Monday, August 23, 2010

Not praising Gordon, but burying him

I wonder how long it will be before Gordon Brown’s reputation is rehabilitated.  Or perhaps he will suffer Anthony Eden’s fate: to be written off so fast and so hard that a contrary position becomes impossible.  One thing is absolutely for sure: the tide for the next year or two, while the various figures at the top (and otherwise) of New Labour get their memoirs out, unconstrained by the need to keep a Government together is going to be pretty uncomfortable reading in Kirkcaldy.  Take Chris Mullin’s next volume of diaries – the first lot were terrific fun, if slightly depressing.  The next lot, concentrating on Labour’s last years in Government, don’t sound as though they will be on Gordon’s reading list.  A few samples:
January 29, 2008.
A graphic account of life at the frenetic court of Gordon, from A Friend In High Places. Rumours of tantrums, harassment of minions, chaotic micro-management and telephone-throwing are true.
Gordon, she says, is perpetually exhausted, constantly micro-managing and takes disagreement personally ('Why are they doing this to me?').  He fires off up to 100 emails a day, demanding answers on every subject under the sun. He is said to have written Chancellor Alistair Darling's pre-Budget speech.  On New Year's Eve, with 30 guests waiting for him downstairs at Chequers, he spent the best part of four hours phoning all and sundry about the crisis in Kenya and then, instead of joining his guests, went to bed.  By 7.30am on New Year's Day he was back on the phone again.
July 1.
Lunch with a noble lord, who recounted a tale about an occasion when Gordon was at the Treasury. Apparently he had insisted on tabling a self-congratulatory amendment in the teeth of resistance from the Clerk's Department, whereupon the Speaker had (unusually) refused to call it, resulting in a tantrum.
Later, a Treasury official remarked: 'What you don't realise is that it cost us £2,000 in furniture repairs.
July 2
Also, an extraordinary account of a recent visit to the Chinese Embassy to sign the condolence book for victims of the earthquake.
While Gordon and his party were inside, word reached them that David Cameron was waiting outside. Whereupon Gordon, fearing that his limelight was about to be stolen, went into a great sulk, strode out of the embassy, barely acknowledging Cameron.
Once in his car he began pummelling the headrest in front of him, causing his protection officer's head to ricochet, bleating about 'treachery' and 'conspiracy' and demanding to be told: 'Who did this to me?' A hapless official tried to placate him. Eventually the official enquired who was in this conspiracy. To which Gordon, without batting an eyelid, replied: 'The Tories, the Chinese and the Foreign Office.'
Worth remembering that when stories like this were circulating before the election, they were written off by the usual suspects as the malicious gossip of Tories and nefarious bloggers.  Turns out the bugger really was mad.

Friday, August 20, 2010

So, you're having a house meeting...

Another illustration of why David Miliband as Leader of the Opposition would be so unspeakably awkward.  This six page guide to how to hold a “house meeting” to support Mili-D is just one God-awful cringe after another.
Last, but by no means least, prepare food and drink for your House Meeting – perhaps ask some of the guests to bring or contribute something to the evening. No one can resist a delicious spread of food!
I think it’s the exclamation mark that makes that sentence.
Remind your guests the day before – try and build accountability into the relationship. If someone confirms then they should be there and you need to let people know you are disappointed if they don’t turn up… even if it’s just your mates!
Building accountability into the relationship.  Because that’s what you do with your mates…  Another good exclamation mark incidentally.  They’re crazy people at the Mili-D campaign!!1!  Speaking of which, this next section deserves to be posted in full.
Once everyone has shared a story and you’ve found some common ground that unites people in the room start thinking about some next steps. Move from the section where everyone has been sharing stories to some practical solutions and next steps by reading or taking from the following paragraph:
“I hope you have enjoyed this evening - it’s been really interesting hearing your stories tonight and it just shows the need for us to organise in our local community. Whatever our different perspectives on the issues discussed tonight, one thing is clear – that we can achieve more together than we can on our own.
Our communities need change and we know that our country needs change and sometimes it’s tempting to leave that to national politicians. Actually what I’ve realized is that we need local leaders to make change and we need a national leader for the Labour Party and the country who will work with us to make that happen.
Do people speak like this?  Would it be worse if they really did, or if it’s just that David Miliband thinks that they do?

How to negotiate...

I sympathise, a bit, with Labour at the moment.  They have, after all, been wittering about a ‘progressive alliance’ and the natural affinity of those parties ‘on the left’ for ages – though this might carry slightly more weight if they’d ever done anything about it.  Under the circumstances, it must be galling to see the Liberal Democrats so apparently content in coalition with those evil Tories.  If you accept the proposition that the Liberal Democrats are, basically, Labour at heart then it must be wounding to see them waltzing off with the enemy.
In the circumstances (and in light of the fact that the Lib Dems said that they would never do a deal with Gordon Brown as PM) it is understandable that Ed Miliband has ruled out working with Nick Clegg in a future coalition.  Understandable but, I think, a bit dumb.  The point about coalitions is that the big parties need to court the small ones.  Let’s war-game a scenario where Labour wins most seats but falls short of a majority.  They would then have the same choice that faced Cameron: try and run a minority Govt or try and form a coalition.
In that position, you can’t be the one making ultimatums.  Let’s imagine (for the sake of the scenario) that the Tories’ vote collapsed and the Lib Dems actually improved their seat tally.  If Labour were to say to them, “come and join us in Government, oh but we get to decide who your leader is” they’d get told to fuck off.  The larger party is the supplicant in coalition negotiations.  The trick is to offer a good enough deal that the smaller party comes on board.  So I’m afraid I think Hopi Sen is wrong here.  Ed Miliband is shooting his mouth off in order to obtain a short-term advantage in the leadership election – the problem is that if he wins then he’s boxing himself and his party into a bit of a corner.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wonking it up

Look, I’ll write my seminal piece on Balls, Burnham and Abbott soon but I just wanted to illustrate what I was saying about David Miliband.  When I said the following:
On the other hand, of course, Miliband D is unutterably geeky.  This manifests itself not only in the obvious gurning and fidgeting, but in a dreadful habit of speaking like a junior manager at a seminar.
It was more or less precisely this sort of thing that I meant:
Labour's first duty is to oppose. But we must also be a party that is clear about its values and alternatives – putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. That means reforming the school exams to focus on learning not just testing; rethinking the role of government in driving wealth creation though a smart industrial policy; and ensuring welfare is truly reciprocal by guaranteeing people work, and a decent wage, but standing up for a conditional system.
The many not the few.  Learning not testing.  Standing up for a conditional system.  This is what we have to look forward to from the next Leader of the Opposition.  Painful, isn’t it?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Labour hopefuls 2 - this time it's personal

Oh boy.  There’s nothing like knowing that you said you’d write about all the Labour leadership candidates to remove all vestige of enthusiasm for blogging.  Oh well, if t’were done and all that.
If the favourite doesn’t win, and it’s worth pointing out that the complication that AV introduces into any electoral system means that the least unpopular candidate has as good a chance as the most popular, then surely the second favourite will.  That would be Ed Miliband, younger than his brother, apparently lefter than his brother, and (according to his supporters) more adept in speaking human than his brother.
I have my doubts about that last point, especially given how much he looks like Wallace out of Wallace and Gromit.  But still, Ed is building up support among those who believe both that he represents a clean break from the past, and that he can rebuild the connection with Labour’s traditional support without entirely frightening the horses of middle England.  The idea that he can take Labour beyond the TBGBs might seem odd to an outsider; he was a Brown acolyte from really very early, known among the Blairites as ‘the emissary from the planet fuck’.  He also wrote the 2010 manifesto.  But then, writing the last manifesto didn’t put much of a crimp in David Cameron re-inventing the party.
Even so, his place at the heart of the Treasury throughout the Brown years ought, by rights, leave him little space to carve out a niche as a changemaker.  Backseat advisers can find their roles and importance being inflated beyond all bounds when it is convenient.  Again, ask David Cameron.
My basic problem with Ed Miliband is that, basically, I don’t get him.  His brother is a wonk.  Ed Balls is a thug.  Diane Abbott is a loon.  Andy Burnham is…  Anyway, I can’t seem to place Ed Miliband; he hasn’t stamped his identity on the media.  This can be a good as well as a bad thing – it is the baggage carried by Balls in particular that is hamstringing his run – but it carries with it the risk, as with William Hague, that his identity gets fashioned for him by an unfriendly media.
All of which is a rather verbose written shrug.  Miliband E is more of a hole in the air than his brother, or Ed Balls.  How that hole gets filled would be the early story of his leadership.  Provided he keeps away from Notting Hill Carnival he ought to be OK…

How exactly does one define chutzpah?

There is something engaging in the titanic lack of self-awareness displayed by Simon Heffer.  When he first donned his second-hand tweed jacket and drank himself puce in the Oxford Union bar he created a carapace of pomposity and self-regard that would now be positively dangerous to puncture.  Even so, the afflicted journalists who remain in the shattered remnants of a once good newspaper must bridle slightly at this?
If you find yourself using a word of whose meaning you are unsure, do look it up in the dictionary. When we get a word wrong it is embarrassing. It demeans us as professional writers and shakes our readers’ confidence in us.
It is excellent advice.  Is there, one wonders, any chance of our hero following it himself?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The ideal lawyer

If you get a hundred law students into a room (a ghastly thought, but bear with me) and ask them who they would say was the ideal lawyer, the odds are that the majority would choose Atticus Finch.  The beatification of this fictional Southern attorney is a reflection of two things: the first is that To Kill a Mockingbird has been on every school reading list for forty years now.  The second is that, lets face it, there isn’t exactly a whole heap of competition.  Milly from This Life?  The beatification of Finch and of Harper Lee’s book in general is so well entrenched that a bit of a backlash is hardly surprising.
But I think that Allen Barra’s attack here misses the point a little:
In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."
Yes and no.  It is, after all, a children’s book and it shouldn’t be too surprising that it engenders a situation where one side appears to be unambiguously right and the other unambiguously wrong.  But looking at the trial with an adult eye, something else is striking.  Finch is dealt a pretty poor hand – the racial prejudice of the jury is almost overpowering.  Certainly it is not enough to ‘win’ the argument on the facts.  But race prejudice is not the only tool to deploy in the deep South.  Lets look how he guides Robinson through the cross-examination.
“She reached up an’ kissed me ’side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”
“What did he say?”
. . . Tom Robinson shut his eyes tight. “He says you goddam whore, I’ll kill ya.”
If you think about it, it’s a little funny that Atticus Finch is the hero of so many liberals.  Because the way he conducts the defence of Tom Robinson in a rape trial is to attack the credibility of the victim, to assert that she asked for it, and to insinuate that she was guilty of incest with her father.  What he does, then, is to look for a different prejudice to counteract the race prejudice.  And he finds it in class prejudice.  Finch’s defence is that Robinson may be black, but his accuser is no-good gutter-trash, and a slut into the bargain.  Which makes the whole book suddenly seem less saccharine.