voters are, and not where they’d like them to be.  
Steve Richards, one of our finest political pundits, acknowledged last week that the reason leading Blairites remain such a cheerful bunch is because “they and their ideas have ruled for decades.” Cameron’s welfare reforms continue where Blair left off, except the PM is unencumbered by leftist opposition, with a whopping deficit as the justification that keeps on giving.  All the more remarkable considering the coalition government isn’t the handicap it could and should have been.
Whether he believes it or not, whether he wants to or not, Ed Miliband has found himself accepting the Tory narrative on austerity. Of course things are never that clear cut with the Labour leader. What he says in a “keynote speech” one minute often ends up as undecipherable waffle in subsequent interviews.  The words blood and stone spring to mind when trying to get a clear commitment one way or another.
Labour hasn’t signed up to every Tory cut, but it’s the ones it has signed up to that reveal the direction the party is now heading. So, what does that mean for voters and how does this affect Labour? Four things seem obvious.
First, all of Labour’s anti-austerity posturing has come to nothing. The government has repeated its ‘there is no alternative’ rhetoric ad nauseam. Its repetition has paid off. Second, Labour will struggle to put clear water between itself and the Tories. Of course it will try to spend the next two years doing just that, whilst inadvertently encroaching on their patch.
Which leads us on to point three and ‘they’re all the same’ territory. Labour’s sudden change of heart may be the right thing to do in terms capturing swing voters, but this group are notoriously hard to pin down with regards to voting intention, hence the swing bit. Why vote for austerity-lite when you can have the real thing they’ll be asking themselves? If Labour are moving towards the government’s position, the latter must be doing something right.
Ironically, what might work in grabbing new voters may also work in turning old ones away. One could be forgiven for mistaking Labour’s core vote and non-voters as one and the same thing. Both unreliable bellwethers of public opinion, and both easily turned off from the political process.  This will do nothing to convince them “they” are not in fact all the same.
Fourthly, and most disastrously for Labour: in accepting Tory spending cuts, the next election comes down to a battle of Dave vs. Ed. The very thing Labour want to avoid. The one constant about Ed Miliband’s leadership is that he remains his party’s Achilles’ heel. It’s hard to see how he can win a head to head with David Cameron. The threat of Ed at number 10 will be enough for the hordes of Ukippers to come racing back to Dave. Miliband would be well advised to kick up a very public fuss about the TV leaders’ debate and Cameron’s attempts to squirm out of them. This could be his best (and only) chance to shine in front of millions of voters, many of them undecided.
Behind the curve on welfare and the economy Labour have been left with little choice. Miliband may have won plaudits for taken on powerful interest groups and pleas for a different sort of capitalism, but he’s always been speaking to the wrong people. These subjects are too academic, too dry and too broad to resonate with the average voter. He has less than two years to reassure that ‘they’re not all the same.’ Belatedly embracing austerity means he has little room for manoeuvre.
This comment piece was first published by The Commentator on Tuesday 25th June 2013.

Friday, 31 May 2013

“Check your privilege:” from the people who brought you cultural relativism

I usually make it a rule not to get caught up in debates on topics I know little about. For one, everyone likes to think they can ‘win’ an argument. We all suffer from self-delusion on occasion. Second, you risk looking like a fool when you run out of things to say. Hence, not a bad rule to stick to.

And so a couple of months ago I stumbled across one such debate - if you can call it that where social media is concerned - on Twitter. Helen Lewis, New Statesman’s deputy editor and witty Twitterer, was facing a barrage of abuse from a number of (predominantly) women about a short piece she’d written on “perfection in language.”
The main thrust of her argument was that certain contemporary feminists have become unhealthily obsessed with language to the distraction of almost everything else. In fact, her point wasn’t just confined to feminism.

I found myself nodding furiously in agreement as Lewis highlighted the utter futility of attempts to police language, and for some to decide what is and isn’t acceptable discourse:
“Ruthlessly stripping every potentially problematic phrase from your language is utterly impossible in practice. I’ve seen people try: they contort their prose into long, rambling sub-clauses, strings of acronyms and neologisms. And by refusing to use any word or formulation that anyone, anywhere might object to, they make their writing unreadable by everyone.

“There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it.”
Various Twitter exchanges saw Helen attacked from a number of “IFs.” That’s Intersectional Feminist to you and me. Essentially, a group of feminists who believe that in order for one’s theory (or world view) to be valid, it needs to recognise – through language, amongst other things - the lived experience of other marginalised groups who may intersect with one another. The white liberal feminist ignores the oppression of the black, disabled, transgender one, at her peril. You get the picture. Although I’d believe you more if you said you didn’t. Few do.

The phrase now commonly used to berate someone who has failed to include other oppressed groups in their thinking is “check your privilege.” An irritating phrase at that.
Yesterday, Louise Mensch took on the enticing challenge of exposing “CYP” for the reductionist nonsense that it is.

“CYP” is basically an exercise in semantics which leaves feminism (and other theories) with almost no meaning. Most crucially, it gets you nowhere, except caught up in a game of linguistic gymnastics which never ends.
It’s not just something one finds in feminist circles. Anyone, anywhere, risks having their ‘privilege checked,’ should they be so bold as to utter a word or two about any topic, no matter how mundane.

Dan Hodges wrote an amusing tale of his own privilege checking, and liked what he saw. Well, he would wouldn’t he?!
By the end of yesterday, we were all at it. I even wondered whether there was some sort of league table with its own points system. From the very oppressed heading the pack, to the too privileged by half, facing the threat of relegation. One point for being a ‘PoC’ (person of colour. Keep up), two for being a ‘WoC’ (yep, you guessed it. Woman of colour.) With bonus points up for grabs depending on sexuality and disability. You’d probably be on minus points if you fall into the male, white, middle class category.

Tragically, that’s me. Until it dawned on me that I’m also Jewish. A proud member of one of the most oppressed groups in history. Privilege check mate.  But, then I realised that lefties don’t regard Jews as oppressed minorities. Pesky Israel always gets in the way, and some of the stereotypes about Jews must have some grain of truth, surely? Look at Hollywood and the world’s media. I was back on minus points again.
The thing that’s most struck me about all this is how much it bears the hallmarks of the very people who brought you moral and cultural relativism: the postmodernist lobby. There is no one set, accepted, view of the world. No right or wrong, but a collection of opinions, each as valid as the other. Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.

The “CYP” brigade may claim they’re not trying to censor to debate, but merely asking us to be aware of where we’re coming from in time and place. I have no qualms with trying to empathise with others. Understanding that some of us live very different, and yes difficult, lives, is basic humanity. This is a good thing.
But, this need to pick people up on every word and phrase that leaves their mouth, because their language has (inadvertently) offended or excluded is counterproductive in the extreme. Trying to create a world of words that pleases everybody is destined to fail and will only do what the privilege checkers and intersectionalists set about hoping to avoid. A world where only a select few can join and even fewer understand. 

This comment piece was first published by The Commentator on Friday 31sth May 2013

Friday, 17 May 2013

Can boredom explain the Tories’ rebellious class of 2010?

Maybe it’s the logical result of being in coalition, or maybe it’s a sign of David Cameron’s diminishing authority, but the Conservative’s class of 2010 has helped keep this parliament lively and unpredictable. It’s also provided us with a lot of fun. The government can’t seem to do anything without another rebel emerging from the shadows.

Fierce euroscepticism of course explains some of their behaviour, with Europe causing hyperactivity like no other issue. But, could there be another, unspoken, simpler reason?
According to The Economist’s Bagehot, many of the 2010 intake feel neglected and underused. Overlooked for promotion, partly due to the constraints of coalition, they’ve been left with little to do, expect be a nuisance, with Europe the obvious cause to take their frustrations out on:

“The 2010 Tory intake was among the biggest in parliamentary history and excited high hopes. Its members were diverse and included high-flyers from business and academia.
“There was talk of such talents reinvigorating Tory policy, bolstering David Cameron’s standing within his party and restoring trust in politicians. Many began vigorously, starting research groups, joining select committees and blogging and tweeting like anything. But now they are stuck.
“Only a few of the new crop have been given junior ministerial jobs: mostly those—such as Nick Boles and Matthew Hancock—with long-standing ties to Mr Cameron and his coterie. Far from bolstering the prime minister’s authority, the rest have proved exceptionally mutinous.

“Overlooked for promotion, and in the rebels’ case unofficially barred, many of the brightest 2010ers are now demoralised.”

A report out this week by Nottingham University revealed that of the 148 Conservatives who have voted against the Prime Minister since the general election, 90, or 85%, have come from the 2010 cohort.

Independent-minded MPs, those without a “filter,” as Nadine Dorries would put it, are a refreshing and much needed change from the clones we were subjected to under the last government. Who wants to hear MP after MP trotting out the party line, when listening to someone off-message is far more enjoyable?

Tim Montgomerie has argued that the class of 2010 could end up being Cameron’s greatest legacy to his party, combining the best of popular and compassionate conservatism. But, it’s their route into parliament that gives us another reason to explain their tetchiness. Montgomerie notes that many are seasoned campaigners:
"One of the other strengths of the 2010 intake is that many have fought two or three elections to win their seats – often emulating the best of the Liberal Democrats’ pavement style of politics.”

Anyone fattened up on a diet of Blairite/Brownite control-freakery could be forgiven for thinking that politics has entered a different era. And in some respects it has. With little chance of ministerial positions, and the odds firmly stacked against a Conservative majority in two years’ time, what is there to lose? Best go out with a bang some might be thinking. At least if a large chunk of the current crop lose their seats, they can hold their heads high and say they did things their way.
But, “benign neglect” is no way to treat backbenchers, cautions Bagehot. The system is broke and needs fixing. Parliament will have to adapt to accommodate future new blood:

“Party bosses are going to have to find backbenchers more meaningful employment. This might involve, for example, beefing up the powers of the select committees to summon witnesses, or encouraging the currently gentle bill committees to give legislation real critical scrutiny. They will also have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to whipping, making it less an exercise in carpeting than in constructive career advice.”
This parliament has already shown what happens when you leave too many MPs unoccupied. Rebelling becomes their only taste of power.  

This comment piece was first published by The New Statesman on Friday 17th May 2013  

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Miliband’s Progress speech was virtually ignored. That’s a worry.

Ed Miliband made a speech over the weekend that literally dozens of people will have read. More were there to see it live. I was one of the former. Opposition leaders make speeches. That’s what they do. That’s what they’re expected to do. Some get labelled as “keynote,” i.e. this is quite important and will probably form the direction of policy X so pay close attention. The leader’s address at Conference fills a few column inches for several days. Either we have a Prime Minister in waiting or it’s back to the drawing board. Saturday’s speech falls into the “strictly for diehards” category.

To sum it up: it wasn’t very good. That’s the charitable conclusion. Being brutally frank, it was actually pretty dire. Or maybe that’s the charitable conclusion. Speaking on Saturday, to the Blairite think-tank Progress (not exactly on home territory for Ed), Miliband said….something. To be honest, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what he said.
It was a hotchpotch of his responsible capitalism vision; the usual to be expected attacks on the government; listening to voters; learning lessons from New Labour – where we got things right, where we got them wrong –  more listening to voters; with sprinklings of One Nationism added for extra flavour.

One Nation: the slogan that just will not budge. Still being drummed home to death. We may have tired of it but we’re not going to forget it. The mark of a successful slogan? Not really. I still don’t understand what it means. Or more accurately, what we’re meant to do with it. Alone, it’s meaningless: Labour has broad appeal. It will unite the whole of Britain.

But, all parties profess to do this. Besides, One Nation fails the “elevator pitch:” able to be summarised in one elevator ride. Which isn’t 100% accurate as I’ve just summed it up in a sentence. Unfortunately, the summary alone is so vague it requires several more elevator rides. Heck, it might be easier just to get in one, hit the emergency alarm, and hope the rescue takes several hours.

I couldn’t help but feel I’d read/heard this speech several times before. Probably because it’s been delivered several times before. Ed’s Conference address last year (rightly hailed a triumph) has been regurgitated more times than should be humanly possible.
One Nation is about everybody having opportunity and having a responsibility to play their part.”

Sounds very Big Society to me.
“A country that acknowledges the difficulties, accepts the anxieties, knows that times are going to be hard, but that is confident that change can come.

“A country that knows that we work best when we work together.”
See above.

“All the lessons of our history, from the industrial revolution to the post-war reconstruction, are that we need a recovery made by the many.”
This is David Cameron speaking.

The best parts of the speech were the references to the government’s failed economics. It wants to cut welfare, it wants to cut the deficit, but its actions on the latter will stop it properly achieving the former:
“For all their rhetoric about welfare reform, for all the cuts they’ve made, this government will be spending more on social security at the end of this Parliament than at the beginning.

“Not because they’re generous.
“But because they haven’t taken the action on the economy and they haven’t created the jobs we need to keep the social security bill down.”

This remains Labour’s best line of attack. Far from healing the economy, the coalition is harming it. Simple, concise and easy to preach.

My main problem with Saturday was that it could have been delivered by either Cameron or Clegg, bar the odd amendment here or there. There’s nothing in it that grabs you. Nothing stands out.

Take a step back. Imagine you were listening to it as a non-Labour member or swing voter. You’d be thinking something along the lines of: “yes, this is all very well and good, but you’re not giving me a convincing case for why should I vote Labour.”

Anthony Painter was probably right when he noted: “The problem with reviewing speeches is that you think they are better than they are if you are there and worse than they are if you are not.”
So, why does it matter that a speech given on a weekend and which barely featured in the media didn’t set the world alight? It matters for this very reason. Not every speech has to have that killer soundbite, but it should at least have one or two ideas that you take away and discuss.

Might it be that the media have also heard this speech several times before and have simply stopped listening? Because if this is the case, and they’ve already concluded that Ed Miliband has nothing new to offer, Labour’s legion of advisers and speechwriters should be very concerned indeed.
Fanciful though it sounds, the media and the public sometimes act as if UKIP are now the official opposition. Time to think of something new to say. And fast.

This article first appeared on Labour Uncut on Tuesday 14th May 2013

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Economy, not UKIP, will decide the next election

It’s probably fair to say that the pundits and anoraks are enjoying events in Westminster far more than the political class. The establishment are getting a kicking by…one of its own. The difference being Nigel Farage does normal, down to earth, far better and with far less effort than either Cameron or Miliband.

The prevailing wisdom on UKIP can be summarised three ways. One: UKIP are here to stay. They will continue to vandalise the political landscape, gobbling up disillusioned Tory voters, and thwarting a Conservative majority in 2015. The right is permanently split.
Two: UKIP are a transitory nuisance. Typical mid-term protest by a chunk of the electorate fed up with the usual suspects. A sizeable number of their supporters will rush back into Cameron’s arms come the election. They’ve made their point, now comes the important stuff, like electing a PM.

Three: UKIP are the latest repository for working class anger. A section of society who feel left behind, bewildered by the modern world, with neither Labour nor the Tories speaking for them. Many will vote Conservative in two years, but many won’t vote at all. They don’t care who’s PM, but given a choice, most prefer Cameron to Miliband.
Points one and three are bad news for the Conservatives. It means another hung parliament, with Miliband the most likely beneficiary. The Conservatives will be praying that theory two comes true, and that enough Ukippers switch back in time.

As a Labour man, standing back and watching the Conservative Party self-combust is always a pleasure. The best leader they’ve had in years, still their greatest asset, the most media-friendly Tory in an age, and yet that’s not enough for some people. Move even further to the right they cry, ignoring the fact that for the last three years the party hasn’t stopped moving.
UKIP satisfy peoples’ anger with immigration and welfare. But, they’re unable to explain the reason for this: the economy. It is, and always will be, the economy. When times are tough people lash out. They want someone to blame for an unforgiving job market and a cost of living reaching unsustainable levels. It’s either the immigrant’s fault or the benefit scrounger at number 32.

UKIP are experts at telling us what’s wrong with Britain and listing all the things they’re against. Not so good at setting out a vision for how to make things better. The economy part of their manifesto doesn’t really matter because they feed off populist hyperbole. Their sums have been taken apart more than once. When asked why they had voted UKIP last week, most just shrugged and said “because.” Asked to name any of their policies: no idea, they responded.
Farage and his motley crew are so transparent it’s embarrassing. But, not as embarrassing as the hysteria they generate. The only way to combat UKIP is to sort out the economy. Taking them on where they feel most at home will only backfire. No party is going to outflank them on immigration. Nor should they try to. No amount of Conservative Euroscepticism can compete with a demand for EU withdrawal. You can’t get more Eurosceptic. Cameron can bang on about a referendum all he likes, but he’ll be hamstrung from day one: he’ll be campaigning to stay in the EU. Those who most demand one do so because they want it to lead to Britain’s eventual exit. Cameron doesn’t.

People can smell authenticity. They know Farage is being sincere when he talks of closing borders and waving goodbye to the EU. Voters don’t buy Cameron’s tough talk. They certainly don’t trust anything Labour says on immigration. Its stance on Europe is as muddled as most of its policy ideas. Labour has gone backwards over the last 9 months or so. The party seems most at ease talking in the abstract.
UKIP can be tackled two ways: take fright and fight back by trying to ‘out-Kip’ them. Or give people a reason to feel positive and hopeful about the future. Only a reversal in the economy’s fortunes can do this.

This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 9th May 2013

Friday, 12 April 2013

BBC caves in with a decision that will please nobody

I do love a story so blown out of proportion that it leaves everyone looking a bit daft. Who would have thought less than a week after the death of Baroness Thatcher, that discussions of her legacy and funeral arrangements would have equal billing with a story about whether a song bought by her haters should be played on the radio?

Only a few weeks ago The Mail and Daily Telegraph were (rightly) railing against state-backed press regulation. Today’s headlines revealed their attempts to interfere with BBC impartiality. The “Ding Dong” song shooting its way up the charts should be pulled on grounds of taste and decency, so the spurious argument went. New Beeb DG, Lord Hall, merely days into his post, probably doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of all this. Not that he’s come out and said such a thing. This is being taken extremely seriously so the official line goes. So seriously in fact that one of his first public acts as DG was taken this afternoon with him deciding that just a few seconds of the song should be aired on Sunday’s chart show. Welcome to the hyper-sensitive BBC.
Today’s Telegraph leads with quotes from former grandees of the Thatcher era and current Tory MPs. The BBC would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty” if the song was aired, friends of Thatcher warned. Sir Gerald Howarth MP, one of her former ministers, with a straight face stated that:

“This is a serious test for Tony Hall. This is the State broadcaster and it has a duty to show good taste and decency, it is still a tradition in our country that we respect the dead.
“People are entitled to consider and debate her record in office, but for the state broadcaster to play this song in these circumstances would be a dereliction of duty and potentially a violation of its charter.

“Playing it would be a very serious dereliction of duty by Tony Hall. This is not just about her family or her friends. The people of this country will be absolutely disgusted if this is what they do.”
Lord McAlpine, on the receiving end of the BBC at its negligent worst, weighed in with this contribution:

“The BBC has got to be balanced in its coverage, it is a matter of taste. In the past, the corporation has always been careful about matters of taste on important occasions.
"They are letting the charts be hijacked for political purposes. I’m absolutely astounded that they are even considering playing it. It’s another example of how out of control the BBC is.”

And John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture Select Committee, told The Daily Mail
"This is an attempt to manipulate the charts by people trying to make a political point. Most people will find that offensive and deeply insensitive, and for that reason it would be better if the BBC did not play it. It's a political act.”

There’s something quite wonderful in accusing a group of people of hijacking the charts for political means, when their own aims were to see the song pulled...for political means. Tragically, I doubt they’ve been able to see their hopeless hypocrisy.
I was hoping to see the BBC have the guts to go ahead and play the wretched song in its entirety, but they’ve caved in to the bullies. These days the BBC is scared of its own shadow and jumps even at the mildest of criticism. There have of course been cases when its judgment has been found badly wanting, sometimes with awful consequences.

Earlier this afternoon, my money was on a messy cop-out, with a compromise that will satisfy nobody. In opting to play five seconds of the song this Sunday - and a brief commentary explaining to its teenage audience who Thatcher actually was! The censoring, then the educating - the BBC has done just that. Pity the BBC. They do their best, even when made to look ridiculous.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 12th April 2013