Friday, April 2, 2010

Does Clegg know the meaning of the phrase 'hostage to fortune'?

Just about the only crumb of comfort I took from the depressing triumph of Labour's politics of fear and smear at the Glenrothes by-election eighteen months ago was that, weird though it may seem, the outcome made Nick Clegg look a bit of a fool. Just a few months earlier he had tried to jump on the bandwagon of the SNP's spectacular victory in Glasgow East by declaring (in the middle of what must surely have been one of the world's most tedious ever webcasts) that "Labour will lose every by-election they fight in the remainder of this parliament". It was always a very silly prediction to make, because even if Labour's level of unpopularity had remained constant, there was simply no way of knowing what seats were likely to fall vacant, and what the local circumstances would be.

Well, now Clegg has come out with an even more rash claim. The Herald reports that he has branded the SNP an "irrelevance" at Westminster elections - on the grounds that the Liberal Democrats, not the SNP, are "Scotland's second party" at Westminster. In the literal sense, the latter point is of course perfectly true - the Liberal Democrats were in second place in 2005 both in terms of votes and seats, with the SNP in third on both counts. The trouble for Clegg is that there's almost no-one outside his party who seriously expects the Lib Dems to maintain that position this time round - their success in the popular vote in 2005 was almost certainly a one-off caused by Iraq and the 'Kennedy factor'. The latest YouGov poll shows the SNP firmly back into second place on 24%, six points up on 2005, while the Lib Dems languish in a dismal fourth, with their vote having virtually halved to just 12%. It looks near-enough inevitable that Clegg's definition of what constitutes an 'irrelevant party' in Scotland will be coming back to haunt him in only a few short weeks.

Comment is free, but frequently frustrated

I seem to recall leaving a couple of comments on the Northern Ireland politics hub Slugger O'Toole in the past without any problem, but when I tried to comment tonight on Brian Walker's piece The wee parties won't weigh in the Westminster balance (predictably he's talking more about the SNP and Plaid Cymru than the considerably 'wee-er' NI parties) I encountered all sorts of difficulties. Apparently I now have to wait until an administrator manually approves my registration on the site before I can even submit the comment, so instead I'll just post what I was going to say here -

"'Fair funding' in this context categorically does not mean "no cuts". In Wales it means the replacement of the Barnett Formula with a new mechanism that recognises the true needs of Wales, and in Scotland it means full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish parliament, which would also render Barnett redundant.

The line 'too late now' in relation to the leaders' debates is a bit odd if it's meant to indicate that the SNP have in some way been slow on the issue - they've been trying to get even the slightest access to the negotiations for months now, and have had the door repeatedly slammed in their face. It's not, of course, too late for legal action. I've no idea if the SNP and Plaid are taking that option seriously, but given the high-handed way they've been treated, I don't see how anyone could blame them if they were."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Alan Johnson revels in being 'right-wing' Home Secretary

The most jaw-dropping moment of Question Time this evening was when Alan Johnson claimed that the Tories had "got it wrong" by not "staying right" on the DNA database - in other words, he was unashamedly boasting that Labour are more right-wing than the Tories on the issue. In many ways this is, of course, similar to the familiar Blairite conceit that in modern politics the distinction is no longer between right and left, but instead between right and wrong. Naturally, the 'right' policy on any given issue was the Blairite one, with all the myriad alternatives being the 'wrong' policies, regardless of where on the political spectrum they came from. No wonder Mr Blair found the basic nature of Catholicism so much to his taste.

In reality, most of us recognised that the distinction between the two meanings of 'right' was in reality remarkably thin, with this nominally 'democratic socialist' government being identified as one of the most - perhaps the most - right-wing administration in western Europe. But where Alan Johnson has broken new ground tonight is in brazenly acknowledging that truth, rather than adhering to the now-traditional doublespeak.

So should those of us on the left take any comfort from the fact that even Labour acknowledges that an incoming Tory government would not be quite as far to the right on certain issues as the current administration? Hardly. Looking at the broad sweep of policy - law and order, immigration, the economy, taxation, education, human rights - there is no doubt that, on balance, the Tories would represent a significant shift still further to the right. They would also block long-overdue progress on constitutional reform, notably extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, democratisation of the voting system for the House of Commons, and an elected upper house. So it seems to me the only rational thing for voters to do is to look beyond the false choice between a rubbish incumbent government, and an even more rubbish alternative. We're fortunate in Scotland to have the SNP to turn to, and in Wales there's Plaid Cymru, but even in England there are other options - most notably the Greens (who have a great chance of winning their first seat) and Mebyon Kernow, who memorably humiliated Labour in Cornwall in the Euro elections last June.

Blue Bella?

British politics seemed to have crossed a subtle psychological threshold a few weeks ago when it emerged that Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Anna Arrowsmith had been a director of 'adult films' in a (not very far distant) past life, and yet survived completely unscathed. Even the Conservatives' Andrew Lansley seemed relaxed about her candidature when asked about it on Question Time. The more cynical side of me did wonder if Arrowsmith would have got off quite so lightly if she hadn't been both a woman and an avowed feminist, but nevertheless it did seem to be a small signal that Britain is leaving some of its traditional hypocrisy behind. Nevertheless, if the rumours swirling around the blogosphere about an unnamed senior female MSP are correct, it now seems that Arrowsmith may merely have been a kind of 'John the Baptist' figure, preparing the ground for an imminent and much greater revelation - the potential consequences of which are truly mind-boggling. The suggestion that the politician concerned may not merely have been involved in the same industry as Arrowsmith some twenty-five years ago, but that the involvement may have been of a more 'in-front-of-the-cameras' variety, truly takes us into uncharted territory.

But what really made me splutter on my corn flakes was reading a couple of dark hints that the MSP in question may in the mid-1980s have been known by the screen name of 'Bella'. Just a piece of blogosphere mischief? Or pure coincidence? Surely????

Monday, March 29, 2010

Osborne's true potential

George Osborne on the Ask the Chancellors programme : "I've got to remember that it's not my money I'm dealing with, it's the public's".

A great pity. Dipping into the Osborne family fortune sounds like a deficit reduction plan with considerable potential.

Mysterious that it was perfectly feasible to find a politically balanced audience for this debate, drawn from across the whole United Kingdom. As I've mentioned before, the audiences for the main leaders' debates will be restricted to a fifteen mile radius of the venues, all in England. This not only means that residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be literally banned from participating, but also that the audiences cannot possibly be politically balanced, as by definition SNP and Plaid supporters will not be present, despite commanding roughly 3% support across the UK.

A London party stitch-up? Perish the thought.

Baker waves the white flag (but only for effect, sadly)

I couldn't resist having a wee peek at Kevin Baker's blog to see how he's coming to terms with the horrific new reality of having to share his country with millions upon millions of poor people who have access to affordable health care. Predictably, the answer is...not terribly well. After swimming through vast oceans of yelping prose exploring predictable themes such as America's new status as a fascist or socialist state (take your pick), Barack Obama's anti-semitism (no photo for poor old Bibi is seemingly tantamount to outright Nazism), and assorted logical gymnastics to try to convince us the US constitution has in some way been wickedly contravened, one fatalistic observation particularly leaped out at me -

"We can't stop what's happening. We are too few and too unpopular."

If only that were true. The conservative side of the US culture wars is so strong that in all likelihood any prospect of further progress towards social justice will be abruptly halted by Republican gains in the November Congressional elections. But the miracle is that healthcare reform 'sneaked under the wire' during the small window of opportunity afforded by the rare conjunction of a (reasonably) liberal Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the House, and a fillibuster-proof Democratic supermajority in the Senate that lasted only a few months. It may be decades before another such golden opportunity presents itself - but the good news is that each wave of reform tends not to be reversed, and is eventually built upon. So what will be the next battleground, in that far distant future? The abolition of the death penalty? Meaningful gun control legislation? Both may seem utterly unthinkable for now, but I suddenly have considerably more faith in America's snail's pace march towards a more civilised society than I did just a few short weeks ago.

No wonder Kevin's depressed.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The delights of following Scottish curling on "British" Eurosport

When the dedicated British version of sports channel Eurosport was launched a decade or so back, it was billed as the end of frustration for British viewers - never again would they be left watching a little-known Belgian playing an even-littler-known Slovenian at Roland Garros, while Greg Rusedski or Tim Henman was playing on another court. But this seems to be yet another instance where the word 'British' mysteriously translates as 'English'. Last night, extraordinarily, Eurosport International showed extensive live coverage of the crucial women's world curling championship play-off between Scotland and Sweden, while British Eurosport showed just the final fifteen minutes, apparently feeling that it was far more appropriate to fill the preceding eighty minutes with recorded coverage of a cycle race in France - which at a cursory glance appeared to feature no British contenders (even of the higher-grade south-of-Tweed variety). Is a Scotland v Sweden curling match really of more interest to Eurosport International viewers in Israel than to British Eurosport viewers in Scotland? The schedulers appear to genuinely believe so.

Anyway, leaving such frustrations aside, the good news is that Scotland defeated Sweden to set up a semi-final against Jennifer Jones' formidable Canadian rink. It seems that British Eurosport will in their benevolence be showing considerable recorded coverage at 7.30 this morning, so I won't give away the scoreline, but suffice to say it might just be worth a little look...