Some Thoughts On The Coming Election

With a week to go until the General Election, the polls have settled into a stubborn flatline, at least in terms of the relative positions of the two main parties. Thus, superficially, it would seem that everything is still to play for. However one basic truth has been set in stone, probably since the immediate aftermath of the last election, but certainly becoming ever clearer. That is that there is vastly unlikely to be a continued David Cameron premiership after election day. The reason for this is a fundamental but long unremarked upon shift in the polls arising out of the formation of the coalition: the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, primarily benefiting other parties of the left and centre left, including Labour.   The evidence of this in Lord Ascroft’s marginal polling demonstrates the depth of the problems facing the Conservative Party.

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The road to government, either alone or with other parties, consists of three steps. Firstly, and most fundamentally, the leading party must be able to survive a vote of no confidence. On paper this requires 326 of 650 seats, reduced to about 323 by Sinn Fein’s policy of abstentionism. Next, a Government has to pass a budget.   Finally, any functioning government will want to pass legislation. The preponderance of polling evidence suggests that the Conservative party will not be able to muster this level of support, even with the support of the likely handful of returned UKIP MPs; even with the support of unionist MPs from Northern Ireland that received wisdom suggests would naturally fall in line with the right (in reality this is far from certain and Northern Irish MPs of all stripes have pursued an anti-austerity approach during the last parliament). In practice the Conservative party would be reliant on the loyalty of most if not all of the rump of Lib Dem MPs, many of whom lean stubbornly to the left, even to vault the first hurdle of maintaining the confidence of the House, let alone put forward a workable programme of government with this rag-tag coalition of, often, implacably opposing political forces. To make matters worse one of the major remaining variables is how the Liberal Democrats hold up in Conservative facing marginals, with the answer seemingly being, “much better than anywhere else.”   Exactly how this breaks down, will determine how much of a silver lining there is for each party, one way or the other, but it really is a zero some game in terms of coalition forming.

The realisation that these factors have put majority Government out of the Conservatives’ reach, possibly permanently, is reflected in the increasing desperation of the Conservatives’ and their proxies in the press. Yesterday’s Telegraph front page splash of a CCHQ originated open letter from “small business people” many of whom with obvious links to the party, and which fell apart almost as soon as it was published, is but the latest example of this. Private Eye magazine discovered that a Sun front page excorciating Ed Miliband for his performance in the first leaders’ debate, was written before the debate even began. The Independent reported a visit from Rupert Murdoch in which he urged his papers to go even harder on Ed Miliband, if such a thing were possible, and vocalised his fears that a functioning Labour lead government could, and most likely would implement press reform. Print media in all quarters have thrown aside any pretence of objectivity in an arms race of naked partisanship.   The level of vitriol against an opposition leader would not look out of place in Russia or Venezuela, demonstrating the lack of practical difference between a state owned media and a state and media owned by a set of common interests.

It would be easy to scoff at all this, as obvious as it becomes, and with the waning influence of the mainstream press and the rise of online media, but I believe this would be a mistake, not least as it would underplay exactly how much difficulty the Labour Party has faced in even getting to this point. Even as the Miliband ogre portrayed by the media begins to unwind in the face of reality some of the the residual miasma left by the power of the truisms created remains. This will have some effect, especially as most of the populace will not read social media debunkings of each corporate press intervention. There’s also the negative benefit to the Conservatives of soft playing their embarrassments. Take the rather muted coverage of the Grant Shapps scandal. Read this article by Marina Hyde and ask yourself, what if it had been Gordon Brown in 2010?

In addition David Cameron has played the hand that he has about as well as could be expected. Aided by the weakness of the broadcasters in making concessions to him, he has largely sabotaged the election debates; limiting Miliband’s exposure to a mass audience outside of his high ground of the Conservative loyalist media owned platforms, in a format that would be attractive and widely viewed. The Paxman interviews were too dry to excite widespread public interest and the two proper debates themselves were reduced to what Paddy Ashdown described as a “ ludicrous, seven-sided, bite-sized squabble-fest” in which Miliband was under pressure from his left, and Cameron wasn’t even present in one of them to draw fire. The greater exposure of these parties has shaved vital percentage points of Labour’s vote share, exactly as Cameron intended. The impact of this week’s “Question Time” event remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives know well that they can no longer win. Hints of this have been apparent for some time: leaving little policy boobie traps behind, such as the help to buy bubble inflation, which they know they won’t be held to account for if and when they blow up; the desperate abandonment of their appearance of fiscal responsibility in favour of wildly throwing out spending promises at the same times as promised tax cuts. This can only be the sign of a party that knows it won’t be in the position of having to follow through. The centre piece of the Conservatives’ “salt the earth and burn the granaries” endgame, has been in their response to the second event that stands to have a defining impact on the election outcome: the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, followed by Johann Lamont’s sudden resignation as Scottish Labour leader, leading to a huge SNP surge at the expense of Labour.  As put succinctly in this Huffington Post interview with Liberal Democrat MP, Nick Harvey:

“In an interview with The Huffington Post in November 2013, Harvey predicted that Labour would win the election with a majority, unless there was a “game changing event”. That event happened. And it happened in Scotland.”

For all their rhetoric about being the only hope of the English people against SNP induced chaos, they know that there’s little to no realistic prospect of delivering this while there remains some possibility of Labour forming a government with Lib Dem support, not directly beholden to the SNP.

Instead, chaos is the Conservatives’ last best hope. They hope, firstly, to maintain a plurality both in terms of votes and seats. This won’t enable them to form a workable government, but does allow them to delegitimise a Labour led alternative (in fact the SNP following through on their clear and open promise to “lock out” a Conservative government is far more attractive, democratically, than the past five years of Conservative led government dependent on the Lib Dems’ complete reversal of the platform they went to the public with). Some parts of the press are already laying the ground works for this.   In addition the Conservative party would very much prefer that any Labour lead administration was short (an early election would favour the Conservative party, which has a much bigger war chest), or even better lingers on but causes maximum long term damage to the Labour Party. Every additional Conservative MP instead of a Labour or Lib Dem one, while not likely to get the Conservatives’ over the finish line, increases this prospect of this. It is not irrelevant, in this context, to note that the Sun has been boosting the SNP in Scotland, while using them as a bogey man in England, doubtless calculating that a weakened Labour administration would be less likely to be able implement Leveson and a smaller, nationalist,party might be more easily co-opted.

Turning to Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems, as their fortunes are now intertwined for better or for worse. The SNP look set to make astonishing gains, predominantly at the expense of Labour. This poses some real dangers for Labour and the wider left, beyond the immediate blow of those lost seats.   At best many on the left, including myself, nurture the hope that the SNP will act as a progressive force, encouraging Labour back in a leftwards direction. Others warn that the SNPs two main imperatives of humiliating Labour and re-litigating the referendum issue stand fundamentally opposed to those of good governance and working together in good faith. In this light, perhaps Ed Miliband’s seemingly bizarre dredging up of the 1979 confidance vote, heralding the election of Margaret Thatcher, in the “Challenger’s Debate,” makes more sense, as a warning to Nicola Sturgeon not to cut up too rough after the election. Even if the SNP resist the temptation towards wielding their new found influence in a divisive way, the Conservatives’ supporters in the press will inevitably use Labour’s perceived reliance on them to delegitimize a Labour minority government, as cynical as treating Scottish MPs as second class representatives would be.   One silver lining is the complete humiliation of the Labour right, who, along with their supporters in the press establishment, vigorously assured everyone that Jim Murphy was electoral gold. I thought at the time that they wouldn’t be too devastated by major losses in Scotland depriving Labour of a convincing victory, as Ed Miliband would surely be blamed, hopefully defenestrated and the Blairite faction could re-assert themselves. However the losses look likely to be so total that the embarrassment will be impossible to hide from. Imagine a scenario where Jim Murphy’s left wing rival Neil Findlay had been elected instead and his platform had been popular enough to relegate the losses to severe rather than catastrophic. We would be doubtless be hearing no end of how Scottish Labour’s failure to pick the “credible” candidate had cost their party the election.

The Lib Dem’s are in dire straits throughout the country and their strategy, on the face of it seems to reinforce their slide into obsolescence. Back in February, Tim Farron told the New Statesman:

“I think the same thing will be the case this time round, almost certainly. We will not have a choice. We will be presented with an arithmetic by the electorate and all parties must be grown up enough to accept it and not say, ‘well, thank you for your opinions, we didn’t like it, tough’. Whatever the electorate give us through this fruit machine of an electoral system that we have, we have to be big enough, grown-up enough to make sure it works.

“The fundamental promise we must make to the electorate is that we will respect the outcome of the electorate and we will ensure, do everything in our power to ensure, stable government straight after the election, whether we are part of it or not.”

This has a kind of superficial internal logic, but begs the question, if the Liberal Democrats’ primary role is to ratify the most popular result among people who didn’t vote Liberal Democrat, then why vote for them? What are they for exactly, beyond being mere place holders or wild cards? Nick Clegg has more recently reinforced this position, telling the BBC that “that the party with the “greatest mandate”, even if they have not won a majority, should be given the first chance to form a government.” He makes the same point in an interview with the Financial Times:

“The Lib Dem leader also argued that any coalition with the party that finished second in the election — on most current projections Labour — would lack “legitimacy” with voters, who would question the government’s “birthright”.”

He further stated:

“I totally rule out any arrangements with the SNP — in the same way I rule out any arrangements with Ukip — because there is no meeting point for me with one party that basically wants to pull our country to bits and another party that wants us to pull out of the EU,” Mr Clegg said.
“I would never recommend to the Liberal Democrats that we help establish a government which is basically on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants. No, no, no.”

It’s far from clear that Nick Clegg will remain in a position of influence after the election and even some of the most loyal Lib Dems have expressed dismay at setting up this kind of hostage to fortune. But the thought occurs that this also makes a kind of tactical, if not strategic sense. He’s sending out a warning signal to supporters of both the main parties that the numbers matter. That every MP of the opposing party, or an SNP MP in Scotland, elected at the expense of a more versatile, place holder, Lib Dem does severe damage to the prospects of their party returning to Government. Reducing his party to the strategic pawns of first past the post might seem cynical, but it’s a perfectly viable survival strategy, at least in the short term.

The aftermath of the referendum has fundamentally changed the relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems. Before, scorned Labour supporters wanted nothing more than a symbolic humiliation of the Lib Dems even at the expense of a few more Tories and, even more so, SNP.  Now they need them, and not just to hold off the blue and tartan tide. Scraping enough combined Labour and Lib Dem seats even to stagger across the 323 finish line would be a significant gain for the Labour Party. It wouldn’t preclude them working with the, likely larger, SNP group (any kind of formal coalition is unlikely in any case), or indeed anyone else, but it would buy them some valuable political breathing space, reduce at a stroke the chance for frank SNP mischief making and increase their perceived legitimacy. From there on in, they might have to take a more consensual and pluralist approach, but gathering together enough votes from wherever they can be found to pass a budget and pass legislation would be a much lesser hurdle. The one thing standing in the way of this, ironically, could be voters scared into believing that only the Conservatives can protect them from the tartan menace.

As a coda, the big winner or loser (depending on your viewpoint) of the election could well be first past the post. It is to be hoped that one of the first mines a new Labour government would jump on, along with press reform, would be instituting a less cynical electoral system.

“Oh Dear”

Charlie Brooker’s end of year news round up, “2014 Wipe,” contained an interesting segment by Adam Curtis. The peg was an adviser of Vladimir Putin’s whose unique MO for controlling internal opposition was to sow paradoxical political stories in the media in order to forment confusion and paralysis. Curtis’s case is that this process is also happening here as well. I think that he somewhat overstates his case, but pretty much accurately describes the natural by-product of the rapid turnover news and opinion generation of the 24 hour news machine and social media. Comedian Frankie Boyle, covers some of the same ideas, though from a slightly different angle, in an excellent comment piece on manufactured offence and media hypocrisy. The response to the French terror attacks, barely a week into 2015, exemplifies these trends.

First we have a perfect example of one of Curtis’s contradictions.   Politicians lined up to protest in favour of “free speech,” many of them with a litany of infractions of that right to their names. Within days of the solidarity protests a controversial French comedian had been arrested for a provocative post on Facebook. American comedian, Jon Stewart, summed up the atmosphere with the quip “je suis confused.”

Besides paralysis, the major response has been the clutching of ideological comfort blankets. First, as an aside, I must deal with the response of much of the organised (and disorganised) left. A London based activist writing under the pseudonym “John Smith” sums it up in an article entitled, “The British left’s desperate confusion over Charlie Hebdo.”

“Three days ago, no-one, or almost no-one, on the British left had heard of Charlie Hebdo. Now, however, the internet and much of the leftwing blogosphere is awash with pronouncements about the paper, its contents and its political character. Since Wednesday’s shootings, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed that the cartoons of the paper are in fact racist. Perhaps most interesting and problematic in the context of recent days is the fact that so many commentators, for instance Richard Seymour, have sought to lay emphasis not merely on critiquing Charlie Hebdo’s contents, but to confer a category upon it – that of a “racist publication”.”

The clamour has been to characterise a publication that, a few months ago, most Britons had never heard of, based on the selective, out of context, quotation of some of its output, as if this made the slightest bit of difference to the moral nature of the attacks or the forces unleashed by it.  “John Smith” goes on:

“But the real question is why the contents of Charlie Hebdo are being scrutinised and denounced so thoroughly. Is it because the magazine is alone, or even particularly egregious, in its depiction of Muslims? It isn’t: France’s political and satirical culture is awash with anti-Muslim bigotry and casual orientalism, including on the left, and this is far from the first time that Muslims have been portrayed in such a way. Is it because the cartoons appeared recently? They haven’t: most date back years.

But the reason why many on the left are now concerned with attacking Charlie Hebdo is, in the vast majority of cases, not because they have been consistently concerned with the plight of French Muslims, but because several members of Charlie Hedbo’s editorial team have been murdered in cold blood, their bodies barely cold. The fact that this situation is a trigger for an emphasis on attacking the victims of the atrocity would, in a healthier political culture, be regarded as utterly perverse, even chilling. Instead, we are witnessing a desperately confused attempt to ward off a racist backlash not by opposing state violence or fascists, but by attacking the dead cartoonists as racists.”

It’s a comfort blanket and a distasteful one at that. My position on Charlie Hebdo is that even if Charlie Hebdo could be described as an “equal opportunity offender,” and even some of its former supporters questioned it (trans.), France is not an equal opportunity society. Much of the imagery used kicked down at an already marginalised group, and further stigmatised the already stigmatised.  Nevertheless, that seems almost academic in the face of the enormity of what has happened and its potential consequences.

Most of the population, not affiliated with any organised political movement, the most traditional of which having been severely weakened over recent decades, are tossed around by the tide of spontaneous emotion, harnessed by social and 24 hour news media, and intruded upon and exploited by those with longstanding agendas of their own. Within a short while there were voices snapping at the heels of the admirable spontaneous outpouring of solidarity with those murdered, trying to make poking fun at a minority religion a measure of liberal masculinity. Rod Liddle gives a round up of some of this, although the fact that he cites Cohen and Aaronovitch as surprising examples of this shows that he hasn’t been paying attention to their output.

It’s true that the Charlie Hebdo satirists lived and died in aid of a principle, albeit not one I entirely align with, and there’s much to be admired in that. Nevertheless, it is also correct to point out, as Martin Rowson has, that journalists have families. The dead Charlie Hebdo editorial team all leave behind loved ones devastated by their loss. It is also right to point out that others died alongside them, administrative and security staff and police, who didn’t pick that particular fight. Journalists have the right, when they put themselves and others on the line, to pick a cause that is worth the sacrifice.   It’s not clear that that cause is getting into a pissing match with terrorists, a diffuse, amorphous minority within a minority, whose actions they can’t control and who rarely intrude on their day to lives.   Islam and its adherents haven’t exactly been short of critics, even trenchant ones. The attacks may yet have far reaching consequences beyond the dead, injured and bereaved, emboldening forces that cannot be predicted and controlled, both violent Islamic fundamentalists and the amassing far right. The more recent attacks in Denmark only add to the danger, as would any repetition.

The official response of the Government to the increased terrorist threat has manifested in the onward march of the counter-“extremism-” whatever that ill-defined concept might mean- agenda, blurring the lines between real acts in incitement, preparation and recruitment for terrorism, and the promulgation of ideas that the authorities find distasteful or threatening. Faced with the daunting threat of domestic terrorism the Government has sought refuge in the illusion of ideological control. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism (a concept it defines expansively), have taken the opportunity presented by the focus on the dangers faced by some parts of European Jewry, to bang the drum. John Mann MP, co-chair of that group, writes at Labour List:

“A second theme in the report which relates to language, is ensuring a responsible public debate. Sadly, on a cross-party basis, some of the language about the Middle East conflict was simply unacceptable. There has been much discussion of the ‘right to offend’ in recent weeks and whilst free speech is a critical and central facet of our democracy, that does not mean that we should accept trends towards grossly offensive, misleading and indeed antisemitic rhetoric in our public debate. The trivialization of the Holocaust, accusations of dual loyalty and malign influence and the categorisation of Jews as ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ were all recurring themes during the summer and we discuss them in depth in our report. We on the left must solemnly reflect on the nature of our discourse. Public figures and institutions should be setting a responsible tone for our national debate and whilst we recommend clear guidance in this area, avoiding the dangerous themes to which I have referred would be wise.

Appropriately for a blog, the fourth theme relates to modernising the fight against antisemitism. Those that followed the horrendous abuse against Luciana Berger and against me having defended her, will understand clearly the need for action against the perpetrators of cyber hate. A key recommendation of the report relates to the use of prevention orders to limit the abuse spewed out by the most determined delinquents.”

This would all seem to be very reasonable were it not for the fact that Mr Mann had been personally discredited at in court over some of the very same issues. In a judgement regarding an employment tribunal between maths teacher, Ronnie Fraser, and the University and Colleges Union the Judge describes a meeting arising out of a previous report by the APPG:

“The meeting was not particularly a productive one. Ms Hunt and Mr Mackney referred to parts of the report which had described Jewish students feeling threatened on campus and explained that they wished for further information because that matter called for investigation. The parliamentarians did not provide any detail and did not genuinely respond to that inquiry at all. Mr Mann led for them and the more conciliatory tone of Dr MacShane gave way to a somewhat hostile display in which Mr Mann made no bones about his view that the union was operating in an anti-Semitic way and that those at its head must address the problem. He did not explain what the anti-Semitic behaviour was supposed to have consisted of besides referring to the boycott debate and characterising any boycott of Israel or Israeli institutions as itself anti-Semitic.”

On Mr Mann and disgraced former MP Denis Macshane, he further states:

“We did not derive assistance from the two Members of Parliament who appeared before us. Both gave glib evidence, appearing supremely confident of the rightness of their positions. For Dr MacShane, it seemed that all answers lay in the MacPherson Report (the effect of which he appeared to misunderstand). Mr Mann could manage without even that assistance. He told us that the leaders of the Respondents were at fault for the way in which they conducted debates but did not enlighten us as to what they were doing wrong or what they should be doing differently. He did not claim ever to have witnessed any Congress or other UCU meeting. And when it came to anti- Semitism in the context of debate about the Middle East, he announced, “It’s clear to me where the line is …” but unfortunately eschewed the opportunity to locate it for us. Both parliamentarians clearly enjoyed making speeches. Neither seemed at ease with the idea of being required to answer a question not to his liking.”

It certainly sounds like Mr Mann is exactly the kind of individual we do not want arbitrating on “responsible” public discourse.

Europe faces a great many serious issues arising from the attacks that need to be discussed. The fact that the killers were able to access Kalashnikovs and later robbed a petrol station with rocket propelled grenades, and this apparently wasn’t the first time, raises serious questions, mainly about the mainland EU’s open border arrangements under Schengen, whereby the EU acts as a single state with it’s borders close to some of Europe’s least economically developed and most historically stable regions. The fact that the only politicians in France seriously questioning this are on the far right bodes ill, and is potentially another example, along with the single currency, of Euro-idealism sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

A second, more complex, issue is how European countries deal with their increasingly multi-cultural demographics. In contrast with North America, where multiculturalism has been written into the state’s DNA from conception, European societies have had a much more ambivalent relationship towards these changes. The conflict between an elite that supports increased multiculturalism for (variously) economic and ideological reasons, and populist resistance, has led to this ambivalence being expressed in unhealthy and disingenuous ways. Everyone supports multiculturalism in principle, so the enforced consensus goes, were it not for the fact that real, existing minorities are so awful. In France this has manifested itself in the debate over religious dress, discomfort at increased ethnic diversity targeted at its most visible and yet inanimate form.

In the UK this has manifested in various ways, one example being the fallout of the “Trojan Horse” affair (which was allowed to grow the extent it did almost entirely as the result of the Government’s own academies policy) and the Government’s response calling for the schools to be judged on their fostering of “British values,” again, whatever that might mean. Tasked with translating a racist dog whistle into something that could be applied with the appearance of even-handedness, Ofsted has been reduced to quizzing 11 year olds on their knowledge of LGBT, and sixth-formers on their knowledge of current affairs and citizenship.*   In another example of the creep of the anti-extremism agenda, schools with a significant Muslim intake are now at the mercy of pupils external social media activity. The other recent example was a failed prosecution of a doctor for “FGM,” arising out of some allegedly misplaced stitches in a post-partum patient.** The allegation is that the CPS pursued the prosecution due to political pressure over the lack of prosecutions for FGM, the focus on which had arisen out of a combination of legitimate human rights concerns and moral panic over the “backward” practices associated with some ethnic groups.

I believe that countries that are already largely mono-cultural have the right to make the political decision to remain that way but such countries, including our own, need to take ownership of those wishes and more broadly what sort of society they want to become. The issues arising out of these attacks require a nuanced and informed public conversation. Less than two months later, with the caravan already moving on, this is unlikely to take place. And all that is left is clamour and noise and it’s hard to see what to do about that.  As Adam Curtis put it, “oh dear.”

*The latter would not have been so bad had they introduced this new focus on citizenship education with proposed syllabuses, greater allotted curriculum time and training for teachers rather than holding schools immediately accountable for the arbitrary whims of government ministers. The other question begged by this episode, since the school in question was overwhelmingly White British, is what else the values show by those pupils were, for better or worse, if not British?

**The elephant in the room in this case, is the fact that many doctors maim and even kill their patients through poor judgment up and down the country, and are very rarely subject to criminal investigation. Why then should Dr Dharmasena ended up in front of a jury rather than the usual disciplinary processes, whatever he may or may not have done?

The Charisma of Ed Miliband

I’m going to make a controversial statement: there are no really charismatic or uncharismatic politicians in Britain in 2014, only those which buy off the media and the interests behind it and those who do not. Few are the opportunities for them to make their case directly to a wide audience, the last being the election debates of 2010, the result of which being an outbreak of Cleggmania- Clegg being perhaps better described as a man of superficial charm than charisma. Look how that one turned out. The rest of the time the public perception of the attributes of political leaders is based upon a construct, manufactured from a selection of sound bites from speeches and snapshots from hours of footage of public appearances, filtered through a media lens.

The ur-charming politician was Tony Blair, imbued with the charm and unwavering self-belief of the narcissist. He also courted the media, firstly through never rocking the boat too much with the interests of media owners- Peter Mandelson famously saying he was “intensely relaxed about people getting very rich,” and secondly directly exemplified by his visit to Rupert Murdoch at Hayman Island in 1995. Michael Woolf, wrote on Guardian Comment Is Free after Blair’s appearance at the Leveson enquiry:

“Blair was right in his testimony: Murdoch isn’t out to cut deals with his political allies. He’s not lobbying. Yes, he’ll expect to be able to call on you if need be (for a deal as big as BSkyB, for instance), but mostly, he’s looking for a much more pervasive sense of comfort and confidence. What he wants is: 1) access – a near-constant availability to him, his executives, and his editors; 2) receptivity – you’ve got to take the Murdoch worldview into account; treat it seriously; cross it cautiously; and understand the power behind it.”

It also must be said that in the mid-nineties, with the Conservatives apparently dead in the water after 18 years of government, the newly amenable Blair’s Labour was the only game in town. Courting it, in return, would have seemed the most sensible strategy for the Media, with Murdoch in particular known for liking to pick a winner, as described in Nick Davies’ fantastic Flat Earth News. As times got more difficult for the Blair Government, through successive terms they would adopt new tactics of ruthlessly controlling media coverage and appearances, and indulging in squalid deals with the tabloids. As his successor Gordon Brown would go on to be monstered by the press, Blair would become the mould for a media- palatable politician, even down to his appearance: tall, dark, male, forties, reasonably conventionally attractive. Clegg came from this mould, as did David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party, and subsequently Prime Minister.

Enter the main subject of this article one Edward Samuel Miliband . Once upon a time he held a middle-ranking post in the Brown Government, as Climate Change Secretary, having been elected to Parliament in 2005. He seems to have done a competent job of it, too. Respected by campaigners, he attracted praise for his role in salvaging a deal from the abortive Copenhagen Climate talks of 2009. He didn’t break the Blair mould for the tall, dark, conventionally attractive leader (don’t laugh men in the audience), an audience member sent him a note, asking him out on a date the day after sparring with him on Question Time. After Labour’s qualified defeat at the General Election in 2010, and Gordon Brown’s resignation, the race was on for the role of the new Labour leader. The immediate frontrunner seemed to be Miliband’s elder brother David. Having held a senior role as Foreign Secretary, with a ”Blair model” appearance, and already having been mooted as a challenger for the leadership while Brown was still in office, the elder Miliband seemed the natural candidate. The only problem was his association with the Blairite faction, widely seen to be discredited amongst the Labour grassroots. Enter brother Ed. Ed not only came from the same mould as David Miliband, he was actually related to him, but professing a more left of centre set of views (although we shouldn’t get carried away: there are Conservative leaders of the twentieth century who were more left wing than Ed Miliband is, but nevertheless he offers a slight rebalancing of the political spectrum compared to what has recently been the norm).  Having seen them in person, during the leadership contest, they both came across as politician-y in their own way- contrary to his public image it was Ed Balls who came across as the most down to earth, but with too much baggage to become the frontman, the other candidates hardly registered. If David Miliband was the natural continuity candidate, Ed Miliband was his natural opponent. With the help of affiliate members he won by the narrowest of majorities.

As Labour leader, he has had some interesting things to say about, for example, predistribution, which were never really widely reported. He also made some bold and astute decisions in, for example, pressing for the institution of the Leveson enquiry, in response to the renewed revelations of phone hacking and, albeit perhaps, somewhat unwittingly, preventing an intervention in Syria that was barely planned and ill thought through. With a new leader in place and with the help of Lib Dem voters alienated by their former party’s enthusiastic participation within the coalition and, particularly, by the tuition fees reversal, the Labour party secured a sustained period of poll leads, sometimes into double figures, and gains in successive council elections. This was barely reported, and never pulled together into a sustained narrative about the implications for the Conservatives. Instead a pattern would soon emerge where any temporary softening of the Labour lead renewed attacks on the party and its leadership.

The main offenders, in this regard, were sections of the press nominally sympathetic to the Labour party, notably the Guardian’s political team Patrick Wintour and Nick Watt. Wintour, according to one commenter on Labour List, played in New Labour networking football team the “Red Menace,” while Watt, perhaps revealingly, wrote a hagiography for New Labour stalwart Scottish Labour Party leadership candidate, Jim Murphy. The most recent round of sniping has been heralded by a narrowing of Labour’s poll lead, with occasional crossover to narrow Conservative leads, brought about by UKIP eating into core Labour support in England and significant loss of support to the SNP in Scotland due to lingering bitterness after the referendum and the acrimonious resignation of former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont. The former of these two factors, Blairite New Labour have absolutely no answer to and the latter they are almost suicidal in their failure to grasp the reasons behind – boosting Murphy as the “clear favourite,” apparently for no more reason than “because they said so,” with Murphy, unlike David Miliband having no real history of being tipped as leader before Lamont’s resignation. The Guardian for example headlined an article on unions’ backing of Neil Findlay for Scottish leader with “unions refuse to back Jim Murphy.” The internal snipers did little to nothing to press home the Party’s advantage when they were achieving double digit poll leads. Instead, however large the lead it would be declared not enough “at this point in the election cycle.” The same narrative would be sustained through Labour gains in successive Council elections, reaching an apex in 2014 with the media including the BBC identifying the major issue of those elections being Labour’s admittedly modest gains rather than the serious losses for both coalition parties.

The conservative press meanwhile has done its best to push the calamity Ed Miliband narrative, primarily through the medium of unflattering photographs: an inevitability for any politician appearing in public, “in the wild,” for any length of time, with neither of the other Party leaders being any slouch in that department, although you would have to go on line to find out (particularly for David Cameron). Neither, for that matter, is David Miliband, who carries the twin virtues, in the eyes of the divide and conquer right of being slightly more closely aligned to them politically and, crucially, not currently leader of the Labour Party (it would naïve to believe that their reverence would continue if he were, in the presence of the real thing as a viable alternative).

Thus they have done their level best to convince the general public that “man grimaces while eating a bacon sandwich” is a major political event and similarly, an unflatteringly angled photo of Miliband dropping some change at a homeless woman. Most recently, footage of Miliband listening patiently, and with a forced deadpan, to singer Myleene Klass moaning about her potential tax bill, before giving a considered response, on a London only debating programme, was cut to suggest that he had been reduced to silence by her devastating arguments and widely hyped. To offer some balance the BBC has recently reported on the “CameronMustGo” Twitter hashtag and has correctly been criticized for it. “Labour activists create hashtag” isn’t really news, after all, but then neither is a lot of the Conservative activists efforts that are regularly treated reverently. Meanwhile George Osborne’s appearance at last weeks Prime Minister’s Questions, last week, went virtually unreported.

What can Labour Party supporters do about all this? Unfortunately not much: media bias is what it is. However what they definitely should not do is fall into the traps laid out for them by Conservatives and their media allies: firstly in going down political paths that would not help them electorally and would not be rewarded by the media in the presence of a viable real Conservative alternative and secondly in giving succour to the narrative that Ed Miliband is uniquely awful and the source of all their difficulties. They need to keep plugging away, using whatever opportunities arise to present their case to the public, and also trust the public to be receptive to relatively complex messaging avoiding being backed into a safezone of motherhood and apple pie that only frustrates the public more. Most important of all is to maintain a united front.

Lib Dem Men Behaving Badly

While the news media were pre-occupied with covering the outcome of the Scottish Independence referendum, Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, and Portsmouth City Councillor, resigned from the Liberal Democrat party, having previously been suspended for sexual misconduct. At the very least, it would seem, Hancock, conducted an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman with serious mental health problems whom he met through his constituency work, she further alleges that his advances were unwelcome. He also used his official positions to support her in disputes with her neighbours and various agencies. The full (and creepy) account of her allegations alongside messages proving at least some degree of sexual impropriety can be found in a report by Nigel Pascoe QC, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats to investigate the matter. It isn’t the first time that his libido has got him in trouble. Hancock, who has often adopted pro Russian positions, was noted in Europe for employing a string of young, female, Russian aides, one of whom was believed by the Government and MI5 to be a spy, although she was cleared of this at a special immigration panel. The Daily Mail details a string of affairs, including a “close and affectionate” relationship with a 17 year old girl. While Hancock is a popular and dominant figure in Portsmouth local politics, perhaps why Portsmouth Council attempted to hush up the investigation and report for such a long time, he is a maverick on a national level and was quickly cast aside when the embarrassment he caused became too great to sweep under the carpet.

In contrast to Mike Hancock, still a Liberal Democrat , is Lord Rennard, despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching first exposed by Channel 4 News in the February of last year, by many women, including successful academics, political aides, and at least one former Liberal Democrat Councillor deemed suitable to run for Parliament under the party’s banner. All of the women mentioned above have put their names to the allegations, and there are more who haven’t. Lord Rennard had been a very senior figure in the Liberal Democrats for many years, and was regarded as the architect of the party’s “by election strategy” that transformed it into a major player in national politics. An email was sent in 2008 by a Lib Dem campaigns Officer to women he had reason to believe may have been targets of Lord Rennard:

“There has been a long-standing problem with a number of women where the abuse of Chris’s [Lord Rennard’s] position was clearly inappropriate. I’ve discussed this today with Jo Swinson, who was aware of a number of cases … Jo tells me that a recent conversation has been had by somebody senior in the party with Chris, and he has been informed that the behaviour has to stop.”

The Spectator and the Mail outline how the abortive processes to deal with the growing concerns around his behaviour came to involve many of the party’s most senior figures right up to the leadership level. The outcome of all of this was that Lord Rennard stepped back from his frontline work for the party, and left with a standing ovation at national conference, but continued to attend events where young female Liberal Democrats were present prompting the aggrieved women to go to Channel 4.

The response of the Party to the sudden public airing of the allegations was to institute an investigation by Alistair Webster QC, the terms of reference of which, were to determine whether there was a greater than 50% chance that the charges- namely bringing the Party into disrepute (something that he manifestly has), to the necessary standard: beyond reasonable doubt. Under heavy lobbying from Lord Rennard’s chief supporter and spokesman, Lord Carlisle, this seems to have mutated into whether there was a greater than 50% chance that he could be found beyond reasonable doubt to have intentionally acted indecently, essentially one man’s prognostication of what twelve people would decide, a bizarre standard in what is essentially an employment and membership dispute. The conclusion of the report was that while the allegations were “broadly credible” that he had “infringed on the personal space and autonomy” of the complainants- unsurprisingly since these women had everything to lose and nothing to gain from fabricating the allegations, and some put there faces and names to them- nevertheless the necessary intent had not been considered proved.

Now, let me tell you from personal experience that multiple women do not end up complaining as a result of accidental contact or being innocently over-tactile, in fact in that kind of situation, you tend to extend the benefit of the doubt beyond the point where it is unreasonable, mainly because it is shocking and your mind goes into denial. Bridget Harris talks about wondering whether it was an accident and moving her leg away several times before it became evident that it was not. Further those accusations do not proceed to high level emails discussing, “a long standing problem,” internal recriminations and ultimately media exposes because of a few petty faux pas. There are recent Yewtree convictees with less compelling evidence against them. Nevertheless the outcome is that Lord Rennard retains his Lib Dem membership and the party leadership seemingly find themselves unable to do anything about it. Lord Rennard has now threatened to sue anyone who repeats the allegations.

In a widely read and shared post the American blogger “Captain Awkward” outlines common patterns of response (or lack thereof) to sexual harassment in social circles:

Step 1: A creepy dude does creepy, entitled shit and makes women feel unsafe.

Step 2: The women speak up about it to their partners.

Step 3: It gets written off as “not a big deal” or “he probably didn’t mean it” or “he’s not a bad guy, really.” Any discussion of the bad behavior must immediately be followed by a complete audit of his better qualities or the sad things he’s suffered  in the name of “fairness.” Once the camera has moved in and seen him in closeup as a real, human, suffering person, how can you (the object, always an object, as in “objectified,” as in a disembodied set of tits or orifices, or a Trapper Keeper, or a favorite coffee mug or a pet cat) be so cruel as to want to hold him accountable for his actions? Bitches, man. [NB: The complaints against Lord Rennard were pooh-poohed by many older and more senior Liberal Democrats including, regrettably, Baroness Shirley Williams . In one segment on Channel 4 News Susan Gasczak was put in the position of having to comment on Lord Rennard’s complaints about the effect of the allegations on his physical and mental health].

Step 4: Everyone is worried about hurting creepy dude’s feelings or making it weird for creepy dude. Better yet, everyone is worried about how the other dudes in the friend group will feel if they are called out for enabling creepy dude. Women are worried that if they push the issue, that the entire friend group will side with creepy dude or that they’ll be blamed for causing “drama.” Look at how LW #323 put it: “how can I approach this subject with my boyfriend, and make him understand a) how serious this is, and b) that he is not responsible for Ben’s reactions, without making him feel defensive?”

Wouldn’t want someone who covers up for and defends a proto-rapist to have to have SADFEELS, right? (LW, it’s not your fault you’re asking the question this way, it’s just that our culture sucks about this and your boyfriend and his friends have been giving you constant messages that Ben is to be coddled while you are to be shushed in the hopes that it will all blow over).

Step 5: Creepy dude creeps on with his creepy self. He’s learned that there are no real (i.e. “disapproval & pushback from dudes and dude society”) consequences to his actions. Women feel creeped out and unsafe.Some of them decide to take a firm stand against creeping and not come to parties anymore. They slowly slide out of the friend group. Some of the woman decide to just quietly put up with it, because they’ve learned that no one will really side with them and it’s easier to go along than to lose one’s entire community. The whole group works around this missing stair.

Possible Step 6: Creepy dude rapes someone. If he does, there’s a less than 50% chance that the woman will report it. Why?

Could it be that all the people who surround her have taught her that if she speaks up nothing will really come of it anyway? Could it be that she doesn’t trust her friends and the people who love her to have her back on this? I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY. They couldn’t even kick this dude off their weekly trivia team.”

Now, when I first read the article I found it hard to imagine that significant numbers of people would tolerate let alone excuse the types of overt behaviour described, even in social settings, and wondered if it was, at least in part, an American thing. And yet it would seem that behaviour of this nature was allowed to go unchecked in what was, if perhaps only briefly a major political party, despite being widely acknowledged. This is not just about the Lib Dems, the Socialist Workers Party has recently torn itself apart over the failure to address a senior member’s predatory behaviour adequately, and, of course, Julian Assange still has his implacable supporters. The allure of the powerful and important man, the central embodiment and indispensible catalyst of a deeper cause remains strong, and, all to often, women are seen as the disposable subordinates to be sacrificed rather than threaten what he represents.

Troubled Waters Without Bridges

A number of thoughts arise from the recent terrorist attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi.  The first amongst these is the unrivalled destructive power of small arms.  The death toll from those attacks has reached.  Previous terrorist mass shootings in Norway and Mumbai produced death tolls unmatched by all but the most powerful of explosives based attacks, and that’s not to mention the psychological impact.  Images of families forced to play dead to survive made me sick to my stomach.  This will not be unnoticed by prospective terrorists and international gun control must be a key priority for security.

There are other lessons from this attack.  The attack apparently arose in retaliation for the Kenyan role in the international intervention in Somalia.  So-called “regional” interventions by surrounding, typically non-western, developing, countries have come to be seen as the more palatable post-colonial face of international intervention, perhaps understandably, as the sight of an unaccountable global hegemon selectively and self-interestedly throwing its weight around, as we’ve seen the US do in the region, just this week is hardly appealing.   Nevertheless, the Kenyan attacks expose at least one major flaw in this approach.  Regardless of the language of “peace-keeping” any kind of military intervention is by definition a belligerent act, and will be viewed as such by players on the ground.  Al-shabaab do not like this regardless of whether it’s Kenyan armed forces or US marines and developing countries are much more vulnerable to reprisals due to weaker security apparatus, border and arms controls.

This has implications for other conflicts, not least for Syria, where various regional players are playing an actively malign role, each one grappling for a piece of Syria and strategic advantage within the region.  Global actors have watched on impotently.  Recent American sabre-rattling has produced marginal victories in terms of chemical disarmourment and the bodies overseeing this have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (is there a more debased honour?).  Nevertheless the death toll, already above 100, 000 continues to climb, despite the back patting, comprising multitudes of individual tragedies and atrocities.  Domestic sceptics on both sides of the Atlantic put the brakes on an all out attack and rightly so.  It was notable watching David Cameron in the House of Commons, that, even appreciating that he didn’t have a crystal ball, he couldn’t provide satisfactory answers to basic questions about what a satisfactory end game would even look like.

Ironically, a “Kosovo style” intervention of the type proposed, with the aim of forcing Bashar al Assad and other “guilty men” off the stage and more palatable actors to the negotiating table, might have been the only thing that could have stopped the carnage from developing, as it has, and preserved a peaceful and unified Syria, <i>had it been carried out two years ago</i>.  Now, with whole sections of cities razed to the ground, massacres of thousands of men, women and children, sectarianism, heart eating rebels (Paul Wood, of the BBC, has an excellent interview that illustrates the point) and religious extremists piling in for a piece of the new Syria, it’s hard to see any way back from that psychologically as a unified nation.   So what else is left?  Partition?  Superficially this seems like the only realistic option close to a “happy” ending, with a self-determining Sunni majority rump, an autonomous Alawite enclave along the coast, with Christian minorities likely throwing their lot in with them, and a self-Governing Kurdistan, possibly encompassing Kurdish areas in neighbouring states.  Among many of the problems with this: the new Sunni rump state would be vulnerable to capture by extremists, likely backed by Saudi Arabia and/or Al Qaeda; the Alawite enclave, encompassing most or all of Syria’s coastline, would likely require external guarantees of its security, and ethnic cleansing and dispossession would be the inevitable short and medium term outcome.

The £1 Million question is how and by whom any conclusion is going to be orchestrated.  Left to its fate, Syria is going to face one of three outcomes: continued bloodletting or one side crushing the other by force.  What we see now is the combination of the three.  Outside actors are unwilling or unable to act except in their own self-interest.   The only realistic outcome can be a dirty deal between the various great powers, which is unlikely to befit the aspirations that gave birth to the uprising.

A Trip Across The Rubicon

In June, the Government announced that it would be putting together regulations on the creation of so-called “three-parent embryos”- that is embryos containing mitochondrial and nuclear DNA from different mothers- taking us a step closer to the conception and birth of children as a result of these technologies. The ostensible rationale for this development is to “treat” mitochondrial disease resulting from inherited defects in the mitochondrial DNA, which can have horrific consequences. This is very much the angle that has been pushed in the media, with this technology portrayed as a medical technology to treat these horrific diseases. Nevertheless I remain troubled by this move.

Little noted, but important to bear in mind, is the fact that this process will not cure any children currently living with mitochondrial disease. It will allow mothers to avoid passing on the defective DNA, but only those who know they are at risk, and are willing and able to undergo IVF treatment. This group already have options, most notably conceiving using a whole donor egg. Thus, mitochondrial transfer is as much a reproductive technology, as it is a medical one. The question this leads to, which hasn’t received as much attention during this debate, is how far is it acceptable to go to enable parents to have a child that shares their nuclear DNA?

To answer that question we need to look at what the process entails. In theory there are two separate processes that could be used, as outlined by the BBC . The first method involves the removal of the nucleus from the donor egg and the replacement of it with the nucleus from the effected mother’s egg. The resulting egg, which is genetically descended from the effected mother, but is free of the defective mitochondria, is then fertilised resulting in an embryo that is implanted back into the prospective mother. The second, more problematic method involves creating two embryos: one using the donor egg, the second using an egg from the effected woman. The nucleus of the donor created embryo is removed and destroyed, to be replaced with that of the prospective parents’ embryo.

In both cases the resulting embryo is genetically descended of both prospective parents, but with healthy mitochondria from a donor woman’s egg. Advocates of this process have objected to the term “three-parent embryo” with its frankensteinian connotations, correctly pointing out that the genetic contribution of the donor is very minor. “What makes us us” is wholly contained within the nuclear DNA. But therein lies the key to the problem with the whole process: the creation of the donor embryo with its complete genetic code defining it and “making it itself,” to borrow the phrase. Currently, this donor created embryo can be implanted and continue to develop, and this is commonly done, in women who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive with their own eggs. Instead, in the proposed process, it is stripped for spare parts and discarded. This is no longer a hypothetical individual of the kind who shuffle in and out of existence depending on happenstance and our personal choices. In another recent development, fertility specialists have developed a way of screening IVF embryos using time-lapse images, to determine those with the greatest chance of survival. I was struck when viewing the resulting videos by the embryos dividing and growing under their own power, with some of them heading inexorably, given the right environment, on the path that leads to each one of us. The alternative proposed method is less problematic, amounting to little more than a mitochondria transplant, but is still likely to require embryo manipulation and destruction in the experimental phases.

Of course this bridge has already been crossed multiple times and for multiple reasons, but that doesn’t mean that each fresh trip across the rubicon shouldn’t result in a pause to take stock.

“The Tories, The Tories, The Tories”

Rob Marchant writes a cautionary article for Labour List regarding the Labour Party’s political prospects.  Marchant belongs firmly to the Labour Right (or the Centre Left as he would doubtless put it and for which he names his blog).  This is important to bear in mind because his article is illustrative of a number of analytic tendencies that are very common but of which people ought properly to be suspicious. 

The first of these is the tendency to reduce 60-70 years of political and social upheaval and, often momentous, events to a series of iron political laws.  To quote Marchant:

“This is exactly what we would expect, it is doing what pretty much every mid-term lead has ever done – evaporating.”

Now this contains a kernel of truth.  Governments usually don’t perform as poorly, come election time, as their mid-term polling nadirs would suggest (nor, by the same token, do oppositions perform as well).  Partially this is due to reversion to the mean; partially, perhaps to the ability of the sitting government (now abolished by the coalition) to set an election date at a relatively favourable time; but largely, I suspect, the reason for this tendency, can be summed up by the famous quote from Harold Macmillan:

“Events, dear boy”

Politics is rarely static.  Something will quite often come up over the course of a Parliament to swing a Government’s fortunes, one way or another.  Examples of this include the SDP split off, in the 1979-83 Parliament, that fatally split the Left  vote for a generation, followed by the Falklands War, and the ouster of Margaret Thatcher in the 1987-92 parliament.   But, by failing to acknowledge that electoral politics is fundamentally events driven, the commentator can read the entrails of post-war political history consisting of a sample of 18 parliaments, for any underlying trend that will support whatever agenda they want to advance, without having to pay attention to current events or political trends.

This leads to the second, and more recent, political analytical tendency implicit within the article: the willful ignoring of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote since the formation of the coalition, and the electoral implications of this.  For the past decade, or so, since the second term of Blairite New Labour, the Lib Dems have consistently outflanked Labour on the left, and hoovered up its disaffected voters, who over that time period have formed the bulk of Liberal Democrat voters.  That is until it comprehensively alienated those same voters by its position within the coalition.   Since 2010, polls have consistently shown that the Lib Dems’ support has halved, and those voters have been instrumental in giving Labour a consistent polling lead over that time. This trend: the effective reversal of the post SDP division of the left-wing vote poses great long term dangers to the Conservative party (even Patrick Mercer, in his conversation with an undercover journalist admitted that there wouldn’t be a Conservative Government in 2015), and opportunities for the Labour party.   With the possible exception of some potential tactical voters in Lib-Con marginal, all the signs point towards this collapse being permanent and those voters have to go somewhere.  Labour stands a good chance of picking up those voters by default and design.  Of course it’s also possible that they may fail to win over these- politically choosy- voters, with the Greens, the nationalist parties, in Scotland and Wales, and abstention being real rivals.  But of course Marchant doesn’t address this, as it doesn’t help his overarching case.    

Then there’s Marchant’s treatment of the even more recent apparent rise of UKIP.  He soberly warns, that UKIP are poaching on Labour territory as well as Conservative, but expresses mystification at what appeal UKIP could hold for true Labour voters:

“Second, it does not make a great deal of sense to tack towards a party whose policies are diametrically opposed to our own. There is no Labour-UKIP porous border.”

Actually, there may well be, and the reasons are not that hard to understand. UKIP are a soft nationalist party of the type that hold a strong appeal to a large section of the white working class that itself forms a significant part of Labour’s historic core vote.  This nationalism consists of two core strands: Euroscepticism- something that has always had a broad appeal across socioeconomic groups in the UK, and increasingly so since the Eurozone crisis- and anti-immigration.  The white working class is the constituency that has felt most threatened by large scale immigration- both economically and culturally- and is also the constituency that forms the largest part of Labour’s core vote and a significant part of the vote it needs to attract in marginal seats, particularly in the Thames Estuary and South Coast.   Marchant, of course, makes no attempt to understand the reasons people might be stating an intention to vote UKIP, or indeed any party beyond the main two.  He prefers to characterize any minor party support, and even much of Labour’s current support, as being a sort of electoral tantrum: fundamentally irrational and unworthy of any serious scrutiny; a distraction from the mythical Blairite centrists who are the only political constituency of any importance.
 And therein lies the crux of this kind of argument.  In my experience Blairites rarely make an honest argument for the philosophical or political rightness of their policies, they tend to rely on arguments of electoral necessity and implicit or explicit threats of a worse alternative.  Hence the repeated shroud waving over the past few years about Labour’s electoral prospects, if they don’t tackle their credibility, seemingly without reference to their current pollng position, and the constantly moving goalpost of how well they “should” be doing at this stage.