The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘petty politicking’

Social Care: An Orwellian Debate

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 30, 2010 @ 08:58

I love finding these. Three cheers for managerialism!

Social care is one of those subjects in politics that not many people like talking about. Just like planning for death, no one really likes to think that they, too, will get old one day, and so it gets pushed to the back of the mind.

The healthy thing in recent months has been the fact that, in England at least, this issue has finally gained prominence. It’s not one that’s going to set the world on fire, but due to the ageing population, the increase in life expectancy, and the general rising costs of healthcare, there is no way that we can carry on like we are now.

What we are seeing is the fact that, for what we want our state to do, we simply do not pay enough tax. The accusation hurled at Britain has long been “a European style welfare system on an American style tax system”. While that is an over-simplification, it’s broadly along the right path. We do not have the money to give our population dignified, free, healthcare in their old age.

So instead, we get a distorted debate. One that is about tax, and yet never talks about tax. Instead, we get talk of a levy to be paid on death. And since death is a certainty, this is, indeed, a compulsory levy. A compulsory levy is a tax. But don’t tell the politicians we’ve got them sussed.

The debate over social care nicely illustrates the Orwellian language involved in the politics of today. We get one side talking about something without actually saying it, and then the other calling them out on it, but using extremely emotive and divisive language: “the death tax”.

Hardly grounds for a healthy and open debate.

Frankly, though, this is one of the areas in which democracy gets in the way. The imminent election means there is no chance of politicians being honest, or us having a discussion between the various stakeholders to produce a united way forward. After all, we all want the same thing: care in our old age which isn’t going to bankrupt the country.

In truth, it’s rather surprising that Labour have brought the issue back up today by insisting that the compulsory levy, payable on death, is probably the only way forward. Perhaps, with their declining poll position, they’ve decided they now have nothing to lose, and want to keep painting the Tories as “policy light” while they are still ready to “take the tough decisions”

In policy terms, I think they are right. When’s the best time to tax someone? When they die and don’t need it any more. Better that then ask them to pay for it during their life, and make them sell their house, etc.

But I regret the relentless march of taxes that aren’t honest about what they actually are. National Insurance, anyone?


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The Defection Myth

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 15, 2009 @ 08:56

As stories emerge this morning about how Labour allegedly tried to get Commons Speaker John Bercow to defect to them, in my mind the old problem emerges.

What about democracy?

I’m one of these crazy people who believes the electorate don’t vote for a person. At least, not here in the UK, under our political culture. When the time comes to vote, people look first and foremost for the party label, and if they can’t read, they’ll look for the logo. It’s The Rose! as Westlife once sang; and that’s where you shall place your X. Or any other mark, since returning officers aren’t that bothered really…

There may be a handful of people who claim to vote to endorse their local MP personally. But that’s broadly because they are the fortunate few that have a good individual candidate in the party that they would support anyway. If they don’t stand at the next election, one rather suspects that they would carry on supporting that party anyway, or at least not vote at all.

Then there are others who claim they support their MP, despite them not being a member of the party they actually support. Of course, it’s very easy to say such things inbetween elections. It doesn’t preclude them, come voting time, from doing everything in their power to see them unseated. I’d be shocked if it was any other way. After all, we all want our own party to win, don’t we?

No, we have never really had a personal touch at the Westminster level. We support the candidate who matches our party. We are party voters first and foremost.

So when an MP turns his back on his or her party, my requirements are simple.

They should resign.

The people of Grantham did not vote for a Labour hack. Neither did the voters of Witney, when Shaun Woodward moved to the Labour Party, and in the process got himself a nice safe Labour seat, allowing David Cameron to become the MP for there at the subsequent election.

MPs should not have the audacity to claim that their mandate is a personal one. That gives them too much prestige, too much status. They are – first and foremost – a member of the party machine.

Because defections are grubby, greasy little affairs. They are not done of a sudden Damascene conversion in philosophy. Shaun Woodward did not suddenly wake up one morning and realise he had been living a lie: that he wasn’t a Tory after all.

No, he did it because he saw the shambles of the Tory Party at the time and realised he had bigger prospects elsewhere. And no doubt was promised a leg-up the ladder. After all, he is now a member of the Cabinet. And Quentin Davies hasn’t done too badly either.

And it sounded like Labour were up to their old tricks in Buckinghamshire as well. Just imagine if Bercow had followed them. He would have turned an 18,000 Tory majority on its head.

Could that fairly be called democracy?

So let’s do away with the myth that it’s OK to defect and not have a fresh election. That’s just a convenient way of making sure you don’t have to have your actions held to account by your own electorate.

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When Partisanship Goes Too Far

Posted by The Futility Monster on October 1, 2009 @ 07:01

I enjoy indulging in political tittle-tattle as much as the next person, especially if it involves members of opposition parties. But, at the same time, I know I shouldn’t – primarily because us Lib Dems are no saints either.

But sometimes, a line is crossed… and this particular one has caused me to re-evaluate my position.

In April 2008, Mark Pack, posting on Lib Dem Voice, added a footnote to this post which read:

UPDATE: Meanwhile, in Liverpool a Labour councillor (Ben Williams) has been charged with downloading indecent pictures of children from the internet.

When I read it, I had to take a moment to recompose myself.

Cllr Ben Williams was my former politics tutor at sixth form college.

I then read the BBC News story that Mark linked to. Sheer disbelief. My initial reaction was that this story can’t possibly be true. The man was a great teacher, an inspiration to me, and was a really nice person. He even had his own family. The story just felt wrong to me, and I commented as such on the LDV article on May 1.

Many months later, there was a trial.

In the end, the jury were unable to reach a verdict. Sadly, this isn’t quite a “not guilty”… and so the CPS pressed for a retrial. The anguish for Mr Williams was therefore set to drag on for another year.

The retrial has just finished. And the result?

Ex-Southport and Bootle teacher Ben Williams cleared of child porn charges

Though the jury were again unable to reach a verdict, this time the judge ordered that such a response would equal a not guilty verdict. And so it should. The case against him was weak, and I fully believe the defence he mounted. He is of the highest integrity and character, and didn’t deserve to go through such a horrendous experience.

The problem now is that his reputation is tarnished forever, no matter what the judge has ruled. His CRB Enhanced Disclosure will be filled with all of these allegations and details of the trial, even though he has never been found guilty of an offence. Yet another reason why I am suspicious of the policies behind the CRB

But that doesn’t stop the old “no smoke without fire” old wives tale. No one can possibly imagine the devastating effect of losing nearly two  years of your life to defend yourself against such, nor the ongoing trauma of such an ordeal… never mind the long term consequences of reputational damage.

And this is what’s made me so uneasy. I’m not picking on Mark Pack, because, like I said in the opening, most of us are guilty of taking a bit too much glee in reading about when our rivals up to no good.

But behind all of these stories is a real person, someone who is undoubtedly suffering as a consequence. And, as in this case, many of them are not guilty of the charge they have to bear.

The lesson for me is a stark reminder…

We must cling dearly to our well-worn liberal principle of “innocent until proven guilty”.

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Bercow “Gets It”, But Do Other MPs?

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 25, 2009 @ 06:33

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

See? I told you he's been waiting. He's been standing there all summer, parading with the Mace. He told me he wants to get the Speaker's Procession "just right".

At last! Having enjoyed a nice summer, thank-yew-very-much, Speaker Bercow has decided that it probably should be the last.

I can just imagine him in Speaker’s House, sitting there all summer, “smart but unfussy” black gown hanging neatly in the wardrobe, twiddling his thumbs waiting to get back into action, laying the smackdown on errant MPs and ministers. Seeing all this political activity buzzing around him in conferences up and down the country, and yet powerless to do anything about it.

But it’s not just the summer recess that he wants to truncate. No, he’s got big plans.

The good news for those of us who like manifestos and mandates is that Bercow was elected on a pledge to try to bring these into action. In other words, he’s going to attempt to keep his promises.

“Attempt” is the strongest word we can use, though, as it’s all going to be down to whether his fellow MPs take his lead and bring about some of these changes.

They’re nothing too revolutionary… but they are a very welcome start to try to make the House of Commons more relevant in the modern age. Tacked at the end of the above linked article is probably the most important one: the chance to give backbenchers the opportunity to call a vote. This was a power they used to have, but one they desperately need if we’re to avoid a debacle like the one we saw which eventually led to the demise of Speaker Michael Martin.

Following that too would be the institution of a business committee, like the Scottish Parliament, that would mean the government no longer controls the agenda of the Commons. That is important to strengthen checks and balances.

But the other reforms are just as sensible, and will do an excellent job of at least bringing the Commons into the 20th century, e.g. bringing peers before the Commons is just “common sense” – forget the arcane rules that currently don’t allow MPs to hold Lords Mandelson and Adonis to account. He also listed other reforms, but the level of detail is dull. Suffice it to say that each one on their own is useless, but as a package they will improve the ability of MPs to do the job they should be doing: i.e. holding the government to account.

It is good to see the Speaker using his mandate in this way. He promised he would get out in public and make speeches, even appear on television. That is absolutely right in this modern age. The people aren’t going to come back to the politicians willingly. Alas, they are going to have to go out and re-earn the respect they once had.

The big question is as I said earlier: will the government and opposition frontbenchers (because they’re going to be the next government!) be willing to subject themselves to more scrutiny? Do turkeys vote for Christmas?

And will those Tories who think Speaker Bercow was just one big Labour conspiracy support this agenda?

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a remarkably popular behaviour in Parliament. I wouldn’t bet against it.

(Bercow’s speech to the Hansard Society is not yet available, but most of the key points have been twittered)

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The Realpolitik of International Affairs

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 3, 2009 @ 06:28

What a fine cartoon!

What a fine cartoon!

I don’t know what it is, but I really can’t get excited over the continuing developments regarding the release of the Lockerbie bomber. The only prediction I made was that the Scottish government wouldn’t fall over the issue, as a certain newspaper suggested, and otherwise, it really wouldn’t be the storm that the media are making it out to be.

Well… perhaps I was wrong to a limited extent. There has indeed been quite a deep narrative to this story, enhanced by Gordon Brown doing his usual disappearing act when something controversial arises, which then allowed the London-centric media to do their worst to turn it into a story about Labour.

And so we’ve seen days of leaks, claims, counter-claims and endless publication of documents to try to prove who said what to whom. Once it gets to that stage, I am certain that 90% of the country has tuned out. For them, the story is merely about more political mendacity, more petty politicking, and most of us will choose the part of the story we like that fits our existing prejudices.

In fact, much like anything. It’s not certain many minds have been changed over the issue. Despite majorities opposing the decision, it is extremely unlikely to be the defining issue of any election campaign. Let’s face it, no one’s vote is going to be voting based upon whether the Scottish Justice Secretary has a different definition of “compassion” to everyone else.

This is why the issue hasn’t really captured my imagination. Are we surprised that politicians take decisions in the national interest, that realpolitik is not the order of the day in international affairs? Of course we aren’t. That’s why most of us didn’t believe the prospectus for the Iraq War. That’s why we are now so sceptical about Afghanistan. Because what is in it for us? What are our soldiers dying for?

Like it or not, principles tend to go out the window when other countries are involved.  That’s why Robin Cook’s “ethical dimension” to foreign policy, which he tried to make so much of when he became Foreign Secretary, was not all it cracked up to be when we soon learned that arms sales to oppressive regimes were still continuing.

As a result, I don’t believe that any other government would have taken any other decision on al-Megrahi. Even the Americans. This one is very convenient for them; it allows them to complain on the sidelines while having to bear none of the responsibility. But they will sure reap the reward when Libya continues to enhance its new ties to the West, both in terms of oil and intelligence sharing.

And just to prove my point, this morning Alastair Darling has ordered the world to “keep spending” – mainly because it would benefit us the most for that to happen by making us look less like the debt-laden nation we are.

National interest? Twas ever thus.

(Cartoon from:

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Book Review: The Audacity of Hope

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 22, 2009 @ 06:30

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

Now he really is a little too cheerful on this cover page...

I’ve been meaning to share some of my thoughts on my completion of Barack Obama’s second treatise for a while now but never seem to find the time to do it. However, a trip to Bangor to do some Lib Dem canvassing tomorrow means this post was prepared a little earlier for publication today. Oh, how I love WordPress!

The Audacity of Hope is an impressive read. Obama’s mastery of the spoken word is legendary, but that doesn’t necessarily translate so easily into print. The delivery of Obama’s speeches is as much responsible for his talent as the content of them.

In written form, you have no chance of using pauses for effect and dramatic intonation. You’ve gotta deliver the goods in a completely different way: with cogent, well-structured argument that builds up to its thesis.

Obama seems to be pretty decent at this too. The book is a measured approach to what Obama plans to do during his term(s?) of office. To say it is pragmatic would be an understatement. This book has convinced me that Obama is no visionary, like FDR. He has his dreams, but he doesn’t appear to be able to follow them through because of his (paraphrased) continual refrain of “I see your point”. It gets somewhat exhausting the deeper you go into the tome.

Many times in the book Obama insists that both sides have got the solution to a problem wrong. This is no more so than when he talks about race – an area in which his writing is particularly compelling. He argues that the left making excuses for black people means that they don’t take personal responsibility seriously. Meanwhile, the right’s arguments that they deserve no special treatment doesn’t appreciate the pain brought about by decades of repression.

Yet Obama manages to square the circle in his response, something I’ve discussed in a previous post. His solution to most things appears to be to tell both left and right that they’re wrong reminds me of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Our old friend, The Third Way.

It works to a limited extent. It gets you elected. It keeps people happy for a while. But in the end, when it comes to conviction, it can be a huge drawback. Perhaps this is why he is missing the huge opportunity to push forward with healthcare reform. He tried to make out that he would be a “healing” President, contrary to the way George W. Bush drove everything and anything through Congress.

Consequently, he is terribly afraid of doing the same.

But in the case of healthcare, he’s missing a trick. The public are behind him. He has to be brave enough to take upon the mantle of the destroyer of special interests. He claims he is prepared to take them on in this book; indeed he insists that they are one of the reasons why America is in trouble. But I’ve yet to see him really do it.

I think this natural caution is stopping him from becoming a seriously great President.

While the book is sensible and middle of the road, tackling defence, terrorism, partisan bickering, religion and family in rational, logical ways, his approaches and solutions are lacking. By that I mean that he underestimates his own power of persuasion.

Instead of trying to be centrist and “bi-partisan” by pandering to his opposition for no reason other than keeping them sweet, I believe he could very easily forge a consensus around his true beliefs by ratcheting up the rhetoric. It is equally “bi-partisan” if you stick firmly to your guns and win people to your side. On healthcare, if he could only do that, rather than trade away bits of the necessary reform to buy off corporate lobbyists and corrupt Senators, he would achieve his vision; rather than only get bits of it.

Better still, he would actually deliver something that works. Taking ideas from left and right, just because that’s the nice and friendly thing to do, and adding them up into one package doesn’t make a neat centrist plan that will succeed. It makes a hotch-potch of contradictions that will be exploited and ignored.

This is the dangerous ground he is wading into. He almost did it with the stimulus – which is working – to buy votes in the Senate that he didn’t need. Throughout the book though he is hyper-obsessed with delivering things without the usual partisan battle. Like he has a fetish for seeing the Senate vote count read 70+ instead of the 50 + Joe Biden that will do equally well.

Face up to it, Barack. Politics is about the battle. That’s partly why we play it. That’s why the Republicans want to fight with you at every turn. That is democracy, and the way it has always been done. Even in consensual countries; they still have elections after all! You’re right to say we can work together if our opinions are similarly aligned. But you will get no extra credit for working with crazy, right-wing nutters who think you weren’t even born in the country. Doing so will only water down what you really want, and deliver none of that so-called “change” that you desperately want to bring.

In the book, he seems to believe that he will be able to overcome these decades of partisan hackery. It’s not going to happen. Instead, he needs to show more courage in his beliefs. More faith that he, himself, does have the right answers.

Because that’s the real message that comes across. People shouldn’t go into politics unless they think they have a solution. That they have ideas and a strategy to deploy it. Instead, Obama comes across as not believing he has a way forward – but that he will find it by working with everyone.

It’s a noble attitude, admitting that you don’t have the solution to all of life’s problems. And none of us do. But, for those of us in politics, our fundamental beliefs should give us a steer on almost every issue, no matter what.

Obama doesn’t seem to have that conviction. At least, it doesn’t come across in his writing. His only faith is that the spirit of the American people is strong enough to find a way out of the hole they’re in. As if he can delegate enough power to let everyone else do the reforming for him. A misguided belief, too, that when people work together they can all find the answers that the country desperately needs.

In other words, it’s all the usual optimism and hope that “yes, we can”. But not enough meat.

Then again, if it was full of turgid policy details, I imagine it wouldn’t have been all that exciting a read.

Instead, it flowed well, was enjoyable, and it was uplifting. I really did believe that his brand of change is worth buying into. As a slick marketing document for his presidential candidacy, it is superb. And, as we’ve seen, it did the job.

But, as soon as I put my politico hat back on, I realised I still wasn’t quite sure exactly what it is he wants to sell me. What the implications of his agenda will be.

Fortunately, we have been able to see him get elected, so we can match him up against his word.

So far, it’s not all too good.

Perhaps, like Tony Blair though, he will learn to back his conviction more and more as the years go by.

Just as long as they don’t lead us into Iraq again…

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And The Press Did Spin

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 10, 2009 @ 09:45

He's Just A Loveable Pussycat Really. So he says...

He's Just A Loveable Pussycat Really. So he says...

Can anyone possibly be serious when they suggest that Peter Mandelson could soon become the leader of the Labour Party? Or worse, Prime Minister?

I certainly can’t utter those words without breaking out into a smirk. Because, as we all know, Mandelson is probably the most hated member of the Labour Party. Even surpassing Blair, though we don’t know whether he is indeed still a member. One would have thought so or it could be mighty embarrassing.

However, there is one lesson to be learned from all the headlines surrounding the noble Lord Mandelson’s return to high politics, and reputed visions of gaining the top job.

And it’s one of my old favourites. One I may just possibly have mentioned before.

Never trust the media.

Why? Well, this story is actually one of a tedious, abstract nature.

The issue: whether life peers should be able to resign their peerage and leave the House of Lords behind.

On the face of it, this is totally open and shut. It is madness to suggest that, once made a member of a legislative body, that you should never ever be allowed to leave of your own free will. The only escape basically being when you’re six feet under.

After all, an MP can resign. Indeed, even a hereditary peer can resign. That’s what all that fuss over Tony Benn was all about decades ago. And we managed, somehow, to lay that ghost to rest. The law was changed.

So why shouldn’t a “life” peer be allowed to move on? Such an odd constitution we have thanks to its piecemeal nature.

But wait! How can we make this tedious piece of news into a long-running saga that now even has the Tories excited because they get the chance to enjoy headlines like this: “Tories pledge to block law allowing Lord Mandelson to return to Commons” ?

Well, it’s simple, isn’t it.

Personalisation. The human interest angle. Make each piece of news, no matter how individually worthy or necessary for updating an antiquated constitution, into another piece of the petty partisan battle that will then, inevitably, make people oppose something merely for the sake of it.

And that’s exactly what’s happened. There is actually nothing in the article where the Tories explain why they would oppose such a move. But, after all, that’s not necessary! Why wouldn’t they oppose sticking one over Mandelson! Who wouldn’t?!

And do you know what else?

This is exactly why nothing ever seems to get done in politics.

The media are just as complicit as anyone.

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Lib Demmery

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 29, 2009 @ 23:35

I managed to obtain the template version of a Lib Dem Focus that they use on our training days. Interesting stuff, don't you think?

I managed to obtain the template version of a Lib Dem Focus that they use on our training days. Interesting stuff, don't you think?

Yesterday I chipped in with my Local Lib Dem Focus “Team”.

A team comprising three people, one of which is me.

This is Lib Dem local politics at its finest. Pavement politics. Dog shit. Broken streetlights. Potholes. You name it, we’ve whinged about it.

And, apparently, it works.

Well, it seems to. And though I don’t think we invented pavement politics, it is often attributed to us. And, naturally, much copied.

Using it, customising each leaflet for the different parts of the ward, we have managed to gain a toehold in an area which once had three Tory councillors. It now has two, and we have the third. We hope we can turn the whole area yellow in the next few years. Between the three of us. Oh, and maybe a handful of other older people who deliver maybe five leaflets in their street. Bless ’em.

It is such a disingenuous business though. Not necessarily because of the obvious things, like the much heralded bar charts, but because of their very nature. They talk incessantly about local issues that have no bearing whatsoever on people’s principles. Is the issue of whether the proposed new Sainsbury’s is going to have a petrol filling station attached all that important really when there are people dying in Afghanistan?

The answer… yes. Yes, it does matter.

It is astonishing just how well received a local rag, no more than two sides of A4, which purports to be addressing extremely parochial issues, can be. The electorate – and we’re talking about the very specific group that vote in local council elections, i.e. pensioners – seem to enjoy seeing someone fighting for them.

But while we pretend that it’s all about bus stops and flytipping, meanwhile we, of course, have an agenda. We want power not purely for selfless reasons. Who does? We want it so we can influence the agenda and direct budget priorities towards the kind of things that make us tick.

Yet does any of that feature on those Focus leaflets slipped through the letterbox on yet another wet summer afternoon?

Not a chance.

And yet that is actually what politics is all about. When you talk to any of us, the politicos of this world, we all want to achieve something. But in order to do so, it is somewhat necessary to adjust ourselves slightly to get ahead in the world. You can do very little as a councillors, but you can do a damn sight more than you can on the fringes, sniping in letters to the local newspapers (if they still exist, of course).

But underneath it all runs something else. We treat it as a game, with aims, objectives, strategies. An opposition to seek out and destroy, often by any means necessary. Hence the dirty tricks that arise from time to time. And, as everyone knows, all games have winners and losers.

Oddly enough, us Lib Dems seem to be on the losing side more often than not.

We must be masochists at heart.

That – in a fairly long nutshell – is what it means to be a Lib Dem at the coal face.

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