A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On "Class War"

There's a rather false debate going on in the media and parts of the blogosphere about whether Labour is or should be adopting a "Class War" strategy. My take is:

  • The main proponents of class warfare in British politics are actually the Tories. They are suggesting a Thatcherite response to the recession which is a direct attack on the social and economic interests of working class and middle class people because it would involve higher unemployment and cuts to public services which are both used by and provided by ordinary people, not people from David Cameron and George Osborne's background. If they are so disinterested in class why don't they propose putting some of the burden of cutting the deficit on the best off through taxation? Er... because that's the class their party exists to represent.
  • It isn't Cameron and Osborne's background per se that is being attacked - it's their lack of empathy for or political prioritisation of the interests of people who aren't as privileged as them. Clement Attlee went to Haileybury, Hugh Dalton went to Eton and was the son of Queen Victoria's Chaplain, Hugh Gaitskell went to Winchester. But they dedicated their lives to trying to create a more equal society and to combating both poverty and the entrenched privilege that they themselves had benefited from. You have to ask why Hugh Dalton was able to emerge from Eton and become a redistributionist Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the impact of the same high quality education on Cameron has been to produce an man so unimaginative he defaults to being a Tory and protecting the economic interests of people like himself.
  • If Labour chose to set up a "Class War" electoral strategy that put our core vote (assuming this consists of blue collar and public sector workers, people on welfare and BME communities) on one side and "Middle England" on the other side we would be pretty suicidal. We couldn't win elections just on our core vote fifty years ago - even less so now after decades of declining class identification, de-industrialisation and embourgeoisement (i.e. working class people starting to have middle class lifestyles with home-ownership and overseas holidays) which have reduced our core vote to about 25% of the electorate, and population movement from urban to suburban areas means that 25% of the vote will deliver far fewer seats than it used to in, say, 1983.
  • However, if the strategy is to fire up our core vote and increase its turnout without alienating Middle England that's a good plan. A winning coalition for Labour has to include both the core vote and what Australians call the "Battlers" and the Americans described as "Reagan Democrats" - people whose parents identified as working class but who themselves are homeowners with white collar or skilled blue collar jobs, people who have comfortable lifestyles when the economy is going well but have to work really hard to get and sustain those lifestyles and struggle or feel threatened when things are bad. These people will be alienated by any perceived attack on aspiration but my hunch is they are just as likely to be resentful of the kind of privilege represented by Eton, the Bullingdon Club, inheritance tax cuts and support for fox hunting as Labour's core vote is.
  • We may be able to drive a wedge between the Tories and one of the key segments of voters that provide them with winning coalitions by exposing how privileged their leadership are - the kind of Sun-reading blue collar sometimes-Tory voters who liked right-to-buy and respected self-made Tories like Tebbit or Thatcher are unlikely to feel much in common culturally with Cameron or Osborne.
  • We need to be a bit careful because from where the vast majority of the population are sat economically and socially it isn't just Old Etonians who are privileged and "different" - our own frontbench with its sons of the Manse (Brown) and sons of academics (Balls and both Milibands) and profusion of Oxford PPE graduates looks pretty posh and privileged to most voters. We need to remember that in most communities MPs, GPs, Teachers, Vicars and indeed anyone who reads a non-tabloid newspaper are a tiny elite, not the "middle" class. Basically Alan Johnson and Derek Simpson can get away with battering the Tories on class privilege, most of the rest of our people need to be a bit more circumspect.

Labour resurgence in the North

Monday's FT had an interesting article looking at the regional breakdown of recent polls.

It quotes ICM as saying that the Tories have gone from being 4% ahead in September across the three standard statistical regions making up the pollsters' North (North, North West and Yorkshire & Humberside) to 14% behind Labour in December.

The political significance of this is that the North West and Yorkshire are packed full of marginal seats - particularly in the area of high levels of owner-occupation on either side of the Pennines (East Lancashire and West Yorkshire).

The regional distribution of the 117 seats the Tories need to gain to have an overall majority of is a more even one than might be expected given the media preoccupation with the south and Midlands as the main battlegrounds:

London - 13 seats (10 Lab, 3 LD)
South East - 15 seats (12 Lab, 3 LD)
South West - 17 seats (11 LD, 6 Lab)
East - 8 seats (all Lab)
East Midlands - 10 seats (all Lab)
West Midlands - 16 seats (14 Lab, 1 Ind, 1 LD)
North West - 15 seats (13 Lab, 2 LD)
Yorkshire & Humberside - 12 seats (11 Lab, 1 LD)
North - 2 seats (1 Lab, 1 LD)
Wales - 5 seats (4 Lab, 1 LD)
Scotland - 4 seats (2 Lab, 2 SNP)

We already know that the Tories have been under-performing in Scotland and may not make any gains at all there. Labour also relatively over-performed in London in both the 2008 GLA elections and the 2009 Euro elections compared to the voting in the rest of the UK on the same days. And I can't see the Tories gaining all their 11 Lib Dem target seats in the South West given how good the Lib Dems are at defending seats where they are the incumbents. And now if we accept the FT's analysis we can add in a group of another 29 "must-win" marginals where the Tories are not making the headway they should.

When you go through the list of 117 in order it is also clear that generally the Northern marginals are tougher nuts to crack than the southern ones. The front end of the list includes a lot of Kent seats and New Towns around London, the difficult end of the list includes a lot of Lancashire and Yorkshire seats.

The problem for the Tories is that if they are doing disproportionately well in the south to compensate for their comparative weakness in the north, this won't help them form an overall majority. To win a majority without taking all their first 117 targets they need to take "deep attack" seats further down the list. And these hardly exist in the south - Labour doesn't have many southern seats and those in does have are almost all already in the list of the first 117 marginals. Just as Labour can't form an overall majority without taking a fair number of seats in the south outside London, the Tories can't form an overall majority without taking a bunch of seats in a broad corridor between Wakefield in the east and Bolton in the west.

The social characteristic of these seats is that for historic reasons they have far higher levels of inexpensive owner-occupied housing than similar seats would in the South, Scotland or Midlands. They therefore have voters who have mortgages when they are on lower incomes than in other parts of the country and are a lot more vulnerable to housing-related adverse economic conditions such as negative equity and high interest rates. If these voters lose their jobs they also lose their homes, which social housing residents don't. So my hunch is they have taken a look at a Tory economic policy which would increase their chances of being both homeless and jobless by prematurely switching off the stimulus package and decided they can't risk it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The rollercoaster continues

ComRes:

Con 38% (-3)
Lab 29% (+5)
LD 19% (-2)
Others 14% (unchanged)

This would produce a hung parliament on a uniform swing.

Change is since 10th December so maybe this is the first of the post-post-PBR polls?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Season of Goodwill

The spirit of the season seems to have reached Compass, who have emailed me to "give a massive thank you to everyone who has supported Compass over the last 12 months".

Thanks guys, I couldn't do this without the inspiration you provide...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sorry will not save us

My friend Jessica Asato of Progress has an interesting post on Labourlist saying that Labour should apologise for a range of policy mistakes (http://www.labourlist.org/why-labour-should-apologise-jessica-asato) and that this might help us win the coming General Election.

I beg to differ.

As regular readers will know, I like to look for excuses to quote Morrissey lyrics, so here goes:

"Sorry Doesn't Help
Sorries pour out of you
All wide-eyed simple smiles
certain to see you through
like a QC full of fake humility
you say:"Oh, please forgive..."
you say:"Oh, live and let live..."
but sorry doesn't help us
and sorry will not save us"

So why won't sorry save Labour?

1) We won't be able to agree on what to say sorry for. Jess picks three issues: over kow-towing to finance, Iraq and lack of constitutional reform. I kind of agree with her about the first, if she means that we didn't prioritise regrowing Britain's manufacturing base, but expecting a PM who was Chancellor for ten years to apologise for policies that gave us ten years of economic growth is not a starter, and whilst I accept Labour should have regulated the City more tightly I'm not going to sign up to anything that implies culpability for the current financial crisis, which was caused by sub-prime mortgage lending in America and nothing to do with UK policies. On the second, there are still a great many of us who think Iraq was the right thing to do and that nit-picking about the decision-making process or conflicting legal advice is the last resort of people who have lost a moral argument. On the third, I'm a great enthusiast for proportional representation, devolution to regions and to councils, and a wholly elected House of Lords. But me and Jess are in a minority on this - most Labour MPs and most of our Cabinet are constitutional conservatives. So trying to choose things to apologise for would split the Party.

2) Voters want positive reasons to vote for a Party, not a public reminder of things they disagreed with in the past. We have enough positive things to say about our record and about our vision. We need to get the narrative of the election focused on those, not stuck in the divisions of the past.

3) The issues Jess picked are not actually that resonant with most voters. We won in 2005 when Iraq was a far more resonant issue, despite losing a large lump of Muslim, student and urban liberal votes to the Lib Dems. Now Iraq is ancient history for most voters, and the groups who went AWOL in 2005 are mainly back on board but we've lost a whole bunch of other voters for whom the economy is the main issue. Constitutional reform is of great interest to people like me and Jess who live in London N post codes but of virtually no interest to either our core vote or the swing voters who decide elections.

4) I'm a great advocate of saying "sorry" in politics if you are an individual politician who has made a mistake or changed your judgement on an issue. But for an entire Party to issue a collective mea culpa for judgements that were collectively arrived at after extensive debate is basically to say to the electorate "we're so useless even we can't defend our record. Please kick us even harder on polling day. And you can never trust our judgement again because we can't even trust ourselves to get the big issues right."

5) It's fine for individual MPs and PPCs to distance themselves from unpopular party decisions if they had the moral courage to rebel in the first place. I have no problem with John Denham, who resigned as a minister over Iraq, saying "told you so" or asking his Southampton electors to take his personal stance into consideration. In 2005 I ran as a PPC explicitly condemning two of the three most contentious Labour flagship policies: top-up tuition fees and foundation hospitals. But the party as a whole backing a line, then discovering post hoc it was unpopular or flawed and applying a retrospective u-turn isn't likely to make voters sympathetic - they'll just think we are two-faced and go whichever way the wind blows.

6) The James Crabtree piece that Jess cites claims Cameron has apologised for the past mistakes of the Tories. In fact he hasn't. He's changed the Tory position on some iconic issues but the fundamentals of their economic approach are those of hardline Thatcherism and he has not said anything to indicate contrition for the record of the Thatcher and Major governments.

7) Why focus on one or two things the public didn't like at the expense of the 98% of our record that has been great? There are enough people outside the Labour Party and on our daft wing (Compass et al) highlighting perceived Labour failures without party moderates joining in. We should adopt the slogan (and attitude) of the Swedish Social Democrats which saw them repeatedly returned to power: "Proud but not satisfied".

If we are going to win this year it will be because we, Labour's "true believers", do what our Australian counterparts did to win a fourth term against the odds in 1993, and what Harry Truman did to win a fifth term for the Democrats in 1948: keep our heads high, keep fighting, don't apologise for anything, don't accept the right's narrative about our record, and stick a banner in the ground for our people to rally round.

If we lose then we can either spend four years navel-gazing and debating "where did it all go wrong", which is a strategy guaranteed to split the party and lead us to adopt electorally unpopular policies to make ourselves feel better; or we can establish a narrative that Labour's time in power was great for the party, great for the country, and the sooner we get these Tories kicked out and carry on where we left off, the better.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Council by-election result

Just one by-election yesterday:

Earlswood and Whitebushes Ward, Reigate & Banstead BC. Con hold. Con 391 (37.9%, -12.8), LD 316 (30.4%, +6.7), Lab 161 (15.5%, -0.8), UKIP 125 (12.1%, +2.8), BNP 41 (4%, +4). Swing of 9.8% from Con to LD since 2008.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Why the UK went to war in Iraq

I'm a bit surprised that the coverage of Tony Blair's remarks about his motives for the UK joining the US in invading Iraq has focused on a rather crude distinction between it either being about the presence of WMD or about regime change.

Both the belief (founded on everyone's intelligence, even what the anti-war French and Russians believed) that Saddam had a current stock of WMD, and the desire to free Iraq from his murderous dictatorship and the region from a destabilising influence were good arguments. It turns out one of them was based on duff information but no one knew that or argued that he didn't have WMD at the time, not least because he had actually used poison gas on his own Kurdish citizens in Halabja as long ago as 1988, and because he kept saying he had them. My general principle when dealing with mad dictators who have previously used WMD and say they have got it would be to take this at face value just to be on the safe side.

For me at the time, and now, the most powerful argument for Saddam's removal is one that does not get rehearsed now by the media but I can remember was deployed far more by Blair then than the accusation that WMD were a current threat, which didn't get much more than a one line reference in the so-called dodgy dossier.

This argument was that whether or not Saddam had a current operational stock of WMD he represented a potential future WMD threat not just to other countries in the region but to Europe and possibly the UK if left in power. This was because:
  • his previous WMD programmes, covering all three of the Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons trio, were well evidenced and indicated an ability within Iraq to do the science again to re-develop such weapons programmes (and I can't help reminding all the people who questioned this developing country's ability to produce the stuff that chemical warfare was easy enough for participants in WW1 to develop, nuclear warfare is a 1940s technology, and biological warfare has been with us since Roman times)
  • his track record of using gas against the Kurds indicated a willingness to use WMD and a disdain for civilian casualties that was fairly unique amongst world governments at the time. I.e. if he could develop them he wouldn't just use them as a deterrent, he'd use them offensively and as a tool for power projection.
  • the third and critical factor was that you need a delivery vehicle - usually a missile, but could be a guy with a suitcase, to get WMD to their target if that is Rome or Paris or London and you are in Baghdad. Until the turn of the decade there was no chance of Iraq getting the kind of ballistic missiles that would have the range to hit European cities. But about then the North Koreans started developing fairly long range missiles and proving they had them by firing them out over Japan into the Pacific. And North Korea isn't choosy about who it sells missiles to, particularly as at that point its Communist economic system meant a large percentage of its population were enduring a famine, and it desperately needed hard currency from abroad.

My understanding was that it was the combination of these three factors: WMD science capability, will to use WMD and suddenly easy to obtain delivery vehicles, that convinced the US and UK that there was a threat that left in power Saddam was about a decade away from being able to blackmail, threaten and possibly attack European countries with weapons that would cause mass civilian casualties. Post 9/11 that level of risk was something the US in particular was not prepared to tolerate.

Regime change of course not only freed the Iraqi people from life under a monster, it removed the only world leader in possession of the three factors above.

I know it's not politically fashionable to say so, but I still think it was the right thing to do for the UK's security and the safety of the public here. The problem with the preemptive removal of a future threat is that you can never prove what would have happened if you had not done it. But I am very glad we have not had to find out the hard way, and nor have nearer neighbouring countries, what Saddam could have done to us if left in power.

The forward march of Labour renewed

Tonight's ICM poll:

Con 40% (no change)
Lab 31% (+2)
LD 18% (-1)

Best ICM score for Labour since March.

Yesterday's YouGov poll:

Con 40% (no change)
Lab 31% (+4)
LD 16% (-2)

Equal best YouGov score for Labour since April.

Being a partisan blogger whose aim in life is to cheer up Labour supporters, I'm using my editorial prerogative to ignore Sunday's ComRes poll.

The Green Party in power

This is what happens when the Green Party gets into power. In Ireland the Greens are part of a coalition government with Fianna Fail, the Irish equivalent of the Tories.

They are voting for a budget with a horrific cuts package targeted at the unemployed, people on benefit, and public sector workers.

One of their TDs, Paul Gogarty, doesn't like held to account for this by Labour Chief Whip Emmet Stagg TD and has rather lost his temper in the Dail ... warning this clip includes expletives:


video

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Council by-elections

Reaction to the PBR seems to be good if tonight's by-election results are anything to go by - four Labour gains, in Dorset, Wyre Forest, Nuneaton and Hampshire, and big swings to Labour in the Hastings & Rye and Westminster North parliamentary marginals. The net gain of four seats for Labour in one night compares to a net gain of five for us in the whole of the rest of 2009.

Kingsbrook Ward, Bedford UA. LD hold. LD 660 (49.3%, +3), Lab 370 (27.7%, +3.6), Con 150 (11.2%, -9.2), Ind 85 (6.4%, +6.4), Ind 73 (5.5%, +5.5). Swing of 0.3% from LD to Lab since May this year. Tory vote nearly halved in a Labour marginal parliamentary seat.

Bearsden South Ward, East Dunbartonshire Council. LD gain from Con. First preferences: LD 1770 (36.4%, +10), Con 1499 (30.8%, +6.4), SNP 972 (20%, +0.9), Lab 626 (12.9%, -6.4). Swing of 1.8% from Con to LD since 2007.

St Helens Ward, Hastings BC. Con hold. Con 609 (40.7%, -17.7), Lab 550 (36.7%, +12.5), LD 210 (14.0%, -3.2), BNP 93 (6.2%, +6.2), Eng Dem 36 (2.4%, +2.4). Swing of 15.1% from Con to Lab since 2008. This is in a parliamentary marginal.

Camp Hill Ward, Nuneaton & Bedworth BC. Lab gain from BNP. Lab 670 (47.1%. +17), BNP 478 (33.6%, -2.6), Con 275 (19.3%, -9.7). Swing of 9.8% from BNP to Lab since 2008. This is a Tory target parliamentary seat.

West Ward, Peterborough UA. Con hold. Con 1252 (58.4%, +4.1), Lab 341 (15.9%, +0.9), LD 224 (10.4%, +7.4), UKIP 177 (8.3%, +8.3), Eng Dem 93 (4.3%, +4.3), Green 58 (2.7%, -0.5). Swing of 1.6% from Lab to Con since 2008.

Heron Wood Ward, Rushmoor DC. Lab gain from LD. Lab 437 (41.6%, +11.6), LD 354 (33.7%, -8.1), Con 259 (24.7%, -3.5). Swing of 9.9% from LD to Lab since 2008. This is the council estate bit of Aldershot, where I had the honour of being parliamentary candidate in 2001. Well done to Keith Dibble and his Labour team on regaining this seat.

Tavistock South Ward, West Devon BC. LD gain from Con. LD 523 (45.8%, +30), Con 450 (39.4%, +6.2), Ind 170 (14.9%, -36.1). Swing of 11.9% from Con to LD since 2007.

Queens Park Ward, LB Westminster. Lab hold. Lab 814 (62.6%. +10.6), Con 211 (16.2%, -14.4), Green 152 (11.7%, +11.7), LD 123 (9.5%, -7.9). Swing of 12.5% from Con to Lab since 2006. This is in a parliamentary marginal.

Wyke Regis Ward, Weymouth & Portland BC. Lab gain from Con. Lab 579 (40.1%, +3.9), Con 486 (33.7%, -30.1), LD 268 (18.6%, +18.6), Citizens 111 (7.7%, +7.7). Swing of 17% from Con to Lab since 2008. This is in ultra marginal South Dorset.

Areley Kings Ward, Wyre Forest DC. Lab gain from Con. Lab 540 (38.1%, +5.3), KHCC 421 (29.7%, +0.5), Con 394 (27.8%, -7.4), UKIP 63 (4.4%, +4.4). Swing of 2.4% from KHCC to Lab since 2008. This is in a Tory parliamentary target.

The PBR and the warning of Ireland

I thought the PBR was a good social democratic response to the current phase of the economic crisis i.e. protect frontline services; concentrate on growth and recovery in the short term; and fund the protection of frontline services with extra taxation focused where possible on the best off.

Personally I would have added to the three frontline services the government is ringfencing (police, schools and hospitals) two others - the armed forces and children's social services. You can't get much more frontline than our troops fighting the Taliban or the people trying to stop another tragedy like Baby P, so it seems odd these were not given equal status to the three picked.

Economically I think Darling is right not to withdraw the whole stimulus package yet and to have one more year of deliberately not prioritising deficit reduction. My local Labour Party heard a very interesting speech a couple of weeks ago by Larry Elliott, the Guardian's Economics Editor, where he warned that even with what Labour is doing to stabilise the economy through maintaining public spending there is a serious risk of a W shaped recession - a second dip in the economy in Q2 of 2010 as people and businesses panic that they have overextended themselves during the current early recovery phase and rein in spending. He warned that the Tory plans for retrenchment on spending turn a W shaped recession from a high risk to an absolute certainty. Then we really would see the deficit spiral because tax take would fall again, benefit payments would rise again and even the most draconian cuts wouldn't cancel these changes out.

I'm alarmed by the way that the Tories and the media discuss public spending as though it was purely an economic tool to be switched off in order to reduce the deficit. Actually all the things government spends money on have a primary purpose which is intrinsic i.e. delivering services for citizens. Their economic effect is secondary. There seems to be some kind of fantasy that there are areas of public spending that are so unnecessary that taking an axe to them is actually desirable. Whilst there are undoubtedly a few percent efficiency savings that could be found in any government organisation, reining in public spending to the extent advocated by the Tories or even by the Government is very soon going to lead to the switching off of services that citizens feel they are entitled to and value.

If anyone wants to know what a Tory budget and a Tory approach to deficit reduction could look like they need only look at Ireland where the budget was delivered yesterday. Guido helpfully summarised it as his libertarian take is that it looked great. It included cutting welfare payments back to 2006 levels, cutting unemployment benefit and cutting public sector salaries by 5% for the lowest paid workers. So in Ireland the right's response to the recession is to make the poorest and those that are actually victims of it pay the price, along with the people who deliver public services. I'd describe that as evil, as well as economically insane. The political attractiveness of this slash and burn strategy is shown by recent opinion polls in the Republic which show Fianna Fail in third place behind Fine Gael and Labour when historically it has had a 20%-ish lead over the next party in most elections.

UPDATE: Iain Dale has posted: "Guido is right. The PBR the British Chancellor should have delivered, was delivered yesterday in Dublin. Hopefully George Osborne is studying it in great detail."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

NATO holds bloggers' briefing

As Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy has posted, I was one of eight bloggers taken over to NATO HQ in Brussels yesterday for NATO's first ever briefing day for bloggers.


I haven't posted much about Afghanistan before as I didn't feel I had any knowledge on the issue beyond what was already in the media, and in recent months I had started to think the conflict there was un-winnable, not something I wanted to put in writing as I didn't want to undermine our troops there.


The on the record briefing we had from Canadian Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, ISAF spokesperson, convinced me that I've been unduly pessimistic and so has much of the media. Tremblay is on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan and was back in Brussels just for a few days. "Winning" clearly isn't a done deal but I came away at least believing that a stable Afghanistan that didn't act as a base camp for terrorists threatening the UK was a possible outcome, and our troops' sacrifice need not have been in vain. Things he said that particularly struck me were:

  • The centre of the NATO effort is "to protect the Afghans" both from the Taliban (counter-insurgency) and by "removing malign influences at the local level" e.g. grossly corrupt officials, narco-traffickers.
  • Counter-insurgency is about separating the Afghan people from the Taliban but this is very tough as they wear no uniform and do not control defined areas.
  • The objective is to transition to the Afghan people taking responsibility for their own defence.
  • 76% of Afghans live in rural areas and 75% are under 25 years old.
  • The NATO deployment is "population-centric"; aimed at protecting centres of population and the transport, water and power infrastructure that they depend on. It extends a lot further than the city centres only image portrayed in the press.
  • The idea is to deliver an alternative model of governance and development to the one offered by the Taliban so the Afghan people can decide which of the two paths they want to follow. In the cities people can already see the public services and other benefits of having a central government. In the rural areas, some people live so remotely from Kabul they may not even know there is a government yet. The "security bubble" has yet to reach all communities.
  • BBC polling shows 85% of Afghans don't want the Taliban back. Polling by the Asia Foundation shows only 5% support the Taliban, 70% support the presence of Western troops.
  • The period from now until 18 months time is crucial for demonstrating success of the strategy so that the domestic political audience in the West back the continuation of the transition mission.
  • The Afghan government is functioning better than it was last time Tremblay was there but still has a long way to go. He does not believe a "strong" government is needed, just an "efficient" one, seen to be doing things for the people.
  • The Afghan people are very resilient. On the whole they are staying in the country, not leaving. Given they don't want the Taliban back, it will not take much for momentum to set in, which is why the Taliban are desperately trying to break the government and set back development projects.
  • Characterisation of Afghanistan as never having had good government is wrong. Until 40 years ago it was a relatively prosperous, stable society.
  • Polling has shown the vast majority of Afghans are proud of the new Afghan National Army as a national institution, and even have positive views of the police, despite its well reported failings.
  • Success "is achievable" - defined as "the ability ... to build the security forces" so that the Afghans take responsibility progressively for their own sovereignty, district by district, and that governance and development are improved too.
  • To create the conditions for this district by district transfer of security ISAF needs to reduce the capacity of the insurgents and train the Afghans to provide their own security.
  • Already 1/3 to 1/2 of security operations are Afghan-led with NATO just in a supporting role.
  • Key principles of the counter-insurgency operation are limiting civilian casualties, respecting Afghan culture, enabling governance and development at a local level, separating the insurgents from the people, and removal of "malign influences" e.g. narco-traffickers and corrupt officials.

Will Straw has also reported on this here: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2009/12/nato-we-wont-bugger-off/, as has the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/mehdi-hasan/2009/12/nato-afghanistan-taliban.

Thanks to Dave Cole at the Atlantic Council for organising the visit, and to the NATO Public Diplomacy Division for hosting it.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Tory lead narrows again

Another pollster has got the Tory lead dropping into single figures. Populus, out tonight, has:

Con 38% (-1)
Lab 30% (+1)
LD 20% (+2)
Others 11% (-3)

The http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/ seat predictor has this producing 299 Tory MPs (27 too few for a majority), 267 Labour, 53 LDs and 31 others.

Friday, December 04, 2009

This should be in the manifesto

Great idea from James Purnell and Graeme Cook in the FT today - you can read it here - "The government should guarantee everyone a job, to end long-term unemployment... the government is already doing this for young people aged under 25... The lesson from the last year is that investing to prevent long-term unemployment is not just socially just, it reduces the deficit. So as the recovery starts, this approach should be extended, not unwound.
Rather than offering this guarantee for young people only, it should be extended to all jobseekers, of all ages at risk of long-term unemployment. Where the market does not provide work, government must step in... This is the final piece of the puzzle of welfare reform. It makes the welfare state more supportive and more demanding. On the one hand, it is real protection – instead of offering people a life on benefits, it offers them what they really want: a job, and a chance to get their career back on track.
On the other hand a jobs guarantee also becomes a backstop. Claimants have to take a job when it is offered. That exposes those who are working on the side and claiming fraudulently... Initially, the guarantee would come into effect for older jobseekers after the Flexible New Deal (once they had been looking for work for two years).
This could be funded from the money allocated at the Budget to help people back to work, which is now being underspent because of lower-than-expected unemployment.
Over time, the system should be reshaped so that jobseekers spend the first year looking for work with the support of Job Centre Plus and private and voluntary providers, with the jobs guarantee kicking in at 12 months. This could be funded by a combination of some of the money currently spent on the Flexible New Deal and switching resources from the skills budget."

Let's hope that even if this doesn't get picked up in the Budget it is considered for the General Election Manifesto.

Council by-elections

Two by-elections yesterday:

Ormesby Ward, Redcar & Cleveland UA. LD hold. LD 1084 (73.5%, +12.4), Lab 210 (14.2%, -5.1), UKIP 103 (7.0%, +7), Con 77 (5.2%, -14.4). Swing of 8.8% from Lab to LD since 2007.

Dane Valley Ward, Thanet DC. Lab gain from Con. Lab 318 (34.2%, -3.9), LD 260 (28.0%, +28), Con 222 (23.9%, -19.7), Ind 130 (14.0%, -4.3). Swing of 16%from Lab to LD since 2007.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is the Sun already turning against Cameron?

It's a shame that

a) all us Labour people have stopped buying the Sun since it turned against us (or we just buy one to rip up in the style of Tony Woodley)

and

b) that Rupert Murdoch is such a Luddite when it comes to free content on the Internet that this article isn't linkable to online

because you'll just have to take my word for it that there's an absolutely searing attack on Cameron and the Tories in today's Sun by former editor Kelvin MacKenzie.

He asks why Cameron is only on 37% in the polls when Michael Howard was on 33% "when we were all billionaires".

He concludes it is because Zac Goldsmith "represents the rich boys club which so dominates the leadership of the Tory Party ... I worry that they don't really understand the ordinary working man and woman in this country ... The trouble is, I'm not sure that the Tories haven't simply become a Jobcentre Plus for Old Etonians. Gordon Brown has made a terrible hash of things but his heart has always been in the right place. If the Tories want to run our country, they must prove to the electorate that the heart is not something simply next to the wallet."

Seems like the PM's attack at PMQs on the Old Etonian wing of the Tories has not gone down too badly with the spiritual heirs to the Norman Tebbit wing of Toryism.

MacKenzie won't have written this article without clearance higher up in the News International hierarchy. Extraordinary that they have on a day when Mandelson has been attacking them.

Is the Sun's honeymoon with Cameron going to be the shortest on record?

What has Dave done to upset Rupert and his gang?

Does Rupert want to see a repeat of the leadership coup in Australia's Liberal Party (i.e. their Tories) where climate change deniers ousted centrist leader Malcolm Turnbull, who was looking to pursue green policies, replacing him with a hardline rightwinger?

Just this once it is worth gritting your teeth and buying a copy of the Sun to read the whole thing (hopefully that plea will stop News International from suing me for quoting from their precious intellectual property) - who knows if the circulation spikes they might reconsider their overall editorial stance on the next election?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Tory hypocrisy on health and safety

Hat-tip to John Spellar MP for spotting the case of pots and kettles in David Cameron calling for an end to the UK's "over-the-top" health and safety culture.

In a speech today, he said this had created a "stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear". In recent years, he added, children had been told to wear goggles to play conkers and trainee hairdressers had been banned from using scissors

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8388025.stm

Maybe the Tory researchers who got him in to trouble at PMQs last week should have told him that it is Conservative Councils who lack common sense and are guilty of the worst excesses of health & safety culture.

Forcing children to wear goggles to play conkers.
This story (in it’s latest incarnation – it's a bit of an old chestnut!) hails from a school in East Cheshire which is a Conservative-run LEA. The Health and Safety Executive have said “the dangers of a game of conkers had been exaggerated and there was no national ban”.

Banning Scissors.
It was in a Camden Council run library which is run by a Tory/Lib Dem administration that a woman was refused the loan of a pair of scissors because of health and safety worries.

In other cases –

A school crossing patrol officer was banned from tying tinsel on his lollipop stick by Tory Hampshire County Council because of health and safety fears. Despite protests from parents, council officers banned him from using the tinsel after an anonymous complaint from the public. Lollipop Man Kevin Simpson said that he decorated his stick each Christmas and that he and the school children who use his crossing were in tears over the ruling. Tory Leader Ken Thornber failed to condemn his council officers and meekly promised to “see if a balance can be struck between fun and safety”.

Tory run Barnet bans its Sikh pupils for wearing traditional ‘kirpans’ on health and safety grounds – not recognising that the Kirpan poses no greater risk than scissors or cutlery that exist in the school.

Tory controlled Daventry District Council told a local head teacher to call off a school play to avoid the threat of jail and a £20,000 fine because the school did not have an entertainment licence. The play was not open to the general public and was not going to make a profit although a small entry fee was being charged to raise money for charity. The Tory council said that they were unable to apply any discretion.

Tory controlled Sherborne Council in Dorset branded a pensioner who voluntarily cleared rubbish from a disused allotment adjacent to her own plot a ‘vigilante’ and told her to desist her good deed immediately. They were shamed into apologising after Mrs Dunn attended a council meeting to give councillors a piece of her mind.

Tory Dudley Council have spent more than £5,000 on Braille signs to advise squash players what colour sport shoes are acceptable and tell users about safety on court. The Royal National Institute of Blind People said, “Blind and visually-impaired people are able to play many sports but not squash.” A council spokesperson said, “The signs conform to legislation set out in the Disability Discrimination Act”.

Also in Tory run Dudley roadside snack vans will be forced to close unless they offer healthy alternatives such as salads and low fat yoghurts, environmental health officers from the Tory authority will inspect menus during routine hygiene checks. A council spokesperson said “the aim is to give consumers a wider choice and move away from the sole provision of high calorie, high fat fast foods”. Anyone who fails to meet the strict new standards will lose their street traders licence.

A gardener in Tory run Bromsgrove in Worcestershire who fenced off his allotment with a 3 foot high ring of barbed wire after being targeted by thieves has been ordered to take it down by the Tory council – in case intruders scratch themselves. Mr Malcolm erected the fence in desperation after around £300 worth of equipment was stolen, the council ordered its removal on health and safety grounds.

As Tory Blogger Iain Dale has said...

“I'm not going to rant on about it all being political correctness gone mad (although it is). What it demonstrates is that these councils are presided over by weak politicians who have little control over their officers. It's about time they learned what the word Conservative actually means”.

 
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