Friday, March 29, 2013 

Don't forget your roots.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013 

Sophistry Thursday.

At times, even a hardened, dead-eyed cynic like me is utterly amazed at the sheer sophistry deployed by both ministers and senior civil servants.  Both Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Hoban have repeatedly denied that Jobcentres have been set targets, while last week head of the Jobcentre Neil Couling and the Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Robert Devereaux both denied strenuously that league tables were used to pressure staff into sanctioning more claimants.  They did collect data on the numbers sanctioned, but it most certainly wasn't being used in such a way as was being alleged.

A week later, and leaked to the Graun is the DWP "scorecard" for January, which looks strangely like a league table, and measures whether the number of "adverse decisions" for each scheme and benefit has either gone up or down month on month.  Quite clearly this tallying of data couldn't possibly be used in the way in which numerous staff have insisted it has been; it's merely, as Couling explained, there to ensure that any "anomalies" in the number of referrals are quickly picked up, or as Devereaux suggested, collected for use in response to parliamentary questions. 

It doesn't pick out individual Jobcentres, it's true, as the email from the manager of the Walthamstow suggested when she said they were 95th in the league table, which more than implies there is a further table that drills down further into the data.  All the more reason why Labour should keep pushing for a full inquiry into the sanctioning regime, which might just finally get to the bottom of who's lying.  Although frankly, you suspect they all are.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013 

The twilight of the TB-GBs.

There are but three explanations when the media almost as a whole praises a politician when they die, or as is increasingly the case, decides to resign to earn more money elsewhere.  First, they were a genuinely great figure, and there are ever fewer of those; second, they were known for their campaigning, or for being eccentric, and were therefore harmless; or third, they either gave great copy to journalists or lead such a colourful career that they didn't even have to speak to the press personally (that could be left to "friends").  Remember the incredulity when the England manager job went not to Harry Redknapp, the football bloke's bloke, always ready to stop his car and talk on transfer deadline day, but to the staid yet far more interesting if they could be bothered to actually do some proper work Roy Hodgson?  The same applies to politics.

Hence the gnashing of teeth over the exit of David Miliband to go and join Thunderbirds, or whatever the simply hi-larious gag still doing the rounds is now (it was worth a smile when alluded to on Newsnight last night; not so much the following morning on every news site).  The vast majority of the media decided that David Miliband simply had to be the next Labour leader, for the reason that he would be more of a continuation of New Labour than his brother, let alone the hated Ed Balls.  Of course, they had come to loathe New Labour, but in the same way that an aristocrat of old still had affection for a sprog spawned through a liaison with a scullery maid, they also felt they had helped to create it in the first place.  When Ed edged out his older sibling thanks to the votes of trade union members, this meant they had both been proved wrong and lost control over a party they thought they could still indirectly exert control over.

With David's departure to New York, they've now lost their least creative way of making mischief in the party.  The reality might well have been that David, although understandably originally embittered, has since reconciled with Ed and spent most of his time away from Westminster, but that's never been an obstacle to making stuff up in the past.  Nonetheless, too much can be made of the claims that if the elder Miliband had taken the offer of being a shadow minister that there would have been endless talk about the relationship between the two and potential policy clashes, including those from himself.  Miliband decided not to rejoin the shadow cabinet because he was doing just fine outside it, as his taking of the job at the International Rescue Committee underlines.  Who needs to be at Westminster full time or even an MP at all when you can still intervene occasionally from the sidelines, as both Blair and Brown have done and still be listened to intently?  Far more likely is that his return to frontline politics would have silenced those who still believe that the wrong brother got the top job, forcing them to accept what the man himself had.

Indeed, as others have noted, David's resignation as an MP only makes clear that regardless of what many, including myself thought when Ed unexpectedly won, he's been far more radical and agile a leader than almost anyone has given him credit for.  No, he hasn't got everything right, far from it, not least on his caution on opposing the coalition's demonisation of benefit recipients, something that David himself made clear in his last notable speech in the Commons, but he's clearly not going anywhere.

That's much to the disappointment of those who still believe the best route back to power is not to oppose the coalition on much of what it is doing, but to carry on in the great New Labour tradition of triangulation, offering much the same, just with a kinder face (except when it comes to civil liberties, where Labour arguably still remains to the right of the Tories).  Miliband senior's departure removes their final hope of the party returning to the politics that won three elections, and then, err, lost them the last, although they continue to try to convince themselves that was all Gordon Brown's fault.  It's never occurred to them that Miliband was just as much of a bottler as the right-wing press accused Brown of being, forever threatening to wield the knife and then always pulling back at the last moment.  Nor is there any indication that David would improve Labour's current poll ratings, which continue to show an average lead of around 10 points.

If today has reminded of anything, it was the remarkably similar response to James Purnell standing down as an MPMany of the same people then said what a massive loss to politics it was, what a wonderfully innovative thinker he had been, with some on the right claiming he could have saved the Labour party.  All this was code for the fact that he was a Blairite-ultra, and the man who helped to introduce the work capability assessment which continues to ruin the lives of tens of thousands of the sick and disabled.  If he achieved other than that, it was that he helped to set the stage for the coalition's even harsher cuts. 

The problem such politicians have is that they tend to be liked only by journalists; Purnell's resignation in an attempt to unseat Gordon Brown was followed by precisely no one, despite him imagining it would open the floodgates.  When Purnell went it was good riddance to bad rubbish, although he has naturally since found a job at the ever obliging BBC.  David Miliband could have been a real asset to his brother had he wanted to be, yet if his leaving signifies anything, it's that the TB-GB era of British politics is well and truly over.  And surely, that's something to welcome.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013 

Not to speak ill of the dead...

The news of the death of Boris Berezovsky was undoubtedly one of those "oh Christ" moments.  The unexpected death of another of the exiles from Putin's Russia was always going to be investigated extremely carefully, lest there be even the slightest indication that it was anything other than natural or swiftly explained.  Such is the level of mistrust and suspicion directed at the government, much of it warranted, it must be said, the deaths of other dissidents and refugees have all been previously seized upon as potentially the work of the FSB, most notably in the case of Arkadi "Badri" Patarkatsishvili, who was quickly found to have passed away as a result of a heart attack, although that conclusion did little to allay the fears of those who think we should underestimate the KGB's successor at our peril.

It certainly isn't unknown for murders to be presented as suicides, including by those far less competent than state actors.  This said, everything known at the moment does point towards Berezovsky taking his own life.  A man who had spent two decades living in luxury, extremely highly regarded by the elite first in Russia in the 90s and then in the UK in the 2000s, he had been brought low through his own greed.  Described by Mrs Justice Gloster in the case he brought against his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich as a "inherently unreliable witness" and of being "deliberately dishonest", the massive legal fees probably hurt more.  Combined with a huge settlement with his second wife, it was reported last week he was looking to sell an Andy Warhol print of Lenin worth around £50,000, something that appears to contradict the claims made since by Nikolai Glushkov that he had "managed to resolve his financial issues".  Having lost much if not almost all of his fortune, his friends report he had been depressed, and had sought treatment at the Priory.  Although those same friends have reported he seemed better, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that he may well have relapsed.

Nor does the timing make much sense.  Why dispense with someone who no longer poses a threat of any sort? Who knows just how much money Berezovsky did put in to attempting to get rid of Putin, but the results have been pretty negligible.  We can of course draw the analogy with Trotsky, in that Stalin's nemesis had never been so far removed from influence as he was when Ramón Mercader wielded the ice pick, but Berezovsky was no Trotsky (and Putin is no Stalin for that matter), however much the Kremlin's news agencies demonised him.

One thing Berezovsky's death ought to bring into sharper focus is the rather underreported evidence heard at the hearing ahead of the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The lawyer on behalf of Litvinenko's widow, Marina, made submissions that set out the former KGB and FSB officer had swapped sides, and was a paid MI6 agent when he was poisoned with polonium.  It also seems as though he was working with the Spanish intelligence agencies, and that the plan was for him to travel with his alleged murderer, Andrei Lugovi, to the country to provide further information to the authorities there on the Russian mafia.

Not only does this raise questions about whether MI6 breached their duty of care to Litvinenko, it also puts his murder into an entirely different perspective.  This wasn't just a assassination of a man we offered shelter to, it was the murder of a state asset, and it was never felt appropriate that this should become public, at least not before his widow seemed to have exhausted every other avenue in her search for justice.  It also means that for years MI6 had someone on its books (the Mail claimed back in 2007 that Litvinenko had been an officer, but it wasn't widely followed up) who was making the most serious allegations possible about a rival service: that the FSB and Putin were prepared to bomb their own citizens in furtherance of their political aims.  It doesn't really get much more serious.  Were MI6 aware of any specific threats against Litvinenko, or indeed have any concerns whatsoever about having on the payroll someone who had become an enemy of his former employer?  And what of Berezovsky?  Did he have an association with the intelligence agencies too?

Whether we'll learn much from the inquest, delayed now until October, is unclear.  The government files on Litvinenko will be examined in secret before it opens after William Hague applied for a public interest immunity certificate, and so how much will be heard in public remains to be seen.

One vital witness due to appear was Berezovsky.  Something that has never been properly explained is just how far the relationship between Lugovi and Berezovsky went; Lugovi had served as the head of security for ORT, the Russian television channel then owned by Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili, and so was someone Berezovsky believed could be trusted.  Regardless of the individual circumstances, that almost all those involved have either died or are boycotting the proceedings (Lugovi) doesn't inspire confidence that much is going to be resolved beyond what we already know.

Nonetheless, few in Russia will have shed tears at Berezovsky passing, even if few have much affection for Putin at this point.  Berezovsky's reputation as the robber baron in chief was in place long before he fled.  Indeed, it's arguable that if Russia hadn't been given the economic shock treatment it received after the fall of the Soviet Union, and if the oligarchs hadn't in turn profited so hugely from the rigged sell off of state assets that the Russian public wouldn't have taken so much to the strongman who was determined to put an end to the chaos that has now come to represent Yeltsin's reign.  That the likes of Berezovsky were taken so quickly into the bosom of the British establishment with little in the way of questioning about just what did go on in Russia during the mid-90s ought to be an abiding shame.  The least we can do now is ensure the truth about the death of Alexander Litvinenko comes out.

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Monday, March 25, 2013 

Haven't I heard all this before?

If there's one thing you can say about David Cameron's speech on immigration today, it's that it was clever politics.  It worked on one level, and one level only: that of the tiger repelling rock.  The government knows full well that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to come here next year is going to be nowhere near as high as the numbers that came after the A8 accession states, so setting out a whole range of new "restrictions" makes perfect sense.  We ended the soft touch system we inherited from Labour and look at the results!  It won't matter that the figures overall will still show net migration of hundreds of thousands rather than tens, at least there aren't many of those nasty gyppos or other assorted stereotypes here as we feared, eh?

Other than that, it was just miserable.  It wasn't so much the actual announcements, if you can even call them that, as they were all but identical to those set out by Labour's Yvette Cooper a couple of weeks back with the exception of the requirement for those wanting social housing to have lived locally for at least 2 years.  Even this is undermined by how councils also have a requirement to house those in most need, although naturally Cameron deigned not to mention this.  It was instead that it gave in to every myth, claim and lie we've come to expect from those aiming to profit from scaremongering about immigration: that we're seen as a "soft touch", that the welfare system needs to be reformed alongside immigration itself as it clearly attracts those with no intention of working, and that under Labour immigration was out of control.  All were and are untrue.

It's not that it's wrong to publicise problems with the system, as Cameron said, it's that it's wrong to not challenge the idea that immigrants are here to scrounge rather than work.  Saying that the vast majority are hard workers but then dedicating the remainder of the speech to suggesting there are huge problems rather drowns out the reality.  The emphasis on benefits also spectacularly misses the concerns of most on immigration.  Until very recently, the main concern was not that immigrants from the EU were coming here to claim benefits, it was that they were undercutting wages, stretching the resources of local public services and changing communities beyond recognition.  Cameron today didn't address either the former or the latter, only that there would a renewed emphasis on ensuring employers aren't using illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the major announcement today has been rather buried underneath all the anti-scrounger rhetoric.  The government that ensured ID cards weren't introduced (although they were never going to be after the crash anyway) for us Brits has decided that they're fine and dandy for our friends from the EU should they want to come here, as they'll be the only way of determining just what they're entitled to.  Don't then be surprised if this inevitably leads to the rest of us also needing them at some point in the future.

The problem for Cameron today has turned out that, if anything, he's gone too far even for a press that has always led the way for politicians rather than followed.  The figures we do have suggest that the number of immigrants claiming benefits is low, and that the numbers in social housing are similarly not massively increasing.  On the NHS, ministers simply don't know how much foreign nationals are costing us: it's either £20m or closer to £200m, if we're to believe Jeremy Hunt, which isn't advised.  One suspects it's closer to the £20m figure, but either way it's a drop in the ocean considering the NHS budget is almost £100bn a year, and when as we saw last week George Osborne masterminded an underspend of £2.2bn to help get his borrowing figures in line with the forecasts.

As encouraging as it is that even the Telegraph is calling for politicians to make the case for immigration rather than keep on attempting to woo the UKIP vote (which is, as has been noted, to completely misunderstand UKIP's appeal), we've gone from a situation at the last election where we had at least one party calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if they tried to kept it quiet, to that same party fully signing up to the Tories' self-defeating measures.  It seems we are as far away as ever from something approaching an informed debate, let alone an informed policy.

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Friday, March 22, 2013 

Let it go.

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Someone's lying.

The leaking of an email from a Jobcentre adviser manager in Walthamstow which seems to suggest there are league tables and targets in place for the sanctioning of those on benefits is little short of a bombshell.  It can only be explained in one of four ways: the letter is a hoax; the manager herself is lying, and saying there are league tables in place to try to get her staff to sanction more "clients", which doesn't really make any sense unless there is some sort of pressure on her which isn't in the form of league tables; the Department for Work and Pensions' regional managers are acting on their own initiative, against the apparent express wishes of ministers, and are drawing up league tables based on how many claimants are sanctioned by specific Jobcentres; or Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Hoban are lying through their teeth, including to parliament, which ought to lead to resignations.

It seems to judge by Duncan Smith's appearance in the Commons today that the letter is indeed genuine, so we can dismiss the first explanation.  Indeed, he seemed to be suggesting that the reality was a mixture of the second and third explanations, and that "innumerable orders not to employ targets" had gone out to Jobcentres.  Who then has been drawing up these league tables, seeing as they do appear to have existed?  Was it senior Jobcentre staff or officials within the DWP?  Seeing as Duncan Smith seems to have known that targets had been put in place before, why exactly is it that staff seem to have directly disobeying his orders?  Will the staff responsible be disciplined as result?

I know the variation on Hanlon's razor which suggests we shouldn't blame conspiracy when cock-up often more adequately explains such discrepancies, yet even if this the case, it doesn't alter the fact that IDS and his junior ministers are ultimately responsible.  The conspiracy explanation also helps us to understand exactly why ministers were so determined to stop compensation being paid to those sanctioned; many it would seem have been not because of any real refusal to take a job, a placement or look for work, but because Jobcentre staff are being given targets to hand the sanctions out regardless of infractions.  Moreover, it also suggests I might well have been too harsh on Liam Byrne on the DWP budget: it looks as though sanctioning is indeed built into the system, which also explains why the pressure being put on Jobcentre staff has been so immense.  If they don't stop enough people's benefits, further cuts may well be needed.

To say these revelations are disgusting doesn't even begin to adequately express how vile it is that some of those looking for work in the current job market have been denied the meagre amount of money they receive due purely to the pressure being put on Jobcentre staff.  It also reopens the debate on the work capability assessment and ATOS, and whether targets are also in place for them as to how many they should be declaring are fit for work.  If they are at the Jobcentre, why wouldn't they be elsewhere in the benefit system?  Whatever the ultimate explanation, one thing ought to be apparent: regardless of Labour's failings on opposing the coalition, the real enemy is the coalition that regards the most vulnerable in society as easy targets.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013 

The depression must continue. And continue.

The usual way budgets pan is out that they begin to fall apart the day after.  Last year, Osborne's wheezes were so shambolic and leaked so thoroughly beforehand that it was clear on the day what a disaster it was.  This year we've had the spectacle of the chancellor himself making clear just how the figures were fixed to meet his objective.

Osborne then admitted this morning as was suggested yesterday that he had specifically asked departments to underspend so he could still meet his aim of reducing borrowing year on year.  As the IFS has since made clear, the underspend in total was £10.9bn (PDF), more than double the average of the last five years.  This includes a £2.2bn underspend on the NHS, further giving the lie to the claim from Cameron that spending on the health service is rising in real terms.

This is the kind of manoeuvring that during Gordon Brown's time as chancellor would have resulted in the Tories and the right-wing press throwing a fit.  The IFS sums up the aim of reducing borrowing year on year as "economically unimportant" which it is, but that spending time and effort to achieve it "could have had real economic costs".  In other words, Osborne would rather be proved right about the politics than the economics, which is just about as brutal a criticism of a chancellor as the IFS is likely to make.

Incredibly, it gets worse.  The IFS also forecasts that to fill the hole created by the various giveaways yesterday, come 2016 we face even more cuts, or more likely, significant tax rises. As spending on the NHS, education and international aid is due to remain protected till at least then, this puts all the more pressure on the other departments, and it's difficult to see how welfare won't be raided again.  Pledging to protect certain departments may have been good politics originally, but it's exceptionally daft now that budgets are falling in real terms anyway.

All this only underlines what a disaster Osborne's tenure has been. The inheritance the next government can look forward to will be even worse than the one the coalition had in 2010, when there were plenty of alternative policies that could have been pursued. The options available are either tax rises, when wages will still not have recovered, or cuts across the board.  As none of the parties are likely to make clear just how unpleasant these choices will be, the next government is bound to be unpopular from the very start as they are forced to row back on election promises.  And all because of Osborne's continuing refusal to change his mind when the facts have.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013 

The depression must continue.

How then has austerity been working out for you?  Are you enjoying the umpteenth year of a cut in pay in real terms?  Does life seem to be getting progressively more miserable and onerous with each passing month?  Aren't you at least somewhat appeased by how all this will be worth it in the long run?

George Osborne must certainly be hoping that you are, as today's budget does next to nothing to ease the pain at any level.  Indeed, if you're a public sector worker, he's just announced another year where your pay won't meet the rate of inflation.  As for everyone else, he's managed to find some money from somewhere through the usual tricks to be able to abolish the beer duty escalator altogether, as well as reducing the price of a pint by one single new penny.  Also cancelled was the planned rise in fuel duty in September, although anyone who imagined it was going to go ahead when it's been apparent for some time now that the lobby against is just too powerful is living in a country only slightly adjacent from the one Osborne occupies.

For this was the budget that spelled out plain and clear that his plan hasn't only failed, it's done so catastrophically.  The economy has effectively not grown since the coalition came to power; growth last year was 0.2%, all of which was down to the Olympics and counting the sale of the tickets in the third quarter.  The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast at the budget last year that the economy would grow in 2013 by 2%; at the time of the autumn statement they downgraded this to 1.2%; now they predict growth of a pathetic 0.6%, and some of that will depend on the economy not slipping into a triple dip in the current quarter, which will be very touch and go.  Osborne claims that the deficit has been cut by a third, yet as Duncan Weldon points out, on a like for like basis excluding the taking on of the Post Office pension book and the receipts from quantitative easing, it has in fact not even fell by the much lauded quarter, rather by 22.5%. Moreover, over the next two years the OBR predicts it will barely move, remaining around the £100bn level, rather than coming down to £37bn as the OBR originally predicted following Osborne's "emergency" budget of 2010.

Similar smoke and mirrors tactics seem to be at work when it comes to Osborne managing to avoid borrowing actually increasing this year compared to last.  He's only succeeded thanks to departmental underspends, as tax revenue fell £5bn short of what was expected.  Whether as Faisal Islam suggests this was down to Osborne ordering departments to hold back we can't know, but it certainly looks suspicious that his figures are only £100m away from there being no change.  Those same departments are now being called upon to make further cuts to finance the £3bn increase in infrastructure spending, which isn't going to kick in until 2015 anyway.  Little wonder that the OBR suggests that broadly this was a budget that will do absolutely nothing to encourage growth, something Jonathan Portes concurs with.

Whether there are any nasty surprises lurking will doubtless be confirmed by the IFS tomorrow, but what's apparent today is that Osborne is once again betting that a gamble will pay off in order to ensure the budget is "fiscally neutral".  The almost £5bn being spent on reducing beer duty and cancelling the fuel price rise is all to be made up through dealing with tax evasion, something which is notoriously difficult.  Last time he counted on the 4G auction to pay for his spending, and only just about managed to get out of the bind when it brought in less than was expected.  This time there may well be no escape.

Otherwise, this was the usual nakedly political budget we've come to expect from Osborne, who despite loathing Gordon Brown seems to have learned everything he knows from the son of the manse.  This was a budget for an "aspiration nation", or to put it more bluntly, the middle classes, as long as you fit the new Tory notion of what the middle classes are.  You must want "to get on in life", work even if you have children, either own your own home or want to, not earn quite enough to fall into the 40% income tax bracket, not claim benefits, not work in the public sector, and you must drive to work and swill beer rather than any other alcoholic beverage.  There were a couple of sops to those outside these arbitrary confines, such as the raising of the personal allowance to £10,000 a year ahead of schedule, but then that also helps the middle more than it does the poorest.

All this pampering of the middle and continued codifying of business with a further cut in corporation tax for those who bother to pay it, does, after all, come at a price.  While there were no extra cuts to welfare announced this time round, it seems likely further reductions will be coming in 2015, with Osborne due to target "annually managed expenditure".  The effects of the current cuts are already there to be seen: the poorest are continuing to take a pounding, while the richest, despite possibly paying more in tax now than they did under Labour, are barely affected, not least thanks to Osborne's abolition of the 50p rate.

If Osborne's ultimate aim was, as the Guardian reports, to "avoid fucking up", then at the moment he seems to have just about managed it.  What he most certainly hasn't done is shift away from Plan A, regardless of how many people or publications urge him to drop his refusal to borrow to invest.  The one move today which may well have some effect is the £2,000 cut in employers' national insurance contributions, which could encourage small businesses to take on more workers.  Otherwise, he's relying on the Bank of England to inflate away the debt, something which is asking for trouble when wages already can't maintain pace.  Osborne's major problem is that as a recent poll showed, his unpopularity poisons his policies regardless of whether the public agree with him or not.  Nothing announced today is going to change that.  Nor will it even begin to get us out of the depression the coalition has helped to plunge us into.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013 

Liam Byrne: must try harder.

In one sense, you can understand the more than cautious approach Labour has taken on welfare reform in opposition.  They know it's an utter lie that they didn't reform welfare, as the Tories continually claim; they introduced the work capability assessment for goodness sake, still making life miserable for tens of thousands of those declared to be fit for work by ATOS, but know it's futile complaining too loudly about it.  It's also the case that in principle, Iain Duncan Smith's universal benefit makes sense: whether it works in practice we're yet to see. Lastly, they also deserve credit for calling the Tories' bluff and opposing the coalition's 1% cap on benefits, despite the dangers of such a policy.  As it's turned out, it hasn't affected the party's polling whatsoever, even if they again haven't properly set out the arguments against a real terms cut in benefits.

All this said, the decision to abstain on today's vote on the "emergency" workfare bill is perplexing and naive.  Yes, you can understand that it would be incredibly easy for the Tories to paint Labour as being the party of the welfare scrounger, and the DWP certainly has worked every sinew in its attempt to paint those who have been sanctioned for any reason as malingerers who refused reasonable job offers. It's also laudable that Liam Byrne has at least attempted to improve the bill by ensuring those sanctioned have the right to appeal and know from the outset exactly what it is they're agreeing to when they go on any of the various schemes recommended to them at Jobcentre Plus.

The issue here though ought to be a simple one: the government is legislating to deny those at the very bottom rung of society what is legally and morally owed to them. As Sunny writes, many of those on the workfare schemes were deliberately denied the information which would have allowed them to make an informed choice on what to do, while the legislation on sanctions was purposefully vague. This is wholly a mess of the coalition's own making, and they shouldn't be allowed to get away with such manoeuvring.

Moreover, as Mark Ferguson on Labour List argues, abstaining also gives tacit approval to the work programme that the party has rightly been deriding as worse than useless.  Indeed, in the specific case of mandatory work activity, the scheme is worse even than that as it saw the numbers claiming employment and support allowance increase. Liam Byrne's argument is also completely disingenuous: his suggestion that if everyone was to be compensated it would mean more cuts implies that savings through sanctions are built into the DWP's budget, which can't possibly be the case.

It's true that Labour's opposition wouldn't see the bill defeated, as the Tories can in this at least rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but it's beside the point. If Labour's position truly is that there should be a job's guarantee, then those who have been let down or worse, actively mistreated by the current system, surely deserve better than the forced imposition of schemes that are being used just as much to massage the unemployment figures as they are to help those out of work. Byrne's intervention hasn't so much challenged Iain Duncan Smith's bad faith as made it more slightly more palatable.

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10 years on, and all's a well...

There was a strong reaction at the Foreign Office today to reports of the use of chemical weapons in the north of Syria.

"Obviously, reports are still highly conflicted at the moment and both sides have blamed each other", said foreign secretary William Hague at a hastily convened press conference.  "Nonetheless, this latest development doesn't change our stance.  If it was indeed the rebels that used chemical weapons, presumably seized from the Assad regime's poorly secured stockpile, then what we need to do now is ensure that more such weapons get into the hands of moderates rather than extremists.  The opposition's weaker position doesn't create the right atmosphere for political negotiations."

"If, on the other hand, it was the regime that used a chemical warhead, then our position is still the same.  We need to ensure that the moderate rebels also get such warheads in order to be able to protect civilians from the regime's onslaught.  The EU arms embargo must be lifted."

When it was pointed out to Hague that apart from his position being contradictory, there was no guarantee the moderates wouldn't sell the weapons they were given by the UK and France straight to the extremists at the first opportunity, his demeanour suddenly changed.

"Look, isn't it obvious what we're doing here?  We all know full well that the regime is going to fall eventually, and what our training of moderates in Jordan is aimed at is ensuring they're strong enough to be able to fight the likes of the al-Nusra Front in the power vacuum that follows.  We couldn't really give a stuff about the Syrian people; all we care about now is that we don't have another branch of al-Qaida operating without constraints in a Middle Eastern countryWe really have learned the lessons of Iraq, which is that it's far better for Arabs to kill Arabs than for Arabs to kill Western soldiers."

Our foreign policy is still completely and utterly insane.

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Monday, March 18, 2013 

The vilest thing.

So, err, what exactly did David Cameron's chucking of his toys out the pram on Thursday achieve?  As many expected, we woke up this morning to discover that a deal had been reached overnight, although it came sadly too late for the Mail and the Sun to redo their hysterical front pages predicting today would be The End of Press Freedom as We Know It.  The agreement, which Cameron is now introducing in the Commons, makes pretty damn plain that on all the major points, the very temporary Lib Dem-Labour alliance has been victorious.  We already knew that all three parties had accepted there would be a charter rather than statute, so although Cameron and the Tories will say they've won on that score, that wasn't what was being fought over when Cameron walked out on Thursday.

On the disagreements which supposedly led Cameron to call it quits, he seems to have simply caved in after some further reflection.  While the new regulation system won't then have statutory underpinning, it will only be able to be disbanded through majority vote in the Commons, although this doesn't necessarily apply to future parliaments.  More fundamentally, Clegg and Miliband also succeeded in ensuring the press won't be able to veto appointments to the new board of the regulator, something that could have made the replacement to the PCC almost exactly the same as its predecessor.  They've also ensured the regulator will be able to "direct" where papers have to print prominent apologies, rather than "require", although frankly you still to have to wonder if such measures will be abided by.

Which will be the ultimate test of the new system.  Leveson and everything that's gone with it will be meaningless if what we end up with is a system which still isn't followed.  You'd like to think that all the caterwauling from some sections of the media about the end of free speech means they genuinely do fear that the new regulator will have teeth, and the news that the Newspaper Society has issued a statement on behalf of the press barons that they are yet undecided as to whether to endorse the charter might encourage this view.  It's difficult to see them rejecting it outright though at this point, especially as public pressure for them to sign up is likely to be high.

Especially when, once they've reflected properly on it, all the charter will do is put in place regulation similar to that in Ireland, and which most of the newspapers operate under through their specific editions for the country.  The one thing they may well legitimately fear is the exemplary damages proposed for those who remain outside the regulator, although it remains to be seen what publishing "with reckless disregard for a claimant's rights" will mean in practice.  If it means that Private Eye or similar small publications could potentially be ran out of business for libelling the powerful, as indeed James Goldsmith tried to achieve back in the 70s, then this is a system which deserves to be boycotted.

The point remains that however much the likes of the Telegraph now complain about the imposition of regulation, they did nothing whatsoever to attempt to rein in the excesses of the tabloids while the PCC was in operation.  Murdoch's Times was similarly blind for the most part, however much it has since attempted to signal its independence.  The news today that the Sun was supplied with the stolen phone of Siobhan McDonagh, which it subsequently "lost" after accessing the text messages on it, all of which happened back in 2010 during the current editorship of Dominic Mohan, makes clear that all is still not well.  

This makes it all the more incredible that the Sun splashed today with the words of Churchill, that "the press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen".  This is of course the same Sun newspaper which supported Blair and then Gordon Brown in their attempts to introduce 90 and then 42 days detention without charge, and which has never so much as once opposed the attempt of any government to limit civil liberties with the supposed aim of preventing crime.  Murdoch only cares about press freedom as much as it enables him to make money, as demonstrated when he dropped the BBC from his satellite operations in China following criticism from the authorities.

The same silliness emanates from Iain Martin and his stated view that it's "terrifying how quickly we've slid from a free press to politicians stitching up press regulation".  Quite apart from how the press have had decades to get self-regulation right and have either refused to or failed at every attempt, his claim that the Americans would be bewildered by the idea of regulating the press is daft when you consider the fact that their press long since moved away from the sensationalist model we're so used to, and that they've also long been sycophantic towards power rather than anywhere near as boisterous as our newspapers.  This said, nothing voted on today is going to make the powerful less accountable: the idea that this is revenge by politicians simply doesn't stand up. Some obviously would like the press to be weaker, but power is shifting in any case.  Newspapers might still break the news and run campaigns, yet increasingly it's genuine public outcry rather than media manfactured outrage that achieves results, as indeed led to Leveson in the first place.

As for how this affects the various party leaders, much depends now on how the media responds.  If they decide that Cameron has essentially acquiesced to the demands of the other side, then it's hardly going to increase their already low opinion of him. They may in time thank him for heading off full statutory underpinning, but plainly not right now.  Similarly, Miliband and Clegg can continue to expect hostile coverage, although whether either care at this point is dubious.  Cameron also looks weak: after all but saying bring it on on Thursday, prepared to lose a vote as long as he did so while defending press freedom, it looks as though he backed down, afraid to lose it so soundly.  He must also be concerned at how Clegg and Miliband worked together when there's surely potential for them to do the same in the future.

Only time will tell whether today really does signal the point at which the press in this country finally realises that it can no longer get away with doing exactly as it pleases, with no regard for privacy, the law, or for the feelings of those whose lives they intrude into.  It is though the point at which our politicians have finally called the bluff of the barons.  In that sense, and considering our past, it's a change to savour.

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Friday, March 15, 2013 

Walter White.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013 

Press regulation: is anyone still paying attention?

As an indication of just how interminable the almost four month long talks on implementing the Leveson report have been, you'll note I haven't dedicated a single post to the report since it was published. When even I find a section of politics I'm normally fascinated by so unutterably tedious, the sheer boredom that emanates from it must surely be sufficient to kill small mammals unlucky enough to be in earshot.

On this level alone, it's difficult to begrudge the decision by David Cameron to bring the cross-party discussions to a close and force a vote on the proposal for a royal charter as it stands. It's also doubtful just how much of a difference there now is between the parties: they all seem to have accepted the establishment of a new regulator via charter rather than statute, and only appear to disagree on ensuring that the charter can't be picked apart by politicians in the future, as well as just how independent the new board will be.

There is definitely then an element of cynicism in Cameron's pulling of the plug now, regardless of the claims otherwise.  He's had a miserable couple of weeks since his party came third in Eastleigh, and yesterday took the equivalent of a sound thrashing at prime minister's questions from a mocking Ed Miliband. By claiming to be defending press freedom he's quickly won the support of the press barons, with only the Graun, Independent and FT concerned at how once again there seems to have been a stitch-up between the government and the same old guard who've never accepted reform in the past.

Indeed, Cameron has played an extremely weak hand with greater political skill than on almost anything comparable of late.  He's apparently succeeded in stopping statute, has courted a press that for the most part has always been suspicious of him and has now forced a vote that could help to reinforce his authority.  And again, it's difficult to criticise him for much of this: no government would or should tolerate the hijacking of multiple bills in an effort to force the issue.  Lord Puttnam's sabotaging of the defamation act is especially enraging when it should be complementing Leveson rather than damaging the chances of either becoming law.

For as much as Cameron went back on his word to implement Leveson as long as what was recommended wasn't "bonkers", far more foolish was Labour's pledge to enshrine it in full when they couldn't possibly have read the thing.  Also counter-productive has been the Hacked Off campaign, which hasn't seemed to know when to stop, always saying that anything less than statute would be an effective betrayal of the victims of intrusion and hacking. The barons might well deserve statute, but all the other publishers and media groups don't.  My position has always been that we need a genuinely independent regulator, able to investigate both complaints and initiate their own if necessary, as well as one that can impose fines and order where corrections and apologies should be printed.  If all this can be achieved with a charter, as it seems it can, then statute simply isn't needed.

On some measures, Leveson and the government in fact want to go too far.  The idea of exemplary damages for those who refuse to join the new regulator if they are then taken to court sounds fine if it's Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell that once again decides not to join, but not if it also means that Private Eye is potentially put in peril, as the magazine has up to now always been outside the PCC and seems unlikely to join this time either.  The last thing we need at the moment is the kind of law that could make new papers or weeklies completely uneconomical, especially as newspaper circulations continue to plummet.

Cameron's gamble is that this has now become a zero sum game.  If it comes a vote and he wins, then he can expect at least some gratitude from the Tory press, while it will also show he can still unite his party on some issues.  If he loses, then he can blame the perfidy of the Lib Dems and say that they and the Labour party want to dilute press freedom for their own political advantage.  What though if Cameron is wrong, and a loss is instead seen as the ultimate evidence that his authority is ebbing away, or, if they manage to scrape through, the public sees it as more proof of politicians wanting to suck up to media proprietors rather than doing the right thing?

In all likelihood, one suspects that Cameron believes his move will force Nick Clegg into moving towards his position, not wanting to vote against the government so soon after his party refused to back the boundary review in revenge for the dropping of Lords reform.  It may instead come down to who blinks first, and I can't help but feel there's likely to be some sort of compromise reached before Monday is out.  Whether it means we will finally have regulation worthy of the name remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013 

Every day is like Sunday. (Or, how tabloid journalism continues to work.)

Friday 8th March:
Former prison officer Richard Trunkfield pleads guilty to misconduct in public office, admitting that he sold information on a "high-profile" inmate to the Sun for £3,350.

Wednesday 13th March:
The Sun publishes front page article claiming a prison officer announced over the tannoy that the "right honourable member for Wandsworth North" was to come and get his breakfast.  It also claims that Chris Huhne asked to be moved to the vulnerable prisoners wing after he was "badgered by cons for cash".  The paper's sources for both claims are "prison visitors".

Addendum: Carina Trimingham denies Huhne was either ridiculed on his first day in Wandsworth or that he has asked to be moved to the isolation wing.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013 

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Is it possible to not really know where to settle on the sentences handed down to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce? As others have said, it would ordinarily be absurd to send two first time offenders to prison for a crime in which no one else was harmed, nothing was stolen and where the only real victims have been the perpetrators themselves, who might not have lost everything but most certainly have done substantial if not fatal damage to their careers. It's also the case that giving high profile figures "deterrent" sentences isn't just manifestly unfair, it doesn't achieve its aim. If anything, the coverage of the case is likely to increase the numbers aware of how to swap driving penalty points and make the practice even more widespread.

This said, there's always something eminently distasteful about the way politicians and public figures tend to regard the offences their own commit, and the way they respond to crime committed by everyone else. There have been plenty of tributes to the pair, especially to Huhne, most ignoring that he kept up a lie for 10 years, only admitting guilt after his attempts to get the case against him thrown out had failed.  Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offence, regardless of the circumstances, or as Simon Jenkins claims, how the entire judicial system is built around lying. While the likes of the Mail have delighted in Huhne's downfall, it's been nothing compared to the way plenty responded to the bringing low of Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer. That politicians on the whole remain wedded to the idea that prison works all but demands that their misdemeanours should be treated just as harshly as those committed by those at the bottom of society.

You don't though have to feel any sympathy for Huhne or Pryce whatsoever to regard the entire case as a circus.  Justice Sweeney, as the Heresiarch argues, seemed to swallow the media narrative wholesale and did his very best to add to it. His judgement on Pryce was extraordinarily harsh, who while devious and complicit in the offence has been comprehensively screwed over by all those she thought she could trust, first Huhne, and then the Sunday Times and their remarkable disregard for her as a source.  However much we might recoil from the phone calls she made to Huhne in an attempt to get him to admit to forcing her to take the penalty points, it's worth recalling how Huhne told her their marriage was over: during a World Cup game, with his parting remark being that Pryce shouldn't talk to the newspapers. And with that, he went off to the gym.

One contrast to draw is the settlement reached today between George Monbiot and Lord McAlpine, where he has pledged to perform three years of charitable work rather than pay damages. Quite apart from how I fail to see how either Monbiot or Sally Bercow libelled McAlpine with their tweets, it seems a remarkably more productive if over the top way to pay penance.  The most obvious example of a politician attempting to make up for their failings is John Profumo (again, whether he had much to make up for at all is dubious), who spent 40 years doing various good works in the East End after his resignation as an MP.  On these terms, a lengthy period of community work would normally have been a perfectly fitting sentence rather than a prison term.

I say normally as this isn't a normal case, however much it ought to be.  The normal punishment for the offence of swapping penalty points does seem to be a short prison term, whether it seems the right one or not.  In line with this, it would have been perverse for Huhne and Pryce not to go to prison.  All the same, it just doesn't seem right, and to go against Simon Jenkins again, I don't think there has been any great public glee at their downfall.  Rather, it's been the media that's revelled in it, as though they're either making up for something, or preparing for what might be coming to some of their own shortly.

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Well, that was a surprise.

The most gracious and benevolent General Cameron today called on Argentina to respect the wishes of the people of the Falklands after they voted overwhelmingly in a plebiscite to remain a part of the Democratic Non-Republic of the United Kingdom.

In spite of the inclement weather, unusual for the perpetually sunny uplands of the Falklands, record numbers turned out to vote and pledge their love for the Cameronite junta.  Turnout was 92%, with only 3 votes against the motion.

Despite the clear mandate this gives to General Cameron's policy of "NEVER", the response in Argentina has been one of ridicule.  MPs have insisted that the ballot was not secret, that external pressure on voters had been immense, and that the question on the paper, which was simply "Are you a traitor?" was loaded in favour of a no vote.

General Cameron's office was dismissive of this criticism.  "Clearly these Argies are never going to be satisfied, regardless of how often the people of the Falklands indicate they want to remain part of the new British empire."  When the spokesman was asked whether it was a coincidence that three bodies had today been found floating in Port Stanley harbour, each with a gunshot wound to the back of the head, he insisted that all the evidence pointed towards the deaths being part of a feud between drugs gangs. "And if those who abstained know what's good for them, they'll lie low for a while", he added.

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Monday, March 11, 2013 

The Tory party's doomers.

At the very best of times it's extremely tempting to laugh long, loud and hard at the Conservative party.  There are few political parties that would consider either Jacob Rees-Mogg or Peter Bone to be the best people to defend government or party policy, and yet time after time one or tother turns up on Newsnight, Bone only a week ago making the hilarious claim that it was Labour that had a problem with women, at the same time as there are only four women in the cabinet, to the incredulity of Oona King.

Funnier still, at least for those of us on the outside, is the party's continuing love of fratricide.  It may well be true that the Tories have only successfully ousted two leaders in the past 22 years, the same number as the Liberal Democrats, yet the level of plotting and blood-letting that's been involved in the Tory turmoil puts their swifter acting coalition partners to shame.  John Major may well have been doomed after Black Wednesday, but the leadership challenge by John Redwood was the death knell.  Iain Duncan Smith's defenestration is notable now only for how it led to Michael Howard promoting and pushing both David Cameron and George Osborne; IDS is unlikely to have performed much worse than his successor eventually did with the voters.

And so now we have the increasing murmuring against Cameron, although in truth a fair few MPs never signed up to his windmill loving, husky hugging, letting sunshine win the day Toryism in the first place.  It doesn't matter that in power Cameron has been as John B notes to the right of Major's Tories, despite supposedly being tempered by the presence of the Lib Dems, still at the first real sign of trouble there appears to a substantial minority prepared to overthrow him.  Where they've got the idea from that his replacement would do any better is unclear: he or she would still have to deal with Clegg and friends, which precludes scrapping the Human Rights Act or withdrawing from the ECHR, let alone embarking on the kind of ultra-Thatcherite economic fantasy as outlined today by Liam Fox.  Regardless of what happens between now and the election, it will be fought mainly on the achievements of the coalition, rather than what the party can offer were it given the opportunity to govern alone.  Dumping a leader who's more popular than your party midway through your term of office isn't going to play well.

Moreover, if you are going to launch a coup, your chosen replacement needs to offer both a genuine alternative and have something approaching either gravitas or a status within the party able to win over those disgusted or alienated by your actions.  The Tories are in a position similar to that of Labour five years ago, when there simply wasn't anyone able to mount a challenge to Brown and be taken seriously.  David Miliband hadn't succeeded in building himself up enough, and anyone else briefly talked about were either impossibilities (who, like me, remembers that hilarious Newsnight when a focus group decided John Reid was a leader in waiting?) or quickly pulled back, probably once they realised that Damian McBride had a file on them.

I mean, who frankly is Theresa May? She is to the Tory party what Dobbs and Huple are to Yossarian in Catch-22: perfectly agreeable on the ground, but you'd have to be crazy to get in a plane where they're at the controls. She's not even the cliched safe pair of hands, as has been demonstrated by the way her department keeps cocking up or lying about their attempts to deport Abu Qatada.  She's also been helped as home secretary by Labour's splitting off of much of the Home Office's former responsibilities to the justice secretary. Indeed, the way she's been talked up, both by herself and it seems George Osborne, suggests some of this might well be a put up job designed to winkle out open dissent which can then be picked off.

The unhappy fact for the disenfranchised in the party is that there is only one other person with widespread appeal among their number, and he isn't currently an MP. Even if Boris could pick up a seat either through a by-election or through an early "retirement" in a safe constituency, Johnson is hardly the traditional figure many seem to want, nor is it clear how his act, which just about saw him through in London last year for a second time, will play on the national stage. He also might reflect that his party needs to break a whole series of precedents if it's to get a majority in 2015, and that regardless of how good he is, he might not be able to manage it.

Instead, the wisest move for all concerned might well be to spend the next couple of years either establishing themselves as contenders, or grooming those who have the potential to be. Should Ed Miliband not be the next prime minister, there's now a number in Labour ready to take over from him.  Picking up the pieces after a defeat is surely better than pre-emptively smashing your own chances.

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Friday, March 08, 2013 


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Thursday, March 07, 2013 

Immigration: just the facts, Ma'am.

Panic, as even the slightest glance at recent history attests is infectious, and politicians for their part are just as susceptible as everyone else, if not more so.  Just a few weeks back it seemed as though immigration had dropped down the political agenda, or was at least not the hot button topic it had been in recent years. Cue a few scaremongering articles in the Mail and Express about the imminent flood of Romanians and Bulgarians (for which read gypsies, gangs, organised criminals and foreign scroungers) and the continuing rise in support for UKIP, and suddenly we have politicians of all stripes scrapping over who can be the harshest on the new arrivals and anyone else non-British claiming benefits. It at least makes a slight change from the seemingly constant assaults on British welfare claimants, but not much of one.

The last few weeks have been a great example of how politics often seems to work now.  Our representatives haven't been responding to public concern, as there was little in the way of complaints about immigrants claiming benefits as opposed to immigrants in general, but rather taking a non-issue, massively exaggerating it to the point at which it then does worry the public, and so demands a response.  As Jonathan Portes sets out at length, immigrants overwhelmingly put more in than they take out (they also speak English to a far greater extent than is often claimed). The only real potential problems are the NHS, where it's non-EU migrants and visitors who have been accused of taking advantage, and the issue of child benefit payments going to parents when their children have never even visited this country, and in that instance it works both ways, even if the payments in other EU countries aren't as high.

Due to this, there's not really much point in arguing with the policies outlined by Yvette Cooper today in her speech.  If making the rules on when migrants can claim Jobseeker's Allowance slightly more stringent than they already are reassures some people, then fine.  Much more useful would be a crackdown on those who exploit migrant labour, as Cooper also proposed, but just how many employers or agencies do succeed in not paying the minimum wage is debatable; it's almost certainly not as many as the public suspect and politicians make out.

Much of the attempt by Labour to get back on the front foot is though a waste of time.  Immigration has become one of those issues that regardless of how you approach it, how sensitively it's debated or how many times you repeat the facts, very few minds are changed.  The evidence for the undercutting of wages, for instance, is slight, yet it is repeatedly brought up and complained about, just as it was once a common claim that social housing being taken almost exclusively by black and Asian families.  

In part, this is the legacy of Labour's great cock-up: the failure to put in place initial controls on the 8 accession states in 2005, and the much quoted estimate that only 14,000 migrants would come a year, which was based on the belief that the other EU states would open their borders at the same time when as it turned out only ourselves, Sweden and Ireland did.  Apologising for that mistake is pointless when the effect has turned out to be so massive, as is Cooper's other comment that diversity makes us stronger when she and other politicians then say in the next sentence that immigration must now either be extremely limited or stopped altogether.  Indeed, it achieves exactly the opposite of the effect intended when, as the statistics continue to show, net migration continues to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The only way to tackle the disquiet caused by immigration is to be brutally honest.  Freedom of movement is clearly here to stay, and if anything borders are likely to become ever more open rather than closed, with a few exceptions.  It is the utter hypocrisy on the part of the Western world to say to the poor in developing countries that they must stay where they are while those lucky enough to be born in the West can essentially go wherever they please so long as they have the money to back them.  Moreover, the attempts to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands are likely to damage the economy in both the short and the long term, as we're already seeing with the numbers of foreign students wanting to come here dropping dramatically.  Closing the door to those who take almost nothing out in services whilst putting so much in isn't only phenomenally stupid, it does nothing to help those already here who have either been failed somewhere along the line or for whatever reason find themselves out of work.

This isn't a popular argument currently, it's true, and it's certainly not going to go down well initially.  When though we're still discussing immigration come 2015, when it turns out that the coalition has failed miserably to get the numbers down to the tens of thousands, and when it might well be Labour that are making the running due to that, perhaps some will come to the conclusion that it's about time they stopped treating people like fools and confronted them with the cold hard reality.  It might turn out not to be the vote loser they assume.

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013 

If Assad's deluded, what does that make Hague?

By any measure, that the number of people to flee Syria has now reached 1 million is a uniquely grim milestone.  Ultimately, the disaster in the country is not down to indifference or impotence on our part, but rather one of competing geopolitics.  Saudia Arabia and Qatar see the eventual downfall of Assad as the first step in the fightback against Iran, whilst Russia prefers the devil it knows.  China has allied with Russia partly in response to the abuse of the responsibility to protect in Libya, and partly down to not having any real interests in the country.  Ourselves and the Americans also have little in the way of business interests in Syria, unlike Libya, and the Syrian army has shown itself to be a completely different proposition to Gaddafi's military, making the fact we long decided against another military intervention a very good thing indeed.  We find ourselves therefore in the bizarre position of supporting an opposition that has over time became ever more extreme, which is supplied with weapons by two of the most obscenely kleptocratic regimes on the planet, and yet we still seem to believe that somehow, the end result is going to be something that resembles democracy.

At least, this seems to be where we've ended up.  It's difficult to tell, as William Hague's statement to the Commons today must rank as one of the most confused and contradictory interventions for quite some time.  In theory, according to Hague, we're still pushing for a diplomatic solution, except as he admits the chance of one is "slim".  Our policy then "cannot stand still", and "practical assistance" to the opposition must go "hand-in-hand" with diplomacy.  Along with further genuinely non-military equipment that will save lives, we're also likely to be supplying "armoured four-wheel drive vehicles" (one suspects the Syrians will shortly be burdened with our unwanted and unlovely Snatch Land Rovers that worked so well in Afghanistan) so that the leaders of brigades of the FSA can travel around slightly more safely, as well as body armour, which would save more lives if it was given to civilians rather than fighters, but that doesn't seem to be the point.

Indeed, according to Hague the main reason Syria now matters so much is the growth of extremism in the country.  Not so long ago the majority of the media and our own politicians were accusing the regime of attacking itself when car bombs went off, accepting without question the claims of the Free Syrian Army that they had nothing to do with such incidents.  Now that it looks as though the al-Nusra Front is running the show (according to Juan Cole they were the ones who seized the city of Raqqah at the weekend), it turns out that Assad's claims of the opposition being terrorists and al-Qaida weren't all that far off the mark, if a little premature.  Hague says we can't allow Syria to become "another breeding ground for terrorists", yet Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the National Coalition we've recognised as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Syrian people and who he also praises has repeatedly defended al-NusraAs Ghaith Abdul-Ahad set out in the LRB, it's all but impossible to determine which brigades and battalions are "moderate" and which are "extreme", so how on earth can we be sure that our aid will go to the right people?

The answer is that we can't, and we have no intention of ensuring it only goes to moderates.  It's been apparent for quite some time that training of certain groups by special forces has been going on, and the news that heavier weapons are now reaching some of the rebels suggests that any qualms the Saudis and Qataris had about the dangers of anti-aircraft guns falling into the wrong hands have now been overcome. The implication from Hague is that before long, we too will be supplying weapons, again presumably only to "save lives".  As Douglas Alexander pointed out, putting more weapons into the mix in a burgeoning civil war where neither side seems capable of outright victory is likely to achieve the exact opposite. As for what happens to them afterwards, I'll repeat that I'd drop any concerns if they were swiftly sent to Gaza where Hamas certainly would use them to defend Palestinians from Israel, but I suspect this isn't what Hague and friends have in mind.

The reality is that we're continuing to pretend we have some sort of influence when in fact we have next to none. Hague says that to do nothing would be a betrayal of our foreign policy aims, yet our approach so far hasn't prevented the situation on the ground today from developing, one where 10,000 people have died in the past two months and Islamists with alleged links to the local al-Qaida franchise are in the ascendant.  Nothing Hague proposed today is going to alter that, and it could well potentially make things worse.  Doing that nothing seems vastly preferable by contrast.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013 

Keeping secrets secret.

There's a scene in the film Liar Liar (this will almost certainly be the only time I quote from a Jim Carrey film other than the Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind approvingly) in which Carrey's character, compelled to tell the truth after a wish made by his son, screams down the phone at a long-term client once again seeking his legal advice that he should "STOP BREAKING THE LAW, ASSHOLE".

 A similar scene ought to have been repeated a long time ago when it came to the intelligence agencies and their active collusion both with the US rendition programme, and indeed as we now know, MI6's own escapades in delivering opponents of Gaddafi back into his torture system, I mean prison system.  Of course, this could never have happened as, we also now know, it was Jack Straw who was signing the paperwork that authorised the rendition in the first place.

The misfortune of the coalition is that they've been the ones left to deal with the mess created by years of litigation from former detainees who believe, rather justifiably considering what's come to light as well as from their own experiences that both MI5 and SIS were up to their neck in rendition.  The government, desperate to ensure that hundreds of thousands of pages of documents detailing what was going on at the time the former Guantanamo detainees were either being transferred or in the odd case, actively handed over to the Americans remain secret, has in the aftermath of the "seven paragraphs" and a ruling by the Court of Appeal that allegations of wrongdoing must be heard in public, instead resorted to large cash settlements, accepting no culpability for what happened to the men.  The latest, a massive payout to Sami al-Saadi, one of the two men sent back to Gaddafi's holiday camps, was for £2.2 million.

An obvious solution to this unpleasantness would be, you would have thought, to not get involved in illegal conspiracies where "terrorist suspects" are flown to various black sites around the world, or as the rendition programme has since ceased, to not actively conspire with authoritarian states over the detention of opposition figures, regardless of the business interests involved.  This doesn't mean not working with states that we regard as having poor records on human rights whatsoever, when such relationships are vital to protecting our own citizens and interests, rather it means just not helping them with the things that our own courts would reject.

But no.  No, what we need instead to placate both foreign intelligence agencies and to protect our sources on the ground is closed material procedures in civil cases, similar to the current Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, where claimants (or defendants, in SIAC's case) are represented by special advocates who can only give a "gist" of the evidence against their clients to them.  Passed yesterday in parliament, the system will allow justice to be done, the claimants either vindicated or the intelligence agencies cleared of wrongdoing, the taxpayer no longer giving money to suspected terrorists to fund future missions, as Ken Clarke implied at one point, and our allies who have threatened to stop sharing intelligence due to a supposed breach of the "control" principle will be satisfied.

As Henry Porter (as an aside, it's worth noting the lack of outrage from the vast majority of those who condemned ZaNuLiarBore for their constant attacks on civil liberties this time round) and Richard Norton-Taylor have pointed out, these arguments might carry more weight if we didn't know all too well this part of the Justice and Security Bill only exists because of lobbying from the intelligence agencies.  The fact is that the courts were getting far too close to the truth: that despite all of the claims to the contrary, the security services are still involved in practices that are either incompatible with basic human rights or which rather than making us more safe, do the exact opposite.  While the Guantanamo detainees all decided to settle, as has al-Saadi since, it's more than possible that someone would emerge who had suffered either at their hands or indirectly who wouldn't, and would take the case all the way.  The seven paragraphs were enough to get ministers hyperventilating; some of the material contained in the documentation of the war on terror could be enough to alter the perception of the security services for a generation.

The row over the control principle was always secondary to this.  The Americans may well have been angered by the release of the seven paragraphs, but they were only ever released by our courts because the American courts had already let even more damning evidence on the treatment of Binyam Mohamed out into the public domain.  In any case, as David Davis pointed out during the debate, the Americans are more than willing to let intelligence out when it shows them in a good light, and to say their own levels of security were previously wanting considering Bradley Manning and Wikileaks is an understatement.  While it's certainly true that SIAC does not always find in the government's favour, as demonstrated in how Abu Qatada has been granted bail and in Ekaterina Zatuliveter's successful appeal against deportation as a spy, unless there are absolutely exceptional reasons justice must be open, and seen to be open.  Closed material procedures were designed to protect the blushes of the security services, and the amendments to the legislation haven't done anything to change this.

No surprise then that Jack Straw himself stood up in the Commons yesterday and argued against his own party.  Not for him a quiet life while the allegations against him continue to be investigated, and as the civil case from Mr Belhaj remains unresolved (Straw didn't take the opportunity to respond to Belhaj's offer of a settlement for a token sum and an apology), this was a case which required his expertise.  Never mind that it's that exact expertise which has seemingly led to the need for this bill, for as Straw reminded us, it's not scaremongering to say that to carry on in the position we are in is the equivalent of abandoning the intelligence agencies, and with it their ability to protect us.  Just as Straw once said it was a conspiracy theory there was any such thing as a rendition programme, so it would be deeply unwise to regard him as discredited now.

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