Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Toryism moves right....

Lynton Crosby's general campaign advice for the right-wing politicians he expensively manages generally seems to be to tack right, and then right again, until you've out-manouevred anyone else who might be coming from that direction.  It seemed to work in Australia for John Howard.  It didn't work for Michael Howard in Britain in 2005.  And the jury is obviously out on its impact on David Cameron's campaign in 2015.

Mind you, there used to be a time when the Conservative Party didn't see tacking right as a useful or honourable tactic.  This was a party that held a variety of centre-right views together - including, yes, some of the 'ultras' - but believed firmly in its national position as a "One Nation" party, needing to look beyond its own borders for support and affirmation.  It was a party that understood the welfare state, tapped in to the aspirations of lower income earners whilst maintaining their safety net, and vigorously challenged any onset of incipient racism that might come up, especially under the guise of "immigration reform". To his credit, one of Michael Howard's finest blasts came in his searing attack on the BNP.  It was always a great shame that this fundamentally decent man allowed his campaign to be defined by posters of the inflammatory nature as the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" kind.  If you want an inkling of what this Tory Party used to sound like, give Michael Heseltine's piece in today's Mail a read.  It is a full and wholesome put-down of Nigel Farage's race-meddling and brooks no thought of dealing with such a man, likening him to a less intelligent version of Enoch Powell, another politician at ease with the far right.

The vigour of the Heseltine attack on Mr Farage is all the more satisfying for the weak-minded, feeble appraoch shown by the Conservative Party's actual leader, David Cameron.  He seems to have embraced the Crosby mantra of not annoying UKIP supporters, and as such has successfully conveyed - yet again - an image of flaccid, unprincipled, short-termist leadership.

If you want a sharp and unforgiving assessment of the Cameron mode of leadership, read Nick Cohen in the Observer.  I know Cohen is no conservative, but he is a clear-headed commentator on politics who gives no quarter in his honest assessments of both right and left.  His condemnations of Cameron are given greater force because they ring so true.  He compares his approach to that of Angela Merkel, who denounced the anti-Muslim protestors in Dresden in no uncertain terms as having "prejudice, hatred and coldness in their hearts".  Try listening for anything even remotely similar from Cameron about UKIP and you'll end up getting your ears tested.

Cohen also - rightly - mocks the Tory choice of candidate to challenge Nigel Farage in South Thanet as an attempt to simply provide Faragism without Farage.  Might as well have thrown in their lot with Farage from the word go.

If the modern Tory Party really can't attack a man who openly plays with racist ideas, no matter how cunningly phrased, then it does need to start asking why it is even in business.  Time used to be that we knew what broad-mindedness differentiated the Tory Party from fringe right-wing groups.  It looks as if that time is no more, and the UK is the loser.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Michael Gove and the destruction of school history

There’s an odd little article in the Spectator this week.  Written by Emily Hill, and titled “MichaelGove’s secret fan club”, it purports to show how teachers across the nation secretly mourn the passing of the late Education Secretary and have finally been released to teach vigorously and properly as a result of his reforms.  All heart-warming stuff, no doubt, although I counted only three teachers whose views were actually used to propel this lovely tale of education re-booted – one an  anonymous friend (always useful for journalists), one the author’s mother, and one a bona fide teacher seemingly unrelated to the author. 

I did feel a little sorry for Ms. Hill’s mother.  She was apparently nervous at being ‘outed’ as a secret Gove supporter in the totalitarian world we know as British Education, and only felt able to teach demanding lessons to her students once Mr. Gove had finally given her the say-so.  The anonymous friend, meanwhile, teaches Ancient Greek at a London state school, apparently unaware – according to Ms. Hill – that ordinary kids were never allowed near such a subject in the Dark Ages of the pre-Gove era.  Mind you, the fact that Ms. Hill then notes that the only person she ever knew who learnt Ancient Greek at school went to Eton with Prince William probably tells us more about her social circle than the wider cause of education.

My favourite quote from what seems to be a rather mis-conceived article is this one from an apparently very left-wing teacher who boasts huge success with his debating teams.  He comments to our intrepid reporter that “Under the last government we were being utterly micromanaged in how we taught our lessons.  Gove trusted teachers to a greater extent….”.  Seriously?  Gove “trusts” teachers?  And this isn’t satire, right?

In many ways, I should be one of that little fan club of Gove supporters in education.  I disliked the AS level system and am rather pleased his reforms encompassed getting rid of it, returning us to a better, more thought-through two-year A-level.  I could see grade inflation taking the lustre off top grades that were being hard won by earnest students.  My school benefitted financially from becoming an Academy (although yes, there was the lurking thought that for so many of us academy status was simply a financial bribe which dried up after a year or so).  But I happen to be a history teacher, and there are few history teachers who have much of a kind word to say about Mr. Gove (I haven’t yet turned up one on meetings with a fair range of such teachers over the years).

If you want an example of disastrous, mendacious micro-management, then look no further than the disaster that was Gove’s attempt to re-mould the school history curriculum in his own image.  His efforts were underpinned by lamentable research leading to unwarranted attacks on practitioners.  The most egregious of these remains his singling out an innovative lesson idea on a popular website for peculiar invective in one of his rabble rousing speeches (the response of the teacher who developed this is worth reading in full here).  The inability of either Gove or his advisors to either read the offending material properly, or understand its context, should have ruled them out of making any comment on history teaching ever after, but this is Michael Gove we’re talking about.  Learning isn’t one of his skill sets.

As he drove his bulldozer through decades of carefully constructed history schemes for students, Gove also turned his wrath on one of the respected academics he had once praised, perhaps because the good professor had had the temerity to challenge Govian historical thinking – if ‘thinking’ isn’t too strong a term.   In a diatribe about right thinking towards World War One, Mr. Gove had this time singled out Blackadder as his Goldstein target, perhaps unaware that it was satire and not actual, you know, history. (The academic in question, Sir Richard Evans, continued to harbour doubts about the veracity of Mr. Gove’s historical thinking, for example here.)

Now, as his parting gift to history teachers, we are about to embark on the utter mess he’s managed to cause in GCSE history.  I do wish, if Nicky Morgan had indeed been given instructions to weed out the worst aspects of Govianism from the education system, that this had included his pernicious undermining of school history, but alas her echoing silence on the subject suggests it didn’t. 

For years, secondary schools have followed carefully thought-out GCSE history syllabuses.  Many of them, having given strong and often exclusive coverage to British history in Years 7 to 9 (something Gove was never willing to acknowledge) sought to teach a Modern World course to their students.  It proved popular, and provided an admirable grounding in recent world history, the better from which to be able to form judgements about the world they live in today.

Michael Gove, the man who apparently “trusts teachers”, demolished all of this and insisted instead on an incoherent mess of historical periods and subjects instead.  Amongst his demands were that students should cover at least three distinct periods of history – medieval, early modern and modern; that 40% should be British history (i.e. repetition of the previous three years); and that there should be a thematic study over a period of some 1,000 years.  All this in two years and across a mere three hours a week.  That the history establishment accepted this nonsense is another matter, but let us at least put paid to the idea that Michael Gove didn’t seek to micro-manage teachers, or that he somehow trusts them enough to let them inspire students. 

Michael Gove had no professional experience in education, and no academic expertise as an historian even at undergraduate level.  This is no bar to bringing interesting thinking to teaching or challenging teachers, but it should have provoked caution before dumping, wholesale, a history teaching plan of credibility, authority and coherence. 

Gove’s relentless attack on history teaching turned me from an initial cautious ally into a confirmed opponent.  Knowing the carelessness and ineptitude with which he formulated his own ideas on history teaching has made me forever wary of anything the man comes up with.  Looking at the way in which he sought to bullishly impose his own – and his alone – ideas on history teaching across a national profession has forced me to treat any attempts to portray him as a man who believes in loosening the dead hand of the state with extreme caution, if not outright incredulity.  If three people make up a fan club, then I suppose Ms. Hill is right to suggest that Michael Gove has one in teaching; but I’ll wager it doesn’t extend far, and for good reason.  The man was  a state-power-wielding menace, and no-one yet has offered to clear up the mess.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The leader of the Middle-East's only nuclear power speaks to Congress

Binyamin Netanyahu's speech to the US Congress tells us much about him and much about the Republican lawmakers fawning over his every word.

The Israeli prime minister has been engaging in a reckless gamble, as he deliberately sets out to alienate the president of his country's only reliable friend in the world.  This is the man who openly sought a Romney victory at the last US presidential election and who has now once again flouted the non-partisan rules of international engagement by taking up his invitation from the Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, to speak to a joint session of Congress without doing the president the courtesy of even letting him know.

Mr. Netanyahu may be holding on to a belief that no matter how much he offends Mr Obama, the US president would not, in the last resort, leave him and Israel hanging in the wind.  And yet Mr Obama has shown that he is willing to redraw the map of American political allegiance in the middle-east if it suits him, especially in the aftermath of an Arab Spring that left the region in a continuous state of turbulence and unpredictability.  It is just possible that by speaking to a Congress which carries little actual foreign policy heft, in defiance of a president who does, Mr. Netanyahu may have placed himself firmly on the outside track as the Secretary of State continues to pursue a deal with Iran.

Let's hope so at any rate.  Netanyahu is a man who revels in confrontation, sees himself as a latter-day Churchill and, modestly, the leader of all Jews in the world.  There are definitely shades of Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Netanyahu's own messiah complex.  He also heads up a nation which has not been shy of employing vigorous aggression against enemies imagined or real.  His military's foray into Gaza last year killed somewhere over 2,000 Gazans, including 513 children.  There were also admittedly Israeli deaths - 66 soldiers and 5 civilians.  And, of course, while Iran protests that it merely wants to develop a uranium enrichment programme, and is nowhere near producing a nuclear weapon - all under intense international scrutiny - it is Israel which continues to deny its own actual nuclear capability, revealed in the 1980s by disillusioned scientist Mordechai Vanunu.

Israel is no slouch, either, in dealing with citizens who reveal uncomfortable truths.  Vanunu was kidnapped while in Italy - having earlier fled Israel for Britain - and after a closed trial spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement.

Mr. Netanyahu pursues the politics of violent sectarianism with relish.  He used the post-Charlie Hebdo marches to egoistic effect, and has entered the political arena of another sovereign nation with an indecent partisan glee.  This is no statesman, and he does his country severe discredit at a time when he might have been better off trying to embellish its tattered credentials as a bulwark of stability and tolerance in its region.

He is well joined by congressional republicans.  It is not surprising that some dissenting Democrats have likened the Netanyahu speech to the calls for war against Iraq in 2003 (a war firmly supported by Netanyahu at the time).  The international sores of the last Republican administration's malign foreign policy remain clear in the murderous scars across the Iraqi nation and the rise to power of ISIS.  Netanyahu and his Republican allies may be made for each other, but the world would be well rid of both if their respective electors woke up to the dangerous reality of their blinkered sectarianism.

Iraq fights back against ISIS

With Iraq launching its offensive against ISIS in Tikrit - supported by Iran but not the USA - this quick overview on The Week's "Speed Reads" should be a go-to for A2 Global Politics students.  The short BBC video accompanying it is also a useful summary of the current state of Iraq's military.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

As the parties sectionalise their appeal, is British politics fracturing?

This far out from a long-planned general election, you can understand why political commentators are becoming desperate for any sort of hook on which to hang yet another election-related article, and why such articles are increasingly speculative.  Everyone suspects the next election will yield results which are some way transformative.  There will be more smaller party representation perhaps.  Another coalition is on the cards maybe.  A party representing the national interest of one part of the UK will have a stranglehold over the other two parts we're told.  All of which may be true, but not until May can we speak of these things with any degree of certainty.  Hence the apocalyptic speculation that is currently the norm amongst commentators.

Nonetheless, the search for new angles can produce some interesting assessment of the current British political condition, and two notable commentators - James Forsyth from the right and Andrew Rawnsley from the left - have produced this Sunday's best conjectures.

Both, through different arguments, are essentially noting the fracturing of the British political scene into areas of geographic or sectional interest.  Forsyth, in the Spectator (summarised here on the Coffee House blog) considers the notion that the main parties are no longer properly national ones.  This is in large part because they are now so uncompetitive in different parts of the UK that they have pretty well abandoned any attempt to win their 'lost' regions back.  Look at the Tories in the north, or most of the large cities.  Look at Labour in the rural south.  And this is to make no comment on the situation in Scotland, largely of their own making.

In his blog post, Forsyth goes on to note that in addition to their regionalisation, the parties are also competing ever more narrowly on topics that benefit them and their perceived target voters.  This is a point which Andrew Rawnsley explores in more depth in his piece for the Observer.  From David Cameron's promise to ring-fence the financial well-being of older voters, to Ed Miliband's promise to reduce the tuition fees for students, Rawnsley notes the knock-on effect of such narrowly targeted policies  and compares them, in his opening, with the 18th century image of voter bribery that was illustrated by William Hogarth (in the picture that adorns this post).

The fragmentation of British politics in this way is more likely than ever to produce fissures across the UK landscape, in addition to the huge one that continually threaten to split widely on the northern border.  It may be symptomatic of the current political leaders' loss of faith in their political principles.  It may be the result of their own life-long insularity, which saw their career move through political jobs to youthful party leadership with barely any upsetting intrusion into the grainy, gritty world of most voters.  Such a continuous political trajectory makes them all more susceptible to the statistification of politics, where you look for x thousand votes from a particular group or region to ensure you get those crucial key seats that give you a majority.  The Guardian's Rafael Behr commented on this aspect earlier this week.

Every election is important.  It is just that some are more likely than others to be watersheds.  1945 and 1979 were classic examples of ideological watersheds; without much ideology on the table, 2015 might be a watershed for the very structure of the British polity itself.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The best laid plans....

I normally yield to no-one in my defence of MPs and their workload; the sense of public spirit that has led them into parliament; the fact that they are significantly under appreciated etc.  But tonight, such warm, positive feelings evaporated. They are a bunch of workshy charlatans who wouldn't know a hard day's work if it came and danced in the aisles of their under used committee rooms.

The reason for my onset of annoyed angst has nothing to do, of course, with a misplaced attempt to bring my students to the heart of the mother of parliaments to watch a twilight session of the Houses in operation.  Having checked the daily schedule s of both Houses it looked as if there might be enough to keep them going until the noted adjournment times of 10.30 pm.  Admittedly the last Commons debate, on the vexed topic of nut allergies on flights could, it might be argued, have yielded fewer lengthy considerations than some other important elements of the body politic, but with counter-terrorism and the HSBC scandal on the agenda of the Lords,  7.30 didn't thus seem to be a particularly risky time to arrive for at least one chamber to still be operating; surely our hard working representatives would be bringing their fine minds to bear on the important details of their country's legislative agenda for a little while yet? After all, it was only Monday.  Half days in public service normally don't crop up until at least Thursday do they?

Not a bit of it.  Our evening journey to Westminster had been in vain.  The pleasant officials on duty at the gate broke the news to us gently but firmly that there were no sittings still going on.  Business was done. Democracy was on hold.

Getting a bunch of teenagers to agree to extend their working day is never easy.  When it's proved to be in vain it is well nigh a disaster.  There was no explaining away this one.  My earlier  exhortations that they were in for some high level political debate looked as hollow as an Easter egg.  A lame group photo later, and our trip was done. 

MPs workloads? As mythical as Stephen Fry's God.

Lesson Resources

The first of the powerpoints (from the lessons) for AS students are now up and published here (Link also opposite for easy access).  I will keep adding to the resources on the "SGS Politics Extra" blog, including relevant resources to complement AS Unit 2 and A2 resources for Global Politics (3D) and the US (4C). 

Electoral Domesday - could the next government be the second and fourth placed parties?

It was conventional wisdom that the AV referendum in 2011 had effectively 'parked' the issue of electoral reform for a generation or so.  Just, of course, as it was conventional wisdom that the Scottish referendum would also 'park' the issue of Scottish independence.  Neither of these wisdoms look very secure now.  In the case of Scotland, the problem was that the referendum was never allowed to run its proper course as with a week to go David Cameron and his fellow English party leaders changed the issue to something that wasn't on the ballot paper - gerrymandering of a high order.  In the case of electoral reform, Professor John Curtice's interesting figures look as if they too could bring the issue of reform firmly back into the main stream - and, since they were published by the Electoral Reform society that's probably what they were intended to do.

Professor Curtice notes that the key factor for success in the First Past the Post system is the geographic concentration of votes, and he further adds that this is effectively undermining the national claim of the system to be a "winner takes all" one.  His findings (full report here; Electoral Reform summary here) suggest the possibility of a Labour Party which comes second in votes securing the highest number of seats, and being shoehorned into government by an SNP which may well have come only sixth in terms of UK-wide votes, but have enough seats to secure Labour a majority in a coalition.

Curtice looks at the relative prospects of the smaller parties, on whom much of the election outcome will depend, and finds that the SNPs geographic concentration of votes could well propel them into winning significantly higher numbers of seats than the more geographically spread UKIP, even if UKIP scores significantly more votes.  To add to the possible post-election chaos is, of course, the fact that not only will SNP MPs only hail from one part of the UK, but - since the notorious devolution 'vow' - it is part with barely any domestic issues actually decided at Westminster.

Curtice discussed his report on the 'Today' programme (scroll in to around 45.55 minutes) and it makes fascinating listening.  No longer is the issue of whether FPTP throws up another coalition the only point of discussion.  Just as crucial, given the SNP surge in support (largely at Labour's expense in Scotland) is the question of who the coalition might actually comprise.  Thus, to the disproportionality of FPTP is added the unresolved headache of an incomplete devolution settlement.

If this looks like an issue of unfairness to the main parties - and I suspect it is the Tories who would make the most ground on this - then they might like to reflect that their own leaders have led them to this potential impasse.  All three leaders were guilty of panicking att he sight of the Scottish referendum polling figures, and unforgivably altered the basis of the referendum with no thought to the consequences.  In addition, only Clegg campaigned for reform of the Westminster system when he argued for the AV option in the referendum, although his acceptance of a hopelessly skewed referendum question (which only posited AV as an alternative, rather than the principle of proportionality) showed, at best, considerable political naivety.  David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, have consistently failed to consider the inequities of the FPTP system, and then fell foul of their coalition partners in the tit-for-tat of blocking Lords reform (the Conservatives) and constituency boundary changes (the Lib Dems).

Whatever mess emerges after the next election, it is an irony that the men responsible for its genesis will also be the ones charged with resolving it.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

So could Clegg be PM after the election?

Well yes, for a few days, is the broad theme of a Huffington Post "exclusive" today.  The piece is an interview with former Lib Dem Defence minister Nick Harvey, who speculates that if David Cameron decided to resign as Conservative leader following a poor showing in the election, a hung parliament could result in coalition negotiations taking place with Nick Clegg holding the fort as interim Prime Minister.  Far-fetched?  Absolutely.  And we still have three months or so of wild speculation making headlines as news 'fact'.

The problem for Clegg, anyway, seems to lie closer to home.  I've always maintained that if disillusioned Lib Dem voters voted Labour, as a protest against the Lib Dems' willingness to be in coalition with the Conservatives, then many of their seats would actually fall not to Labour but to the Conservatives, from whom the incumbent MPs took the setas in the first place.  Clegg's Sheffield Hallam seat is one example - once a Tory stronghold, he seized it from them in 2005.  However, a Survation poll of the seat, reported on Labourlist, puts Labour ahead of Clegg in that seat.  If there is a momentum towards the Labour candidate there, then it certainly seems likely that the anti-coalition vote might be able to coalesce around him to the extent that it takes the seat and deprives Clegg of any further involvement in negotiating new coalitions.  Nevertheless, it is still worth remembering that the seat is a prosperous, and actually quite rural one; certainly not natural Labour territory under a left-wing leader.  I wouldn't write off either Clegg or the Tories just yet.

CORRECTION: I have said in the post above that Nick Clegg won the Hallam seat in 2005 from the Tories.  In fact, he succeeded Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan, who won it off the Tories in the meltdown of 1997.

Nick Clegg has also now gone on record to ridicule the Survation poll findings.


Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Could Italian politics be moving in a new direction?

Short post this, really to highlight an interesting piece by Catherine Gegout on the Nottingham Uni politics blog about the new Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

For all those who thought Italian politics had no chance of ever not being mired in corruption - Gegout notes that Italy is the most corrupt state in the EU - the choice of Mattarella seems to mark a turning point.  His election as president by parliament also represents another piece of anti-Berlusconi manouevring by current prime minister, Matteo Renzi.  Well worth heading over to the article and getting a bit of quick immersement in Italian politics.   

Commons comedy, courtesy of the Speccie's sketchwriter

There is a long history - dating all the way back to the 1970s in its modern form - of Commons sketch writing, which is to say reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons and our noble representatives as they sit debating our best interests within it, and doing so in a humorous fashion.  Andrew Alexander possibly started it in the modern newspapers, Frank Johnson and Edward Pearce have been masters of the art, and Quentin Letts keeps the satirical bile flowing today, amongst others.  It's almost as if these collected writers believe that either the Commons isn't funny enough on its own merits, or that the ludicrous pomposity of the inhabitants we have sent there needs exposing on a regular basis.

There is no better forum for such scathing wit than the weekly Prime Minister's Questions.  I'm not sure whether this regular bun fight has ever provided much illumination, but it has certainly been operating several stages below the average playground brawl in the hands of the current incumbent and his opposite number.  And Cameron was the man who once piously announced he would do away with "Punch and Judy" politics.  Honestly.  Politicians and their promises.

Anyway, I mention all this, in a rather long-winded way, to flag up the Spectator's brilliant Lloyd Evans, whose report of today's seemingly dire PMQs is, frankly, a masterpiece of richly comic observation.

His description of Cameron as a man who is "slipperier than a jellyfish emerging from an oil-slick" has an almost Wodehousian quality to it, while he describes one Labour backbencher as "a floppy haired Scouser who looks like an angry Beatle".  His greatest description today, though, is of the SNP's Angus Robertson, of whom he says "the stars that twinkled at his birth allotted him a superhuman store of charmlessness".   There's every chance we come away from chortling over Evans' sketch rather more wise in the ways of PMQs than if we'd simply watched it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Tories remain in their laager, despite not shifting in the polls

Business leaders like Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer have been leaping in to the political arena to attack Labour's policy proposals, but it doesn't look as if this is doing much to shift the Tory position.  It has been flat-lining at around 32% for a year now.  Admittedly, Labour too has failed to shift things, remaining a mere 1% ahead of the Conservatives in the first month of this year, despite the high-energy campaigning.

It is more than probable that despite the attention being focused on the election - still over three months away - in the Westminster village, few ordinary voters are taking much notice. The biggest electoral trend has been the increase of the SNP's position in Scotland, which is likely to act to the detriment of Labour, but could cause a significant problem for all of the English parties when it comes to getting English legislation through parliament (a difficulty highlighted today by William Hague's inability to unite the parliamentary party behind his English laws proposal).

The Conservatives can draw little comfort from Labour's position in Scotland.  They remain under threat from UKIP, but more importantly have failed to move their opinion poll position despite concerted efforts to do so and the running of a narrative that seeks to confer on Cameron the benefits of incumbency whilst targeting Miliband as unfit to be Prime Minister.

Adam Bienkov has a piece on today analysing the polling situation, and he has this cutting but on the nail comment about the Tory party:

After a year of strong economic recovery and declining trust in Labour and Miliband, any other governing party would expect to be sweeping up support by now. The fact that voters would still rather plump for almost any other party instead, suggests that the Tories have fundamental problems they are simply refusing to face up to.
There are occasionally signs of realisation. The party's continuing low support among the young, ethnic minorities, working class voters and indeed anyone outside the South East of England, have been repeatedly raised by some figures on the fringes of the party. Occasionally these concerns are listened to. Usually they are ignored.
In fact rather than face up to these problems they have instead retreated back to the same electoral comfort zone that has failed to win them a majority for over twenty years. Endlessly banging on about immigration, Europe and welfare have failed to win dividends for the party for decades and yet they continue to do it anyway.
They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Well the Tories have been doing the same thing for almost a quarter of a century now and yet still they stand back in amazement when the opinion polls refuse to budge.

This absolutely encapsulates the Tory problem, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  Their failure to reach out to a wider electorate remains their Achilles heel, and yet they persistently look to the wrong answer - the belief that they just need to be more right-wing.  How many election defeats will it take for the moderate right to re-group and form a genuinely popular centre-right party?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Miliband not a weirdo shock, and a replacement for Merlin

My earlier post suggested that the Labour party had had a pretty dire week last week, so by way of balance here's some good news for the would-be Labour supporter.

First off is the report on Labourlist that the party has increased its membership.  Once you acknowledge Labourlist as a cheerleader for the party, it is nonetheless the case that they have produced figures that would give some cheer to Ed Miliband as he looks at a membership rise that appears to be beating the Tories (at 194,000 Labour members to just under 150,000 for the Tories).  Mind you, the Tories' Grant Shapps also claims a number of 224,000 if you include non-paying 'supporters', which seems like a very dubious calculation.  None of those figures, by the way, is particularly cheering for the parties, representing as they do somewhere around 1% of the electorate.

If that isn't enough to cheer the Labour leader, he might also want to gloat a little at the results of a Lord Ashcroft focus group poll, reported by Guido, that has most voters likening David Cameron to Dick Dastardly when asked to compare party leaders to cartoon characters.  Not that Miliband's cartoon alter ego - Elmer Fudd - is much more encouraging.

Miliband has also been doing a Q and A with younger voters, and while his answer about his life experience outside politics might have been wanting (he noted he had been a Treasury adviser and a lecturer at Harvard - lecturing about politics!), the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reports that he generally came across well.  All the more effective for being so regularly lampooned as a sub-human weirdo.

And then there are the people who "really, really, really" like Ed Miliband, which is good news for students like my school's mock election Labour candidate, who maintain that Ed Miliband is in reality a visionary and articulate leader who will wipe the floor with Cameron.  Well, it turns out Tom is not alone, as the Spectator's 'Steerpike' discovers the tweets that rave about Miliband's amazing quotes.

Finally, it seemed that Conservative Home had ventured into popular culture when I noticed the sub-heading "A replacement for Merlin - at last".  Could this be a reference to the BBC's tortuous road to finding another popular family fantasy programme, after the cancellation of "Atlantis" in only its second series?  Alas no - the Merlin in this story was a rather prosaic voter contact database, now being replaced by the less ambitiously named "Votesource".  The BBC's search presumably continues.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Labour's election nightmare

You might have thought that the Syriza victory in Greece would have given Labour a bit of a lift.  After all, here was electoral proof that anti-austerity campaigning worked.  In one of the hardest hit countries of them all too.  Instead, it provoked a debate about Labour's political caution that then lapped over into their heartland topic of the NHS.

The Guardian's Zoe Williams used the syriza victory to ask why Labour wasn't taking a leaf out of their Greek counterparts' playbook and pursuing a more radical line in "standing up to the moneymen".  Must have been music to Ed Miliband's ears.  Or not, perhaps, for as the New Statesman's Anoosh Chakeelian noted, Mr. Miliband was slow and cautious in his own response to the triumph of the Greek left.

Then the NHS reared its head.  Labour have been playing this as a key election winner for them for ages.  Alas, when shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham appeared on Newsnight on Tuesday, it was  to give a disastrous and bad-tempered interview which saw him cornered by Kirsty Wark over the issue of just how much private provision might be acceptable in a Labour run NHS.  This caused the Telegraph's commentator on all things Labour, Dan Hodges, to predict a Cameron victory in May, not least because of Labour's inability to come up with a decent and consistent narrative on the NHS.

And the battle just keeps on raging.  After Alan Milburn attacked the Labour strategy on the NHS, the fight was joined by Roy Hattersely, defending Miliband against Milburn.  Even the Labour's most admired 'lost leader', Alan Johnson, is rumoured to be muttering about the party's dark mood.  Anyway, for a bit of light relief, here's that Burnham interview again, just in case you'd forgotten the clear, lucid and calm defence he offers which is clearly going to see the Tories into the electoral ditch.

Stephen Fry's Acolytes

Stephen Fry is an eloquent, sometimes amusing, and entertaining man.  He undoubtedly has a brain which can move effortlessly amongst a range of topics, but he's neither philosopher nor theologian.  I'm not sure he's ever claimed to be, in fairness.  So his emotional response to a question on an Irish television show about what he would say to God was just that - an emotional response from an atheist who hates the whole construct of God.  It was nothing new, nothing deep and nothing surprising, and it was said for the most part in a remarkably good-humoured fashion.

So what on earth do we make of the vast army of Fry acolytes who have taken to twitter and online media to proclaim his "outburst" the most eloquent thing ever!  The Huffington Post headlined their report "Atheist Stephen Fry Delivers Incredible Answer....", and that was mild compared to some of the facebook comments which proclaimed Fry the most brilliant responder ever to such a question.  Alas, poor lemmings.  Fry offers anger - in a similar vein to that which has been served up many times before - but no thought.  To hear his supporters you'd think he had single-handedly revealed to us the "Problem of Evil".  So bad luck Thomas Aquinas, Epicurus, Augustine of Hippo, Kant, Hume, C.S.Lewis and countless other Christian and non-Christian writers and thinkers alike who have sought to grapple with the problem.

That the problem of evil remains at the heart of much our spiritual thinking is tortuously apparent, but must we really contend with the problem of over-weaning celebrity elevation too?  As for attempts to respond to the God hatred that Fry espoused, I found this piece by Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft to be a clear one.
And this tweet from blogger Archbishop Cranmer be an appropriate one:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Tory Leadership Jostling - Again

They are far from having the next election in the bag, even with Ed Milliband as Labour leader, but that isn't stopping senior Tories spending more time on their possible leadership beauty contest.  Someone should remind them that leadership is a lot more satisfying in government, and they might like to keep half an eye on staying there.

It looks as if one over-exposed potential candidate - Boris of course - and one already over-exposed Cabinet minister - Sajid Javid - are both jostling for the all-important Euro-sceptic vote.  Javid's back story has already made him the darling of  Conservative MPs and the right-wing commentariat, and he's been beefing it up with reminders that he's basically a good Thatcherite ever since he hit the headlines. His 'House' magazine interview also ensures we all know - as if we hadn't already figured it out - that yes, he's a euro-sceptic too.  Boris is consistently all over the place, but he never intentionally misses a populist opportunity, and so has been telling 'Time' magazine that a British exit from Europe would be very manageable indeed - Guido gives the relevant quote here.

The pity about Javid is that he combines an interesting back story with pretty well the whole panoply of right-wing opinions that appeal so much to hard-core Tory members and the Conservative columnists, but so consistently fail to do much to elect Tory governments.  Since John Major, over the course of four Tory leaders, the only one to have been elected - and then on a minority basis - has been David Cameron, also the only one not to have embraced rightist notions in his pre-election period.  The other three, determined euro-sceptics and neo-Thatcherites all, got nowhere near (and one didn't make it to the election).

David Cameron remains far more popular than his party, but while his party is still pretty toxic with the voters, he is pretty toxic with Conservative MPs.  You do sometimes wonder whether Tory MPs and their cheerleaders are existing in some Kafka-esque universe where they will only be happy if they elect the most right-wing of leaders, only to watch him (or her) fail, so that they can begin the "actually he wasn't right-wing enough" post-mortem.   The Tory Party used to be focused on unity behind a leader, and pragmatic centrism towards the electorate.  The defenestration of Margaret Thatcher saw the abandonment of both, and they've never won a majority since.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How ignoring human rights has moulded today's world crises

There are times when I box "human rights" into a little, separate compartment of my overall fascination with global politics, seeing it as the well-meaning pursuit of a handful of liberals who are banging their noble heads against the brick wall of political realism.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone's rights were respected, but no they can hardly be expected to get in the way of the often unpleasant and dirty business of keeping afloat in the mucky world of international relations.  If I keep failing to make the link between an increasingly volatile, war-strewn world and a general western disinterest in human rights, then yes, go ahead and condemn my superficiality and short-sightedness.  But then reflect on the unhappy fact that it is shared - sometimes cynically so - by most of the western public and its duly elected leaders.

This keynote post by Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth on their World Report 2015 has been a real wake-up call, not least because he has so persuasively rooted the continuing abuse of human rights in the unfolding political tragedies around the world.  And its persuasive because, really, we know that the tragic equation he is articulating is right.  It isn't just blind fundamentalism which is driving ISIS's many followers - look at the world they are escaping from and fighting against.  People do usually act from rational motives, and what can be more rational than the desire to fight for your rights and your well-being against oppressive, murderous states.  Does it really surprise us that ISIS's principal theatre of operations, and success, is in two countries whose regimes have relentlessly and brutally suppressed the rights of their minorities?  That Boko Haram might just be a response to the corruption and abuses of the Nigerian government?  That maybe the pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine have legitimate grievances against abuses from the pro-western militias? 

Roth's article is a must-read for a better, more nuanced, and morally based understanding of world affairs.  And then, when you've done with that - and it's a long, wide-ranging read - have a look at another piece by an HRW operator, this time on the forgotten war that Russia is waging in Dagestan. 

Human rights becomes more than a decent liberal pursuit; it becomes a crucial prism through which to understand the turbulent 21st century world. 

Sullydish Bows Out

One of my favourite blogs has been Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish".  It's been running for years, mainly under the auspices of the different publications that Andrew Sullivan has written for - the Atlantic, the Daily Beast - and whichever publication has sponsored it it has always maintained a very individual approach.  And it was exhaustive.  Sullivan updated his thing many times a day; it was pretty exhausting keeping up if you wanted to be a regular reader, but he so often unearthed good stuff elsewhere on the web, or provided his own eloquent arguments and counter-arguments that he was a must-read, whether several times daily, daily, weekly, occasionally - never less than fascinating.

One of the early political bloggers to make a splash, he's finishing up now.  He's been running the Dish as an independent company for the past two years, and while the revenue's been healthy his "note to my readers" talks about the exhausting nature of blogging several times a day, responding, reading, staying abreast of everything......  Reading some of the professional blogger responses to his news,  they join with him in noting how all-consuming their immersion in the digital world has been. 

Is this important?  Well, if you read and rely on Sullivan's Dish then clearly yes.  If you've never come across it, obviously no.  But it has this.  Sullivan was an early pioneer of a digital conversation that grew to include huge numbers of people, who would never have been able to raise their voices in a public forum before and which in a way prefigured the enormous twittersphere and the advance of citizen media.  Sullivan was a journalist and professional writer, but his blog was produced in such a way as to give voice to many diverse readers who were not.  It also directed readers to a host of other articles and posts elsewhere on a rapidly expanding web.  Most of all it was a clear, distinctive voice in the national, and international conversation.

There was a point at which thousands of blogs were being set up daily, many unread except by their authors, many fading quickly into dis-use, because actually blogging requires discipline and commitment.  Many of us who blog do so largely for ourselves, pleased if we garner a handful of readers every so often, but adding more to the noise of the internet ether than to its elucidation and, whilst parading our of course centrally important viewpoints we are probably not extending them very far.  Sullivan's blog added to the noise, certainly, but it became a huge noise that drew people towards it and provoked myriad responses.  That was what blogging could be at its finest, a world which one commentator on the Dish's imminent demise (Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith as it happens) suggests is fast disappearing as new media alters and changes.

But as Sullivan, and several of his responders, notes, the digital life started to take over.  Ridiculously so.  And he has decided to head back into a real world of contemplative reading, responses that don't have to be instant, writing at length and over time, and relating to his human friends again.  In person.  Face to face sort of thing.

I've enjoyed Sullivan's blogging, really appreciated his brilliant and passionate advocacy of Obama's politics and presidency, enjoyed the many views from people's windows that he's published; but I'm looking forward to reading his next stuff, honed over time, and as I read his 'last post' I'm aware of just what a minnow an erratic and small-scale blog like this is (which is sort of humbling), but also how I could never have gone for it in the way he has.  But I'm glad he did.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Greece's Left Turn

It looks as if the Greek left party Syriza is heading for a big win in today's General Election, even if it is not yet clear whether the party headed by putative Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cna yet gain a majority.  What is clear is that Greek voters have decided to see if they can bluff the EU into easing up on their austerity conditions for the huge bail-out received in the wake of their economic crisis.

Greece's economic crisis was deeper than most other western countries because Greece's feather-bedding of its public servants was so much more generous.  Greek voters, it seems, have had enough of their dalliance with austerity, although in giving their support to Syriza it's difficult to see what they think the party is now going to be able to offer.  Greece remains in hoc to EU bail-out funds, backed by a Germany which is less bothered by the prospect of Greece leaving the eurozone than she once was.

Greek voters have sent a message that says they don't like tough economic measures and want an easier life.  It's hardly a revolutionary stance for an electorate, but it might end up leading to a revolutionary event - the Greek departure from the euro.  Then the lessons really do begin, for if such a departure sees Greece actually benefitting (Abbie Martin posits this possibility in a level-headed analysis of the Greek election result on the Spectator blog here) it could well encourage other resurgent left-wing parties in Europe, also indulging in anti-austerity populism, to believe they can achieve victory and hang the cost to Europe.

It's not often in modern times that election results in Greece are so eagerly pored over, but the consequences of Syriza's victory could be profound, and the European project significantly changed.

The separation of "British Values" from Christian ethos

Is Ofsted trying to wage a campaign against Christian schools, perhaps seeing them as distant cousins to the Islamic schools that have been causing controversy?  It certainly seems like it, if the decisions in the north-east are anything to go by.  One Christian free school has already had to close, while another - Grindon Hall - has been placed in special measures.  I know a little about Grindon Hall, having met teachers and pupils from there and hearing very positive reports from other friends who have visited the school.  It was doing well enough for parents to pay for their children to go there when it was independent, and not unreasonably the head took the opportunity of the free schools programme to offer his clearly popular education brand to a wider range of parents, free of charge.  Enter Ofsted.  With the new "British values" criteria grasped firmly in hand, they have graded the school inadequate, despite its apparent success in public exams.  The key thing about Grindon Hall, of course, is that it is a Christian school, promoting Christian values.

The Spectator's Damian Thompson is in no doubt that the Ofsted campaign can happen because Michael Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan (author of the "British values" document), but you don't have to be a fully paid up Gove-ite (I'm not) to believe that there is something rather strange about a good-performing Christian school being placed in special measures because it does not adhere to "British" values.