Tuesday, June 30, 2009 

Legislation which doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

One of the more cutting attacks of recent months on the government came not from the Conservatives but from that other continual provider of friendly fire, Frank Field. Writing about government business which was slowly winding its way towards conclusion, he said "week after week MPs have been turning up but with almost no serious work to do. There is the odd bill to be sure. But there is no legislative programme to speak of ... the whole exercise is vacuous."

The problem with Field's criticism is that it assumes that fresh legislation is the be all and end all of government, and it has indeed become one of the key measures by which they are judged. This misses the point that it is not the quantity of bills which are passed, and New Labour has in the past been rightly accused of legislative mania, but rather the quality, on which Labour again falls down on. The immediate answer to passing frenzies and quick to evaporate moral panics is always to get something on the statute book, regardless of how those laws will end up being used and the overall effect they will have. The shining example remains the Dangerous Dogs Act, passed after a tabloid campaign and which outlaws entire breeds of dog, regardless of the dog's own nature. Last year's knife panic brought demands for anyone carrying a knife, regardless of age or reason, to be sent to prison, something which most judges are still rightly either ignoring or evading.

With this in mind, some criticism of what amounts to the next Queen's speech announced yesterday would be unfair. Who can blame a government in uncertain economic times, when it doesn't frankly have a clue how much money it will eventually have to play about with, from not having the most ambitious legislative programme mapped out? Added to this is that we are now less from a year away from an election, where the real big reforms and changes will doubtless be held over to put into the manifesto, and you're likely to be left with what is tinkering around the margins, dropping some of the more unpopular formerly proposed initiatives, with part-privatisation of the Royal Mail postponed and ID cards now not to be forced on anyone (although the real problem all along, the database, will still be around) while also attempting some populist gestures such as allocating more money to social housing building.

As of course this though is New Labour, they can't help but add some very real stings in the tail. The added measure in the housing commitment to make sure that "local residents" are first to be considered for new council homes has only one target, and that is the persistent myth, mined ruthlessly by the BNP, that migrants, asylum seekers and foreigners have the first crack of the whip. It's true that all councils have to bump up those who are in genuine need, whether homeless or otherwise, up towards the top, but asylum seekers and migrants are excluded from the very beginning until they are given leave to remain. Only 5% of social housing is allocated to foreign nationals, but this hasn't stopped the repeated claims that this isn't the case. That the government has now given succour to the idea, regardless of whether or not they also point out at the same time that it isn't true, it's the sort of legitimisation which the BNP and other discontents thrive upon and which they will be pointing out for years to come. It might not be entirely fair to call this "British homes for British workers", but it's not far from it.

Much the same is the case with the kind, generous, selfless gesture which is the offer of a job or training to the young who have been unemployed for over a year. Not a new announcement, but the stick being wielded is. Those who refuse a job, presumably regardless of what it is, will lose two weeks' benefit, and so on and so forth. The opposing argument will be that beggars can't be choosers, but putting someone into a job which they simply aren't suited to do is no solution at all. This conditionality was inherent in James Purnell's welfare reform bill, and it was just as damaging and potentially pernicious there as it is here. Most of those currently out of are work will welcome the possibility of a job, but not any job. One explanation for why this is especially being targeted at the young and out of work is that there is the potential to save money: tax credits, which eat into the savings made when the older out of work find employment, are not payable to those under 24. The government is therefore a winner regardless of whether a job is taken up or not.

Alongside the welcome retreat from the targets culture ingrained in the public sector under Blair, to be replaced by various rights to treatment or private tutors, although where the money's coming from is unclear, the most conspicuous absence is any real reform neccesitated by the expenses scandal. This might be for the better, as the beginning of this post argues, as legislation cobbled together in haste often fails all those involved, and it seems the current bill being rushed through is no exception, but for a prime minister who came in promising further constitutional reform, the final flushing out of the hereditary peers from the Lords is about as tame as it gets. It just confirms that as with the banking sector, parliament is getting back to normal, and far quicker than the City did. It can be argued that the public themselves didn't want major reform of Westminster, just an end to the gravy train, but at the same time it fails to answer the now critical insult that all politicians are more or less the same.

It's an attack which sticks, because all this latest package confirms is that Labour and the Conservatives are fighting a battle not over ideology, but over the little details. The key differences seem to be that the Conservatives will be slightly tougher, whether on law and order, foreign policy and the welfare system, and cut slightly more, except on health and foreign aid, and possibly education than Labour will. Little else really separates them. Neither is prepared to be honest about what they would cut, whether it's Labour who don't seem prepared to admit that they'll cut anything, or the Tories, who have no intention of telling just how harshly they're going to cut public spending. Here is where Alan Johnson's suggestion that there could be a referendum on voting reform at the same time as the election could have made so much difference. The promise that you would no longer be forced to decide which is the lesser of the two evils, with the Lib Dems joining the fray in certain areas, could have helped to suggest that there will shortly be a real choice. Instead we're fobbed off with the same old leftovers as before, regardless of which party is proposing what.

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Monday, June 29, 2009 

Girls (Scream) Alone.

The prosecution against Darryn Walker, the author of the story "Girls (Scream) Aloud", has collapsed without a jury even needing to be troubled by any of the evidence. Despite having had since last July to come up with a case, although it seems it didn't come to the attention of the press until last October, the Crown failed to offer any evidence after Walker's defence demolished any hope of a conviction.

It does now appear that as I wondered back then, the key factor in Walker being charged was that his story mentioned the very real girl group Girls Aloud. It's still unclear whether he first wrote the almost identical "Pieces of Candy", which has a fictitious girl group undergoing the same torture as the members of Girls Aloud do in their version, then adapted it, but regardless, it was his decision to make it "real" that led to his prosecution. According to the prosecution, it was undertaken under the fear that those merely searching for Girls Aloud might be unlucky enough to come across Walker's fevered writings, featuring the rape, mutilation and murder and all five members of the group, and so, presumably, be "depraved and corrupted" as the Obscene Publications Act requires for there to be a conviction.

The idea that either of those things was likely was always laughable. Walker's story was (and still is) contained on an archive for writing posted on the Usenet group alt.sex.stories, and even then is not easily found; search the website itself for Girls Aloud and it is not even on the first page. It is instead hidden away on the Kristen archives section of the website, which itself has a warning which states that it is filtered by most net nanny software, then on the "putrid" sub-section, which has a further warning. You won't find it on the list though, as it's been removed, presumably at Walker's request. The page itself though does still exist. Having jumped through these hoops, you then have Walker's own warning. However, by the simple fact that the CPS thought it was worth prosecuting someone for writing a bad story, the Streisand effect has taken over, with the story now mirrored and far easier to access. My post alone on the prosecution has had a large number of hits today, meaning that any intrigued younger reader wanting to read what all the fuss was about has had far more opportunity than they ever would have had before.

That truism alone, that when you try to ban something cultural you instantly make it more alluring and more desirable regardless of its quality ought to be enough to discourage the censors, especially in this age, from attempting to do so. Walker's story can hardly be defended on artistic grounds, but it can be on the grounds that it is highly unlikely, as the psychiatrist called to defend him argued, that it would turn anyone into a sexual predator. It's also completely true that it was only likely to appeal to those already interested in such material; if someone was simply searching for "erotic celebrity fan-fiction", which fills a rather specific niche on the internet for those who prefer words to pictures, they were likely to go for more easily available writing featuring the gorgeous pouting quintet, rather than that which also involved the sawing off of arms and breasts. Unpleasant as it doubtless is for those depicted to be written about in such a way by complete strangers who then share their fantasies with others, there seems to have been very little legal action taken against sites hosting such stories. Most will admit to the vanity of searching Google for their own name; whether stars themselves dig deep into the darker recesses of the internet and discover such writing is another matter entirely.

Walker though should certainly have never been prosecuted. It raises questions, not only of those who authorised the prosecution, but also of the Internet Watch Foundation, which initially brought the police's attention to the story. Supposedly, why they simply didn't block access to either the page or the site as a whole is because it's hosted overseas and because there is no international agreement on what is obscene, quite rightly, yet as we saw during the Wikipedia/Scorpions debacle, that didn't stop them then. Presumably the page was reported to them, unless they themselves came it across during one of their own trawls, and they decided that it was so terrible and so shocking that the police had to be involved. It certainly makes you wonder about those who are in charge at the IWF; if the likes of "Girls (Scream) Aloud" makes them rush to involve Inspector Knacker, what do they go through at the sight of "2 girls 1 cup" or even the video of the death of Neda? This is, it needs stating again, a completely unaccountable body that doesn't just censor child pornography, but also material that "incites racial hatred", potentially breaches the OPA, as Walker was accused of, and now "extreme pornography", since the law came into effect in January. The law has already been used, although it seems mainly to prosecute those selling beastiality DVDs along with pirated blockbusters.

Quite how much it cost for Walker to be brought to trial, let alone the police and CPS time dedicated to considering whether he should be charged over fantastical words he wrote is irrelevant when it comes to what it has done to the man himself. Regardless of his own sexual predilections and fantasies, and that he wrote such things is no indication whatsoever that he is partial to acting out anything like that his protagonists do in his stories, his life has quite possibly been ruined. Anyone now "Googling" for him when he applies for job, having lost his as a civil servant when he was charged, will soon discover he was up before the beak on the charge of writing perverted stories about a popular beat combo, which is likely to do wonders to his chances of finding employment. It ought to be ridiculous in 2009 that anyone writing fiction, even if it is fiction which features real people, should be charged with obscenity; that someone should be potentially ruined because of it is not just ridiculous, it's disgraceful. No thought however seems to have been put into this before charging was proceeded with, just as no one at the IWF presumably thought through the consequences when they boggled at the original submission to them. This ought to lead to a reform of our obscenity laws, yet if anything they seem likely to be tightened further still.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009 

Weekend links.

As there still remains only one story this weekend, we'll try and keep the Jacko comments until last. On the blogs then, Lenin and Shiraz Socialist celebrate an apparent victory for the Total workers at the Lindsey refinery, Paul Linford asks who will clean up parliament, Tabloid Watch notes that Paul Dacre earns double what the BBC's director general does, Flying Rodent mocks libertarians, Ten Percent has a statement from a group of Iranian bloggers about the stolen presidential election, A Very Public Sociologist has thoughts on manning a Socialist Party stall and the people it attracts, Daily (Maybe) is cynical about Armed Forces Day, and the Polemical Report has a link to a video summary of Fox News's "best bits" since Obama became US president.

In the papers, Peter Oborne asks why Cameron won't be sacking his most egregious expenses cheats (answer: they're in his shadow cabinet), Matthew Parris urges Cameron to keep boring on about the lies concerning spending cuts, Natalie Haynes welcomes the change in the BBFC's guidelines in a not completely convincing fashion, Andrew Grice believes that the Tories will make the election issue whether the public want "Honest Dave" or "Dodgy Gordon", John Harris calls Labour ministers out on how they seem determined to return the City to business as normal, and Polly Toynbee notes that despite people believing their lives are getting better, they blame those principally responsible.

The worst tabloid article of the weekend for one week only turns into the worst Jacko comment of the weekend prize instead. There are plenty of contenders: Hadley Freeman for deciding this wasn't a "Diana moment" before he was even cold, the Mail's battling columnists over whether he was the Mozart of our time or the sign of a bankrupt culture (answer: neither), Janice Turner, who believes that it was the "fans" that killed him and yesterday's so bad it's terrible Sun leader column, but the clear winner is James Delingpole, with his claim that his squeaky voice was maddening and his music abysmal, to which there is only one riposte: you utter, utter, twat.

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Friday, June 26, 2009 

I hear someone died...

And a few people have been tortured. Not much else really happening though.

You can though rely on the Sun to say everything that everyone else has already said:

THE news is stunning, shocking, unbelievable.


And now he lies dead of a heart attack at just 50. It just does not seem real.


There has never been anyone like him. Perhaps there never will again.


Today's appalling news is as devastating a shock as the murder of John Lennon in 1980.


The King Of Pop has gone. His memory will live for ever.

It is indeed stunning, shocking and unbelievable that someone will have been paid for this nonsense. Still, knocked the BBC expenses non-story down the agenda ever so slightly.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009 


Here is the complete madness of war, not just the war in Afghanistan, although that is undoubtedly mad, in three paragraphs:

Despite the limited success of the effort to engage the residents, the mood back at the base was buoyant after the expected stiff resistance to their presence in the village failed to materialise. Small arms fire on the compound the British had taken over allowed the men to strip off and swim in the canal behind the building.

Part of the reason was the dropping from a B1 bomber of a 500lb bomb on to a compound from which there had been day-long fire.

"We had no choice," said Major Rupert Whitelegge . "Every time he would fire a shot to initiate an attack, he would drop down behind his enormous 3ft-thick wall. We just couldn't get through and so we dropped the bomb. It's been very quiet today, strangely."

Quite apart from the cost of that 500lb bomb to kill one lonely person doubtless scared out of their wits and without a clue what to do, they don't seem to have noticed the contradiction between dropping 500lb bombs on buildings and that "limited success" of engaging the residents. Destroying buildings with huge explosions and winning hearts and minds; quite clearly these two things aren't incompatible after all.

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Expenses which aren't a scandal.

As non-stories go, BBC executives claim hardly anything on expenses over five year period is a pretty high ranking one. Director-General claims for flight back to Britain to deal with manufactured newspaper scandal, as any other business would accept in an instant, creative director claims on insurance for stolen handbag, and a £100 bottle of champagne for someone regarded by many as a national treasure is about as weak as it gets. To give an idea of just how removed these are from the MPs expenses, Radio 1's controller Andy Parfitt claimed £340.43 on meals last year (PDF), the highest such claim. That's £60 less than most MPs were claiming in a single month on food. To be sure, these are high-earning individuals, spending our money when they should perhaps be forking out for it themselves. Yet these claims in any other business of a similar size would barely raise an eyebrow, as the more honest outside commentators are admitting. Prince Charles cost us £3 million last year; the BBC's executive expenses over 5 years were £363,963.83. I know in an instant which I'd plump for every time.

The BBC though is nothing if it is not self-flagellating. You can imagine the delight of the Daily Mail, responsible for the ridiculous storm over "Sachsgate" at the news that Mark Thompson claimed back on the cost of his flights to deal with the fallout from it. Hence the story has been towards the top of their news throughout the day, the top story on Newsnight, and you have Martin Bell, saint of all sleaze allegations, denouncing these more than reasonable costs as unacceptable. Perhaps the Guardian's comment sections are hardly representative, but to call the consensus being overwhelmingly towards these expenses being for the most part highly reasonable would be putting it too lightly, with Emily Bell taking rather heavy flak for her piece.

She does however have something of a point; there is a contradiction between whether the BBC is a public or private organisation. Not a single person in the country believes that Jonathan Ross is worth £6 million a year, and he would almost certainly not get a similar sum now from a truly commercial organisation, even if he would have done before. The fact remains though that for the most part the BBC does have to compete, even if ITV and CH4 claim to high heaven that they're now hardly treading water. We expect so much from the BBC, and when you have the outrages like Jonathan Ross's salary and some of the truly dreadful programmes which it occasionally produces, whether it be almost everything that BBC3 broadcasts or the likes of Hotel Babylon, it undermines the general good which the corporation radiates. It could be better: it could close down BBC3 entirely, and also perhaps do without Radio 1 which has deteriorated to such a stage that putting it down would be the kind thing to do, and reinvest the money elsewhere, but no one has yet had the temerity to suggest that the BBC should do more with less, except for those that have a very good commercial reason for saying so.

At the same time, the public themselves also don't seem to know what they want. The BBC's new guidelines, based on research conducted with a representative sample of 2,700 viewers and listeners say that the corporation should never "condone malicious intrusion, intimidation and humiliation." Presumably then that means that the Apprentice will not be returning to BBC1. While the BBC has for the most part eschewed the "talent" reality shows which ITV is now relying upon, with the exception of the late Fame Academy and the "celebrity" shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, they would also presumably now be barred by such rules. After all, what are the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent except celebrations of intimidation and humiliation of those that dare to imagine that they've got something special when they conspicuously haven't? These are the top rated shows of the last decade, and apparently the public dislike them even while lapping them up. It also simply doesn't seem to have occurred to some respondents that they can change the channel if there's swearing on one side, with the BBC now promising that strong language will only be heard in "exceptional circumstances" between 9pm and 10pm on BBC1. It wasn't that long ago when strong language didn't require any such warning before the programme began, especially later on at night, yet now there are warnings across the board, all while 46% say the standards have slipped in recent years.

Despite its strength, there is a timidity and an apologetic nature about the BBC at present, as if they seem to realise that it can't last much longer, and that it'll all be better when it is cut down to size, something which we will then bitterly regret for ever more. At a time when there is so much unaccountability, both in public and private life, the BBC is one of the more responsive and open organisations. The danger is that it'll brought down because of that rather than the opposite.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009 

Change we can believe in.

At least 43 people have died in missile strikes by a US drone aircraft in a militant stronghold of Pakistan, a Taliban spokesman has told the BBC.

The people killed in South Waziristan had been attending the funeral of a militant commander who had been killed in an earlier strike.

This is the sort of thing that jihadists in Iraq have been doing now for a number of years; first killing dozens, then targeting them again when the bereaved bury their dead. It has also been used as a tactic in Pakistan itself. One anti-jihadist blog commented on one of these attacks that apparently nothing was sacred, except jihad itself. It seems that the same applies to the United States, regardless of those at the top of the chain of command.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009 

A handy cut out and keep guide for hacks: Islamic dress.

For all those out there who are still terribly confused about what and what isn't a burqa (also spelled burkha, burka, etc), as Daily Express and Star journalists clearly are, let septicisle solve your problems:

This is a burqa. It's clearly identifiable by how there is not even an opening for the eyes; rather, it has a mesh through which the wearer can see (badly). These are mainly worn in Afghanistan and by the most conservative adherents of Islam, mostly apart from Afghanistan in parts of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The numbers wearing them in this country probably number in the very low hundreds (could even be dozens or lower), if that, with a similar number in France, where the current controversy is brewing.

These are niqabs. They're clearly identifiable by how there is only an opening for the eyes. These are more widely worn than the burqa, across the Sunni Islamic world (the Shia mainly settle for the normal hijab, if any head covering is worn) although again almost only by the more conservative adherents. The numbers wearing them in this country probably number in the low thousands, if that, with a similar number in France, where the current controversy is brewing.

Next time in the handy cut out and keep guide for hacks: what is and what isn't a disease.

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Scum-watch: So, farewell then, Rebekah Wade...

Good riddance then to Rebekah Wade (or, according to the Graun, Rebekah Brooks, as she is now apparently calling herself since her recent wedding), who will be moving "upstairs" in News International in a long mooted move and one that she herself has long been lobbying for.

This isn't the place as yet for a long consideration of her time as editor of the biggest selling newspaper in the country, but it remains the case that for the most part Wade proved to be a less controversial editor than her time at the News of the World suggested she would be. The main bungles which did happen during her watch, which included her "BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP" front page splash, to say nothing of the time she was arrested after drunkenly slapping her former husband are not much to write home about when you consider the Sun's history, especially while Kelvin MacKenzie was editor.

That's not to say that Wade was a non-entity as editor, far from it. She kept up her campaign for "Sarah's law", legislation which children's charities themselves oppose as either unproved or potentially putting them further at risk as paedophiles head even further underground. Other campaigns have included almost yearly rages against the Human Rights Act, which it has repeatedly lied about and slandered, repeated demands that the detention limit for "terrorist suspects" be extended, whether to 90 or 42 days, with the paper the first time round denouncing those who voted against as "traitors", constant moaning that sentences are not long enough and that more prison places are essential, even when Labour has vastly lengthened and expanded both, and more recently, hysterical scaremongering, both about knife crime and Britain being "broken", as well as a horrendous campaign "for" Baby P, which resulted in two of those involved in his case considering suicide. That isn't to mention other quite wonderful journalistic successes, such as the claim back in January that "radical Muslims" were targeting Jews such as Alan Sugar, which led to legal action being taken, or last year's "IVF twins were dumped because they're girls", which was untrue on almost every count.

All this said, the Sun has certainly become to an extent more liberal during Wade's tenure. Whether this is down to her or because in general society is becoming more tolerant is unclear, but the paper which not so long back was leading campaigns against the possibility of Julian Clary becoming host of the Generation Game because of his sexuality, or which asked on its front page whether the country was being run by a "gay mafia" has moved on. During the Big Brother racism scandal it ran a front page, which although somewhat hypocritical, was the sort of thing it would have never done only a few years ago. It still loathes asylum seekers, failed or otherwise, but that's hardly unique in the tabloid world. Both the Daily Mail and Express are far more reactionary than the Sun on almost all of these matters.

The Sun still matters most though because of its sale and its influence. While the Mail may be catching up, or even caught up, the Sun is still courted by politicians looking for the nod of approval from Rupert Murdoch. He is, after all, the real power behind the throne, and any editor of any of his papers is only following the rules put down by him. His recent comments about David Cameron, that he has to be a second Thatcher if he's to gain his full approval, showed just how politicians have to portray and present themselves to get support. It should be remembered that this is a man who has no vote in this country, who has in the past made it his task to pay as little tax in this country as possible, and who is fundamentally unaccountable to anyone other than himself. Whoever becomes the next editor of the paper, and no one seems to have any idea who it's likely to be, the real power will not lie with he or she.

Update: Stan points out the in comments that I forgot about the Alfie Patten non-story, which also should go down as one of her worst moments.

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Monday, June 22, 2009 

Dragged kicking and screaming.

A lot of nonsense has been written and spoken, not least by the candidates for the job themselves, about just how big a role the speaker of the Commons can have in reforming parliament. The worst candidate, by a huge margin, was easily Margaret Beckett, the establishment while not resembling the standard establishment figure. No longer with a government job to perform abysmally in, it was a frightening prospect that she'd be the one to be calling the shots, and that she didn't even bother to make even the slightest noises about change was a sign that she might perhaps just wing it.

As it turned out, the original predictions that John Bercow would walk it came true. To my mind, and this may well cause some surprise, the best candidate was Ann Widdecombe. Ignore her politics, and instead you had someone who clearly is as tough as old boots and could have shaken things up slightly. More to the point, she was only to be an interim candidate, and so if she turned out be useless or hopelessly biased, she'd be gone by next year anyway. Bercow was though however the second best alternative, and that he so coveted the job was not necessarily a downside. That he was so loathed by the Tories themselves, who seemed to imagine they had a divine right to control the chair, also helped, and just how grim they looked when he took the chair has to be one of the most satisfying sights in parliament for quite some time. It seems doubtful though that he will be any more partisan than Michael Martin was at his worst, and his prospectus to be speaker, while inevitably unlikely to be instituted in full, may well help with the reform that is needed. No one was going to be a panacea, but Bercow is hardly going to be the worst of all worlds.

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A new media martyr.

If the events in Iran are the first time that "citizen journalism" has truly come into its own, helped undoubtedly by the fact that the foreign media have for the most part been successfully banished from the streets, then Neda Agha-Soltan(i), a young protester apparently shot dead by a Basij militiaman has become the first most visible martyr, not just of the uprising, but also of the new media age.

Partly this is because the video of her death is both so horrifying and with it, so cathartic. Unlike many of the other videos which litter the internet which show death and violence, few if any so vividly show a life ebbing away, the soul breaking free of the corporeal body. As her eyes glaze over and as the blood, filling her lungs, is breathed out of her nose and mouth, there are few ends that could so disturb, galvanise and ensure that she will be mourned for years to come. It helps that we don't actually see her murderer, or the moment when she was actually shot; that would diminish the empathy that comes naturally, and instead direct the anger at the individual responsible rather than the state that he or she represents.

Undoubtedly, many will be uncomfortable with the fact that this revolution in filming and writing to the bottom means that we get the sort of material, such as the death of Neda, that broadcasters themselves will not generally show. The BBC have only shown grabs of her on the ground, and before the blood begins to pour from her mouth and nose. Some will argue that such censorship, or rather moderation, is not something to object to: after all, not everyone wants to see such material, even on the news, especially when children also might be watching. Yet it also means that we don't have the full picture, or see the brutality and violence at first hand which such crackdowns bring. Even when such material was more carefully veted however, some of the most iconic images of war remain from the Vietnam era: the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, and the naked Phan Thị Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack still have the power, even today, to shock and awe.

Others will object that someone's death could be used in ways in which that person may not have wanted, or even how her family would want. Whether she was actually protesting may be in doubt; latest reports say that she left a car she was in for only a period of minutes, but that those minutes turned deadly does only illustrate just what those protesting are defying in order to demand that their votes count. It can't be denied that dying in such a way means that it becomes public property, by definition. Most would rather want their final moments to be private, but no one also would wish to die in such a way. When we lose the choice in how we pass from this world, we can only hope that our deaths are not prolonged and that we are surrounded by friends, although it remains a truism that everyone dies alone, regardless of method or cause. Neda's was not a lonely death, and the power of it may well yet further help the protests towards a brighter future for Iran as a whole. The idea of martyrdom and sacrifice is highly ingrained in both Shia and Persian culture, and despite our reservations, we can only hope that it further denies moral authority from both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Regardless of how the next days and weeks pan out, she is unlikely to be forgotten.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009 

Weekend links.

The big story remains Iran, but it's getting more and more difficult to ascertain what really is happening in Tehran. Riot police and the Basijs seem to have prevented any mass demonstration from taking place today in response to yesterday's speech by Khamenei, and the real worry is that the crackdown is now taking place even further behind closed doors. The Graun's daily blog of action has today's round-up, while Ten Percent has a lament for the latest turn in events.

Elsewhere, Glen Jenvey has raised his ugly head again, apparently throwing his toys out of the pram because the Daily Mail linked him to the protests in Luton against radical Islam, ordering the FBI to rip up his statement to them concerning Abu Hamza's links with various other jihadists, supposedly to be used in their case to deport Hamza to the US. He also blames "far left" bloggers for threatening to "chop his head" off. This would of course be the same Glen Jenvey who was almost certainly behind the leaving of comments on various blogs which suggested that Tim Ireland was a paedophile. Even more interestingly, he claims to have phoned Anjem Choudary and the two are to meet. Here's to the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

On the blogs then, Paul Linford has his weekly column on who's most likely to claim the speaker's chair, Nosemonkey has two fine posts, one on the dishonesty of the debate on the EU and on "becoming EU-sceptic", Flying Rodent provides a pithy thought on the Iranian presidential candidates, Chris Dillow explains inequality vs relative poverty, A Very Public Sociologist considers the curious silence of political Islam on Iran, Mad Ranter rants on the idiocy of Liverpool council on censoring smoking in films, Sim-O fisks the BNP and the tabloids on claims that "gipsies" can jump the queue in the NHS, the Heresiarch notes that even Khamenei knows about the expenses scandal and John B has a contentious view on wildcat strikes.

In the papers, Marina Hyde connects the dots between MPs, bankers and the royal family, Polly Toynbee defends the BBC in her usual unconvincing fashion, Matthew Parris points out that MPs are an interest group like any other, Peter Oborne notes the fissures within the Tories over Europe continue, whilst also condemning Jack Straw as a shameless hack, Deborah Orr thinks that the redaction of the expenses papers shows just how much MPs fear the public and lastly David McKittrick sees Belfast as a city of alienated youth.

As for worst tabloid article, the award clearly goes to Tom Rawstorne, for a especially disgusting article crawling all over the sex life of the missing Claudia Lawrence, the prurient detail naturally being justified by how it might explain where she is. Of course.

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Friday, June 19, 2009 

Hardly the end of the affair.

When it comes to shooting yourself in the foot, the parliamentary authorities have done the equivalent of blowing the entire appendage off with a sawn-off shotgun. The expenses scandal was finally begin to simmer down, the Telegraph having already deciphered and disseminated all the most outrageous claims, with the full release of the documents in full threatening to be a damp squib, only of interest for those who really wish to know exactly what their MP's favourite taxpayer-funded meal is. By censoring almost the entirety of some of the claims, all they've succeeded in doing is bringing the bile back to the very front of the throat of every phone-in ranter in the country.

At times since the Telegraph first splashed on their ill-gotten gained CD/DVD, I've felt like the only person in the country not to be demanding that MPs be summarily executed with their heads then displayed atop spikes on London Bridge. Of course, that MPs have turned out to be such humongous hypocrites, evading tax, whether it was "allowed" under the rules or not, claiming that they live with their sister and spending our money on duck houses and cleaning moats is certainly disreputable, but I find it hard to summon any great fury mainly because except in a very few tiny cases, there seems to have been no actual rules broken, let alone fraud. As much as some claim to be whiter than whiter, most of us will probably admit to trying it on at times; at worst, what most have done is simply stretched the rules as they existed, while some went further and did so to absolute breaking point, such as Gerald Kaufman with his attempt to charge the taxpayer for an £8,000 Bang and Olfsen TV. That I find for some reason far more enraging than some of the more notorious claims. Equally, the opprobrium hasn't fallen on those most deserving of it: those that have other highly rewarding interests that still didn't think that claiming for "seagrass", mugs from Tate Modern and "Elephant lamps", as Michael Gove did could possibly be objectionable. Then there's just bitter, wormwood-esque irony, like George Osborne claiming a staggering £47 for 2 DVDs featuring a speech of his on "value for taxpayers' money".

Mostly though, as I've mentioned before, there just seems little reason to get angry when there are so many more important things to be livid about. We are talking at most, of millions of pounds being improperly spent or claimed; at the moment we're currently paying around £30bn simply on the interest from our current debt. There's the millions, if not billions being spent on management consultants; the billions being wasted because of the government obsession with the private finance initative; and the countless billions being poured into the toilet which is this government's repeated, incessant, hapless IT schemes. These though are mindboggling sums, which cannot be directly linked to any one individual, hence there's no one to blame. Whether it's bankers, where Fred Goodwin rapidly became the biggest hate figure in the country, or Margaret Moran or Hazel Blears, we can instead put a face to the fury. It's the same with benefit fraud, where the newspapers always have a field day. It doesn't seem though that anything other than money could have caused such a scandal, or at least one which has inspired such rage and gone on for so long. It isn't the case, as Anthony Steen put it, that people were envious of his big house; it is however those whom have failed to benefit from the boom years who are now falling even further behind are fuming at how MPs could kit out their houses and pay their food bills without even a thought for how their own constituents are having to live.

More depressing is how the momentum which was behind the moves towards reform, which went hand in hand with the revelations in the Telegraph for some time, has suddenly dropped off. Partially it fell away as attention turned to whether Gordon Brown was going to survive as prime minister or not, but it also seems to have failed because MPs were only ever paying lip service to it, and as the race to be the next speaker has shown, as attention has turned away so has the belief that there has to be change. The House of Commons is a notoriously conservative institution, overturning even Robin Cook's minor reforms to the working hours because some MPs felt it had ruined the "atmosphere", and as the everlasting cliche goes, turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas given the choice, but you would have thought that even they would have realised that something has to be done. It does remain whether or not the public themselves ever were really behind such wide-ranging reform, but it is still quite clearly what is needed to re-energise politics. The exchanges of the last week, with the nonsense on stilts which has been the portraying of Cameron as "Mr 10%" and the general refusal to even be slightly straight with the public on the cuts which are going to have to come have only reinforced that. The European election results were both a warning and an opportunity: they showed politics at its worst and best, with the BNP victories because Labour voters stayed at home, and the successes of other minor parties showing the breadth of political dissent and debate which is stifled in the three party consensus which is Westminster. Only those that are prepared to end that monopoly deserve to be supported at the next election, and whatever our thoughts on the expenses furore, we will have them to thank if it does eventually lead to the change which is so desperately needed.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009 

Collusion, lying and willing torturers.

Craig Murray quite reasonably wonders whether he's been airbrushed out of history, as the Guardian keeps up its rather belated "exclusives" concerning who knew what and when over the mistreatment of British detainees and our corresponding collusion in torture. I'm more concerned though with how this yet again shows just how useless the Intelligence and Security Committee is. In their report on rendition a couple of years back, which was, it goes without saying, a complete and utter whitewash, they believed the claims of MI6 that they knew absolutely nothing about anyone being mistreated anywhere until the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged:

150. It was only when news surfaced of the mistreatment of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 that the UK Government realised that there were real risks of CIDT:
Back in 2003 we were concerned about secret facilities but we did not at that stage, I think, make an automatic connection between secret facilities and mistreatment. That sort of connection grew later as more allegations came to light or… things like Abu Ghraib came to light, which led you to believe, just a minute, if that is happening there, what might be happening in secret facilities.

This itself was unbelievable: what was the point of "secret" facilities except to subject those held there to the sort of treatment which would eventually severely embarrass both the United States and this country? The idea itself that MI6 couldn't or didn't know what was going on was even more ridiculous: what is the point of intelligence gathering organisations if they can't even work out what our allies are up to?

We know now for certain however that MI6 knew full well what was going on as soon as they started being allowed access to prisoners with UK connections, as could have been expected. In January 2002, after an MI6 officer realised that someone in US custody was being mistreated, they sent out official advice which while telling their agents that they could not be seen to condone torture, they were not under any obligation to intervene to prevent it, something which directly breaches the obligation not to be complicit in that mistreatment.

MI6 can't be blamed for lying; that is after all what they are trained to do from the moment they join the service and is to be expected. Our politicians can however be blamed, for both knowing full well what was happening despite their denials and for publishing those denials as if they were true. There is only one way to get to the bottom of the abuses which have happened under the rendition programmes and the mistreatment in the name of the war on terror, and that is through a fully independent judicial inquiry. At the same time, the ISC needs to be abolished and a fully independent watchdog of the security services needs to be established, with the Independent Police Complaints Commission as the model, modified as necessary. Liars may then not be able to prosper after all.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009 

Analogue Britain.

For once, you have to hand it to the Tories. Their description of the Digital Britain report as "government of the management consultants, for the management consultants by the management consultants" could hardly ring truer. Ofcom, that mightiest of quangos, has always been run with an innate bias towards commercial television, probably because those in charge used to be... heads of commercial communications companies. That much is evident in Lord Carter's report, the former head of Ofcom as well as late of the much maligned NTL.

On the face of it, things could have far worse, especially on the piracy front. The lobbying, not just from the usual suspects but from unions who have also bizarrely signed up to the updated claims that home taping is killing music etc has been ferocious, and their favourite fantasy, that there would be three strikes and then you're out, was mooted as being the plan. Instead there's the continuation of the letter writing scheme, and the possibility that ISPs might be forced to send details of the most prolific and unrelenting uploaders and downloaders to the rights holders, which seems unlikely to be followed through by those who wish to keep their businesses growing. Part of the problem that the record industry has is that they have been for so long and continue to be some of the most unsympathetic characters around, claiming to be "innovating and investing" when all they do is churn out the same old shit time and time again, as you could not fail to notice by looking at the current top 10, or the "emergence" of yet more manufactured faux-soul crap as Pixie Lott and Paloma Faith, only a year on from the manufactured faux-soul crap of Adele and Duffy. The same is the case with the film industry; most deserving of protection is the games industry, but they are hardly even noticed. The idea also that ISPs can cut file-sharing by 70% in a year is a hilarious, and obviously made by those without a slightest clue of how the internet works.

The top-slicing of the licence fee is far more contentious. While using that left over from the digital switchover fund to put towards universal broadband is a fair enough move, the BBC having to step in to ensure that ITV keeps putting out regional news is ridiculous on two levels. Firstly, that ITV doesn't have the money to keep such a public service going, when they have three digital channels transmitting constant repeats and on ITV2 some of the worst programmes ever to be broadcast on British television, no doubt costing millions, and secondly that if ITV really can't afford it, why duplicate something which the BBC already provides? Wouldn't it make far more sense to instead enable the struggling local newspaper groups to step into the breach, giving them the opportunity to invest and transform themselves at the same time? Apparently not. As the BBC Trust has argued, all the splashing around of the licence fee will do is further the resentment of what is, despite the great good that the BBC does, a regressive tax. At the moment everyone knows what they're getting from it; the cutting and redistributing of it will only confuse and confound matters.

Most lacking though is any vision for rolling-out the next generation of broadband. By 2012 all are supposed to be able to access a 2meg connection, which is just about good enough for the internet as it currently is; by 2017, when the so-called third generation of broadband connectivity is meant to be completed, things are going to be incredibly different. Difficult as it is to predict, by then we're bound to be seeing the streaming of ultra high definition content as standard, requiring bandwidth far beyond that currently available to the vast majority. As thinkbroadband points out, by 2017 at the moment we're only going to have the kind of network capacity which the more enlightened and forward thinking nations have currently already put in place, leaving us way behind the pack. The Guardian also identifies the other issue with the £6 tax on the cost of a landline to fund this: it's a subsidy from the public going direct to the private sector, the ones who will reap all the benefits. Once again the foolishness of privatising assets and not taking even the slightest of stakes in the emergent companies rears its ugly head.

The resulting package as a whole is a fudge, as seems to be the only thing that the current government can agree on, pleasing no one and priortising nothing. Management consultants it seems have a lot to answer for.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009 

The exposure of NightJack and a potential disaster for blogging and journalism.

The decision by the Times to "out" NightJack, and Justice Eady's corresponding ruling that bloggers have no right to anonymity must rank as one of the most short-sighted and potentially damaging to journalism episodes in quite some time.

Quite why the Times took it upon itself to discover the true identity of the winner of this year's Orwell prize for blogging is itself a mystery. Its justifications, such as they are, that he revealed details about cases and gave tips on how to evade justice, are pitiful. NightJack had done nothing to attract attention to himself other than presumably putting himself forward for the Orwell prize, and the fact that he could write to such an ability that he pulled in readers who admired his ability to analyse both his job, the politics surrounding it and the social problems which he had to deal with. NightJack had actually stopped blogging shortly before he won the Orwell prize, and had put his sights on writing a novel, rather than bringing out a book of the best of the blog, for which he had presumably had numerous offers. He didn't even turn up to receive the prize, as someone wanting to remain anonymous would never have done, and had also undoubtedly not economically benefited from his writing.

It would be tempting to put down the reason for the Times exposing Nightjack as simple jealousy that they didn't have a writer of such calibre prepared to put pen to paper for them, yet the Times has been one of the few newspapers that have given space to reasonably well-known bloggers to write original pieces for it. Likewise, the smug neo-con Oliver Kamm was taken on by the paper and is now one of its leader writers as a direct result of his stultifying blogging and obsession with attacking Noam Chomsky. Quite rightly, others have remembered how the Sunday Times treated the Girl With a One Track Mind, the sex blogger who was outed in a fashion which would have shamed the tabloids. It isn't an exact comparison, as Zoe Margolis had just published a book of her blog and didn't write about anything as high-minded as Nightjack, preferring to detail her tedious sex life in a pseudo-intellectual style, but it seems to have been a portent of what was to come.

The main reason though for why this is such an ill wind for journalism as a whole is the implications it has for whistleblowing, which if the Times had stopped to consider for a second it would have surely noted. Eady has in effect ruled that anyone in the public services who wants to bring attention to something which they think is a cause for concern, but which by doing so they would breach "discipline regulations" has no right to protection. Arguably, Nightjack was not performing such a public service in his writing, but this surely still has a potentially chilling effect for those who do. In fact, what this ruling seems to do is ensure that those who do want to whistleblow will have to go to publications like the Times for protection; if they do it themselves through blogging then newspapers have a justification for uncovering their true identity.

Newspapers concerned with the protection of their sources will be deeply worried by this ruling. If Nightjack has no right to privacy, then just who does? According to the Times' analysis, Eady based part of his decision on the previous ruling concerning George Galloway's exposure of Mazher Mahmood, a battle which this blog was involved in. Ironically, it was then the Times' sister publication which was fighting against their top reporter having his cover blown, but the two cases are surely completely different. Mahmood was a journalist who had ruined people's lives and had arguably been involved in entrapping individuals to develop his stories. When he himself failed to entrap Galloway in a similar fashion, he reacted to the publication of two grainy, unclear photographs in a ridiculous fashion, claiming it put his life in danger, something which was treated with short shrift. Mahmood was a hypocrite; Nightjack is not, and was not exposing anyone.

Just how potentially damaging this ruling could be is illustrated by the current battle going on in Northern Ireland, where the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen has been defending herself against attempts by the police service of the province to obtain the identity of her sources, who informed her that the Real IRA had claimed responsibility for the murder of two soldiers outside Massereene barracks in Antrim in March. Unlike Mahmood, Breen's life almost certainly would be threatened should her source be revealed, yet that hasn't stopped the police from treating her life with such apparent contempt. Less seriously, this surely also threatens journalists who write under pseudonyms, something which the Times has again also overlooked; why should they be protected when bloggers aren't?

Furthermore, isn't the current situation in Iran, where those trying to let the world know what is happen are having to resort to Twatter further evidence of how dangerous this ruling is? According to Eady, those doing so are indulging in public activity where they have no right to anonymity, the kind of idea that would delight totalitarian regimes everywhere. Similarly, newspapers would be outraged were the government to do what the Times has just done, demanding that they reveal the source for sensitive articles, claiming it would be a threat to press freedom. It turns out that all the Times and News International care about is their own self-interest, which rather undermines their repeated past criticisms of Eady and the Human Rights Act for establishing a privacy law by stealth. It seems that celebrities are protected, while everyone else is fair game. The Times may yet come to regret their supreme selfishness and lack of dedication to protecting sources bitterly.

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Monday, June 15, 2009 

An open letter to the Iranian youth: one solution, revolution.

Dear friends,

Very few of you are likely to actually read this, what with many internet sites being blocked by the authorities and with the language barrier, but those of us watching overseas with trepidation at the turmoil on the streets of your capital and other cities are both worried and optimistic in equal measure at the sudden eruption of what appears to the beginning of a movement against the lack of freedom which has become all the more burdensome since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

That result was partially sparked by apathy. After two terms of the reformist inclined Khatami, his liberalising measures stymied and stopped in their tracks by the Guardian Council and your supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, it was little wonder that some of you were dismayed and simply didn't turn out. During that time there were protests against the rigidly conservative social mores and censorship imposed upon you, both in 1999 and 2003, both of which ended with more repression and the rounding up of the ringleaders, whilst the candidates who wanted change were denied the opportunity to stand in elections. You had seen what the response was to the slightest call for change, and no one will blame you for temporarily taking the eye of the ball.

It sometimes takes a polarising figure to set off in motion movements which have the potential to lead wherever you want to take them. If you'll forgive the already rather hackneyed comparison, Bush inexorably led to Obama. Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, serial liar, economic disaster and general buffoon, but highly appealing to those who have nothing to whom he offers much, similar perhaps to Hugo Chavez, also attractive but undoubtedly a centralising and double-edged personality, is what led you to coalesce around Mir Hossein Mousavi, someone previously unknown in the West, although our attention span at the best of times is not the greatest. Mousavi was not the most liberal and reformist inclined candidate, but was a happy medium; you knew that Mehdi Karroubi simply couldn't win. For those of us who have recently had to put up with everyone talking about "snouts being in the trough" because their MP claimed a few dinners with taxpayers' money, which it seems is all that we care about, the sight of the vast crowds turning out, the almost party atmosphere as the "morality police" stayed out of the way for the first time in years was inspiring and made us believe that you too were about to choose change.

Doubtless many of you were worried that Ahmadinejad would sneak home, Mousavi having only towards the end of the campaign gained the support that he needed, and if he had, similarly you would have almost certainly accepted it. We can't know for certain, but your response above all suggests that the vote was stolen. Why, the cynics will suggest, would the Guardian Council have allowed Mousavi and Karroubi to stand if they weren't prepared to potentially let them become president, when they could have denied them to begin with, but it seems simply that your rulers didn't expect you to turn out in numbers similar to 1997. How though could Mousavi have been beaten in his home state? Why was the result announced within 2 hours? Why did the Mousavi campaign believe, and indeed have been told that they had been the run away winners by the interior ministry only for it subsequently turn out the Ahmadinejad had won with 67% of the vote?

Your thoughts will almost certainly be turning back to 1979, or rather what you have been taught about it. The overthrowing of the Shah, supported to the hilt by the CIA, with his departure still recently bemoaned by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, was without doubt a wonderful thing. Sadly though, like many other revolutions, from the French to the Russian to the Chinese, the replacement has turned out to be little better than what came before, if not in some cases worse. While 1979 occurred because the people were united, whether they were religious or atheists, together they triumphed. It was then that those who objected to the establishment of a theocracy were purged, imprisoned and broken. Since then change has had to be incremental, and slight, and you have worked within those imposed boundaries, respecting what your parents and elders had achieved.

Isn't it now clear however, that those very constraints have become intolerable? They allowed you to vote for reform, and then they denied those elected to implement it the opportunity to do so. Now they have denied you the opportunity for your vote to even be counted. In its way, this has turned out to be to your advantage: the change that most of you want would probably have been denied had Mousavi been allowed to ascend to the presidency. Those of you who want to have the choice whether or not you wear the hijab, let alone other far more radical changes, would have almost certainly been left disappointed.

Even when it seems this clear, you are almost certainly scared and hesitant about the conclusion which you have independently reached. Would overthrowing the theocracy be not just disrespecting, but spitting in the face of your relatives and those who fought for that initial freedom, and also then while the West supplied Saddam Hussein with weapons during the war with Iraq, resulting in the deaths of a million? Certainly, there are millions within your country who are happy with the way they are ruled: otherwise no one would have voted for Ahmadinejad, or his even more conservative opponent. This will lead to fissure and disputes, almost certainly within your own families.

Yet the reward which you can now potentially acquire is worth both enduring the above and the lives of those who will fall and have already fallen in pursuit of the freedom you want. Some of you will wonder whether Ayatollah Khamenei's unprecendented offer of a inquiry into the vote is worth waiting for. You have now though a similarly unprecendented opportunity: the government is uncertain of how to react, even as reports come in of the shootings in the middle of the night. You may not have this chance again for years. Whether you want simply Mousavi to be president, or for this to be the end of the theocracy, you need to take to the streets in the same or even higher numbers as today, and stay there until you get what you want. Further action may well be required; you may well have to take arms up to defend yourselves, but you can be safe in the knowledge that the world is watching. It's unlikely now that another Tienanmen could take place: use that to your advantage. And remember, even if despite everything, the authorities win, you carry a new world in your hearts. That is what matters.

With fraternal love,

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Saturday, June 13, 2009 

Weekend links.

May as well start with easily the biggest story of the weekend, which is either the amazingly decisive victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidential election, or the quite obvious rigging of the poll in his favour. Some are pointing to polls which suggested that Ahmadinejad could score such a crushing win, but they were taken a month ago, long before the debates which so energised the election and also before Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters had taken to the streets in such numbers. Juan Cole makes 6 separate points which suggest the election was stolen, while Ten Percent notes that Israel has already pretty much welcomed the result. The authorities already seem to be taking steps to make certain that there will be no popular revolt against the results, and you can't somehow imagine in any case there being a second revolution in 30 years, especially when the country is also undoubtedly split, even if Mousavi really did win and with so many obstacles in the protesters' path. There are two reactions on CiF as well which are worth a look.

Back here, the papers and blogs are still mainly fixated on Gordon Brown, with a side-order of continued why-oh-whying concerning the BNP. Lenin has two posts on the BNP, the first lengthy and excellent concerning their origins, the second on giving them the air of publicity, Paul Linford writes why Alan Johnson will take over in the end, Jamie thinks of the BNP and the state, Justin has the definitive take on Hazel Blears's completely bizarre apology for everything she's ever done except for everything she's done that's actually had an impact, Bleeding Heart Show considers a Joseph Rowntree report on "Social Evils", and finally Matt Wardman skewers the BNP's claims not to be any more racist than the Black Police Association.

In the papers, Polly Toynbee has a god-awful response to a god-awful hatchet job on her and the Graun in the Mail, Emine Saner meets Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a victim of the control order legislation who is amazingly still alive despite numerous attempts to kill himself, which seems to be the only way out of the Kafkaesque nightmare he's been plunged into, Matthew Parris wonders why political parties are terrified of wielding the knife, Deborah Orr has an excellent piece on immigration and how it is not and should not be a left-right issue, Howard Jacobson can't forgive Brown for bringing Alan Sugar into government and Peter Oborne notes that the race to become speaker of the House of Commons suggests that politicians haven't learned anything at all.

Finally, in a change to our usual policy of giving the worst tabloid article of the weekend prize to either Amanda Platell or Lorraine Kelly, this week John Major and Douglas Hurd have triumphed, with their call for outside talent to be brought to the dispatch box. This from the people who brought you the Cones Hotline. And yes, I'll attempt to get back into the swing of things proper on Monday.

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Friday, June 12, 2009 

Blears today, gone tomorrow.

You have to hand it to Hazel Blears, if there's one thing she has in abundance, it's pure chutzpah. She wasn't plotting, she regrets "insulting" Gordon Brown, she wishes she hadn't worn a brooch with "rocking the boat" on it, and it was careless to resign only a day before the local elections. If you wanted to extend the rather tired Stalinist analogy, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was Blears having to confess to her crimes before she takes the bullet in the back of the head.

Except it later turns out that she's now facing a motion of no confidence, albeit one she seems likely to survive, rather like how she herself failed to displace Gordon Brown despite of course now denying that she ever wished for that to happen. Could Blears denouncing herself and that motion possibly be connected?

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Saturday, June 06, 2009 

Weekend links and hiatus.

After a week of high drama, at least if you're a political anorak, today appears to be the calm before the storm rushes in again tomorrow night. In the meantime, Lee Griffin on Lib Con makes the case against first past the post, Bob has a humourous post on how the chattering classes keep getting proved wrong, Paul Linford provides his weekly column on how Brown should go down fighting, Dave Semple attacks the "shallow cabinet", Tom Freeman has an outstanding long post which covers just about every base concerning what Labour should or should not now do, the Yorkshire Ranter reminds us of Tessa Jowell's past villiany and Dave Cole still thinks that Labour can win a fourth term.

In the papers, Matthew Parris thinks Gordon Brown has brought the government to its knees, rather than it being the other way around, Steve Richards believes Labour as a party is now ungovernable, while Peter Oborne says that Brown has become a prisoner of his own cabinet. On a completely different track, Howard Jacobson writes there is a nobility in opting out, especially thinking of JD Salinger.

Finally, as for worst tabloid article of the weekend, it's tempting to go with Jan Moir's assault on those other WAGs, the "Women against Gordon", which is a wonderful example of the Mail employing a woman to write a blatantly sexist article which a man could never have got away with, but the Sun has two even more tawdry pieces. First there's a shot of Sharon Shoesmith daring to read the Society Grauniad, which is a hugely important piece of news, and then there's the claim that dastardly gangs are melting down TVs and computer monitors to make bullets. Yes, bullets. This seems to be a Sun exclusive, and there might well be a reason for that.

And with that, I shall love you and leave you until next Friday.

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Friday, June 05, 2009 

Brown's bastards and the death of a once proud party.

To call Friday the 5th of June 2009 a day of contrasts would be something of an understatement. On the positive side for Labour and Gordon Brown, what was almost certainly a Blairite coup appears to have been averted, and with it, the Blairites themselves have almost to an individual been purged, or rather, for the most part purged themselves. The only Blairite true believers who remain in the cabinet are probably Tessa Jowell, who ought to be history, Andy Burnham and Peter Mandelson, but who now seems to have bizarrely became as pro-Brown as he was pro-Blair. Thanks to James Purnell, Brown has also apparently been foiled from carrying out the wholesale changes he wanted: Alistair Darling stays chancellor and Ed Balls, his supposed replacement, remains at education, both of which are non-changes for the better. Likewise, that both John Denham and Alan Johnson have been promoted, two of the most capable and pleasant ministers within the government is also a wise move. Johnson has the potential to be a vast improvement over the last three home secretaries (what happened to Shaun Woodward, being so talked up earlier in the week?), and you can also detect perhaps an ulterior motive from Brown, to be giving probably the most poisoned chalice within government to the man so heavily tipped to be his successor.

Those are however the only positives to be taken, as the local election results have been completely cataclysmic for Labour, something which the media, fascinated and intrigued by the machinations at Westminster has failed to really delve into. Labour lost control of its last four remaining county councils, and some of the wipeouts have been breathtaking, losing 30 of 32 seats in Staffordshire and 17 of 21 seats in Lincolnshire. Earlier in the week the talk was that if Derbyshire was lost then Brown should have been finished; it's gone, and he's for the moment clinging on. The results leave Labour with only around 130 councillors across such councils, and the party itself reduced to a rump, moribund with the activists in despair. We shouldn't write the party off, and the Conservatives have recovered from similar disasters, but it does make you wonder whether this isn't the slow, agonising death, not yet ofLabour itself, but New Labour certainly.

The ostensible Labour share of the vote is 23%, 1% down on its previous poorest showing, but that covers up just how terrible the kicking has been. Almost certainly the European election results will be even worse; it surely isn't unthinkable now that Labour's share of the vote could be well below 20%, and that is especially chilling when you consider how many former Labour supporters will have crossed the box for the BNP. Hopefully most will have plumped instead for UKIP or the Greens, but Nick Griffin gaining the respectability of a Europe seat is an ill wind about politics in general. That the Conservative vote has dipped to 38% from its previous high suggests that all are suffering to some extent, but Labour the most. The one consolation that remains is that on a similar share of the vote at a general election, unlikely as most who voted for the minor parties or stayed at home will return to the big three and turn out, the Tories will only have a majority of around 4 seats. This is still not yet a Conservative walkover, with the voters attacking Labour and politics as a whole rather than coalescing around David Cameron, although that may well be the next step.

Like earlier in the week, we should again be celebrating that another Labour careerist Blairite, as even John Prescott described James Purnell, walked the plank in such a sickeningly self-righteous manner. In his resignation letter, Purnell hilariously wrote that "[I]t calls for a government that measures itself on how it treats the poorest in society." This is the man that has just presided over changes to the benefit system that penalise, punish, harass and prosecute those very people. Even more staggering has been Caroline Flint's mood swing from backing Brown to the hilt only last night to deciding today that he had been using her and the other women in the cabinet as nothing more than "window-dressing". Mercilessly satirised by the Heresiarch, this seems to have far more to do with the fact that Brown didn't consider her for promotion, despite offering that she could attend cabinet, hence the throwing of the toys out of the pram in a political hissy fit that will have doubtless delighted the "women against Gordon" she was alleged to have been associated with. That she recently posed for the Observer in a range of dresses, some of which have predictably found their way onto the front pages of tomorrow's newspapers (not to mention this blog) seems to have done nothing to deter her from using such a potentially hypocritical turn of phrase.

One thing should be made clear. Despite the fact this is almost definitely a coup attempt led by Blairites (and every single resignation with the exception of Margaret Beckett has been by Blairites), there is no real quarrel here about policies. While there were policy differences in the past between the Blairites and Brownites, however slight, there is now nothing whatsoever to separate them. This is purely about Brown, and how they don't think they can win the election with him in charge, not that Alan Johnson or David Miliband will lead the party back into the promised lead of constant reforming revolution; Johnson after all has just been successful as health secretary mainly because he has allowed the NHS to settle after constant restructuring. This is why if Brown is to be overthrown, and that still in my opinion, despite everything, should not happen, it should be by the backbenchers, not the "bastards who have never had a job in their lives". There are still differences in opinion back there, and it is only they who can claim to have the interests of the party at heart. The anger at the grassroots at the manoveuring of Blears and Purnell is palpable, as the Grauniad's letters page shows, making a bad situation for those already stricken by the expenses scandal even worse.

Even then though, there is no indication whatsoever that they would be listened to. Brown certainly doesn't trust them, or rate them, as there will now be 7 unelected ministers in the cabinet. How can Brown or anyone else claim to be interested in genuine reform when he has to turn to the Lords repeatedly to shore himself up? While he may not have appointed peers in the same way that Blair did, this apparent contempt both for backbenchers and for the idea that our reprensentatives should be elected rather than cronies is another sign of his weakness. For now he might have saved himself, or rather the Blairites might have saved him through their own pitiful conspiring, but Labour is set to sink whoever is at the helm. 15 years of New Labour has destroyed it, and who knows how long it will be before even the slightest recovery will begin.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009 

James Purnell is a despicable Blairite cunt.

That is all.

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State of independence.

Barack Obama's speech in Cairo today, billed almost as a state of the nation address, except to the "Muslim" world, was never going to live up to the hype accorded to it. The challenge itself was fairly daunting: how, after 8 years of suspicion, conspiracy theories and such mutual apparent loathing was the president of the United States meant to even attempt to lance the boil?

The predictable answer was to shower love, tolerance and moral equivalence liberally all over those who deigned to listen. Obama quotes repeatedly from the "Holy Koran", which is unlikely to do much to win over those in the States that continue to accuse him of being little more than a Manchurian Muslim, and equally will do little to appease the hardliners that will take such quoting itself as an insult. He repeatedly broaches respect for the hijab, although he apparently mispronounced it Human rights are barely mentioned, as could have been expected from someone who has just visited Saudi Arabia and still praises their interfaith "dialogue", as well as while speaking from the capital of a nation where the president has ruled since 1981 without anything approaching democratic legitimation. Behind the warm words, there was very little that can be called substance, but that hardly seems to have been the modus operandi: this was meant instead to restart relations, and if you judge it on those grounds alone there's little to take too much offence from or to quibble with.

The only section that may well stand the test of time was also the most important, and if there was any doubt that Obama does mean what he says when it comes to Israel/Palestine, then the strength of his words and the equivocation between both Jewish and Palestinian suffering will surely concentrate minds:

The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers - for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them - and all of us - to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. Palestine's right to exist cannot be denied. The settlements have to stop. No recent president has put it both so simply and so powerfully. These things ought to be platitudes; everyone realises that all three of these things are facts, yet to make them so perfectly clear has been to invite brickbats from those who wish to either completely deny or slow to a standstill the movement towards an independent Palestinian state. Again, none of this is an actual change in US policy, but the Bush administration did little more than pay lip service to the idea that growth of settlements in the West Bank had to cease, and the outrage and dissent with which Israel has greeted Obama forcing the issue has shown the fear which the Israeli government has for the potential pressure which the US can bring to bear.

Some will sneer at Obama's last paragraph on I/P (below), especially its pie in the sky hope for religious unity in Jerusalem and wonder whether he truly will put his words into action, but he has clearly put his position forward, and he can now be held accountable for it. Too much hope has already been put in Obama's potential for real change, but to finally make the case for a Palestinian state's right to exist as forcefully as Israel's itself is as fine a position to start from as could have been expected.

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true. Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009 

Vote early, vote often, vote Green, and bash the fash.

It's easy to forget that amidst all the plotting there is an election tomorrow, albeit one that will probably result in a turnout around the 40% mark. For those of us in England, it's a special shame as this is the one election where our vote actually counts: we can vote for a party far more in line with our actual views without knowing that by doing so we're helping those we dislike the most to win.

Even so, you can't exactly say that you're spoilt for choice. Personally, the only parties worth considering are the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, NO2EU and possibly the Socialist Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats are without doubt now the best "big" party, and the one I'll most likely be casting my vote for come the general election. The Greens however are for the most part a breath of fresh air, whom although undoubtedly are rather authoritarian on some measures, and crackpot on alternative medicine, should now be the main home for those who consider themselves even vaguely left-of-centre, at least when it comes to Europe, for the reasons outlined by the (Daily) Maybe and Peter Tatchell. As interesting as NO2EU potentially could be, although I'm hardly much of a fan of Bob Crow, their ridiculous policy of not even sitting in the European parliament if they are elected ought to rule them out. You don't reform something by putting yourself above it. Likewise, the SLP is little more than a vanity project for Arthur Scargill, and while as a protest vote against Labour itself it might be worth a cross, otherwise the Greens are the best party to coalesce around.

The best reason to get out though is to deny the British National Party even the slightest opportunity of gaining any seats. As disenchanted with politics as many are now, the answer is not a party with a leader convicted of inciting racial hatred, whose elected councillors are so useless that they often hardly bother to turn up to the meetings where they are supposed to represent those who voted for them. While we shouldn't panic too much if they do gain a seat, as seems possible, it would still be shameful for the country which fought fascism, albeit too late, to finally succumb to the hatred which is all the BNP has to offer. Voting for any other party, even UKIP or the Christians, is preferable to not turning out when every vote counts. Don't think also that your area is unlikely to vote BNP; I thought they'd do poorly here, but last time round they got over 3,000 more votes than UKIP. The Greens deserve to do well, but anyone other than the BNP will do.

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With a bang, not a whimper.

Normally the departure of Hazel Blears would be a wonderful cause for celebration. The epitome of absolutely everything wrong, not just with New Labour, but with politics as a whole, she jumped before she was pushed. No one imagined that Blears, despite being an awful politician, was also on the make or out to "take what was hers", in the words of Michael Martin; perhaps her expenses are still a genuine oversight or based upon bad advice from the fees office. It was however the icing on the cake when it came to someone who based their entire career up until very recently on unstinting, unquestioning loyalty and belief in the righteousness of absolutely everything that New Labour has done, manifesting itself most vividly in her recent interview with George Monbiot, when her wild-eyed fanaticism looked as if turning instead into sad, desperately lonely certainty.

In normal times, Blears would be a pygmy, in more than one sense. There is however no other interpretation but that this was further revenge from a woman who has been both scorned and wronged, who knew she had the power to inflict yet more damage on an already flailing prime minister. Whether she was involved in the leaking of Jacqui Smith's resignation, as alleged by some in Downing Street or not, this was without doubt a further act to that. Her resignation letter is as pointed, both in its repeated emphasis on how she will be returning to her roots, and in its failure to pay any real tribute to Brown.

Downing Street should have been able to laugh this off. This is after all a non-entity, someone with ideas above their station who failed miserably when she stood for the deputy leadership, coming dead last. Her brand of clap-happy, shiny smiley ultra-Blairism could not be more out of fashion, and her brandishing of a cheque on television to pay back the over £10,000 she owed in capital gains tax could not have been further removed from those she claims to have backed and defended her entire life. Some of those doubtless could not have put together a cheque for £100, let alone that sum. Indeed, for someone who claims to have the interests of the Labour party at heart, she has almost certainly just cost some Labour councillors their seats, and taken votes away from their European candidates. The irony of the local government minister, through an act of petulant, pathetic self-indulgence, doing the equivalent of shoving a bottle up local Labour activists will ensure that her return to Salford is unlikely to be a happy one.

Quite how weakened Number 10 has been by this is shown by someone having the temerity to claim that Brown and others had "smeared" Blears by apparently leaking further information about her tax payments to the Torygraph. Blears has just done the equivalent of leaving a turd on the doorstep of Brown's den, and her allies are suggesting she's the victim in all of it! Whether there is a concerted plot by "friends" of Blears, almost all Blairite women, which includes Jacqui Smith, who seemed to laugh her way through a Sky News interview to kill Gordon through bleeding to death from a thousand cuts or not is impossible to tell. What is clear however is that despite the claims of Polly Toynbee, this does have the potential to cause deep resentment within the party, perhaps not on the level which consumed some Tories after Thatcher was deposed, but poison nonetheless. The plotters almost to an individual all seem to be Blairites, or Blairite-sympathisers, some who have always either disliked or loathed Brown, and now seem to finally sense they can have their revenge. This wouldn't be completely ignoble if there was a genuine leader waiting in the wings who could unite the party once Brown goes, but there isn't. Does anyone honestly believe that Alan Johnson is a long-term Labour leader rather than a stop gap? Is David Miliband even approaching ready to become prime minister, even only for a couple of months until he'd have to call an election?

There is however still one way out of all this, as proposed by the Heresiarch, which I thoroughly agree with and am rather shamelessly borrowing. Brown on Friday should go to the palace and ask for parliament to be dissolved for an election. It's the one thing that would wrongfoot absolutely everybody, his opponents in the party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and doubtless the Queen herself. The Labour ranks would be forced to get behind him, the other parties would have to actually tell us what their alternative will look like, and it would also appease those who are demanding an election now because of the expenses scandal. It would remove those who have said they are standing down far quicker than they might like, also a very good thing. At the same time there could also be that referendum on voting reform, a vote for which David Cameron could almost certainly not ignore, and which would be one thing which Brown could cite as his legacy, as well as being the biggest change which the expenses debacle demands. Whatever Brown now does, he's going to lose. Why doesn't he go down fighting, not just for his leadership but for the country as well?

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009 

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

If the weekend and yesterday were bleak times for the government and especially Gordon Brown, then today can only be described as the worst of times. Normally, the announcement that three ministers would be stepping down would be only met with a shrug, even if the home secretary was among them. Such though is the precarious position which Labour finds itself in, it instead looks as if this a complete breakdown of control from the very top.

Again, no one will be shedding any tears for the departure of Jacqui Smith. She may be, as Iain Dale says, "a thoroughly nice woman", but she was simply the worst of all worlds when it came to being in charge of the Home Office. Having been promoted from chief whip, it was her expenses claims which did for her, but it really should have been both her dreadful failure to make the case for any of the policies which she was attempting to ram through parliament, and doubtless connected to that, the fact that all she seemed to be doing was instituting policies that had been decided for her. The one policy that she did have any real apparent interest in, the ridiculous and dangerous idea that men that paid for sex with women that were "controlled" by others could be charged with rape has had to be toned down, with the police highly critical of how on earth they were supposed to be able to enforce it. She can't exactly be blamed for the 42 days debacle, as that was undoubtedly Brown's policy as much as it was hers, but her continuing attraction to identity cards, her knee-jerk response to the knife crime panic of last summer, and most of all the Damian Green disaster, as well as the ludicrous banning of various "extreme" individuals all made her a typically tin-eared Labour home secretary. She wasn't quite as bad as either David Blunkett or John Reid, both of whom could have been accurately described as two of the most dangerous men in the country when they were at the Home Office, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement of her tenure.

Everyone though expected Smith to be out of a job come the reshuffle. It's that somehow, either she or someone couldn't keep the fact she was leaving out of the public domain until the time as when Brown had made his decision as to who her replacement will be. The question, as always, has to be whether it's conspiracy or cock-up, whether the leak is meant as a passing fusillade against Brown for the lack of support she seems to have been given. There is, it must be said, always rumour mills whirling furiously before expected reshuffles, but when a prime minister is as weak as Brown currently is, it seems utterly bizarre that he should be adding to it himself as he seems to have been by not given Alistair Darling his full support. Darling, as others have pointed out, has spent the last couple of years taking the flak for Brown, as it is after all his work while chancellor which has left Darling in such an enfeebled position, yet despite his loyalty and willingness to eat the equivalent of a shit sandwich repeatedly for his master, he's now been left out in the cold like the other miscreants which Brown thinks he can sacrifice. We all know why Hazel Blears' expenses claims can be described as "totally unacceptable" while James Purnell and others are given more equivocal backing, but why treat Darling in such a way?

It gives the impression that Brown has lost whatever remaining grip he had. Not the grip on the party itself - that had long gone, but now his hand seems to have left the tiller of the cabinet as well, those few that will still publicly defend him. Such events will always be exaggerated, but the Daily Mail again doesn't seem too far off tomorrow when it screams that the rats are leaving the sinking ship. If you wanted to indulge in conspiracy, as alluded to above, you might think that Smith's leaving was designed to make everyone engage in just this sort of speculation. Why else would you further undermine a prime minister prior to elections where it now seems credible that Labour could face its worst ever post-WW2 results unless you wanted to throw a spanner completely into the works?

Right on cue, the muttering in the Grauniad by the likes of Pollyanna Toynbee, Jackie Ashley and Martin Kettle has moved from their columns into the editorial itself. Tomorrow it calls for Brown to go with dignity. It isn't a bad argument, as far as they go, but it's the wrong timing again. The time for Brown to go and still retain some respect was last summer, not now. To go now would be utter humiliation, and surely those who wrote it must realise that. Regardless of Brown's mistakes and his personal failings, he still doesn't deserve such an ignominious fate. It is however typical of the modern Guardian that it called far too late for Blair to go and it now abandons Brown at the worst possible time, both for him and for the party. For far too long it indulged Blair's worst excesses with meek criticism while it has repeatedly failed to show the same fairness towards Brown. Who are these other individuals in the cabinet that would do a better job, but which the paper doesn't even deign to name? It too can't face up to the reality: that regardless of leader Labour in its current form is doomed. It needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, to re-engage with its roots, to become a genuine party of the working person again. No one in the current cabinet is prepared for such radical thinking. It has become a small "c" conservative party, on some measures even more right-wing than the actual Tories themselves are. No party can so disengage from its supporters for so long and expect to survive, and it is at long last facing its denouement. The Mona Lisa itself is falling apart.

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All these war criminals look the same.

Does Henry Kissinger realise that he's morphing into Ariel Sharon?

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Monday, June 01, 2009 

The slow death of New Labour part 94.

Come up with any cliché of impending doom, and it will probably at the moment apply to Labour. Not since the Tories self-destructed so spectacularly during the early 90s has any party looked so utterly broken and devoid of hope. The difference it seems is that the Conservatives by 97 had all but accepted their fate; even now a few true believers and party hacks seem to imagine that by overthrowing Brown and installing someone, anyone, most likely either a Johnson or a Miliband, the inevitable might still be avoided, or at least a complete wipeout fought off. The polls though offer no comfort whatsoever: volatile as they may be, to be down on 22%, behind the Liberal Democrats on voting intentions if there was to be a general election now is to be staring into that hackneyed abyss, with a new poll now suggesting it could be as low as 18%.

Much as such a pitiful score deserves sympathy, no one can claim that Labour didn't bring this on themselves, or that politicians as a whole didn't know what was coming. Our political system rewards two things above all else: loyalty and strength, or at least a faux variety of it. The problem is that when those two things are combined, hubris, contempt and complacency take over. Most notably this seems to have claimed Hazel Blears, James Purnell and Geoff Hoon. Even those that have minute majorities, such as Jacqui Smith, were not immune to the belief that Labour, despite every past indication, was set to become the natural party of government. It would be nice to imagine that this is belated justice for Iraq, but the real reason has now been hanging around for 3 weeks, and still shows no sign of coming to an end.

The latest victim, Alistair Darling, previously the most boring and presumably with it least extravagant member of the cabinet is reduced to saying he is "very sorry" for his various expenses claims, not to mention his repeated apparent flipping of his second home. That it seems increasingly likely that Brown will move him from the Treasury after the coming disaster of the local and Euro elections in 72 hours, most probably with his equally egregious acolyte Ed Balls as the replacement, it brings to mind another cliché, the one about reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Again, there is no one here to blame but themselves, so woeful has the Labour response been to the expenses disaster. Politicians certainly deserve something resembling a break, and overreacting can often be worse than doing nothing, but while both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were doing something last week, even if it was self-serving calls for reform, Brown was nowhere in sight. When he does finally reappear, on Andrew Marr's soft sofa to answer his soft questions, he bizarrely brings up his "Presbyterian conscience", something that has up until now seemingly left him completely untroubled.

The way that the opprobrium seems to have landed almost squarely on Labour is certainly to an extent unfair. Both main parties have their villains; the difference has been that Cameron has played his cards both superbly and cruelly. Even while some of his closest allies and shadow cabinet members have been found to have been some of the worst cheats, most notably Michael Gove, who flipped his second home, claimed £7,000 for furniture and £500 for a night's stay at a hotel, while earning just as much from his newspaper column as he does as an MP, he's succeeded at hugging them close while throwing his backbenchers to have erred to the lions. Brown, by contrast, although alleged by supporters of Hazel Blears to have snubbed her, in contrast to those less explicitly critical of him, has left all those accused out in the cold, and with it ensured that his party as a whole has become tarred with the same brush. Part of it also that as the government they're always going to be the ones to take the biggest kicking, but such has been Labour's inertia that any chance of lessening the damage has been abandoned.

It's still strange though to see the Mail front page claiming that "the vultures" are circling: even though we know that Paul Dacre and Gordon are such wonderful friends, the Mail has hardly ever gone out of its way to give him anything approaching real support, much less his party. It does though has it right: getting rid of Brown now remains the most ridiculous act of vanity which the party could indulge in. Nothing now is going to save them, not even Alan Johnson with his "wonderful" background. Only a party (and its supporters) that has completely lost its grip on reality could imagine that installing a second "unelected" prime minister within a parliament at a time of such cynicism and anger could turn things around. The best possible thing that the party and government could do now is spend the next year being as uncontroversial and all things to all people as it possibly can; go into the dark night with dignity, accepting defeat and then start to rebuild from the ground up. Instead its humiliation and time in the wilderness will be all the more damaging because it still has pretensions which can no longer be justified. And to stretch emphasis by repetition to breaking point, they have no one to blame but themselves.

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John 4 leader 2 years on.

Via Dave Semple, this speech by John McDonnell is quite something. How different things might be if by some miracle he had become Labour leader two years go, or even if he ascended to the leadership now.

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