Tony: My Hero

The real failure of Labour wasn’t Blair, it was marketing. If they had known how to sell rather than spin and if they’d had the courage of their own policies, Labour could have told a story to avoid both a Tory government and a Corbyn leadership.

No, this isn’t a guest column by John McTernan. It is the result of a cold analysis of what Labour actually achieved in office and contrasting it with their own rhetoric. For an organisation famed for messaging and manipulating opinion they were utterly abysmal at selling themselves.

Any mention of Blair today brings to mind the haunted face, the Iraq War, the dubious millions acquired from tyrannical regimes or international finance. Yet it was Blair whose government delivered peace in Northern Ireland and devolution to the UK, cancelled debt for the poorest nations and doubled international aid, brought in a smoking ban, Sure Start centres and Child Trust Funds…from the global to the local to the personal.

It’s true that there were 13 years of unrivalled majorities to work with and true too that any government is likely to improve things over a decade in power, but when you compile a list of achievements, it reads like a progressive’s dream…minimum wage, winter fuel payments, 500,000 children lifted out of poverty, free nursery places, apprentices doubled, free bus travel for the elderly, the repeal of Section 28.

There is paid holidays for full-time staff, paternity leave, child tax credits, TV licences for over 75s and probably a Tuscan villa for every family. The point is that whatever went wrong for Labour, the underlying record is strong and progressive.

Overall, however, most of the extra spending went on improving services, not on benefits. For example, in health there was a major programme of investment and reform, including a new NHS building programme and extra nurses and doctors. Efforts were concentrated on cancer, heart disease and stroke, and on the reduction of waiting times for appointments and treatment.

Schools received 48,000 extra FTE equivalent teachers (11.9 per cent) and the number of support staff more than doubled, with over 133,000 extra teaching assistants and 96,000 extra other support staff. A new school buildings programme, designed to replace or upgrade the entire stock of secondary school buildings within 15 years, saw over 160 schools rebuilt or refurbished between 2004 and 2010, with more than 450 underway.

From 1998 all four-year-olds were given the right to 12.5 hours per week free education for 33 weeks of the year. This was extended to three-year-olds in 2004. By 2010, free provision had been extended to 15 hours per week for 38 weeks per year. In public housing, 90 per cent of social housing was brought up to a “decent” standard.

That’s John Hills, Professor of Social Policy and director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.

He concludes: In summary, it was not, as some claim, that Labour spent a lot and achieved nothing. Rather it did spend a lot, but it also achieved a lot. 

The view of Andrew Harrop of the Fabians is probably fair.

On the whole, Labour was most effective in fields where it set explicit and measurable goals that were fairly amenable to national government intervention. Examples include relative poverty, health-care waiting times and university participation. But there was little progress on issues which were not official priorities, such as preventing rising wealth inequality or the stagnation of median pay. People like to criticise Labour’s top-down target culture, but it often worked.

 I agree with his conclusion: Financial crisis, calamitous foreign policy and vicious in-fighting have obscured memories of the last government’s impressive social and economic achievements.

But today Labour are out of office, condemned as Red Tories and subject to the firm corrective of a Corbyn leadership. What went wrong?

Well for a start they were not cohesive, no matter how many rebuttal units and pagers they had, no matter how often Alistair Campbell bullied reporters. They weren’t together where it mattered – at the top. The grudging and at times volcanic relationship between Blair and Brown meant they could never stand together convincingly under one banner and both take the credit. Brown huddled with his own set, briefed against Blair, refused to back him, took the credit he could and ultimately ousted him in what some countries would regard as a coup. That meant the smooth roll-out of a positive story that would form the history was made problematic and success was sacrificed to vendetta.

The other issue is more complex. Throughout Labour’s period there was a refusal to appear loyal to old Labour as if the rebranding excluded recognition of the past, all of which had to be denounced. Like regimes everywhere, they began with Year Zero. In the indyref Brown was able to return to the historic role Labour played in building Britain with the NHS and Welfare State (pre-Blair) but in office it was as if it never happened. Instead of claiming credit for continuing the traditions of the wider Labour movement, shiny New Labour had to stick to the mantra that it was different and distinct from the past with its imagery of mass meetings and boiler suits, beer and sandwiches and socially primitive working types. That at least was what the message most voters were left with. (When did you see union leaders entering Number 10 to be greeted by Tony with his Cool Britannia mug?)

I believe it led to an instinctive reluctance to admit just how much they were actually changing Britain through progressive policies. Individual initiatives were publicised and bragged over, for sure, but however inspired in speeches, Blair failed to make a coherent case that spending more, aiming it at those in need – mainly children and pensioners – and following a social democratic agenda was a transformational success. In real terms, total public spending rose by 60 per cent during Blair/Brown period, from £449 billion in 1996-97 to £725 billion in 2010. It’s as though they didn’t want to admit it. They did boast of huge extra amounts going to education and health but couldn’t quite square the circle and say: Look, spending taxpayers’ money really does bring benefits. Were they afraid of the Tories (in the early years, certainly not) or scared of the media (absolutely).

Part of the historic mission was to stop the Press bashing Labour as socialists hence the breakfasts with the Daily Mail and the family relationships with Murdoch. What a waste of time…

I recall an academic telling me of an unpublicised meeting at an English university early in the Blair premiership. Brown was addressing a small audience made up exclusively of academics – most of them lefties and Labourites. My friend was open- mouthed at Brown’s declaration of how he planned to redistribute wealth to the working poor through tax credits and other measures. He went further than anyone had expected from public announcements and raised the hopes of his listeners that socialism was unrolling in Britain. ‘But’, he said. ‘I got the distinct impression he didn’t want anyone else to know. It wasn’t for media dissemination…’

Buried in there is a truth – that Labour didn’t want to appear left-wing. So long as policy could be dressed up somehow aspirational – that is, middle class – they were relaxed about selling it. The result was they obscured what today would be a genuine monument to their success.

You don’t have to remind me of the failures. They had majorities to do anything they liked but chickened out. They used PFI far too much. They were greedy and failed to regulate the crooks in the City. Blair was vain and seduced by war. They believed their own publicity and drifted further from their core voters. In Scotland they didn’t know what devolution was for and were scared of their own creation.

There is a great line from Labour-loving Polly Toynbee. The only place to cement social change is in the hearts and minds of voters. Blair and Brown were defeatists, convinced Britain was essentially conservative, individualist, imbued with Thatcherism. Confronted with the Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph, the culture looked immutable, a force to be appeased.

And so, through cowardice and lack of conviction, the Labour Party lost its soul and denied itself the legacy of a progressive Britain. It allowed careerists who knew no better to take key jobs, created the conditions for a real Tory government and opened a door to a takeover by the true left it disdained.

If Blair is censured in the Chilcot Report, it will throw the final earth on the coffin of New Labour.



Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Outsider

If you didn’t know who it was, you’d still think the man speaking must be leader of the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn did his voters the justice of sounding like a reformer with socialist zeal in his acceptance speech and was a reminder of the last leader who displayed rhetorical passion – before sliding into Westminster compromise – Neil Kinnock.

Here at last was someone speaking to and for the working people, the weak and the vulnerable, those being ‘cleansed’ from London by sky high rents and property prices and speaking to and for the trades unions, those eternal funders of a party which abuses its relationship by sidelining them in power.

While Corbyn spoke the onscreen tickertape announced the resignation of a shadow minister I’d never heard of. Against the pulsing feel-good factor in the hall, it was a small and stagey act which told you that, whoever he is, he is no democrat. Corbyn won the biggest majority of any leader, utterly shredding the opposition on the first ballot. The people have spoken…60 per cent of the Labour electorate. If any Blairite zealot objects under these circumstances , they must be in the wrong party.

Even Kezia was there beaming – transformed from cavilling critic to wide-eyed adherent, no doubt thrilled at her personal mention. Oh, the effect of a winner.

Great chasms of policy difference will now open up – indeed were opened as the new leader spoke – anti-austerity, pro-refugee, against union reform. Here was a real alternative that the Blair-Brown years had expunged. The most used word was passion, the very thing he has injected into a cynical and jaded culture that has failed to find a way of tackling the Tories. The sheer scale of his victory destroys the myth of the Blair hegemony – it may indeed still exist among the greasy pole climbers of Whitehall but out there on the streets of Britain, it is as dead as the Empire. Corbyn has an unimagined mandate to change Labour and the debate, perhaps ultimately too the country and woe betide those who resist by threat or subterfuge.

The chance that he will only employ trusties in Cabinet is as silly as saying that he won’t allow dissent. A more open and collegiate platform is exactly what he is about with open disagreement permitted. On the face of it, he is returning the Labour Party to its radical and outspoken roots.

He has too given a green light to Scotland through his election to find its own version of a radical agenda. Kezia Dugdale clearly is no radical and certainly no socialist but she may be a manager who can rebuild a Scottish machine and inject it with Corbyn adrenaline. She has no excuse for flunking the Left case now. Indeed she has a chance to match and outflank the SNP on key issues. Corbyn has removed any security blanket she may have had as the whole policy panorama opens up before her, including anti-Trident. It is a test and it has come early. But it must be answered. So far Corbyn has nothing to say on Scotland vis a vis the constitution which does not interest him. He is leaving the territory to her and what momentum there is (pretty patchy in Scotland) must be harnessed soon. Alternatively he could seriously beef up campaigning in Scotland by breaking with tradition and using his authority of appointment to make Neil Findlay, his Scottish lieutenant, shadow Scottish Secretary – a purely honorary position. He would still need someone at Westminster to do perfunctory duties – ‘holding Scotland Office to account’, Scottish Questions etc – but why should any radical be concerned about that 19th century nonsense when they have been wiped out in the North? Findlay would command media coverage here in Scotland where it matters and to an extent offer an alternative viewpoint when necessary. That really would be taking Scotland seriously. (Ian Murray sounds a very lukewarm convert to Corbymania).

With Tom Watson also elected deputy there is room for a Tom and Jerry joke or two but the intriguing point here is that both deputies in Scotland and the UK are politically close to the brooding Brown in Fife. It was Watson who worked with Brown to orchestrate the coup against Blair and in Scotland Alex Rowley is Brown’s man. When will the baleful influence of Brown be removed from our politics?

Corbyn is a welcome protagonist with an excoriating line of media put down. His open contempt for ‘certain media’ and their intrusive and mendacious output is a promising sign of distance between power and Press – no more kowtowing to the right wing bigots in the Mail, the Express and Telegraph.

He has already moved the debate leftwards, leaving the Tories looking exposed and isolated as cruel, uncaring, selfish extremists and if the swathes of Labour folk who deserted the polling booths altogether during the Blair years can be won back, the idea of a Labour government in 2020 becomes….well…not necessarily impossible.

London looks like solid ground for a party doing alternative politics with its young and multi cultural constituency but a difficulty may be winning over those in the English North and Midlands who now regard UKIP as their home. Will they respond to a message favouring foreign settlement, be it immigration, asylum or refugee shelter?

It’s also unlikely given entrenched patterns that Corby will do much damage in the short term to the SNP – there simply isn’t the same craving here for Corbyn policies and talk of hope – if anything he’s copied that from the anti-Establishment politics of the Nationalists themselves. But here at last is a message from Labour. There is now no denying the anti-Tory tone. If Dugdale is up to it, she could harness this and return respect and dignity to a movement that has been drifting on the tides.

Corbyn is a shock to the system – look out for manufactured scandals which may have intelligence fingerprints on them – and is to be welcomed for that alone and for returning Labour to harbour. At least there may now be something for the SNP to worry about and plan for. Maybe.




Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The End

If there’s one piece of moral hypocrisy politicians are good, at it’s death. Or at least avoiding death…avoiding coming anywhere near death…avoiding even the mere mention of death. No, nothing to do with me, guv. Death? Doesn’t happen in my constituency.

The issue of assisted dying has become compromised by the Big Excuse – the denial that there is any need for such an unconscionable act, followed by the Washing-of-Hands by those who claim they are in politics to help or, God Forbid, to lead.

Generations of hand-ringing politcos have given the proverbial body swerve to a sane and logical decision on the Death Question in order to keep themselves ‘untainted’ by it. Meanwhile week after week some poor soul faces the end in agony and misery wondering why compassion only applies to those who, in some unforeseen future, may or may not feel pressure from a venal family to end it all soon. Let’s reserve our mercy for those we don’t know and who may never need it rather than ease the way for one of our own today.

There are many versions of what we mean by assisted dying and as the debate has evolved, so have the complexities, medical, legal and moral.Yet the fundamental question remains: Is it right to allow another human in terminal trauma to suffer grievously when they are asking for an early death? Indeed, is it our right – that of society – to deny the mercy of suicide to anyone in irreversible distress?

The answer to both questions of course is No. It is not right and we don’t have the right to stand aside in the face of slow and agonising death. Not only is that glaringly obvious to anyone except the self-declared religious zealots who demand the Bible is read literally but it is also the apparent view of the overwhelming number of British citizens who time and again support a change in the law – 82 per cent at the last count. (Populus 2015)

I don’t mean to offend those of you who religious belief (although it didn’t stop the official spokesman of the Catholic Church insulting me publicly when I wrote previously about this). A deeply-held is just that. But by what right do you stop me having access to mercy because of your beliefs? That isn’t faith, it’s dogmatism.

The other key objections to dignity in death relate to human nature which might drive impatient families to nudge a loved one into suicide or make the sufferer feel guilty for remaining alive. This argument provides an illuminating light into the mind of deniers, bending as it does to base instinct rather than humanity. It’s like saying: I can’t trust myself not to egg a loved one on into suicide because I stand to benefit from the will. The temptation will be too much.

I once had an online discussion with a philosopher on the subject. He played the compassion card and declared how much he cared for those in suffering. He just couldn’t do the one thing they wanted that would end their suffering. It seemed to me it was easy in the abstract and hard to disagree – who wants to help kill another human? So the final question asked was: Would you feel the same if it was your daughter…your wife…your mother pleading for relief? To this there is no answer other than: I would do anything to end their suffering. And so you would.

This is not a plan to rid us wholsesale of the terminally ill almost all of whom have a dignified and, as far as possible, a peaceful death in hospice care. That is, in its own way, an easing out of life and with the expertise gathered over the years it provides the right service for the majority. But science isn’t perfect and for some no cocktail of drugs can ease the pain and end the distress.

Even the courts are moving steadily towards accepting that there are conditions which in some cases could justify the right of a loved one to help a stricken individual to end their life. But again, it goes back to the politicians and fear of their own judgement in a mirror image of their terror of accepting that drug addiction can be handled differently. These are, for most legislators, no-go areas where the people they represent will just have to suffer in silence. Turn the other way and pretend it isn’t true isn’t much of a message.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Wicker Man

On the day the recorded crime figures come out (down to 1974 levels – damn that single police force) it is fitting that the courts are examining a case of moral crime and showing that the venal in society are not confined to the thieving classes.

The Alastair Carmichael case has about it the taint of the Wicker Man – a befuddled character being manipulated and laughed at behind his back by a knowing public intent on his immolation.

It’s hard to think of anything more cynical, serf-serving and insulting to a democracy than the defence orchestrated by this Scottish lawyer who until recently was holder of the Great Seal of Scotland. Where, you may wonder, is the pride in office of a trained solicitor or the dignity of representing one’s country in Cabinet when a man’s defence amounts to nothing more than: Aye. I’m a liar. But not in my private life.

The Carmichael Dispensation amounts to declaring that it is alright to lie through ones’ teeth to the public who elect and pay for you – they don’t matter – and misleading them doesn’t count. Democracy is a bagatelle in which points are scored or lost on a random basis. If you elect a bad’un – hard luck.

Lying and deceiving is part of the political game, a kind of professional foul that deserves a whistle and a tut-tut but no more. It’s what you do for the team when you’re wearing the strip and the action is frantic. It’s pretty much expected.

Of course, afterwards in front of the cameras, you have returned to sanity and sobriety and can laugh it off as a bit of banter. Suited and tied as a civilian, you’d never dream of cheating. Your word is your bond. (As Arthur Daley used to say).

Carmichael got himself into this mess and must squirm his own way out. It’s a serpentine trap he laid for himself. But what are the public to make of this farce?

They see yet another tricky dicky character, one minute blustering how he knows best about Scotland’s future, the next furtively leaking inaccurate information to damage an opponent. Squealing that it was somehow alright to lie about it is unmanly and unedifying. Carmichael went to the people for a mandate knowing he had told a bald lie and keeping it from them. Having the truth revealed after the democratic process was straightforward cheating. The people were – in local parlance – rookit.

He may yet be found innocent of the charge levelled under the strict terms of the legislation but he will trail the taint of guilt beyond the court – guilt in confirming the worst fears of a doubtful electorate about the debased character of the political class; guilt now attached to his own declining party and guilt too at the hollow bombast of those who inhabit the Mother of Parliaments.

Carmichael stands as the embodiment of the Liberal Party – untrustworthy, self-seeking and broken.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

My Ninth Symphony (Andante)

You may say that the Scotland football team is what serial failure looks like – I couldn’t possibly comment. If you were searching for the very definition of grand-scale institution losing however, I would nominate the European Union. In fact I say Gordon Strachan’s men would beat the EU 5 – 1.

I don’t remember a time since we joined the Common Market when I’ve had serious doubts about the inate worth of the European Project nor a time when I felt it was right for us to withdraw. That is despite a mounting file of reasons for questioning what the great continental movement was really about and the counter-intuitive, mad-as-a-brush nonsense it sometimes produces.

On the face of it this is the embodiment of multi cultural internationalism bringing together disparate peoples and economies irrespective of language, religion, race or outlook in a huge collective effort to bring prosperity, democracy and dignity to 350 million people. On what grounds could anyone object? Interestingly the complaints, set against the declared ideals and objectives, look mean and self-interested – amounting to racism, cost, bureaucracy and managerial exclusivity. Every one could and should be easily dismissed by the leaders of a principled crusade based on sharing the spoils of the rich with the striving poor and opening up closed societies and market interests to transparency and driving economic progress. On the left the cry is Float All Boats – the EU does this. On the right the call is – Market Forces and the EU does this too.

But the complaints are not dismissed, easily or otherwise. The EU is a force in decline, divided and defensive – brutally conservative and contemptuous over Greece, riven with disagreement and inertia over migration. And, depressing as it is for myself, it remains a many-centred enigma beyond the understanding of the population it serves.

I have forgotten how many years I have felt the cold chill of rejection when trying to talk European affairs, either privately or getting stories published in the Scottish media or on air at the BBC. None of it felt relevant to the folk back home – there was always a more easily digestible story that trumped the convoluted statements from the environment or fisheries committee in Strasbourg. By the time you’d explained the process, the impact had gone. European affairs were a bore. How many full-time correspondents does the whole of Scotland’s proud media have in Brussels? None that I know of. I used to lunch with Ken Cameron, the Commission man in Scotland, and we’d always end up shaking our heads about Scotland’s (and the UK’s) failure to come to terms with the mighty sprawling beast that is the EU.

The tone of the power brokers over Greece shocked me deeply, to the extent that, unbidden, I found myself contemplating a No vote in Cameron’s referendum. If the EU isn’t for social solidarity and cohesion, what is it for? The crowing and browbeating by Merkel and Schauble appalled me – I, who had always looked to Germany for leadership when Britain did its usual weasel manoeuvres with its half-in half-out, what’s-in-it-for-me mindset that has embarrassed legions of public officials.

Then the deeply divided and flat-out racist reaction (yes, you Hungary) from some member states and the failure to coordinate a response when dead children are being washed up on our shores…

We need not be squeamish about motives here. The first thing is the obvious – humanitarian aid – unqualified and unwavering. And it ill behoves those whose nations have peopled the world in desperate times or for economic advantage to resile. Hungary, scrabbling to avoid its responsibilities today, should remember how its own people were able to escape the Soviet occupation…200,000 of them. And Austria, the country that welcomed them then despite struggling in post war conditions has forgotten how to embrace people in trouble.

Outside the EU, to see Israel building a fence to keep them out – the country that demands rights for its own folk wherever they are and takes illegal action to protect them, which calls out to the world to send their people to Israel (so long as they’re Jews) and which has shamed the world for the inhuman treatment of them in the war – now enclosing itself against the desperate looks to me like a people who’ve forgotten what persecution means. While Germany takes the laurels for an open door policy –and breaks the EU’s own rules to do so – it is also creating a new workforce for itself. There is pragmatism at work here. While Cameron looks to take 4000 a year from the camps, Germany recognises not just humanitarian need but the cold reality – those who risk everything to make their own way north are the driven ones, the aspirational, the strivers, already speaking English and sometimes German, academically or professionally qualified many of them, they are exactly what industrial states need. Sounds cynical? Ask the refugees.

This is all tricky territory. I don’t back Cameron but do back reform of the EU. I now think a referendum, however dangerous, is needed in order to clarity what we think the EU is for and if it goes near meeting those aspirations. The real risk of a UK withdrawal should focus minds in Brussels because Britain will have allies equally dubious and I believe this is an opportunity for the Scottish government to work with the Conservative government to find common ground in an approach to the EU. It cannot be the case that the SNP sees no argument for reform. But what is it and why the silence? I think a new direction and more democratic architecture is necessary to keep the EU in existence and remind it that its job is to serve the people of Europe, not the bankers, the financiers, nor the corporations.

I always argued that Scotland could be an ally for the rest of the UK after independence when our combined votes in the Council would be greater than the UK’s. Here is a chance to prove what a good neighbour can do. We may not be a member state but we are not without influence and Cameron, if his intentions are honourable (I believe he wants to stay in) could enlist Sturgeon in his case for democratic reform. Here the Kingdom could be United and there is no greater cause than preserving what could be the finest institutional collective of the modern era. But we may need to save it from itself.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather