Farewell for now David Laws, Lib-Dem MP, former chief secretary to the Treasury, whose departure seems to have brought to the fore a great deal of sympathy from various twitterers and commentators. I imagine it will surprise few people to learn that I’m not one of them.
Rather, I think it is tragic that this chap got away with paying his partner £920 per month from 2007-2009 for a bedroom (regardless of whether it was used or not). That’s £920 per month on the taxpayer, when parliamentary rules have forbidden leasing anything from a partner since 2006.
A lot of the sympathy is based on Laws’ sexuality, and the suggestion that the Daily Telegraph investigation ‘outed’ him. I’ve seen various people suggest that we’re somehow worse than a certain African country which recently pardoned two men from the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.
I’m sorry that any person’s private life gets trailed into their work life – but as with all the MPs who so ingraciously fell on their swords during the last parliament as a result of the same, if you do something wrong, break the rules or, worse still, profit at the expense of the taxpayer, you shouldn’t be allowed to glibly carry on.
What’s utterly disgraceful is that Laws, one of the privileged few, graduate of Cambridge, who slotted himself into a safe seat nowhere near his original home after bouncing around an unsuccessful candidacy or two, can claim so much on rent of a second property whilst people who can barely get together the rent on their only home have to navigate all sorts of problems to get anything from the State.
One wonders if MPs expenses have anything like the cut-offs of regular Housing Benefit, under which you get nothing once you have more than £16,000 in ‘cash, savings, bank deposits, Tessas, PEP’s, Unit Trusts, ISA’s, building society accounts, Tax Credit arrears etc. and all “liquid assets”.’ Somehow I doubt it.
I’ve heard the argument that they need a second home if they’re to function with a workplace that can be many miles from their home…but it doesn’t excuse un-means tested benefits. What is good for the goose, after all…
Most irritating of all have been the pronouncements from Cameron and Duncan-Smith (et al) that David Laws will be back. Either he did something wrong and shouldn’t be back at all (thus the attitude of the Tories – and myself – to Messrs Mandelson, Blunkett and company) or he didn’t and someone should show some balls and stick up for him.
No-one will be distracted from the budget by Laws’ actions if he’s done nothing wrong. The budget is serious stuff which people are going to be talking about up and down the country as regards what’s actually in it whether it’s delivered by Charles Manson or Postman Pat. It just goes to show, politics has no sweethearts but armies of those for whom hypocrisy or cowardice are simply different words for pragmatism.
Due to having some time on my hands, for a change, I checked a bunch of fiction books out of the local library. The first was Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita. This is a strange book, repeatedly referred to as one of the defining English-language novels of the 20th Century and I’m still not quite sure what to think.
The plot is relatively simple: Humbert Humbert, ephebophile, marries the mother of a twelve year old girl Dolores Haze. Following the death of her mother, Humbert kidnaps Dolores, known as Lolita, and tours the United States while indulging in a sexual relationship with her.
If literature is simply there to tell us something about ourselves, or about our world, then the character of Humbert Humbert certainly does that. His wit is incisive, deadly even; his manipulative nature worthy of any Machiavelli and his ruthlessness total, yet also totally concealed from all but his unfortunate victims.
In everything that Humbert does, he is inescapably human and we can recognise in him many things that feature regularly in our somewhat more banal lives. No one who has ever wondered about where our moral perspectives on any subject come from can fail to be moved by Humbert’s rationalisation for his heinous actions.
What I cannot reconcile for myself is that my perspective on this book boils down to something so monochrome as condemnation for Humbert, disgust at the eloquence and erudition of his perversion and sympathy for the young girl who cried herself to sleep as soon as she believed Humbert to have succumbed to it himself.
Surely there is something more? If anything the beautiful prose and dry sardonicism (e.g. Humbert’s initial, easy dismissal of Charlotte’s advances) further irritated me, as did the conclusion to Martin Amis’ Observer review, ‘You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent’.
Rubbish. Amis approach to Nabokov’s oeuvre in Koba the Dread, that Lolita is a study in tyranny is much nearer the mark. Perhaps it is the bloody single-mindedness in me that is causing my failure to appreciate a great literary endeavour, but tyranny is to be resisted at all occasions, not to be gloried in, which is what such prose feels like.
What I found intriguing is that Humbert’s use of treats, of permissions withheld or granted, of money to enforce his control…all of these are standard parenting methods. The only thing that Humbert has done differently to a ‘normal’ parent is extend his dominance to the sexual sphere as well as the more traditional areas of behaviour.
With tyranny in mind, Humbert’s self-deception as regards his relationship with Lolita can be read as a metaphor for the relationship of the privileged Party with its subservient people in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or the various other totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. As Humbert justifies his exploitation of Lolita by her supposed corruption (suggested, for example, by her seduction of him, after a prolonged ‘courtship’), so too these privileged elites maintained themes of paternalism and almost-divine election.
Nabokov’s Lolita is comparable to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in some respects. Neither offers the possibility of redemption to its protagonists; tyranny is all-encompassing and either extends onwards to infinity (thus Orwell) or destroys everyone it touches – Humbert, Lolita, Charlotte, Valeria, Quilty and Lolita’s child – even after it has released them from its immediate grip, by distorting the course of their lives. The solipsism of Humbert is the analogue to the ultimate capitulation of Winston Smith, each reflecting the great divides of our time.
Tyrant and tyrannised, or state tyranny and the tyranny of patronage and private property.
It is a thoroughly depressing book. There is no Yossarian escaping on a raft, no Krymov whose victimisation by the state cannot annihilate the forward-looking character of the novel Life and Fate, gazing past the Russian fall into the hands totalitarianism, towards the core of the communist ideal. There’s no Jake Barnes who, despite having been visited in both public and private spheres with disaster, still lives and learns, emerging wiser than when he began. This is where the pathos of the novel emerges; in how people deal with the knowledge of futility.
Even Humbert faces this, though he does so with his incisive, calculating rationality as when he considers Lolita’s inevitable move beyond the ‘prime age’ at which we find her during the story, and at which Humbert takes his greatest pleasure.
In this regard, the novel escapes my monochrome moralising and my utter detestation of Humbert, accentuated by his refusal to repent – a refusal the self-obsessed Humbert finds delectable, as evidenced by his toying with readers as though they are a mock jury – and failure to find his ass slapped in the electric chair for his crimes. Not far enough, however, for me to decide whether or not I enjoyed the novel.
In the week that both Vince and Giles sell their souls for power and influence, and the idea that spending cuts really are necessary takes hold within the centre-left, it’s handy to note that there are still economists talking sense.
So here’s Tim Millar at the massively underrated Vimothy, telling cuts-driven economic collapse like it is. For Estonia, read ConDem Britain?
“Fiscal responsibility” in the New Europe
Estonia is the poster child for austerity in Europe. In response to the crisis it has been “internally devaluing” and deflating its economy, heavily cutting government spending: its deficit went from 14% of GDP in 2008 to 2% in 2009. Estonia’s currency is pegged to the euro in anticipation of future membership. Its national debt is around 6% of GDP. 6%! (Its foreign currency reserves are half as big again). Estonia is Europe’s fiscal golden child. The market certainly thinks so: CDS on its soveriegn debt are trading at about 90 bps; Greek CDS, by comparison are trading well over 300 bps. It must be a very rich country, then, to have saved all that wealth.
This is a follow-up post to this one about how Labour’s narrative on immigration only changed fairly recently.
I spent a little time on that because I thought it was important to stress that both Labour’s, and the wider anti-immigration/immigrant narrative, might not be as deeply embedded and irreversible as people now fear.
This post is a follow-up to my own, but it might just as easily be a response to Anton at Enemies Of Reason:
If Labour doesn’t want to challenge these [immigration] myths, fine. If it wants to think that it lost the election because it wasn’t tough enough on immigration, fine. But they’ll have a pretty stinging smack in the face coming when they have a re-brand with added Woolas-style dogwhistles but don’t get anywhere. They had the chance to challenge the myths, but instead they’re making myths of their own. And that’s a massive mistake.
I am in the Labour party, and I try not to see it in the third person. Many of the Labour leadership contenders may not want to challenge the myths, and more’s the shame on them. But instead of wringing my hands about it, it’s my job as a Labour member to try and do something to make them change their minds.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. What am I going to do about the myths of immigration. Or, to paraphrase Sunny:
So what will my progressive narrative on immigration look like? How will I deal with people’s concerns without sounding like the English Defence League, the BNP or Andy Burnham? How will that narrative offer solutions and hope without encouraging people to be bigots or making them fearful of immigrants? What’s the narrative? What will I say on the door-step?
I’ll do five main things:
1) I’ll accept that (as Sunny points out) in the medium term at least the mainstream media is likely to continue to peddle myths about immigration and immigrants, of the type that Anton has so able described.
2) I’ll acknowledge that the only way to provide an alternative message about immigration ‘on the doorstep’ is to visit doorsteps, initially with my written material.
3) What I write about immigration will be a set as clearly and as succinctly as possible in wider political context, and not simply be focused on an anti-racism message. Below is a draft of the page I’ll devote to this in the Spring/Summer Bickerstaffe Record, my local newsletter which goes out to all households in my area and is widely read because it is both regular and locally focused (see here for most recent edition).
4) I’ll try to set some kind of example for others, and challenge people, in other active and leftist CLPs initially, to set out their own clear statements about immigration in their own written material. Clearly, the material will need to be adapted to different styles of material, but there should be a voluntarily agreed set of ‘minimum standards’ applied to what goes out so that the key issues are no longer obfuscated. At Tim’s (and Dave’s suggestion, I’ll start by asking Oxford East CLP to work alongside their MP Andrew Smith on this, and see if we can’t build up a head of steam.
5) I’ll seek to work within the blogosphere to see that initial commitments at local level to changing Labour’s immigration narrative are reported upon in blogs, and that more CLPs, unions and other like-minded organization are encouraged not just to do something similar, but also to challenge those taking part in the Labour leadership contest to respond positively to what’s going on. I’ll ask Sunny if this issue can be part of his Blognation conference on 26th June, though I suspect he’s already got it in mind.
This is, roughly speaking, the kind of article I’ll look to put in the next Bickerstaffe Record (due out mid-late June), if a few other people promise to do the same:
Readers will be aware that the contest for the leadership of the Labour party is currently taking place.
As a departure from the purely local news coverage norm, the team at the Bickerstaffe Record has agreed to work with other local Labour activists around the country to put out a common message on one particular area of concern, which we feel has not been properly addressed by several of the leadership candidates to date.
By ensuring that the matter is raised, via local newsletters like the Bickerstaffe Record, in millions of homes up and down the country, we hope that the leadership candidates will be encouraged to rise to the challenge during their campaign period.
The matter at hand is IMMIGRATION, and this is our statement:
The group of Labour party activists involved in this grassroots movement is concerned that several of the leadership candidates are playing ‘dog whistle’ politics about immigration, and not doing enough to challenge widespread media myths about it.
Rather than simply trying to outdo each other on how ‘tough’ they want to be on immigration, we believe that the Labour leadership candidates should focus their campaign on how Labour will ensure that the real problems facing many people in the country today will be tackled, both in opposition and then when Labour is back in government.
These problems include a lack of affordable housing, cuts to services needed by all, and lack of access to decent paying jobs. We believe that if these problems are tackled properly, then perceptions about the ‘evils of immigration’ will quickly fade, and that in time the rightwing press will be forced to review its own hate-filled agenda as it loses readers.
The problems also include a European Union which, because it is driven by an agenda of ‘competitiveness’, has failed to meet the basic needs of its citizens in its poorer countries, leading to the migration of many people in search of a livelihood, who would otherwise be quite content to remain in their home country. For the most part, people do not leave their friends and families in search of work elsewhere because they want to. They do so because they have to.
We believe that talk of ‘tough measures’ on immigration is a cop-out from the real challenges we have set out here, and we’re using this space – donated by the good people at the Bickerstaffe Record – to say so. We hope the prospective leaders of the Labour party take note.
For more information, visit www.labour&immigration.org [not real], the website we’ve set up as part of this campaign.
Update 0810: I was wrong, utterly wrong, about the LRC (see below). See comment 2 from Andy Fisher, Joint Secretary to LRC, to whom an apology will be forthcoming.
I have a few ideas, some settled, other less so, and in the ‘less so’ category is seeking election to the Labour party’s National Executive Committee. Initial tweet feedback was mildly encouraging.
Should I decide to go through with this, I’ll no doubt be setting out my experience and skills here, and Comrade Dave has already offered to support my cause by ‘interviewing ‘ me, and such like.
But there’s a problem.
Ideally, I would like to be considered for inclusion within the slate of candidates put together by the Grassroots Alliance, made up of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Save the Labour Party, and the Labour Representation Committee. Yet when I come to look into that possibility, I found that:
For the six constituency places on the NEC, the Grassroots Alliance have so far narrowed the possible slate to eight contenders.
To be frank, I had no idea this process had taken place, despite being a member of the Labour Representation Committee. Did I miss something?
I enquired what the process had been for the drawing together of all ‘contenders’ and the subsequent ‘narrowing’, so as to work out whether I might still seek inclusion. The reply I received from Jon Lansman, who had announced the eight contenders in his blogpost, was brief and to the point:
Consensus of participating organisations.
I struggle a bit with this. How was consensus reached? Who did the consensus reaching? What was the original process for inviting expressions of interest? None of this is made clear either by Jon or on any of the websites of the participating organisations. Indeed, I’m not even sure of Jon’s function in all of this, and why the list is being set out on a new blog ‘Left Futures’, not apparently part of the Alliance set up, and then picked up at Socialist Unity as fact rather than opinion.
Indeed, for organisations which are keen to stress the importance of open internal party democracy, the process for ending up on the slate of said organisations seems far from openly democratic.
Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. As with my mild criticism of the LRC process over their announcement of John McDonnell as preferred leadership candidate, I’m sympathetic to the fact that processes of democracy are administratively heavy, and difficult for volunteer, shoestring organisations. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the eight ‘contenders’ now being promoted as the Grassroots Alliance slate are anything other than good and worthy candidates, though I know little about some of them.
But it does leave me in a quandary.
Had I understood what appears to be something of a quiet ‘who you know’ process, would I have sought to get on the slate via that process even though it apparently has its faults, or would I have objected to the process in principle and sought my own nominations separately?
Should I now seek nominations from CLPs in spite of not being on the Grassroots Alliance slate, because I think I can do a good job on the NEC, or would that be too great an act of hostility towards an Alliance whose aims I broadly agree with?
Could I work slate members elected to the NEC as effectively if I – a Johnny-Come-Lately with a couple of fancy blogs and a few election results to my name – were being voted on separately and were then perceived to have bumped one of their closer comrades off the NEC?
Should that concern me, or should I just take the attitude that the person who gets the most votes is the worthy winner?
Answers, in the usual form please, to the usual comments box, especially if I’ve simply got the wrong end of a stick somewhere.
It can be argued that Latin became French in 842, when the Oaths of Strasbourg were written in Latin, Old High German and a form of Old Gallo-Romance, which would in turn become Old French.
Of course people under Charlemagne’s rule had already moved on from Vulgar Latin, and would have been unintelligible to a Latin speaker of the 4th century AD, but what was important about the Oaths is that they gave institutional authority, for a specific political purpose, to the new language, and distinguished it officially from Latin.
French never looked back.
While perhaps not quite as dramatic, the then Home Office Minister did much the same thing on 24 October 2006, when he made a statement to the House concerning new rules to be put in place in respect of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals:
Over the last few months, I have set out ambitious plans to ensure that our immigration system is both effective and fair, including plans to ensure immigration rules are advised by an independent Migration Advisory Committee; plans to double spending on enforcement; and plans to introduce ID cards for foreign nationals.
Here, in one short paragraph, we see encapsulated the changed government attitude; ‘migration’ has become ‘immigration’, and enforcement is now the order of the day.
And as with French, a seeming ‘point of no return’ was reached, as anti-immigration language was given governmental authority. This time around it wasn’t that noticeable, indeed no-one at the time really noticed it, but it legitimized much worse to come.
It did so not just because of the language chosen to set out his the new set of immigration rules by John Reid, but because, behind the scenes and in spite of his reference to the Migration Advisory Committee, he had chosen to ignore their advice, which was that the Bulgaria/Romania accession (A2) in 2007 should be treated in the same way as the A8 accession on 2003. As Dr Alex Balch, an expert in UK migration policy in the 2000s, says in a paper drawn from his PhD:
The large inflows related to the 2002 decision on A8 nationals have clearly had a significant political and institutional impact. The effect of institutional, political and organisational pressure can be seen in the decision to restrict access for A2 nationals before the subsequent (2007) enlargement. In contrast to 2002 this decision was taken against expert opinion. Here the managed migration frame was displaced by a political imperative to respond to public concerns over immigration levels (despite the likelihood that A2 migration would be on a different scale to A8 migration).
From late 2006 onwards then, the path was set for the Labour government to become ever more draconian in its language about immigration, and its eventual attempts to outflank the Conservatives from the right on immigration. As Andy Newman has set out well, beyond this important first step:
[The] Labour government in a sense created the perfect storm. On the one hand engaging in dog-whistle politics, and talking tough over the points system, and locking up children in detention centres; while simultaneously presiding over a laissez faire abdication of responsibility towards resolving the social problems caused by the reality of mass immigration from Eastern Europe.
In so doing, Labour was host by its 1996 petard. By conceding migration as almost wholly a problem rather than a driver of economic growth, it put itself in a position whereby it could never win the argument. Any immigration quickly became too much immigration, and the accusation during Neathergate that the government had been surreptitiously planning dastardly ‘multi-culturalism’ was rebutted by Jack Straw not by pointing out that migration had been really good for the UK economy, but that Labour was being really tough on immigration and that he’d call for an extra ‘probe’ into the matter – something that was then immediately taken by the rabid rightwing press to be part of the whole plot.
Labour’s self-imposed problem is neatly summed up by Don Flynn of the Migrant Rights Network:
Rather than there being a lack of targeted publicity about the government’s immigration policies, Labour’s problem lay in the messages themselves. The government’s big claims that immigration was now ‘under control’ were inherently vulnerable to being demolished by commentators. Every inflated statement of policy success made by the government was poured over by opponents looking for the opportunity to contradict it. Day after day, the party made itself a hostage to fortune on immigration.
In short, Labour bottled it on migration, and has paid for it ever since October 1996.
Why go back over this short (in both senses) history of Labour’s policy swerve towards a self-defeating immigration stance?
Well, it’s important, if Labour and its prospective leaders are to get it right on immigration that we realize that the 1997 and 2001 administrations actually didn’t do too badly on it in the first place.
Yes, the policy stance may have been too ‘technocratic’ and reflective of New Labour’s neo-liberal norms, and this may have led to greater distrust down the line about motives when the policy was changed, but in narrower there is not too much to fault with this statement by then Home Office Minister Barbara Roche, in September 2000
In the past we have thought purely about immigration control … Now we need to think about immigration management … The evidence shows that economically driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits for both growth and the economy.
This is important because there is a myth developing quickly about New Labour, set out by Daniel Trilling of the New Statesman in an otherwise well informed article:
In fact, over 13 years in power, New Labour’s rhetoric on immigration – combined with the virulent xenophobia of the tabloid press – has gifted the BNP with fertile ground on which to cultivate support.
Quite simply, this is wrong about New Labour, as I have tried to show above.
More importantly, perhaps, it is important to recognize that this explosion of hysteria about immigration and its effects on Britain is actually quite recent, and is therefore all the more reversible.
We’re now so used to Daily Mail headlines like this, which skate happily over the headline-contradicting facts within the story itself, that we think such loathsome attitudues have been at large longer than they actually have.
But it is, for example, only six years (to the day, as it happens) that the NUJ Chapel at the Daily Express – yes, the Daily Express – passed the following motion over a ‘1.6 million gypsies to flood in’ headline in the paper:
This chapel is concerned that Express journalists are coming under pressure to write anti-gypsy articles. We call for a letter to be sent to the Press Complaints Commission reminding it of the need to protect journalists who are unwilling to write racist articles which are contrary to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct.
The Daily Express journalists had not had their Oaths of Strasbourg moment; they were aware that a new language was amongst them, but they preferred to cling to the old language of decency.
It is only a 16 months since a Conservative councillor in Lincolnshire felt able to go on record in the following way in the local press:
Gypsies and travellers currently suffering from persecution in their countries of origin could be persuaded to flee their “squalor” and step into jobs left by Poles returning home.
In Lincolnshire they have predominantly filled jobs in agriculture.
If, because of the downturn, we start to see fewer Eastern European migrant workers from Poland and so forth, it’s my personal view we could get replacements from Romania and Bulgaria.”
He said Lincolnshire could extend a friendly hand to them saying “come to us and get a better deal”.
“The main problem of course, whether we like it or not, is that gypsies and travellers are extremely unpopular people to have in the county,” he added.
The councillor, for suggesting that economic benefit might outweigh local xenophobia under his administration’s watch, was then subjected to a torrent of abuse, but this is perhaps less noteworthy than the fact that he felt bound to speak as he did in the first place, for that showed a vestige of the old ‘pre-Reid’ language of migration held true (however faulty the argument in the wider political sense).
In my next post on immigration, I’ll be trying to answer in ‘nuts and bolts’ detail Sunny’s questions on how the Left deals with the now prevalent anti-immigrant narrative:
The public are not easily persuaded by facts. There’s no way of ‘educating them’. The right-wing media exists and it won’t stop printing false stories. And there are lots of traditional Labour supporters who have concerns about immigration…. How do you deal with people’s concerns without sounding like the English Defence League, the BNP or Andy Burnham? How does that narrative offer solutions and hope without encouraging people to be bigots or making them fearful of immigrants?
What’s the narrative? What do you say on the door-step? Thoughts?
This, though, is my starting point. Labour lost it on immigration, and there’s no excuse for that. But it did so more recently than it’s now being assumed, and the wave of ‘popular xenophobia’ that has swept over us in the last three years may be gone before we think, if the Labour movement-in-opposition, assisted or not by its new Labour PLP leadership, can get its tactics right over the next year or so.
‘Traditional Labour supporters’ don’t want to be anti-immigrant, and we can give them reasons why they don’t ‘need’ to be.
In 845, three years after the Oaths of Strasbourg were signed, Charlemagne could have torn up the proto-French version as a symbolic gesture of defiance. French, without institutional authority, might have developed very differently. Labour needs to start by denouncing its 1996 turn. Come on the Milbros, we’re waiting.
Till next time….