Saturday, September 06, 2008 

Weekend links.


Bloggerheads - The Daily Mail responds to the "Julie Moult in an idiot" meme

Unity - Rounding up the peasants on the Lib Dem MP John Hemming

David Semple - Weighing in on the windfall energy tax

Lee Griffin - You can be a feminist and oppose choice, actually

Independent - Is the party over for UKIP?

Paul Linford - New Labour's prophets of doom

Chris Dillow answers this week's questions

Pollyanna T - Unseating Gordon Brown may be Labour's last chance - says the woman who previously thought that Gordon Brown was Labour's best chance

Grauniad - Carol Ann Duffy responds in verse, brilliantly, to the censoring moron who succeeded in getting one of her poems removed from GCSE English anthologies

US Presidential stuff:

Ed Pilkington on Sarah Palin's history in Alaska

Dave's Part - Sarah Palin: the British right learns how to love again. The ghastly Jon Gaunt also added to the hubbub with his paean to Palin, on how wonderful it would be if we had politicians like her.

Lenin - No, we can't - on the general rubbishness of the whole campaign

David Semple again - Town vs Country in the US election

Freemania - Majoring in soundbites

Political Punch - Palin needs time before she can answer questions from the media. Presumably she'll need the same time to acclimatise to becoming president should she and McCain be elected and something unfortunate happens to him.

Shuggy's blog - On class, prejudice and culture wars

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Friday, September 05, 2008 

Nobody screws more prostitutes than the government.

It is however still undoubtedly New Labour that holds the undisputed record for its gross and continuing addiction to unnecessary and illogical illiberalism.

So it continues to be on the intractable problem of prostitution. It wasn't so long back that the party was considering the idea of "red light zones", where prostitution would be tolerated and potentially supervised to make it less likely that sex workers would be abused, and the setting-up of "mini-brothels", where 2 or 3 women could work together and protect each other, all ideas which have now been most certainly dropped. The latter was the work of Fiona MacTaggart, who while distinctly opposed to prostitution and who wanted tougher penalties for kerb-crawlers accepted that there was no possible way the government could stamp it out, and also accepted that making the buying of sex illegal would achieve nothing in the long run except making those dependent on selling their bodies even more vulnerable and desperate. She may since have changed her views, and did previously suggest an amendment which would make buying sex illegal.

MacTaggart has since the left the government, and policy on prostitution has increasingly come under the influence of the Harriet Harman, who has made quite clear that she is much inclined towards just the policy which MacTaggart opposed. Like with all the politicians and campaigners down the ages, whether complaining about video nasties, declining moral standards or otherwise, few want to be seen as stopping adults from choosing their pursuits as they see fit. Instead, there has to either be someone or something that is being affected by the pursuit the adult chooses which can instead be used as the justification to stop it in its entirety. With video nasties it was that children were watching them and being either disturbed or corrupted by their contents. With drugs it's that they're either getting more powerful, that the side effects are increasing or that the working classes and less educated can't handle them. With prostitution they now seem to have finally found a reason why the buying of sex should be made illegal: trafficking and the resulting sex slavery.

Harman is using this exact argument and has even had an opinion poll commissioned to help back her up. It unsurprisingly found that more than half of both men and women were in favour of making buying sex illegal if it would help reduce people-trafficking. It does also though, contradictingly, show that both men and women still think that buying sex should be made completely legal, something that Harman strangely didn't emphasise. The obvious problem with this is that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that making the purchasing of sex illegal would help to decrease it; while there is some evidence which points towards the complete legalisation of prostitution increasing sex trafficking in countries where that has happened, the held-up example of Sweden offers no real definitive evidence that it has helped stem the trade. The most it suggests is that prostitution in Stockholm fell after buying sex was made illegal, which proves little as it may well just have been that prostitution had increased outside of the capital and pushed it further underground, with those practising less easy to come across.

Similarly, we also don't know just how big a problem sex trafficking actually is. While politicians have adopted the stance of making it illegal to stem this "modern-day evil of slavery", the first police operation designed to combat it, called Operation Pentameter, rescued a compartively tiny number of 88 individuals. Its follow-up, Pentameter 2, rescued a further 167. The police themselves claim that they think up to 18,000 trafficking victims might be being forced to work as prostitutes. If so, that shows that the attempts to combat it have been a miserable failure. If in fact those estimates are wildly excessive, which seems a much more reasonable assumption, then it suggests that the problem is being wildly overstated, and that it's being used a tool by those ideologically opposed to prostitution to outlaw something which they detest for moral reasons.

Harman's poll was further commissioned to come alongside a report by the Eaves charity, which runs the Poppy project. A follow up to their 2004 Sex and the City report, Big Brothel (PDF) is meant to present a realistic picture of the scale of prostitution in London. To say the entire project is incredibly biased towards prohibition would be an understatement: it calls former prostitutes who gave evidence "survivors", and in the press release (PDF) the co-author, Helen Atkins, has this to say:

It has been said that we are never more than six feet away from a rat in London. Apparently, something similar applies to brothels, places where thousands of women are regularly exploited by men who buy sex.

Instantly then we are presented with the conclusion that women are being exploited by men who buy sex. That this is far from proven, or indeed provable is no issue to either Atkins or Harman. For all the attempts of both to present the report as shocking, it in fact hardly tells you anything that most with more than a passing knowledge of the sex industry know already: that the number of different nationalities involved reflects the multicultural nature of London more than it does the idea that foreign nationals are increasingly being trafficked; that the price of penetrative sex fluctuates wildly from as little as £15 to £250; that sex without a condom costs roughly double that of protected sex; and that most premises are in residential areas with a discreet appearance. Indeed, it tries to have it both ways; prostitutes selling sex on the streets are undoubtedly in the most potential danger, yet the report suggests increasingly that off-street sex is becoming the norm, which ought to be a cause for celebration, that perhaps even without legalisation sex workers are getting together and working indoors in order to be safer. Street prostitutes are also most often those that can't work in brothels because of their drug habits; if they're becoming rarer, it perhaps brings encouragement that drug abuse and dependence is becoming less of a signifier of sex workers.

The report is aimed at taking on misconceptions, such as those arising from glamorous and unrealistic productions like Secret Diary of a Call Girl. It goes without saying that such programmes are ludicrous, and provide only a picture of the very highest realms of escort work. The reality of prostitution can be seen in almost any genuinely pornographic work, where it's more than apparent that sex is one of the least arousing activities around; there is very little that is less erotic than the idea of a woman having sex with 20 different men potentially in a day, of the pain, numbness and withdrawal from real life that has to be taken on board for such a person to survive and live from day to day.

It is however equally dangerous and also completely wrong to assume that an overwhelming majority of those involved in prostitution do not choose it, especially those from abroad, which estimates suggest now make up 80% of those in sex work. For those with families back home, it provides more money than any menial labour job will ever do, and it's one that some indeed choose to do without any coercion. The report tries to challenge the idea of this as a myth, but it fails miserably:

“Women choose prostitution.” It is a choice through lack of choice. A significant number of women involved in street prostitution were groomed as children. Many enter through marginalisation, dependencies and/or economic necessity.

But here the report is trying to have its cake and eat it. This is after all a report on prostitution within brothels, not on the streets; most street prostitutes as we have already mentioned are indeed the most vulnerable who can't work in the premises which the report is investigating. They would have undoubtedly benefited from teaming up in the way that MacTaggart proposed, or through the red light zones, but both have been dropped and are doubtless opposed by those behind this report. It sets up other straw men and then knocks them down, such as the following:

“Anti-prostitution feminists are against women in prostitution.” One of the more convincing lies coming from the pro-sex work lobby is that feminists who define prostitution as ‘abuse’ are against the women themselves. Abolitionists are supportive of women in the sex industry, but against the institution of prostitution (e.g. FCAP, 2008).

Who here after all is in denial? Those who genuinely believe that prostitution can be abolished and that define all prostituition instantly as abuse or those that realise that most feminists are unwilling to accept that those involved in pornography or prostitution are doing it out of free choice or even because they personally find it empowering? After all, it also tries to claim it's a myth that women can also exploit men as much as the men can also exploit the women; it's undoubtedly the case that prostitutes are abused, both physically and sexually whilst selling themselves but those who favour making buying sex illegal will only make this more likely and less actionable by pushing the trade further underground.

It's this that makes the stance of the government so infuriating. Full legalisation is not on the agenda, and considering the potential pitfalls of it, it's probably not anything approaching a solution in the first place. Likewise though, criminalisation of those who buy sex penalises not just the men that are not instantly exploiting the women through their lack of ability to either get into proper relationships, or those that buy it whilst married or in relationships, but also the prostitutes themselves that do choose to work in the industry and would like further protection rather than lectures from women that refuse to openly state their opposition to prostitution as a whole and hide behind the exploited in order to do so. Sex is never going to be something most are going to be able to take openly about, let alone the buying of it, but the hiding behind others, something this government has done repeatedly to quash ancient liberties, is not just politically and morally bankrupt, it's also downright cowardly.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008 

The SNP: even more socially illiberal than New Labour.

If you thought that New Labour was socially illiberal, spare a thought for those above Berwick:

Scotland is considering a ban on alcohol sales to under-21s in a bid to make "the streets safer and communities better", Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said today.

The SNP is considering the ban on alcohol sales outside pubs and clubs as part of its legislative programme for the year ahead.

This idea is the absolute worst of all worlds. It not only discriminates against those who are above the legal drinking age but don't especially want to go out of an evening, it also instantly means that those who are even over 21 have their legal right to buy alcohol potentially curtailed if they don't bother to carry ID around with them the entire time.

In any event, most stores already operate a scheme where those who look under 21 are required to take ID with them. This on its own prevents those who are borderline-18 from being able to drink, and it's much the same in pubs and clubs. The problem with underage drinking has not been with them buying it - but with their older friends and family, including their parents buying it for them. Additionally, now these schemes are being extended even further as the moral panic about binge drinking and general youth crime continues apace - some stores are now requiring all alcohol transactions, including by those who are clearly above the age limit, to be confirmed by ID. Others have raised the age limit to those who look younger than 25 requiring ID, and not because a distinct minority of those who drink are causing trouble, but due to the cravenness of politicians to the idea that something has to be done.

Which is exactly what this is. It's ludicrous because it still means that those under 21 can go and get smashed in a pub or a club and cause potentially just as much trouble either in the venue or outside of it on the way home, but that's somehow regarded as being less bothersome than a group of teenagers daring to drink either in suburban areas or somewhere where they might be seen other than in a town centre. The obvious unfairness in this is palpable, and it's because the young are partially regarded as an easy target that this can even be considered. As someone has already said, this means that a 20-year-old who wants to buy a bottle of wine to have with his girlfriend at home while they watch a film isn't able to, but that those who go out with the intention of getting paralytic are in no way hindered. It regards all those under 21 who buy from off-licences as morons who are potentially a danger to both themselves and others, while putting no imposition on happy hour promotions or other special drinks offers which encourage people to drink more.

Similarly daft is another potential policy also still in the bill - minimum price setting by unit of alcohol. You don't need to be a polymath to realise that this means drastically increasing the price of bottles of spirits, often drank in moderation and over time, if of course you're not now too young to be able to buy one from a supermarket or off-licence. The high-strength lagers and ciders are affected, but only slightly, and as a news article pointed out, it also doesn't affect the price of Buckfast, the tonic wine which like the so-called "alcopops" has been singled out for special attention by politicians that ought to know better.

To complete the trifecta of idiotic, ineffective and illiberal social policy, the SNP also want cigarettes to be taken off general display, lest anyone see the highly seductive sight of packets of fags with "YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THIS" in huge bold lettering on them and think it'd be a pretty wizard idea to take up the habit. This really is almost beyond parody - it does nothing whatsoever to help those who already have the habit, except to make life more difficult for both the shop-keeper/assistant in getting the brand which you want and making it take longer while they dive under the counter as if they were selling you the latest animal porn shot in Bavaria featuring blonde German maidens swallowing horse cock. What it does do however is further stigmatise the smoker, as if they weren't already demonised and isolated enough due to their filthy habit. Rather than suggest to them that they really ought to give up, all this does is promote victim status, and quite rightly too, with the person even less likely to kick the habit.

While things have not got as bad for the drinker as the smoker and are unlikely ever to, it is the senseless drip-drip of measures, always attempting to out-do the last cure-all which deeply rankles with the average person who just wants to be left alone and treated like an adult when they dare to want to imbibe intoxicating liquor. If the SNP were serious and wanted to be something approaching fair, they would raise the age limit across the board on alcohol to 21. This though is already shown to be a complete joke in America, where it is completely unenforceable, just as it would be here, ostracising the under-21s from clubs and pubs where the majority tend to drink more sensibly, and instead pushing them towards house parties where the opposite is usually the case, where the alcohol has been purchased by those old enough or those who can get away with it.

There are two measures that will help with the attitude towards alcohol which the young increasingly are characterised as having: stop perpetuating the idea that all youngsters should abstain entirely until they are 18 and instead encourage families to introduce them to alcohol as they are growing up, and that includes not going over the top when the latest figures lead the tabloids into a frenzy over the increasing numbers of the young drinking however many units a week; or, alternatively, increase the tax on alcohol as a whole across the board proportionally according to market fluctuations, i.e. increase it when it's falling and reduce it when it's rising so that the price is stable but high, while discouraging the discounting and offers in both supermarkets and pubs/clubs. If it isn't obvious, my preferred option is the former. Fundamentally though, what also needs to be examined is exactly why so many in this country drink to get drunk or similar every weekend, which can't just be put down to our attitude towards alcohol and how it differs to on the continent. That might however involve the unpleasantness of examining the daily grind for the average person and how little there is that is otherwise offered in the way of pleasure, something which no politician can ever pretend to solve with the waving of a magical, populist, but completely draconian policy.

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Lance Price and the safety elephant.

Meanwhile, over on CiF we've been treated to the comedy stylings of ex-spin doctor Lance Price, riffing on Charles Clarke:

Gordon Brown and his team have a bigger fight on their hands than they seem to realise. They cannot ignore Charles Clarke. He's a heavyweight if ever there was one.

I would at this point say in more ways than one. However, I'm unsure whether this is Price making that self-same joke and me missing it, or he confusing being morbidly obese with Clarke's complete lack of any support whatsoever.

What we are seeing is the stock response to an ex-minister who steps out of line. Brown's allies are dismissing Charles Clarke as embittered; a failure who offers no alternative solutions and is only damaging the party he claims to want to help.

But, err, he is offering no alternative solutions whatsoever. In both his interviews and in his New Statesman article he doesn't so much as mention one policy which Brown ought to institute or change, at least not directly, if we count his disapproval of Trident renewal. He undoubtedly is embittered, as he was after his defenestration by Blair also; it's just that he hates Brown a lot more than he hates Blair. All he's doing is damaging the party, reopening the wounds of early summer whilst not saying what the government should be doing to correct its course outside of the vague platitudes of stronger leadership etc. That instead has been left to Stephen Byers, who rather more constructively suggested that low-paid workers such as cleaners and catering staff should get above inflation pay increases by cutting the raises for senior executives.

If Clarke and what he represents can't be squashed, can it be squared? It may be too late by now, but Charles Clarke himself was eminently squareable for a very long time. He would have willingly returned to government or to a powerful party position in which his implicit claim to be able to chart a new and successful political direction for Labour could have been put to the test.

Except there are plenty of suggestions that Brown did offer Clarke a job or jobs, all of which he turned down. He's preferred to become the "maverick" outside the tent pissing in rather than the opposite, even when he's been fundamentally contradictory, having told Brown to (rightly) drop 42 day detention without charge for "terrorist suspects" when he himself helmed the battle to get 90 days on the statute book. His apparent feelings then against such illiberality didn't stop him from defending Blair.

Brown has been seriously considering offering a senior job to Alan Milburn, another ex-minister who shares Clarke's analysis. Only the chancellorship would do. If the offer is made and Milburn accepts we will know that the prime minister does intend to square his critics if he possibly can. The prospects are not good, however. The last time the two men tried to work together, in the run up to the 2005 election, it just ended in more acrimony.

Could that possibly be because Milburn's stewardship of the Labour campaign was widely regarded as disastrous, with Brown himself having to come in to save to day from the guy who came up with the brilliant slogan "forward, not back"? A long time ago it was, but most felt that it was through the implicit if not stated sentiment that if you voted Blair you would in fact get Brown, a soundbite which the Tories backed off of because it was actually something most were partial to, that helped towards the 60-plus majority. Milburn and Clarke had nothing to offer then and they have even less to offer now.

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Panic on the streets of London.

There was consternation today after a gang brawl involving spades, screwdrivers, bars and sticks was captured by a innocent paparazzo on his way to attempt to get a up-skirt shot of Julie Christie.

The terrifying scene, with kitchen utensils and DIY logistical tools being used for purposes far beyond their intended design has been seen as yet another vignette showcasing Britain's inexorable global decline.

Said one onlooker: "What sort of example does this set to the rest of the world? Once again we've come out bottom of everything, this time in the gang fight stakes. Where was the choreography of the great gangland battles which Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sicily have provided us with? Where were the knives and guns which the newspapers inform us every youth now has easy access to? The best we can manage is a pointed stick, a screwdriver and a Wellington boot. It's no wonder no one goes out at night any more; they're terrified of being attacked by youths armed with bits of 2 by 4 and buckets and spades from the seaside, rather than the Glocks, machetes and Uzis of our foreign cousins."

What do you think? Do you think this shows that Britain has lost its place in the great urban battles league? Do you think that I should stop attempting these feeble attempts at satire? Do you think the Daily Mail would have given a shit if this hadn't happened outside Julie Christie's house? Don't leave any messages, as I'm liable to censor them all.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008 

More shameless self-aggrandisement.

18th on the left-wing list; 60th on the full list, up from 195th last year. Major congrats also to Anton Vowl and 5cc, both of whom broke into the top 155, and Question That, who just broke into the top 200.

Again, huge thanks to everyone who voted for me. It really does almost make it all worthwhile.

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The safety elephant returns.

As much as some will deny it, a lot of us get our kicks from watching the suffering of other people. Call it schadenfreude when it involves our enemies, call it rubbernecking when we go past a road accident, call them gorehounds when they enjoy horror films or searching for the real equivalent online, call it what you will, most of us either enjoy or at the least, are fascinated and intrigued by it. Most of us however don't get the urge to join in with the activities, or want to be in the car accident.

Charles Clarke seems to be one of the individuals who lives in this vicarious fashion. He's never seen a battle involving the Labour party and also Gordon Brown that he hasn't wanted to join in on. Early last year he along with Alan Milburn launched the incredibly short lived 20:20 vision site, which many saw straight away as being an attempt to flush out a "modernising" candidate to challenge Gordon Brown's unopposed ascension to the top job. A little over a month later he was again angered to speak out because Brown and the deputy leadership candidates were daring to undermine the Dear Leader at a "time of international crisis". His last missive was back in the dog days of December, when he (quite rightly) criticised Brown's "British jobs for British workers" line but then went off on tangents about Brown not supporting his ministers enough and his appointment of Mark Malloch Brown as a foreign minister. This isn't to mention Clarke's most notorious blast against Brown, whom he accused of having "psychological issues", of being uncollegiate, deluded and a control freak, after the supposed 2006 September coup attempt against Blair.

It was then perhaps only a matter of time before Clarke spoke out again, and his timing it has to be said is meticulous, coming after the poor response to yesterday's housing measures and before the expected announcements on fuel. The only surprise is that he has in effect kept his powder dry with an article in the New Statesman, which for the most part covers Clarke's other pet peeve, the on-going labelling of the various factions as Blairite and Brownite.

Matters aren't helped by the fact that it's a highly confused and hardly illuminating piece to say the least. The vast majority of it is given over to defending Blairism and Blair's legacy as he sees it, whilst at say time attempting to argue that the labels no longer mean anything now that Blair has exited the scene. This would be more convincing if Clarke himself was offering absolutely anything beyond a slightly more left-wing version of Blairism, but he isn't. He says that "[E]veryone in Labour needs to stop obsessing about the past and to start obsessing about the future," then spends the next 500 words doing exactly that by going over again the well-worn path of Blair's political journey. He opens the article with by saying that the term Blairite is being used, misleadingly, to "characterise the policies and personalities of some who question the party's current direction and urge Labour to face the future," but how else should they be described when the likes of David Miliband, an undoubted Blair protege, and those backing him at least in the shadows are undoubtedly former Blair loyalists? It's not even as though all those challenging Brown over policy are being tarred with the same brush: the likes of Compass aren't being called Blairite, because they're not. Clarke complains that "Blairite" was how Brown's team apparently responded to Miliband's article in the Guardian, but probably a better and more accurate response would have been to call it crap, which is what it was.

It's not worth the full bother of picking through Clarke's version of what Blairism was, but there are a couple of examples of absolutely barking nonsense and other things that need to corrected:

Liberal interventionism must be underpinned by military force, but its moral authority was undermined by the glacial progress in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ill-considered determination to renew Trident.

This is an incredibly selective account of what undermined liberal interventionism. Surely what actually undermined it was the fact that there was never any moral authority to begin with over Iraq because the US and UK could not get UN approval for the war. This authority was then reduced further due to the abysmal decision-making once the war was won. Then there's the little thing of the ever spiralling numbers of dead; those that thought liberal interventionism was meant to save lives must be rather surprised that the war and resulting insurgency have left at the very least 150,000 dead. It also doesn't help when you base your case for war on weapons which subsequently turn out to have been destroyed years before, confirming that Saddam for the most part had been complying with the UN resolutions which even now the few remaining supporters of the war cling to as their defence for action.

The rise of terrorist atrocities, including London in 2005, identified Tony Blair with tough efforts to strengthen security, sometimes at a perceived cost to liberty.

Sometimes at a perceived cost? You have to admire the nerve of Charles Clarke in writing this sentence, considering he was the one that helmed the push for 90 days detention without charge for "terrorist suspects". Blair pushed through the illiberal and ineffective control orders, set-up a British version of Guantanamo in Belmarsh until the House of Lords ruled against indefinite detention without trial for foreign citizens, established the new laws on glorifying terrorism, introduced section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000, banned demonstrations within a mile of Parliament without permission from the police and fought to introduce ID cards, to list but some of the deprivations of liberty which happened under his watch. The one that can be said somewhat in his defence is that Gordon Brown picked up his chalice and ran with it by reintroducing 42 days, only to be humiliated by having to depend on the support of the DUP to get it through the Commons, with the Lords certain to reject it.

Economic "Blairism" was also defined by opposition to increasing taxes. This reflected the Reagan/Thatcher economic consensus, reinforced by Labour's 1992 shadow Budget, that tax-raising political parties lost elections. This belief underpinned the disastrous and unfair basic-rate cut, financed by abolition of the 10p rate, of Gordon Brown's 2007 Budget.

This is just wrong. The start of the second term was defined by the raising of national insurance to pay for the increased funding of the NHS. The campaign for re-election in 2001 was essentially based around the fact that taxes would most likely be raised to do so; to pretend otherwise is just as myopic and deluded as the statement in the 20:20 vision manifesto which claimed that both Britain and the world had become better and fairer after 10 years of Tony Blair.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that Clarke wrote this pap just so he could get to the final three paragraphs and his wider point:

This past week, Alistair Darling rightly said that the "coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour Party has had in a generation". Blairism as a concept offers little by way of rescue. It is certainly not a guide to action. Equally, however, it is inaccurate and misleading to dismiss as some kind of Blairite rump those who fear that Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election.

There is no coherent Blairite ideology. Many of us who were proud to be members of Tony Blair's government had differing approaches even then, and certainly propose differing prescriptions now.

It is of course perfectly true that there is no coherent Blairite ideology. How could there be when so much of Blairism was focused on responding to whatever the current issue on the front pages of the tabloids was. Blairite ideology took Thatcherite economics and combined it with the populism of increasing funding to the public services, leading to endless debilitating reform which has dogged both the NHS and the education sector for the past 10 years. Socially Blairism involved being even more socially authoritarian and intolerant than the very worst excesses under Michael Howard, in effect handing over criminal justice policy to the Sun, without ever learning the lesson that you cannot possibly be populist enough on law and order to satisfy them. Brown has somewhat learned this lesson, but even he has been criminally stupid enough to hand over policy on cannabis to Paul Dacre.

Clarke is equally right when he says that Blairism is no answer and that it's inaccurate to suggest that just the Blairites think Labour is on the path to disaster. How could it just be the Blairites when the entire Labour party knows full well that it's doomed, including Alastair Darling and Brown himself? Where he comes unstuck is in that Clarke hasn't offered a single suggestion for what Labour ought to do to get itself of this mess. He's spent the entire piece examining Blairism then comically denies that it has anything to offer or that it's Blairites behind the plotting. It's in the conclusion that he finally gives the game away:

Similarly, there is no Blairite plot, despite rumours and persistent newspaper reports. There is, however, a deep and widely shared concern - which does not derive from ideology - that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are, combined with a determination that we will not permit that to happen.

And just who is it that will not permit that to happen? Why, it couldn't be Clarke himself and that non-existent Blairite plot, could it? Let's be clear here - while it may not be the Blairites themselves that will wield the dagger, it will be they who have the most to gain from it. The rest of the party is already defeated, resigned to losing and being out of power for the years to come. It was Blair that brought the party to where it is today, not Brown, who was too cowardly to force him out sooner, and still they aren't satisfied with the corpse of the party which is left. That want that to be stamped out too. The triangulation of Blairism has led directly to the complete lack of significant difference between all main three political parties, squabbling over an ever decreasing part of the centre-right spectrum, and still the agenda supported by the Blairites and the post-Blairites, if that's what Clarke wants them to instead be referred to is unimpeachable. They've become the new establishment, convinced that they have a divine right to keep governing even while the natural party of government steals their clothes. Winning elections is not the key; serving the people is. All today's politicians have lost sight of that, none more so than Charles Clarke.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008 

New Labour's "Black Wednesday"?

It's probably an exaggeration to suggest that today's events could well be New Labour's Black Wednesday, as by no means is the OECD's forecast that Britain will slip into recession over the next two quarters akin to the catharsis which was the swift exit of the pound from the European exchange rate mechanism. It is however most certainly something resembling a turning point: an international organisation with a reputation beyond normal pundits predicting that the UK economy is heading for a recession. Again, this wouldn't be so damaging if it wasn't for two reasons: firstly that New Labour's message ever since the so-called credit crunch started biting in August of last year has been that the UK is "uniquely placed to weather the financial storm", or statements to that effect, and secondly that none of the other G7 nations are as yet likely to go into recession, or at least so quickly.

We can perhaps soften the blow of this slightly by pointing out that the OECD report (PDF) notes that the economies of Japan, Germany, France and Italy all contracted in the second quarter of this year, and that the OECD still predicts that this year's growth will be 1.2%, with only the United States and Germany likely to put in a better performance, but none of this will be of any real significance if the OECD prediction becomes reality; we will still be the only country to be by most definitions in recession. Additionally, you can also argue that things really can't get any worse for New Labour itself as a whole: after you're 20 points behind in the polls, it doesn't really make much difference how much larger the gap becomes, because either way there's only one inevitable outcome come polling day.

For Gordon Brown personally however, this furthers throws his leadership into question. All summer long we've been told that the economic re-launch, starting today with the annoucement of the much anticipated stamp duty holiday, would be the beginning of his fight back, with presumably the attempted stabilising of the house market to be followed by measures aimed at insulating lower income families from the massive rises in the costs of fuel. Instead what we've witnessed over the past four days has been the Alastair Darling show, with quite possibly the most boring man in politics coming out of his shell to deliver glad tidings of the doom to come. On one level, you have to admire his decision to invite a hack to stay with him while he holidayed on a Scottish island, having formerly eschewed interviews almost entirely. His answers to the questions posed by the Grauniad's Decca Aitkenhead were surprising because he didn't cloak them in the usual familiar way of suggesting that the glass is both half full and half empty at the exact same time. No, we were facing possibly the worst economic conditions in 60 years, the voters were pissed off with them, and he was hardly effusive about the Supreme Leader himself either.

Even if you accept that Darling's words were somewhat mangled by the Grauniad, when what he actually said was that the world economic conditions were the worst for 60 years, something not quite as lacking in rigour or reality as us personally in the worst condition for 60 years, and that instantly also means that what he said was no different from what other politicians from Labour have also stated, it's still caused a predictable storm that Darling himself has had to attempt to calm. He, rather than Brown has had to go in for the masochistic strategy of facing the press. It also somewhat tempers what would otherwise have been something else to admire: a politician being frank with the public, which the current poll on CiF has 82% backing for. Instead, he's been damned and blamed for yesterday's slump on sterling and for jittering the markets, as if the markets need the excuse of someone not talking out of their hat for panicking, something they habitually do at the slightest sign of trouble.

Indeed, it would be remiss not to highlight the media's own role in this whole sorry economic saga. The same newspapers which have so encouraged the house price bubble while at the same time permanently predicting impending doom were the ones crying loudest for a stamp duty holiday, possibly one of the most ineffective measures out for stabilising the market. As soon as the government let it be known that it was considering that exact thing, the media started the hue and the cry that this was further undermining the market by not doing it straight away and so putting off sellers from going through while they waited to see what would happen. Now that the holiday has duly been announced, they'll doubtless say that it either isn't enough or that it's a stop-gap measure which will do nothing more than create yet another temporary bubble.

Today's measures are of course exactly that. They're government doing something to be seen to be doing something, because something must be done. At the very most the holiday will save someone £1,750. A sum not to be sniffed at it, it must be said, and I'd be happy to have that sort of money sitting in my bank account; when however you are buying a house that costs £175,000, that sort of sum looks like chickenfeed, which it comparatively is. Nationwide's last survey of the housing market said that the average house price had fallen by nearly £5,000 in just a month. As the holiday is supposedly aimed at the less well-off and the first time buyers, it makes far more sense to wait until the market finally comes back to some sort of equilibrium, rather than rush in because the chancellor's promised that you'll save £1,750 if you buy now. The only people who are going to benefit then are those who have no choice but to move now.

At the heart of all this quite obviously is that the whole economic boom which we've so enjoyed for the last 14 or so years has been based on the housing bubble. For all the talk of creating a skills and knowledge economy to replace the manufacturing one which we've abandoned or increasingly disowned, what's really been driving wealth creation has been the home-owning obsession, leading directly to the sub-prime crisis driven by the lunacy of the likes of the over 100% mortgages. The popping of the bubble is the only way in which we might come back to some sort of sanity, which is exactly why we ought not to be interfering any further in the housing market at all. The long-needed adjustment which is now taking place will in fact be far less painful and extended if we leave it to pan out of its own accord. The real story ought to be that for all the increase in the top grades in both GCSEs and A-levels, still almost 50% of those at 16 are not getting 5 decent grades at GCSE, despite, or perhaps because of the incessant meddling with the school system. The academies which all three political parties now apparently support are despite all their extra money, emphasis on selection and differences in behaviour and ethos policies failing to do significantly better than the schools they replaced, and in some cases they're even doing worse. That's the real failure to prepare for the future which ought to be getting the attention, not on the spending policies which the Tories either failed to oppose or which they can't say how they would have handled differently.

It's still impossible to know whether Brown will see out the end of the year, or even potentially the end of next month as Labour leader, but today has certainly put yet another nail in both his and his party's coffin. Whether it will come to be seen as New Labour's Black Wednesday moment also remains to be seen, but for the former chancellor to be shown to be so decidedly humiliated whilst his own chancellor is in the spotlight may well be the final straw that broke the camel's back.

Slight addendum: I ought to have said that it's obviously not an exact analogy to Black Wednesday in that it doesn't expose government incompetence, rather that it's the exposing of a government's insistence that everything is going to be alright, honest. The difficulty as always is in finding the balance between talking up the the situation when all is apparently not well and in going over the top in Cassandra-like bleakness for the future. New Labour most certainly has not found that balance.

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Must have been those Kegel exercises.

Not to dwell much longer on the whole Sarah Palin fandango, but this is quite possibly the funniest thing I've seen involving a politician for a while, which you'll have to click to read I'd imagine:

Connected somewhat, it looks like the rumours suggesting that Palin's daughter might have been the real mother of Trig may well have been started by those well-known political experts over on the Something Awful forums. Good to see that SA hasn't completely given up the mantle of trolling and general meme creating to 4chan, I suppose, at least.

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Shameless self-aggrandisement.

It would be remiss not to mention that creator of blogging Iain Dale's yearly rankings of left-wing blogs have just been released, and your humble narrator is doubly humbled and really rather staggered to have jumped from 72nd last year to 18th this. A huge thank you to everyone who voted for me, especially considering this is the first I've so much as mentioned the voting here.

For the most part I don't think anyone will have any problem with the results, but doubtless the boycotts which some bloggers, including Justin and Bob Piper advocated hurt them in the rankings when both should have most certainly ranked higher than I did. I really didn't see the point of such boycotts; just look at it as a bit of fun which really doesn't mean a great deal, or at least put aside the differences some have with Iain Dale over it, as it's quite apparent that he's not cooking the figures. It doesn't do any harm, and it most certainly does promote UK political blogging, if not perhaps over the long term.

Anyway, thanks again, and hopefully next year I'll drop to a more anonymous position once more.

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Monday, September 01, 2008 

All virgins are liars honey.

I haven't blogged much about the incessant background chorus which is the US presidential election mainly because I'm probably one of the few political creatures that isn't fascinated by the whole thing. The Democratic convention last week didn't help matters: it takes something to make our political parties' soirées at the seaside look meaningful and not like an exercise in navel gazing which both the politicos and the journalists spend getting lashed, but last week's convention and its screechingly mawkish sentimentality, which featured Obama's daughters on the stage talking to Daddy whilst he was elsewhere, the Hillary and Bill show where the least likable couple in political history failed culpably to get over their sour grapes at losing, and then Obama making a thunderously overrated speech, like all the rest, surrounded by a Roman-Greco backdrop which the Republicans themselves couldn't have constructed if they'd wanted him to look like a pseud, succeeded admirably.

All this was meant to have set-up McCain for what would have been a fight-back; instead what we've seen has been natural disaster and, well, human disaster. You can't plan for events like Gustav disrupting your enthronement, but McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate must in the pantheon of political choices go down as one of the worst of all time, without hyperbole, although who knows, come November I may be eating my words. This was a shockingly cynical but also shallow choice, at a stroke rendering the Republican attack on Obama as inexperienced dead in the water. If this was a further sop for the PUMAs, then it was one based on a flawed idea of what the average Hillary supporting Democrat was after: Palin doesn't just oppose abortion, but also opposes it for rape and incest victims. She has thanks to her reputation as an evangelical, NRA-supporting, global warming sceptic appealed to the Republican Christian conservative base, but on every other ground she comes up short.

To be completely juvenile and dwell on irrelevancy for a paragraph, that includes on naming her children. I mean seriously, Bristol, Track, Trig, Willow and Piper? We expect celebrities to call their children stupid, pretentious things, whether it be Peaches, Pixie, Apple, Shiloh, Romeo, Brooklyn and all the other assorted nightmares, but politicians generally have slightly more sense. Except for David Cameron, of course, but then he fits the profile alluded to. Bristol is apparently named after Bristol Bay in Alaska, which I am reliably informed by someone who used to live 12 miles from where Palin was formerly mayor is a huge salmon processing place which always smells like death, but Wikipedia informs us that it was named by James Cook in honour of the Admiral Earl of Bristol, so it takes its name from our own delightful city. Anton Vowl alludes to where next if Palin was to have any more children she could take influence from - Swindon, Bradford, Middlesbrough, to which I can only add that I don't think anyone has yet thought of calling their offspring Scunthorpe, Cockermouth (which is actually a rather lovely little town) or Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.

The issue that has emerged has however not been Palin herself having any more children, but that of her daughter, the aforementioned Bristol who it has been revealed is 5 months pregnant. Whether this was released because certain left-wing blogs in the US were scurrilously and completely erroneously alleging that Bristol had in fact given birth to Palin's last child, Trig, who was born with Down's Syndrome, is unclear, but it has nonetheless rather energised comment as only something resembling a scandal involving a politician can.

This shouldn't as some have already argued be either something to score points over or to even mention for fear that it will be seen, quite plausibly, as the lowest form of politics. The facts however do speak for themselves: Palin is an opponent of "explicit" sex education and has supported abstinence only education in its place. After all, if a politician's own daughter's experience appears to suggest that abstinence only education doesn't work, isn't that something that ought to be highlighted? Plausibly, but it will still be seen as it ought to be of bringing family into something that most will highly sympathise with; after all, we all make mistakes and this is one that Palin's daughter most likely bitterly regrets. There might be more in it if Palin additionally opposed contraception, but she doesn't. Probably the best case I've seen for it to be any sort of issue is made by innerbrat.

More pertinently I think that the real issue here, away from the fact that Palin doesn't seem to have been properly vetted by McCain's people, further suggesting that she was on-the-cuff choice designed to also pull some of the attention away from Obama's speech, is that it's been swiftly announced that Bristol will also be marrying the father of the child. Considering that she's already 5 months pregnant and there doesn't seem to have been any sign at all that there was to be a marriage prior to Palin's swift ascension to being McCain's number two, this seems to be even more cynical than our own Tessa Jowell's swift separation from her husband after the mortgage debacle. Quite aside from whether this is her daughter's own wishes and whether getting married at 17 is even anything resembling a good idea, it also rather exposes Palin's opposition to same-sex marriage, which she detests to such an extent that she supported a constitutional amendment which would have denied state health benefits to same-sex couples. The familiar argument against it is that it debases marriage and the sanctity of the institution; what more actually offends the institution than shotgun weddings in this day and age, either to appease a Christian conservative base or to spare a vice-presidential candidate's potential blushes?

Now, it might possibly be that her daughter fully intended to marry the father, and that theirs is a loving and committed relationship. Maybe I'm just being too cynical over potential cynicism, or then again, maybe I'm being realistic about the sort of relationships which most 17-year-olds have. In any case, Obama's campaign has quite rightly said that it won't be so much as mentioning it again. That doesn't matter though: already both left and right are squabbling online as only they can. The real question is exactly what those who previously hailed Palin as their sort of person based on her beliefs really think when they're not required to mind their language. As Michael Tomasky points out, Karl Rove thought that the revelation about Bush's DUI cost him three or four points with evangelical voters. We all know that such rigidity of dogma can only result in inevitable hypocrisy, but those self-same conservative warriors might not think too highly of her mother's skills as a parent, and that might just be enough to put the nail in the coffin of McCain's gamble.

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Millie's cookies.

As well all know, the Sun deeply loves "Our Boys". This love, which is in no way two-faced, simply used in a desperate attempt to sell newspapers, or unrequited, is on such a level that the Sun has quite selflessly offered to support the Ministry of Defence in setting up a yearly award ceremony to celebrate the diligence and sacrifice of our armed forces. The name chosen for this venture? The "Millies".

The announcement of these awards and the Sun's sponsorship has gone down spectacularly well with two important groups: the Sun's readers and the armed forces. Here are just a few samples of their gratitude for the Sun's truly remarkable gesture:

looks tacky.. it's like some sort of MTV award

Our Forces are wonderful and I'm proud of them. This award thing is far too tacky for them, and reeks of self-promotion.I award it a golden raspberry.

A trashy tacky idea that lacks any taste what so ever!

Terrible idea. And highly cheesy. Thanks but no thanks, a pay rise would be a better award

Words fail me.............Is this another project so that the Sun get more readers, a really tacky idea and one which Senior Officers in the MOD should never have agreed to. God help us.


A load of old cobblers by a sad rag

If it wasn't being done by the Scum, I might be in favour of it. However, the Scum is so two faced, I see it as a way for them simply to gain dirt more easily.

Shocking positively shocking.

Newton-Dunn, what a total prick.

Why the fcuk have they let that t1t rag sponsor the awards? It just trivialises the whole thing.

I personally think its a massively tastless idea. The only thing that could have made it worse is if they were proposing a phone vote.
Really really cant see any benefit to this other than the Sun's ego.

I think it is Insulting to the troops.

Hidious idea and the sun should be made aware that it is(have e-mailed but no reply!)
Cheap nasty self-promoting scheme!
A national petition to get it banned before it starts would be a way to fire a shot at the tacky paper!

No, no, titter ye not (thanks, Frankie). Millys all round, please. Then we can all compare our lovely new gongs at Remembrance Day, oh how proud it will make the old boys.

How about an award for cam & concealment, they could call it the "Maddie"

There should be an annual "Lets keep our noses out of what the armed forces do day" instead where the press/senior officers/government/Royality can just leave the lads to either go to work and do what needs doing or have a lie in.

The Millies'. God help us. This is truly, truly horrible. We've been reduced to the tacky ranks of luvvies and 'celebrities'. Any person or unit who has the misfortune to get one of these tasteless and pointless awards can look forward to having all their dignity stripped from them at some bloody awful 'awards ceremony'.

It's our own fault. While the Sun has for years made play of supporting 'our boys' when it suits them and then turning on us with any whiff of a scandal or punch up within 15 miles of a barracks - still the most common rag to find lying round the NAAFI or brew room is the good old Currant Bun.

At the risk of being banned from Liverpool like Boris Johnson and others I must say that the unequivocal response of the Scouse nation to the Scum's reporting of the Hillsborough disaster - reducing the circulation in that city from over 200,000 to less than 10,000 overnight and maintaining the boycott today - is one of the few things that endear me to the current Capital of Culture.

If you buy it, let your mates buy it, read it/look at the tits in it then you only have yourself to blame. Only a complete military boycott of the Scum would send the message and make them fuck off and stop bothering us.

As for the categories themselves:

1. Best Recruit
2. Support to the Armed Forces
3. Lifesaver Awards
4. True Grit: Individual
5. True Grit: Group
6. Best Armed Forces Animal
7. Most Outstanding Sailor or Marine
7. Most Outstanding Soldier
8. Most Outstanding Airman
8. Overcoming Adversity
9. Best Unit
10. Judges Award for Special Recognition.

Yes, they really are giving an award to an animal.

On ARRSE it's already been suggested that these could be added to, with biggest ginge, worst bit of kit and biggest bluff as additional awards, but I'm sure we could add to those as well. There could be the "best joystick skills" for the spotty urchin in America directing the Predator drone to its target and accidentally inflicting some collateral damage on the civilian population. Likewise, there could be an award for the soldier responsible for killing the most civilians after the calling in of a air strike results in a 1,000lb bomb being dropped on a mud-hut which contains no Taliban or jihadists but which does unfortunately hold 90 civilians. mostly women and children. Or the best friendly fire incident, which each year is automatically awarded to the Americans for their seasoned skill in killing those on their own side then ensuring that those responsible never so much as give evidence to the resulting inquest. There could be "finest civvy street incident", where the undisputed brilliance of soldiers on home leave or at weekends at starting fights or leaving the middle of small towns in ruins is celebrated, and "most outstanding reticence in face of provocation" for the soldier which doesn't kick the crap out of those throwing abuse at them following the edict from the prime minister and the Sun newspaper that they should be wearing their uniform at all times whatever they're doing.

Finally, there could be the "most shameless coward" award, which automatically each year would be awarded to the Sun newspaper and the prime minister of the day; firstly for the Sun's own role in ensuring the senseless waste of life in Iraq took place on both sides through its own support for that elusive $20 barrel of oil, and secondly to the prime minister whom against all reason keeps the troops in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have no military solution, whose presence in the former has ceased to have any justification whatsoever long ago and which in the latter is against all rhyme and history. Seeing as all three political parties support the war in Afghanistan, this should be an award that'll be given out for years to come.

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