by Martin Odoni

Delusions on both sides

I have written a considerable amount over the last couple of years criticising Brexiteers for their disregard for reality, and rightly so. It is one of the most painful patterns of modern political discourse trying to convince a Leave-supporter, either of the right or of the left, to take the plain facts into account when analysing how Brexit is going i.e. very, very badly, perhaps to the point of unworkable.

But I have to concede, the Remain camp has its share of pie-in-the-sky dreamers too. From those who talk in flowery, detail-free soundbites about the ‘beauty’ of European unity, which bears almost no resemblance to the neoliberal reality of the European Union, to those who confuse globalisation with internationalism and therefore fail to recognise that the EU stands far more for market power than it does for battling against inequality. Remainers tend to be less deluded on average, but “less deluded than a Brexiteer” is a little like saying, “less badly-written than a Terminator sequel”.

Deluded Remainers have drifted towards the LibDems

One problem with Remainers that is particular to the last fifteen months is the way they have been drawn in considerable numbers to the Liberal Democrats. Many Remainers, especially since Labour adopted a position in support of a ‘Soft’-Brexit-if-possible at the 2018 Party Conference, began to drift away, and the LibDems found their support growing, due to their stance of wishing to cancel Brexit summarily. This was understandable, although partly based on a misunderstanding of Labour policy i.e. Labour policy was to attempt to force a General Election, and, if elected, try to get a good deal for Brexit, and failing to get one or both of them, they would support a Referendum to resolve the likely deadlock. (Contrary to media reports, Labour have actually been consistent on this, and have stuck quite firmly to the policy. It is only because the policy has different, conditional stages that people have been getting the idea that it is ‘confused’.)

Labour’s position has now completed its switchover to supporting a second Referendum, complete with a ‘Remain’ option on the ballot, making it a perfectly valid hope for Remainers. The LibDems have continued to claim that Labour are a ‘pro-Brexit’ party, which is true in a sense, but deliberately misleading as it over-simplifies the policy.

In truth, if the LibDems were really the steadfast ‘party of Remain’ they paint themselves as, they would be trying to get as close to the Labour Party as possible, instead of vilifying them. A Labour victory in the General Election next month is the only realistic path to a potential revocation of Article-50. Labour will attempt to get an improved deal and will put that deal to the people in a confirmatory referendum with remain as the alternative. That is the only path to remaining in the EU that looks a realistic prospect.

The Tories show a rabid pro-Brexit fanaticism

Compare that stance to the policy of the Tories, which is to “get Brexit done” come-what-may, with their leader looking so eager for a No-Deal form of Brexit that he imperilled the Constitution of the United Kingdom a couple of months ago to try and force it to happen.

In the face of these options, it should be glaringly obvious even to the sightless that Labour’s position is vastly closer to the LibDems’ than the Tories. So what does Jo Swinson, the LibDems’ recently-elected leader, have to say about it?

Well of course, she repeatedly and summarily rules out forming a coalition or alliance with Jeremy Corbyn, while she unfailingly lies about what Corbyn’s policy is. At the same time, she never entirely seems to rule out a coalition or alliance with the Tories. I must emphasise that Swinson frequently speaks of Johnson in coruscating terms, but the nearest she comes to saying she will not ally with him is that she “will not support him”. This strongly implies no dirty deals, but is not quite the same as ruling one out. Certainly, Swinson does not condemn Johnson, or rule out working with him, nearly as often or as unambiguously as she does Corbyn. The anti-Brexiteer shows more sympathy for the No-Deal-Brexiteer than for the man adopting the more moderate position.

Jo Two-Face

What Jo Swinson says is always contradicted by other things she says.

The Tim Walker saga

This flip-flopping posture was made even worse this week by what happened to Tim Walker. Walker is a former Telegraph ‘journalist’ (how generous am I, using a term like that for someone who worked for that pompous rag?) who used to work closely with Johnson. However, due to his opposition to Brexit, Walker chose to stand as a LibDem candidate against the Tories in Canterbury, the former Conservative stronghold that shockingly fell to Labour in 2017. Rosie Duffield’s majority was under 200.

Walker’s candidacy was a pretty weird move by the LibDems from a pro-Remain perspective. As Duffield and Walker are both Remainers, it was clear his arrival on the Canterbury hustings could only split the Remain vote and let the Tories take the seat back, advancing the prospect of No-Deal. In fairness to Walker, this week he decided to stand down and let Duffield fight one-on-one (more or less) against Tory Anna Firth.

“Ah!” cry the LibDems’ defenders. “See? The LibDems taking a principled position, putting opposition to Brexit ahead of their own narrow interests.”

In Walker’s case, that is true, and one can applaud his decision to put himself second. But the problem is that, on learning that he had stepped down, Swinson responded by announcing that the party would find another candidate to contest the seat!

This not only defeated the object of Walker’s self-sacrifice, but it also ran completely contrary to the principle of pro-Remain – the very principle Walker had stood down under, and the principle that the LibDems are promoting as their main ‘selling-point’. For the “party of Remain” to do this should be anathema to them.

LibDem history does nothing to improve confidence

Any benefit-of-the-doubt Swinson has had up until now must therefore go. It is easy, and probably safe, to conclude that Swinson is adopting the positions she does simply because it gives the LibDems something to distinguish themselves from the Tories, (from whom they have gained a number of defectors who have ugly attitudes on other issues such as gay rights, which again raises doubts about how firmly the party holds its principles) and that she is not as fussed about preventing Brexit as she wants to appear. Yes, she is pro-Remain, but she will not risk any deduction in her party’s position in the House of Commons in order to stop Brexit.

If they gain enough support, the LibDems might, just might, win enough seats to hold the balance of power again, as happened in 1974 and 2010. But both times that they had that advantage, little good was sifted from it. In 1974, Jeremy Thorpe failed to secure an alliance from Ted Heath, and after a few months of a Labour minority Government, there had to be another Election. In 2010, Nick Clegg secured a coalition with David Cameron, and then enabled Austerity, allowing a massive hike in tuition fees that Clegg was expressly committed to opposing, among other backstabs.

So Liberal/LibDem records in attempted coalition are not pretty, and the clear worry is that, should they get into such a position again under Swinson, they will simply concede Brexit as the price of getting seats in the Cabinet once more. After all, if trebled tuition fees were not an excessive price for them when most of their support came from students nine years ago, well, what would be?

LibDem witnesses

#NickCleggsWitnesses – never let them into your House (of Commons). And on a somewhat less humorous note, have you ever seen two such obviously-false, ingratiating grins?

Jo Swinson simply is not what she wants Remainers to think she is

Therefore, it is the turn of Remainers around the country to face reality, the reality being that Jo Swinson is not the ‘Wonder Woman‘ saviour figure she wants them to believe she is. Many Remainers thought the LibDems were their only hope of stopping the undoubted misery of Brexit. In truth, there was little enough chance of a party with a smaller presence in the Commons than the Scottish National Party being able to win enough extra seats to end the madness anyway. But it is now clear that the LibDems are not nearly as passionate or steadfast on the issue as they like to sound. They are already showing various signs of compromising their “Stop-Brexit-at-the-cost-of-all-else” posture, in order to carry on leeching voters from Labour.

This, Remainers, is the reality; there is no reason, especially with their track record from nine years ago, to assume that the LibDems will not concede more, should that be the price of power.

by Martin Odoni

I did mention earlier in the year that Boris Johnson, who in most respects could hardly be more different to his predecessor, Theresa May, is nonetheless still just similar enough to make many of the same mistakes. This General Election campaign, he seems to be setting out to prove it.

We all remember, I am sure, the negativity, cowardice, and general ugliness of the Conservative campaigns in General Elections 2015 and 2017. 2017 in particular was almost painful to behold, as a mechanical, no-chances-taken, evasive, badly over-choreographed and colourless Tory campaign pretty much handed Labour about ten points in support from a public on the threshold of lethal boredom. The whole seven-week fiasco demonstrated that May was absolutely hopeless at heading up an Election campaign, and should have established her as the very model of a leader not to emulate on the metaphorical hustings.

With this in mind, and looking at the current Tory campaign, one has to ask, not for the first time, “BoJob, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnson seems to be copying May’s every mistake, having started the campaign with a mistake copied from David Cameron (as mentioned last week).

blunder-man

A XXX-rated Prime Minister if ever there was one, just not in the way he would like us to think.

Consider in GE2017, when the Tories announced in their Manifesto a change to social care policy that increased the financial burden for elderly people suffering illnesses related to dementia. Although the actual burden on patients was not as severe is it sounded, it was still a very regressive policy, which was quickly nicknamed Dementia Tax. It caused a public uproar. Within a couple of days, May had panicked and reversed the policy, the first time on confirmed record that a Manifesto pledge had been formally U-Turned away from before the General Election had even arrived. In the weeks that followed, May was nicknamed The U-Turn Queen, while Jeremy Paxman famously called her,

“A blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.”

blowhard uturnqueen

But this time, Johnson has gone one better even than reversing policy between Manifesto and Election. His Government promised less than two weeks ago to halt fracking, with a view to banning it, “until compelling new evidence is provided” to show it can be done safely. Now, before he has even published the Manifesto, that policy has been U-Turned away from as well, with Johnson accepting, via very quietly-published civil service documentation, that “future applications will be considered on their own merits”. Whatever else that is, it is clearly not a ban nor necessarily conditional on evidence, and indeed it sounds no different to the status quo that was in place beforehand.

A blowhard who collapses at the first sign of Cuadrilla gunfire, perhaps? “U-Turn if you want to?” said Margaret Thatcher. It seems that Johnson, like May, is very much for turning.

(On the subject of U-Turns, Johnson has again retreated from his vague promise in the summer to hold an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, reiterating a vague commitment to investigate “all kinds of prejudice”. This dodge might work against his party though, given the research published last week showing that anti-Semitism is absolutely rife on the right wing.)

One of May’s numerous, very cringe-worthy platitudes during GE2017 was a repetitive warning of a “Coalition of chaos” under Jeremy Corbyn, chiefly between Labour and the Scottish National Party. Two-and-a-half years of subsequent Governmental gridlock under an alliance between the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party gave the punchline to that. But amazingly, Johnson appears to be matching that rhetoric by giving the same, barefaced-hypocrite warnings again. This, even as Labour are visibly moving to try and dislodge the SNP from its supreme position in Scotland, not ally with them.

During the 2017 campaign, the cowardly May famously, and probably illegally, had unapproved journalists locked in a room so they were unable to ask her questions while she toured a factory in Cornwall. There was more than just a faint echo of that kind of incredible cowardice in Nottinghamshire last week, when Johnson visited a school where the 6th Form pupils were kept away from him at all times by confining them to the common room.

Johnson refused to visit a nearby hospital on the same day when it was on ‘Black Alert’, instead choosing to visit a nearby hospital that was not in ’emergency mode’. Over the weekend, he dismissed the severe floods in the north of England as “not a national emergency” (quite the contrast with Tory reactions five years ago when it was Tory-voting constituencies further south that were flooded). These incidents have a particularly uncomfortable resemblance to another display of shocking cowardice by May in 2017, albeit after the Election, when she ran away from locals in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower Fire Disaster. The resemblance is in the combination of personality faults that it highlights – a lack of empathy with the public, and a fear of facing the public under uncontrolled conditions.

Johnson is not learning the lessons of thirty months ago. Then, the Tories were projected to win a resounding landslide. Some of the early opinion polls, suggesting that the Tories have a double-digit lead, would seem to project something similar for 2019. But look what happened in 2017 when the Tories blundered and bored in equal measure, while Labour rallied at high speed with a positive and colourful campaign. The start of Labour’s campaign this year has, again, been very positive, full of colour, with high participation, and a strong message of hope. The start of the Tories’ campaign has, again, been negative, riddled with blunders, lacking in colour, lacking in participation, numerous candidates dropping out, and with a message overly-fixated on Brexit.

And it is led by a man making so many mistakes similar to those committed by his predecessor that it raises the question of whether there was any point in the Conservative Party changing leader this year at all.

by Martin Odoni

Ah, good old British understatement. I doubt there is another manner of discourse on Earth quite like it. It is a cross between our two natural instincts for sarcasm and self-restraint, and it seems as if we are almost exaggerated in the degree to which we understate.

We read a newspaper report about two people dying of poisoning in a restaurant, and our likely response will be, “Well, I probably won’t be eating there any time soon.” At Paddington, we inadvertently get on a train to Edinburgh when we are trying to make our way to Weston-Super-Mare, and our likely response will be, “I suppose I’d better get off at the next stop, or I could be in for a long walk back.”

See? We are brilliant at understatement. We employ it so much, so routinely, and with such effortless skill that most of the time we fail to notice we are even using it. We also probably have no idea how engaging, and at times bewildering, people from abroad find it.

But there are also times when it is perhaps a little unhealthy to use it, and one of the more insidious areas it has been used too often over the last five years has probably been the realm of British economics.

The Coalition Government of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, five years ago, embarked on a program of ruthless spending cuts and public service reductions that essentially amounted to butchery of over half-a-century of national institutions. They insisted the program was ‘necessary’ to rescue the country from the economic crisis of the previous two years. That crisis in fact had nothing in particular to do with the public sector at all, it was a worldwide crash in the banking industry in 2008, in which the UK’s financial services sector had played a secondary-but-key role. For this, British banks were duly punished by the Labour Government of the time with a series of free hand-outs totalling about eight hundred billion pounds, while millions of people outside the industry faced uncertain years ahead of lost vital public investment once the Tories had taken over.

The position even of those within the Conservative Party honest enough to admit the real cause of the ballooning National Debt and the economic recession (and there have been few enough of them to start with) was to stand by the cutting program. Irrespective of whomever the fault lay with, they argued, and of whether the wider public deserved better or not, the simple reality was that this enormous debt ‘had to be paid off’. The growing public sector debt, they claimed, was a critical burden in creating and maintaining the recession, a burden that was making it impossible for the economy to start growing again, and the funding used for ‘expensive’ services therefore simply had to be directed elsewhere. In other words, the cuts program, going under the banner of Austerity, was going ahead whether we liked it or not.

Others countered that by arguing that Austerity was ‘unnecessary’, that any money saved from spending cuts would simply be offset by lost tax revenues from further slowdowns in the economy’s performance, which would themselves result from those very same spending cuts. With the average Fiscal Multiplier (nearest public sector equivalent of a ‘profit’-margin) over the course of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 being around 1.3 – effectively a thirty per cent ‘profit’ – there was a danger of the Government doing the equivalent of climbing a ladder whose base it had grounded in quicksand; the faster the Government tried to climb, the faster the ladder would sink, with the net altitude gained by all that frantic effort being negligible. Furthermore, there was no threat to the country of ‘insolvency’ or ‘bankruptcy’ due to the Debt being processed through accounts in the Bank Of England, which controlled the money supply, and so could always keep paying debts that fell due irrespective of tax-receipts.

Now, before I say anything else, I must make clear that I am overwhelmingly in the latter camp. There was very little doubt whatever in my mind at the time – and now there is no doubt in my mind at all – that Austerity was not the way to go in 2010, and it is possibly never the right policy to adopt in any scenario. It was the equivalent of a company trying to make a profit entirely out of the singular virtue of owning a factory, without being prepared to invest in staff to run it, in the machinery with which to produce goods to sell, or in the raw materials from which the goods could be made.

The evidence is very definitely on the anti-Austerity side; –

In the last few months of the outgoing Labour Government, a fiscal stimulus package that increased public investment, by then-Chancellor-of-the-Exchequer Alistair Darling – a package the Tories opposed – had in fact lifted the country out of the initial recession fairly sharply, and although the growth it generated in Gross Domestic Product was still weak and unbalanced, it was a good foundation that could and should have been built upon and consolidated.

Graph showing the economy's trial and tribulations 2006-2011

This graph shows the UK economy’s performance around the turn of the decade. Note how the economy had started growing again in the last few months before the 2010 General Election, and receded once more shortly after George Osborne became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, once the Tories were in office, they quickly cut off the stimulus package instead, and started cutting other spending too, claiming that it would reduce the ‘debt-burden that was hampering the economy.’ The result? The quick re-growth Darling had triggered stopped almost immediately, and the economy’s GDP started roughly ‘flat-lining’, and it would continue to do so for the next three years. Any time there was a hint of growth, the new Chancellor, George Osborne, would take it as a sign he was doing the right thing, and he would cut more spending, and that would immediately flatten the GDP performance again. It was only in late-2013 that the economy finally showed a genuine return to growth, and that was for reasons entirely outside of Austerity’s ‘merits’. (It also will not last, as it is dependent on new household debts that most of the debtors will not be able to pay back when the time comes over the next couple of years.) It meant that the deficit in the public sector’s annual finances simply refused to reduce to zero, as the Tories had confidently predicted would happen by mid-2015; instead, it has only reduced by about one-third (not by one-half, as the Tories, keep falsely claiming). With many of the knock-on effects of recent cuts still ahead of us, there is in fact a real possibility that the deficit will increase again soon.

That is all the evidence we need that Austerity was not the answer. (Every other attempt to implement Austerity in history is further evidence of that; it has never really worked for precisely the reasons stated above – it de-stimulates economies so much that it is ultimately self-defeating.) Therefore, those who argue that Austerity and extreme spending cuts are ‘unnecessary’ have been shown to be correct.

But at the same time, every time I see or hear the words “Austerity is unnecessary”, I do not stand up and applaud. On the contrary, I roll my eyes, because saying an action is ‘unnecessary’ merely implies that subsequent events would have been much the same, or at least no worse, without it.

This is not the case with Austerity at all. Without Austerity – if the Government had persisted with the fiscal stimulus package that Alistair Darling had introduced for instance – the last few years would have been very different indeed, and instead of just ‘no worse’, they would have been infinitely better. The performance of the economy would have improved far more quickly and more sustainably with that extra investment, and hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged people across the UK would not have been forced into poverty, homelessness, or destitution (or worse).

As I mentioned to Mike Sivier in an online conversation earlier today, saying Austerity is ‘unnecessary’ is a little like saying, ‘The collision with the iceberg did nothing to speed up the Titanic’s arrival in New York.’ Perfectly true of course, but hardly conveying the real significance of the event. Far more important were that the collision also made damn certain that the Titanic would never even reach New York, and that it killed an awful lot of people in the process. Worse still, that is more or less what is really happening to the good ship British Economy every time George Osborne makes it collide with Austerity.

We need to stop saying that Austerity is merely ‘unnecessary’, because that is an understatement that is simply not funny or skilful or engaging. It just does not make the real point, which is that Austerity is actually harmful, even to the very aims that it is supposedly meant to achieve. It is counter-productive, having a toxic effect on the entire economy, as well as on the population, and it means that people are suffering, and even dying – ‘for nothing’, some would say, but in fact it is far worse than that. People are suffering and dying just to keep carrying a chalice of hemlock closer and closer to our unsuspecting lips.

What we need to say instead is that Austerity is poisonous. It is never just ‘unnecessary’ to drink poison, it is always deadly, and we should never do it, end-of-story.

Surely it is time we put the chalice back down on the table now?

—–

If our economy were the Titanic, Austerity would be its iceberg.

Our economy is about to CRASH.

The economy is the Titanic.
Osborne is Captain Edward Smith.
Austerity is the ICEBERG.

by Martin Odoni

An occasional joke about voting for the old Liberal/SDP Alliance back in the 1980’s was that it was a vote for firm, concrete indecision. Perhaps a little unfair, but it has to be said there was an echo of truth in it. The two parties couldn’t decide whether they were right or left. They couldn’t decide whether they were the same or different. They couldn’t decide whether their leader was David Steel or David Owen. They couldn’t even decide whether they were the same party or a marriage of convenience between two parties.

 After dithering over these questions for seven full years, the parties finally merged into one in 1988, whereupon they couldn’t decide what name they would have. They started out deciding to be known as ‘The Social & Liberal Democrats’, but couldn’t decide whether they liked people calling them either that or ‘The SLD’, so decided not to make a decision on that, then after a few months, they decided that they hadn’t decided that after all, and instead decided that they would be decidedly happier if they decided that they would prefer it others decided simply to call them ‘Liberal Democrats’. Or ‘LibDems’, that would be okay too, but they couldn’t really decide which of the two names they liked best.

Nick Clegg, the current, decidedly unpopular, leader of the LibDems, has turned this record of indecision into an art-form. I’m pretty sure he never decided to, but it’s what he’s done anyway. As leader of his party at the 2010 General Election, he was decidedly opposed to almost every aspect of Conservative Party policy. And in the spirit of firm indecision, he therefore decided, after the Election resulted in an indecisively Hung Parliament, to form a Coalition with the Conservative Party. Well, he eventually did, after initially being unable to decide whether he wanted to form a Coalition with Labour instead; he probably wanted to side with Labour, but couldn’t decide, so for a few days he decided not to make a decision.

Having been made Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Cabinet, Clegg then showed all the decisiveness and consistency he was now legendary for, by supporting the Conservative policies he had spoken out so bitterly against, and helping to implement them against the students who had made up the core support that the LibDem vote had been built upon. This included deciding to help push through a rise in tuition fees that he had promised never to support. He might have apologised to his supporters for doing it, but couldn’t really decide whether that might just make them even angrier.

Clegg’s party also helped push through the notorious ‘Spare Room Subsidy’ or ‘Bedroom Tax’. This was because the LibDems realised that the Government needed more money, but they couldn’t decide whether it would be more effective and morally-better to try taking that money from people who actually possessed some, e.g. rich people, or from people who didn’t have the two proverbial ha’pennies to rub together. Being unable to decide what the correct answer would be to such a knotty conundrum, Clegg decided to let the Tories make that decision for him. So when the Tories came to the ‘wholly unexpected‘ (NOTE FOR THE HARD-OF-THINKING: we are now in the wildest throes of satire) conclusion that people without money are patently the most lucrative source of cash, Clegg appears to have said, “Well, who’d have thought the Tories of all people would make a call like that? Still I’m sure they’re doing it for totally unbiased reasons…” and from there he just let the Tories decide for him which policies to vote for.

Doggedly refusing to be diverted from his unswerving course of 180-degree turnarounds, Clegg broke new grounds in the cause of indecisiveness when he decided that he could continue to be indecisive even about policies that had already been decided upon and enforced. To this end, he put forward opposition to the Bedroom Tax he had helped implement as party policy, and then decided that he had not decided any such thing, but had merely put the idea out as a speculative question – one he then decided to answer himself with ‘no’. He then publicly spoke out vehemently against the Bedroom Tax, stating emphatically that it should be repealed. Then only yesterday, when Labour put forward a motion in the House Of Commons to repeal the Tax, Clegg once again impressed everyone with his capacity for not making up his mind about policies that he eagerly enforces while speaking out against them; he and his party quite naturally voted to keep the Bedroom Tax in place for the remainder of the current Parliament.

I’ve written before that if you vote for the Tories you vote for petulance. But the strange thing is – and it’s a painful lesson I have only learned myself during this Parliament – if you vote for the LibDems, you’re not really voting for anything in particular at all. This is because, in doing so, you vote for a party that claims to be centrist, but in fact doesn’t really know how much radicalism it is prepared to stomach. This means that in a Coalition, the LibDems can be dragged to quite shocking extremes, even though their rhetoric appears to be opposed to them. The hope when the Coalition was formed in 2010 was that the LibDems would function as a ‘drag-factor’ on Tory extremism and cruelty. In practise, they have scarcely caused the Tories pause for thought, and have shown a frightening willingness to sacrifice almost anything to get an agreement on a Referendum for a fairly minor electoral reform – a Referendum that ended in a ‘No’ vote in any event.

On the one hand, it could be seen as a symptom of maturity in British politics that the two parties were able to come to an agreement and form a Government; certainly that could never happen in the tribally-polarised USA, a fact so painfully evident there at the moment with one party holding both Houses, while the other party has the Presidency. Further, I am quite prepared to concede that the Coalition, for all of its amorality and ineptitude, has managed to hold together far longer than I was anticipating back in 2010. One could even argue that Clegg has shown a measure of loyalty by staying in Coalition and fulfilling his promises to support Tory legislation, even after the primary goal of electoral reform became plainly unachievable.

But on the other hand, it has come as a horrible shock over the last four-and-a-half years to learn just how much Nick Clegg and his party were prepared to concede in order to get a few seats in the Cabinet. So much, in fact, that none of their supposed principles of fairness and progressivism appear to have left any real mark on any of the more significant policies of the Coalition at all. Loyalty to Coalition allies is one thing, but loyalty to the voters who put their trust in Clegg in the first place has been painfully notable by its absence. By facilitating, where in the past they had voiced opposition, the LibDems have allowed themselves to be part of a Government more extreme and hard-right than even Margaret Thatcher’s administration had been when it had a comfortable single-party majority.

If being too quick to make decisions can cost you a lot of votes, letting someone else make all the decisions for you can cost you a lot of seats – especially if those decisions are immoral and incompetent – and this is why there is a real danger of the Liberal Democrats having a single-digit presence in the House Of Commons by next Autumn. They have been ineffectual on the issues people voted for them for, and have been dominated by the policies those same people voted against. So the Liberal Democrats have looked both treacherous and ineffectual, offering people nothing to vote for.

Centrism is not meant to be a synonym for indecision, nor one for ‘manoeuvrable’ loyalties, nor even one for blindly following someone else, but the LibDems have let it become all three. In so doing, and in allowing that indecision to become a tolerance of astonishing social cruelty by Government, they are now as morally-bankrupt and as unelectable as the Conservatives.

Vote For Petulance!

September 13, 2013

by Martin Odoni

I noted a few days ago that this coalition Government, especially the Tory presence in it, is the most petulant in living memory, always quick to throw insults around whenever it is validly criticised, or doesn’t get its own way. I would therefore like to acknowledge, with considerable gratitude, their apparent efforts over the last two days to prove me right.

For any who don’t know the story, two days ago a representative of the United Nations, Raquel Rolnik, official job description of Special Rapporteur On Housing, published a brief summary of her findings after investigating the effects of what has been pejoratively nicknamed ‘The Bedroom Tax’.

And yes, its real name, before I get the usual tidal wave of paranoid objections from Conservative supporters, is Spare Bedroom Under-Occupancy Penalty. Strangely, objections against the nickname are sometimes raised as a defence of the penalty, insisting that as it is not a tax but a benefits deduction, it isn’t as bad as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ label makes it sound. But in fact, the reality of it is rather worse than it would be if it were tax, because at least a tax would be applied more proportionally; –

The charge is levied on all social/council housing occupants who have unused bedrooms in their houses by reducing the amount of benefits that household is entitled to receive. By definition, the well-off are very unlikely to be claiming benefits, so the charge almost certainly won’t affect them (and even if it did, it would do them no recognisable harm, as the amount of benefit they would receive would be trifling compared with what they have in the bank already). But it has caused serious financial complications for the less well-off, many of whom were already on the threshold of hardship at best before its introduction.

So as a benefits cut, it can only affect people who are seriously disadvantaged – a sadly typical pattern with almost all coalition legislation designed to ‘tackle the National Deficit’ (HAH!). This means that a billionaire living alone in a twenty-five-room mansion, say, is not in any way financially hampered by the charge – unless he is disabled in some way and for some bizarre reason has been allowed to claim benefits for it – whereas a single mother living in a two-up-two-down terrace house with one child will have to get a lodger for the spare room, or lose state-support. Unfortunately, many people around the country do not live in an area where there are enough lodgers to go around.

The charge was introduced, officially, to encourage use of unoccupied residential space in response to the growing problem of homelessness. But as it pushes more and more of the poorest home-owners into financial woes, it hugely increases the likelihood of evictions, and so of upping the amount of homelessness.

Why the Government couldn’t have instead put far more investment into house-building – which would also have injected some much-needed stimulus into the construction sector to boost economic growth – or imposed the tax on wealthy people who clearly have far more space than they will ever need in their homes, has to date not been explained. But the most convincing thought-process the Government might have offered as an explanation would have been, “Well naturally we wouldn’t want to coerce our chaps [read: the rich] into having to give up some of their living space to – and worse still to rub shoulders with – squalid, uncouth poor people.”

Now some of these details didn’t actually make it into Rolnik’s initial press release, for the simple reason that calculating motivation was beyond her mandate. But she did speak of the Bedroom Tax in pretty scathing terms.

The response of the Tories, entirely predictably, has been to speak of Rolnik in very scathing terms as well. Some of their responses have been just plain offensive, some transparently dishonest, some downright hypocritical, but all of them reinforce the long-running pattern of a governing coalition made up of Primary School starters.

To start with the offensiveness, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, went on Twitter and labelled Rolnik a ‘loopy Brazilian leftie masquerading as serious UN official’, thus insulting her mental state, her professionalism, her integrity, and possibly even her country, all in one incoherent sentence. It is noticeable that this ‘rebuttal’ was composed of nothing but insults, with no attempt whatever to explain what was wrong with what Rolnik had said. (And by the way, don’t an awful lot people on the right wing love labelling opponents rather than articulating reasons why they are wrong?)

More complicated was the dishonesty. The Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps publicly raged at Rolnik in the media, labelling her press release an ‘absolute disgrace’. His objections were at least a lot more coherent than Jackson’s: “It is completely wrong and an abuse of the process for somebody to come over, to fail to meet with Government Ministers, to fail to meet with the department responsible, to produce a press release two weeks after coming, even though the report is not due out until next spring, and even to fail to refer to policy properly throughout the report.” He also claimed that Rolnik had entered the country and conducted her investigation uninvited by the UK Government.

But coherence, let us not forget, is no measure of accuracy. Despite Shapps’ objections, Rolnik did meet with the department responsible i.e. officials at the Department Of Work & Pensions (including Andrew Parfitt, the head of its housing policy division), and with several Government Ministers such as Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and Don Foster, Under-Secretary of State. Just not with Iain Duncan-Smith, and apparently that was despite her requesting such a meeting. Furthermore, the correct name of the policy was referred to in Rolnik’s summary, more often indeed than the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. (If the Report isn’t due until the spring, by the way, how exactly does Shapps know what’s in it? If he is referring to the summary Rolnik published, then he got the name wrong. Irony, anyone?) And Shapps, again, never really explained what was wrong with Rolnik’s conclusions, all he listed were procedural improprieties, most of which were untrue anyway.

The hypocrisy arrived in the form of Conservative objections that Rolnik’s conclusions were wrong, and that she did not have possession of sufficient facts to draw them. Given that the Tories themselves, especially IDS, have remained stubbornly set against running an in-depth study into the effects of Austerity measures, including the Bedroom Tax, on below-breadline households, they are fine ones to complain about others not having the facts at their fingertips. More importantly though, Rolnik has at least spoken to people around the UK in the communities hard-hit by the coalition’s extreme measures, so how can the likes of Shapps and IDS even be sure that Rolnik has her facts wrong, when they have very deliberately accrued less information than she has?

Predictably, the jingoistic yobbos in the right-wing press swiftly joined in the xenophobic mud-slinging, trying to discredit Rolnik’s findings almost entirely on the grounds that they were written up by a foreigner. The Daily Express referring to Rolnik as an ‘idiot’ and as a ‘Brazil nut’ was quite bad enough, but the Daily Mail descended almost to a new level of irrational, scare-mongering character-assassination, even by its own abysmal standards of anti-professional journalism, calling Rolnik a dabbler in witchcraft who offers up sacrifices of animals to the ghost of Karl Marx, or some such hysterical codswallop. Arguments against what Rolnik said have been few and far between, and blatantly untrue when they have been offered, with doubtfully-informed insult, innuendo and personal rumour being the standard offering in their stead.

In truth, an awful lot of this grotty right-wing slime-slinging is so crude and obvious that there is no need to get angry about it. It won’t fool anyone who hadn’t already chosen to dislike Rolnik, and it gives a worse impression of the people doing the hatchet job than it does of the person getting hatcheted. The Government has been caught red-handed, and as the right wing have no defence, they have two choices. Hold up their hands, take the criticisms on board, and accept that the Bedroom Tax is deeply unfair, or attack the critics like some teenage brat screaming, “I HATE YOU!” when his parents say, “Do your homework properly this time.” Was it ever in doubt which route the Tories would choose? Even before Rolnik’s press release was in the public domain, we could almost feel the Conservative Party backlash already on its way.

We can take this spiralling cycle of petulance as a sign of desperation on the part of British Conservatism. It is the lash-out of people who don’t want to face up to the terrible job this Government has done during its first three-and-a-half years, and who are now operating on the same undignified level as Fox News Channel in the USA; not concerned with what’s really happening, only with trying to find other things for people to take their frustrations out on, and dubious rumours with which to discredit their critics. This current display isn’t even a clever or sophisticated smear tactic, it is just crude personal abuse, and with its irrelevant obsession with attacking Rolnik for her nationality, it is also akin to racism.

By behaving in such ways, the Tories and their traditional allies in the right-wing media are doing themselves no favours. It shows them to be unworthy of sitting in public office, an office that demands as a bare minimum a modicum of diplomatic skill, and if the Labour Party were really on top of its game, it would take full advantage, holding up every single moment of bullying vitriol and ad hominem viciousness to public scrutiny, saying to the nation, “This is the sort of juvenile name-calling mentality that is at Number 10 at the moment! Surely you don’t want more of that!” Shame on you, Ed Miliband, for missing an open goal.

But just because the Tory behaviour is predictable and much too crude to sway anyone, that doesn’t make it any less telling. This really is all you get from about ninety per cent of the Conservative Party in pretty much any era. What the swooning droolers in the Daily Mail call the ‘patriotism’, or ‘national pride’, or ‘British bulldog spirit’ of the traditional right is, in practise, almost invariably stubbornness, insufferable pettiness, and xenophobia. We got plenty of renditions of precisely this same song while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, particularly during her embarrassing rivalry with Jacques Delors, William Hague attempted to continue the mantra with his utterly brainless and irresponsible (but also, thankfully, ineffective) Save The Pound scare-mongering around the turn of the millennium, and now the anthem has been resurrected once more by the coalition. “When things are going badly, have a go at the foreigners. And when the foreigners are having a go at us, scare people about the foreigners.”

I recall in school at a very early age, I was regularly sitting at lunch with the same group of friends, when one of them started routinely telling lies about the rest of us to teachers, just so he could draw their attention away from the fact that he was frequently stealing food from other people’s plates. We can easily forgive him for that, because he was only six at the time. It is very difficult to forgive that exact same type of behaviour in men of advancing middle age who have their hands on the most critical mechanisms of the British Government.

Perhaps the guilt in this case is amplified by a further layer of hypocrisy; David Cameron has spent over a year trying to angle for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, and when he finally tried (unsuccessfully) to get the support of Parliament, he did so on the basis that the Assad regime had supposedly violated International Law. The evidence for that is deeply suspect anyway, but more importantly, it’s a bit rich for the UK to make pompous noises about the importance of protecting vulnerable people and upholding International Law one week, and then two weeks later be found to have broken Human Rights’ Laws. If Syria is a legitimate target for military repercussions from the outside world, surely, with Rolnik’s scathing assessment, the UK now is as well? As things stand, I for one see precious little moral difference between what the British Government is doing to its own people and what the Syrian Government is supposedly doing to theirs. Only the military aggression is different – is killing people with guns and gas really worse than killing them through poverty and desperation? (It is happening, whether you are aware of it or not.)

Whatever their reasons for lashing out at Rolnik, it is pretty clear that it was reflex rather than reason that led the Tories and their supporters to retreat into such gutter-level abusiveness. The sheer speed of their retorts, clearly too fast to think them through, and the dearth of responses to Rolnik’s actual criticisms, tell us that this was not an honest defence, but out-and-out knee-jerk defensiveness. A raw nerve was struck, and Shapps, IDS and Jackson instinctively chose to hurt what was hurting them. And they tried to hurt her in the manner of a gang of playground bullies swarming around the smallest girl in the class on the first day she had to start wearing spectacles. (Not that Rolnik was exactly devastated by their bullying. On the contrary, in her impressively resilient response on Channel 4 News, her counter-punches were clearly far harder than anything thrown at her, not least because she focused on talking about the subject under discussion, rather than hurling more petty verbal abuse back at her attackers).

So, right wingers, that is what you people chose to put into power. These are the tantrum-throwing, bullying yobs that you want to represent you in the forum of the nation, and in the wider world at large. People who turn the most important subjects-of-discussion in national and world affairs into a bar-fight. People who make the United Kingdom look, to the rest of the world, like a stroppy, quarrelsome juvenile.

You can only be sure with the Conservatives, one of their slogans once proclaimed. If by that they meant, “You can be confident that the country will be run like an After-School Sports Team once you’ve put this bunch of hooligans into office,” then it was true. And yes, I know a lot of you people voted for the Tories because they’re very good at finding ‘others’ for you to blame for your problems, and they’re also very good at picking on such people on your frustrated behalf. But when the bullying is done, you will always find that the real troubles in your lives are still there, and wouldn’t you like those problems to go away sooner or later? And do you really think a bunch of schoolkids singing, Come ‘n’ ‘Ave A Go If Ya Think Ya ‘Ard Enuff are going to have the analytical skills, imagination and fortitude to solve such issues?

Because that’s effectively what you are pretending to yourselves every time you vote for the Conservatives. You vote for petulance.