Lots of good politics this week

Climate change – some kind of watershed. Iraq – another watershed?. Immigration – the numbers confirm Britain is a net consumer of migrants and has become a kind of ‘interchange’ for mobile populations (probably not a bad role for a post-imperial power at the edge of a major economic bloc). Privacy – ours is becoming a ‘surveillance society‘. US Mid-terms – Kerry’s foot is firmly in his mouth again but the Republican hegemony is history anyway. ASBOs are cool and David Cameron wants you to ”love a lout‘.

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Another sad, jug-eared Tory comes out…

I bring you – without comment, of course – the voting record of Gregory Barker, utterly true blue MP for the constituency of Bexhill and Battle. I think you’ll also want to note TheyWorkForYou‘s (entirely algorithmic) assertion that Barker’s record shows him to be ‘moderately against’ equal gay rights (Stephen Newton, though, points out that he at least didn’t oppose civil partnerships).

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If you have no policies are you still a political party?

Political parties are developing an aversion to policy. David Cameron’s refusal to provide anything more than mood music in Bournemouth is only the latest tock in the unstoppable tick tock that’s moving politics into line with the other branches of marketing. Don’t mention the product, focus on the brand, communicate the feeling. Mars Bars became – unbelievably – ‘Believe’ for the duration of the World Cup, mobile phone companies talk about dreams and intimacy and not about call quality or coverage.

Political parties won’t ‘bang on’ about Europe any more. They won’t bang on about anything at all in fact. They’ll invest their time and money in telling us what kind of ‘guys’ they are, where there heads are at, what their hopes and dreams are. We’ll be invited to identify with them. We’ll be encouraged to act on our feelings about a party or a candidate without exploring their relative positions.

All of this will only work in the new, post-ideological political marketplace that all the new-age pols aspire to. The clever young people steering the major parties (or brands) are certain – collectively and across the left-right divide – that the old, differentiated politics is history and I guess, in a way, they’re right. There’s something very last Century – very iron curtain, clash-of-ideologies, Winter-of-discontent, Z-Cars, Sunday Night at the Palladium, Harold Macmillan – about the stunted bipolar politics we grew up with isn’t there?

Shouldn’t we rush at this new stuff? Embrace the funky flow of freestyle Twenty-first Century politics with all the parties arbitrarily arranged on the political centre ground where comparison on fundamentals is difficult and essentially pointless?

The old politics is obviously doomed. The question is, can the political parties survive the demise of political culture?


I’m not a reporter. No one relies on me for my opinion. I’m not sought after for my angle. Still, I’m pretty sure you’re going to want to fire up RealPlayer and listen to the quite amazing Peter Mandelson on this morning’s Today Programme. The smell of political cordite is strong here. The man’s been off the British political scene for half a decade and yet he can fly back into town and secure the Nation’s premier political interview slot as if he’d never been away and, while he’s at it, exercise real influence (as if from beyond the grave) on the succession. Some things make me glad I didn’t choose a political career. Peter Mandelson – modern politics’ most formidable operator – is one of them. This is the kind of breathtaking political media you know you’re going to want to save to play back to your kids.

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Brown vs Blair links

Charles Clarke’s blistering Telegraph interview and, of course, the interview with The Standard’s Associate Editor Anne MacElvoy that brought his entertainingly incendiary views to light in the first place. The Statesman’s interview with David Milliband (the one who looks like Mr Bean) and, from the same issue, Martin Bright’s It’s Already Over.

One of those articles that’s so juicy it makes you go weak at the knees: Robert Harris in The Times compares Gordon Brown to Richard Nixon, not because Brown’s a crook but because they’re both autistic. Trust the Beeb to produce a useful timeline. Meanwhile, back in The Telegraph, word has it, this Sunday, that Brown wants a contest, not a coronation. Nice piece from The The New York Times (from a proper London-based staffer Alan Cowell, not an agency) on the mess and Cowell again, this time providing an Idiot’s Guide to Gordon Brown for one of those lovely NY Times slide shows (you know when you’re really in trouble when the NY Times rolls out a helpful infographic).

I guess I should link to the Beeb’s transcript of Brown’s interview on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show (although I really can’t concentrate on what Brown’s saying since my sister-in-law pointed out that his lower jaw does this strange thing at the end of every sentence) and to his other media appearance this weekend, in The News of The World. Happy also to link to Germaine Greer’s Question Time unease with the idea of a Brown premiership from earlier in the Summer (courtesy YouTube).

Couple of whinges: why is it so hard to find articles at the newspapers’ web sites? Even the venerable telegraph.co.uk, the first proper British newspaper web site, back in about 1993, still can’t provide a useful search feature and The Standard’s is worse (try searching for articles by Anne MacElvoy. You could be forgiven for thinking she doesn’t work there at all).

The Statesman on the other hand, a tiddler by any measure, must have the most sophisticated web presence of any UK non-techie periodical. Good search, a mature attitude to free vs. paid-for content and loads of simple ways for bloggers and bookmarkers to chip in. At The Statesman they’ve learnt from the social media phenomenon that you build currency by providing free access to interesting articles: something that’s taking the other mainstream media owners a bit longer to realise.

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Political unwisdom

There are many reasons to be frustrated if you’re a Labour supporter right now. First, there’s the epic squandering of political capital. In the year-and-a-bit since Labour’s important and unprecedented third general election victory in a row Labour has inexplicably surrendered so much ground to the Tories that the humungous electoral mountain that stands between Cameron and Number 10 looks – for the first time – climbable. Bugger.

Second, there’s the leadership’s profoundly depressing loss of authority. It’s scarily like the decline of the Tories post-Thatcher. The upper hand has been ceded to the kind of bitter backbenchers and ministerial nearly-men who brought Major low (the ‘bastards‘) and ultimately precipitated the 1997 Labour landslide. Stupid stupid stupid.

Third, and, I’ll admit, most depressing, there’s Gordon Brown, looking less and less like the quiet, competent, unflashy leader-in-waiting and more and more like a scheming Venetian Archbishop, hatching plots and directing his lieutenants from palazzo to palazzo in an effort to dethrone The Doge (that’s enough dodgy Italian Rennaiscance analogies – ed). Brown’s complete silence during the whole leadership row now seems both weird and calculating and his competence to lead both the party and an entire bloody country post-Blair is increasingly in question.

All of this (plus that bloody memo) points to an accumulation of the kind of political clumsiness many of us thought was now firmly in Labour’s past. Maybe it really is time for a bracing parliamentary term in opposition (just one please). Something to snap the party out of its solipsistic trance and get it back to thinking straight about Government.

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What’s the point of inheritance tax?

The trouble with defending inheritance tax is that it’s impossible to do so without sounding like a miserable, money-grubbing pensioner-basher (although I suppose you’re actually bashing the kids). The best its defenders can manage is the obviously contradictory: “It’s worth £3Billion per year and hardly anyone pays it anyway.” The tax systems of the world are cluttered with these slightly embarrassing throwbacks to times when monarchs were always looking for ways to fund the latest acquisitive war or lavish palace building programme.

Tax collectors of old had to be opportunistic: taxation was arbitrary and sometimes punitive because the assets of the taxable masses were – most of the time, anyway – invisible, out of reach. Death was a convenient moment for the taxman to intervene and grab some cash because, at death, those assets had to surface, at least for long enough to sort out probate (quiz: which is fairer, inheritance tax or window tax?). These days, of course, especially if you’ve got a proper job, your earned income is on show at all times and the taxman can take what he wants before you even get your share. In this context, taking a share of what you leave to your kids is harder to justify.

Of course it’s politically impossible to use the only real justification for taxing inheritance which is the perfectly sound but paternalistic economic argument that you should leave your money to someone who knows how to invest it and probably not to your idiot offspring. The theory is that the investment return on money given to Government will be better than that on money given to your spendthrift kids – who will probably blow it on Cider and trampoline lessons anyway. Leaving a proportion of your money to the Government will boost the economy and produce social goods. Leaving it to your kids might boost the economy but is more likely to provide a one-time boost to the profitability of a local off license or pie shop.

What I find myself wondering is: is there a ‘third way’? Could the dieing be obliged to leave chunks of their estates not to Government but to an approved investment vehicle, one which would yield a profit for the dead person’s intended beneficiaries but, in the meantime, also benefit, say, the hospital building programme or early years education. If I were obliged to leave 40% of my assets on my death to a fund that would produce visible benefits to the economy while still benefiting my kids in the end I think I might be happier to pay up, especially if I could actually choose the destination for my legacy: if I could pick a fund from a list, for instance.

Complete Cant

Cameron’s Bill of Rights may be meaningless, even mendacious and certainly legally incoherent but it is outstanding politics. Proper agenda-grabbing spin. A policy so insubstantial as to be practically invisible married to a clever expression of middle-British distrust of soft European ‘human rights’ nonsense. I can almost see the roomful of rosy-faced twenty-somethings who came up with it now, having their Gillette moment, back slapping and high-fiving their way round to the pub. Still, it might backfire yet. Cameron obviously can’t enact this wafer-thin pseudo-policy. He can’t even turn it into a manifesto committment. There’s nothing there – a rhetorical vacuum. It’ll just hang there until, hopefully, it’s forgotten and quietly dropped.


Some debate about whether or not the BNP are fascists. I guess a narrow definition would exclude them (but then some unhelpfully narrow definitions exclude the Nazis). I like Umberto Eco’s 1995 definition of something he calls ‘Ur-Fascism’. He provides a handy 14-point, cut-out-and keep recognition guide, including, selectively:

‘1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition…’,
‘6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration…’,
‘7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country…’,
‘8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies…’,
’13. Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments…’

and so on. Eco was brought up an Italian fascist (a proper fascist, I suppose). You can read the full story in the New York Review of Books here but you’ll need a subscription. Click more for Eco’s 14-point list (which constitutes about a third of the original article so I guess that counts as fair use).

Still angry really

What’s frustrating about Blair’s culpable ineptitude in the last fortnight or so is that it favours principally the Old Labour rump of maybe 50 bitter and increasingly vocal old-timers. Gordon Brown may be rubbing his hands in anticipation of an accelerated succession but his own room to manoeuvre will be sharply restricted if the old guard win this battle.

Their fee for Blair’s early removal will be influence over the Brown programme and ongoing input to Government policy in the next parliament and beyond. The party’s ‘grey men’ must be resisted. Old Labour, like Cameron’s ‘caring Conservatism’ has nothing to offer modern Britain.