The Poverty of Nations

24 10 2015

There’s a reason politicians shouldn’t interfere with how people identify themselves. They exploit it for their own ends. Identity is not fixed, but it is deeply felt. It isn’t just about how we see ourselves. It’s about how we differentiate ourselves from others. This is what makes it so dangerous when politicised. In a politician’s hands, it is a tool of division.

Identity isn’t just about the individual, but about how we relate to others – who we identify with, and who we do not. The Left tends to assume – or hope – that the great mass of people will identify by, and with, their socioeconomic class. “Class consciousness”, in  one of those quietly nauseating lefty phrases (the subtext being that if you don’t identify that way, there’s something wrong in your head).

No doubt this is true in certain times and certain places. The middle class invasion brought by gentrification of communities can quickly divide areas along class lines. The 20th century saw waves of class politics – although always with sizeable minorities of left-wing middle class activists and right-wing working class voters.

But class isn’t how most of us identify ourselves, at least not in recent times. Lifestyle columns that attempt to fit us all into class stereotypes usually reveal how thin these are. Middle class people shopping at Aldi, working class people who listen to the Proms, upper class twits at the football – none of these people are stepping out of their “social station”. It’s just a matter of finding a bargain, liking some music, supporting a team.

How people actually identify themselves, and who they identify with, varies hugely – everyone is different, after all. Local community is a common one – where you live and who lives around you, where you grew up and who you grew up with. Religion, race. Taste in music. Sexual preferences and behaviour.

It’s not just about who you are, but who you are not. “I’m a northerner, not a southerner”. “I’m not a hipster”. “I’m liberated; she’s such a prude”. Then there are the familiar badges of honour – “working people”, “taxpayer”. These are just the latest echoes of a refrain that has been repeated through the ages, back through Victorian morality, back through the Poor Laws, to time immemorial. It’s not a manifestation of class identity – there are and have always been workers who are poor. It’s a division between those who identify as “responsible” and “self-sufficient” and others who they feel are not. It is a form of identity that is relentlessly exploited by politicians.

More than just lines on a map

But perhaps the most enduring basis for individual identity is nationality. It’s not logical but identity rarely is. Maybe it’s different in regions that were carved up by colonists in a manner straddling ethnic and racial contours – perhaps in these regions, identity forms more strongly around community, ethnicity or religion than a sense of nationhood. But in Europe, national boundaries are not just the stuff of Sykes-Picot lines. European nations exist in the mind just as solidly as they do on a map.

Little wonder the European integrationist “project” has been so anti-democratic for so long. The crushing of Greece has made the EU’s democratic deficit headline news for the Left, but just because it’s news doesn’t mean it’s new. From the desperate attempts to avoid a British referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, via the referenda in the 2000s where countries that voted No to EU treaties were told to go back and vote Yes, through the post-2010 ousters of elected governments – all this leads inevitably to the EU’s brutality towards Greece.

“Inevitably” is the key word here. This is not an aberration of the EU. This is the EU. This is what the EU is, what it does, and what it has done – in less severe circumstances – for years. I wrote in 2013 about the morphing of the inter-governmental European Community into the untouchable anti-democratic monster of the European Union. The supra-national institutions of the European Commission and European Central Bank were created specifically to override national democracies. This was no accident. It was intentional.

The European federalist project – “an ever closer union” – was always political. It is an ideology in itself, uniting social democrats such as Jacques Delors with the neoliberals of current vintage. It had no basis in economics, no basis in history, and no basis in public opinion anywhere in Europe – across the continent, people identify with their country ahead of their continent. Therefore it had to be imposed from above – supra-national bodies that could dominate and dictate to democratic nation states. A Greek nation run as a debt colony of Brussels and Frankfurt is exactly where this has led.

The current crisis represents the dovetailing of two ideologies – Eurofederalism and neoliberalism. After the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2010, the neoliberals running the ECB and European Commission moved to protect the private banking sector – which had recklessly lent heavily to Greece – by effectively bailing them out. Greek sovereign debt was taken on to government books – it would now be owed to other European countries, with private banks let off the hook.

Similarly, the crisis was largely a result of the core Eurofederalist scheme – the single currency, which had created a single, unsuitable exchange rate for the widely divergent economies of Europe. But instead of admitting that the project was a fiasco (as was its forerunner, ERM) and needed orderly unwinding – which would have brought into question the very existence of the Eurofederalist project – the ECB and European Commission indulged in publicly beating up on the supposedly reckless and feckless Greeks, waging a sustained media war against their alleged profligacy and lax approach to taxation.

Banking debt was turned into state debt to protect neoliberalism. A systemic Eurozone failure was turned into an attack on national traits in order to save Eurofederalism. Both required the sustained manipulation of national identity through the public (and leaked) statements of EU institutions – thrifty creditor nations owed money by feckless debtor states. The Germans who worked hard and saved harder. The Irish who took their medicine. The Greeks who swanned about and dodged their taxes before retiring at fifty. Such caricatures belong in the pages of an 1860s edition of Punch. They now inform how the people of certain EU countries demand their governments behave.

And thus we now have the people of Germany demanding their government impoverish the people of Greece, whilst the government of Slovakia rejoices in punishing the Greek referendum result.

Milton Friedman saw this coming in 1997. He wrote then: “The drive for the Euro has been motivated by politics not economics. The aim has been to link Germany and France so closely as to make a future European war impossible, and to set the stage for a federal United States of Europe. I believe that adoption of the Euro would have the opposite effect. It would exacerbate political tensions by converting divergent shocks … into divisive political issues. Political unity can pave the way for monetary unity. Monetary unity imposed under unfavorable conditions will prove a barrier to the achievement of political unity.”

The EU has pitted nation against nation, democracy against democracy, people against people, to save the banks and Brussels. The legacy will last for decades.

Passing the bucks

National identity is fundamental because of transfer payments – where a rich area “subsidises” a poor area by having some of its tax revenues sent there. People in one area (or socioeconomic group) see some of their money disappear off somewhere else – they become net contributors, giving their money to net dependents. If a strong sense of shared identity – or solidarity – does not exist between the two, tensions are raised pretty quickly.

We see this in our own benefits system, where “hardworking” people resent seeing their taxes go to support unemployed people, single parents etc. The notion of a shared identity across all parts of our society has been driven apart since the financial crisis – it’s now “strivers v shirkers” and other such guff – so taking an axe to those transfer payments is now a vote-winner, and to hell with the consequences.

It’s the same geographically. The European Union – in its pre-Maastricht garb – could function effectively while it had money to spray around. Richer members prospered from internal free trade and external protectionism; poorer members were flooded with grants and development funding. Everybody won.

When EU wealth transfers were limited to development grants, far from the eyes and minds of most voters, there wasn’t an issue. But the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe brought not just financial assistance for the poorer new members, but mass migration from the old Soviet bloc to the richer nations of Western Europe. This migration was also a form of wealth transfer – many migrant workers would send some of their pay to their families back home. But it was far more visible than before. Amid (often overblown) claims of lowering wages and taking natives’ jobs, hostility to EU migration rose, and hostility to the EU itself rose with it.

This would not have been the reaction if there was any sort of shared “European” identity. There wasn’t. The EU periodically engaged in various nonsense gimmicks to try and generate one, but this achieved little more than idle ridicule in the British right-wing press. People within a community, a city, or a nation may feel comfortable (sometimes) paying to assist poorer members of that community, city or nation. Richer states in the USA accept that some of their revenues are rerouted to poorer states – that’s just part of the deal. But it doesn’t apply between European nations. As a result, such policies within the EU have always been driven from the centre; there is no shared identity to drive them from below.

The EU bailouts in the first half of this decade created a debtor-creditor relationship between EU members. With the slump in Europe’s economies, any vestige of solidarity between European nations has collapsed; it is every nation for itself. With Greece owing huge amounts of money to other European countries, any default or restructuring of Greek debt is seen as another transfer payment, from richer creditors to struggling Greece. The fact that this debt is unrepayable under any circumstance is relegated to a footnote. With the EU and Germany in particular having spent years deriding Greece for its supposed laziness and corruption, it is little wonder the people of creditor nations reject any such “subsidy” being implemented now. There is no shared identity, no solidarity, and in such a case division is inevitable. The Schengen Agreement may have removed national border controls in Europe, but national borders are still there in our minds.

Even where a shared identity does exist – within national borders, even within local communities – extended perceived subsidies can wear it down. The British welfare state, seven decades old, is a perfect example: transfer payments introduced under a banner of post-war social solidarity collapsing under the weight of political rhetoric and public pressure from voters fed up of – as they see it – subsidising the “workshy”. Shared nationality only becomes relevant when ire is directed at foreign aid or refugees.

Another pernicious trend that is growing across Europe is a kind of economic separatism, where richer regions start pulling away from their nation state so as to hold on to their revenues rather than subsidising poorer parts of the country. This year’s general election campaign showed how many English voters regard Scotland as a subsidy junkie, whilst Scots see North Sea oil revenue as a wealth transfer to England. Catalan nationalism has spiked as voters in Spain’s second richest region tire of subsidising poorer regions. Similar trends can be seen in Italy and elsewhere.

What happens to poorer regions, without transfer payments or fresh investment capital, is left unanswered.

A new Dawn

Nationalism breeds nationalism in response. English nationalism rose after the Scottish independence referendum. Nationalism of various forms is rising across Eurozone states as the bitter fallout settles along national and intra-national lines.

The IMF knows that the Greek deal passed this summer will not work – there will have to be a debt write-off down the line, once Greek society has been driven even further into the dust. It doesn’t take Keynes to know where this is likely to lead – Greek nationalism, and an angry nationalist reaction from creditor nations finding the money owed to them will not be repaid. If similar failures occur in other stricken European states, the same pattern will occur.

The actual fault lines of neoliberalism’s failures are not along national boundaries – at least, not within Europe. Even Germany’s economic success was built on wage suppression (feeding in to a national identity of thrift and labour). Wherever you go throughout Europe, elites are enriched, banks rescued, public services cut, young people cast adrift, mothers squeezed to breaking point. Wealth has flooded up rather than trickled down.

All this is widely understood – so it has had to be justified, and then trumped. Justified with a combination of “capitalist realism” – There Is No Alternative – and morality tales about single mothers and scroungers. Trumped by the formulation of bitter arguments between European countries, so that instead of being seen in terms of class and power, it is fought as one nation against another.

It is logical and sometimes necessary – though never pretty – for conflict to occur along fault lines that exist. But what is emerging in Europe is different. Battle lines are being drawn between nations when the actual fault lines exist on another plane entirely. And when battle lines are drawn where fault lines are not, all blood that is spilt is spilt in vain. The underlying causes go untouched.

The European Union is now second only to Vladimir Putin as the single biggest threat to peace and stability in Europe. Democratic politics has a self-moderating tendency – even in times of enormous turbulence, people only turn to the radicals when the centre has been exhausted, and only turn to the extremists when the radicals have failed. When the latest Greek austerity measures fail – as all Greek austerity measures have failed before them – then the radicals will have failed and, unless Syriza’s anti-austerity Left Platform can successfully break free from its mothership, the extremists will be next in line.

The extremists, in this case, are Golden Dawn, the nakedly neo-Nazi movement that was roaming free and attacking migrants until a belated state crackdown last year. Only they, the small communist KKE and Syriza’s Left Platform opposed the austerity deal this summer. The centre-right New Democracy party, whose government preceded Syriza’s, tolerated Golden Dawn’s street violence as austerity tore the Greek economy apart. They reportedly have a significant presence in the Greek police. The EU has shown itself to be entirely comfortable with the rise of fascism as a by-product of austerity.

After this summer’s vote left Syriza’s fate resting on the success of measures it knows will fail, a further collapse of the Greek economy would strengthen Golden Dawn, even if only via the re-election of New Democracy. Greece has migrant populations from surrounding countries including Albania that have already been targeted by Golden Dawn. As Moscow waits and watches, the domino effect of civil unrest in Greece would reach into historically the least stable region of Europe, the Balkans.

Which is fitting. For the great mission to unify Europe has Balkanised and broken it. The rest will be history.

Dead refugee kids should be allowed in, says Britain

3 09 2015

Refugee children who are photographed drowning in the Mediterranean should be allowed into Britain, it has emerged.

News of the shift in public opinion came after photos of a dead child washed up on a beach persuaded the British people that the army should not be sent in after all.

David White, a socially acceptable racist from Corby, said: “I was shocked by the photo of the dead kid on the beach. It didn’t look like a cockroach at all.

“If a child goes to the effort of being photographed after drowning in the Med, they clearly have a strong work ethic and aren’t coming here to claim benefits or blow things up. We should keep the living ones out but another part of the country should definitely take the dead ones in.”

Enough kids have now drowned to move the Overton window to tears. The window, which determines what actions are politically acceptable, recently shifted from “Keep Them Out” to  “do nothing” and has now progressed to “wring hands”.

Experts believe it could reach “do the barest minimum to make ourselves feel better” within days.

David Cameron is facing calls to act to stem the tide of self-conscious national introspection. Downing Street sources suggest the prime minister is seriously considering thinking about calling another summit to discuss what action other countries could take.

Tory strategists are currently studying YouGov polling data to see how best to respond to Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

In a heartfelt front page editorial this morning, The Sun said that while migrants in Calais are still filth, refugees crossing the Med are kind of ok if they give us an excuse to bomb Syria and Iraq.

Migration expert Sarah Smithson said: “There’s a definite shift in the mood. They have suddenly gone from being ‘migrants’ to ‘refugees’. If they play their cards right and keep dying visibly, they could reach ‘people’ status by next week.”

Labour are finished

8 05 2015

Time was when I thought the Tories were finished. Turns out you can fool most of the people most of the time when you’re in power. But the general election result was a catastrophe for Labour and, being in opposition, they will find it far harder to extricate themselves from what looks like a terminal crisis.

First, Scotland. It’s gone. It is impossible to see how Scottish Labour can overturn the new SNP hegemony – their membership is on the floor, their big hitters have been wiped out, and they are unable to define any purpose to their existence. Without Scotland, it’s virtually impossible for them to win an overall majority, except in a distant Blair-esque landslide.

As a result, any future Labour government would probably be reliant on SNP support, at least for as long as Scotland remains in the Union. Tory strategists believe that the scaremongering over a Labour-SNP tie-up helped swing decisive votes in their favour this week. It’s a fair bet they’ll run the same line again in any future election where this is on the cards.

Also, a Tory majority government can now drive through the cherished boundary changes that the Lib Dems vetoed in coalition. Those boundary changes will make the parliamentary arithmetic far more favourable to the Tories – even allowing for the fact that on Thursday it was the Conservatives, not Labour, that spread their vote more efficiently. Tory boundary changes would make it much easier for the Conservatives to stay in power.

And then we come to the lessons Labour will learn from this defeat. Ed Miliband had long been – and wrongly been – tagged as a “socialist” leader; he was certainly more left wing than Tony Blair. So, after the failure of his leadership, it is inevitable Labour will now shift back to the right – ditch the “welfare” and “deficit” tags, reach out to business, and most of all clamp down on immigration.

Ah, immigration. One look at the Con-Lab marginal results and the large spikes in Ukip support leap out. Ukip seem to have taken chunks of support from Labour in key seats in the Midlands, North West, Wales (where Labour performed disastrously) and in the South. Much of the Ukip vote is a protest vote, an expression of alienation – but much of it is based on concerns over immigration. If Labour decide they need these votes – far more than the Greens achieved – a tougher line on immigration is inevitable.

A shift to the right and a tough stance on immigrants will alienate many on the left of the political spectrum who held their nose just to vote for “Red Ed”. It would come just as the historic funding and membership links with the trade unions end. The ever shrinking coalition of voters assembled around Labour would fracture just as the party needed it to solidify and expand.

So where are Labour’s votes to come from? If they court the Ukip vote, they risk losing the ground they’ve made in multicultural London. If they emphasise austerity (their programme is already austerian) they risk losing their union support.

The centre of the political spectrum is fracturing as the centre of society fractures under the strain of our disintegrating economic model. It is becoming ever harder for Labour to triangulate its way towards a coalition of voters that will carry it to power – different parts of the population are looking for different things from different parties as the two-party binary fragments ahead of schedule.

The Tories can always fall back on self-interest and prejudice – there’s a ready market for both, and the Tories can deliver them far more credibly than Labour.

What can Labour offer? With its Scottish base obliterated and its old alliances crumbling, nothing more than permanent opposition.

We are headed for a very long period of unchallenged, unfettered, unrestrained Conservative rule.

Friendly fire

6 05 2015

The Guardian led this morning with an explosive list of benefit cuts proposed by civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions last year.

The list of proposals is eye-watering. Abolishing statutory maternity pay, freezing benefits and limiting them by family size, yet more restrictions on which disabled people are considered “disabled”, ending major benefits for under-25s, even increasing the hated bedroom tax. They all feature on the leaked list.

The reaction from Labour supporters – actually, anyone who hates the Tories – has been outrage, but also a kind of “gotcha” glee in regard to the unspecified £10bn of welfare cuts the Conservatives plan to make in the next parliament (a further £2bn cuts have been specified, giving a £12bn total).

These people claim that this is how the Tories will achieve their £10bn unspecified cuts. Cat’s out of the bag. Tories caught red handed. So now we know. Etc.

They have clearly not read the article.

The Guardian reporters state it in the first line – the list was drawn up “in response to warnings that the next government would struggle to keep welfare spending below a legal cap of about £120bn a year.”

The report continues: “The documents make clear that some of the welfare money-saving options will be necessary because demand for benefits over the next five years is highly likely to exceed the cap limit by billions of pounds.”

In other words – the list was not in response to the Tory manifesto. The manifesto hadn’t even been written when the proposals were drawn up last spring.

So does that mean the Conservatives aren’t planning this? No – they almost certainly are. It’s what they do. The  questions instead revolve around Labour.

The welfare spending cap was voted into law in March 2014 as a Tory stunt to look tough on benefits. The law places a limit on how much the government can spend annually on benefits (except pensions and Jobseekers’ Allowance). The limit is set at around £120bn, as the Guardian reports.

The trouble is, the Tories’ savage welfare cuts have barely saved any actual money – our low-wage economy drives up tax credit claims, and dovetails with our housing crisis to drive up the Housing Benefit bill. So the DWP officials expect the welfare cap to be breached in the next few years.

But that’s ok – after all, Labour will get rid of the cap, right?


As the Guardian reports, Labour actually supported the cap. Only 13 Labour backbenchers voted against it, alongside the SNP, SDLP, Respect and Plaid (Caroline Lucas appears not to have turned up). And there is no commitment to repeal the cap in the Labour manifesto.

These proposals will be on the table no matter which party gets in.

Little wonder then, that Labour’s shadow DWP minister Rachel Reeves tied the plans directly to the Tory manifesto in her comments to the Guardian. If people think these proposals are part of the Tories’ £10bn benefit cuts, they will conclude that voting Labour will stop them from happening.

As we can see, nothing could be further from the truth.

One Labour MP who voted in favour of the cap, Sheila Gilmore, explained how it’d all be fine under a Labour government. Under the welfare cap, the government must either propose further benefit cuts, raise the cap or justify breaching the cap.

Gilmore wrote that: “Now of course what is proposed depends on which party is in government and whether they can command a majority for their preferred course of action … A Labour government could make different decisions, including explaining to the public at the time of the vote why spending more than the forecast is necessary.”

Oh really?

The Labour manifesto’s proposals on welfare are pitiful. With the exception of the bedroom tax, Labour is proposing to keep every single benefit cut implemented over the last five years – council tax benefit cuts, disability benefit cuts, tax credit restrictions. Only the bedroom tax and the tax credit freeze would be unwound. The individual benefit cap will be regionalised, so the whole country can share in the misery inflicted on single mothers in London.

In fact, in her comments to the Guardian Reeves boasts that Labour will “save £1bn by cutting housing benefit fraud and overpayments” – so expect more of the administrative bungling that usually accompanies such initiatives, with a few dodgy lie detectors thrown in.

After the election, the anti-welfare hysteria and propaganda among the media and the public that has marked the last six years will not subside. There is no evidence from Labour’s manifesto or its endless rhetoric about “working people” that a Labour government would “explain to the public” why raising the welfare cap was necessary.

Gilmore also claimed that Labour would bring the welfare bill down by reducing demand for benefits – increasing people’s wages, lowering their housing costs and living costs.

Is there any evidence they would achieve this? Again, no. They would cap rents and energy bills at current levels – but current levels are already too high. Their house-building programme is vague. They are proposing a minimal increase in the minimum wage and a bit of tweaking on casualised jobs and the Living Wage.

There is no commitment to bringing housing costs down, energy costs down, increasing council housing supply, or evening out the skewed bargaining relationship between employers and workers. In short, there is little that would actually bring the welfare bill down.

So, faced with a breached welfare spending cap, Labour can be expected to simply push through more welfare cuts. And that means the DWP list – which is far more brutal than even the savagery we have seen in the last five years – applies just as much to Labour as it does to the Tories.

Friendly fire – the same bullets, but shot with a smile.

Scotland, the rematch

30 10 2014

So it turns out the independence referendum was actually a two-legged affair…

The collapse of Scottish Labour has drawn headlines in the last week; their ineffectual leader has resigned, and their Westminster poll ratings are collapsing at the hands of the SNP, following the line set at Holyrood in 2011.

A poll today has the SNP on 52% in Scotland’s Westminster voting intentions, with Labour down to 23% – in 2010 Labour scored 42% with the SNP below 20%. If those results were replicated at next year’s general election on a uniform swing across Scotland, Labour would be left with at best four and at worst just one MP in the country they have dominated politically for decades. The SNP would have between 54 and 57 of the country’s 59 MPs, turning Scotland into virtually a one-party state. There is absolutely no precedent in British political history for such a dramatic collapse.

Any such outcome would make a Tory-led government almost certain after the general election. Which is why it is unlikely to happen.

It is inevitable that Labour’s remaining world-weary troops will trudge around Scotland next year with the simple line “Vote Yellow, Get Blue”. Despite Labour’s despondency, that message will have an effect. Massive SNP (the yellow party) gains would almost certainly take the Tories ahead of Labour at Westminster, regardless of Labour gains south of the border.

Much of the SNP’s rapid growth came towards the end of the independence referendum campaign and in the aftermath, as Labour’s Scottish heartlands deserted the party over its alliance with the hated Tories in the No campaign. Are those same voters going to cast their ballots in a manner that is likely to see a Tory-led government at Westminster? Really? Whatever arguments one could make about a Tory government devolving powers more quickly than a Labour one, if hatred of the Tories is as visceral in Scotland as we are led to believe, that sort of detail is unlikely to count.

The SNP’s problem here is that, beyond the (powerful) symbolism of a vote against Westminster, there isn’t actually a lot that a vote for the SNP would achieve. SNP MPs don’t vote in Westminster on matters decided for Scotland at Holyrood – Westminster’s place in Scottish politics is a denuded one. Their role would be in agreeing a coalition (or a “confidence and supply” deal) in exchange for more powers for Scotland.

But during the election campaign, Labour is bound to demand of the SNP – “Will you rule out propping up a Tory government?” If the SNP says no or ducks the question, Labour can cry “Vote Yellow, Get Blue”. But if the SNP says yes – if they rule out a deal with the Conservatives – that would massively reduce their bargaining power in any post-election coalition talks with Labour, as the SNP would have put their credibility on the line by ruling out talks with the Tories.

It’s basically the same sort of bind the Lib Dems found themselves in after Cleggmania – both main parties claimed a vote for the Lib Dems would lead to a coalition with the other.

Labour could, of course, still royally screw everything up, as is their habit. Electing Jim Murphy as their Scottish leader – the demand from the Westminster elite – would be to entrust in an out-and-out Blairite the job of winning back Labour’s core vote from an SNP that is seen as standing on the left. It would be like standing Margaret Thatcher in a mining constituency.

But Labour is insulated by enormous majorities in its Scottish Westminster seats – 30%, 40%, even 50% majorities, the kind of majorities that have never been overturned in general elections, and barely ever in by-elections. The seats where the SNP is closest to Labour are more middle class seats, seats that voted No, with voters Labour might hope to hold on to. Chuck in the “incumbency bonus” of left-wing Labour MPs such as Katy Clark and Mark Lazarowicz, and the picture becomes even more muddled.

And whilst tactical voting for Labour by Conservatives to keep the SNP out is unlikely – tactical voting being very much a thing of habit – should the returning Alex Salmond start dropping hints about a second independence referendum as part of a coalition deal, don’t rule it out.

More likely than the SNP winning 90% of Scottish seats next year, is the SNP coming within three or four percent of winning 90% of Scottish seats next year. It is easy to see the SNP repeating the legacy of the SDP in 1983 – getting close far more often than close enough.

Which would help Ed Miliband stagger the last few steps to Downing Street, but is of absolutely no use to Labour long-term.

2015 is set to be the last hurrah of the two-party binary, and the last toot on Labour’s rusting trumpet. Even if the SNP surge blows itself out over fears of a second Cameron administration, Labour’s austerity government, with its unpopular leader, mutinous front bench, and dwindling union funds, would find themselves with the SNP, Ukip, Greens and the Tories all perfectly poised to pounce in 2020 – the SNP sweeping through Scotland, Ukip driving its tanks through northern towns, the Tories carving up Middle England and the Greens nabbing the youth vote. If Labour is even able to hang on to power until 2020, that is.

In fact, as the Labour Party enters its final death throes – sacrificed at the altar of its own austerity amidst economic meltdown as Britain’s personal debt drags it beneath the waves – it is easy to see both the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer losing their seats at the election after next; Ed Miliband to Ukip, Ed Balls to the Conservatives.

Fear and loathing of the Tories should get Labour over the line next year. But a party that loses its principles becomes nothing more than a hollow shell of powerlust. Labour now exists for nothing more than its own existence. And a party that exists for the sake of its existence does not exist for long.

Ian Paisley is dead in the water

12 09 2014

Ian Paisley is dead. That much you’ll probably already know. And we can now expect a stampede of commentators hailing his remarkable transition from appalling bigot who stood in the way of peace to appalling bigot who enabled it.

And this will be a lie.

Ian Paisley did not “enable” peace. He stood in its way at every turn as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. His demand was “peace on our terms”, and peace on our terms is a declaration of war.

I remember shortly after Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, he held a meeting at Downing Street for Northern Ireland’s political leaders. A peace process had taken root under Blair’s predecessor John Major, but it had fallen apart amid rows over IRA weapons decommissioning and the fraught issue of Orange Order marches. An IRA ceasefire had been called but collapsed. Northern Ireland was once more at war.

Those Orange Order marches in the mid-90s were symbolic, especially the march at Drumcree. Drumcree was the annual flashpoint back then. In 1995 Paisley and his arch rival, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, marched shoulder to shoulder in defence of the loyalist hardliners of the Orange brigade.

That unionist unity didn’t last. The Downing Street meeting in 1997 opened a schism between Trimble and Paisley. Paisley emerged onto the steps of 10 Downing Street and bellowed that the peace process was “dead in the water”.  Trimble, by contrast, tentatively entered multi-party talks later that year.

For almost the next decade Paisley tried to block any progress in Northern Ireland. He opposed the Good Friday Agreement. He opposed power sharing. He opposed police reform. He opposed compromises on marches. He refused to accept that the IRA was decommissioning weapons. After Dr No and Senator No, Paisley became The Reverend No.

Meanwhile David Trimble signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, became Northern Ireland’s First Minister, and despite huge political pressure from both Paisley and his own UUP, he backed away from pulling the plug on the peace process in the face of ongoing low-level IRA violence.

Unionists came to despise him. He survived two UUP leadership challenges and had three MPs resign the party whip. Power-sharing broke down and the Stormont parliament did not sit for five years.

Whilst Trimble was in the wars in search of peace, Paisley was gathering his troops. UUP support collapsed amidst unionist discontent with the stalling peace process. In 2005, with Stormont still suspended, Paisley’s DUP trounced Trimble’s UUP at the general election – Trimble even lost his seat in parliament. Flattened by this earthquake and hated by his own side, Trimble quit as party leader and stepped down from frontline politics.

And so with Trimble and the UUP out of the way and the DUP well head in Northern Irish polls, Paisley started his remarkable and not-at-all cynical “transformation”. In 2006, with the First Minister’s chair there for the taking, he changed his mind – on everything. Power-sharing was not the death of unionism after all; Sinn Fein were not terrorists in suits.  It’s remarkable how things look different when you need them to.

Paisley signed up to the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement that paved the way for fresh elections and the resumption of the Stormont parliament. Predictably, the DUP – having built its political strength from opposing power-sharing and the peace process – came out well in front, and Paisley hardly batted an eyelid as he took power alongside Sinn Fein. He and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness got on so well they became known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’. At least someone found it funny.

And so the man who had risked everything for the peace process, lost everything – and the man who had risked nothing by opposing it, reaped its rewards. Don’t tell that story to your children.

There are very few politicians I have any time for. But if there’s one thing I do respect, it’s taking personal risks to do the right thing – particularly in facing down one’s own side.

There are any number of bones you can pick throughout David Trimble’s career – as a conservative-minded politician from the oppressing side in a long-term conflict, it’s inevitable.

But as fawning eulogies glut their way across the press, it’s worth keeping in mind that Northern Ireland would have been in a far better state without Ian Paisley, but would never have reached peace without the forgotten David Trimble.

Austerity outstays its welcome

9 06 2014

Anyone watching media coverage of the recent spate of elections, or indeed the news more generally, could be forgiven for thinking that austerity never happened. I don’t think the BBC’s coverage of the local elections once mentioned the gutting of local government funding that has taken place since the banking crisis; the results were only to be discussed in terms of national politics – namely, what this means for the general election.

But austerity is a thing. It has been a thing for many years now. And all main political parties are committed to keeping it a thing for many years to come.

The Conservatives have made their position clearest so far. George Osborne has pledged to engineer a budget surplus by 2020 – which hardly anyone believes is possible – and so the welfare system will be dismantled further, local councils will be bled dry, and the NHS will wither on the vine. None of this is news, in any sense of the word.

What did catch my eye was part of the undercard of Lord Ashcroft’s opinion poll a fortnight ago. The headline act in Ashcroft’s weekly polls is always the voting scorecard – Labour v Tories – but this particular edition also featured a question on attitudes to austerity. The response was completely ignored by the media – but not by Lord Ashcroft himself, who understood its significance:

‘… 41% agreed with the statement “the national economy is not yet fully fixed, so we will need to continue with austerity and cuts in government spending over the next five years.” Nearly seven in ten Tories and a majority of Lib Dems thought so, as did one fifth of Labour supporters.

But a quarter of voters overall, including a quarter of those who said they would vote Conservative in an election tomorrow, felt that the medicine – though necessary – has already worked and the treatment can stop. They agreed that “while a period of austerity was needed to fix the national economy, we don’t need another five years of cuts of government spending”.

Meanwhile a further one third of the electorate, including nearly half of Labour voters, believed instead that “austerity and cuts in government spending were never really needed to fix the national economy, it was just used as an excuse to cut public services.” UKIP voters were among the most sceptical or cynical about the government’s deficit reduction policy, with 41% believing austerity was a cover for cuts in public services. Swing voters, too, will need convincing.

More than six in ten thought austerity could end; these were divided evenly between those who thought the policy had served its purpose and those who did not believe it was needed in the first place.’

What does this mean?

The Tories have long feared that economic recovery would undermine the case for further cuts – if headline growth figures are returning to health, why administer more of the “medicine”? Add that to the third of the electorate who always regarded austerity as a scam, and you have a majority against wielding the axe for another five years. Those supporting more cuts make up the biggest single bloc of opinion – but they are ultimately in a minority.

Note also that UKIP supporters are among the most sceptical of all about the need for more austerity. In one sense that’s not surprising – UKIP have the most working class voter base of any party. And let’s not kid ourselves – just because UKIP supporters don’t want more austerity doesn’t mean they don’t back welfare cuts, as these are seen as much in terms of “morality” as fiscal necessity.

But it is striking that at a time when leading politicians are falling over themselves to beat up on immigrants and benefit claimants out of a supposed need to court the UKIP vote, all three main parties will not so much as hint at deviating from the austerity line.

Why is this? Well, for many frontbench politicians, it is simply what they entered politics to do – the Tories to destroy the social state, the Lib Dem “orange bookers” to marketise it, and Labourites to replace it with unregulated charities.

In addition, nobody near the Labour leadership is willing to risk the ire of the markets, the financial sector or the right wing press by facing down the austerity agenda.

On top of that, you have the 41 percent who backed further austerity in Lord Ashcroft’s poll – many of them Tories, likely to be middle class, and likely to be located at least in part in the southern battleground seats that, whilst now largely irrelevant, remain firmly at the root of political calculations. Labour daren’t ditch austerity and sacrifice some quixotic stab at winning Surrey votes. Immigration and welfare, by contrast, are seens as easy targets that unite haters everywhere.

Put all that together and you get the status quo – three parties committed to delivering what most people don’t want.


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