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Tuesday, January 03, 2012 

Oh, for a pessimistic new year.

One of the first, perhaps greatest lessons of modern politics is that unless you're an optimist, you're unlikely to get anywhere. It doesn't seem to matter too much which political party you belong to, or who the individual is, just that the message is positive and forward-looking. It can still be sober in detail when it comes to be analysed, and realistic in the problems which the leader is also going to face, just that it has to be delivered in an upbeat style and be believable. It's been proven to work, whether the leader in question is a former B-movie star backed by a cabal of right-wingers, the most capable and also most mendacious politician of recent times, or as we saw last year, a man without much else than an avuncular personality to recommend him by.

Alex Salmond is also proof that even if the politician is realistic in the problems which he has to face, the solutions to them don't have to be up the same standard. Arcs of prosperity aside, his and the SNP's vision of an independent Scotland, powered by offshore wind and funded by what remains of North sea oil isn't exactly fully grounded, yet his mix of immense chutzpah and old-fashioned grievance, combined with unelectable opponents saw him stroll to victory. Alternatively, you can promise much which is achievable, as Barack Obama did, alongside his own brand of ultra-optimism and can-do attitude, and then comprehensively fail to deliver. True, he's been hampered both by the crash and the resolve of the Republicans in Congress to block some of his legislation, yet that's no excuse for failing to close Guantanamo, or his incredible decision to sign into law a bill that allows the president to authorise the detention of anyone suspected of association with terrorists indefinitely.

Compared to all of the above, David Cameron is an amateur in the optimist stakes. He may have started off hugging huskies, urging love for hoodies and calling for "sunshine to win the day", but it's never really felt believable. Much of it was also an attempt at "detoxifying the Tory brand", something else that hasn't been wholly successful. With the big society continuing to fall flat, especially as no one is able to define what it truly means beyond the further involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in education, health and welfare, and with almost everyone predicting that this year will be worse even than the last, Cameron has been left to draw on the most woeful of material in his new year message.

Yep, it seems as though all we have to look forward to this year is circuses, as for some bread will be hard to come by. And truly, what circuses they will be: not only is there that most extravagant, not to mention expensive of fortnights, the wonderful Olympics that will truly put out septic isle on the map, we've also got the Queen's diamond jubilee to look forward to! As Cameron put it, the sheer glory of it, this finest example of British traditions, putting someone by virtue of birth into a life of luxury, interrupted only by occasionally having to visit johnny foreigner and by pretending to be interested in that abstract concept known as the Commonwealth; who couldn't possibly want to celebrate this remarkable landmark?

Well, probably some of those "stuck on benefits, without hope or responsibility" as Cameron so beautiful puts it. After all, if there have ever been benefit claimants that have shown responsibility, it's the royal family. Why wouldn't some be envious of their vastly superior haul through the civil list? If only they could show the dedication, duty and steadiness our monarch has lived her life by. Having barely emerged from the supposed season of goodwill to all men, it's nice to see our politicians shift so swiftly then back to what is becoming one of their chief obsessions, trying to outdo each other in whom can be the beastliest to those down on their luck, or as it increasingly seems to be, those who are derided nearly as a whole as "Shameless".

For if you're optimistic about what we can still achieve, then some poor suckers have to be found to take a kicking. The BBC is showing its series titled "Saints and Scroungers" again, the kind of beyond parody title that once would have only been used in a satire, and doing so in the morning when those without jobs are most likely to be the ones watching. Also entering the fray is Labour's Liam Byrne, in one of those wonderful articles opposition politicians so often write that say, when you bother to delve a little deeper, almost nothing. Attempting to reclaim the mantle of Beveridge, he appears to be suggesting he wants to introduce a degree of conditionality, but this is already the case for those who are on jobseeker's allowance for over a year anyway, who have to take part in the Work programme. Does he want this to come in earlier, or for those on JSA to have to volunteer to do work in the community at the same time as trying to find a job? He doesn't say. What rewards and extra incentives should those who are "desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home" receive? How should the system be reformed to ensure the system isn't skewing "social behaviour"? Again, answers came there none.

Sunny is right of course that this is the same old fight over welfare that the left keeps on having. The point is though that the Labour party, or at least its leaders seem to have fallen into the view that being associated with benefits claimants is a terrible thing. They should indeed be worried about being seen as being too soft on cheats, but not on those who desperately need the state to pick up the pieces when they fall on hard times, or who are too ill or disabled to be able to work. Caring for the most vulnerable is also hardly incompatible with also sympathising with the plight of the "squeezed middle". Moreover, every single time someone calls for some form of conditionality for those out of work, it has to be drummed into them that there are simply not enough vacancies available at the minute for those who are on JSA, let alone on the other sickness benefits. Byrne does mention long-term unemployment, and calls for "determined action from government to get communities working once again", but you'd never know that turning the situation completely around is an absolute impossibility. If this is setting the tone for the rest of the year to come, it'd be nice if just for once a politician could be pessimistic but realistic rather than just continuing to layer on the sugar-coated bullshit.

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