Monday, 30 June 2008

Things I dearly wish we didn't have

fast "food"
the fashion industry
guns and bombs
long baggy shorts
rap "music"
endless "lifestyle" bollocks in every newspaper
"reality" tv
designer brands
the abuse industry (prop. Enid Rancid)
shoes worn with no socks
tuneless musicals, mostly by the talentless A. Lloyd Webber
people shaving all their hair off
tongue piercing

Saturday, 28 June 2008

"Lurch to the left"? If only!

I nearly fell off my chair during PMQs this week when David Cameron accused Gordon Brown's government of "lurching to the left". What on earth was he thinking?

On every issue I can think of, the present New Labour regime continues the neocon rightwing policies that have been in operation since 1997. Indeed, on some issues it actually now seems to be to the right of the Tory party, in so far as one can make out where the latter stands on anything.

I would refer Cameron to a Polly Toynbee piece the other week entitled If a Martian taxman landed now, he'd never guess Labour was in power. The title says it all, I think.

Ms Toynbee's main thrust is that New Labour has never bothered to try to make the basic social-democratic case for fair taxation:

Labour has never talked openly and honestly about tax. Shifty and apologetic, ministers use the language of the right - all taxes are a "burden", all redistribution disguised. Labour's tax cuts were money thrown away on a one-day budget wonder. As they didn't fit a Labour ideological identity, no one believed it. Indeed they are right as secret fiscal drag, failing to raise thresholds, has quietly brought more people into higher tax brackets - but not the richest, whose earnings rose fastest; no new tax band for them.

Under the shadow of Labour's tax system, the wall between haves and have-nothings grows higher. Shelter reports this week that first-time buyers now need 78% more money to get on the housing ladder than a decade ago. Only those with cash from parents stand a chance - and here Labour has widened the asset gap between the 70% home-owners and the 30% with nothing.

Worst of all was the sudden panicky abolition of inheritance tax:
When George Osborne promised at the Tory conference to raise the IHT threshold to £1m, that was the precise moment when Labour lost everything - the moment Brown funked the election and Labour lost its last shred of fiscal identity in rushing to copy the Tories. Just as the lowest earners lost their 10p tax rate, the wealthy got an unearned £700,000 untaxed. (.....) Equal opportunities for all children were forgotten in a moment of panic: birth has become destiny more certainly than ever, and Labour helped strangle a mechanism that spread wealth more fairly.

Ms Toynbee concludes that "the young have never heard any politician explain what progressive tax is for - the word redistribution being unheard in the lexicon of modern politicians. Now this most fundamental argument needs to be made all over again, before it's too late."

I completely share her analysis and her concern. The difference between her and me is that she, despite everything, still clings desperately to the hope that Labour might get back to being in a position worth supporting.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

By-election news

This is getting silly. There are no fewer than 25 candidates standing against David Davis in his by-election. Of these, the only serious one is the Green Party candidate, and if I were an elector in Haltemprice I should certainly vote for them.

I still think Nick Clegg has made a tactical error in agreeing that no Lib Dem will stand.

Among all the other candidates, a colourful variety of cryptofascists, anoraks and crackpots, we find Ronnie Carroll -- Yes! the Ronnie Carroll, now aged 74 (younger readers may need to be told that he was famous as a popular singer in the 1950s).

He is standing in the "Make Politicians History" interest. Is this not rather depressing? We have apparently reached the point where politicians -- all politicans, apparently, of whatever creed or ideology or standing -- are now to be regarded as evil and to be done away with if at all possible.

According to Wikipedia (admittedly not always a reliable source), Make Politicians History actually exists as a party, and its policy is nothing less than the complete abolition of Parliament, to be replaced by decision-making by referendum.

Well, of course all this may well be meant as a joke, to be taken no more seriously than the Monster Raving Loony Party, but it feeds into the enormous cynicism about the whole political process that is now so widepread, even amongst some supposedly respectable commentators. I'm sure this is mainly fuelled by the tabloid press, which is now in permanent attack mode in this country. I believe it is terribly damaging to democracy as a whole, and that the majority of politicians do not deserve it.

Have people stopped to think what would actually happen if we did not have a parliamentary democracy, and everything was decided by referenda? You have only to look at the Irish vote the other day to see that this is not a sensible way of making decisions, as I wrote in my comment on the Irish result entitled Why referenda are a bad idea.

I was rather pleased with a Labour MP called Chris Bryant the other day on BBC TV's Daily Politics, who took Andrew Neil to task rather sharply for his relentless cynicism about MPs and their expenses. Neil, who privately must know better, was pushing the gutter-press Poujadiste line that they are all just in it for themselves, "snouts in the trough", etc. Everyone who has had even a passing involvement in politics knows that this is not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense: nobody hoping to get rich quick would think of entering politics.

Steve Richards produced a thoughtful piece the other day entitled Don't be fooled – these 'heroic campaigns' only make our democracy even more fragile, pointing out that both the David Davis by-election and the Irish referendum outcome were symptoms of a disaffection with established politics that has been whipped up by irresponsible and/or thoughtless forces with media access. Of Davis, Richards writes:

Cleverly, Mr Davis portrays his move as one that chimes with voters compared with the timid, insular preoccupations of the "Westminster village", always a location viewed with a lazy disdain.

In doing so, he fuels the stupid and dangerous "plague on all their houses" culture. Politics is a tough old business. It is about the resolution of disagreement through debate, manoeuvring, winning votes in parliament, persuading voters and the media to come on board. This may not sound especially romantic, but the alternative to resolution of dispute through politics is the use of force. Politics is better.

I agree with this, and I think the great majority of politicians -- those who are honestly engaged in trying to make the world a better place, according to their lights -- need to be much more aggressive and upfront about the purposes of politics and its importance as the only alternative to tyranny.

Respectable journalists, too, ought to be taking their more reckless colleagues to task. Apart from Steve Richards in the piece mentioned above, most hacks -- with the honourable and long-standing exception of Polly Toynbee, who often rails against the irresponsibility of the Murdoch, Mail and Telegraph presses -- seem inclined to play the game whereby dog is not supposed to eat dog.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Trains of the day

This "train of the day" doesn't exist yet. The video clip is a 10-minute promotional film, On Track for the Future, for a 700-mile High-Speed Rail scheme in California.

It would link San Diego with Sacramento via Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It's nice to see that some Americans are at last seeing the light. Note that some of the visuals use Eurostar as an example.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Why Not a High-Speed Line?

Earlier this year I wrote, in my contribution to the consultation on Heathrow airport expansion, that there would be no need for it if, instead, a new high-speed rail line were built, from London St Pancras (connecting with the Eurostar line to the continent) via Heathrow to the Midlands, North and Scotland, an idea put forward some time ago by Greengauge 21.

Shortly after that, The Guardian ran an editorial, saying the same thing.

More surprisingly, the Tory transport spokeswoman then appeared to be backing the idea, tentatively at least.

An article in this month's Rail Professional magazine is entitled Third Runway? Why Not a High-Speed Line? (pdf). It notes that opposition to expansion at Heathrow now embraces not only the Tory front bench and the Liberal Democrats but also Boris Johnson, most London MPs of all parties, the National Trust and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The author, Chris Randall, goes on to note:

Since it was opened last November, High Speed 1 has cut 20 minutes off journey times from London to Paris and Brussels, leading to record numbers of passengers travelling by Eurostar. Indeed, the rail link is now so popular that airlines have virtually given up competing with Eurostar on both routes. It ought to be enough to persuade the Government that rail, not air, is the future.

A second high-speed line could see a 40-minute journey time from Heathrow to Birmingham and 1hr 15mins to Manchester. Sadly, ministers continue to pay lip service to developing a sustainable transport policy, based on low carbon emissions, but when push comes to shove, they roll over and cave in to the monopolistic BAA and the big airlines. It's time the railway lobby got its act together and gave aviation a run for its money.

Then, a fortnight ago, The Times produced a leader column headed Railways: A British Bullet Train:

The long-term case for British bullet trains is irresistible. The country's existing intercity network is overcrowded, unreliable and growing much slower than demand. (....)

New high-speed lines linking London with Glasgow via Birmingham and Manchester and Edinburgh via the North East would solve this looming capacity crunch. (.....)

The environmental case for high-speed rail is scarcely less compelling. The per-passenger-mile carbon cost of trains travelling at 186 mph is higher than for most current British intercity services, but barely a tenth as high as for the short-haul flights with which these trains compete. And the European experience, including that of Eurostar, is that given this choice passengers overwhelmingly take the train.

The Times leader ended up by calling for government to move ahead fast on this project. However, it noted that rail minister Tom Harris had repeatedly poured cold water on the idea, suggesting there was no hope for any progress under the present regime.

So it is very pleasing to learn today that Network Rail is looking as if it is going to push government hard on this. According to the Telegraph, it is to go ahead with drawing up serious plans for several new lines:

Network Rail chiefs say the case for expanding the railways has been bolstered by the need to cut dependency on oil and environmental demands to reduce domestic air travel. (.....)

The likeliest candidates for high-speed track are two lines running through the spine of the country, one from London to Glasgow and the other along the east coast to Edinburgh. (.....)

Mr Coucher said the need is partly because existing infrastructure is incapable of handling rising demand. "Trains are becoming fuller," he said. "We have been able to put more on the network, going up from 17,000 to 22,000 a day.

"Then trains could be lengthened from eight to 10 to 12 carriages. But after that you reach the point where other steps are needed."

I'm glad this last point is being made. I have always suspected that capacity, rather than speed per se, would be the most convincing reason for new rail infrastructure. Indeed, the first fast line in France, from Paris to Lyon, which came into service in 1981, was originally based on the fact that the existing main lines were saturated. But then if you are going to build new lines anyway, you might as well make them high-speed ones, the better to compete with other modes, notably air.

Sadly, unlike in France, everything in this country takes an eternity to happen. If any of these schemes go ahead, says the Telegraph, it will be about ten years before any actual building starts.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

David Davis, man of principle

Debate continues to rage everywhere about whether David Davis is a man of principle or whether his by-election is just a political stunt.

This is a false dichotomy. It is perfectly possible that both things are true: that he is a man of principle, engaging in a political stunt.

Shami Chakrabarti of "Liberty" has met DD a lot recently over the 42 days issue, and she says he is a man of principle (albeit one who is now, in her view, committing a tactical error). If she thinks so, that is good enough for me.

As Jackie Ashley pointed out yesterday, most of the sneering and sniping at Davis is coming not from the Labour side but from his Tory colleagues, many of whom are privately distinctly wobbly on detention without charge. She also has an interesting theory about the motives behind his unusual move:

My view is that Davis knew that though he was winning the argument today, he was losing it over time inside the Conservative party. The bigger the opinion poll lead stacking up for Cameron, the easier it would be to shuffle Davis sideways or downwards. After a Tory landslide, Davis would be Cameron's Frank Dobson - briefly employed, briefed against, then dropped.

This way, if the byelection goes well for Davis it will be very difficult for Cameron to renege later on civil liberties. Davis himself will have a fresh mandate and will be harder to sideline. Compared to the smooth, slightly bland, already predictable-sounding policies of Cameron, Davis will be standing ready with an alternative "profile in courage".
Ms Ashley notes, too, that most of the general public take little or no interest in civil liberties. That is certainly not new. I remember, when I was active in the NCCL (as "Liberty" used to be known) in the late 1960s and 1970s, we always felt that people at large couldn't give a toss about the threats to liberty we were trying to highlight.

Indeed, maybe the government gets away with becoming more and more authoritarian because they know that most people are quite happy to live in an authoritarian state, just as long as they are not affected personally. Some Labour people are quite open about this (Frank Field: "Never mind 42 days, I'd be in favour of 42 years"). To say nothing of, for instance, the deeply reactionary David Blunkett, who not so long ago was Labour's Home Secretary, for chrissake.

As for the Tories, most of them have always leaned in an authoritarian direction, with a few honourable exceptions.

In overall party terms, only the Lib Dems really have credibility on this issue. Civil liberties are, and always were, a preoccupation very largely of middle-class liberal intellectuals like me.

But there are civil liberties and there are civil liberties. As David Aaronovitch observes this morning in a piece provocatively entitled David Davis is no champion of freedom, DD has not, to put it mildly, been at the forefront of espousing liberty for gay people, for example:

Whereas he lays claim to being a civil libertarian, he is most certainly a social authoritarian, perfectly happy that the State should interfere in matters of adult sexuality. Mr Davis was one of the last defenders in the Conservative Party of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which, as a classic piece of paranoid authoritarian populism, purported to prevent the non-existent "promotion" of homosexuality, or of the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship".
David Davis is now extending the scope of his concerns way beyond habeas corpus and ID cards to include such things as CCTV and speed cameras.

Here too I have to agree with Aaronovitch:

But it's the reference to CCTV that is the giveaway. CCTV does not "spy" on us in any meaningful sense. You are not "followed" down the street by cameras "monitoring your every movement" (as some suggest).
I don't see CCTV in public places as encroaching on liberties. If you are out in the street or on a railway station platform, anybody who is there can see what you are doing: you know that you are in "the public domain" and it seems silly to suggest that your privacy is being invaded when you are not in a private place.

What is more, the general presence of cameras makes me feel slightly safer on the London streets than might otherwise be the case. When my boyf was mugged of his bank card at a cash machine recently, the bank already knew about it when he immediately phoned them. Certainly, friends who work for the railways tell me that CCTV on stations, where intelligently sited and properly used, has definitely helped to deter pickpocketing, low-level disorder and anti-social behaviour.

They may be less useful in a place like Haltemprice, although Geoff Hoon, on TV on Sunday, was able to point out that the only thing he hears about CCTV cameras from his Derbyshire constituents is that they want more of them, not fewer.

As for speed cameras, I think there should be far more of them. The evidence is that they save lives. If people are going to drive around in murderous tin boxes on wheels, the least they must expect is that they will be watched to see whether they are endangering innocent people.

Had DD confined himself to habeas corpus, I might have supported him, but his message is now way too fuzzy.

Monday, 16 June 2008

How green are the Tories?

The Torygraph reports this morning that David Cameron is insisting that he is not backing away from environmental concerns. Green policies, he says, "will be at the heart of everything a future Conservative government does".

I would love to believe that this is so. Unfortunately, things that parties say in opposition sometimes get forgotten in the heat of government, or even turn out to have been downright lies, as I noted yesterday in relation to Blair's promises in the 1990s about railways.

Many of us will be looking for some firm and specific commitments from the Tories:

- Will they firm up their opposition to the expansion of Heathrow airport?
- Will they definitely come out in favour of a new north-south railway line via Heathrow instead?
- Will they back the proposed road charging scheme in Manchester?
- How exactly do they propose to tackle the coming energy crisis?

The New Labour regime has proved extremely disappointing on these and similar issues, to put it mildly. If the Tories can really convince us that they will move forward boldly on these questions, even where it necessitates specific policies that are unpopular with the gutter press, then I shall view their accession to government with a good deal less despair than would otherwise be the case.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

A very good question

Christian Wolmar notes that Tony Blair was lying through his teeth when he told the Labour Party Conference in the 1990s that under his government there would be a "publicly owned, publicly accountable railway". CW also finds it extraordinary that the current Rail Minister, Tom Harris, says the government is "modally agnostic" about how people travel:

In other words, the government should make no attempt to influence people to use more environmentally more friendly methods of transport, or even those which are better for the economy. One has to begin to ask, what exactly is the Labour Party for?

Noted Tory blogger weds his boyf

I am pleased to welcome Iain Dale to the ranks of "political bloggers who are in a civil partnership"; and whatever our political differences, I wish him and his partner well.

When I was heavily involved in gay rights campaigning from 1968 to 1976, I used to come across gay chaps who described themselves as Conservatives, and I always used to wonder how they felt about the fact that, had their party been in power, they would certainly not have been enjoying the (albeit restricted) legal freedom granted in 1967.

Similarly, if Iain's party had won the 2001 election I wonder if they would have brought forward the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004 and found parliamentary time for it?

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Haltemprice the home of liberty?

David Davis's bizarre decision to provoke a by-election has set the cat among the pigeons and suddenly made politics more interesting, momentarily at least.

Nobody seems to know quite what to make of it. Liberal Conspiracy is already full of conflicting views about whether liberals should support him or not.

Tories of course are seething with rage, which is always amusing but doesn't, of itself, get us very far.

Helena Kennedy has a thoughtful piece in today's Indie called "Why I support this passionate politician". She argues that we need a debate on "the steady erosion of the freedoms we had taken for granted" and hopes this by-election campaign will provide it.

I am not so sure that it will work out like that. East Yorkshire is a pretty illiberal backwater (I know because I grew up there). People there vote for Davis and his ilk because they are mostly reactionary and conservative. It seems an unlikely setting for the lively and passionate public meetings about civil liberties that metropolitan intellectuals like Helena Kennedy might hope for.

In one respect, Davis could be said to have succeeded already: the Labour Party, by refusing to put up a candidate, can be portrayed as being frightened of having the debate.

So far, his only significant potential opponent is the odious Poujadist yob Kelvin MacKenzie. This could be helpful to the left in exposing the divisions on the right, but it doesn't promise a very edifying level of debate.

I am not at all certain that Nick Clegg was right to decide so quickly to give Davis a free run and not put up a candidate for the Lib Dems (who are normally the only remotely viable alternative to the Tories in that part of the world). I don't see how it can be guaranteed that the election will be exclusively "about" detention without charge. Elections are "about" whatever the voters are most interested in.

The trouble with David Davis as would-be poster-boy for liberty is that his record is actually pretty illiberal: anti-gay rights, pro-capital punishment, the list goes on. If I were a voter in Haltemprice, I think I should feel rather pissed off at having no Lib Dem to vote for, and being forced to vote for an essentially quite reactionary Tory just in order to keep out the vulgar crypto-fascist thug MacKenzie.

Hungry tapir of the day

Bendy bus accident rates

Somebody in Private Eye quoted some figures purporting to show that bendy buses are involved in more accidents than other London buses.

I wrote the following letter to the editor, but he didn't publish it:


The statistics quoted by Ivan Viehoff (Eye 1211) don't necessarily prove that bendy buses are less safe than other buses. This is because the bendy buses in London run on only a small number of routes -- the highest-demand services which, by their nature, run on busier streets than other routes.

So in order to compare like with like, you would need to set the bendy bus accident rate against the accident rate for non-bendy buses on those same routes only. Perhaps some enterprising journalist could set about extracting these figures from Transport for London?


Friday, 13 June 2008

Why referenda are a bad idea

The Irish referendum campaign is a good illustration of why the referendum is not a sensible way of making decisions:

(1) On the BBC TV news, the first two people interviewed in the street said "I didn't understand it, so I voted no". You are asking people to take a decision on matters of complex constitutional detail which they cannot reasonably be expected to have got to grips with. Most ordinary people are even less interested in constitutional matters than they are in politics generally.

(2) The "no" campaign in Ireland, much like the "no" campaign in France a couple of years ago, was dominated by various arguments that were at best irrelevant and at worst completely mendacious. For instance, it was being suggested that the Treaty would affect Ireland's neutrality, and that it would impose freer abortion. In fact the Treaty would have no bearing on these matters at all. But campaigners in the referendum were allowed to get away with claiming that it did. The same sort of thing is almost bound to happen in any referendum.

Of course, here in the UK most people who are clamouring for a referendum are not actually interested in the Treaty as such, about which in any case they have been wildly misinformed by the Tories and their allies in the gutter press. They are just using the proposal for a referendum as a political tactic towards their real aim, which is to leave the EU altogether. They should admit as much, and campaign explicitly on that. At least UKIP is honest and clear about this.

If, as currently seems quite likely, the Conservative Party wins the next general election, they are going to have to come clean on this issue and stop fudging.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Railways: Some very good news

In the new issue of Modern Railways magazine (not yet available on the web), Roger Ford has a big article called Electrification: the tide is turning.

The backstory is last year's dispiritingly unambitious White Paper, which poured a lot of cold water on the idea of electrifying any more main lines, using a variety of remarkably spurious arguments that were ably ripped to shreds by Roger Ford in the October issue of MR. As usual, what actually lay behind the policy was the short-sighted, cheese-paring Treasury.

The lines crying out for electrification are the Great Western lines out of Paddington and the East Midland lines out of St Pancras, plus the York-Birmingham-Bristol/Cardiff "Northeast-Southwest" line and the Trans-Pennine lines linking Liverpool and Manchester with Yorkshire. At present, all these depend entirely on diesel traction. Almost everywhere else in Europe, such heavily-trafficked routes were electrified decades ago.

There is no doubt that the dysfunctional and fragmented structure of the railway system created by privatisation has made consideration of this kind of long-term investment more difficult than it was in the days of monolithic British Rail. Then, there was no doubt what needed to be done; it was just a question of securing the funding. Now, the operating side of the industry consists of many private companies whose only purpose in life is to secure quick profits for their shareholders. Big front-end capital expenditure whose payback (including much lower operating and maintenance costs) stretches into the future does not fit easily with this short-focus business model.

And yet, large-scale mainline electrification would undoubtedly be to the long-term benefit of society, helping create a greener, more reliable, more cost-effective and more efficient transport network -- for freight as well as for passengers. It is all a question of seeing the bigger picture and taking the longer view. Only central government is in a position to do this.

Well, after a lot of bad-tempered argy-bargy behind the scenes, the Department for Transport has suddenly done a big U-turn. It is now, in effect, repudiating its own White Paper of less than a year ago. It's thought that changes of personnel are partly responsible, but one thing focussing the DfT mind must be that decisions will soon have to be made on replacing the excellent but now ageing HST diesel fleet. A straight replacement with new diesel trains would lock the railways into oil dependency for another 30 years.

So now a rolling programme of electrification is emerging, starting with London-Bristol/Cardiff, for which the financial benefit/cost ratio is calculated at 2.3 to 1. Let us hope that Roger Ford's optimism is justified and that the scheme will proceed without further delay.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

We're Driving Toward Disaster

A Washington Post piece by James Howard Kunstler, though primarily about America, is of wider interest.

It's not that we are running out of oil, he notes, but that we are running out of cheap fuel of any sort, and this has much wider implications than people have so far realised. It will require some major changes in behaviour, quite irrespective of the arguments about climate change:

No combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system — or even a fraction of these things — in the future. We have to make other arrangements.

It is, Kunstler suggests, going to be much more than just a question of trying to make slightly fewer car journeys, or producing cars that use a bit less fuel. The "everyday activities of American life" will have to be dramatically reorganised, he says, involving major changes in the structure of agriculture and retailing, the restoration of local economic networks, and big changes in attitudes to land-use planning and urban design.

He has some interesting comments about rail transport:

Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country's oil consumption. The fact that we’re not talking about it — especially in the presidential campaign — shows how confused we are. The airline industry is disintegrating under the enormous pressure of fuel costs. (.....) At least five small airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past two months. If we don't get the passenger trains running again, Americans will be going nowhere five years from now.

Here in Europe we are lucky that our far higher population density prevented us from being able to adopt quite the same lunatic dependency on the motorcar in the past 40 years as the USA.

Nevertheless, the lessons apply here too: apart from anything else, an "Is your journey really necessary?" frame of mind seems more and more indicated, something which as a "light green" I had always hoped we could avoid.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

42 days: Govt completely isolated

Watching BBC Question Time this week, it was notable how completely isolated the government is on detention without trial.

David Miliband was the government stooge on this occasion. (By the way, I have now seem him many times on TV as well as in the House, and so far I remain mystified as to why anyone thinks he is leadership material.) (Update: Richard Ingrams is of a similar view.)

All four of the other panellists strongly opposed the "42 days" proposal: Shami Chakrabarti and Vince Cable obviously, but also Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, and even the loopy far-right Mail columnist Peter Hitchens.

I've also recently seen Michael (now Lord) Heseltine and, for heaven's sake, even Michael Howard speaking against the proposal with equal passion, all on "habeas corpus" civil-liberty grounds. The breadth of the consensus against the government is quite remarkable.

Then yesterday up pops Sir John Major, saying that the plan will actually achieve the opposite of what it claims. Hurd, Heseltine, Howard, Major -- it seems ludicrous to suggest that all these former top Tories are "soft on terrorism".

As has been endlessly pointed out, the DPP doesn't think 42 days are necessary, and nor do the former Attorney-General, or the former Lord Chancellor, or various former chief constables.

Now the Home Secretary has had to admit that MI5 haven't asked for it, either.

Why on earth has Gordon Brown been so determined to press ahead with this? The political calculation seems to be that it will show him to be "tough" and "doing what is right", based on the fact that the proposal is popular with the general public, according to opinion polls. Well, the same is true of capital punishment, but parliamentarians have consistently rejected that because they know it is wrong, and no conceivable government would dream of trying to bring it back, whatever the polls say.

Anyway, as Alan Watkins points out this morning, any political credit accruing to Brown if he does get this through is likely to be extremely short-lived.

And even if the clause scrapes through the Commons, it is likely to come to grief in the House of Lords, who can effectively delay it for a year or more. If Brown has any sense, he will quietly leave it to die in the Lords, and save face by "not getting around" to finding any more parliamentary time for it in the Commons.

14 things Gordon Brown should do now

Were I to find myself in Gordon Brown's shoes -- "which thank the Lord I'm not, Sir" -- I should now proceed as follows:

(1) Admit that Labour thoroughly deserved to lose the Crewe by-election, and sack whomever was responsible for the pathetic campaign. Add that as long as I am leader of the party there will be no more dirty tricks and negative campaigning on personalities.

(2) Take the people at the bottom of the income range out of tax altogether, explaining that we are a social-democratic party or we are nothing. The new overriding theme of the government will be: TOWARDS A FAIRER SOCIETY.

(3) Cancel the entirely pointless Trident missile programme, thus saving £76 billion at a stroke. This will pay for the above tax concessions and also for a new north-south railway line, work on planning which will start immediately.

(4) Bring all the troops home from Iraq as soon as possible, and admit that the whole exercise was a dreadful mistake.

(5) Take lessons in how to appear relaxed and conversational and non-evasive on television, just as Mrs Thatcher had to do. It is perfectly possible to learn these things.

(6) Signal to Barack Obama and John McCain that Britain will always be ready to help out in genuinely good causes around the world, within the limits of our resources, but will no longer be automatically beholden to US foreign policy.

(7) Cancel all airport expansion plans and explain that with the new high-speed north-south rail line from London via Heathrow to the Midlands and North, there will be no need to increase airport capacity. This will help us attain the long-term targets for CO2 emission reductions.

(8) Make Alan Johnson the main public voice of the government, since he is one of the few present members of the cabinet who seems like a human being and actually answers the questions put to him. Sack Caroline Flint, Harriet Harman, Hazel Blears, Tessa Jowell, and Margaret Hodge, all of whom are completely useless. The public is sick and tired of seeing these nannying nags endlessly on the TV. Make clear that future ministerial promotions will be on the basis of ability alone, irrespective of sex. If this means there are not many women in government, tough.

(9) Also sack John Hutton, who is plainly in the wrong party, and cancel his ridiculous scheme for a new coal-fired power station in Kent. Repudiate his extraordinary suggestion that nothing can be done for agency and temporary workers, the very people who most need employment protection.

(10) Initiate urgent discussions with David Cameron and Nick Clegg to seek cross-party consensus on constitutional reforms, including electoral systems and the House of Lords. The constitution cannot be a party matter if there is to be long-term stability.

(11) Organise a quick all-party/non-party debate, without preconditions, on whether we can really do any good in Afghanistan. This will involve military and foreign-policy experts as well as politicians. If a wide consensus can be reached that the game is worth the candle, send in more troops and helicopters forthwith, and initiate an information campaign to explain to the public exactly what are the aims and purpose of the operation. (There will be some spare troops for this as a result of withdrawing from Iraq, see item 4 above.) If not, pull out altogether. If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing it properly, but at the moment the public is confused and uncertain about why we are sacrificing British soldiers' lives there.

(12) Call in Jon Cruddas and make him a job offer he cannot refuse. If he still refuses anyway, at least ask him what to do, and then do it.

(13) Abandon plans to extend detention without trial, and plans for ID cards linked to an all-knowing database. (It is the database that is the problem, not the physical plastic cards as such.) This may mean moving Jacqui Smith to another job to save her face as far as possible.

(14) Announce that Labour is not a tax-cutting party, and put in hand a major public information campaign to explain why taxes are necessary to help bring about a fairer and greener society. Tell Gisela Stuart, Sally Keeble, Dennis McShane and co. that unless they stop talking about tax cuts you will publicly repudiate them. Announce that the tax burden on motoring will be shifted to mileage rather than mere possession of a vehicle, so as to discourage unnecessary journeys, but the changes will be revenue-neutral, so the overall tax take will not increase. Cancel all plans for further roadbuilding and motorway widening.

It seems rather likely that the Tories will win the next general election whatever happens now. But there is nothing to be lost by getting back on to the moral high ground and restoring some purpose to the Labour Party. As things stand, it is not clear that there is any point in having a Labour Party.

Friday, 6 June 2008

John Edwards for VP

So, at last: Obama it is then. I quite welcome this, not because he is (half) "black", which should be irrelevant, but because he seems to have found a way of enthusing people for the idea of changing American society in a fresh and (on the whole) at least vaguely progressive direction.

Hillary Clinton might have turned out OK, though I personally find her annoying and slippery. One way or the other, it has nothing to do with her being a woman, which should be irrelevant. The Clinton brand is too damaged by lying and sleaze and cynical "triangulation" for many of us to feel comfortable with.

If I seem a bit lukewarm about Obama, compared with many observers on this side of the Atlantic who have got very excited about him, it's because (a) he still has to beat McCain yet, which is by no means in the bag, and (b) even if he wins, disappointment is inevitable.

Why is disappointment inevitable?

(1) The USA under any President is always going to be essentially selfish, arrogant, bombastic and imperialistic, as it always has been. Its foreign policy is usually cloaked in altruistic-sounding guff about democracy, world peace, human rights, etc., but in reality it is always, always, about ruthlessly doing whatever it takes to advance America's narrow economic interests -- and particularly those of its big-business lobbyists -- whatever the cost to anyone else. If Obama attempts to change any of this in the smallest degree he will, I have no doubt at all, be assassinated at the earliest opportunity by agents of the military-industrial nexus.

(2) No President, I suspect, is ever going to be able get out from under the thumb of the rabid Zionist lobby when it comes to policy in the Middle East. Already, one reads, Obama has been trying to butter them up with reassurances that he would not do anything significantly different about Israel/Palestine. So it's hard to see how there can be much progress in that part of the world, on which the future outline of geopolitics, and maybe world peace itself, so much depends.

(3) The President isn't as all-powerful as we outside the USA tend to think. Much is decentralised to the individual States. Much has to be agreed by Congress, which is often hostile, especially when controlled by the other party, as it could easily again be. Much can depend on the Supreme Court, which will remain under far-right control whoever is President. And then, as noted, there are the all-powerful corporate lobbyists. They are bound to make very difficult any progress on, especially, environmental and energy policy.

All this is not to say that I shall not be rooting for Obama to beat McCain. Of course I shall. It's just that I have been around too long to allow myself to hope for too much progress out of one election result.

The next question now is, who will he choose as running-mate? For what it's worth, I plump for John Edwards again. He was my first choice for candidate until he got knocked out of the race. I think he is a very attractive candidate in many ways, and he might be able to garner support in some of the areas where Obama struggles.

UPDATE (Feb 2010): Whoops! Well, you can't win 'em all.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

"The car has become the new political frontline"

35 years ago, in his seminal essay The Social Ideology of the Motorcar, André Gorz pointed out that motorcars worked fine as long as most people didn't possess one:

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don't have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it.

Martin Jacques -- not somebody I always find myself in agreement with -- comes back to this theme in an interesting Grauniad piece today. He suggests that the motorcar in today's society is not so much an occasionally useful piece of machinery as a fashion item, a piece of showing-off bling, and a political weapon:

The streets around here are crawling with SUVs, usually driven by women, often with a mobile glued to their ear, whose attitude towards other roadusers can best be described as f*ck you. The size, high centre of gravity, and frontal attachments of their SUVs represent a serious threat to cars, cyclists and pedestrians alike. That is why they are popular. They represent a new kind of middle-class aggression, a form of urban warfare in an era when the rich have become unashamedly richer and desperately anxious to flaunt the fact.

Echoing André Gorz, he goes on to note:

Where once cars were a symbol of mobility and freedom, now they are – except in the surreal world of car advertising – a passport to traffic jams and congestion. When cars were for the minority, they could enjoy the freedom of the roads, but when they became the mode of transport for a large majority, there was simply not enough road space to go around and they increasingly became a form of confinement.

The heyday of the private motorcar, then, has passed; all the more so as its fuel becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. Getting people to acknowledge this fact may take a little longer, especially as long as so much media exposure is given to reactionary nincompoops like Jeremy Clarkson, whom Jacques describes as "the embodiment not just of what is wrong with the car but also of what is wrong with so much in society".

Monday, 2 June 2008

"The persecutory policies of Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith"

It is extremely good news that a young gay Iranian, Mehdi Kazemi, has been saved from deportation to face likely execution in Iran, where his boyfriend has already been hanged.

But what I want to know is, why did it take such a big international campaign by many organisations, resolutions in the European Parliament, and intense last-minute lobbying by MPs here in Britain, before the Home Office agreed to grant him asylum?

Surely if the idea of asylum from persecution by brutal, murderous regimes means anything at all, this case ought to have been a no-brainer?

Is it not shaming for Britain when international websites are led to write about "a resounding defeat for the persecutory policies of Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith”?

Of course, the New Labour regime is frightened by the xenophobic hysteria whipped up by the gutter press on the subject of asylum-seekers in recent years. They ought to have faced it down, rather than apparently being perfectly prepared to allow innocent people to be sent to their deaths.

Grumpy sea turtle of the day