30 May 2005

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE – 6

And another thing . . . The French “no” shows that self-indulgence remains a powerful force on the left in France.

In 2002, left protest-voting for hopeless fringe-left candidates against Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the presidential election ensured that he came third behind the obnoxious fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and was eliminated, leaving Jacques Chirac to walk the second round.

Yesterday, left voters convinced that “Another Europe is possible” joined Le Pen and the far right to vote “no”. The French Communist Party, the Trots and Laurent Fabius – the Mitterrand-era Socialist prime minister who revived his political career by coming out against the treaty – are congratulating themselves on a grand victory. But who will benefit? Not Chirac, whose star is now definitely on the wane. But not the left either. The crass opportunism of the left “no” camp severely damages the chances that the left will be able to find a candidate at the next presidential election who commands widespread support. Idiots utiles.

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE – 5

The “no” victory in the French referendum on the EU constitution cannot have come as much of a surprise to anyone, although the margin was rather bigger than I expected because I thought there would be a last-minute swing to “yes” that did not happen.

It’s hardly the end of civilisation as we know it, but it is depressing. The constitutional treaty is a long way short of perfect: it is for the most part aimed at making the existing intergovernmentalist EU structures work more efficiently and contains little to address the union’s democratic deficit. But if implemented it would create an institutional settlement that could be improved over time.

Now, however, it looks as if it won’t be implemented: it is difficult to see how the treaty can survive the French “no”, and it will be dead and buried if the Dutch reject it too.

It is even more difficult, however, to see how a better constitutional treaty can be negotiated, at least in the short term. Of course, it is possible that the European political class responds to the setback with the imagination, dynamism, flexibility and commitment to democratic principle that were so conspicuous by their absence in the horse-trading that created the constitutional treaty. But that’s rather unlikely. All the major players are in weak positions domestically. Jacques Chirac has been seriously damaged by yesterday’s vote. Germany faces a general election in autumn that is likely to lead to a change of government. Tony Blair in Britain has announced he will retire during this term. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy looks to be on the way out.

So the most plausible scenario is that the EU’s institutions muddle through for the next few years, adopting some of the measures in the constitutional treaty but failing to do anything to stem popular criticism of their democratic illegitimacy.

If Peter Mandelson’s take on the French referendum is anything to go by, the Blairites in Britain think that the solution is to change the subject from the EU’s institutional arrangements to economic reform, but my hunch is that this would only make matters worse. The French “no” was at least in part a protest against what many voters perceived as the threat to the welfare state and to working conditions from “Anglo-Saxon” “neo-liberalism” and globalisation – epitomised by French companies relocating in east-central Europe, Polish plumbers coming to work in France, Chinese white goods flooding the shops and so on.

I’ll accept that there is a case for market-oriented reform both of certain EU policies – not least the Common Agricultural Policy – and of certain aspects of the (national) labour-market and welfare-state regimes of “old Europe”. But telling continental Europe that the solution to all its ills is to become more like Britain is idiotic. It’s not only guaranteed to put backs up, it’s also at odds with key facts on the ground. Compare the West Coast main line with the TGV. Remember Germany’s remarkable export performance even with 12 per cent unemployment. And don’t forget Britain’s housing bubble and pensions crisis . . .

The comrades from Socialism in an Age of Waiting have a good post here.

STALIN’S PROPAGANDIST

Patrick Cockburn has a fascinating account of MI5’s surveillance of his father Claud in the Independent today, extracted from his memoir of his childhood, The Broken Boy. The extract makes much of the sheer scale of the spooks’ surveillance – but I wonder whether it really is so surprising. As editor of his newsletter The Week and in various roles on the Daily Worker during the 1930s and 1940s, Cockburn senior was the most prominent Stalinist journalist in the Anglophone world and a close associate of Otto Katz, a notorious fixer for the Soviet Union’s international propaganda network. If there was anyone MI5 had a prima facie case for watching, it was Claud Cockburn.

29 May 2005

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE - 4

Glyn Morgan has an excellent piece in the Independent on Sunday here saying what I thought had become the unsayable: what's wrong with the intergovernmentalist EU settlement on which France is voting today is precisely that it doesn't create a European super-state.

28 May 2005

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE - 3

With characteristic clarity, John Palmer puts the left case for a yes vote in the French and Dutch referendums on the European constitution in the Guardian here. And the paper's first leader reinforces the point here:
It defies logic to claim, as many in France have, to be pro-European and argue that a no will produce a better outcome.
Quite so.

27 May 2005

NO TO THE ACADEMIC BOYCOTT– 4

The emergency conference of the Association of University Teachers today voted by a large-ish majority – it wasn't a card vote, so no numbers – to reverse the policy of boycotting Israeli universities that its annual council had adopted earlier in the year. I was there throughout as a delegate and voted against the boycott, so I had something to do with the decision. But my attempt to make a telling intervention in the debate was utter crap: I got stage-fright big-time, froze and then gibbered incoherently. Complete panic. I need help.

24 May 2005

DEFINING MOMENTS

Blimey. Ann Clwyd has been narrowly elected chair of the parliamentary Labour Party (click here) – I thought she'd lose. Which goes to show that, er, I was wrong and (beyond that) that, er, anti-war sentiment isn't quite as big in the PLP as I thought, though it's pretty big, maybe? So could this be the point at which it became clear that, er . . . ?

SCHROEDER’S PREDICAMENT

The German Social Democrats’ defeat in the North Rhine-Westphalia Land election on Sunday was not unexpected, but its scale was – and now Germany is gearing up for an early general election after Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder decided that the only way out is to appeal for a new mandate.

Schroeder’s problem is the unpopularity of his liberalising economic reform programme among the SPD’s core supporters, who stayed away from the polls on Sunday in droves. The workers don’t see cutting welfare benefits, reducing workers’ rights at work and championing free trade as the way to reduce German unemployment, currently running at nearly five million (12 per cent of the workforce).

On the other hand, disillusioned working-class former-SPD supporters didn’t on the whole vote for the much-hyped leftist WASG (Electoral Alternative: Work and Social Justice) list. So Schroeder has flung down the gauntlet: it’s either vote for the SPD and get a managed transition to a less-generous welfare state or vote CDU/CSU and have much nastier market medicine forced down your throat.

So we’re going to witness the bizarre spectacle of an SPD campaign fought on hard class-solidarity rhetoric (there will be very little holding hands with the SPD’s Green coalition partners, on which click here) with the key message that it’s better to have your own lot being mean bastards than the conservatives.

But at risk of alienating all my German comrades, I’m afraid Schroeder is right. Martin Kettle’s piece in the Guardian today is seriously flawed in that it seems to claim that the choice between preserving a generous welfare state in western Europe and competing economically with the US and the far east is a zero-sum game. But Kettle's basic point is sound. Germany has to compete economically, and to do that it needs to change.

NO TO THE ACADEMIC BOYCOTT – 3

Time has passed since my last post on this (here) but I've not changed my mind, and now I'm going to the university lecturers' special conference as a delegate – not because my colleagues voted enthusiastically for my principled stance but because no one could be bothered too much.

At City University we had a big argument on email – but then came an inquorate Association of University Teachers' meeting, leaving the local AUT committee to decide what to do. Because the existing branch delegates couldn't make the special AUT council and because opinion among members was divided, the branch committee agreed (I think very sensibly) to appoint one pro-boycott delegate and one anti. I'm the anti.

23 May 2005

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE - 2

The Independent has an excellent interview with Dany Cohn-Bendit here in which the now 60-year-old former student revolutionary makes some telling points about the French European constitution referendum:
A French "no" will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French "no" would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. Murdoch would jump for joy.

On the French left's no campaign he is withering:

No one has dared to tell them that we live in a world of market forces. That does not mean that you have to accept the extreme religion of Thatcherism or even Blairism. Market forces can be married with social responsibility, a social market. That's still not an argument that you can make with a large part of the left in France. They believe that you can still run France as if it were the 1960s.
The same is true of the British Labour anti-Europeans who have signed up for the no campaign here, who are without exception sentimentalist nationalists who believe in the better yesterday of social democracy in one country, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and the Alternative Economic Strategy.

20 May 2005

GOTTA GET OUTTA THIS PLACE

Mark Seddon, my illustrious successor as Tribune editor, has a piece in the Guardian today headlined "Eighteen months to save Labour" – a cause so urgent that he is about to decamp to New York as UN correspondent of al-Jazeera's English-language service.

19 May 2005

I'M FED UP – BUT I'LL SURVIVE

Yeah, I know there's lots of stuff going on, but I can't be bothered today. One reason only . . .



As we used to sing in the 1970s:
We can't read, we can't write –
But that don't really matter
We come down from Ipswich Town
Riding on our tractors
But these days we can't even beat the bloody Hammers.

18 May 2005

THIS SHOW WILL RUN AND RUN

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 May 2005

Sure, it was great theatre, with a bravado performance from the leading actor. You certainly have to salute George Galloway’s courage, his strength and his indefategability after his appearance at the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Tuesday. But did it actually change anything?

People who believe Galloway when he says he knew nothing of the business dealings of Fawaz Zureikat — a Jordanian businessman who was a major donor to and the chairman of Galloway’s campaign against sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Mariam Appeal — still reckon that Galloway has no case to answer over the allegations that he was the beneficiary of money obtained from the UN oil-for-food scheme.

And people who believe that Galloway knew a lot about the nature of Zureikat’s business — which included making substantial sums from oil-for-food — still think that Galloway’s claims that he is the victim of politically motivated forgery are no more than hot air and bluster.

In other words, this one is set to run and run until clear evidence emerges either for or against the Senate subcommittee’s conclusion that the documents it has retreived from Iraq (supplemented by various interviews) show Galloway or his campaign to have received oil-for-food vouchers.

Galloway’s supporters are pinning their hopes on proving that the documents are fake. The latest issue of Socialist Worker, the paper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party that forms the core of Galloway’s Respect Unity Coalition, tries to do just that with one of them — albeit not very convincingly. If the Senate subcommittee’s allegations are to be taken seriously, it needs to demonstrate that the documents are genuine.

But even if it manages to do this, the show will be far from over. Just because a genuine document shows that someone was allocated oil-for-food vouchers does not mean he or she necessarily received them. I can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which corrupt officials siphoned them off.

Most importantly, though, suspicion of Galloway will not be laid to rest until he opens the books of the Mariam Appeal. He says that the Mariam Appeal was investigated by the Charity Commission in 2003-04 and completely cleared of any wrong-doing, but it’s a bit more complex than that (click here for original inquiry).

In fact, the Charity Commission didn’t have access to the Mariam Appeal’s books, which had been taken in 2001 to Jordan, where Zureikat lived.

As the commission put it in a press release this week: “By 2003, the appeal had been closed and the books and records had been sent to Jordan . . . Our inquiry therefore had to rely on details we were able to obtain from the appeal's bank accounts . . . We did not undertake a detailed review of sources of income to the appeal because the original concern prompting our inquiry was about the use to which funds had been put.”

Surely Galloway can prevail on Zureikat to put all the Mariam Appeal’s records in the public domain so that a “detailed review of sources of income to the appeal” can now take place? And if not, why not?

***

On a different matter entirely, I was amazed to read in The Times last week that the supposedly left-leaning Centre for a Social Europe, which is backed by several left-wing Labour MPs, has decided to throw in its lot with the xenophobes of the free-market right in a single campaign for a “no” vote in the forthcoming referendum on the European Union constitutional treaty.

It’s not just that I can’t see why these chumps think the EU constitutional treaty is so dreadful from their own point of view. Largely as a result of Britain's insistence during the protracted drafting negotiations, it is the nearest thing there could be to a plan for a European institutional settlement acceptable to sceptical opinion. It is intergovernmentalist rather than federalist in essence, with very little in the way of increased powers for the European Parliament. As an out-and-out federalist, I’m going to have to hold my nose to vote for it.

What I really can’t get my head around, however, is the sheer idiocy of left-wingers deciding to become a tiny, swamped minority in a campaign that will be (a) overwhelmingly dominated by the Tories and far-right loons who want to destroy the welfare state, reduce workers’ rights, send immigrants home and tell the frogs to hop off; and (b), if successful, a massive boost for the Tories’ next election campaign. What on earth is going through the left Europhobes’ minds?

THE BIG LIE? - 8

Very busy, so considered thoughts on the Galloway hearing will have to wait until later. For now, though, I'm amazed that in this day and age the complete transcript of the hearing (including the bits where Galloway evades questions on Fawaz Zureikat) does not appear to be online. Please email me if you know where to find it!

ONE FOR 1980s PEACENIKS

This collection of documents suggests that the Warsaw Pact had a nuclear first-strike policy from the 1960s onwards. Funny, that's not what those nice people in the Soviet Peace Committee used to say . . .

15 May 2005

THE BIG LIE? - 6

Not a lot in the Sundays on George Galloway apart from this in the Independent on Sunday – not bad in that some of the key issues are dealt with towards the end, but spoilt by leading on Galloway's bluster about McCarthyism and far too concerned with the side-issue of whether Galloway benefited personally from the oil-for-food scandal.

As I've said, as Harry has said (much more convincingly and at greater length), whether or not Galloway personally trousered the cash isn't what matters – it's whether his political campaigning for Saddam Hussein was financed directly or indirectly by Saddam Hussein.

As for Galloway's fate compared with the victims of Senator Joe McCarthy – well, give us all a break. McCarthy was a right-wing populist demagogue who had no evidence for his claims that there were 205 (or was it 57, or was it 81?) card-carrying members of the Communist Party in key positions in the US administration. He exploited fear about (real) Soviet espionage to create a climate of hysteria.

Galloway is accused specifically, on the basis of evidence that deserves, prima facie, to be taken seriously, of at least accepting and possibly procuring money from a murderous totalitarian regime that had failed to comply with UN resolutions after invading one of its neighbours. And he did so, the evidence suggests, to act as a propagandist for that regime. It's not McCarthyism to demand that he accounts for his actions.

OXBRIDGE MEMORIES

Phil Edwards's post here on one of his peers is good fun.

MAN GETS JOB ON STRUGGLING MAGAZIN

So it's out with Peter Wilby and in with John Kampfner at the New Statesman – and Wilby was pushed. (On this the best so far is Sholto Byrnes in the Independent on Sunday here, though ignore the rubbish about how the circulation has gone up dramatically in the past 10 years: it hasn't.) Believe it or not, the Statesman could get even worse.

THE BATTLE FOR EUROPE

Robin Butley writes:

The sacked Europe minister, Denis MacShane, has a knockabout piece in the Observer here. I was particularly intrigued by his remarks on Labour's shameful history of anti-Europeanism:
Sadly, it was the Conservatives who were the European party between 1945 and 1990. Labour affected a patriotic British disdain for Europe: remember those speeches by Peter Shore, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and their little helpers and researchers who kept Labour out of power for decades? Only in middle age did they come round to understanding that anti-Europeanism gets cheers and headlines from the Rothermere and Murdoch press but is not supported by the voters at the ballot box.
Now, who precisely were the "little helpers" to whom he refers? Could they include his former boss at the Foreign Office, Jack Straw, whose record as a Europhobe loon working for Barbara Castle and Peter Shore in the 1970s and early 1980s was remarkable?

MacShane, incidentally, is an old mate of Observer editor Roger Alton. He can't have been hired as a permanent replacement for David Aaronovitch, can he?

Paul Anderson adds: There's a good pre-election piece by MacShane on the European constitution on the Chartist website here. And remind yourselves of the list of current Labour Europhobes here.

PR BACK ON THE AGENDA - 3

I missed this story in the Independent about Charles Falconer, Lord Chancellor and head of the Department of Constitutional Affairs, rejecting thoughts of reforming the electoral system for the House of Commons:
Asked about the unfairness of a system where 36 per cent of the vote could produce a government with a large majority, he said: “I’m not sure there’s widespread discontent with the electoral system. I’m not sure there’s pressure for change.”

Which rather confirms my scepticism in my last post on the subject. (Hat tip: Nick Barlow)

14 May 2005

CRETINO-LEFTISM – 5: LABOUR’S ANTI-EUROPEANS

Robin Butley writes:

It looks as if the chumps on Labour’s Europhobe wing have decided to join up with the Tories and the xenophobe right in the campaign against British endorsement of the European constitution. My moles tell me that the Centre for a Social Europe, the nominally left-leaning pressure group set up last year by Ian Davidson MP and others – I say "nominally" because its sources of funding have never been disclosed, and other supposedly left-leaning anti-European pressure groups have in the past been bankrolled by right-wing xenophobe money – has agreed to become part of No, the new umbrella anti-European campaign for the referendum, which will be dominated by diehard Tory right-wingers and the bigots of UKIP and Veritas. No BNP spotted yet, but Labour’s anti-Europe useful idiots are playing a very dangerous game.

13 May 2005

LABOUR'S REDUCED MAJORITY - 4

Some more trivia I've not seen, or not seen teased out. The last time a party won a parliamentary majority with less than 40 per cent of the vote was in 1922, when the Tories got a stonking landslide on 38 per cent.

But they lost in the next election, a little over a year later, despite taking almost exactly the same share of the vote – which of course led to the first Labour government under Ramsay Macdonald. And one reason they lost (not the only one) was that they botched choosing a leader while in government.

Someone at Labour HQ should check out The Impact of Labour, 1920-1924 by Maurice Cowling, the Conservative historian whose salon at Peterhouse, Cambridge, yielded so many of the bright sparks of Thatcherism. There really is nothing better on how not to manage a Commons majority.

LABOUR'S REDUCED MAJORITY - 3

Maybe I've missed someone else pointing this out, but pre-Blair Labour had a majority greater than 66 only twice: 1945 and 1966. In terms of Commons majorities, this is the fifth-best Labour result ever. Though, needless to say, that's no reason for complacency.

THE BIG LIE? - 5

I can't keep up with him. Harry, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. All of you.

THE BIG LIE? – 4

A couple of people have emailed to say I’ve got it wrong about the latest Galloway allegations and that it really is about him personally pocketing the money.

Well, I’ll grant that the US Senate committee report raises the issue again – and of course, it would be quite something if it turns out that Galloway has millions from the oil-for-food scam salted away in offshore bank accounts.

But I think it’s a mistake to make a priority of pursuing this angle. Whether Galloway personally benefited from oil-for-food is not as important as whether his political campaigning was subsidised by it – and on this he is on the rack.

Galloway’s friend and political associate, the Jordanian businessman Fawaz Zuriekat, appears to have made substantial sums from oil-for-food and was (on Galloway’s own admission) a major donor to the Mariam Appeal, which (again on Galloway’s own admission) funded much of Galloway's globe-trotting campaigning. If Zuriekat did indeed make money from oil-for-food, that makes for a major scandal even if Galloway knew nothing of his business dealings. And if Galloway knew – well, work it out for yourselves.

The key questions, in other words, are about the nature of Zuriekat’s business and about Galloway’s relationship with Zuriekat, particularly in the Mariam Appeal: when they met, how well they knew one another, how much Zuriekat handed over to the Mariam Appeal and for what, why the Mariam Appeal moved all its records to Jordan, what other financial arrangements existed between Galloway and Zuriekat, how much Galloway knew of Zuriekat’s business, whether he asked Zuriekat where the money was coming from et cetera.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph has a piece explaining what was and what wasn’t determined by Galloway’s libel action here. And Harry (here) is having a field-day again. Maybe I'll just leave it to him . . .

12 May 2005

PR BACK ON THE AGENDA - 2

I've been convinced of the case for proportional representation for a long time, and I'm heartened that yesterday evening's Make Votes Count meeting in Westminster was well attended and enthusiastic (click here for Anthony Barnett's take on it).

But I'm also aware of just how difficult it will be to persuade any ruling party of its merits. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Tories simply blanked the issue, and Labour since 1997 has taken pretty much the same line. Obviously, a change in the voting sytem for the Commons requires a government to legislate it. But turkeys, to use the old cliche, don't vote for Christmas.

Labour support for electoral reform, as the Independent reminded us this week, is at an all-time high – though its figure of 100 MPs in the reform lobby conflates enthusiasts for PR and backers of the alternative vote, which is not remotely a PR system.

But the antipathy to any change at all remains strong at the top of the parliamentary Labour Party (click here for Jack Straw in the Guardian today), and there is little indication that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown has suddenly embraced PR – not even the compromise version advocated by Lord Jenkins in his long-forgotten first-term report. The Tories for the most part remain antipathetic, and the Lib Dems want a single-transferable vote system that, well, hardly anyone else would back.

The upshot is that, despite the renewed interest in electoral reform as a result of last week's election result, which saw Labour win a large majority on just 36 per cent of the popular vote, it's no clearer than ever how it could come about. In my dreams, I see Blair and Brown suddenly realising that a PR referendum right now would be a brilliant way of restoring legitimacy to the democratic process (which would also do serious damage to the Tories' prospects of ever winning a majority on their own). But in the cold light of day I reckon the cause will have to wait until there's a hung parliament.

THE BIG LIE? - 3

And yet another thing. I agree with Harry that this isn't primarily about Galloway personally trousering large wads of wonga. The questions are:
1. Was Galloway's political campaign, the Mariam Appeal, subsidised indirectly by Saddam Hussein's regime via the Jordanian businessman Fawaz Zuriekat?

2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, did Galloway know?

3. And if it's yes to 1 and no to 2, did Galloway ask Zuriekat where his money came from?

4. Was the Mariam Appeal used by Zuriekat to launder oil-for-food receipts back to Saddam's regime?

5. If the answer to question 4 is yes, did Galloway know?
Now Galloway has accepted the invitation to appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we might get some answers to these questions – or we might not. My hunch is that if he actually goes to Washington, Galloway will stick to insisting loudly that he has not personally received a penny, that he was vindicated in his libel action against the Telegraph and that he's the victim of an elaborate imperialist set-up.

THE BIG LIE? - 2

And another thing . . . As Harry notes here, contrary to Galloway's claims, the gorgeous one was not completely vindicated by the Charity Commission over the operation of the Mariam Appeal, the anti-sanctions campaign he set up in 1998.

Oh, and again contrary to Galloway's claims, his libel action against the Telegraph did not prove the documents used by the paper were forgeries. The court made no judgment on the veracity or otherwise of the documents in deciding in Galloway's favour.

THE BIG LIE? – 1

Must-have download of the day is the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ report on George Galloway and Charles Pasqua, available here.

For now, two points that are worth noting. First, contrary to Galloway’s claims, the report does not repeat the allegations over which he sued the Telegraph: it develops a story published in the Guardian last year (over which Galloway didn't sue) with some new documents and interviews with former senior figures from Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Tariq Aziz. Second, it seems that the committee interviewed Aziz the very same week that Galloway demanded his release from gaol and described him as an "eminent diplomatic and intellectual person". Interestingly, the report shows that Aziz fingered Pasqua but not Galloway . . .

11 May 2005

WHEN WILL BLAIR GO?

There has been a lot of speculation since I last posted on this – much of it wishful thinking, whether by Blair's enemies, who want him out as soon as possible, or by his most ardent admirers, who think he should go on right up to the next general election.

As for me, I'm sticking on 18 months or maybe two years hence, for three reasons. First, there is no pressing reason for him to go before then. Unless the reports of today's meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party are complete fabrications, there too few Labour MPs who want him out now to force a leadership election this year. The Labour Party constitution requires 20 per cent of MPs to vote for a leadership election to start the process – 72 MPs in the current PLP – which would inevitably be protracted, bloody and disastrous for Labour's standing, and most Labour MPs know it. I can't see it happening (nor should it). The alternative scenario for forcing a leadership election, through a de facto vote of no confidence at the party conference, is just as implausible. As things stand, Blair can go at the time of his own choosing.

Secondly, though it's related because it's one reason that the pressure for him to go now is weak, even those who want him out in due course (most supporters of Gordon Brown) are aware that there are a few nasty jobs that need doing for which it would be as well to let Blair take most of the flak. The most obvious is leading the yes campaign in the European constitution referendum, but there are others, among them seeing through the proposed council tax revaluation.

And, thirdly, it makes sense for Blair to go a couple of years or so before the next general election both to give his successor a chance to establish his or her credibility (OK, his, because at present there's not a man or woman who could beat Brown) and to prevent the leadership election process, which will take a couple of months at least, being blown off course by unforeseen events.

Of course, my crystal ball might be faulty. A French "no" at the end of the month would remove one of the reasons Gordon Brown wants Blair to hang on for a while – and the calls for Blair's head could become irresistible if the Tories this autumn elect a charismatic new leader who takes them to 50 per cent in the opinion polls at Labour's expense. Like, er, Boris . . . Alternatively, there are circumstances in which Blair might decide to stay until the last possible minute. And then there are all the things that could go wrong in the war on terror and in Iraq, key figures being run over by buses, the kind of girls who make the News of the World . . . Oh, all right, I've got a hunch, that's all.

9 May 2005

TORIES ON THE ROPES – 4

Socialism in an Age of Waiting respond to my previous posts on the election by raising the possibility of the Tories attempting to get out of their current predicament by "courting the Lib Dems, with a view to forming a grand anti-Labour alliance around policy positions that both parties could sign up to with only a few adjustments, and, crucially, with the enthusiastic support of much of the media for glib rhetoric about 'consensus' and 'freedom'." (The whole post is here.)

That would certainly make some sense from the Tories' point of view. But it is difficult to imagine the Tory party as it has become electing a leader who would adopt such a strategy. And it would be very risky for the Lib Dems. It's true that there is a great deal of convergence between the Lib Dems and the Tories on economic policy, but the Lib Dems have advanced as far as they have by positioning themselves (rhetorically at least) on the left. Cosying up to the Tories would lose them not only last week's former-Labour protest voters but the anti-Tory tactical voters who won them seats in 1997 and 2001 and (mostly) stayed with them this time.

LABOUR’S REDUCED MAJORITY – 2

Just to back up my point about the decline of Labour’s backbench rebel army, I’ve had a quick once through my clippings to identify the MPs who on previous performance are most likely to take an anti-government line over the European constitution – the most important issue facing the government in the next 18 months (assuming France votes yes). And by my reckoning the Europhobe rump in the parliamentary Labour Party now has only 29 members:
Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington); Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley); Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell); Michael Clapham (Barnsley West and Penistone); Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead); Frank Cook (Stockton North); Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North); Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne Central); Jon Cruddas (Dagenham); Ann Cryer (Keighley); John Cummings (Easington); Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West); David Drew (Stroud); Gwynneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich); Bill Etherington (Sunderland North) ; Frank Field (Birkenhead); Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central); Dr Ian Gibson (Norwich North); Roger Godsiff (Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath); Tom Harris (Glasgow South); Kate Hoey (Vauxhall); Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North); John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington); Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby); Alan Simpson (Nottingham South); Dennis Skinner (Bolsover); David Taylor (Leicestershire North West); Alan Williams (Swansea West); and Mike Wood (Batley and Spen).
Even if I’ve missed a couple – I don’t know the views of all new Labour MPs – that’s not enough to deny the government a majority even if Labour’s anti-Europeans team up with every single MP from the opposition. Compare and contrast with John Major after 1992.

8 May 2005

TORIES ON THE ROPES – 3

Lots of froth in the Sundays on the election. But John Rentoul makes a lot of sense in the Independent on Sunday (online but you have to pay, so no link):
Most of the Liberal Democrat vote is still potentially part of the New Labour coalition. As much as 5 per cent of the electorate is parked temporarily on Charles Kennedy's lawn, but they are essentially Labour supporters protesting about Iraq or the nexus of Labour 'betrayals' that it stands for. . . With no sign that anyone in the Conservative parliamentary party even begins to understand the scale of the task of reconstruction required, that means we are heading for a Labour landslide next time.
And Robert Harris is good in the Sunday Times (click here):

Yes, the Conservatives have 33 new MPs, but many performed scarcely better than four years ago, winning only because Labour voters deserted to the Liberal Democrats. If this is the great springboard for victory in 2009, where is the spring? Yet the coverage in the Conservative press has been little short of triumphalist. Reading yesterday’s Daily Mail one might have thought that the Tories had romped home. It was like the scene in Citizen Kane, when two alternative front pages are being prepared for election night. One carries a banner headline: “Kane governor!” The other has a tiny strapline, “Kane defeated”, above the screaming typeface: “Fraud at polls!” “I’m afraid we’ve got no choice,” says the editor, picking the latter. “This one.” It could have been Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor, speaking.
The Sunday Times also has the best psephological analysis of the election so far, by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, which is unfortunately not online. And The People (also not online) runs a story that appears to confirm my hunch that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have agreed to a handover after the European constitution referendum.

7 May 2005

LABOUR'S REDUCED MAJORITY

The fact that Labour has a smaller majority in the House of Commons obviously changes the terms of trade between the government and the parliamentary Labour Party – but by how much?

The commentariat consensus is that (1) it gives rebels of one kind or another much greater oomph and (2) it necessitates a more collegiate governmental style than heretofore.

I wonder. The old Labour rebel army has been much reduced by retirements and election defeats – there's hardly anyone left now from the old Tribunite Europhobe soft left of the 1970s and 1980s, no one from the Peter Shore Europhobe right, and the Campaign Group is down at least five members to about 20 (among 360 MPs).

This is a much more New Labour PLP than previously.

And on Europe, which will be the key issue of the next parliament (assuming France votes yes to the EU constitution), the government will whip mercilessly to get it to toe the line in advance of the constitution referendum – regardless of the state of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

My guess is that the current deal between the two is that Blair has said he'll go in 18 months as long as Brown pitches himself 100 per cent into the yes campaign on the constituion, regardless of the result – and that Brown has agreed.

That means war on Labour anti-Europeanism, starting now. And rebels will get the short shrift they deserve.

TORIES ON THE ROPES - 2

The Guardian has a good report today by Alan Travis (here) that contradicts my claim (click here) that the Tories haven’t created too many marginal seats for the next general election: he writes that no fewer than 43 Labour MPs are now vulnerable to a swing against Labour of just 2.5 per cent next time around, 35 of whom have the Tories in second position. In this election 22 Labour MPs were vulnerable to a 2.5 per cent swing (ie they had majorities of less than 5 per cent), 19 of them Tory targets.

So that’s twice as many Labour MPs in marginals – true. But my point (which I should have expressed better) was that the Tories needed to create many, many more Labour-Tory marginals than they now have to have a hope of winning a parliamentary majority – unless, of course, they do a lot better next time than this.

Labour retained a quarter of the Tories’ prime target seats this time, and a similar performance in 2009 would still leave Labour as the largest party in the Commons, maybe even (depending on how the Lib Dems do) with a majority. At best, this is the Tories’ 1987: I think they’ve got 10 more years in the wilderness on current trends. Though of course, current trends are often misleading.

6 May 2005

THE LIB DEM BREAKTHROUGH

Apart from the dismal Tory performance, the big story of the election is how well the Liberal Democrats have done. They have 62 seats in the new parliament, up 11, as a result of 16 gains – 12 from Labour, three from the Tories and one from Plaid – and five losses, all to the Tories. And they took just over 22 per cent of the popular vote, up from 18 per cent in 2001 and 16 per cent in 1997.

Two things are noteworthy here. First, the Lib Dems' support is about the same as that for the Liberal-Social Democratic Party Alliance in 1987, but it is more conveniently distributed, so they have almost three times as many seats as the Alliance won then. They still have an interest in proportional representation, but it's not quite as pressing as it used to be.

Secondly, they have benefited this time as much from anti-Labour protest voting as from anti-Tory tactical voting. Most of their gains are from Labour and they suffered a net loss of two seats to the Tories. And at the next general election they will be fighting lots more seats from second place against Labour incumbents (see previous post).

It's clear that the Lib Dem advance has come to a large extent from having positioned themselves to the left of Labour (at least in the way "left" is understood by most people) on Iraq, the trustworthiness of Tony Blair and education. But it's unlikely that Labour will be as vulnerable to attack on these grounds at the next election. The Iraq war and the row over university funding should be ancient history by 2009, and hysterical Blairophobia should disappear as soon as the prime minister retires. So at the next election the Lib Dems could well find themselves having to appeal primarily to Tory voters who want Labour out rather than Labour voters who want to teach Blair a lesson.

That is not going to be very easy to handle – particularly if the promised referendum on the EU constitution takes place, which will inevitably force the Lib Dems into alliance with Labour in the "yes" campaign. I could well be wrong here, but my hunch is that the challenge could prove too much for Charles Kennedy and his pals and that 2005 marks the high tide of their advance. We shall see.

TORIES ON THE ROPES

By far the best thing about the election result is just how badly the Tories have done. In terms of their overall share of the vote, they have 33 per cent, which means they have put on just over a single percentage point since 2001 and just two-and-a-half percentage points since 1997. (In 1992, John Major won 42 per cent of the popular vote.) The xenophobe parties to the Tories’ right – UKIP, Veritas, the BNP – won nothing in the way of seats but remain a thorn in the Tories’ side: they took roughly 3 per cent of the popular vote overall despite Michael Howard’s “dog whistle” campaign.

The picture is even grimmer for the Tories when you look at their results in individual constituencies. Half their 36 gains are in suburban London (Enfield Southgate, Ilford North, Hornchurch, Bexleyheath and Crayford, Croydon Central, Wimbledon, Putney, Hammersmith and Fulham) and in the commuter towns around the capital (St Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes North East, Welwyn Hatfield, Braintree, Gravesham, Guildford, Newbury, Reading East). Elsewhere they have had slender pickings at best, doing utterly miserably in the midlands, the north and Scotland and not much better in East Anglia and Kent, on the south coast, in the south-west and in Wales. Labour retained dozens of seats that were safe Tory throughout the Thatcher and Major years.

The Tories also failed to create very many new marginals – "one more heave" will yield very little next time – and dropped from second to third place in Labour-held seats in many urban areas. The Lib Dems are now the main challengers to incumbent Labour MPs nearly everywhere in inner London: they went from third to second in Brent South, Dulwich, Greenwich, Hackney North, Lewisham Deptford, Lewisham West, Leyton, Tottenham and Walthamstow. Outside London, the trend is patchier, but the Tories lost second place to the Lib Dems in Birkenhead, Birmingham Hodge Hill, Birmingham Ladywood, Birmingham Perry Bar, Bradford North, Burnley, Derby South, Doncaster Central, Huddersfield, Hull West, Knowsley North, Leeds Central, Leeds East, Leeds West, Norwich South, Northampton East, Rotherham, St Helens North, Sheffield Attercliffe, Sheffield Brightside and Stoke-on-Trent Central.

All lists in this post are less than definitive. But it's clear that whoever takes over from Howard has an almighty job to turn the Tories into credible challengers for office. Which is excellent news for everyone but the Tories.

NOT SO BAD

With the exception of Bethnal Green and Bow, nothing that hurts. But the campaign to get rid of Galloway starts now.

2 May 2005

NO TO THE ACADEMIC BOYCOTT — 3

Good news for university lecturers: we've got a special conference to discuss what happens next on the decision of our trade union (the Association of University Teachers) to boycott Israeli universities. Which means there's a good chance of overturning the boycott.

1 May 2005

HELP WANTED

Oona King's campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow wants volunteers on election day, when it is expecting a large turn-out from supporters of George "How can he call it Respect?" Galloway aimed at intimidating voters outside polling stations. Oona's office number is 020 7613 4749.

HAT LEGAL ADVICE

OK, I admit it, I’m late on this one, but I put off reading Lord Goldsmith’s advice to the government on the Iraq war because I was terrified I would have to reconsider my opinion. (Actually, I was just busy with other stuff, but that’s not sexy.)

Now, however, I’ve ploughed my way through it all and all the associated material – and, yup, (1) it’s clear that he told the government that there were grounds to dispute the legality of war against Iraq without a new UN resolution and, yup, (2) it’s apparent that he then decided military action was legal once it was obvious that a new UN resolution would not be forthcoming.

But that’s about it. “Government lawyer points out possible problems with war then backs it when push comes to shove” is a lousy headline – except insofar as it’s a completely accurate summary of the story. Goldsmith did what you hire lawyers to do. Why on earth did the government make such a meal of letting it into the public domain?