Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Comment to the BBC on Jody McIntyre interview

Here is the comment I posted here in response to BBC News editor Kevin Bakhurst's defence of Ben Brown's aggressive and offensive interview with Jody McIntyre last night on BBC News, which can be viewed here.

I complained last night, immediately after watching the interview.

My objection is simply illustrated. Were Ben Brown to interview Charles and Camilla about having paint thrown at their car, would he repeatedly ask whether they were asking for it? Would he reference comments that Charles had previously made about other subjects to suggest they justified the attack? Would he ask whether Camilla had thrown anything at the protesters, and then, once she denied it, would he ask again?

The answer is of course no to all of those questions. The same respect should have been shown to Jody. This man did nothing wrong, was the subject of a documented assault by the police, and was treated to a hostile interview as if he were a government minister proposing a controversial new law.

It's not acceptable, it's not responsible and the BBC should sack Ben Brown for it. I'm sure he will find a welcoming home at Sky News, whose viewers are far more used to prejudice and ignorance being rewarded.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Letter to Nick, Vince and Danny

Dear Messrs Clegg, Cable and Alexander,

I am not a constituent of yours; I am not a student (it's been 20 years); I live in Scotland, where the tuition fees policy you are currently deciding upon will have no effect; in short, I have no dog in this hunt.

I know that you never expected to be in this position, from a number of perspectives. You didn't expect ever to be held to account for your tuition fees pledge. You didn't expect ever to be part of a coalition government with the Conservatives. And you didn't expect ever the immense, intense anger which this issue has generated among the British people.

But there are some things you did know. You knew in April, when you pledged to vote against fees increases, precisely what the financial situation in the country was, and the scale of cuts that were necessary. You knew in May, when you entered coalition government, that the decision to cut far deeper than necessity dictated was not what either you or the Conservatives had been given an electoral mandate to do. And you know now that you still genuinely have a choice here, despite the rhetoric, to meet your pledge.

You are hiding behind words like "coalition" and "deficit" to avoid facing the political reality, but really this situation is nothing new. A minister who finds himself at odds with government policy on a point of principle should leave the government and vote against it. It has happened many times before and it will happen many times again.

That is what you should do. It is what you must do if you are to remain credible.

I already know your answer.

Yours regretfully,

Duncan Hothersall

Fairer votes: the phoney war

Setting aside the arrogant London-centricity of the decision to hold the AV referendum on the same day as Scottish and Welsh general elections, there is something even more absurd about the debate over AV. The people fighting for AV, in the main, don't actually want it; and the people fighting against it are, in the main, actually united by their opposition to something entirely different.

I find myself in the former camp. I am a strong believer in proportional representation. In fact I think anyone who attempts to argue against proportionality in a democratic system has no leg to stand on, since the entire basis of democracy is proportionality. But AV won't deliver PR. AV is really a bolster to the first-past-the-post system, effectively including a run-off vote in every constituency to ensure that the winner gains more than 50% of the vote.

On the other side of the argument, if you scratch the surface of a vociferous opponent of AV you will really find a vociferous opponent of PR. They can see that even a small shift away from pure FPTP has the potential to open people's eyes to the attractiveness of full PR, and they want to make sure that doesn't happen. Oh, they are rehearsing the arguments against AV - Churchill has been wheeled out more than once despite his opposition to AV being based on his view that the public were too stupid to use it effectively - but they are really opposed to PR. Ask them. The honest ones will tell you.

So here we are in the middle of a phoney war. We're all fighting over a system in which none of us have any really interest, while the real prize - true proportionality in democracy - has been quite effectively hidden away by the entrenched beneficiaries of FPTP in Westminster. Even so, this is our best chance to open a chink in their armour. So I'll be voting Yes to AV in May, and I urge you to do the same.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Vince: from a power Cable to a blown fuse

His decision has been half-leaked and hinted at for days, and was finally drawn out of him with a whimper this evening. Vince Cable will abstain from the Commons vote on his own proposal, as Business Secretary, for increasing tuition fees. He has allowed himself, and his party, to be the ultimate fall-guys for a Tory policy which he implacably opposed a few months previously.

The Lib Dems are insisting that coalition means they have little choice. Nick Clegg at DPMQs today even made a reasonable stab at defending the alleged fairness in the policy while he was desperately refusing to say how he will vote on it. But Vince Cable - the economic whizz who predicted the banking failure, the best leader the Lib Dems never had, the hero of the election campaign - has taken a hit from which his reputation among the electorate will likely never recover.

The great irony of course is that it was Vince who memorably told Gordon Brown in the Commons that his reputation had gone "from Stalin to Mr Bean". And yet, even as Vince's fall is being played out across the news channels, Gordon's reputation is bolstered by the revelation, from Wikileaks, that in diplomatic negotiations he worked hard to secure justice, but never publicised that work for his own aggrandisement.

Vince Cable used to be the most popular and respected politician in both the House and the country. Coalition has flipped him over and exposed his pure politician heart, prepared to do anything to anyone for power. "Yellow Tories" has never been a more apposite description.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Coulson diversions unravelling

Three weeks ago I blogged about how the timing, execution and end result of the announcement of cuts to child benefits suggested that it was more about press cover than deficit reduction. (The announcement was rushed out, a surprise to senior ministers and the media alike, on the day that Channel 4 showed the Dispatches programme which exposed the complicity of Andy Coulson in widespread phone hacking.) The idea of avoiding the "cost" of means testing by excluding people on the basis of total household income simply didn't stand up to proper scrutiny, and the fact that joint incomes of £80k plus didn't exclude CB while an individual income of £45k did was categorically unreasonable.

More evidence emerged today to back up the suggestion that this was policy on the hoof. According to the WSJ, the Treasury is in disarray over a policy they are calling "unenforceable" for a whole range of reasons well laid out in the linked article.

The bottom line is that it undoubtedly will be more expensive to implement this "is there a higher-rate taxpayer in the household" approach than it would have been to create the means-testing which George Osborne claimed would be too expensive itself to give any overall benefit. And that means that the policy cannot have been checked by civil servants, in the Treasury or in HMRC, before being rushed out as a surprise announcement the day that Dispatches aired.

It was Coulson cover. The cover is blown.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

A brief observation re the destruction of the British economy

Just a simple point really. We had an election in May, and with due respect to the nationalists in the nations, the choice people faced was between the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Labour party.
  • The Tories said they wanted to cut "the majority of the deficit" in this parliament.
  • The Lib Dems said that the Tories plans would jeopardise the recovery, and they argued for a slower deficit reduction.
  • Labour laid out plans to halve the deficit.
The people chose to elect 307 Tory MPs (on 36% of the vote), 258 Labour MPs (29%) and 57 Lib Dems (23%).

In other words, we elected more MPs from parties that wanted a slower, measured deficit reduction than from those that wanted a quick one. And we voted in far greater numbers for parties that wanted a slower, measured deficit reduction than for those that wanted a quick one.

And yet, when the Tories and Lib Dems got together, instead of creating a halfway house between their economic policies, they somehow agreed to cut the entire deficit in this parliament - an extreme policy that neither had campaigned on, and no-one had voted for.

So the next time a supporter of this government tells you this is what the people voted for, tell them what a load of nonsense that is. No-one voted for this except the privileged handful who negotiated the coalition deal.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Coulson diversions: the SpAd and the Child Benefit

[EDIT: Added link to Telegraph article strongly supporting the "Child Benefit announcement was rushed" theory.]

As I blogged yesterday, Monday's Dispatches on Channel 4 exposed an extraordinary shift in the power of the press, specifically Rupert Murdoch's News International.

The phone tapping scandal - gross invasions of privacy committed by many editors and journalists but notably including one Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and now head of communications in the heart of the Tory government -should be a massive news story, with potentially hundreds of arrests and prosecutions, and the redrawing of attitudes towards large media ownership and control.

But in reality, there is an effective news blackout, and the police are refusing to investigate. We know why this is, of course - the very power that was exposed in that programme has been applied very effectively to achieve this result.

But the power of Downing Street has also been applied. And I'm not talking about Cameron, I'm talking about Coulson again.

It's easy to identify the two most significant pieces of exposure this story has had since the Tories came to power. The first was on 1st September, when the New York Times published a huge, explosive exposé of the scandal. And the second was Monday, 4th October, the day the Dispatches programme was aired on Channel 4.

Isn't it extraordinary, then, that on both of those dates, stories were fed to the press by the communications machine in Downing Street which eclipsed the phone hacking scandal? On 1st September, William Hague was persuaded to make an extraordinary personal statement about his relationship with his special adviser, which dominated the front pages and relegated any coverage of the NYT story to also-ran status. This was widely regarded as a mistake and inexplicable as a piece of media management. And on 4th October, in a move openly acknowledged as unplanned and surprising by senior Tory ministers, George Osborne was persuaded to announce a cut in Child Benefit - an announcement which has since unravelled and been backtracked, exposing it for the rush-job that it clearly was.

The clear conclusion is that, alongside the protection racket which ensures that politicians and police officers are scared into doing what News International wants, there is also a press strategy being played out by Cameron's government which is determined to obscure, deflect from and avoid all coverage for this scandal.

I hope that our politicians and our police develop the courage and principles needed to rid us of this media hegemony. Unless they do, we are doomed to a dystopian future where press barons rule the world in their own interest.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Tories and News International - the real coalition

[SECOND EDIT: Around midnight Wednesday 6th Oct the programme was put back onto the 4OD website by Channel 4. To my knowledge no explanation has been given.]

[EDIT: Around 1pm Tuesday 5th Oct the programme linked to below was pulled from the 4OD website by Channel 4, who at this time have not made any public comment as to why they have done this.]

Anyone who didn't see this evening's Channel 4 Dispatches report on the phone tapping scandal should watch it right now, here. And anyone who, like me, has developed a healthy dislike of Peter Oborne for his relentlessly anti-Labour rhetoric, should see past that and watch anyway.

It was billed as potentially the straw to break the camel's back as far as the position of Andy Coulson (former NotW editor, currently David Cameron's PR chief) is concerned. But it turned out to be quite a lot more than that.

It exposed something which, if we're honest, has been hidden in plain sight for years. Our politicians and our public servants - including MPs and the Metropolitan police - are now subservient to the will of the media. The ability of the tabloid press to destroy lives and careers is now so complete that it has shifted the balance of power.

The plain truth is that Rupert Murdoch's News International has successfully run a protection racket powerful enough to persuade parliamentary committees to not call witnesses, and police forces to suppress investigations. The classic double - the threat of ruin to those who oppose, and the promise of riches and security to those who collaborate - has been played out again and again.

And the shocking realisation is that the latest body to decide to collaborate is the Conservative Party, the party of government in this country, in virtual hock to, and in the palm of, Rupert Murdoch. Not just cosying up for good press, not just cultivating links for party gain - the Tories are owned by News International now.

That's the real coalition ruling this country. It's not the Tories and the Lib Dems - that's just a smokescreen. It's the Tories and News International. And the Tories are the junior partner.

Child Benefit: just bloody means-test it

Quite a few people have responded in relatively positive terms to George Osborne's announcement today of a cut in Child Benefit. It has been a low-hanging fruit for government savings for decades, since it is possible to point to millionaires in receipt of government handouts they clearly don't need.

But it is a policy hamstrung by election promises not to introduce means testing to this sacred cow of post-war welfare - when in fact means testing is precisely what it needs. Instead, we have a dreadful fudge: any household with an earner who pays higher rate tax (meaning a salary of over £44.5k) will no longer be eligible.

The main unfairness in this is obvious - a single parent earning £45k will lose CB while two parents earning a combined income of up to £86k would still get the benefit. The same applies to a couple who have chosen to have one partner work and the other stay at home to look after children. It is grossly unfair.

Osborne acknowledges this, but says it is worth it to avoid the "complexity" of means testing. He's wrong. The facilities to means-test this benefit already exist for many other benefits. And if it's complexity he's worried about, why is he introducing a new tax clawback facility to enable this measure, when HMRC have long argued for clawbacks to be phased out, not more introduced, because of the complexities (and costs) they add to the tax system?

On the one hand, Osborne is hamstrung by pre-election promises not to touch child benefit. He clearly intends to deploy the "things are much worse than we thought" argument yet again to justify this volte-face. But he also seems to have calculated that proper means testing would be too much of a u-turn.

George, this is people's lives you're dealing with. Forget the political machinations and the face-saving. If you want to shave money of the Child Benefits bill, the only fair way to do it is means testing. Just bloody do it.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Necessity is the bastard child of ideology

So you believe it's all necessary then? Why?

When I look at a VAT rise which imposed regressive taxation on the poorest in society, and see it matching tax cuts to business and the better off (£15b raised by VAT increase, £14.5b spent on tax cuts) I don't see necessity, I see ideology.

And when I hear Osborne and Alexander saying "it's worse than we thought" when the official figures actually show the deficit to be billions less than was thought before the election, I don't see necessity, I see political opportunism.

And when a party goes into an election aiming to cut a little over half the structural deficit in five years, and then decides to cut 100% in the same timeframe once they cobble together a governing coalition, I don't see necessity, I see old-school Tories imposing small government, and in so doing leaving the poorest to fend for themselves.

And finally, when the new government sets up an independent Office of Budget Responsibility and it shows that the effect of this emergency budget will be to increase the claimant count by an extra 100,000 people per year for the next four years, and this is followed by an attempt to silence and control this new body in its first month of existence, I don't see necessity, I see grubby, Tory politics as usual.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Labour Ate My Hamster, say Tories

It is depressing, but far from surprising, to observe the press briefings from our new chancellor on the so-called "scorched earth policy" of the outgoing Labour government. 'There is even less money than we thought' wail the Tories. 'Labour ate my hamster' scream the tabloids. 'The previous government implemented precisely the policies it said it would and all of the spending was established before the election was called' reports no-one at all, unfortunately.

It's a tried and tested opening move for any new administration to exclaim that it has found things far worse than you could imagine. In sales terms it's called expectations management - painting a bleaker picture than you actually see so that you can later claim a great victory. But it also serves to get a few more anti-Labour headlines into the press to counter the dangerous stories that, post-election, Labour is now polling into the 30s and has had its biggest ever jump in membership.

But when one looks at the facts rather than the rhetoric, it's clear that the "fury" of Cameron and Osborne was prepared well in advance, and was based on scoring political points rather than finding any skeletons in closets. Let's look at their list of grievances.

The highest profile one is bonus payments to civil servants and NHS managers. Only it turns out that the bonuses were a few thousand pounds each to a few thousand middle managers, amounting to £15m in total across the entirety of England and Wales. So, you've lost the goodwill of thousands of workers and saved... sod all. Bravo Gideon.

Then they lay into defence spending - the same people who told Labour their defence spending was too low, now want to cut tens of billions from vital contracts to which we are already committed - and we'd waste ten times the £15 million clawed back from hard working civil servants by contract ending costs alone!

And they're even tagging the "eBorders" project onto this 'scorched earth' narrative, saying that it is running late and over-budget. Really? You mean like, erm, the last government said it was?

Scorched earth? Get over yourselves. Labour brought openness and accountability to the business of government. All the decisions being decried now by the Tories were made publicly and unequivocally by Labour. If this is the sort of spin we are going to get from Dave and Nick's great adventure, then it's certainly nothing more than politics as usual.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The tragic flaw of Salmond's nationalism

The SNP fought - and lost - the 2010 UK general election on a platform of "More Nats, Less Cuts". I've never been a fan of Alex Salmond, and the linguistic butchery of that phrase gave my dislike of him and his party even greater force. But the message it summarises - that the SNP will "fight for Scotland" - is even more offensive when extracted from its soundbite.

The message, which has been reprised repeatedly by Salmond in response to David Cameron's visit north, and appears to form the bulk of SNP policy for all eventualities, is that when cuts come they should not fall on Scotland. This is ludicrous. It is juvenile. It is beyond reason. It is classic SNP.

What the SNP are saying is that, when cuts in public spending are brought in to tackle our national deficit, as we know they must be, they should be made only to the services of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish. In the face of dwindling tax receipts from all parts of the UK, including Scotland, Salmond wants to take more and more for Scotland and leave less and less for the rest of our countrymen.

This for me is the tragic flaw of Salmond's populist brand of nationalism. By reducing his message down to "fighting for Scotland" he ends up being no more than a greedy beggar. And he paints us in Scotland all as greedy beggars too.

Scots voted overwhelmingly last week to reject Salmond's message, and his failed Scottish Government, and placed their trust in a Labour party which has principles, not self-interest, at its heart. One of the reasons we saw such big swings towards Labour in Scotland is that people know that when times get tough it's far more important to be fair and equitable than to be greedy and isolationist.

Next year we'll have the chance to kick them out of power altogether, and I have no doubt we'll take it. Scotland is not taken in by nationalist protectionism. Scotland has demonstrated that it believes in fairness. With apologies for compounding the sins against grammar: "Less Nats, Thank Goodness".

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Suggested opening statement for GB in the debate

Elections are fought over the future, not the past.

Yet when you see me, you see the image of the current Labour government, and many of you can find faults with it. We have made some unpopular decisions. And that is because actually doing this job, running the country, is full of compromise, frustrated intent and blocked opportunity.

Manifestos, while they are the best way we have of setting out our stalls, do not define what will happen in the five years between elections; people and events do.

That is why it's desperately important that the party you elect into government is more than special interests, focus group policies and dog-whistle soundbites. What Britain needs in its political leadership is principle and strength, not someone who will merely exploit your prejudices to get his hands on power.

So please elect the party you believe can respond best to a rapidly changing country and world. Don't be swayed by bought and paid for newspaper headlines, or the rich supporting their own narrow self-interest. And don't be swayed by calls for change without substance, change for change's sake. Look instead for fairness and decency backed with experience.

I'm not a made-for-TV Prime Minister. I'm the real thing.