The plans from Eric Pickles Land to restrict local authority newspapers and newsletters, the consultation document for which emerged from CLCG yesterday, are interesting.
Well, it’s called a consultation. It’s actually more of a decree.
How Pickles new raft of instructions about what local authorities can’t do ties in with the Tories’ much vaunted localism is not very clear, but then little that Eric Pickles has recently said seems to back that pre-election narrative.
Indeed, how instruction on how frequently a newsletter can be published ties in at all with the Coalition’s ‘manifesto’ commitment to allow local authorities do anything they consider to be in the interests of their citizens (the Powers of General Competence), is quite beyond me. Does Pickles not actually understand that these new powers are specifically drafted, for better but mostly for worse, to make any existing or new legislation an irrelevance?
In fact what is now proposed is actually nothing much more than a redrafting and tightening of guidance issued previously as part of Thatcher’s attempts to curb the ‘loonie left’ councils of the 1980s (for the obsessive, Dept of the Environment Circular 20/88 pursuant to the Local Govt Act 1986 Ch10 Part 2). Para 13 of that code in particular reflects the paranoia then at play:
Where publicity is used to comment on, or respond to, the policies and proposals of central government, other local authorities or other public authorities, the comment or response should be objective, balanced, informative, and accurate. It should aim to set out the reasons for the council’s views, and should not be a prejudiced, unreasoning or political attack on the policies or proposals in question or on those putting them forward. Slogans alone will not be an adequate means of justifying or explaining the authority’s views or their policy decisions.
So while the overt purpose for the new guidance may be that “the existing rules on local authority publicity have resulted in taxpayers’ money being wasted and the free press being undermined”, the cynic in me suggests that Pickles is less concerned with the survival of local newspapers than he is about councils saying things the Tories don’t like.
The idea that central government guidance is needed to protect local newspapers is, in any event, a bit far-fetched, as it is based on the assumption that council newspapers/newsletters reduce the sales/advertising income of local papers.
This is very certainly not the case in most areas of the country, where council publications are neither frequent nor in any way newspaper-like.
There are exceptions, as in Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, where the local Tories’ plans for their council paper seem to run totally counter to what Pickles is now instructing, but surely the best way for Pickles to deal with this difference in viewpoints is for him to give the Tory leader there a call and ask him to stop it, either nicely or with threats.
In other areas, if and where the local newspaper does feel it is suffering from the presence of the taxpayer-funded freebie, then surely the Tories’ logic, as expressed through its Powers of General Competence plans, should be that this is a matter for local politics and politicians, with local elections potentially won or lost on the basis of manifesto commitments to keep/axe the local council newspaper.
Why is Pickles, then ‘taking a hammer to crack a nut’? I think the suspicion must be that Pickles’ rhetoric on this subject is little more than, on the one hand, self-promotion of himself as no-nonsense strongman, and on the other as early planning to take on the new brand of ‘loonie left’ councils which may emerge in the next year or two.
Of course, the drafting of new guidance which may have no weight of authority anyway if the Powers of General Competence do come into being as planned, will cost plenty of civil service time and money, as well as the time and resources needed in both Houses, under the 1986 Act (Part 2, Para 4.6), to bring into force. I suspect Pickles has not considered that.
None of this means I support the growth of local authority PR machinery. I do not, and have said so forcefully, as it relates to right-wing councils like mine using their resources to sell a vision of themselves which not only has no basis on reality, but which also leads to acts of self-delusion.
But what I am saying is that this step not new, in that it simply tightens guidance in a way which is probably not necessary, possibly unenforceable, and is a waste of taxpayer money in itself.
Then there’s the final, glorious illogic of the new guidance.
Pickles’ guidance seeks to be absolutely clear about how often local authorities can publish newsletters and newspapers:
Where local authorities do commission or publish newssheets, they should not issue them more frequently than quarterly (Para. 28)
The problem is that, under the 1986 Act, ‘local authority’ is interpreted to mean a whole range of elected authorities, including ‘a parish or community council’ (Para 6).
And how do these Parish or Community Councils gain the much sought after Quality Parish Council status? They have to:
produce and publish a regular newsletter at least four times a year (Test 4).
So to stay onside with the law, a Parish Council won’t be able to produce anything more frequently than quarterly, and to keep its Quality Parish Council status, it can’t do it less than quarterly.
And the Tories accused Labour of overbearing managerialsm?
An hour ago, the press association ran a piece entitled “Ed Miliband: I don’t believe in God”. This relates to an interview with Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 Live, where the question was raised, and the answer carefully noted how important it is to be tolerant of people whatever their view.
This will not stop the insults unfortunately. Nor will it help matters much that Miliband is the son of a Marxist heathen, unmarried, and the brother of an atheist who at least did his best by sending his child to a Roman Catholic school.
None of these things matter of course; and as Miliband said in his interview, his views should be a private matter, much like the atheism of our deputy Prime Minister.
But remember it is not just believers who have over-fetishised God in politics. Few may remember two years ago, when David Miliband was thought to be brewing a leadership bid, the philosopher and atheist A.C. Grayling making a plea in the Guardian for an atheist Prime Minister.
It levelled many ridiculous claims that should divide a believing PM from a non-believing one; atheists will not receive messages from beyond if going to war; they will be sceptical about giving special privileges to religious organisations; sectarianism through faith schools will be a thing of the past; neutrality between religious pressure groups will be the order of the day; and they’ll take more “down-to-earth” views.
Let’s throw this nonsense out of the water, just in case Grayling tries to write it again.
Of course, nobody can actually receive messages from beyond, but if we are dealing with stupid reasons to go to war here, suggesting this is the preserve of the religious is to forget the wars authored by such tyrants as Stalin and Mao.
This might evoke the redundant reaction given by the new atheists, usually that Communism is merely a demi-religion without supernatural Gods, and thus subject to the irrationality reserved by the religious (nb it also helps the “Ditchkins’” out in their mission to single religion out as only evil; secular reason as bringing only good).
Will an atheist be any more or less sceptical about giving privileges to religious organisation? The infection that says some religions are more evil than others strikes through even the most ardent atheist too. Christian schools have long been a feature in the UK educational system, yet Islamic schools still have the effect of discomfort for some people, whether that person is religious or not. This may be more political than theological, but then many attitudes on religion today are.
By no means am I saying that Ed Miliband will come to favour one religious institution over another, but what I will categorically suggest is that his atheism will not de facto ignore the level of favouritism or ill-feeling that is levelled at some religions, or even the level at which some secularists believe certain religions are far less compatible with secularism than others.
Furthermore, on the question of educational sectarianism, such institutions do not have a state sanction to be sectarian, but to open a school with a certain religious value system. I’ve little doubt that Ed, even as an atheist, will be happy, or even indifferent, to religious values being attached to schools. Sectarianism in schools, where it exists, is kept quiet, and is certainly not allowed as such – in fact admissions in most schools are still subject to anti-discrimination measures.
Moreover, this accusation, made by A. C. Grayling was made about David Miliband; who, as mentioned, did send his son to a Roman Catholic school.
On possible neutrality between faiths, Ed Miliband has already upset Israeli supporters by speaking at at a Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East reception. It is inevitable that a political position will eventually upset faiths when politics and faith have become so intertwined. It is quite clear, therefore, that an atheist is just as liable as a believer – a further element overlooked by Grayling.
And as for the point about Miliband being more level headed, this remains to be seen, but frankly the dividing line is not drawn between believer and non-believer, only in Grayling’s black and white mind.
In an attempt to demonstrate western hypocrisy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – President of Iran – has spoken out at the lack of uproar levelled against the US and the execution of Teresa Lewis, the women convicted of plotting to kill her husband, Julian Lewis, and her stepson, Charles Lewis.
This tactic by the Iranian premier is designed to deflect criticism over Iran’s decision to prosecute Mohamedi Sakineh Ashtiani.
Reports in the BBC say no final decision on Ashtiani’s fate has been made, though some media outlets such as Mehr, a semi-official Tehran news agency, are reporting the judiciary in Iran as having convicted her of murdering her husband which carries the penalty of execution by hanging.
However reports from Isna suggest she has been given a 10-year prison sentence for complicity in her husband’s death.
During his UN speech, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying Ashtiani would not be sentenced to stoning, something he vowed to oversee in an interview with former UK Member of Parliament George Galloway recently.
But there had been no willing by Ahmadinejad to allow Ashtiani the opportunity to emigrate to Brazil or Turkey, where both President Lula and President Erdogan were willing to assist.
The charge levelled at Ahmadinejad that he has done far too little still holds. His office was quiet when it was revealed Mohammad Mostafaei, the lawyer of Ashtiani and human rights expert, fled the country after an arrest warrant had been issued against him.
Nor did the President appear to show any public distress when authorities arrested Mostafaei’s wife and brother-in-law, ransacked his office and carried out interrogation methods.
Today a media lens message board post discussed the case of Ashtiani. Some posters echoed the sentiments of Ahmadinejad saying this is only one case among many, and questioning why the same level of outcry had been absent in other cases; exemplifying the case of Al-Janabi, the 14 year old girl who was gang raped, killed and set on fire by U.S. troops in Mahmudiya, Iraq, in 2006.
Oliver Kamm, the Times leader writer and columnist, called the comments “Sub-Chomskyite” on his twitter feed.
There is no Western-designed plot to single out Iran, and even if there was, the most effective campaigns to save Ashtiani’s life have come through grassroots activism such as from Avaaz and the International Committee Against Stoning – by no means front organisations for imperialism, or groups whose interest it is to engage in armed conflict with Iran in the future.
The excuse being spun by Ahmadinejad that Iran is being treated unfairly is down to the extreme measures with which they choose to condemn innocent people such as Ashtiani. Even under Islamic law – professed to be the mode practiced in Iran – adultery cannot be satisfactorily proven before the perpetrator has confessed under free conditions on three separate occasions, or if four males, whom the court are happy to trust, actually witness the act of penetration.
It seems very unlikely that Ashtiani confessed to her husband’s murder under free conditions. Amnesty International, in August, reported that:
televised “confessions” have repeatedly been used by the Iranian authorities to incriminate individuals in custody. Many have later retracted these “confessions”, stating that they were coerced to make them, sometimes under torture or other ill-treatment.
The case of Ashtiani is a reminder of the suspect justice system operating in Iran. It is a foolish position to take, thinking opposition towards her execution is somehow a justification of similar methods used in the US; in fact hostility towards state sanctioned murder ought to be levelled against any country operating it.
Though Cowards Flinch wishes to announce that it will be almost certainly be boycotting any competition, quiz or any other variety of internet-based contest, should it be hosted in the near future by Liberal Conspiracy, Left Foot Foward, Hopi Sen, or by any combinations of these blogs.
The reasons for our boycott our straightforward:
a) We might not win;
b) We probably won’t understand the rules;
c) We didn’t think of it first;
d) Though Cowards Flinch does boycotts;
e) We agreed with the hosts of all the blogs mentioned that our boycotting any such contest might provide useful additional publicity.
Unsurprisingly, the discussion on whether the Left within the Labour Party will reawaken has begun, in spite of Ed Miliband’s “left lurch” denial.
Contrary to what we’ve read in the papers, Miliband’s political direction will not rely on the union leg-up he received, largely because there will be advisors at the ready telling him not to let the tabloids have their cake and eat it too.
A nudge in political direction may occur depend upon who Miliband chooses as shadow chancellor, though it will not be sold as a political direction as such – and rightly so. Rather, the opposition should provide their analysis of the economy as necessary and sensible.
For me, out of the two main options – Balls’ growth model and the Darling inspired softer deficit halving programme – the growth argument is the one that holds the most traction. Therefore, I should like to see Ed Balls as shadow chancellor for the Labour Party.
As for a conscious political direction of the party under Ed Miliband, that path should be quite clear; though it will be somewhat disturbed by the right wing press – as I shall now discuss.
Miliband, when combating the “Red Ed” mantra during interviews, has insisted he stands for the centre ground in politics, but furthermore, wants to redefine what that means.
Alex Barker, in the FT, has noted that: “Britain’s new opposition leader [is] calling time on Tony Blair’s New Labour project and promising to “redefine” the political centre ground around reducing income inequality and raising wages for the poor”.
However, what is quite clear to me is that the redefinition of the centre ground has been influenced by the coalition government already.
In my discussion on these pages about the epistemic closure of the Conservative Party, what I have insisted is that today’s Tory administration is certainly no product of it. This, I conclude, is why it was unable to secure a larger proportion of the vote against an unpopular Labour government, because it spent more time alluding to social ills in a way usually the preserve of the left of centre, instead of those tacky things that pass for Conservative themes today; “uncontrolled” immigration, loss of “Christian” values, the relationship between crime and flailing discipline in schools, and the so-called handing of power to foreigners (i.e. the EU).
(Of course the Tories under Cameron did try and touch on this low politics, for example in Glasgow East, but has largely been characterised as a party, economically conservative, while socially liberal – particularly by Peter Hitchens, who recently described him as a smiling, willing prisoner of the Sixties Leftists).
Subsequently, many things usually considered centre left (crime often being linked to poverty, prison as one of many options for reform, the NHS as a good thing, bankers needing extra checks, not extra cheques), are almost universally accepted, even in the Conservative Party cabinet. Therefore, what goes for centre ground today has been shifted.
There are many strings to Miliband’s bow that he may now reconsider, or saturate rhetoric on, so as to counter the Mcarthy-esque media loons, and petit names dreamt up by idiots such as “deficit-denying, union-controlled, u-turning, decision-ducker” (do see also Panorama on Lord Cashpoint tonight). Those strings include salary differentials in the private sector; opposing VAT rises; becoming tough on greedy banker bonuses and what Polly Toynbee last night called boardroom kleptocracy; reforming the way in which a university education is paid for, where soon leading institutions could introduce fees of about £7,000.
Socially, the consensus marks a progressive shift, which defines the political centre as further to left than at any other time where the Tories have been in government. Where the importance really lays is in the economy, where in reflection of George Osborne’s cutting agenda, the moderate centre might depict something akin to the Darling inspired deficit reduction lite. In order to explore anything more radical than both these options – which ought to be preferable – there is no greater of enemy of the opposition leader than the right wing press.
Ed Balls, in a Guardian comment, made note that the Labour Party were defeated in 1983, not only because of a split, but because the argument on the economy was weak. Frankly, the party has returned to this position, only now it is loose talk by the right which could shape how effective Ed Miliband will be as leader of the opposition.
For this reason, and for the sake of the economy, it is my plea to fellow leftists not to dedicate all their time and energy exploring how meek the leadership of Ed Miliband is, but to focus on countering the low argument made by the right.
Tony Blair chose to counter right wing press by appeasing them and becoming rhetorically further to the right than they were. But his politics have come to an end. It is high time Labour took up the proper fight against the right wing media once more.
Everything is looking very rosy for British socialism, it would seem. ‘Red Ed’ leads our party towards a glorious value-laden future, and the New Labour aberration has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
And strangely, I find myself only half-joking as cynically as usual, because like others on the Left, I am quite optimistic at the moment. As Laurie Penny says:
The overwhelming impression is that anything could happen, and the room bubbles with breezy expectation and just a suggestion of naughtiness……It’s been a long hangover, but this morning, the British left is finally knocking back the alka-seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet. After all, there’s work to be done.
Laurie Penny is not, I suspect, an ally of John McDonnell, but at a Labour Representation Committee fringe meeting last night, John was in positive mood too.
Whichever of the usual ex-New Labour suspects now leads the party is largely irrelevant, he noted, expect that the one who did win the contest is the one who did most to be seen to bend to the views of real members of the labour movement and, as Don Paskini points out at LibCon, to the views of a significant section of the wider public.
As it happens, the one who did win is the one I described as ‘a charlatan‘ the other week (in retrospect, ‘chameleon’ may have been a better word, and I do think calling him a ‘triangulating turd’ is completely over the top and regrettable). In any event, I couldn’t vote for Ed M, but I do agree with John that, now that Ed M is leader, the Left has a somewhat greater opportunity to build a momentum within and beyond the party.
If we can do this, come the general election, the party’s leadership may see the strategic electoral sense in providing a clearly articulated socialist alternative to the Tories, just as Ed M saw the strategic sense in reaching out to the wider labour movement vote through the use of a socialist-lite rhetoric.
So, yes, I’m hopeful about the chances for socialism over the next two to three years, but I’m hopeful not so much because I listened to what John McDonnell had to say, or because I read Laurie Penny’s latest.
Rather, I’m hopeful because I saw an advert for cider.
Making my tortuous way home to the Socialist Republic of Bickerstaffe last night, I got off a slightly delayed train at St Helens Junction to find I had missed the last bus, so I went into the appositely named Junction Inn, ordered a pint, and asked for a taxi number.
While waiting for the taxi, an advert for Strongbow cider came up on the giant screen. In it, three identifiably working class men – one who makes pork pies, one gas fitter and one who did something else – enter a giant cathedral-cum-masonic-hall, and walk slowly up the central aisle as hundreds of fellow workers look on in admiration, one with a tear coming to his manly eye. At the front, they are given a pint of Strongbow cider and turn to their work comrades, raise their glasses, and drink their just rewards.
Now I’m no sociologist, but even I could see what was going on here, so when I got home I put ‘Strongbow advert’ into the search engine, and discovered that this is not the first advert of this type approved by the sellers of Strongbow cider.
The first such advert appeared in March 2009, and is both shown and commented upon in this interesting Guardian article. It is a pastiche of the Braveheart film, with working class men brandishing satellite dishes instead of spears. All very clever, and you’ve probably seen it (I don’t really watch television). As interesting as the advert itself is the comment from the Strongbow brand manager:
While talking to consumers when researching the campaign we found that working-class men, while not vocal about it, feel undervalued….
In the 1980s there were considered to be a lot of working class heroics, such as during the miners’ strike – the working class was the backbone of Britain. Today there is a feeling that has been lost and it is about things like celebrities and how much you earn on the football pitch….
There is a middle-class distrust of manual labour, a suspicion of being ripped off but 99 out 100 times that is not the case. The core idea is workers as heroes.
Here, encapsulated in an advert for cider, it seems to me, is precisely the kind of solidarity building that the Left should be engaging in – building amongst the working class a new confidence that our labour does have value, that for too long that value has been ignored, and that only through solidarity can we ensure that we regain our rightful place in society.
I was struck by this as I moved on with my blog catch-up reading, only to find that Dave Osler was saying much the same thing about a new film ‘Made in Dagenham’ (which John McDonnell had also referenced in his speech at the LRC meeting):
It’s a long time since socialists have had many opportunities of that type. But just maybe ‘Made in Dagenham’ is a pointer to the coming zeitgeist.
Blimey, thought I, perhaps if even cynical old Dave O is talking of a socialist zeitgeist, and John McDonnell went to see the same film and said the same, and now even Ed Miliband is having to nod to the left….perhaps, then, there really is something good afoot, if only we get it right.
And to complete an evening of good omens, I shut down my computer, and read my book for a few minutes, which is a short tale in itself
Earlier in the day, I had seen Jon Cruddas in the conference area.
He was talking to people, so I didn’t go over, but I was sorely tempted to tap him on the shoulder and say ‘John, I know you supported David Miliband in the leadership contest, but at least a lecture of yours that I read pointed me in the direction of this book, which I happen to be carrying in my pocket and which is very good.’
The book is RH Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society, written in 1921, and this is the bit I read:
[W]hen the criterion of function is forgotten, the only criterion which remains is that of wealth, and an Aquisitive Society reverences the possession of wealth, as a Functional Society would honour, even in the person of the humblest and most laborious craftsman, the arts of creation.
So wealth becomes the foundation of public esteem, and the mass of men who labour, but who do not acquire wealth, are thought to be vulgar and meaningless and insignificant compared with the few who acquire wealth by good fortune, or by the skilful use of economic opportunities.
When the makers of piss-like cider agree with RH Tawney, thought I, as I closed my book and headed for bed, then there really is hope for the Left.