Recent comments

Categories

Miscellaneous

I have unwittingly been instrumental in causing dozens, possibly hundreds, of innocent people, including some complete strangers, to receive messages purporting to contain invitations from me to become my “friend” on a website called Quepasa.  As far as I can make out, this is some kind of predominantly Hispanic dating service.

I have no idea what this is all about.  I received a message purporting to have come from someone I’m working with on an editing project, a colleague whom I am naturally anxious not to upset, which seemed to be inviting me to be a “friend” on Quepasa;  and it seemed churlish to refuse.  The website said it was sending messages to three people I know who appeared to be already members of this Quepasa, so I clicked OK and only then realised, too late, that the damn thing was sending out these invitations to everyone in my (substantial) address list.

I have now been receiving dozens of messages, some from friends and other people whom I know, many from complete strangers, either notifying me that they have accepted my invitation to be a friend on Quepasa, or asking what’s going on, who I am, and how I know their email addresses (which in many cases I didn’t).

This is evidently a tiresome form of spam (but as far as I can discover, not involving a virus and not listed by Hoaxbuster or other similar sites that expose online hoax sites).  I suggest that you do not try to access the Quepasa web page and do not authorise it to access your email account.  If you have already done so, it would be wise to disable the Quepasa access authority in your email web page, and then, but only then, to change your email account password.

I am sorry to have caused you this trouble.  I have now received too many messages about Quepasa, both personal and automatically generated, to be able to reply to them all individually. I hope some of those affected may read this post and accept it as an apology for my action in unintentionally exposing them to these time-wasting and mysterious communications.  I shall not visit this tedious and unscrupulous website again and I shall delete all future messages from it unread.  I have removed Quepasa’s authority to access my email account (which I unwittingly granted) and changed my own password, so I hope the nuisance will now, or soon, stop.

Damn.  Sorry!

Brian

Because of the horrors unfolding in Libya, voices are again being heard calling for ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the west to protect the defenceless Libyan population from their deranged ruler.  This activist climate seems to be affecting the Labour opposition’s front-bench spokesman on defence.

According to a Guardian report on 22 February 2011, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, plans to “resurrect the principles of liberal intervention espoused by Tony Blair but discredited by the Iraq war with a message to his party that they have a “responsibility beyond the UK’s borders”:

In an interview with Total Politics magazine, Jim Murphy has begun the task of persuading his colleagues they may have to intervene abroad again – despite many of them still being preoccupied by events in the run-up to and fallout from Iraq.

Referring to the 1999 intervention to defend Kosovans against Slobodan Milosevic, Murphy says: “If Kosovo were to happen in 2017, so we’re out of Afghanistan, I don’t want to get into a position where we would say, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, ‘we couldn’t do another Kosovo’.”

“It’s important to make that argument. I’m not trying to nudge things in favour of another military intervention anywhere but you shouldn’t let the residual real anger that there is about the Iraq war defeat the pride that we have in what we did in Kosovo.”

Ed Miliband, who spoke during his successful Labour leadership campaign of the “catastrophic loss of trust” between the party and the electorate over Iraq, is thought to agree with the sentiments in Murphy’s interview that new principles for intervention should be established.

Murphy’s thoughts will inform the two-year defence policy review he is undertaking while fellow Labour shadow cabinet members review their own policy areas.

He will build on his ideas in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on March 3, in which he is likely to emphasise the need for greater public diplomacy ahead of interventions abroad. [Emphasis added.]

In all this, Mr Murphy is disastrously wrong in virtually every way, as I tried to point out in a letter published in the Guardian on 25 February 2011.  In the slightly longer text submitted to the Guardian I wrote:

Someone needs to sit Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, down somewhere comfortable and teach him about the failure of the disastrous NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo, and the elementary flaws in Tony Blair’s attempt to justify it with his discredited doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (Labour urged not to rule out military intervention, February 22nd):  otherwise some future Labour government may be tempted to repeat past blunders instead of learning from them.

Contrary to the received wisdom, Mr Blair’s cheerleading of the NATO bombing failed to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (the exodus of refugees out of Kosovo began only after the launch of the NATO attack), or to replace Serbian control of Kosovo by an international administration (that was achieved by flexible US-Russian-Finnish diplomacy when the bombing was going nowhere), or to topple Milosevic (the Serbian electorate did that months later). The NATO intervention was illegal (never authorised by the UN), based on a false prospectus (the Rambouillet conference concocted a pretext for attacking Serbia, not a basis for a peaceful settlement), unnecessary (the possibilities of a peaceful solution had not been exhausted) and incompetently executed (thousands of innocent civilians killed, non-military targets destroyed).  If all that sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence.  The delusion that the Kosovo aggression was both a success and a personal triumph for Mr Blair clearly encouraged a repetition of all the Kosovo blunders in Iraq, four years later.  Never again, thanks, Mr Murphy.

Brian Barder

In his first speech as newly elected party leader to the party conference, Ed Miliband courageously risked the anger of the New Labour Old Guard by dissociating himself and the party from the criminal folly of the aggression against Iraq in 2003, although in somewhat more cautious language than mine (“I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that. Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations. America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we…”)  But precisely the same indictment needs to be levelled at the Kosovo intervention.  Labour party supporters and members, including those who have joined or re-joined the party since last year’s election, will be dismayed if Mr Murphy is allowed to come up with a defence policy for the party which implicitly or explicitly endorses either the illegal and unsuccessful NATO aggression against Serbia over Kosovo (for which Tony Blair was self-appointed cheer-leader), or the deeply flawed doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ preached by Mr Blair in his Chicago speech of 1999, at the height of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, later comprehensively dismantled and replaced by the UN-inspired “Right to Protect” (R2P) which has a completely different basis and which ensures respect for the UN Charter and for international law.  Perhaps his more level-headed friends and colleagues will urgently draw Mr Murphy’s attention to the multiple failings of the Kosovo misadventure and to the replacement of Mr Blair’s Chicago doctrine by R2P, whose provisions will repay study, if possible before he enters into ill-conceived commitments in his speech to RUSI on 3 March.

Brian

I’m appalled by the qualified approval by Labour party shadow ministers[1] (and a distinguished Guardian commentator) for IDS’s savage attack on those who for one reason or another can’t work.  As Martin Kettle remarked,

YouGov reported this week that Duncan Smith’s most controversial proposal, the planned compulsory work placements for the long-term unemployed, is backed by 74% of voters. And that is reflected among MPs too.”

This general complacency in the face of almost unprecedentedly repressive proposals for driving the undeserving poor into the workhouse is profoundly depressing.  To demonise and seek to punish as scroungers and layabouts the great majority of the unemployed who are either unemployable, or else desperate for work at a time of high and rising unemployment, is nothing short of wicked. To force the medium-term unemployed to undertake compulsory unpaid ‘community work’ — street cleaning, scraping off graffiti, that sort of thing — is absolutely unconscionable.  No minimum wage — no wage at all, indeed;   no right to join a union or to strike or to demand better conditions, in fact no rights at all;  no option to pack it in and look for a better job;  occupying a job which, if it’s a genuine one, ought to be available on proper terms to an ordinary job-seeker;  literally ‘forced labour’ without even a token wage that would add marginally to overall demand in the economy and thus promote recovery from a recession for which the unemployed bear not the slightest responsibility but of which they are the defenceless victims.  To describe it as ‘slave labour’ sounds an absurd exaggeration; yet how exactly is it going to differ?  This is a kind of perverted puritanism run wild, based on a fantasy about work-shy scroungers and the idle poor, harboured by  politicians with no experience or understanding of tedious, draining, unrewarding, repetitive work supervised, often, by unaccountable bullies.

This whole philosophy, one that treats the mass of ordinary people as work fodder for the enhancement of shareholder value and managers’ bonuses, is repulsive.  We are a rich enough society to carry those who for various reasons can’t work — invincible stupidity, poor health, illiteracy, fatigue, stress and anxiety, absence of local job opportunities, whatever — without threatening to starve them if they don’t take some probably quite inappropriate job: or at any rate we could well afford to leave them alone if only we could contrive to arrange a much fairer distribution of the fruits of capitalism.  For most professional middle- and upper-class people work brings fulfilment and satisfaction.  For millions of the less fortunate, work is a wretched imposition, accepted — if available at all — as a condition of survival in a harsh inequitable society, inimical to relaxed family life, to entertainment, travel, varied experience, to leisure and pleasure and to all the things that make life worth living.  Watch the commuters packed into the trains, tubes and buses on their return from an exhausting day at work: observe the weary, resigned, stressed faces, the irritability, the universal sense of fatigue.  It’s a necessity for most, but to elevate it to a universally life-enhancing experience is a crude insult.

There’s an excellent letter on the subject in today’s Guardian from Professor Guy Standing of Bath University (name sounds like a character in Evelyn Waugh) which is worth quoting in full here:

Letters: Workfare and the cost of benefits

Those discussing welfare reform should learn some basic economics (Hardship payments to be scrapped, 12 November). The main reason there is high unemployment is that there is insufficient aggregate demand. A second reason is that a market economy needs some unemployment, for efficiency and anti-inflationary reasons. The move to therapy for the unemployed, which Labour pushed, and the workfare scheme of the coalition government, treat unemployment as mainly due to behavioural deficiencies by the unemployed. This is nonsense.

Workfare rests unashamedly on the view, stated by the government’s American adviser, Lawrence Mead, that welfare should be made so unattractive that the claimants will take any job and that they should be encouraged to “blame” themselves. There are many reasons for believing workfare is misguided and ultimately vicious. I have reviewed the evidence in several books, and years ago predicted that this is where the neoliberal state would end.

The objections to the government’s scheme and to the Labour party’s current position include cost. Workfare has proved extremely expensive, and it only manages to be less so because it drives people off welfare and out of the labour market, not into jobs. Guaranteeing the unemployed a job for four weeks is a sleight of hand. What jobs? The likelihood is that they will be “make work” schemes, scarcely of the type to motivate people. They will disrupt any search for meaningful activity, and could intensify any adverse attitude to jobs. If they were real jobs they would lower the opportunity and wages of others already doing or hoping to do such jobs.

But worst of all, coercion will be advanced. There is no evidence that vast numbers of people are suffering from a “habit of worklessness”. Many of those not in jobs work hard, caring for frail relatives or children, dealing with episodic disabilities, and generally working. Building social policy on the basis of a tiny minority being “scroungers” or “lazy” is expensive illiberal folly. Much better would be to go in the other direction, delinking basic income security from jobs and then improving incentives for work of all kinds.

Guy Standing
Professor of economic security, University of Bath

That should be compulsory reading for all those who are tempted to suppose that there must be some merit in the coalition’s plans to force the unemployed to work at the very time when coalition policies are gratuitously throwing a million more blameless people out of work.  All men and women of good will and even a smidgin of generosity of spirit should resist these repulsive proposals by all available legal means.  They should be opposed, not for the sake of opposing, but because they are monstrous.

Brian

[1]  To be fair, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, also stresses that “Jobs, not threats, get families off welfare“, which pithily demolishes Mr Duncan Smith’s whole mean-spirited and misguided project.

If April is the cruellest month (and I could never see why it should be), September, signalling the decline of summer and the approach of autumn, is surely the saddest.  So Strauss’s Four Last Songs at the BBC Prom on 4 September, almost always moving, were intensely so on this occasion, not just because of the deeply emotional singing of the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila but especially because of the glorious, deeply-felt playing of the Berlin Philharmonic under their principal conductor, Liverpudlian Simon Rattle.  I listened to it first live on BBC Radio 3 and was initially uncertain about what seemed perhaps an excessive theatricality in Mattila’s singing.  I had taped it, and played it over a couple of times immediately afterwards. Each time it seemed more genuine and more intense.

A couple of hours later, the whole Prom was broadcast on BBC television, and now the experience of the Strauss songs was transformed by the sight as well as the sound of Mattila, Rattle and the marvellous orchestra.  What on radio had at first sounded suspiciously theatrical could now be heard as something deeply spiritual.  As the last glorious notes of the last of the four songs, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), almost literally died away, the intense hush before the start of the applause seemed to go on for ever, as if to break the spell by the slightest sound would have been unthinkable.  The applause, when it came, was rapturous – almost as emotional as at the end of the Mahler First Symphony the previous evening, also performed by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.  Karita Mattila, almost overcome by her thunderous reception as well, I suspect, as by spiritual exhaustion from singing this extraordinary music, hugged Simon Rattle and the leader of the orchestra again and again, half laughing and half crying, repeatedly miming her homage to the orchestra and her acknowledgement of the packed audience, as the applause rolled on and on.

I don’t think this was necessarily one of the great performances of Strauss’s valedictory.  The great sopranos of the age have almost all recorded it and many of the resulting disks are sublime.  But last night’s occasion at the Albert Hall, the work of a great German composer performed by a German orchestra, perhaps the greatest on the planet, under an outstanding British conductor and with a fine Finnish soprano, one day after the anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Hitler’s Germany, had a special resonance which seemed to be echoed in the emotional response of the enormous audience and the equally emotional reaction of the performers to it.  And it was September, title and theme of the second of the four songs.

The Vier letzte Lieder, Strauss’s last finished work, were composed in 1948 when the composer was 84, only three years after the end of the war which had imposed such a tempestuous and tragic experience on the whole German people[1], including not least on Richard Strauss himself. Strauss did not live to hear the world premiere, performed in London at this very same Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms, on 22 May 1950 by the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the celebrated and to some people infamous German conductor.   Furtwängler’s tortured relations with Hitler and the Nazis had forced him to take refuge in Switzerland almost at the end of the war, only five years before the London premiere of the Four Last Songs.  There is a moving account of the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s attitude to the Nazis here.   History has, I think, fully acquitted him.

The BBC Proms website describes the Four Last Songs as “Strauss’s opulently nostalgic reflections on life’s last days”, but I don’t think that quite gets it.  The music is deeply sad, but also philosophical about the inevitable approach of death, and the last bars of the orchestral ending of the last song seem to signal, as clearly as only music can, peaceful acceptance, not nostalgia, not regret, no hint of any rage against the dying of the light.  In 1948, moreover,  ‘peace’ could not have referred only to the peace of death.  Rattle and this sensational band caught this perfectly.  I used to suspect that you needed to be over 65 truly to appreciate the Four Last Songs: better still, over 75.  But Rattle is a mere youthful 55, so I must be wrong.  His eight years (so far) conducting the Berliners have evidently welded them all together into a single organism and that must make up for his extreme youth.  All Brits should be proud that the members of this iconic orchestra  chose one of our own fellow-countrymen to lead them through good days and occasionally bad for the better part of a decade.  To hear a great British maestro conduct a great German orchestra with a splendid Finnish soprano in a German composer’s final masterpiece with so many tragic historical undertones was indeed a memorable experience.

[1] As well as on a few million others, of course.

Brian

Several lessons for Labour need to be learned from Nick Robinson’s BBC programme Five Days that Changed Britain, broadcast on 29 July, about the five days in May between the election and the formation of the Tory-LibDem coalition government.

The first and most important lesson was summed up towards the end of the programme by Peter Mandelson, usually a canny strategist, when he speculated that we were now in an age of coalition politics, in which no single party was likely in the foreseeable future to win an overall majority in the house of commons:  that if ever there was to be another Labour government, it would probably have to be in coalition or some other kind of alliance with the LibDems:  and that Labour strategy would need to adapt itself to this new and by implication unfamiliar and unwelcome reality.

Yet it has been all too obvious in recent weeks that the Labour parliamentary leadership and perhaps also the PLP as a whole still haven’t learned this lesson.  Directing its firepower more at the LibDems than at the Tories, excoriating Nick Clegg for his supposed betrayal of LibDem principles and promises by joining the Tories in government, trying to drive a wedge between the coalition partners — all these self-indulgent activities have been directly contrary to the interests, not only of the Labour party, but also of those hundreds of thousands of people who will lose their jobs and in many cases their homes and the availability to them of the welfare state safety net as a direct result of Cameron’s and Osborne’s slash-and-burn ideology-driven policies.  The latest folly has been to commit Labour to voting against the Bill providing for a referendum on AV (the LibDems’ main jusification for being in the coalition) and for a reduction in the number of MPs and re-drawing of electoral boundaries to make their population sizes more nearly equal.  There are certainly serious flaws in the detail of the Bill, which need to be addressed at the Committee stage, but to oppose the entire Bill (especially after Labour had been the only party to promise a referendum on AV in its manifesto) is simply crass, partly because it makes Labour look opportunistic and unprincipled, and partly because it’s bound to infuriate and alienate the LibDems whose support Labour is sooner or later going to need as an absolute condition of forming another government.  It really is time for Jack Straw (and some other ageing Blairites) to hang up his penchant for opportunistic ducking and weaving and leave the strategic thinking to younger men and women.

We aren’t necessarily thinking only about what might happen in five years’ time, however much Cameron may try to fix the constitution to keep himself and his coalition in power for a full parliament.  Germany’s PR system means permanent coalition governments, with the Free Democrats, the German equivalent of our LibDems, almost always being in the position of king-maker after every election: since its foundation in 1948, the FDP  “has been in federal government longer than any other party, as the junior coalition partner to either the CDU/CSU (1949–56, 1961–66, 1982–98, and since 2009) or the Social Democratic Party (1969–82)” (quoted from this).  But the significant point is that twice in this period, in 1966 and 1982, the FDP has switched sides between elections, causing the fall of a right-of-centre CDU/CSU government and its replacement by the SDP in 1966, and vice versa in 1982.  It’s constitutionally perfectly possible for the same thing to happen here if three conditions come to be satisfied:

  • first, very widespread disillusionment in the electorate with the dire consequences of Tory economic and social policies;
  • secondly, mounting dissatisfaction among LibDems in parliament and the country with Tory policies which LibDem members of the government are being forced to support;
  • thirdly — and easily the most important:  a Labour opposition offering a coherent and practical set of alternative policies fully consistent with LibDem principles, including active support for the repeal of New Labour’s most illiberal measures eroding fundamental civil liberties (even if the repeal is the work of a Tory-led government), renunciation of any policy of military intervention in other countries unless in self-defence or under UN auspices, and economic-social policies expressly designed to protect the poor and vulnerable and the public services on which they depend, and to ensure that the sacrifices necessary for recovery are made only by those rich enough to make them.

If all three conditions are satisfied, the pull of a transfer of LibDem support to a Labour programme (and a Labour leader) hugely more attractive to the vast majority of LibDems could prove irresistible.  Of course the fall of the Tory-led coalition government and its replacement by a new Labour-LibDem administration under a Labour prime minister would certainly need to be ratified very quickly by a fresh election, probably within weeks.  But all this could happen surprisingly quickly.

There’s no guarantee that it will.  Tory slash-and-burn policies just might succeed, against all informed expectations.  The LibDems might continue to be repelled by the idea of putting into power the party which without doubt lost the last election by a substantial margin.  Cameron’s and Clegg’s  apparent personal chemistry might yet keep the coalition going for the full five years, and current LibDem ministers might be reluctant to put their ministerial perks and power at risk by abandoning the Tories and putting alternative support for Labour to the test in an unpredictable fresh election.  But all this is very iffy.  And in any case, Pascal’s wager applies:  Labour could have a huge amount to gain, and anyway nothing whatever to lose, by developing a coherent set of centre-left progressive small-l liberal policies calculated to appeal to the LibDems just as soon as the new leader has been elected in September — and helping, not hindering, the LibDems on their journey back to their true and natural home on the centre-left of British politics.  It’s not just that this could help to bring about a transfer of LibDem support from the Tories to Labour:  it’s also the right and necessary thing to do on its own merits.  But in the meantime it’s essential to treat the LibDems as potential future allies, not as irreconcilable enemies.  Don’t trash them: woo them!

A recent blog post on Labour List by Hadleigh Roberts, Countering the coalition: Don’t attack the Lib Dems, arrived at the same conclusion but by a somewhat different route.  Such a strategy may not satisfy the blood-lust of the more pugnacious Labour front-benchers, blinded by their anger at what they choose to see as LibDem treachery to the left.  But that anger needs to be tempered by recognition that in those Five Days that Changed Britain, the LibDems ultimately had no alternative.  Clegg had enunciated an unexceptionable guideline for action if there was a hung parliament:  that whichever party had won the most votes and the most seats should be allowed the first attempt to form a government.  The country would have felt betrayed if the LibDems had used their limited but crucial numbers to keep in No. 10 the party which had manifestly lost the election.  And while the Tories immediately presented to the LibDems a coherent policy programme with attractive concessions to LibDem policies as the possible basis for a coalition, Labour failed utterly to present a coherent alternative, apparently caught on the hop without having done any homework against the possibility of a hung parliament.  But that leads to consideration of another of the three lessons Labour needs to learn from those Five Days, and that will be the subject of a further blog post.  Watch this space.

Brian

Ed Miliband, second favourite after his big brother for the Labour leadership, has written a piece on his campaign blog in which he argues for a graduate tax as a fairer alternative to tuition fees.  Four of the five candidates now favour a graduate tax and the press reports that the coalition government is actively encouraging the idea.  Vince Cable was on the radio this morning talking it up, not as an alternative to tuition fees but as an addition to them.   I see nothing fair about this idea.  I have posted a comment on E Miliband’s blog post explaining why, but it’s still “awaiting moderation”.  In case my comment doesn’t survive the moderator’s Delete key, I’m reproducing it here:

There’s absolutely nothing fair about a graduate tax.  It assumes that a university degree increases the earning power of graduates, which is no doubt true as a generalisation but certainly not true of all graduates — especially at a time when growing numbers of people are going to finish their university courses with degrees but no hope of a job at a time of very high unemployment.  It has never been true of the many graduates who work for the not-for-profit sector or even in many areas of the public sector.  Many graduates are forced to take jobs for which they are over-qualified and therefore underpaid, with no extra earning power attributable to their degrees.

But the even more serious objection to a graduate tax is that a university degree is only one of numerous factors that may result in above-average incomes:  high IQ, industriousness, unscrupulousness, good contacts through well-off parents or through having been to a ‘public’ school, an affluent upbringing and social confidence, good luck — the list is endless. There’s no possible justification or need for government to single out the beneficiaries of one particular advantage (such as a university degree) for an additional tax obligation:  if the tax system is progressive, as one day a future Labour government might just possibly make it, then the higher people’s incomes, the more tax they pay, regardless of the reasons for their relative affluence.  Why should a graduate pay more tax on her income than someone with no degree but an identical income?

Other arguments against a graduate tax are:

  • that the provision of university education to all those who can benefit from it benefits the whole of society in numerous obvious ways, including indirectly those who haven’t been to university, so society should pay for university education collectively through the tax system;
  • that the prospect of having to pay a graduate tax on top of income tax and other taxes would inevitably discourage many able young people  from aspiring to a university education;  and
  • that a graduate tax, calculated to pay for the costs of university education, is in effect a hypothecated tax, whose proceeds would be earmarked for a specific category of expenditure; and this is contrary to the basic principle that taxes go into the Consolidated Fund which the Chancellor of the Exchequer can use with total flexibility for whatever needs may arise.

The fair solution to the problem of funding university teaching is a general increase in the higher rates of income tax, on the principle that all those who can afford to contribute more to social goods,  not just graduates, should pay more tax .  A future Labour government will need to be much less timid about taxing very high incomes — and wealth — on a steeply rising scale.  The new 50% marginal rate (which incidentally doesn’t mean anyone paying 50% of their entire income in tax, as many people seem to think) is a start, but there’s ample scope for much more.  Threats from the mega-rich to emigrate if their taxes go up are a bluff that should be called — and if it’s not a bluff, good riddance to them. To each according to his need….

Please think again, Mr Miliband and Dr Cable.  Tuition fees should certainly be abolished, but not to be replaced, still less supplemented, by a graduate tax.  The arguments for financing state school education out of general taxation apply every bit as strongly to higher education.  Grasp the nettle!

Up-date, 15 July 2010: My comment (i.e. this post) has now appeared on Ed Miliband’s blog (here).  So have a good number of other comments, mostly making very good points both for and — especially — against the idea of a graduate tax.  I was especially struck by this one:

Rob Hepworth  [Moderator]
It’s preferable to fees but still the lesser of evils. I’m nervous about hypothecated taxes. There’s a danger that our opponents will jump at this and do it for other services eg health – a “health Tax” – to be paid only by people who use the NHS ? Or a schools tax only paid by parents whose children use state schools ? No!! …  If we need a tax on top, why not a tax on larger companies whose future manpower depends on a supply of educated graduates?

Other comments on Mr E Miliband’s blog post advance additional cogent arguments against this deeply flawed idea.   And there are yet more very good points in comments on the version of this post at Labour List.  I can’t believe that Dr Cable’s heart is really in it, or that Ed Miliband’s should be.

Brian
http://www.barder.com/ephems/

The reception for David Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture on 10 July 2010 has been rapturous in some quarters — e.g. John Rentoul in an Independent newspaper blog, and, more surprisingly, by Jon Cruddas, standard-bearer of the left in the Labour party (“the most important speech by a Labour politician for many years”).  This is an opportunity to have a look at how successful the front-runner in the Labour leadership election has been so far in promising to re-format the party’s attitudes and values, and thence its policies, in the aftermath of a serious election defeat — not quite as catastrophic a defeat as many of us expected, but quite bad enough to demand some fundamental rethinking.  The 2010 Keir Hardie lecture is clearly meant as a major pronouncement of post-defeat rethinking by the current front runner in the leadership stakes. So it deserves careful attention.

I genuinely hate to say it, but I found the lecture terribly disappointing.  In a reappraisal of where Labour should be going, I look for two main ingredients: first, an assessment of the successes and failures, but especially the failures, of Labour’s 13 years in government, frankly acknowledging the defects and mistakes, discussing the reasons for them and ways to make sure that they are not repeated;  and secondly, an outline of a new overall Labour policy for dealing with the principal issues of our time, indicating how a Labour (or Lab-LibDem coalition) government would handle at least the most pressing of the following, even if only by a sentence on each:

recovery from recession, debt and the budget deficit, including the balance between taxes and expenditure cuts:  restructuring of the economy generally and the banks and financial institutions in particular: financing pensions as people live longer:  immigration:  retention, strengthening or liberalisation of the mass of anti-terrorism and crime legislation inherited from the last Labour government:  the Human Rights Act: the prison overcrowding crisis and sentencing policy, including the now discredited system of indefinite sentences “for public protection”, i.e. preventive detention: Britain’s place in the EU and relations with the US:  global poverty:  climate change:  Britain’s status as a nuclear power, and the future of Trident:  how long we continue to take part in the Afghanistan war and in what circumstances we would withdraw our forces:  Iran and Israel-Palestine: the doctrine of  “liberal intervention”: and ‘whither devolution?’ with still no answer to the West Lothian question, continuing discontent in Scotland and to some extent in Wales, and signs of restiveness (or worse) in England at the continuing denial of devolution to the biggest of the UK’s four constituent nations.

This adds up to a meaty and complex agenda.  We’re entitled to know where each of the five candidates stands on at least the most pressing items in it.

On most of these issues I would expect a major policy pronouncement like the Miliband lecture to pinpoint and explain the differences between the new post-election policies that he would pursue if elected party leader, and those of the present coalition government.  Attacks on the latter would, in my ideal lecture, be carefully placed in the context of a superior Labour alternative.  Where Labour and coalition government policies now largely coincide, I would hope to see praise and support for some at least of what the Cameron-Clegg government is beginning to do or at least to promise, especially in the area of civil liberties and Afghanistan.  Importantly, I would hope that the Labour leadership, including the candidates for election as leader, would resist the temptation to continue to defend the plainly indefensible elements in the policies and legislation of the Blair and Brown governments, especially in the fields of foreign policy and civil liberties, and to applaud the promises of the coalition government to reverse some of them.

Applying these hopes and expectations to Mr Miliband’s Keir Hardie lecture, I’m sad not to find in it any honest acknowledgement of the three great failures of the Labour years:  (1) the Iraq war crime, still not openly acknowledged as such from the Labour front bench despite still mounting evidence of its criminality (not to mention the slide into an unwinnable and  increasingly costly war in Afghanistan); (2) the relentless assault on individual liberties under cover of a hyped-up fear of terrorism; and (3) the constant indulgent kowtowing to the City and the financial institutions, leading to obscene inequality in our society, a poisonous celebrity culture fed by inconceivable personal wealth for the few, and now an almost total economic collapse which has given a profoundly reactionary Conservative party a golden opportunity, seized with greedy hands, to dismantle the welfare state.  Miliband’s lecture barely touches on any of these major failures (apart from a half-hearted admission of failure to address the excessive role and inadequate regulation of the financial sector), still less offering any specific new policies designed to guarantee that no future Labour government will ever repeat them.  Instead, there is sentence after sentence of what can only, in all charity, be described as pious waffle, to much of which careful analysis can attach virtually no meaning at all.

Perhaps worst of all, the lecture suggests absolutely no concrete policies for dealing with an unsustainable budget deficit and national debt, combined with nursing the first timid signs of recovery from recession, as a coherent alternative to the enthusiastic regressive butchery now already beginning to be practised by the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne triumvirate.  It’s a waste of time denouncing each new cut as the axe falls, bewailing each new loss of valuable programmes and projects, and stridently supporting every noisy interest group as each is targeted in turn by the Osborne axe, without being able to offer a positive, detailed and more socially responsible alternative programme.

We’re not fools:  we know that a Labour government would have had to make painful decisions about increased taxes and public expenditure cuts, and we are entitled to know what they would be. We need to know if Labour will stick to the illiberal and timid policies of the Blair-Brown era which so strained the loyalty of millions of its members and supporters.  Mr Miliband doesn’t tell us.  Would Labour under Miliband really be able to avoid raising VAT (as Alistair Darling favoured when Chancellor, until foiled by Gordon Brown) and abolishing some of the more obviously wasteful quangos? Would it really have persisted in the mindless follies of ID cards and the associated monster national database;  of wasting more billions on nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers and state-of-the-art fighter-bombers that we don’t need and can’t afford; of 28-day detention without charge and thousands of section 44 stop-and-search intrusions; of continuing to expand our shamefully inflated prison population, and building yet more prisons; of continuing the cull of brave (or even cowardly) young British men and women (not to mention Afghan civilians) in a literally purposeless war in Afghanistan; of extraditing Brits to the US on the basis of vague and menacing accusations which would cut no ice at all if we sought to use them as a basis for extraditing Americans from the US?  Would Labour still be refusing to hold a proper independent inquiry into serious charges of British collusion in torture? If the five candidates for the leadership can’t give us specific answers, indeed commitments, on questions such as these, it’s hard to see how they can lay claim to the votes of party members or the blessings of Labour’s remaining supporters.

It’s easy to pick holes in the Miliband lecture and perhaps it’s unfair to judge it in isolation from DM’s other policy speeches and interviews.  But I haven’t so far seen much to applaud in them, either.  The title of Miliband’s article in the New Statesman of 5 July — “How to solve the English question” —  raised my spirits: here at last a potential future Labour leader would surely tackle head-on the problem of unfinished devolution, England still denied the partial self-government enjoyed by the other UK nations, the West Lothian question, all that:  but no.  All Mr Miliband had to say on that complex of issues was:

An “English Parliament” is not the answer. We must strengthen the civic pride and economic resilience of English towns and cities. This is how the sense of identity, belonging and place of the many Englands can be better embedded and expressed. Labour needs to work with the grain of local and institutional affiliations – from army regiments to hospitals, from fire services to local authorities.

So much for the gaping devolution deficit.  So much for the unanswered West Lothian question.  We must just be satisfied with strengthening the civic pride and economic resilience of English towns and cities.  Perhaps we need a new Ministry of English Civic Pride and Economic Resilience for the purpose.  No reasoned argument: just the bald assertion —  ‘an “English Parliament” is not the answer.’  I wonder why it isn’t the answer.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that it’s at least part of the answer, as a stage on the way to a full UK federation.  That seems to me worth discussion, not bland dismissal.

If I have to admit to not having read every word of D Miliband’s lectures, articles and interviews since he became a candidate for the leadership, I plead in mitigation that much of it is so stodgy and abstract that it’s very difficult to get through it all without nodding off or turning on the telly half-way through.

It’s such a shame.  The older Miliband is in many ways an attractive figure — highly intelligent, sometimes eloquent, unfailingly articulate and well informed, obviously decent;  he was a good foreign secretary, the best for several years, with the potential, perhaps, of becoming a great one.  He ought to be an irresistible candidate for the leadership.  But he’ll need to do better than this if he’s going to come anywhere near earning my vote.

Brian

In a recent blog post (here) I recommended some daunting facts and figures on Indeterminate Sentences (IPPs) published earlier this month in a Prison Reform Trust ‘Bromley Briefing’.  The text of the relevant section of the Factfile is here.

The Prison Reform trust has now (8 July 2010) published a 74-page report,  Unjust Deserts: imprisonment for public protection [PDF], containing a full academic and practical analysis of the whole system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, the fruit of two years’ research. The report is a damning indictment of the system — its underlying philosophy, its inherent unfairness, and the fatal way in which it is mismanaged in practice.  There are a number of conclusions and recommendations, the first of these being that the system should be abolished and determinate sentences substituted for indeterminate sentences still being served.  You can read selected extracts from the report here, and a general summary of it here (“8 July 2010: ill-drafted IPP sentence leaves thousands locked up in bureaucratic limbo“).

The report spells out in detail:

  • the way the system of IPPs was originally misconceived and carelessly drafted, resulting in consequences that were neither intended nor foreseen:
  • how it is inherently unjust, relying on a mistaken belief that it’s possible to foresee an offender’s future behaviour in hypothetical future circumstances and on unsupported faith in the efficacy of prison courses to change behaviour while addressing only a small part of the roots of offending behaviour: and
  • how the system is incompetently administered, grossly under-staffed and under-resourced, resulting in totally unnecessary costs to the taxpayer of something like £100 million so far, with costs steadily increasing.

One of many depressing features of the report is its revelation that with very few exceptions all the judges and psychologists who contributed their comments to the authors of the report were in favour of the IPP concept, some strongly so:  apparently unable to see anything wrong with a system that abandons the concept of punishment being proportionate to the offence committed, substituting the proposition that a person who has served the punitive part of his sentence, but can’t prove that he will not reoffend if released, can properly be incarcerated for years, and indeed in principle for life, being harshly punished for future offences that he or she has not committed and might well never commit if released.  This is risk aversion gone mad.  It’s worrying that so many of our judges can’t see it:  and almost equally worrying that the psychologists, on whose advice on behaviour management and assessment parole boards tend to rely, can’t see it, either.

My sole reservation about this otherwise admirable and comprehensive document is that it offers a number of possible options for reform, including amendments to the IPP legislation further to reduce the number of offences for which IPPs can be awarded.  Even though the recommended first option is outright abolition, the offer of a less drastic remedy by further amending the legislation (which has already been amended in the same direction without producing any very significant improvements) and a third, even weaker, option of simply allocating more resources to the management of IPP prisoners and the provision of more behaviour management courses for them, seems to me to weaken the force of the case for abolition.  The system is inherently unjust.  No amount of tinkering with it can make it fair.  Better management of it wouldn’t make it perceptibly less unfair — and it would cost far more money than is likely to be available in the present climate.  Conversely, the report calculates — almost in an aside — that the cost to the taxpayer of keeping thousands of IPP prisoners in jail for years after they have served the punitive part of their sentences and are still incarcerated in preventive detention is probably of the order of “around £100 million” so far — and this grotesque cost is likely to go on rising if nothing drastic is done to stop the monster in its tracks.  Now is the time to slay it.  Please urge your MP now to tell the Justice Secretary that the IPP has had its day.

Update (25 July 2010):  It has been reported that No. 10 vetoed a passage in Crispin Blunt’s ‘Churchill’ speech of 22 July in which he had planned to say something to the effect that he expected to abolish IPPs.  In fact the videotape of the speech at http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/sp220710a.htm proves that he delivered the section of his speech on IPPs almost exactly as in the text on that web page.  I think this is as promising as we can expect, given that he could not have been expected to make a firm decision on the matter in advance of the sentencing review.  And at least we have the certainty now that IPPs will be critically scrutinised as part of the sentencing review, which is to report in the autumn.  So far, so reasonably good.

Brian

The other day in a blog post about Indederminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) I described the cruelty and injustice of the IPP régime, under which repeat offenders who have served the punishment part of their sentences are nevertheless kept in prison, sometimes for years, until they can satisfy a parole board that if released, they won’t reoffend — something that is literally impossible in very many cases.  Thousands  –  no exaggeration –  of people in British prisons are being harshly punished for offences that they haven’t committed because they can’t prove a negative about the future to a room full of men in suits.  Few of us could do that, either.

Now the admirable Prison Reform Trust has produced one of its periodic Bromley Briefing Prison Factfiles (July 2010) covering a range of prison-related subjects  and containing a section on IPPs with some pretty horrific facts and figures.  It’s clearly not widely known, even among the chatterati and the blogospheriacs, that the number has exploded from 3,000 indeterminate sentences in 1992 to 12,822 in March 2010;  that by 5 February 2010 there were 476 people serving IPP sentences who had been kept on in prison for two years or more after they had served the ‘punishment’ element of their sentences — they had been, in other words, incarcerated in preventive detention for over two years, and many of them faced genuine uncertainty about whether they would ever be released;   or that since 2005 only 133 people serving IPP sentences have been released from prison, 33 of whom have been recalled.

With the Trust’s agreement, I have put the section of the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile dealing with IPPs, together with the relevant section from the Introduction, on this website:  you can read it here.   It demonstrates with cold statistics and quotations the Kafkaesque or Catch 22 situation in which these thousands of (almost all) men are trapped.  In order to provide ‘evidence’ to the parole board in support of their applications for release, they are virtually bound to have attended various behaviour management courses that allegedly enable them to reform their characters and make reoffending on release less likely.  But some IPP prisoners are in prisons where such courses are not available, or where there are waiting lists of a year or even longer for a place on the relevant course, or where the prison staff say the IPP prisoner’s mental condition makes it unsuitable for him to attend the course.  Then in some prisons there are equally long waiting lists before an IPP prisoner can attend a parole board hearing to present his case for release (the onus is on him to show that he won’t offend, a wicked reversal of the position throughout the rest of the justice system); and even if he has managed to attend the requisite courses, the board may turn down his application, without being required to give a coherent reason.

One of the great virtues of the IPPs section of the Prison Factfile is that it provides hard evidence of the sheer scale of the injustice and inherently cruel uncertainty involved for the prisoners and their families.  The scale is huge, and actually growing.   Almost by definition, IPP prisoners are more than averagely vulnerable.  To quote the Factfile:

Nearly one in five IPP prisoners have previously received psychiatric treatment, while one in 10 is receiving mental health treatment in prison and one in five is receiving medication. One IPP prisoner in 20 is, or has been, a patient in a special hospital or regional secure unit.  Data from the Prison Service’s Safer Custody Group also confirm that IPP prisoners have a raised incidence of selfharm.  Three people serving IPP sentences took their own lives in 2009.

We are keeping hundreds of people with mental health problems incarcerated because we are scared to let them out into the community where they could in principle receive much more effective — and incidentally much cheaper — treatment.  We’re back to the pre-Victorian lunatic asylum, out of a shameful combination of fear and tight-fistedness — but a lunatic asylum in which the sufferers continue indefinitely to be punished and not simply confined.

New Justice Department ministers have publicly stated their disquiet at this unsustainable, indeed scandalous, situation.  They have announced that a review of sentencing policy is to be set up and to report in the autumn.  This doesn’t leave much time for you to ask your MP to press the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to ensure that the sentencing review takes a hard look at IPPs and recommends that the whole system should be abolished:  no amount of tinkering with it can make it anything like acceptable.  Mr Clarke may well actually welcome pressure like this:  he can use it in evidence against the neanderthals in his own party (and to some extent in the Labour party, whose government introduced IPPs) and against the more viciously vindictive of the tabloids who think the thing to do with offenders is to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” — which is more or less what an IPP sentence does, come to think of it.

Update, 8 July 2010:  Now see new Ephems post about a further and much fuller report by the Prison Reform Trust published today, Unjust Deserts: imprisonment for public protection [PDF].  Key extracts from this report are now here.

Brian

Some jewels from the print media

…the day after an email exchange about liberty between Tony Blair and I was published in the Observer, …
Henry Porter, The Observer 16 May 2010
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/16/henry-porter-civil-liberties-coalition

…an exhausted-looking Boulton jabbed his finger and furiously refuted Cameron’s claim that the Sky man wanted to see David Cameron in Downing Street.
James Robinson The Observer, Sunday 16 May 2010
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/may/16/adam-boulton-alastair-campbell-sky-news

Andrew Marr, whose Sunday morning BBC show goes out at the same time as Boulton’s Sky programme, …
Ibid

Boulton’s own high standing may even mitigate against such a radical change of direction.
Ibid

The Camerons, as the first new occupants of Downing Street since first lady fever began, thus find unprecedented attention focused on Samantha.
Jess Cartner-Morley, Guardian, 12 May 2010
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/12/samantha-cameron-profile

…given Mr Cable’s occasionally coruscating attacks on Mr Osborne’s judgment in the past.
George Parker, FT, 22 May 2010
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/87246f86-5fb9-11df-a670-00144feab49a.html

Addenda, 25 May 2010

On overhearing my husband and I discussing this….
Letter, New Statesman, 24 May 2010

Out of these pieces, my mother would sew dresses for my sister and I….
“Author” Justine Picardie, Liberty Print catalogue, May 2010

But Paul’s success dwarves even these.
Ewen MacAskill, Guardian, 19 May 2010, p.21

But, along with the principal of basic rights and freedoms, …
Seumas Milne, Guardian, 20 May 2010