Wednesday, June 30, 2010 

Unconnected events, Ken Clarke and the breaking of an orthodoxy.

Very occasionally, a series of otherwise unconnected events lead to something which would otherwise almost certainly not have happened. For all the explanations so far put forward for the very sudden rejection by the Tories of the past 17 years' orthodoxy on prison policy, none on their own are really satisfying. Even with the cuts which are going to have to be made across all departments outside of those "ring-fenced", it's hard to imagine if Chris Grayling had become home secretary, as most presumed he would, that we'd now hear him (or his colleague as justice secretary) expressing his doubts about whether the constant increase in the prison population had actually reduced crime or saved money in the long run.

There was after all nothing in the Tory manifesto about doing away with short-term sentences, and indeed, David Cameron during the leader debates argued against Nick Clegg when he called for them to be abolished in favour of punishment within the community, citing his mother's work as a magistrate for how they worked. If anything, the plans in their manifesto would have almost certainly meant the need for even more prison places, dedicated as they were to ending the early release scheme without explaining how they were going to provide the extra places necessary to do so. In any event, Labour ended it just before the election, claiming there was now available capacity to do so; the "operational capacity" as of now is 88,000, with 3,000 supposed places currently available (DOC), although that almost certainly involves overcrowding to the point of inciting protests and riots if maintained for long.

Undoubtedly then there has been that otherwise difficult to detect Liberal Democrat influence, although the major credit has to be given to Ken Clarke himself. If the Tories had won a overall majority, it's difficult to see him as doing any job other than than the one he was in the shadow cabinet, as business secretary. Instead Vince Cable has taken that, and with Chris Grayling apparently punished for his comments on gays and bed and breakfasts, the more liberal pairing of Theresa May and Clarke as home secretary and justice secretary have taken control. We're told that Downing Street is "concerned" by Clarke's eagerness to break with the past, yet Clarke has apparently won Cameron's tentative backing.

Again, this is no mean feat. As the Heresiarch argues, the cutting of your department's budget by anything between a quarter and a third concentrates the mind wonderfully, but with the head-banging right-wing of the Tory party already making its voice heard, and the tabloid press that Clarke even takes a swipe at in his speech such a major influence over law and order policy, it would have been all to easy to make another exception for the prison estate in order to "protect the public". Instead we've had the first, somewhat cautious, but nonetheless important break with the "prison works!" orthodoxy from a government of either of the two main parties for 17 years.

By any measure, Labour should be ashamed of its record in so vastly expanding the size of the prison estate. Clarke himself claims to be "amazed" and "astonished" at how the number currently in prison has doubled since he was home secretary back in the early 90s, before the murder of James Bulger had such a mesmerising influence on his successor Michael Howard, the opposition, the fourth estate and apparently also public opinion. Where both Clarke and before him Douglas Hurd had attempted to look at the alternatives to prison, suddenly the prime minister himself declared that we ought to "condemn a little more and understand a little less". David Cameron was after all mocked and ridiculed when he suggested something approaching the opposite of that just a few short years ago, calling for teenagers in trouble with the law to be "shown a lot more love", crudely translated by both the tabloids and Labour as "hug-a-hoody".

It's no surprise then that both Howard and his spiritual successor, Jack Straw, have been out defending their record in the face of Clarke's heresy. Clarke cuts straight to the point in his speech, attacking the "numbers game" which political debate on law and order had become:

The measure of success has been solely about whether a Government has spent more public money and locked up more people for longer than its predecessor in the previous years.

In fact, it had become even more debased than this. During the election campaign Labour attacked the Tories for being "soft on crime" over their almost indistinguishable policies on DNA retention, claiming they would be the "burglar's friend". Jack Straw had even suggested, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the "criminal justice lobby" had an undue influence over policy.

Clarke's heresy doesn't end there however: he goes on to argue that in our "worst prisons" our policies on crime and punishment produce "tougher criminals", coming out drug dependent or making new "hardened criminal friends". Moreover, re-offending rates have been rising in recent years, and nearly half of offenders sent to prison are re-convicted within a year. As Clarke said:

"It is virtually impossible to do anything productive with prisoners on short sentences. And many of them end up losing their jobs, their homes and their families during their short term inside"

The problem with all this fine talk, welcome as it is, is that the solutions, away from "rigorously enforced community sentences", are so familiar. As with everything else that the coalition seems to be doing, much of the leg work will be left with the "voluntary and private sectors", who'll be paid by their results in reducing re-offending. As Dave Semple points out, if the private sector doesn't see a profit, and recidivism is a notoriously difficult thing to correct, it isn't interested. Moreover, as with the welfare system, are there really going to be savings at the end of the process even if everything goes well, considering the extra costs of helping former prisoners once they're on the outside and the paying of the third sector for their success? It certainly isn't clear that there will be. And besides, what of the prisons that presumably will be left empty if the numbers are actually cut? Will it be the old buildings in the estate sold or the new, often PFI-built prisons by private companies closed, with all the costs that will entail?

There's the same problems inherent with Clarke's suggestions on reforming sentencing. He's right that sentencing at the moment is not properly understood, with most only serving half of the sentence they are actually given with the rest spent out on probation, yet his proposed solution is equally full of holes. He brings up the possibility of judges giving a minimum term which must be served before there is any possibility of release, and a maximum which will be served unless the prisoner "earns" their release prior to that. This is almost to a point the current system which it comes to indeterminate sentencing, which is becoming such a strain on the prison system. The judge passes a minimum term which has to be served, but after that it's up to the prisoner to prove that they are no longer a risk to the public. This has resulted in the press screaming blue murder at the mere thought that the likes of notorious criminals such as the mother of Baby Peter could be released in "just 3 years", even when there's next to no chance that they will be. The media, or at least the tabloid half would all but ignore the "maximum" term and instead focus on the minimum as it does now, and the apparent laxity of the judge in such serious cases.

Clarke does however deserve praise for this paragraph, which it's impossible to fault:

I think it’s fair to say I’ve got rather more confidence in judicial discretion than my predecessors. The difference between a judge and a member of the public or a politician is that judges listen to hours and hours of evidence before they make a decision. They know far more about the detail of a case and the evil of the particular offender than we ever could just by reading the red tops.

And for this as well:

I want to hear the views of the judiciary and the citizen JPs who dispense justice in our magistrates’ courts.

When you have handed out community penalties, have you found them to be effective? If so, which ones? If not, why not? What was wrong with them?

Are all the orders you would like to impose available in your area? Which ones would you like to see more of? And which have you found to be most effective?

Actually asking the judiciary themselves for what works?! How novel and controversial!

It remains to be seen whether Clarke will continue to win the battle against the tabloids, the backbenchers and the knuckleheads in Labour, yet even making this first step is more than the latter ever dared to try. Much as there is already to condemn the coalition for, the truly perverse thing is that it's the Labour party that remains wedded to the failures of the past while the supposed authoritarians and throwbacks in the Conservatives are prepared to challenge what seemed like the unshakeable status quo we were stuck with. The ultimate test will be whether the prison population drops below that figure of 80,000, and then even further; only then might Clarke deserve plaudits to go with the praise.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010 

The Con-Dems, collusion and civil liberties.

The first few weeks of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have been wearingly familiar. We were told that this was going to be a thoroughly new and modern government, with the competing philosophies not resulting in conflict but in a, err, liberal conservatism. David Cameron, less than a month before election day, gave an interview in which he pledged to govern for all, and stressed his "one nation" credentials. The party's manifesto, already notoriously, emphasised how they would create a "big society" out of the broken one. If anyone has since heard any mention of that social policy, it's been drowned out by a budget which wore its debt to Thatcherism on its sleeve. All the chancellor and the work and pensions secretary want to discuss is how to get the scroungers off incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance, so that other far more deserving parts of public spending can instead be somewhat protected from Osborne's hatchet.

If the resort to the comforting bosom of Keynes was always going to be short lived and the return to suckling on the shrivelled teat of monetarism inevitable, then it has to be admitted that on the social policy front, away from the evaporating "big society", there's been a couple of things to cheer, as well as some warnings of how little difference there may well in reality be between the New Tories and their liberal partners and the now even more inaccurately monikered New Labour. Despite signs that the Tories would start to repudiate the legacy of the last government immediately, at least for the next six months 28 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects will remain. There's been no discussion as yet of what will happen to control orders, which the Liberal Democrats pledged to repeal, and while ID cards and the ContactPoint database have both been flushed away, they were always going to be two of the easiest steps to take. It remains to be seen what the "great repeal act" we were promised will in fact aim to remove from the statute books, but away from that the only real sense of a change we've been given is the possibility of a more liberal penal policy, with Ken Clarke to give an insight into that tomorrow, having previously outraged the Daily Mail by suggesting that perhaps the last 18 years of "prison works!" might not have in fact been the best use of public money, nor been effective in preventing crime.

Where both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had talked a good game was over our alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition and the torture of our own citizens and residents. The only way to get to the bottom of just how far our intelligence services had cooperated with others who had no qualms in mistreating detainees was a judicial inquiry, both parties argued. Around a month ago it emerged that there would indeed be such an inquiry, although it was still uncertain which form it would take. Today we've learned some more details, yet now that the security services are free to be completely "open" with the new government it's natural their "deep concerns" at a light being shone on their past activities are being considered far more carefully. It's also complicated by the numerous compensation cases which were brought and are still going through the courts when it became clear that Labour would never countenance any sort of independent inquiry, as well as by the incredibly long time it's taking to decide whether "Witness B", the scapegoat in the Binyam Mohamed case, should face any sort of charges.

It's equally clear that there are going to be major difficulties in the openness of any sort of inquiry. You only have to look at the ridiculous censorship which the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee's yearly reports into the security services undergo, where whole sections are redacted and where it's possible to be less informed having read one than when you began to see what any inquiry will have to fight against. Then there's the supposed 250,000 documents which may have some relevance to the cases currently being brought, one of the arguments being used by the last government as to why such an investigation should be resisted. This is without considering whether the inquiry, if it is to be judicial, could be held in public as much as possible, or entirely behind closed doors, and whether those called as witnesses would have to give evidence under oath. Considering that it's already almost certain that a former head of MI5 lied to the ISC during past hearings, and that other agents are hardly likely to be completely open without assurances as to the consequences of doing so, getting these things just right may well be crucial to the inquiry not becoming just another establishment stitch-up.

For those of us opposed to much else of the new government's programme, it has to be admitted that while there was some form of Labour government an inquiry into rendition and collusion in torture was never going to happen. After all, those still at the top of the party were the ones who had ultimate responsibility for exactly the policies which the security services involved themselves in, even if there's a suggestion that MI5 and SIS were not being entirely honest at times with their ministerial masters. Jack Straw talked of "conspiracy theories" back in 2005 at the mere hint that there might have been skulduggery, while last year after the seven paragraphs were revealed Alan Johnson, who since the election seems to have vanished from the face of the earth, said that "ludicrous lies" were being told about those who were protecting us from harm. It was suggested in the ruling that released those seven paragraphs that the leading candidate for the Labour leadership, David Miliband, had been lied to when he issued the public immunity certificates involved in the case. We have no indication that in opposition the party is now supporting an inquiry, and considering that Harriet Harman in the Commons today seemed to be more determined to continue with the insanity in Afghanistan than the new government, the party's bizarre foreign policy seems unchanged.

It's clear that in order to start afresh there needs to be the widest possible inquiry established. It should be judicial, as much as possible should be held in public, and while some evidence will almost certainly will have to be heard in relative secret, the ultimate report should be free from redaction. We need to know for certain how high the authorisation went for active collusion in the misdeeds of other intelligence services, and those responsible should be named, with prosecution a potential possibility. Most of all, it should be those making the decisions rather than the agents on the ground that bear the ultimate responsibility for resorting back to the techniques of the early 70s. It will also enable us to judge the coalition on its deeds rather just its good words prior to the election, and just how far their adherence to civil liberties really goes.

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Monday, June 28, 2010 

Why England continue to lose and what needs to change.

One of the best kept secrets of England's win in the World Cup of 1966 is just how the press of the time responded: in as low key a fashion as can be imagined, especially in comparison to how it would be reported today. 32.6 million may have watched it, but the following day some of the newspapers didn't even fill their front pages with the story.

Indicative as that perhaps was of the media's priorities back then, and how, as Roy Greenslade makes clear, there were only two true tabloids at the time, the hysteria which we are now so familiar with every two years only really started in earnest in 1990. Everyone claims to remember Maradona's "Hand of God" in 1986, yet the true turnaround in the fortunes of the English game didn't really begin to start until, as most now recognise, the Hillsborough disaster. The deaths of the 96 and also the media's disgraceful dismissal of the victims caused a fundamental reassessment of the authorities' attitude to the game. Where football fans had previously been regarded as almost another section of "the enemy within", to be stigmatised with personal ID cards and treated like animals, caged in at the grounds, they now finally had to be reappraised. The following summer England went all the way to the semi-finals in Italy, Gazza cried, and the modern relationship with the national team was established.

Not, we should be clear, that everything essentially restarted in that year. The always curious blaming of almost every poor performance or bad result on the manager rather than the players had begun long before. The tabloid press, as it is demanding of Capello today, called repeatedly for Bobby Robson to be either sacked or to do the decent thing and resign, only for him to eventually lead the team to its best showing post-1966, and to be all but beatified when he finally succumbed to cancer last year. Only occasionally has the press ever truly warmed to a manager, such as it did to both Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan; for a time Sven-Goran Eriksson could do no wrong, only to be vilified after the loss to Portugal in 2006. In-between, other managers have been disparaged almost universally: Graham Taylor became a turnip after England lost to Sweden, although his image was not helped by the now infamous documentary where a camera crew followed the team and captured him uttering his equally timeless "do I not like that", while Steve McClaren was immortalised as the "wally with the brolly" after England's capitulation to Croatia in 2008.

Clearly though, the out of all proportion expectation, the demand for endless passion and verve and the subsequent recriminations when the team predictably fails to live up to those ridiculously high standards began in earnest in 1990. The strangest thing about the media's denunciations once the nation exits the global stage is that it seems to manage to include those whom quite reasonably previously didn't believe for a second that the team could win. Even more peculiar is that those same people who didn't hold out any real hope for a victory still feel let down when the inevitable happens, such it seems is the temporary insanity and groupthink which overtakes the country for an incredibly short period.

To even begin to understand why England continue to do so apparently poorly, you have to attempt to examine it from the outside looking in. Using this perspective, England have not failed dismally, but have rather achieved the best they possibly can with a team that has never looked like having the strength in depth to actually win either a European or world tournament. The reasons for why this is do not make for comfortable reading, but do provide something approaching an answer.

First is that to an extent, England's results reflect our current standing in the world. For far too long we've continued to believe that we are this great nation, one of the world's superpowers, strutting the world stage, when we have in fact become as the last few years have demonstrated, little more than in effect a 51st state of America or one of the larger statelets within the European Union. We puff ourselves up on past memories of grandeur, to the dismay and revulsion of those we call allies but whom we still feel vastly superior to, yet when it comes down to it it's all bluff and for appearance. Never is this better illustrated than by the jingoism when we play Germany and almost invariably lose. The popular press simply can't help bringing up allusions to the second world war, even when some of those now reading them were born a full half century after it ended. It doesn't matter that the Germans have done everything and much more besides to make reparation for Nazism, we still feel that we need to remind them of the outrages of their grandfathers. It also doesn't matter that these allusions are usually ahistorical. Just look at Richard Littlejohn's piece, advertised on the front of today's Mail, suggesting that if "the few" had defended as badly as the England team we'd all be speaking German. Admittedly, "the few" refers to the Battle of Britain, where the RAF did triumph against the Luftwaffe, but we often seem to forget that other comment by Churchill, "[B]efore Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."

One of the best jokes flying around yesterday was that this time round the Americans couldn't join in at half time and save us. It says something about our often undeserved puffed up pride that we do so often forget about the sacrifices of others, even if they joined late. The Americans at least get some recognition; the Russians often get none, despite their equally pivotal role. Littlejohn is by no means the worst offender, even if he fills his opening sentences with heavily laboured war references, only to later suggest dropping the "two world wars and one world cup" refrain for good, as Saturday's Daily Star front page demonstrated and continues today, with the equally ill-judged "Fritz all over", almost Swiftian in its subtlety.

Alongside our undeserved high opinion of ourselves is often the belief that our team should be able to acquit themselves well against the rest of the world because of the undeniable brilliance of the English Premier League and the role which so many of our players have within it. The reality is that the EPL is as much the cause of the malaise as anything else. The current team, which it bears repeating had the highest average age of any of those competing in the World Cup, was for the most part the product of the system either prior to the establishment of the EPL or the first few years before it completely changed the face of English football. Murdoch's money was meant, as well as trickling down to the lower leagues, to help the England team through reducing the EPL to 18 teams and easing the number of fixtures played. Instead the number of matches the top teams play has increased dramatically through European competition. The other change has been to turn the top 20 clubs for the most part into hugely indebted businesses which need results immediately rather than having the time to go through the painstaking and expensive nurturing of grassroots talent. While some teams still have highly praiseworthy youth squads, others have all but abandoned them, relying instead of foreign players brought in by scouts to have an instant effect on performance. The result has been an almost complete lack of quality young English players emerging, and those that have, such as Theo Walcott, were mostly ignored by Capello in favour of experience. The implication has to be that the likes of Lampard, Terry, Cole, Rooney and others are only as great as they are because of the foreign players that compliment them when they play for their club sides. Take them out of their comfort zone and they instead become ordinary.

One of the few lessons that England could have taken from the EPL is that it's no coincidence that two of the most successful clubs, Arsenal and Manchester United, have had managers that have been allowed to build and rebuild rather than dismissed when results have not been going the right way. The exception is Chelsea, and their success has been ensured by the bottomless pockets of Roman Abramovich, something which England can't turn to as an option. As mentioned above, Sven's reign no longer looks like a tale of undisciplined unfulfilled potential when compared to Capello's abject, stern authoritarian regime which only reached the last 16 as opposed to the quarter-finals. McClaren was apparently disliked by the players, but to go from the ridicule he suffered after failing to steer England to qualification in 2008 to winning the Dutch league with FC Twente suggests he must have had something about him which either he couldn't get out of the England players, or they had something which stopped them from performing for him.

Lastly, we have a media whose ficklenesses knows no bounds, resulting exactly in the above. They build up people from all walks of life only to then bring them down, yet never have they done so in such a ludicrous fashion as England managers. Admittedly, they never liked McClaren, but the vitriol he suffered was out of all proportion. Eriksson got the blame in 2006 alongside the Wags, which the media themselves had a major role in creating, following their antics as much as the team's own, and now Capello is facing the same treatment. Before the World Cup he was a genius who had punctured the individual egos of the players and brought them together as a team; now he's a inept tactical pygmy who was far too stifling by insisting on a 4-4-2 formation and on only letting the players have the very occasional beer. Again, the reality is more prosaic: they faced an incredibly easy qualifying group, where only Ukraine and Croatia were any real challenge, only then to come up against what looked an easy initial World Cup group, where they struggled against the USA, were terrible against Algeria and only better against Slovenia and Germany. They were completely outplayed by Germany, despite not being as bad as many are claiming, who were a better team, and lost, deservedly, as a result. It really should be as simple as that. The manager cannot really bear responsibility for a defeat where the team just weren't good enough and when he can only select from the pool he has available to him.

Likewise, you can't blame a team that simply don't have the quality to beat superior opponents. It doesn't how much passion and pride a team has if they can't compete, and the Sun only now attacking the players in a idiotic front page splash when previously they have been far more culpable, screaming "YOU LET YOUR COUNTRY DOWN" when they didn't in the slightest is pathetic. Let's also not forget the role the tabloids had earlier in the year in upsetting the England set-up when they demanded that John Terry should lose the captaincy on moral grounds rather than on his ability to lead on the pitch. It's impossible to know how much impact that had, but that the team then had to change the captaincy again when Rio Ferdinand was injured would have been completely unnecessary had it not been for one of the irregular outbreaks of journalistic humbuggery. The players have to work under pressure all year round, but surely it never feels as crushing as it does when you have the supposed entire hopes of a nation on your shoulders, and when you know the consequences of failure regardless of your ability to have any real influence. Wayne Rooney, built up to be one of the greatest players in the world, almost certainly wilted when he simply didn't get the service he needed to be able to turn on the undeniable skill he possesses.

If 1989 was a turning point, then 2010 should be also. It's time to start again, although not necessarily by dismissing Capello. He clearly needs to dump the "golden generation" with some exceptions, a term incidentally foisted on them by another manager whose failures have been massive but who has never had to face any responsibility for them. The incoming UEFA restrictions on the number of foreign players a club can have registered should be the starting point for the restarting of youth programs, with funding being put aside from the TV rights budget if necessary. A winter break for domestic football should be seriously considered, as should reducing the number of teams in the EPL to the original 18 it was meant to contain. Moreover, EPL teams need to start living within their means, focusing on homegrown talent rather than relying on cheaper in the short term foreign players. More money needs to trickle down to the lower leagues, lessening the yawning gap between the EPL and the lower divisions. All of these things could be easily imposed if the Football Association had any real leadership and believed in the national team rather than the brilliance of the domestic league. Lastly, the media need to show some responsibility themselves, becoming far more realistic in what can be achieved. It will be the latter which will be most difficult to achieve.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010 

They never learn.

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Friday, June 25, 2010 

Lewis B.

Insanely good cuts from the legend that is El-B. Probably best defined as "future garage" but considering that El-B was making it back when it was known as just garage that's rather redundant. Grab it here.

And just think, this time next week Return II Space should be entering the postal system...

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The budget's effect on "real" people.

Brilliant post by deeplyflawedbuttrying on how the budget will affect her. Also a interjection by David Marquand, by no means one of my favourites, on how it betrays the liberal tradition.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010 

Why I (might) be joining the Labour party (for at least a year).

This blog has been running for very nearly 5 years. In that time, it could probably be classified as being written by a stereotypically angry leftie who felt dispossessed from the movement he felt he ought to be comfortable within, if not proud to say he belonged to.

Well, nothing's changed, or at least has with me personally. I still feel dispossessed from the movement I should be able to belong to; I'm still a stereotypically angry leftie, still naive and still completely uncertain of my own surroundings. The change, it has to be admitted, is that the government I found myself raging against which I felt I ought to be able to at least sympathise with, is now no more.

Frankly, I should have taken a reality check a long time ago, but a change of government to the traditional opposition is something that always results in a reappraisal. I can't help but wonder, especially in the aftermath of this week's budget, whether Polly Toynbee and those like her have had a point all along; that while the economic situation for so long was, if not rosy, at least neutral, that we took it for granted and instead focused to the detriment of inequality on civil liberties and also foreign policy.

Before I start recanting almost everything I've written over those 5 long years, all I'm admitting is that she has something approaching a point. Civil liberties should never have become a middle class concern because they affect everyone equally; it's the Labour party and the authoritarian streak which it has always had which ensured that was the case.

While in government, there was never the slightest possibility that I could have justified to myself being a member of the Labour party. I was never going to be able to have the slightest impact on party policy. In that sense, nothing has changed. I'm still highly unlikely to have the slightest impact on party policy. I can however, this time, at the very least vote for the next leader of the party. I can at least attempt to make my voice heard.

I'm not completely decided yet. And it's true, I could make a different case, in fact probably a far better one, for joining the Greens and helping to build them as a real alternative. I've voted for them the same number of times as I have for Labour after all (both times in the European elections, and last month, which I don't in the slightest regret. I've voted for Labour twice locally and, to my still eternal regret, in 2005, in a futile attempt to save a doomed MP who had at least abstained on the war and voted against the worst of the anti-terrorism legislation). They'd probably be far more in tune with my actual views though, and as this blog perhaps has shown, where's the fun in being in a party where people actually agree with you? Complaining, moaning and conducting why-oh-why exercises like this one are far more fun and intellectually nourishing, if not actually helpful in the long. Oh, and I can join for the colossal sum of a whole pound, so it's not even that I'm vastly contributing to the coffers or a party which will take my money, ignore me, and carry on as before, as it undoubtedly will. You can of course, if you so wish, persuade me otherwise. And let's face it, the more votes that go to people with names other than Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and David Miliband the better.

Update: This has been crossposted over on Lib Con, with the usual fine debate following in the comments.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010 

"A budget we can be proud of".

As noted before, most budgets tend to start falling apart the next day. There is almost always something hiding in the details that isn't noticed at first. Not widely realised yesterday was that public sector pensions were also being linked to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index, along with most other benefits. Also hidden was that it isn't just those earning more than £40,000 a year who will no longer be eligible for tax credits, but from 2012 those with one child earning more than £30,000 will also no longer be getting money back from the exchequer. Families with one child earning more than £25,000, or just £1,000 over the average will also have their entitlement cut. As Next Left points out, this is contrary to a promise made by Theresa May back in February in which she lambasted Labour "lies" about the Tories' plans.

Compared to the whopping porkies told by George Osborne yesterday, May is a veritable bastion of honesty. He told us this was a progressive budget that protected the most vulnerable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has crunched the numbers (PDF) and come up with this as the most stinging of ripostes for the impact of yesterday's budget come 2014-15. The government's own distributional analysis model in the red book only went up to 2012-13, which is before most of the changes on welfare take effect. The IFS's model also doesn't take into consideration the reforms to housing benefit, which are going to be brutal, the disability living allowance assessment changes or the in-year changes to tax credits. Nonetheless, this is still the result:

The pre-announced were Labour's plans, which are the model of progression, based on the ability to contribute. Osborne hasn't just soaked the poor, as the Guardian described it, he's brutally anally raped them. The IFS, even though it minces its words in the usual fashion, concludes "[S]o likely that overall impact of yesterday's measures was regressive".

We were always going to get this from the Tories. How though can the Liberal Democrats possibly continue to defend a budget which has such a impact on the very poorest? How can Vince Cable possibly call this a "budget we can be proud of"? Not a single one of their contributions to the overall package makes up for what the end result will be. This was not the "unavoidable" budget. This was the relaunching of the most vicious of class wars, and the Liberal Democrats are doing the equivalent of delivering the kick to the head once the victim is already on the floor.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010 

The politics of resentment and the budget.

Of all the figures which emerged today, the most instructive flashed across the screen while George Osborne was still delivering his first budget. By the BBC's calculation, the Liberal Democrats had ensured that the ratio between spending cuts and tax rises, instead of being 80% to 20%, as the Tories had originally planned, had instead been altered to a 77%-23% share. There, laid bare, was the sum of Liberal Democrat influence on their coalition partner: a massive 3%.

To say that the vast majority of the Liberal Democrats sitting alongside their new brothers in arms desperately didn't want to be there, and looked more morose than a crying violin player, would be something of an understatement. Apparently just the one Liberal Democrat MP waved his order paper as Osborne sat down, and only Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg seemed to be agreeing with the Tory brethren as he spoke. Vince Cable looked especially grim, even if later he was forcing himself to defend a budget which presumably went against much of which he had previously preached. As for Osborne himself, his nose seemed even more bulbous than before, and the tip with the line which so resembles the cheeks of a bottom appeared even more pronounced. Whether this had anything to with his repeated insistence that this budget was "unavoidable", that it was "progressive" and he was protecting the "vulnerable" is impossible to know. David Cameron however will have been pleased that Osborne on television at least completely blocked any glimpse of himself, giving the impression he wasn't there. These "Macavity"-like tendencies might yet turn out to be highly useful.

The best that can be said for this most vicious of attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable is that the very worst has been postponed until next year, or at least this autumn, when the general spending review will indicate where the full cuts are going to come, and with only the promise that health and international aid will be protected, these cuts are going to be beyond savage: slashes of 25% in expenditure will almost certainly mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Even so, for those currently on benefits, this signals the beginning of the politics of resentment for those currently on the princely sum of £65 a week. Osborne at the weekend, appearing on the Andrew Marr programme, made clear what his intentions were:

I want to support the person who leaves their house at six or seven in the morning, goes out and does perhaps a low paid job in order to provide for their family and is incredibly frustrated when they see on the other side of the street the blinds pulled down and someone sitting there and living on a life of out of work benefits.

It doesn't of course matter that this hypothetical person on the other side of the street might be one of those currently either being turned down or not even getting a response to every single application they make, and that they might very closely be nearing the end of their entitlement to Jobseeker's Allowance, while the person doing the low paid job may be one of the lucky ones, this is exactly the sort of resentment that this government from the off wants to breed for those on benefits. This, it must be pointed out, is before the review of the welfare system is also due to be completed this autumn, and where the omens are to say the least not good. £65 a week is what someone on the minimum wage would receive for 11 hours work, or for some people, not even a day's pay. One of Osborne's biggest savings is through linking the yearly rise in benefits to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index, which as you can see from the graph on this post, is almost always lower. Quick calculations suggest that if this had been the case since 2001, benefits in cash terms would have risen by 20% rather than 31%, or to child benefit being £2 less a week than it is currently or £5 less a week for those on carers' allowance. These, as can be appreciated, are huge differences for those receiving such relatively paltry amounts.

If the pain from that move wasn't enough, then Osborne seemed determined to spread it evenly amongst all those receiving any kind of benefits. Admittedly, that those earning more than £40,000 a year had ever received tax credits in the first place was perverse, and a pure example of Labour's belief that you needed to ensure the middle classes were on side to justify anything other than the most basic of safety nets. Few earning below that figure will shed any tears for those better off than themselves being denied any money back from the exchequer. Far more alarming is the freezing of child benefit for three years, supposedly done because means testing would have made it far too complicated and taxing it would have made the non-working wives of millionaires better off than working mothers. Alongside this was the potentially even more damaging capping of housing benefit, or local housing allowance, at 30% of local rents rather than the current median. For those living in the south east, and especially London, this will at a stroke mean that many will instantly be having to look for a smaller property, regardless of the size of their family. The cut is meant to target the few cases that have featured in the tabloids, often involving large families of asylum seekers living in what have been described as "mansions" but what are in reality large houses, which are more cases of landlords cleaning up at the expense of the taxpayer rather than scroungers living in the lap of luxury. It's no exaggeration to suggest that some families will be evicted and made homeless as a result.

As for the introduction of a medical assessment for those on disability living allowance, this ought to be a perfect example of where the government could cut out duplication. Almost all of those in receipt of it will also be on either income support, incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance, all of which now require exactly the sort of medical assessments for eligibility to be introduced here. Those assessments should clearly show whether someone needs the kind of care which the DLA covers. Is it possible that George Osborne is confused over what DLA is actually for? Removing it is not going to increase the "incentive" to work, except perhaps for the carer who might no longer be able to look after the person claiming the benefit. Is this the sort of thing Osborne is really proposing in order to cut the deficit harder and faster than even they originally suggested?

All this is exacerbated by the rise in VAT to 20%, which although never imposed on food or children's clothes will inevitably have a knock on effect on exactly those things when the additional costs, especially on fuel, are factored in. The supermarkets and larger retailers might well be able to carry the burden themselves, helped along as they will be by the corresponding cuts in corporation tax, or at least those that don't already avoid it as much as they can will be, but even with the cut in the small companies tax to 20% many small businesses will have to raise prices exponentially. Add in the freezing of council tax, which will lead to cuts in local services which will also hit the poorest hardest, and you have a vision of austerity the likes of which those of us born in the 80s and after will have never experienced.

Some of this, undoubtedly, would have had to take place if either the Liberal Democrats or Labour had won the election single-handedly. Even if the Liberal Democrat influence on the Tories is just 3% when it comes to the ratio of cuts to tax rises, that's 3% which would have otherwise been cuts. The Tories with a workable majority probably wouldn't have touched capital gains tax, for example, or raised the income tax threshold by £1,000. For those two small mercies we should still be grateful, flippant as I am in the first paragraph.

The point remains however that despite Osborne's repeated use of "unavoidable", much of this budget was exactly the opposite. Even if we accept the premise that Labour, had it won the election, would have had to cut slightly faster and harder than it planned for in the March budget, say by another £20bn on top of the £73bn they had already accounted for, that would have still left another £20bn which Osborne has decided needs to be tightened to play with, or either the entirety of the extra spending cuts, or the entirety of the extra tax rises and welfare cuts announced today combined. Even if they had gone exactly with Osborne's additional cuts and spending, it could have raised the basic rate of income tax rather than VAT, a progressive tax rise rather than a regressive one. It could have introduced the so-called "robin hood" tax instead of the feeble banking levy which will raise £2bn, which is really sticking it to those who caused this crisis in the first place, as even Osborne admitted they did. Most of all though, as everyone else is making clear, this is a huge gamble. Osborne's plans are all based around the presumption that the private sector is ready to lead the recovery, when every suggestion is that the opposite is still currently the case. By their own admission, today's budget will lead to lower economic growth in the short-term and higher unemployment. It could well result in a double-dip recession. They, apparently, are prices worth paying for eliminating the structural deficit by the end of this parliament and for keeping the markets from the door. Both of those individuals Osborne identified in his illustration on Andrew Marr, both hit hard, might beg to differ.

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Monday, June 21, 2010 

Sun journalist 'has found arse with both hands'.

A Sun journalist has found his arse with both hands whilst at fortress Wapping, it was revealed yesterday.

John Kay found his arse during a visit to the on site chapel. It was while he stood before the holy stained glass window depicting Saint Murdoch victorious over the vested interests of the print unions that he suddenly discovered by moving his arms slightly back and reaching out with his hands that he could place them on his posterior.

A source said: "This is the very first time that a Sun journalist has managed to find their arse with both hands. You would have thought, considering the size of Kelvin MacKenzie, that he would have been the first senior Sun hack to find his arse, but he never once managed it. Many other people wanted to find Rebekah Wade's arse, up until the incident with her ex-husband, yet she somehow succeeded in life without pin-pointing where her own backside was."

Another source said: "Of course, we don't actually know that John Kay managed to find his arse with both hands. No one saw the swing of his arms after his epiphany, and he could quite feasibly just be saying he found it in order to impress the other journalists. However, it could also be genuine, or indeed an attempt to engender sympathy."

Last night the Sun said: "We do no (sic) comment on individual journalists."

Obsolete said, just to continue the theme: "Surely it's rather poor taste for a journalist who killed his wife in a failed murder-suicide pact (see Stick it Up Your Punter! pages 70-71 for the full story; Kay's father blamed the Sun for the nervous breakdown prior to the death of his wife, and feeling somewhat responsible they hired a lawyer to defend him, and said it would take him back as soon as he was well enough, as long as he was kept to the office. Kay pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.) to be writing on just how someone else might be attempting to seek redemption for a crime involving a member of their own family, especially when they describe that person as both evil and monstrous. Or is it just a case of the Sun's editor, Dominic Mohan, not being able to find his arse with both hands?"

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Saturday, June 19, 2010 

It was the Sun wot lost it part 94.

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Friday, June 18, 2010 


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Thursday, June 17, 2010 

The shape of cuts to come.

An 18-year-old I know, unemployed at the time, voted Conservative last month. When I asked the reasoning behind his vote, his first point was that they were going to get rid of all the illegal immigrants. His second was that they were going to do more for those like him unable to find any sort of work; I replied that Labour had already set-up a scheme which guaranteed either a job or training for those out of work for six months between the age 18 and 24, a period of time on the dole which he was fast approaching.

I don't know for certain whether it's anything to do with the Young Person's Guarantee, but I suspect his finding a place on a building site where he's worked for the last three weeks is almost certainly linked to one or more of the four employment schemes introduced by Labour which have been cancelled at a stroke today, under the justification that "they do not represent good value for money".

The actual money saved this year by cancelling these schemes is, according to the BBC, £500m. Whether there will be any actual saving from cutting the four job schemes is difficult to tell; clearly gone into the calculations is that for most people between 18 and 24, their national insurance contributions are so low as to mean that their jobseeker's allowance will only last for those six months after which they would have been offered training or a job. Others who would have been helped will instead be back on JSA, increasing the unemployment figures, not to mention increasing the amount spent on welfare.

These are in any case rather strange decisions by a government which campaigned so vigorously against what it claimed was the prospect of a tax on jobs. The new work and pensions secretary claimed in his initial interviews that "work makes you free", yet apparently is fine with leaving those currently unemployed with even less hope of finding a job than they had previously. It's also completely out of sync with the thoughts of Lawrence Mead, apparently an influence on the new government's thinking on the welfare state and a chief proponent of "workfare". Well, perhaps except for one of the aspects of his philosophy:

For difficult cases, such as fathers who do not work and fail to make child support payments or ex-prisoners on parole, the sanction for not working would be jail. "It's less controversial than it sounds. In my interviews with state officials [in the US] they did not blink about putting men in prison to enforce a work requirement. Putting welfare mothers to work in the 90s was much more controversial."

Except even that contradicts with the other new Tory thinking on crime as elucidated by Ken Clarke. Or maybe that's just another part of it: actual criminals out, the unemployed in?

Not of course that it was the Conservatives who were the face of these cuts, instead it was Danny Alexander and the Liberal Democrats, who I can't recall at any point suggested cuts to schemes such as these during their election campaign. And as for the 18-year-old man I know, almost certainly with a job thanks to the government he voted against, it will be just the first betrayal of his first participation in this glorious thing we call democracy.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010 

Bloody Sunday and never wanting to believe anything bad about our country.

It's a rare occasion when the establishment finds itself genuinely shaken by the discombobulating attack of unambiguous, unequivocal truth. It's an even rarer occasion when it's the establishment itself which delivers the blow. Of all the inquiries set up by Tony Blair, it's almost certainly an indication of how the establishment protects itself that it was the one dealing with events in the recent past, rather than those dealing with the controversies and tragedies of our own time that delivered the most damning of assaults on the representatives of the British state.

The Saville inquiry had become a media by-word for the extravagance of New Labour's conscience when it came to things which it had no responsibility for, while it found it so terribly difficult to investigate, let alone apologise for almost anything post-May 1997. We now know why it took 12 years - this is almost certainly the most extensive documentation of the events of just a few hours outside of the 9/11 commission's report, and that was the work of a panel of politicians rather than one judge with the help of two other panel members. The very nature of its length and depth gives extra weight to its findings, which otherwise might have been questioned and attacked far more than they have been. Saville's repudiation of the Widgery report is total: the word unjustifiable runs through his findings, a hammer blow against those who continued for years afterwards to perform apologia for the actions of 1 Para on that day, and for the families who conversely campaigned for their relatives and loved ones to be proved completely innocent, the sweetest and most liberating of terms.

Faced with the staunchness of Saville's conclusions, David Cameron had no option other than to deliver the well judged address to the Commons, complete with an apology which was cheered and welcomed in Derry itself. The government is however only one part of the establishment; how the country's media responds and reacts to a new orthodoxy is worthy of equal analysis. And on any reasonably impartial one, especially one predicated on the reaction of the "popular" press, it's one that's equally revealing of the importance, or in this case lack of importance of the recognition that a nation's own armed forces committed a massacre of its own people. We should accept there are some justifications for not dwelling on Bloody Sunday: admittedly, some of the tabloid press is catering for an audience which can't remember what happened yesterday, less care about what happened 38 years ago, and it's also true that Northern Ireland itself has been so transformed from those days that some of those growing up there now are almost oblivious or don't want to learn about their shared past.

Regardless, that a newspaper with the history of the Daily Mirror couldn't find a single patch of space on its front page to report on the Saville report ought to be a source of shame to its current owners and journalists. We expect such from the Daily Star, which instead devoted its front page to the riveting news that vuvuzelas will be coming to this country, but not from the paper of Hugh Cudlipp. Inside it had two pages and a leader comment, more than the Sun's one page and editorial, but at least the Sun found space on the front to mention it, even if some women in orange dresses at the World Cup were considered more important for the main story. The Express had a box referring to the inquiry on its front page, whereas the two faces of the Daily Mail were on full display. A crude piece of moral relativism from Max Hastings, something it usually fulminates against, with Blair and Saville "betraying their responsibilities almost as grievously as those who fired the fatal shots", along with the "true face" of our soldiers, those who sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan having previously served in Ulster. Changing the subject, stressing the difference, hand-wringing over a tiny minority wholly unrepresentative of their comrades, all the signs of complete denial. Not that you would have thought so had you picked up a copy of the Irish version of the paper, as that dispenses with Hastings altogether, and has a front page with the legend "Finally, an apology for Bloody Sunday...but is it enough?"

It's hardly worth arguing with a newspaper which headlines its editorial, at least online, with "No excuses ..." and then goes onto to quibble with how Saville could be so certain that it was the soldiers who fired the first shots, as well as how reliable evidence given to an inquiry which started over a quarter of a century after an event could be, something which not even the Sun does, accepting in full Cameron's own formulation that "nothing can justify the unjustifiable". It should be just left to get on with disagreeing with something that it was always going to reject purely on the basis of its political prejudices.

We should though be alive to the mindset which allows such abuses of state power to happen in the first place. Again, David Cameron articulated it in his statement:

I am deeply patriotic; I never want to believe anything bad about our country; I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army, which I believe to be the finest in the world.

It's this refusal to accept on an almost atavistic level that anything bad could have been done by those you identify yourself with which is so potentially dangerous. This not wanting to believe anything bad, and never wanting to call into question easily translates when such things do happen, as they always will, into the wilful acceptance of excuses, into cover up and bogus justifications, the finding of scapegoats, the defending of the indefensible that Cameron refused to do only when the full impact of the actualité was impossible to deny.

And let's not pretend that the army is this completely reformed entity, incapable of committing similar mistakes today: in so many ways, the death of Baha Mousa in British custody in Basra is chillingly familiar. Soldiers, acting out of the belief that those they had arrested were responsible for the death of a comrade, without proper instruction from senior officers, using techniques which were outlawed decades ago, inflicted 93 injuries on Mousa within 36 hours. At the initial court martial the words "I don't remember" were used over 600 times, and it concluded with only Corporal Donald Payne convicted, after he had the decency to admit to his role in beating the detainees, which he was recording doing, beating them in turn, with the screams from the men referred to as "the choir". The judge blamed a complete closing of ranks for the failure to find anyone else responsible, which the army completely ignored, with Colonel David Black demanding that soldiers needed to be able to operate "without looking over their shoulders inhibited by the fear of such actions by over-zealous and remote officialdom”. The tabloid press meanwhile either ignored the case, or in the Sun, referred to the death of Mousa and beatings which the other men arrested with him suffered as "so-called crimes" and described the court martial as a "show trial". It was only later that the government paid out £3 million in compensation for these "so-called crimes", forced at the same time to hold an independent inquiry into what happened, which is still on-going. It remains to be seen whether the establishment is capable of holding itself to account after just 7 years, or whether it requires almost two generations to pass before it can finally admit to and accept the truth.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010 

The perils of independence and progressive intentions.

In politics, giving independence to certain bodies is often considered the ultimate no-brainer. Labour and Gordon Brown especially gained instant credit for handing responsibility for monetary policy to the Bank of England - something they may well have later regretted when the Bank failed to cut interest rates fast enough as boom turned to bust.

While much of the motivation behind the independence of the Bank of England was to prevent a rerun of Black Wednesday, as well as to be seen as handing over power, with the handy side-effect of not leaving politicians in charge of something they could be blamed for, not entirely the same principles were behind the setting up of the Office for Budget Responsibility. The clue itself is in the name: that under Labour all such respect for the principles of sound money were thrown out of the window. It's true that it's difficult to argue against the stated aims of the body, to remove the temptation for government to cook the growth and debt figures, yet it was also apparent that this was also about giving the last government a kicking through showing that they had been involved in exactly those practices, whether they genuinely had or not.

The problem with independent bodies is that they have a curious habit of not doing the bidding of those that set them up. Not only George Osborne, but also Nick Clegg had their speeches and talking points written in advance, ready for a first report that was going to castigate Labour's recklessness with the economy, which cut through their lies and showed up how they were living in fantasy land, and how only the new Con-Demolition would be able to put things right. Sadly, apart from revising down the growth figures for the next few years which Alistair Darling had pencilled in back in March, and it has to be recognised that governments always tend to be more optimistic in their forecasts for obvious reasons than other organisations are, the coalition didn't get the obliteration of the previous government's books which it had bargained for. The best it got was that the structural deficit was going to be slightly larger than Labour had predicted, hardly the "it's worse than we thought" which the new government has been crowing about for the last week.

Not that you have to take my word for it. Fraser Nelson, that noted Labour sympathiser, comes to much the same conclusion. His advice however is that rather than pretending we're all doomed, the Tories should make the "moral" case for cutting the deficit. Nick Clegg yesterday, in what was a remarkably fatuous speech, tried to do a little of that while still keeping to the script written before the OBR report was released. Everything was worse than they ever imagined, if they refused to act on the structural deficit then we would be committing our "children and grandchildren to ever greater indebtedness", as though presumably any government that didn't follow the chosen path of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would still be paying off the debt in 20 years time, and lastly, that the crisis in the Eurozone means that if we don't act then the markets it will. The latter is the Liberal Democrat justification for abandoning their previous alliance with Labour on not cutting this year, a handy excuse which has presented itself even though the markets have shown no sign whatsoever of suddenly deciding our debt is a problem, and also while the pound yesterday went up (not helpful to the recovery in manufacturing, incidentally) after the OBR report suggested things weren't as terrible as the government has been desperate to suggest.

All of this would be easier to take if there was at least some recognition of exactly why the deficit is so large - not because of the irresponsibility of the last government as it increasingly being painted, but because it bailed out the banks. (Update: I boobed here rather badly, as pointed out in the comments, confusing debt with the deficit. The point remains that this was a failure of the private sector, albeit not helped by a corresponding failure to regulate the banks properly, which the taxpayer and the public sector are now having to pay to fix.)

You can argue about whether it should have been done in exactly the way it was, and whether the Conservatives were genuinely opposed to a bailout, yet few at the time were screaming about there being "nothing progressive about condemning ourselves and our children to decades of debt, higher interest rates, fewer jobs", which is the ultimate conclusion as described by Nick Clegg of that bailout. All we are being offered by the new Liberal Democrat consensus is "progressive cuts", where the party can still promise a "pupil premium" for the most disadvantaged, as well as improved access to healthcare for "disadvantaged neighbourhoods" but almost nothing else. When Nick Clegg calls "for greater fairness between the public and private sectors" he fails to acknowledge the sacrifice we have all already made for the private sector, and that there is absolutely nothing progressive about lashing out at everyone equally just because someone has already been hurt.

Cuts are coming, and taxes are going to have to rise; it's unavoidable. What should be avoidable is inflicting damage on the most vulnerable and the poorest in society, yet even as Nick Clegg spouts such platitudes it's almost certain that the coalition next week will raise VAT, the most regressive of taxes which will hurt those who can't afford to save the hardest. It's already scrapped the Future Jobs Fund, is set to the abolish the Child Trust Fund, is cutting the number of university places and now also seems to be putting the recovery itself as risk through starting the pain before it is completely necessary to. No amount of invoking of progressive intentions, an ever more meaningless dividing line, is going to change any of that.

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Monday, June 14, 2010 

Jon Cruddas and numerous unanswered questions.

Why was it again that Jon Cruddas decided that he couldn't be the leader of the Labour party?

"Hand on heart, I do not want to be leader of the Labour party or subsequently prime minister. These require certain qualities I do not possess.

"The role of leader is one of the greatest honours imaginable – but it is not a bauble to aspire for. It is a duty to fulfil. I do not feel that I am in a position to deliver on the hopes and expectations that will be placed in the next leader."

Admittedly, in Cruddas' Guardian article on why he wasn't standing, he also said:

I am determined to play a full role in the re-invigoration of a party that stands as the best hope for the people of this country. But to put it simply, that role of rebuilding and energising the party is a job that doesn't have a vacancy.

I would like to be involved in the debate about the future direction of the party and how we reconnect with our lost voters. But I cannot enter a leadership election just to contribute to a debate; to go into this must be on the basis of running to win and hand on heart I do not want to be leader of the Labour party or subsequently prime minister.

Even so, why just be involved in the debate about the future direction of the party when you can articulate far better than any of the leadership candidates just where Labour went wrong, as he did to quite frankly devastating effect in his speech to the Compass conference at the weekend? Diane Abbott, fine as her oratory has been on civil liberties, has not come close to putting together such an indictment of the party as it was in power, or such eloquent reasoning as to why it lost the election, while John McDonnell could never have won the election even if able to get on the ballot. Jon Cruddas, had he decided to stand and had argued in the same tenacious fashion to the membership as a whole rather than just the likes of Compass, could easily have pulled the debate leftwards and put real pressure on the Milibands; he would have been a real contender.

Why then was Cruddas so convinced that he couldn't lead the party? Is he one of those few in politics content with sitting on the backbenches as he has and just driving debate in the party? Or is it, as his actual voting record suggests, that while he talks left and enthrals and inspires those of us sympathetic to such politics, he stayed loyal to the New Labour values he so rails against when it actually mattered? There's a lot of question marks in this post for the reason that I don't know the answers; what I do know is that Cruddas could have achieved far more through actually running for leader than just coveting the position of chairman.

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How tabloid journalism works.

1. Patrick Mercer, former chief pusher of Glen Jenvey, gets wind of a new horror being deployed by the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan: fake IEDs buried with used hypodermic needles, intended to cut and scratch those attempting to defuse such devices.

2. The Sun is informed of this development. These fake devices are turned by Tom Newton Dunn, former defence editor and now political editor, into "HIV bombs", where if the IED goes off the needles become "deadly shrapnel".

3. A quote is later added to the initial Sun report from Deborah Jack of the National Aids Trust that "there is no risk of HIV transmission from dirty needles".

4. An actual journalist from Stars and Stripes magazine looks into whether such devices are genuinely being deployed. He asks Mercer himself whether he actually had confirmation that such fake IEDs were being planted, and the best he came up with was that he "had the impression" they were. Inquiries to the International Security Forces-Afghanistan were answered "[N]o reports, no intel, nothing - but we're checking". The best answer he got was from the Joint IED Defeat Organization, who despite having no confirmed reports of such bombs said the Taliban often "employed anti-tamper devices".

5. Jeff Schogol's verdict? "More like an enemy propaganda campaign than a widespread new tactic". Nice of the Sun and Patrick Mercer to do the job of the Taliban for them.

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