Problems for the MiliBrand
Ed Miliband is not taking his shellacking lying down. According to current opinion polls, he is the most unpopular Labour Party Leader since the 1970s and in popular parlance (due to being under attack from a right-wing media), he can’t catch a cold. He is in full Hamlet mode, facing a sea of troubles. Labour should, it is argued, be miles ahead in the polls at this stage of the electoral cycle. Worst of all, natural supporters are turning or have turned against him – we’re thinking of you, New Statesman – and are trying to label him a Gordon Brown Mark II. It has not been a good few weeks for Mr Miliband. The Observer’s recent front page splash suggested with most of his Front Bench willing to support Alan Johnson as an alternative leader that Ed’s days were numbered. To paraphrase ‘Pulp Fiction’, Left and Right are saying ‘Ed’s Dead Baby, Ed’s Dead’.
What are Ed’s actual weaknesses? Apart from him being human and flawed, there are two specific character issues that reside. A lot of the criticism centres around him not being an Alpha Male; it really does. Well, so what? The questions should be: will he make the right economic and foreign policy choices as Prime Minister and would he make better choices than David Cameron? Who would you trust more? Who would you say is more connected to the average citizen? Then there’s the Brother Question. This is slightly trickier as we’re dealing with unknowables here so let’s say what’s evident. There is no clear evidence that David would be a significantly more popular leader than Ed. There is policy evidence, however, to suggest that Ed is more left wing and less Blairite than David. Labour supporters need to recognise this.
Why the attack now? Lynton Crosby’s been planning this onslaught for months. If you don’t think the British Press is biased against Labour, just read the headlines and opinion articles. The Press has turned feral since Leveson and the Tories have played along with a lot of it; anti-immigrant, pro-plutocrat, and obsessed with finding ‘evidence’ to show that Ed Miliband is ‘weak’. The Labour Party Leader knows he will not get a fair shake of the dice; there’s six months of tabloid and broadsheet war to go, whether he continues as leader (as is currently likely) or is taken out in a coup. The phoney war is over.
Yet Miliband has strengths and can play to those. The first is to accept that Murdoch Press support is gone, possibly for a generation. Co-operate with them by all means, but don’t do them any favours. Instead, Miliband needs to re-stress the ‘One Nation’ strategy; appeal to above the 35% but emphasise equality rather than opportunity. In other words, tilt to the Centre-Left rather than Centre-Right. He has the mettle to stick with what’s right. He should be given that chance. Politics should be full of fallible people; it should be human. Ditching a leader mid-stream is a risk Labour Party MPs shouldn’t take; they can win forthcoming General Election and they need to believe it.
To Boldly Go
‘Interstellar’ is currently the number one movie in much of the World. It’s easy to see why. Not only does everyone need some escapism at least some time in their lives, they also need to think of something bigger than themselves. This capacity for imagination; thinking of what’s out there, of what’s possible, resonates with our situation on Earth now. We live in a politically uncertain World, one where market forces rather than human solidarity is the predominant driving force
for our human race. Good science fiction helps us look up from beyond our locked-in world view and enables us to become human again. Christopher Nolan manages to capture this extremely well via his protagonists; we see humanity at its best and worst and see, in that oldest dramatic conceit, a mirror up to ourselves. Our World and our lives are so precious yet we gamble with the very survival of the planet. Sometimes, the answer is in the stars; what made us, can be the saving of us too.
Obama and a Hostile Congress
How many times does it have to be said? The Republican Party is on a wrecking mission to degrade and destroy the legacy of the Obama Presidency. They’re determined to make the Lame Duck period start now. The President has an opportunity to take an ‘oh F*** it’ stance over the next two years and rule by Executive Order as much as possible. Unlike all of the Republicans, he’s been elected twice, nationally. He has the Bully Pulpit. Time enough to make that potential legacy stronger and live up to Paul Krugman’s eloquent description of Obama as a great President. The Chompsky line that Obama is some sort of PR Man for The System and a Projector of American Might doesn’t ring true, despite determined ‘whataboutery’ on the part of some of the Left. Obama can bend the arc of history for good; let Obama be Obama.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are the sensation de-jour garnering Tory defectors and increasing their support in the polls to become the de-facto ‘Fourth Party’. A group of erstwhile misfits dismissed as ‘fruitcakes’ only one election ago is now climbing ascendant. They are causing major disruption to the electoral calculus of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They are making the political weather and look set to do so for much of the run up to the next General Election. Where lies the appeal in this quixotic party, hitting 15% in general polling, capable of holding the seats of defecting Conservatives at opportunistically called by-elections and maybe gaining even more in 2015?
Their main asset is their leader. Nigel Farage, a populist ‘anti-politician’, is seen by his supporters as a plain-speaking, anti-establishment man of the people. He is fluent in ‘plainmanspeak’, (despite being a pin-striped former ‘City’ worker), a language most politicians spend a lifetime trying to perfect. He addresses valid questions about democratic deficits in the European project; his solutions would not be the preferred options for most rational analysts, but he is right to question a drift away from subsidiarity towards the centre. Europe – the leaving of or staying in – will be a huge issue in the 2015 election.
Farage and UKIP have had several successes; the principal among these has been to put the Conservatives on the back foot over an in-or-out EU referendum. Cameron has been forced into a path that may see Britain out of Europe for a generation; if, and it’s a big if, the Tories win in 2015, and are unable to get their negotiated concessions from Brussels, then they’ll be leading the campaign for a ‘No’ vote. This would be manna from heaven for UKIP and Farage will not be overly disappointed with the unlikely event of a Conservative majority nextyear. Nigel Farage can see himself as the leader who brought Britain out of Europe; for good or ill, that would be an historic legacy.
But Farage is a typical politician in that he wants power; he’ll be planning for scenarios where UKIP hold the balance of power after the next election. He knows he can rely on the support of the increasingly jingoistic red-tops; Cameron is as loathed as Miliband by some of the Tory-supposed Fleet Street friends. His ambition is to be kingmaker; he knows (surely?) that he’ll never be Prime Minister but he can help build the next government and shape policy if his party picks up the 30-35 seats that the most optimistic predictions are saying they will. Or he can just turn the screw until April and force the Conservatives and Labour to harden their positions on Europe; total victory would be in getting Miliband to cave in to referendum demands.
There is a ceiling in the UKIP vote; they are developing saner policies in other areas, but they are still seen by most voters as a two trick pony, obsessed with ‘Europe’ and Immigration at the expense of bread and butter issues. If they are to be a successful catch-all party as opposed to a niche acquired taste, they will need to be more subdued about their rasion d’etre. But if they do dampen down the populism and become more generalist, they run the risk of losing their core support. We may already have reached ‘peak Farage’.
He still has to purge his party of the racists if he is to be taken more seriously. His economic polices are barely coherent and he really needs to raise the calibre of his spokespeople to grow his support. Some of UKIP’s ‘Front Bench’ are woefully unsuited to national politics (and dim to boot) and the party is still seen as racist by most ethnic voters. Having a ‘humorous’ song done calypso-style which jokes about immigration is woefully inappropriate for a serious political party. If they are serious, they can not align themselves with neo-nazi apologists in the European Parliament.
If UKIP can keep piling up the by-election coups – and there’s no sign in any let up with the Tory defection rate – they can keep up their progress right up until the general election. Farage is nothing if not a fighter and he will relish being the centre of attention over the next few months. If the new intakes like Douglas Carswell can defer to their General, he will continue to be the prime mover in his party.
UKIP were a joke of a political party in the 1990s. They are in the Poujadist tradition; Farage’s statements on integration and race are in some ways less insidious than the Tory dog-whistle ones; you know what you’re getting with him, however depressing and ‘Little England’ it might be. While the main parties will be saying ‘Vote Farage and you get Miliband/Cameron’, maybe when you vote Farage, that’s who you’ll get. For his heartland supporters, he is the heir to the Thatcher mantle, not Cameron.
The Scottish Independence Referendum lived up to all of the expected drama. As an exercise in mass political involvement, it may be unparalleled for the next 20 years. As a test of democratic robustness, it passed with flying colours. There may be criticism from the ‘Yes’ camp of BBC coverage and the media ganging up them but no blood was spilled, nobody died and while there are massive fault lines now after the result, the structures of civil society held. Yet while the Union stood firm-ish, it was never a sure thing; likely, but never definite.
The ‘Yes’ side can be justifiably proud of their result; they went well beyond the SNP core vote and their 45% outcome leaves them to believe they are within the ‘one more push’ territory to achieve an Independent Scotland. While many on the ‘No’ side were highly critical of some of their opponents ‘show us your patriotism’ school of nationalism, the overall picture is of a movement that mobilised the non-political and disaffected as well as the usual activist suspects. The involvement of the Scottish Greens meant that ‘Yes’ wasn’t dominated by one political party. It was a disappointing but massive result for the Independence side.
What of the prospective Father of the Nation himself, Alex Salmond? His leadership over the past two years demonstrated both his strengths and weaknesses. His strength was in being able to take the sheer strain of an ultra-marathon US-style campaign and inspire his side to within striking distance of his goal. His weakness was perhaps the weakness of all referendum leaders; he polarised the debate, painting his opponents and himself into a corner. All those on the ‘No’ side were portrayed as propagandists for Westminster rule. Salmond refused to entertain any (justifiable) doubts about a ‘Yes’ vote; if he’d said that Scotland might face short-term recession it would have been more intellectually honest. Instead, there was a refrain saying that any new settlement would be a land of milk and honey. Scotia Nova may well have prospered economically but no-one could know for sure. If Salmond had conceded that there were risks with independence, he may have pushed the ‘Yes’ vote even closer to victory. In the end, enough people just didn’t believe or trust his version of near future events. As such, it will be fascinating to watch the tactics and approach of the next SNP leader; will Nicola Sturgeon (the favourite for succession) reach out to voters and minds that Salmond was simply unable to reach? His legacy depends on what happens over the next two years; will Westminster honour or backslide on ‘The Vow’ and will it leave an opening for another go for independence in the next ten years?
Then there was the epic role of Gordon Brown. Derided and loathed by most of the Tory Press and widely seen as a failed Prime Minister, he came out fighting and delivered a week of storming performances that probably provided a knock out for the ‘No’ side. He is still hugely respected in Scotland and, the key word, trusted. His promise that the would be ‘Devo-Max’ (more or less) if the Scots supported him, swung votes and he has now staked his reputation on sticking to his word. He has said he will not take a future senior role in Scottish politics; many will try to persuade him to change his mind. He offers the strongest bulwark against a resurgent and reinvigorated SNP.
Boris Johnson has not exactly stunned the Westminster village by announcing his intention to run for parliament in 2015. Cameron has issued an enthusiastic, if ‘what else could he say?’ welcome for this. With less than a year to go before the next British General Election. Johnson has chosen his moment to strike. What is Boris playing at? What’s he up to then?
Apart from George Osborne and Teresa May, up steps Boris Johnson as Blonde Ambition himself, back to fulfil his destiny as leader until the next election and then, cripes, Prime Minister himself! As Private Eye might say; ‘there’s a turn up for the books, eh readers?!’
The man has style. He has successfully mixed right wing, Thatcherite free market mercantilism along with social liberalism and some nudges to the Left. He is, as politicians go, incredibly well known and popular. London should really be a Labour city; he has bucked the trend and won two mayoral elections in a row.
But nobody knows who’s going to win in 2015, let alone 2019 or 2020. Boris is in the frame now though and on past form, it would be foolhardy to bet against the irresistible rise of Boris Johnson.
Israel has a right to exist. It has a right to defend itself. It does not have a right to commit war crimes. What has happened in the recent ‘mowing the lawn’ operation contravenes all international law and humanitarian instincts. What is so devastating for American critics of Netanyahu and Likud in particular is that any criticism of Israel is wilfully misinterpreted as criticism of the Jewish People and therefore Anti-Semitism. These are insidious McCarthy-ite tactics and have been adopted by the Israeli Right since 1967; any attack on Israel’s policy is an attack on the Jews. This is patently absurd. If one is to criticise British or American Government, does that make one anti-British or anti-American? Or, if you’re critical of the Saudi Arabian regime, does that mean you’re anti-Muslim or anti-Arab? Or does is mean that by being critical of one side, you are uncritically supportive of the other? No, no, and no. The true Internationalist tries to uphold a system of universal human rights. But there’s also a recognition that we have a duty to interrogate any narratives that invert and subvert the truth. The ongoing occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands is a running sore in the Middle East. A two-state solution will ultimately have to be found, one that gives both sides security. This may not be possible for decades; but it helps nobody to argue that Israel is entitled to do whatever the state chooses to do, From this we get the old saw; might is right. This solves nothing.
Putin – what can you do about him? The man’s a barbarian and by unleashing the forces of Hell in the Crimea, has shown himself to be a pathetic excuse for a World Leader. For those who argue that he has provided a counterweight to American power, let’s look at the record then, shall we? He has turned Russia into a land where trying to uphold freedom of the press can lead to you being shot in the back of the head at the bottom of a stairwell. He has overseen a culture where homosexuals fear for their safety and have to run a daily risk of being beaten up or worse. He has presided over a security service that thinks nothing of poisoning a whistle-blower in a foreign capital. He has ridden roughshod over any notions of Russia becoming a democratic state by any Liberal, Western definition of the word democracy. He has hounded some Oligarchs who have opposed him and his crony state while favouring others. His country is pitied and feared rather than admired and he has chosen might over right as a governing principle. ‘Europe’ will look weak yet again for what united response can they take? All the major players have interests with the Russians. Joe Biden got it right – Vladimir Putin has no soul. The Russian people are right up there with the Palestinians as being the longest suffering on this Earth; pity the nation indeed.
So what further sanctions can the EU impose? The talk is of targeting more oligarchs with travel bans and as stated before, this isn’t as ineffectual as it sounds. Rich people like to enjoy their lifestyles in all their opulence; bans on trips to Paris, London and Rome can have a real effect. There’s nothing plutocrats hate more than being denied the pleasures of their probably ill-gotten gains and such flight bans hit these guys emotionally as well as in their wallet. Diplomatic sanctions, or the extension of already applied ones, is the other probable option on the table. Your country wants to take part in a scientific conference? Too bad, change your policy in the Crimea. You want to sign a new trade deal with Germany? Tough luck, change your policies. There are choices that the EU can make – now is their chance to stand up and be counted by issuing a unified response. Let’s see what they can do.
Clinton fears Warren Rapport
There is a growing campaign to get Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016. There are several good reasons to support the call that the first-time senator should stand. She is an extremely smart and able candidate. There would be no other pick with better knowledge of and ideas of how to tackle excesses of the financial system in the US. In the Occupy phrase, Warren not only speaks for the 99% but can identify with them as well; she speaks good ‘genuine’. This in itself may be a huge factor in getting her into the Race; she is not Hilary Clinton. The former Secretary of State is still the odds-on favourite for Democrats nomination but the most recent gaffe about Bill and herself being ‘flat-broke’ after leaving the White House did her no favours with many in the Democratic Party. Warren may not have the foreign affairs experience or the sheer size of political and financial network that HRC has but she has captivated progressives with her calling out of Wall Street and demands that Big Business and Big Finance get their houses in order. As has been argued elsewhere, even if Warren runs and fails, she can drag the Democrats sufficiently over to the Left to make a real change to their electoral platform. With the Republicans showing every sign of not having learned anything from their two successive Presidential defeats, either woman is likely to face a Republican candidate captive of that Party’s unelectable right wing beliefs.
Then there’s the possibility of Joe Biden throwing his hat in the ring. Biden’s not the buffoon of popular lore anymore. Would most Americans have confidence in their Vice-President to assume the awesome responsibilities of the top job if something terrible should happen to his Boss? Yes, they would and imagine a President Palin or Ryan and you’ll see that many would welcome Joe at the top. He has, despite attempts to paint him otherwise, a popular, non-Beltway persona. He may at this stage in his career be the ultimate political insider. That doesn’t mean he would be unable to reach out to the fabled US ‘middle-class’ and speak their language. His perspective has been unique; a heart-beat away from the Presidency since 2009, Biden has been close enough to know what the top role entails. He is wily, has a good sense of strategy and will be looking at the numbers to see how a Biden 2016 campaign could do. There’s an interesting two years ahead for Presidential politics watchers.
Miliband’s Own Goal
Oh Ed, Ed, Ed. Why did you do it? Hold up a copy of the Sun Newspaper and stick it on Twitter for the World at Large to share in the cringe. This was a massive media fail on a few levels. Firstly, Miliband should have known better – he should have known that this desperate gesture to restore some credit with the Murdoch Empire would insult all of Liverpool and anyone who was affected by the Hillsborough disaster. It failed on the level of dissing Ed’s biggest achievement as Leader so far; his going after Murdoch specifically and standing up to Press Bully-Boy tactics specifically. People who were rooting for him just couldn’t believe he’d be so dumb. But Ed Miliband’s action (a mistake and we all make mistakes) probably came about after talking to his Advisors. Tom Watson MP has called for the firing of these advisors and he has a point; while ultimately the call was Ed’s, this was the last link in the chain of some very poor strategic and public relations advice. Miliband is still on course to be Prime Minister and he may turn out to be a very good one, but unforced errors like this one need to be guarded against lest Labour throw it away at the 2105 General Election. Ed Miliband may be part of the much mentioned Political Metropolitan Elite, but his instincts, beliefs and principles are in chime with Labour values. Millions of people are relying on them not to self-destruct. Great intellect alone will not win elections, as Gordon Brown found out in 2010; you need to get the basics in order before you look for votes.
ISIS – Terrorism Crosses Rubicon
ISIS – doesn’t sound like a particularly threatening name, does it? But this is a truly barbaric group that makes the Taliban look like moderates. Public executions, crucifixions, a return to what they call the ‘caliphate’. Their advance in Iraq is like a nightmare unfolding. Pity the Iraqis who are powerless to stop their advance. The response of the Left must not be predictable on this one; which would they rather – limited military support from the US with drones and missiles to back the Iraqi government or to sit back and let the terror-makers advance of Baghdad? Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ and the ‘Stop the War’ Left may be united on the issue of non-intervention in this instance; however, this is precisely the set of circumstances where limited intervention is justified. Obama is nothing if not astute; he will be weighing up his options such as co-operation with Iran, a vista thatwould have been unthinkable under his predecessor. There are no easy solutions in war but this one looks less complicated than most. Isis needs to be smashed; they are an evil organisation. There may well be a swifter reaction than usual from the West on this one; the clock is ticking and the Iraqi government, for all their many faults, has the sort of legitimacy that an entail of evolution like ISIS can never have. President Obama needs to act before he becomes a lame-duck; his instincts are such that many trust he will do the right thing. The long-suffering people of Iraq will be hoping he does the right thing too.
Europe’s Wrong Pick
Jean-Claude Juncker is not a name that comes tripping of the tongue. But it is a name that personifies all that the British Press dislikes about the European project and much of what the Progressive Left should be campaigning against too. Not only is he the consummate Christian Democrat ‘Eurocrat’ Insider, but his track record as being a Prime Minister of the worst offender of a Tax Haven in the EU, i.e. Luxembourg, makes him a most unsuitable candidate to be President of the European Commission. Although the Christian Democrats and other European Parliament groupings nominally ran as ‘slates’, i.e. it was announced in advance that the largest grouping would nominate the President and there were head-to-head debates on the issue, a miniscule percentage of voters would have taken this into account when they were casting their votes. ‘Europe’ has been good for many of the member nation-states but the perception of an unaccountable and imposed elite is a real one. Juncker’s nomination may be copper-fastened due to Britain’s opposition to his appointment; Cameron is now seen as a drag on the work of the Union. The Tories are seen as Little Englanders, and captives of the British Electorate and Press who, in the event that they remain in power after the next election, may preside over Britain leaving the EU. The skirmish over Jean-Claude Juncker would look quaint in comparison to a withdrawal from the EU. Cameron may not even be allowed to save face on this one; the Christian Democrats have had enough of his carry on. Luxembourg could give Britain a bloody nose.
The Rise of the Right
The rise of the Extreme Right is the most shocking aspect to the recent European Parliamentary election results. The National Front topping the poll in France is a stark warning that neo-fascism is like a virus; the support for Golden Dawn in Greece is a reminder that raw fascism is alive and well in some parts of Europe. While a whopping majority of the new European Parliament is made up of the political Centre (Left and Right), there is a spectre in the parliament; fascism in tooth and claw, is an ideology and movement that most of us thought should have died with Hitler in the bunker. Instead, fear has been exploited by siren voices; can we look to history for a response?
Politicians from the Hard Left to the Conservative Right have a good record in opposing fascism head-on. The BNP vote collapsed in England when Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats united in their contempt and opposition to these opponents of the democratic system. When people stand up to be counted, they can defeat dark forces; a renewed purpose and commitment by democrats in the European Parliament can lead to a further exposure of light to the dark. This is something we should all be able to agree on. There is no excuse in a democracy for voting for a fascist or neo-fascist parties but there are reasons. It is up to all democrats to re-double their efforts to tackle the causes of, in the old-Marxist terminology, ‘alienation’. Have no truck with their spokespeople or politicians but do seek to root out the root causes of the ugliest part of the body politic.
Nick Clegg, if he were religiously inclined, would be thinking that he can not please his maker. He has taken his party back into government for the first time in decades. He was the media darling of the 2010 General Election. How cruel a sport is politics though. Now, he has both Left and Right against him; he had pretty much lost the Left of the Liberal Democrats once he and the Orange Bookers signed up for austerity. The Red Tops, Telegraph and Spectator are no fans either – he, just like his party, has suffered a third party squeeze. The 2015 Election is likely to be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats – he could go down as the man who oversaw the building up and destruction of the Liberals in the space of five years.
Is there a way back? It may well be all too late for Clegg now – it is really difficult, if not impossible, to change a voter’s mind; once their mind is made up, that’s it. Nick Clegg gambled and lost by taking on Nigel Farage in the LBC debates. His best hope now is that there will be pockets of resistance for his party throughout the land come 2015. It is a slim hope.
Is there validity in an election that in some countries attracts less than 30% of the electorate to actually go out and vote? What does Europe need – more or less integration? Are we EU passport holders ‘good’ Europeans or do most people within the Union consider themselves French, Spanish, Italian first? What does it even mean to be ‘European’? The following are a few general observations.
Sometimes it is easier to define things by what they are not. The EU, unlike America or Canada, allows for 20 days minimum statutory annual leave. Our North Atlantic neighbours can only dream of such ‘leisure’. Our concept of the work-life balance is largely different to that of the US and Canada.
Human Rights; no member of the European Union is allowed to have the Death Penalty. This is a huge difference in how the EU views human rights and how much of the rest of the World sees the concept.
Social Security is another example of where it is probably better to be a ‘European’ than from elsewhere. There is still, even during the ravages of austerity, a social contract and commitment that most States will try to provide a decent safety net for their citizens.
Of course there are problems and issues for the EU as a whole, principally how to create and preserve jobs and living standards. But like the Romans in Monty Python, we might ask ‘what has Europe ever done for us?’ and been pleasantly surprised.
There are huge issues around EU membership and national autonomy in the age of austerity; it is up to the electorate to decide how to address these questions.