Sunday, February 25, 2007

At least Meacher had the bottle. Pity about the houses, though.

Poor old Michael Meacher got pretty rough treatment from the hacks last week for having the temerity to stand against Gordon Brown. Mind you, Labour MPs didn’t exactly give him a fair wind. Even the chairman of his launch press conference, Ian Gibson, turned out not to be a supporter of the Meacher ticket.

Much was made of his property empire - Meacher has almost as many homes as the Prime Minister - and the fact that he voted for the war in Iraq. The leader of the house, Jack Straw, made the best crack of the week when he told reporters: “For those who want to place a wager, my advice is to find a horse.”

This is a pity, because whatever you think of Michael Meacher, you have to give him some credit for being prepared to say in public what a lot of Labour MPs, and even more Labour supporters are saying in private. Indeed, when you look at what Mr Meacher stands for, you are reminded in the most painful terms, that what Britain is lacking right now is not a coronation in Number Ten, but a proper party of opposition.

Just look around: an illegal and disastrous war in Iraq; a Unicef report saying that British children are the most miserable in the industrialised world; a climate running out of control because of unrestrained use of fossil fuels; an insane housing market excluding an entire generation from home ownership; a private equity sector tearing up the fabric of the British economy; a rapidly deteriorating race relations climate , long-established freedoms under the law being axed in the name of anti-terrorism.

Just imagine if this were 1996, and the Tories were in charge? Imagine what Labour would be saying now? They would be demanding an immediate end to the Iraq war and a regional peace conference in the Middle East to settle the Palestinian question. They would be calling on the government to seek UN opposition to any war in Iran. Much as Meacher was last week. And if it were the Tories who were renewing Trident, and bidding to host silos for George W. Bush’s ‘son of star-wars; missile defence system, do you think Labour MPs would be so quiescent?

Where are Labour when we need them? What would Gordon Brown, were he still in opposition, have made of the #8bn in city bonuses, the scandalous collapse of occupational pensions, the rip-off bank charges, the fire-sale of British companies, the “non-dom” tax breaks that have made London a haven for Russian plutocrats? a firebrand shadow chancellor would be castigating the PM for allowing the wealth gap to grow ever wider during one of the longest periods of economic growth in British history?

And a proper Labour shadow home secretary would be attacking this government for allowing the fabric of society to be ripped apart by market forces; for forcing single parents out to work when families are falling apart; for allowing guns to become a fashion accessory.

He, or more likely she, would be condemning the police for endangering racial harmony by inept actions like Forest Gate. The opposition - if there were one - would be organising to defeat the government’s renewed attempts to impose 90 day detention on terror suspects - a violation of the 800 year old right of habeas corpus.

Indeed, if Labour were in opposition right now, they would be calling this government the most corrupt, dishonest, incompetent, inhumane, irresponsible and incorrigible in modern times. But unfortunately, Labour are not in opposition. Labour are the government of the day, and as a consequence , much of what they have done has gone unchallenged. A whole tradition of political debate - that of concerned, libertarian social democracy - has been driven out of politics altogether.

The actual party of opposition, the Cameron Conservatives, have tried to occupy some of this space. But Tories are singularly ill-equipped to challenge New Labour’s ‘turbo-capitalism’. They are even keener on the market, support the war, invest in private equity, don’t care much about race, back the police implicitly and are - mostly - unconvinced about the environment.

Yes, I know that David Cameron talks of hugging hoodies, ending poverty, restoring family values and says that you have to “vote blue to go green”, but these are postures rather than actual policies. The Conservatives are essentially the party of privilege, money and property rights.

You are never going to hear them coming up with radical plans to revive council housing, criticising equity pirates, or curbing the use of the private car. They have fought a good fight on civil liberties, but their instincts are always to support the police and the security services.

The real party of opposition is now in government and behaving as badly, or worse, than its Tory predecessors. There is a vacuum of policy and ideas, that sucks the life out of civil society.

The press and media are bereft because there is no alternative ideas to analyse, no focus of civic dissent, no organised challenge to the Establishment. Political journalism in Westminster has become an exercise in palace politics, with journalist-courtiers exchanging gossip about the powerful and chattering about who’s up and who’s down.

Meacher is a perfect illustration of this condition. The story of his candidacy is its hopelessness, his remoteness from power and influence. A forlorn and isolated individual, he cannot get a platform for his arguments, many of which are at least worthy of debate.

For example, his call for a #6 minimum wage rising to 7 in future. This is not a high price to pay in an economy when profits have never been higher and where wages and living standards are being crushed. Surely, any self-respecting Labour Party should be demanding something similar.

It should also be demanding a housing policy. Meacher is right that this is one of the great lost issues of the age. Because Labour MPs and ministers (himself included) have made a pile from the tripling of house prices over he last decade, they are unable to see what rampant inflation is doing to the country.

Effectively, no one under thirty seven can afford to set up a home and family because house prices are impossibly high. Only those with rich parents willing to bankroll their offspring can get on the housing “ladder”. This not only means that home ownership is becoming the privilege of one class, it leads to a sense of hopelessness among an entire generation of young people who cannot afford to settle down and start families.

For those who take the plunge it means both parents having to work to pay an exorbitant mortgage, leaving little time for family life. This in turn creates an excluded class of rootless young males who are turning to deviant means of securing some kind of status and self-esteem by the gun and the syringe.

It is all there. History condemns an entire generation of Labour politicians, who claimed to speak for the people and ended up speaking for millionaires handing them secret loans in exchange for honours. Michael Meacher called for peace, social justice and climate survival. Okay - he may be a joke, but what the says is serious - and its about time some other people on the so-called Left stopped sniggering and started to listen.

Anyone Seen Jack?

Whatever happened to Jack McConnell, the one time first minister of Scotland? Appearances of the Labour leader are becoming increasingly rare. He has been absent from the last seven major debates in Scotland and the BBC’s Question Time has tried fifteen times to lure him out of his lair without success.

Websites devoted to sightings of Elvis Presley, are adding Jack McConnell to their list. Indeed, people are beginning to wonder if the First Minister exists at all or if it's just a cardboard cut-out at FMQ’s in Holyrood connected to a speak your weight machine. Conspiracy theorists are saying that there never was any concrete evidence of McConnell and that it was a plot by British intelligence to save Scotland from the SNP branch of al Qaeda.

But, assuming that Jack McConnell does indeed exist you have to wonder why he has decided to empty chair himself at every broadcasting opportunity. Aren’t politicians supposed to thrive on the oxygen of publicity? Surely he is keen as mustard to get stuck into Alex Salmond, to show what a gambler and carpet-bagger he is? To trash the other opposition leaders beneath the sheer weight of his dialectic?

I would not entertain for the merest nanosecond the idea that Jack McConnell is actually afraid of going into the television studio in case he makes and arse of himself. I’m sure that the memory of Henry McLeish failing to answer David Dimbleby’s question on his sublet offices does not enter McConnell’s head. It would be unthinkable for the leader of the nation to be incapable of arguing his case on the mass media.

After all, as First Minister, McConnell has been in office now for five and a half years, making him the most experienced politician in Scotland. There is practically nothing that has happened in Scotland in the last half decade that he hasn’t answered questions on or been briefed about. He should be more than a match for an absentee landlord, a Tory matron and a LibDem schoolboy.

McConnell has, moreover, a good message to sell. Scotland, we are told, is on the up and up - leading the UK in educational performance, child poverty, employment levels, skills, graduate numbers and salary rate rises. Gordon Brown comes north nowadays to get lessons in economic management from Jack McConnell.

There’s no political mileage in hiding your light under a bushell. Okay, McConnell may be looking forward to early retirement in the House of Lords, and lots of golfing holidays, but he has to win an election first. That bully Alex Salmond isn’t going to stop his taunts just because the FM closes his eyes and counts to ten thousand.

And as for the public, well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there is a danger that, if this goes on, McConnell will become the forgotten man of Scottish politics. And when he finally does appear, there’sa danger that no one will recognise him.

Now, there is a Westminster convention that the Prime Minister doesn’t lower himself by debating with his opposite numbers. Splendid isolation is supposed to enhance the dignity of his office. You wouldn’t catch Tony Blair entering a studio on equal terms with a minority party leader like Alex Salmond. But Jack McConnell isn’t Tony Blair, and anyway, Blair regularly submits himself to interrogation by John Humphries.

In Scotland, politicians are expected to speak their minds and expose themselves to debate with their peers. Especially when they are leaders of minority parties themselves, as Jack McConnell is. There are no constitutional airs graces in Scottish political culture, and when individual politicians start adopting them, and getting above themselves, then they are likely to lost public sympathy before you can say Jack the Lad.

They are likely to be accused of being ‘frit’, and once that charge sticks, it is very difficult to unstick it. Once columnists and cartoonists get the idea that McConnell is afraid to come out of Bute House, then he will find that people will start to believe it. Then, no matter how often McConnell takes part in debates and media forums, he will still be accused of being a wuss.

But it’s not too late. McConnell can still make an impact if he comes out of his corner. The UK ministers made idiots of themselves in November, coming north to Oban and trying to frighten Scots about border controls, terrorist threats and national bankruptcy if Scotland became independent. They rudely brushed McConnell aside, afraid that his more upbeat pro-Scotland message might sound too much like nationalism.

Well, they have changed their tune. Gordon Brown is now playing pussycat, and commending Scots on how well hey are doing in becoming the skills capital of Europe. If this is down to McConnell and the “devolution dividend”, then now is surly the time to press home the advantage; challenge Alex Salmond to say why independence would make Scotland any better.

The opposition’s job is to oppose, and the SNP have every right to accentuate the negative, to portray a London-dominated Scotland as an impoverished dependent incapable of generating its own economic dynamism. It is up to the First Minister to challenge this representation - but he has to be there first.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

It's not the only the Lords that needs reform.

It’s not the House of Lords that needs to be reformed but parliament itself. What point is there in seeking to make the Upper House marginally more democratic, when the House of Commons has ceased to be any kind of check on the executive power wielded from Tony Blair’s sofa?

Parliament needs to find the strength to reassert itself as the source of power in the land, not as the cheerleader of a personality cult. Too many MPs settle for the booze-and-bitching lifestyle of Westminster, which recently claimed the life of the Labour MP Fiona Jones. Self-destructive behaviour is often a sign of self-loathing; a plea from the powerless.

For ten years Labour MPs have turned out, meekly, at their leader’s command, to support the next war, or the next affront to civil liberties - like 90 day detention, which is due to return to the Commons shortly. Many now regret their willingness to comply over the years, but argue that they lacked the power resist the party whips.

Tony Blair has, more than any previous prime minister, exposed the weaknesses of our unwritten constitution, by forcing the country into an unpopular war on the basis of executive authority alone. Gordon Brown must not be allowed to follow suit.

Elective dictatorship is no longer a constitutional abstraction, but a matter of life and death. Two of the largest backbench parliamentary rebellions in over ahundred years failed to stop the Iraq war. Somehow, Britain must find a way to prevent this kind of thing happening again.

There is a window of opportunity opening here, if MPs have the will to go through it. When power changes hands, as it will in Downing St shortly, ordinary MPs have a chance to shape the future. And there are signs that Brown is open to ideas about how to renew British democracy.

Brown has dropped hints about this in his recent speeches. In July 2004 he told the British Council about his concern for “the golden thread of British liberty.. rooted in the protection of the individual against the arbitrary power of first the monarch and then the state.” His party conference address last year said that “while we do not today have a written constitution” there was a need to “be far more explicit about the common ground on which we stand, the shared values and habits of citizenship”. Many took that speech as a hint that Brown now favours a written constitution.

There have even been reports in the Sunday Times that Brown is to set up a Bill of Rights committee under the Labour Peer, Helena Kennedy - an outspoken critic of the government’s war on terror. The idea is that the commission would define for the first time the rights of the individual, while clearly setting limits for the power of government in areas like war making.

Academics around bodies like the Constitution Unit at University College London are also expecting Brown to move on the constitution because of the implications of devolution. There has been a good deal of grumbling over the last year about the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula, and it’s expected that Brown will make some moves on these issues if only to quell criticism in the conservative press about his nationality.

Some commentators have been questioning the right of an MP from a Scottish constituency to become Prime Minister, when the writ of parliament no longer runs in that constituency on devolved issues. The Tory home affairs spokesman, David Davies, has called for “English votes for English laws” and for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English legislation in the Commons.

Add to that, the urgent need to reform the Lords, following the cash for peerages scandal , and it’s not hard to see why some people believe that Brown may make the constitution a key theme of his first hundred days. There is all the material necessary for a constitutional “Big Bang’ if Brown is prepared to ignite it.

The chancellor has “done” the economy, what he wants to do know is to reform British politics; reshape it in his own image. Brown likes ideas, and speaks to people, so he understands the nature of the problem - even if his own penchant for control-freakery makes him an unlikely politician to deal with it.

This represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for MPs to re-enter British political life. If parliament is to be more than mere constitutional decoration, then it has to be given a proper job to do. MPs need to demand that parliament is given the means to do the task it was created for: which is to check the arbitrary power of the state.

But time is short. If Brown fails to address the problems facing the constitution in his first year, it is likely to get lost completely in the chaos of day to day “events” that preoccupy all prime ministers. He may also become seduced, as his predecessor was, but the privileges of office.

The UK prime minister exercises the residual powers of the absolute monarchy. Royal Prerogative is most egregious in the power of the prime minister to declare war, but it permeates every aspect of British public life. There is a presumption of centralisation in the British constitution, presumption of executive supremacy. The electoral system for Westminster, by furnishing an artificially large majority, recreates the arbitrary power of a monarch every four or five years.

Tony Blair had a 160 seat majority in the Commons on the eve of the Iraq war on the basis of a minority of the popular vote - 41%. That is simply unacceptable in a democracy. It is just as unacceptable as awarding peerages to businessmen who have secretly loaned the Labour party millions of pounds.

Now, the one problem is that Gordon Brown doesn’t agree with fair voting, and nor do most Labour MPs. They still believe that first-past-the-post gives them the best chance of staying power, if only because it locks minor parties out of power.

But if ever Brown could be persuaded, then it is surely now. It is most unlikely that he will be returned at the next general election with a substantial majority, and he must already be thinking about the possibility of having to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats in order to remain in office. A condition of that will be electoral reform.

But even if he cannot be persuaded on electoral reform right away, the effort must be made to focus Brown’s attention on the constitution. The very process of reforming the Lords, compiling a bill of rights, reviewing the post-devolution role of MPs will bring Brown face to face with the ugly reality of power in parliament. There isn’t any.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Climate Change is a Scottish 1ssue

Climate change may represent the greatest challenge faced by humanity since the Black Death. That is an emotive way of putting it, but the consequences of global warming, as set out by the International Panel on Climate Change, suggest nothing less. If there are to be heat waves, hurricanes , droughts and deserts, then people will die, and populations will fall.

However, as Al Gore says, catastrophism helps no one. The technological means to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions are already largely to hand - it is largely a question of political will. And by a quirk of fate, Scotland has a number of resources which make us peculiarly well placed to weather the storms ahead. Storms for a start.

Scotland’s wet weather suggest that we will never be short of a reservoir or two of what is likely to become one of the world’s most precious resources; water. Nor will we have to look hard to find wind to power electricity generators, or waves to turn turbines.

There are already serious questions being raised about the viability of urban populations in some parts of the Mediterranean sun belt, if climate change projections are correct. Water is becoming extremely scarce in parts of Provence, in the south of France, and people are already leaving remoter habitations.

Some forecasters think that even the South of England could turn into a very dry place - though with Britain’s annual rainfall being what it is, it should be a technically straight forward exercise to stop London dying of thirst. However, people might not be so keen to live there.

The metropolis is hot and sticky at the best of times, but imagine if the freak weather of the last few years were to become the norm, with temperatures in the the high nineties fahrenheit? Large parts of the centre of London may anyway be under water within a couple of decades

Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow may become warmer and probably wetter, but they will be more manageable, even if the atlantic conveyor is switched off and Scotland ceases to be warmed by the Gulf Stream. The fear that this could plunge Scotland into a mini ice age seems to have subsided, because scientists now think global warming is happening faster than expected.

How best to make use of Scotland’s natural advantages? Well, the country could become a world centre for renewable energy. We have 25% of Europe’s wind and wave energy, and the Pentland Firth has been described as the Saudi Arabia of world tidal energy with the capacity to produce 10 of the UK’s electricity.

There will have to be a means of transmitting this energy south, and if that means pylons, I’m afraid the Highlands may have to put up with them. Pylons at least have the virtue of being relatively light, removable structures, which don’t actually churn up much of the land itself. When a new way is found to transport, they can be dismantled without any environmental impact at all.

And there are other technologies waiting to be developed. The first commercially viable carbon capture hydrogen gas power station is nearing completion in Peterhead. The idea of capturing C02 emissions and then pumping it back into depleted oil fields is no longer science fiction.

People have often criticised Scotland for being over-reliant on hydrocarbons, and there is certainly a limited future for North Sea Oil. But it remains a significant resource and if the spent fields can be reused as carbon sinks, then there is potential here for serious business.

Our relative remoteness would also make Scotland less vulnerable to large population movements and the spread of diseases like malaria. As temperatures rise, it is expected that there will be a mass migration of tens of millions of people to the northern climes. Parched north Africans will start displacing exhausted southern Europeans. This could lead to civil disturbances on an epic scale.

Fortunately, the English Channel provides a physical barrier to population movement and they’d have to get past England first. There could be a significant increase in Scotland’s population arising from English incomers, but the likelihood is that the country could cope. Scotland has a third of the land mass of Britain with only a twelfth of the population and could absorb a few millions.

So, house prices in Edinburgh could on keep rising, forever. It’s all beginning to look rather attractive: a warmer, richer and more populous Scotland which will be able to look regard with pity the plight of the millions in the hot world.

Except, of course, that it isn’t really like that. Scientists can make their best projections, and politicians and civil servants can try to formulate policies that fit, but no one really knows what the future is going to be like - except that it is going to be hotter and more dangerous. There are probably a whole range of unexpected consequences of global warming which we haven’t seen yet.

The most immediately damaging would be a global economic collapse of the kind feared by the Stern Report last year. Scotland is a post industrial economy, based on services, finance, tourism and higher education. We don’t make things any more, which could mean life becoming very awkward indeed if there were a world crash.

The inconvenient truth is that we are all in this together. The politics of competitive advantage will have to give way to the politics of strategic co-operation. We are perhaps privileged that Scotland can contribute more than most to the solemn task ahead. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we can somehow beat the planet.