Saturday, October 29, 2005 

What the hell is David Davis doing?

David Davis was originally felt a shoe-in for the leadership of the Conservative party. When Michael Howard announced his resignation within 24 hours of the Tories losing their third consecutive election, there was mutterings around of a campaign to stop him. Howard's final reshuffle, bringing in relatively little known MPs to shadow front bench positions, seemed to show his admiration of the so-called Notting Hill set. David Cameron, now Davis' rival in the membership vote, was moved to education spokesman, while George Osbourne, a good friend of Cameron, became shadow Chancellor. Liam Fox because shadow foreign secretary. All of this has turned out to be virtually unnecessary; Cameron has become the leader-in-waiting within barely a month.

How did this happen? It all started with Davis's disastrously monotonous and boring speech to the Tory party conference in Blackpool. While the day before Cameron and Kenneth Clarke had both given uplifting and humourous speeches, with Liam Fox delivering an unashamedly Eurosceptic and hard-right Tory speech in the morning, Davis's nervousness got the better of him as he sent many of the already sleepy Tories closer to the grave. The media mauled him, and Cameron as emerged as the new Tony Blair, despite having the Rothermere press attempt to smear him on drugs. Ever since Davis has been more and more woeful.

Up until now, that is. Davis has over the last two days revealed two new policies which he would bring in if he was Conservative leader. For a start, this is welcome. While we have heard plenty about personalities, we have so far heard very little about policies. In hindsight though, perhaps that was for the better. Both of Davis's policies are hard-right, and are playing to a gallery which no longer exists.

Davis plans to save the "average family" £1,200 a year by cutting taxes. As with the Tories promise at the election to cut taxes, with Howard's now infamous comments about lower taxes, cleaner hospitals etc, they don't seem to be very sure how about they are going to go about doing this. We are also meant to believe that this won't affect public services. Davis proposes cutting the amount going to them so that it rises just slightly above inflation, lower than what it does now. What will this add up to? The difference will be £38 billion by the election after next. This would be achieved either through cutting income tax by 8 pence, or by cutting income tax by 2p, reduce the main rate of corporation tax by 3p and scrap inheritance tax, stamp duty and capital gains tax entirely. So either he's going to cut taxes for the rich, or he's going to cut taxes for the fat cats and the rich. He has no proposals for reforming the tax system, just stay as it is and instead we'll go by the old trickle-down economic theory. If the rich are making more, instead of saving it they'll be encouraged to spend the difference, therefore the people lower down the chain will be getting more and so on. That this is crap doesn't really matter in the long; the rich are getting more money regardless.

So that's one policy that's not going to appeal much to the average Labour voter which Davis would need to attract. So then, on to Education. Davis today said he wants to create 20 new grammar schools. This he says, will create "equality" in education, which makes me wonder whether he has any grasp of the past or the present whatsoever. Grammar schools were mostly abolished because they were feeding inequality. The 11+ was biased towards middle class kids, and secondary moderns became the working class dumping ground. That some counties still operate grammar schools at all is an outrage that Labour hasn't stamped down on. Now Davis is proposing even more. This said, Cameron isn't any better. He's staying with the "choice" agenda of Blair, and perpetual reform which is breaking our schools and stopping them from improving.

So just who are these policies aimed at? They won't appeal to the Labour voter which switched from the Tories after the 92 election. The country now expects the public services to be properly funded. Davis seems to oppose that. He also wants to ghettoise the education system once again. He seems to be taking the same Tory position which both Hague and Howard did - the kneejerk ride to the right in the face of defeat.

Maybe I've read it all wrong. These policies may have been thought up to appeal to the dieheard hanging and flogging wing of the party. The question then is how many of then those exist. Even if he wins the leadership, if he sticks with such policies he faces taking the Tories to their fourth election defeat, with Gordon Brown laughing all the way. It seems that to him power is more important personally than for his party allegiance.

David Cameron is the best chance the Conservatives have, and is the leader Labour desperately need. If he wins the fight for the centre ground will be too crowded. Labour will have to turn back to the left or go further to the right. A further rightward move would leave the party without a base. Gordon, the only way is the left. Labour can win an election using leftist policies. If Gordon wanted to be even more radical, he could introduce proportional representation and make sure the Tories could never get back in by making parliament a true 3 party system, with the Lib Dems no longer being a wasted vote in many parts of the country. It's about time Labour recognised the huge chance that it has to shape this country for the 21st century, and it may well be brought about by the Tory party finally reinventing itself.

(The picture is of Davis and Cameron inexplicably presenting a somewhat frightened Billie Piper with her award for best actress at the tv awards.)

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Friday, October 28, 2005 

Libby indicted on obstruction of justice, false statements and perjury. Rove likely to be later.

Well, it's happened. After two years of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, a grand jury had indicted Lewis 'Scooter' Libby on numerous charges, including lying (perjury). Karl Rove is not being indicted today, but remains under investigation.

Lawyers were reportedly told there still were matters to resolve before the prosecutor "decides what he is going to do, so Mr Rove will not be indicted today".

We shouldn't perhaps read to much into that, but it seems difficult to see how Rove can escape being indicted on either obstruction of justice or false statements, knowing what we do now. That Libby has been indicted may be the start of the breaking of the neo-conservative cabal which Colin Powell's ex-chief aide Lawrence Wilkerson admirably but much too late spoke out about. What is even more important about this indictment though is that will show the true nature of the Bush administration: nasty, vindictive and hostile to any criticism. Joseph Wilson was right to speak out about the blatant falsehoods which George Bush himself used in his speeches before the Iraq war. That his wife, a undercover CIA officer was exposed through the leaking to sympathetic journalists of her name, an exposure that began at the very top of the Bush administration with Cheney himself, should not disgrace this administration is bad enough. That they have spent the last two years lying and misleading jurors is even worse.

Again though, we should not get ahead of ourselves.. Some have compared this case to the David Kelly affair here on this septic isle. The Hutton inquiry, hyped up for months as to lead to stinging criticism or even the resignation of if not Blair, then definitely Geoff Hoon, turned out to be such a sloppy whitewash that the anger felt in the country was palpable. The BBC's director general and head of the board of governors were forced out for a report that was almost entirely correct. A year and a half on, although the Labour party itself seems moribund, the Blairite cabal is just as strong as before. As bad as it looks now, who is to say that Bush will yet emerge relatively unscathed from this? It does not directly affect him, although it does his confidant, Rove. To underestimate the power of regeneration of some politicians would be naive.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005 

George Best: kindly die already.

I've always been somewhat bemused about the appeal of George Best. A playboy footballer with a short but memorable career, he's since turned into a drunk wife-beating excuse for a man. Yet the tabloids remain obesessed with him and his antics. It now seems that the man may finally be entering the last days of his life. Let's certainly hope so. He had a liver transplant, when someone else could have benefited. How did he repay the doctors who stitched him back up? He started drinking again. There's enough oxygen thieves around, and the world certainly won't miss one who should have faded from the limelight a long time ago.

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It's too early to celebrate the demise of the Bush administration.

Many already seem to be waiting to celebrate the end of the reign of the neo-conservatives in the White House. It may yet be much too early. Now that Harriet Miers has extracted herself from humiliation in front of the Senate, along with expectation that Rove and Libby will indicted shortly, many seem to think that the Bush administration is now a lame duck. Haven't we seen this before?

Yes, we have.

In the summer of 2001 Bush was already considered to be heading for an exit. His government was unpopular, his measures were being defeated, and he was becoming known as the "holiday" President. The stealing of the election, backed by a majority of the supreme court, was well-known. We all know what happened next.

What followed was, despite a slow and shaky response to the terror attacks, the making of the war president. He was re-elected despite the war without end in Iraq, tax cuts for the super-rich, and "no child left behind". It was feared that he would in his second term reform social security and destroy the new deal for good.

Now things seem much different. The terrible mess of the response to Katrina, his botched nomination of Miers, Plamegate and now 2,000 military to deaths in Iraq appear to be his undoing. Right-wing Republicans are in revolt, and the party itself fears that it may be decimated in next year's midterms.

We shouldn't rejoice at the problems of the Bush administration. The worst thing would be for liberals to be seen to be celebrating, resulting in a backlash. We also should look at the pessimistic side of things. It's by no means certain that Rove or Libby will be indicted. Bush might well nominate a far-right ideological judge in place of Miers, winning back plaudits from the religious base he relies on. He would have problems getting him/her through the Senate, but may just manage it. The insurgency in Iraq may die down following elections in December, and the troops may be able to return. Iran may do even more stupid things than the President's yesterday silly remarks about "wiping Israel off the face of the Earth". If another terror attack took place, would the public rally behind Bush again, or instead search for the real reasons or blame the response to 9/11?

The opposite to all the above could happen. I've often thought that if the Democrats in America or the Conservatives in this country had started the disaster in Iraq, then the opposition would have destroyed them and won the next elections. Instead, Labour and the Republicans have been strong enough to shrug off what should have killed any government. This simple fact should remind us that nothing is certain is politics, and as ever, a week is a very long time.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005 

Constitution passed - war over? Of course not. reports that up to 30,000 Iraqi civilians have perished in the war so far.

Over 30 violent deaths are reported in Baghdad every day.

Baghdad is now almost certainly the most dangerous place on Earth.

2,000 US dead.

Approaching 100 UK soldiers dead.

All for a war which was justified on lie after lie, on disinformation and misinformation, on doublespeak, on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, on creating a democracy despite massive accusations and evidence of ballot rigging.

Just remember, we are winning the war on terror. That's all that matters.

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Education white paper: An opportunity turned into a disaster.

New Labour and Blair have finally reached fully circle. After 7 years of reform after reform in all areas of public service, constant revolution of which even Trotsky would disapprove of, Labour has decided to re-introduce failed Tory policies of old, namely grant-maintained schools and partial selection. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should recognise that there are some decent and admirable policies in this white paper.

(Reports on the white paper are available here, here and here.)

• Teachers will be required to keep parents updated on progress at least three times a year.
• More one-to-one tutition for struggling pupils, intensive support for children who have problems with English and Maths.
• Free bus transport for children from low incomes to schools within six-mile radius
• Err...... that's it.

Yes, a whole three worthwhile and admirable proposals. Free bus transport should have be introduced a long while ago, but nonetheless is a very welcome reform. English and Maths help will maybe shut the cretins at the CBI up who bang on about failing standards, and compulsory updates will help children to improve with parent support.

So then, what about the other proposals which the government has come up with? Well, the banding proposal which Roy Hattersley wrote about and I was so enthusiastic about has predictably not been made compulsory. Schools only have to 'take note' of it. In other words, they'll ignore it completely. I should have known that Labour wouldn't take the likes of the Daily Mail on over such a measure that could truly transform education. Further making sure that this measure will be ignored is the proposals to more or less abolish Local Education Authorities, the only bodies which would have been able to enforce the banding measures. In fact, councils who run the authorities will now have to listen to every whim of every selfish parental demand, and the government has pledged that if councils refuse to listen that they'll pull them into line.

The whole paper is based around 2 major ideas. The first is that the new 'City Academy' schools are working and improving standards. There is no evidence that they are as yet, with some of them actually having worse results than the schools they replaced. Similar to the Academy system, where a business or organisation puts money into the school and has the right to say how it should be run or by whom, the new trust schools will be backed by business, "faith" groups, or parental organisations. GEMS, a group which already runs numerous private schools, has said it is interested, as is the United Learning Trust, a Christian group. This is a boon to them; they can impose their ethos and ideology on kids without having to charge them for the privilege. What's not to like for such groups?

The second major idea is that parents know what is best for their kids and that they are demanding further power. Any parent obviously wants the best for their child, and many middle class parents have shown how far they will go to get their offspring into the "right" school. This paper is made to appeal directly to them, but it will most likely fail both them and low-income families which Labour is supposed to be so obsessed with helping. Parents will be able to demand "new" schools, presumably without having to worry about the cost, to close "failing" schools and to demand the sacking of headteachers. "Failing" schools will have to drastically improve within a year, otherwise they will be taken over or shut down. This ignores the fact that the problem may not necessarily be with the teachers, but with the students themselves, but let's ignore that. Will the threat of closure and loss of jobs, with the stigma attached to it really encourage teachers and the governors to fight to keep the school open, or will it utterly demoralise them and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy? I have a funny feeling it may result in the latter. As well as parents being able to demand what they think is best for their little Johnny, once a trust school is set up they'll be able to join a council alongside the governors and influence policy on uniform and discipline. In other words, expect schools to become even more fascistic, with drones being pumped out all dressed the same, stripped of the individuality which such schools are meant to be promoting.

Popular schools will also be able to expand, or take over failing ones. Whether they actually will want to is again questionable. Why would a popular school want to risk losing its reputation by taking over a school with a bad one? Spreading itself too thickly may well lead to a loss of leadership at individual schools, and to failure all round.

In short, Labour has done a fantastic job. It's out-toried the Tories again. They've stolen their ideas. Schools will be more or less back at the secondary modern/grammar school stage. Little will change, as the middle class already swamp the best schools and the working will continue to go to bog-standard comprehensives where they'll fail. Except the bog-standard comprehensive will turn into the bog-standard trust school, run by a business or by a faith group, churning out clones headed straight for the check-outs of Tesco. The changes will allow the middle class parents to block out the attempts of ambitious working class parents to get their children the best education possible. They'll be able to keep out the oiks and the blacks, and they won't even have to pay for it.

Schools in the UK are not failing by any means. They can however improve greatly, and need to. Labour's policies up to the city academy plans have so far improved the education system. This though is a reform too far, as with the government's plans for hospitals. Headteachers are crying out for a stop to the reforms, to let them settle and for less bureaucracy, not more. This is the opposite to what they want. Instead Blair and Kelly will impose more bureaucracy, encourage the outspoken parents to interfere, and cause even more headaches. Despite all this, the Labour backbenches seem to have gone quiet and lost the zeal for rebelling that they had during the last parliament, whether they managed to defeat the government or not. This can be partially explained by more servile Blairites replacing some of the more rebellious lefties, and seats being lost to the Tories, and the fear of being responsible for defeating the government and encurring the wrath of the party. The backbenchers urgently need to forget that. This government has not lost its way as some are saying. The backbenches may have, but the cabinet and the Blairites have not. Blair is determined to impose his legacy now that his premiership is coming to an end. If he wants his legacy to be breaking schools and destroying the NHS, then the Labour MPs should vote for the government's numerous bills now going through parliament. If they want Blair to remembered for his policies on child poverty, introducing the minimum wage and the other good things that have been achieved, they'll vote against. Forget the war as well for a second, and remember the party itself. Labour must now allow itself to become the new Conservatives. At the moment, the clock hands are five to midnight. At midnight, the party will become blue. If the party awakens from its Blairite slumber, it can push the hands back and return red. It can start in the committee stages by making banding compulsory.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005 

Two quick updates.

I'm still trying to sort things out from being away, so here's two quick news stories. They'll be something with more depth tomorrow.

Report ties Cheney to CIA leak investigation:

Pressure increased on the White House today as new claims emerged concerning the investigation into the leaking of a covert CIA agent's name.

The New York Times reported that documents held by the investigation show that Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to the US vice president, Dick Cheney, learned the name of the agent from Mr Cheney himself.

If this is accurate, it would appear to differ from Mr Libby's evidence to a grand jury that he first heard the name of the agent, Valerie Plame, from journalists.

The idea that Mr Cheney was directly involved in the information flow would also, if correct, increase the political pressure facing the White House.

The New York Times described its sources for the claims about the previously undisclosed conversation in June 2003 as lawyers involved in the investigation who had seen Mr Libby's notes.

The criminal investigation into the leak, headed by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, draws to a close this week and prosecutions are possible. Mr Libby and Karl Rove, the chief adviser to the president, George Bush, are at the centre of the investigation.

Ms Plame was a covert CIA agent whose husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, went on a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq was seeking to buy uranium for nuclear weapons. On his return, Mr Wilson publicly accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for going to war.

In an effort to discredit Mr Wilson, White House officials allegedly revealed Ms Plame's identity by suggesting that she helped arrange her husband's trip. Mr Fitzgerald's investigation was triggered because it is illegal to publicly name a covert CIA agent.

The notes cited by the New York Times today contain no suggestion that Mr Cheney or Mr Libby knew at the time of their alleged conversation that Ms Plame had undercover status or that her identity was classified.

It would not be illegal for the two officials, who presumably have the highest security clearance, to discuss her name.

However, any effort by Mr Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr Cheney could be considered by Mr Fitzgerald to be an illegal effort to impede the inquiry.

In other words, if this is true, the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan. Libby lied to a jury. Cheney was the real source of Libby's briefing of journalists. It almost seems too good to be true for those who want to see the Bush administration fail or even fall. Juan Cole's analysis is as always excellent:

If both things are true, it makes perfect sense of our weird American news reporting. Cheney isn't just "a" journalist, he is The Journalist--who calls up Roger Ailes at Fox Cable News and tells him what to report and how. Why, Jimmy Olson and Clark Kent are pikers compared to super-Dick.

Or it could just be that Libby was lying, in which case he get's Martha Stewart's old cell.

I saw Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson say that she hoped Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald would not bring a charge like perjury, which would be a sign that he could not discover a real crime, or words to that effect. She was speaking off the current Republican Party talking points aimed at spinning this scandal.

So let's get this straight. The Republicans roiled the country for two years and impeached Clinton for lying about sex under oath, but now all of a sudden perjury is a minor crime not worth bothering about. Remember that 1998 was a period when Clinton needed to focus on the threat of al-Qaeda, but he was being distracted by the Republican bulldogs and everything he did about al-Qaeda was dismissed as "wag the dog." Vicious partisan politics was put before the benefit of the nation. (Many of the major Republican figures who impeached Clinton had themselves had affairs and covered them up, and besides, who cared or cares?)

But what Cheney, Libby and Rove did was not just a private impropriety. The leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity did enormous harm to US national security, since it blew the cover of the dummy corporation the Company was using to investigate weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Although it was not illegal for Cheney to share classified information with Libby, since both had clearances, there is a question of whether the idea of leaking Valerie's name originated with Cheney. Even if that were not true, there is a question of propriety. Undercover CIA operatives' names should not be bandied about without some serious purpose. At a time of a War on Terror, when the nation's security is under assault by a sinister and determined terrorist organization, do we want a vice president in the White House who has the kind of loose lips that sink ships?

It makes a mockery of the Patriot act and continuing attacks on civil liberties in the US. Tying in nicely with the above, Reporters without Borders have released their Annual World Press Freedom Report. Coming top is Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands. The United Kingdom is down in 24th place, largely due to our repressive "Official Secrets Act" and libel laws, I would assume.

And to quote them:

Some Western democracies slipped down the Index. The United States (44th) fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources. Canada (21st) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened the privacy of sources and sometimes turned journalists into “court auxiliaries.” France (30th) also slipped, largely because of searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and introduction of new press offences.

The US ranks lower than Namibia, Benin, El Salvador, South Africa, Mali and Jamaica. Something to be proud of for all those who shove the constitution down the throats of those who don't have one.

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