Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Public Spending: can we have some honesty please?

Another PMQs. Another tribal affair. When will MPs realise that behaving like animals on the floor of the commons does nothing to endear them to the voting public?

The "highlight" of today's PMQs, if you can call it that, was the debate between Brown and Cameron over alleged "cuts" to public services. The Prime Minister quoted so many statistics everyone was left confused, including himself, but the bottom line is that he accused the Tories of proposing a 10% cut in public spending. "They want to spend less, where we would spend more" said Mr Brown.

The Labour benches roared with approval for their leader, something they weren't doing a few days ago, while I was left thinking how desperate Mr Brown's argument was. This is patronising stuff; over-simplistic and assuming the public don't have the sophistication to distinguish between nominal and real reductions in spending.

David Cameron wasn't on form, but managed to earn a reprimand from the outgoing Speaker for telling Mr Brown "You are not fit to be Prime Minister!" All very amusing. It seemed the two "leaders" were keen to accuse each other of making cuts to public spending, but weren't quite so keen to have a rational, sensible and responsible discussion about how spending levels can be adequately maintained. There is a very crucial argument to be had about public spending, but hurling insults and producing arbitrary statistics isn't the way to do things.

It's not as simple as "Labour investment versus Conservative cuts". But Labour are onto something here because Cameron has always made it clear, even before the recession became an unfortunate reality, that the Tories would not necessarily be matching Labour's spending commitments. Recently, they have declared they would abolish free prescriptions in Wales (and presumably Scotland), have tied themselves in knots about the future of SureStart, and continue to state that they are for tax cuts which would benefit only the wealthier. There is little doubt that Cameron would like to reduce public spending but, realising peceived cuts would be unpopular, has found a defence in attacking Brown's lack of openness on Labour spending plans.

Neither Cameron nor Brown can be trusted with our public services. Labour has for the last twelve years poured welcome money into our public sector but appeared to have little idea as to how to actually deliver strong public services. Cameron continues to delude himself that tax cuts are the way forward, which does not sit comfortably with his defence of Tory public spending plans.

More honesty is required if the public is to believe that either of the major parties has a practical, considered and workable long-term plan for improving Britain's public services. This may well be the decisive issue in the forthcoming General election, as communities will oppose any threats to vital services, including Post Offices and hospitals.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

How do we deal with the BNP?

There is no escaping the reality. The British National Party have finally made the breakthrough they have been threatening for some time. Admittedly this has been due in no small part to voter apathy, but the voters of the North West now have Nicholas John Griffin as one of our representatives in Europe.

This is a travesty, but no amount of protesting or wishful thinking is going to change it. While in one sense it was pleasing to see the mass anti-fascist protest in Manchester last night, the truth is that these demonstrations are unlikely to achieve anything significant.

So, what can be done? There have been two principal ways of combating the BNP. The first approach has been to play down their signifcance. While not ignoring them, supporters of this way chose to try to marginalise the BNP, starve them of publicity and portray them to the public as politically irrelevant. I'm sure this approach may have been successful in some areas but here in the North West there is no point taking that tack now. It is an inescapable statement of fact that the BNP are in a very strong position here and will look to become even stronger.

The alternative approach has been to "fight the BNP". This often took the form of active protest and demonstration. We have seen the BNP being publicly heckled, the emergence of organised campaigns such as "Hope not Hate" denouncing them and a number of mass anti-fascist rallies across the North West. We have even witnessed various politicians and senior clergy urging the public not to vote BNP - something I always thought was counter-productive. If there is one thing certain to encourage people to consider voting BNP it's the patronising out-of-touch political class telling us who not to vote for. ("I'm going to vote BNP, simply because you b*****ds don't want me to" is a sentiment I've heard a few times myself.)

I'm not convinced that this effort to "fight the BNP" has been the right "fight" to take up. Firstly, it gives the far-right publicity is doesn't necessarily merit. Secondly, it is always a reactive approach, with protesters responding to the actions of the BNP. There must be a more pro-active route to combating fascism. The media's tactics have proved completely ineffective and have only served to enable the BNP to play the role of political martyr and to claim discrimination.

My own remedy would be to stop "fighting the BNP". It is not the BNP we need to fight, but their ideology and the basis for their support. Instead of openly responding to them, as various hecklers did outside Manchester City hall on Sunday night, we should avoid unnecessary confrontation. We shouldn't be directing our anger towards Nick Griffin and his ilk. They don't deserve our anger - they deserve our pity.

Of course, what should be challenged is the BNP's racist and ill-conceived agenda, and their understanding of Britishness and British history. This ideological battle doesn't have to be argued in an open forum, although I personally would have no problem sharing a platform with Nick Griffin. I'm not afraid of his lies and weak arguments. But what actually has to happen is for politicians and community groups to join forces - not to openly fight fascism - but to facilitate greater understanding between various social groups, to help broken communities to learn to live together. We need to challenge the BNP's ideology not by fighting it out with them but by going into our communities and helping to create the peaceful and tolerant societies that people want.

We can't be afraid of talking about the kind of issues that the BNP want to talk about. In places like Blackburn, where by brother lives, there is a commonly held perception that non-whites are given preferential treatment. We need to be willing to discuss these ideas with people, and challenge perceptions rather than ignore them. We need to listen to people's concerns and fears and respond to them, so the BNP don't capitalise on such fears, while at the same time educating people about the realities the BNP are keen to distort. And we need to do this sensitively, to draw the community together rather than further divide it.

This will not be easy, but the "Hope not Hate" message can be carried more effectively through this kind of approach than any mass-leafleting campaign. To quote a Labour Party slogan: we need to "go forward, not back". We need to move on from the fears, misconceptions and prejudices that have paralysed community relations in some of our communities. We can show the BNP that people can move forward and reject their simplistic and hateful politics. Only this way can the BNP be defeated.

Monday, 8 June 2009

What should we make of Caroline Flint's resignation?

This piece was written by my wife, Anna.

On Friday, as Gordon Brown was responding to the poor local elections results and putting together a new cabinet, Caroline Flint - Minister for Europe - reversed her decision to remain loyal to the Prime Minister and announced her resignation.

In a week of resignations, this was not partiualrly remarkable. After Hazel Blears' blatantly obvious attempt to destablisise the Labour Party before a major election and alienate potential voters (well done Ms Blears, the BNP thank you sincerely) this one was relatively insignficant. After all, Caroline was not one of the more prominent members of the government.

What is interesting is the reasons she gave for resigning: Ms Flint accused the PM of using her (and other women in the cabinet) as "little more than female window dressing". This was remarkable - especially as only the evening before she had praised Mr Brown and declared her loyalty. My first reaction (which may be the correct one) is that this self-serving woman hoped that in return for her loyalty she would receive a promotion which was not forthcoming. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But whatever the truth, a quick glance at the "Labour Home" blog reveals some deep-rooted anti-feminine attitudes which still prevail within the Labour Party. One blogger declared: "I thought it was a complete joke that Flint said Gordon Brown treated her as ‘window dressing’- she is the one wearing short tight skirts with a split right up the back to her ***** and wiggling about in high heels.” Ms Flint's decision to appear in a photoshoot for the Observer newspaper appeared to have undermined her claims among these Labour supporters, who appear to believe that in agreeing to the photoshoot, showing a lot of leg and looking glamourously beautiful she had undermined her personal and political credibility. No-one doing this could possibly be considered a serious politician!

I'm not too sure I would have done this myself, even if I was as photogenic as the former Europe Minister. If only because it isn't too difficult for the press to use such pictures to make judgements or to embarrass. But I am not sure that simply because Ms Flint chose to display her attractiveness and femininity to Observer readers that she can not be seriously considered. Number 10 was not too pleased with Ms Flint's self-display - perhaps because of the potential for her to come across as cheap, or someone desperately courting publicity. I suppose there is also the risk of appearing more obsessed with style than substance.

But all the same, I wouldn't be so dismissive of any professional person, be they Caroline Flint or Rebecca Adlington, for posing for newspapers. When athletes do it, it enhances their standing - when politicians do, they are derided. This is perhaps because of the misogynistic assertion that politics and women/sex do not sit easily together. It is plainly nonsense to be so dismissive of someone's capabilities on such a superficial basis.

Women who aren't particularly attractive also suffer. Just ask Patricia Hewitt.

Whether there is any truth to Ms Flint's claims that she was treated like "window dressing" is questionable, although Mr Brown's male-dominated cabinet suggests there may be some substance to it. However, what is certain is that, in political circles, femininity still doesn't fit.

I wouldn't judge Caroline Flint for being unashamed of her personal attractiveness. What I would be critical of her for is the ease with which she turned from loyal Brown supporter to would-be assassin in the space of a few hours. We need more women in parliament, but women of principle and integrity. If anything has compromised Caroline Flint's political credibility it isn't a few photos for a Sunday newspaper.

European Elections: the real winners are...The Apathy Party

There is no question who the biggest losers are: the Labour Party. They suffered a hammering on an unprecendented scale. Following questions about Brown's leadership, the expenses scandal and a spate of cabinet resignations, Labour's performance was worse than imaginable, losing the popular vote in Wales for the first time since 1918 and finishing third overall, behind UKIP.

But the Conservatives did not benefit as should have been expected. There was no great increase in their vote. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats had a disappointing night and are clearly failing to capitalise on the government's unpopularity and peceived incompetence. We are usually the recipient of protest votes but in EU elections find ourselves being replaced by a number of other parties including the fascist BNP. While the election results are clearly a desperately bad thing for Labour, there is little evidence that the public have fully embraced David Cameron's Tories.

Dissapointingly, the lead up to the election has been dominated by the Westminster expenses issue, the personality of Gordon Brown and cabinet resignations. There has been little talk about Europe or the EU; even less about the complex political issues in which the EU is central. The only dialogue on Europe has been the simplistic and unsophisticated arguments from UKIP. It is a tragedy that the public are generally unaware on European issues - while this is perhaps the fault of the mass media, the beneficiaries of general ignorance are the extreme Eurosceptic parties like UKIP.

The real winners last night were not UKIP, the Conservatives or even the BNP who were shamefully allowed to gain two seats. It was a victory for apathy. These elections proved that people can do amazing things through inaction. With a turnout at a pathetically low 30% voters stayed away - especially many Labour voters. The low turnout benefitted UKIP and the BNP who, while not increasing their votes, saw their share of the vote increase significantly. Unfortunately, this is what happens when voters "stay at home to give Labour a kicking".

The sight of Nick Griffin giving a "victory speech" was, quite frankly, appalling and unexpected. This should serve as a wake-up call not only to politicians but to the public and the media. Sections of the press have run a determined campaign to discredit certain mainstream politicians and the effect has been to encourage voters to stay away - with dreadful consequences.

It is a tragedy that the vast majority of British voters stayed away from the polls. In a sense, it is unsurprising, given the media emphasis on personality politics (which turns voters off) and the lack of constructive debate on Europe. What needs to happen is for greater engagement with the public that actually empowers the electorate and inspires them to use their democratic right constructively. And on Europe it is vital to have more honest discussion about European issues, rather than leave these important issues to the unsophisticated and ill-informed UKIP.