Friday 29 September 2017

How Jeremy Corbyn moved the centre ground

Do you remember the centre ground, on which all political battles were fought? Well, where is the centre ground now?

Jeremy Corbyn says it has moved --  that today’s centre ground is not where it was twenty or thirty years ago, and Labour are now the political mainstream.

He may well be right. For more than thirty years, ever since the days when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher insisted that the less governments did, the better off we'd all be, the centre ground has been occupied by whoever broadly accepted that basic world view.

After Thatcher's death in 2013, Tony Blair said: 'I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them.' David Cameron stood on the same bit of ground and claimed that he was the 'heir to Blair'. No wonder many voters concluded that there wasn't much difference between any of the main political parties.

And then along came Jeremy Corbyn, a man whose name had never, ever been found anywhere near the word 'mainstream'. 'We have left the status quo behind,' he told party activists in Brighton this week -- and few felt inclined to contradict him.  

When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire, many people thought that the great ideological battle of the twentieth century -- capitalism versus socialism -- was over. The capitalist West had won.

But then came the Great Crash of 2008. Capitalism tottered. Banks were nationalised. Governments printed sackloads of money, and admitted they'd got it all wrong. Suddenly, all those politicians huddling on the centre ground, muttering about free markets and self-correcting mechanisms, sounded like cultists still insisting that they, and only they, had the answers.

Theresa May is still singing from that hymn book. No sooner had Mr Corbyn been cheered to the rafters by the Labour faithful than she was up on her feet at the Bank of England defending the old orthodoxy: free market economics, she said, are the 'only sustainable means of raising the living standards of everyone in a country.'

She's going to have a very tough job selling that message to the millions of people whose living standards have either stagnated or fallen since the financial crash ten long years ago.

Or to the Uber drivers and delivery couriers who work with no safety net between them and unemployment. Or to public sector workers who have seen their wages frozen and their numbers cut.

Yes, she says that she accepts that sometimes governments have to take action to fix 'broken markets'. And note the all-important qualifier in her otherwise ringing declaration : 'A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.'

Mr Corbyn has got the Tories rattled. It wasn't meant to be like this: how come a bearded Leftie (just for the record, I have nothing against bearded Lefties) is somehow more in tune with public opinion than the 'strong and stable' Conservatives?

It's not complicated: first the financial crash, and then the Brexit vote, have changed everything. Voters no longer behave according to the traditional nostrums of political life: that they don't like risk, and that they gravitate towards the centre. Not any more, they don't.

Even in Germany, the strongest and most stable of all Europe's leaders, Angela Merkel, failed to win as much support as she was hoping for in last weekend's election. Even in Germany, the home of consensus politics, the populist anti-immigration party, the AfD, won thirteen per cent of the vote.

According to the polling organisation YouGov, half of all voters generally identify with the centre ground, compared to just eleven per cent who say they are on the right and twelve per cent who say they are on the left. That's why Mr Corbyn is definitely on to something when he seeks to persuade us that Labour is the centre now. He has come a long way, including learning how to look and sound like someone with claims to be a prime minister -- since being elected as party leader two years ago.

Perhaps his greatest achievement in Brighton was to hide the deep Brexit divide that threatens Labour every bit as much as it threatens the Tories. But he also, shamefully, continued to ignore the existence of the ugly underbelly of the Corbynista bandwagon -- the misogynistic, and sometimes anti-Semitic, bullying that is too often targeted at anyone regarded as not sufficiently loyal to the cause.

And as for his apparent tolerance of the frankly grotesque personality cult that he seems tacitly to accept -- 'Oh, Jeremy Corbyn' indeed. It seems that this famously modest man rather likes the limelight after all.

Will Mrs May manage to hold her party together and paper over the cracks at their conference in Manchester next week? With her record -- and with Boris ('The Joker') Johnson in full mischief-making mood -- I wouldn't take any bets. For now, it's Mr Corbyn who has the wind in his sails.

Friday 22 September 2017

A scandal at the heart of Westminster

Don't you just hate it when do-nothing couch potatoes claim thousands of pounds of tax-payers' money, simply because they think they have somehow deserved it?

Doesn't it make you sick when benefits scroungers milk the system for all they're worth, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds each when schools, hospitals, police and fire services are hit with year after year of budget cuts?

Thank goodness people like that are kept far away from the levers of political power -- just imagine how they'd move heaven and earth to protect their privileges if they were given half a chance.

Except, of course, that they are in fact slap bang at the centre of political power, because they are members of the House of Lords, which means that they help decide which laws govern our nation -- and can block any attempt to cut back on their privileges.

Here's a quote from Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, which has just published a report in which he says: 'We’re witnessing an "expenses free-for-all" in the Mother of All Parliaments, with expenses claims soaring by 20% in just two years.

'The figures are stark. 115 Lords – one in seven of the total – failed to speak at all in the 2016/17 session, yet still claimed an average of £11,091 each, while 18 peers failed to vote while claiming £93,162. And most peers (58%) now claim more than the average full-time Brit’s take-home pay – for what is essentially a part-time role.'

Now, it's important to be fair about this. Some peers do extremely good work in committees and elsewhere, even if they rarely speak or vote in the chamber itself. According to a spokesman for the House of Lords: 'This research ignores members’ contributions including amending legislation, asking the government written questions and serving on select committees – more than 320 members served on committees in the last session of parliament – as well as parliamentary work away from the chamber.'

Which is -- sort of -- fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far. Members of the House of Lords can claim £300 per day -- that's up to £6,000 a month if they clock in every weekday -- just by turning up and signing in. Some are reported to keep the taxi running outside while they do so.

If something similar existed anywhere else in the world, it would be called a travesty of democracy. The House of Lords currently has 798 members (the House of Commons has 650 members, which is itself far too many), and unbelievably, there are still ninety members (the 'hereditary peers') who are there because of who their forebears were -- think of them, if you like, as tribal chiefs. Twenty-five are there because they are bishops of the Church of England. 

You will not be surprised to learn that only a quarter of the members are women -- and the median age of all members of the House of Lords, according to the latest available figures, is 69.

These are the people who sit in our parliament. They make our laws, they approve government legislation (although occasionally, they refuse to approve, so watch what happens when they start voting against some of Mrs May's Brexit plans) -- and in my view, given that not a single one of them has been elected, they lack any form of legitimacy.

Many parliamentary democracies have a second chamber, usually as a way of checking, revising and amending laws that are passed by a lower chamber. Nothing necessarily wrong with that -- although New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden have all abolished their second chambers and seem to manage pretty well with just one. (A referendum in Ireland four years ago to get rid of their upper house was only narrowly defeated.)

I think we do need a second chamber, and I think its members should be directly elected, with no party affiliation, for a single term of ten years. There should be the same number as there are in the House of Commons, they should be paid a salary and they should be expected to work full-time.

Surely, it's time to move beyond this absurd notion that passing laws is something that gentlemen (and a smattering of gentlewomen) can do in their spare time, in between running their businesses and wining and dining in their clubs.

In the words of Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society: 'From lobby-fodder Lords only turning up to claim and vote, to couch-potato peers rarely turning up at all, the situation in the second chamber is a scandal.'

Friday 15 September 2017

The Nobel prize - and the flaws of Aung San Suu Kyi

I have just a smidgen of sympathy for the Nobel Peace Prize committee. How were they to know that, 26 years after they awarded their prize to the (then) universally-admired Burmese human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, she would emerge as -- how can I put it? -- a somewhat flawed political leader?

After all, the general idea is that they award their prizes in recognition of past achievements, not as a forecast of future performance. (For some inexplicable reason, they decided to make an exception for Barack Obama, who was garlanded in 2009 after less than a year in the White House.)

Soon, they will announce this year's winner -- and I imagine they will be crossing their fingers that whoever they choose will turn out to be less, er, flawed than Suu Kyi. (Pope Francis seems to be one of the favourites, so there's plenty of scope, if he wins, for him to say or do something that is bound to upset someone, somewhere.)

That's the trouble, of course, with giving people prizes while they are still alive. Much better, I would have thought, to wait, as the Catholic Church does, for them to be well and truly dead before anointing them as saints.

Are Nobel Peace Prize winners living saints? Probably not, or at least not all of them, given that among their number they count Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who won the prize in 1973, jointly with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam.

Tho refused to accept it, on the not unreasonable grounds that at the time the award was made, war was still raging in Vietnam and neither he nor Dr Kissinger had brought about peace. Kissinger, however, had no such qualms, leading the song-writer and satirist Tom Lehrer to remark that 'political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.'

Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991 'for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights'. Few would have argued then that she was not a worthy winner -- indeed, many spoke of her in the same breath as such other secular saints as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Not any more. She has refused to condemn the appalling treatment being meted out by the Burmese military to the Rohingya Muslims, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, preferring instead to condemn people she calls 'terrorists' for creating a 'huge iceberg of misinformation'.

Her fellow peace prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu have both spoken out against her -- as has the Dalai Lama -- and the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has described what's happening as 'ethnic cleansing'.

As he said during a news conference in New York on Wednesday: 'When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, could you find a better word to describe it?'

So what has happened to the valiant campaigner for human rights, who paid such a high price for her refusal to bow to the Burmese military? The short answer is that the idealist campaigner has become the pragmatist politician. The slightly longer answer is that she was never quite as saintly as some of her more ardent admirers wanted to believe.

Perhaps it is a mistake to award the Nobel Peace Prize to politicians (although to be fair, few could have predicted in 1991 that Suu Kyi might one day be sharing power with the generals who had persecuted her for so long). Keep it for the likes of retired politicians who have devoted their post-political lives to building bridges and fostering democratic reforms -- ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace Prize winner 2002) or Martti Ahtisaari (2008) -- or international organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who was mortified to read a prematurely-published obituary which labelled him 'the merchant of death', laid down in his will that the peace prize should be awarded to whoever 'shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.'

According to the peace prize committee, the most popular prize-winners ever (I have no idea how they measured popularity) have been Martin Luther King (1964), Mother Teresa (1979), Malala Yousafzai (2014) -- and Aung San Suu Kyi. I suspect that might have changed a bit over the past couple of weeks.

So spare a thought for the five Norwegian luminaries, appointed by the Norwegian parliament and chaired by Berit Reiss-Andersen, a corporate lawyer and part-time writer of crime novels, who will be deciding -- or have already decided -- on this year's winner.

Perhaps they'll play safe and give the prize to the Red Cross, even if it has won three times already, in 1917, 1944 and 1963. If they do, I can't say I'd blame them.