Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life in Wonderland - Corbyn's conference speech

For the Daily Record

Party conferences are locked-off, Alice in Wonderland places cut off from the real world.

If someone arrives from outside declaring  scientists have found life-giving water on Mars, delegates shrug their shoulders at the irrelevance of the news.

Conferences are altered reality, where anything can happen. That's why Jeremy Corbyn's first speech to the Labour conference was such a barnstormer in the hall. 

In here the drumbeat of socialist principles, the defiant challenge to Tory austerity, and the promise of a different way of doing politics drew ovation after ovation

The trouble is that as the testament of the Islington messiah reaches the outside world voters may shrug their shoulders collectively in return.

This was a speech aimed at soothing a bruised party, not convincing a sceptical voter who blames Labour for the economic crash

In his comfort zone it was a warm and witty speech, a wish list for a kinder world that offered few solutions to hard choices of the real world. We can assume these will be sent to policy reviews.

At its core was nothing less than a challenge to the historic order of capitalism. That passage turned out to be a rethread of a speechwriter's script that Ed Miliband rejected in 2011.

On issues he is passionate about, the injustice of poverty, the despot Saudi regime, the rhetoric  drew on Corbyn's own leadership speeches, but was not quite so mediocre as they were.

On Scotland it was a tick box affair, reading the lines from an unfamiliar autocue and what sounded like the script direction - "strong message here" - as he promised Labour would be back as the fighting force it once was. Not much for Nicola Sturgeon to lose sleep over.

He insisted on taking Trident out of the box that the party boss, sorry Unite union boss Len McCluskey, packed it into earlier in the week. Labour may not be debating Trident renewal yet but Corbyn insisted his mandate to is to scrap it and that means there will be division down the road. 

Though he submitted to convention and wore a tie, awkwardly, Corbyn clearly thinks he has changed the rules of politics.

In conventional terms he does not work, an unspun politician,  unstructured speeches, policy discussions not proclamations, it just shouldn't fly in a 24/7 news cycle and a digital world. 

But he told the media it is they who are on the wrong page. 

"No, media commentariat you've got it wrong," he declared, and that telt us. 

Much of the media has already dismissed this rebel who came in from the allotment as a disaster for Labour who will not connect with the public. 

But there is a Corbyn effect out there,  160,000 new members have signed up. He is reaching out with the Good Samaritan politics of kindness.

The speech played to his strengths, his unorthodox approach to politics and defiance of the accepted style of business.

But conventionally voters like leaders to have other strengths, to take decisions not seek compromises, and to be trusted with the economy.  

The political village cannot decide if Corbyn has genuinely tapped the anti-politics mood or how deep that well is. In Wonderland it is hard to tell.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn connects, but can he reach out in Scotland?

The lesson from that phenomenal result - Corbyn connects.

Certainly he does in the Labour party where six in ten members backed him as their first choice.

That is a call for a different way of doing politics and for a different Labour Party.

A mandate like that is unassailable from within and resistant to the many setbacks and traps external opponents will put in the way of the new Labour leader.

It’s clear now that this summer politics in the left in Britain has undergone the same transformation as the nationalist politics in Scotland experienced last year.

Defeat has spurred political activists to express their core values, nationalism in Scotland, socialism within the Labour party.

The anti-politics surge that gifted the SNP with over 100,000 members after the referendum has left Labour with over 500,000 across the UK.

But be careful, the SNP membership still outnumbers Labour by five to one in Scotland.

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-establishment credentials, his principled socialism and left-wing values connect with voters better than Nicola Strugeon’s assured, groomed and polished nationalist operation?

Although amazed by the result Corbyn looks like taking leadership in same straight-talking style as he won the contest with.

Mind you, it was noticeable that his powerful victory speech was aimed at the Labour support in the hall and not at the TV nation looking in who he must introduce himself to connect to with the same vigour.

In Scotland the test of Corbynism will be if his policies pull back votes from the SNP.

If they do not then what is happening in Scotland is not about politics at all, it is all about identity.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Tories gunning for Gaelic in BBC review

The government's Green Paper on the BBC's future clearly has Gaelic broadcasting, and Welsh, in its sights for cuts.

Why else would the document   launched today present a comparative graphic showing the cost for producing an hour of Radio nan Gaidheal is 18.9p while the cost of an hour on mainstream BBC Radio Scotland is a third of that, at 6.5p per hour? (See page 35 of the document).

Similar figures show that BBC Alba, the Gaelic TV channel part-funded by the BBC, costs 8.3p per hour to produce, compared to BBC3, for example, at 8.1p per hour and BBC 1 at 6.5p per hour.

The reason minority language radio and television is more expensive per hour to produce is because less of it is produced.

But the graphic highlighting and the attention given to language broadcasting is a singal that the government considers that nothing is sacred when it comes to stripping costs out of the BBC.

The documents states: "Nearly two thirds of minority language speakers in the UK say that the BBC supports their language. But while the BBC and licence fee funded services are clearly an important pillar for indigenous language communities there are also challenges: audience reach has been falling across some indigenous language services over the last few years, particularly in Wales.

And these services come at a cost; cost per hour of indigenous language radio content in Scotland and Wales is considerably higher than cost per hour for English speaking content which raises concerns about value for money."

The government says it will ask "hard questions" about the size and ambition of the BBC as part of a consultation on its future. 

Clearly it intends that minority language  broadcasting should be scrutinised as it seeks a smaller and cheaper BBC. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Osborne unleashed, the king of the Commons

Quick fire on the budget for The Record
Don’t be fooled for a second. Don’t be distracted by figures finessed so that welfare is cut by £8 billion over two years instead of the £12 billion expected.
George Osborne is no fool. The Chancellor in his budget just listened to what everyone told him, that £12 billion is nigh impossible to shave in such a short space of time.
Behind the gimmick of rebadging and resetting the living wage, cuts there will be.
Capping wages at a miserly one per cent for public sector workers while setting corporation tax lower than the basic rate of personal tax shows the chancellor knows how to look after friends in business more than his new friends in the north. 
That is not to take away from Osborne’s sheer bravura.
Dealt a lousy hand in 2010, he messed the economy up for three years until it started healing itself in time for the election.
This is the chancellor who has gone from omnishambles to crowd-pleasing magician.
He warmed Tory benches yesterday with a two per cent defence commitment.
He tried to reach the country with the northern powerhouse talk and “one nation” rhetoric while framing Britain as a US-style low tax, low welfare economy. Audacious, not half.
It is all part of his project to discredit Labour’s decade of social democracy, to undo the redistributive work of Gordon Brown while the opposition is leaderless and without a compass.
The SNP, by the way, hardly matter to the chancellor.
With the tax-varying powers of the Scotland Bill Osborne reckons he has handed Holyrood a dirk to bleed Scotland’s veins with. 
Every time Osborne pushes a tax cut Swinney must match it, as he did on devolved property taxes.
On every welfare cut he will challenge the SNP to fill the gap out of Scotland’s middle class pockets, and see who’ll vote for that. 
There’s another project that is bigger for Osborne.
He has his eye on next door and the well-worn path for chancellors to move into the prime minister’s office.
Theresa, Boris and events stand in the way but Osborne has greatly improved his standing with the Tory party selectorate.
The Chancellor, a 16/1 outsider to be Tory leader two years ago, is now the bookies’ favourite to succeed David Cameron.
A roman haircut, a trim look and a new-found panache. That was a Prime Minister in waiting. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Remembering 7/7: The city that will not die

Tomorrow's  anniversary of the 7/7 attacks is a reminder that terrorism is a continuous threat in our lives.

I was in east London, close to the Royal London hospital, on Thursday morning as news of the tube and train bombings broke. The roads were sealed immediately and police cars started screaming into the city from Essex, so I took to my bicycle and went around each of the bombed sites.

I wrote this essay for the Sunday Herald in a hurry on Friday night,  taking stock of the situation and not realising when I started that it would be a tribute to London.

Sunday Herald, Sunday 10 July 2005
THERE are few things as indestructible as the London Underground system, and few forces as unstoppable as a metropolis of seven million people. The arteries of the Tube, lines and tracks as familiar and loved and hated as a lifelong partner, run far beneath the skin of the city.
Its station names and line colours are coiled around the lives of Londoners, buried deep in memory, available for instant recall: Circle yellow, Bakerloo brown, Victoria sky blue.

You can suspend this life support system - bring its writhing, darting veins and trains to a temporary halt with three simultaneous, terrorinspiring explosions - but you cannot stop it.
You cannot hope to stop it. It is a river, it is a Niagra, a torrent of three million people coursing beneath the pavements of the capital each and every day of every year.
From early morning these silver tubes set off from 267 stations, sweeping a rush hour average of 900 people per train below ground along 244 miles of steel, buzzing with 630 volts along every jolt of every tunnel.
It has been this way since the first trains ran underground in 1863, and commuters came into being. It will be this way until the red finally bleaches out of the Central Line on Harry Beck's schematic map of the network.
It is the current and coughing lifeblood of London, it is the arrhythmic heart that never beats in time, and if it stops a city dies - so there is no stopping it.
 The terrorists, whoever they are, might as well have staked out the Thames and tried to stop the tide by lobbing a grenade over the balustrades of Waterloo Bridge. You cannot kill London.
That is why early on Friday morning at Liverpool Street station, the Essex ingredient of the commuter soup that sustains the city every day threw itself into the melting pot one more time.
Passengers came off the feeder trains from the suburbs, drew their breath (perhaps a few said prayers) then ritually waved their season tickets across the alter of unblinking scanners. They walked past the London Transport staff, with their orange safety vests and the demeanour of deacons at the gates of Hades, and went back down into the bowels of the earth just like they do every day.
They behaved as they had 24 hours earlier until the first bloody survivors were spewed out from the dark tunnels at Liverpool Street and Aldgate to bear witness to the evil of men.
They didn't go back down, these Essex commuters, out of bravery or bravado nor some nebulous "blitz spirit" that commentators incant whenever a calamity strikes the capital. It was a simple, practical calculation. "We have to get to work and there's no other option, " said Bob Keene, a small, suited office worker who could have embodied the spirit of the London defiance had he not been so disarmingly frank.
Mr Keene, aren't you apprehensive about travelling underground again, this reporter asked, a dramatic tremolo somehow finding its way into the question.
He didn't answer immediately, just threw open his arms to indicate the six police officers, one sniffer dog and its handler hovering around the underground entrance. "I can't see it happening two days in a row, " he said and turned to join the morning crowds. And, like a huge shoal of mid-ocean fish that congregate in thousands in the instinctive knowledge that a single predator can only claim a few at a time, they bunched together and went about their business.
ON Friday evening, the Thames and the twilight raised a curtain on the grandeur of the city once more. Across the river, high up on St Paul's Cathedral, the steeplejacks could be seen unwinding the giant "Make Poverty History" banner from around the dome. Below, the panorama of the metropolis throbbed and pulsed as it always done, perhaps with its eyes a little more sharply focused.
A police launch could be seen patrolling the river; another faster, black security boat skulked up and down the far bank. There was a cluster of motorcycle police on the north shore and another two luminous jackets on the platform at Blackfriars station. Sentinels are everywhere now.
But to Kensington in the west, the pubs were packed and in Soho the clubs prepared for another Friday night of disco. Beyond the now empty Lloyds tower and the Swiss Re "Gherkin" in the unshaken City the faithful had left the huge East End Mosque and Friday prayers. The terror had subsided and been packed back into its box.
For a few hours on Thursday, in the darkness after the midday news confirmed the scale, the audacity and the barbarism of the attacks, London did stand on the brink. People were uncertain, anxious-looking and reeling from a bodyblow that had slaughtered innocents to attack the psyche of a whole country and to wound a political system. The city stood still, the air sucked from its lungs.
Traffic had been cleared from the roads. The silence was pierced only by sirens, the soundtrack of our urban lives echoing across the rooftops as the injured and the dead were rushed to hospitals.
All morning - from the moment death was unleashed deep in three underground carriages and atop of a number 30 bus - the city rocked on its heels and there was fear, real "what direction will it come from next?" fear, on the faces of people on the streets.
On the surface, most behaved calmly but it would be a foolish displacement to kid ourselves that there was no panic underground, no dread, no sweat-soaked, adrenaline-pumping pain and hell and agony in the hot, piercing darkness of twisted metal and shattered glass at Aldgate, Edgeware and Russell Square.
After the flashing lights, the powerful rip of metal and the shuddering halt, the survivors said there was no way of telling what was up or down, whether the dampness on the scalp and face was a wound or water or someone else's blood. There were the screams of the wretched, the sobs of anguish and torture as limbs were severed, legs were crushed and life was painfully surrendered.
Hopefully death was instantaneous for those who lost their lives on the trains in the seconds between the first blast at Aldgate and the third at Russell Square. You hope nobody died alone, crying in the darkness.
Steven Densborough, a 28-year-old from Essex, exemplified the triumph of the human spirit over fear, staying behind in the wreckage of the Aldgate tube to cradle a young woman as she lay dying in his arms. He wants to find her family to tell them she did not die alone, but he does not even know her name.
For most people there was no time to consider the obviously dead or dying in a survival situation.
Most of the hundreds evacuated walked out, sooty and shocked, choking but alive.
By chance or design, or the limits of explosive supply, the slaughter by the terrorists was contained. It could be a calling card of precision for future attacks or the best throw of the dice, but they were able to kill at least 50 people. But both sides had rehearsed for this macabre dance of death and, through preparation and practice for the day they knew would come, the emergency services saved dozens of lives.
The police took complete and total command of the situation from the start. In every part of the city, at every hospital, train station and road junction, they were there, plenty of them and all calm, polite and ultra-reassuring. It was as if the Met rehearsed for this inevitable atrocity by sending all its officers to a charm school. They were on horseback urging office workers up the street from evacuated buildings and on foot walking the lonely hundred yards back down these empty roads to peer into nooks and crannies for reported suspect devices.
The front line at the carnage were the London Underground staff, the British Transport police and the fire brigades. They behaved heroically.
Sergeant Steve Betts of the British Transport police was one of the first rescuers to reach the Piccadilly line train between King's Cross and Russell Square on Thursday. "I am not very good in enclosed spaces at the best of times, and we had to climb over bodies and body parts to try to help people and see who was still alive. I thought, 'This is the end of the world - right here in this carriage.' But you have to do your job."
WHY, the Bangladeshi shop owner asked, is the BBC still saying this is a power surge?
By 9.30am two lanes of the Mile End Road outside his shop had been completely cleared of traffic to create a runway corridor from Aldgate to the Royal London Hospital.
In the opposite direction, past lines of tightly packed traffic, police cars were streaking in to the capital from the outskirts of London, a blaze of blue lights. Sirens were going off everywhere and Sky News and local radio stations were alive to the fact that this was the long-awaited terrorist attack on London. Yet to the Muslim shopkeepers on Mile End Road it seemed that the BBC were part of some cover-up of the obvious truth.
At Aldgate station, the first hit, police ushered people away from the entrance and set up concentric layers of plastic tape to hold the crowds back.
Between 9am and 10am, the situation moved from panic to controlled chaos. The walking wounded were ferried to the Royal London Hospital in a fleet of double-decker buses. Dazed survivors who were able to walk away from the station shuffled into the back streets around the Petticoat Lane clothes market sandwiched between the City and east end. The horror of what was happening across the city dawned on people as they staggered past a loud radio on a market stall. The same scene was being played out at four other stations as survivors were led out of the tunnels from the King's Cross and Edgware Road bombings.
On a cycle journey between the mass crime scenes that had been stations an hour beforehand, other sporadic reports came in of bombs on buses and across town. At Cambridge Circus, in the heart of Theatreland, police officers and army personnel stood behind a thin plastic tape.
Behind them, further up Charing Cross Road, a light blue double-decker bus was abandoned in the middle of the road, its hazard lights flashing.
"Suspect device, " said one of the policemen.
Down at Charing Cross station commuters milled around outside the closed gates. Trafalgar Square was hushed and Whitehall leading to Westminster looked looked like 28 Days Later.
Soho was quietened and up on Euston Road, rows of ambulances awaited casualties that did not come while police hung endless strings of plastic tape across the thoroughfare.
Dark clouds gathered, the rain came stairrodding down and a chill spread across the capital while its bewildered inhabitants wondered whether to stay or go. No amount of rainfall could wash away the blood and guts splattered on to the walls of the British Medical Association at Tavistock Square or the indelible image of a trusted London bus, ripped apart like a paper cracker. In the damp gloom, London went though its hour of desperate straits.
But time passed as we sheltered under the glossy leaves of mature trees, and the sun came back.
From a nearby radio, the first strains of The Archers theme music signalled a surreal return to what was meant to be normality. Soon the pavements dried up and the city workers, released from the "stay where you are" mantra of the morning police announcements, began heading home across an cityscape unfamiliar to many of them. Dressed in their shirtsleeves in the afternoon heat they pounded across pavements in their thousands.
Some stood on corners with A-Zs in their hands, pioneers on overland routes discovering the challenge of walking across London.
On the north bank of the Thames, long snakes of people began forming for the ferries that ply east and west along the river. Two by two they went across the gangplanks to the waiting arks. Boat and the bicycle were the only effective means of traversing the city. Buses were stopped and traffic heading into London was told that the area was closed. How to close a city down might be a good question, but somehow it was managed. Hotels filled up with refugee commuters and some reduced their room rates while others were accused of exploiting the situation by increasing prices.
By late Thursday afternoon, there was a rush back to human routine as office workers sought out each other's company. The pubs on the edge of the City and around Aldgate were packed to the gunnels and punters spilled out on to the pavements clutching pints and exchanging oncein-a-lifetime experiences. But the laughter was a little too loud, a little too forced. Nevertheless, nobody marched in the rain as they did in Madrid, there was no hysterical reaction and the citizens did not turn their fear on each other.
In 24 hours, London had swung from the euphoria of winning the 2012 Olympic bid to dealing with the tragedy and grief of the return of terror bombing to its streets. Cities live off their myths and two of London's enduring stories were rewritten and woven together over the past three days. The unifying spirit of the blitz that pulled Londoners through the war and the IRA onslaught and the multi-ethnic, worldwide appeal that won it the Olympian accolade came together in newspaper pictures that showed the diversity of races, creeds and ethnicities of Londoners that are still missing below ground.
Ken Livingstone had his Giuliani moment, and carried it off with great respect. "The city air makes you free to be yourselves, " he told citizens. "Keep on breathing it." 
In the heat, dark and danger of the King's Cross tunnel they carried on digging out the dead so that the funerals could begin.
Some time late on Thursday night, somewhere in an anonymous operations office in Scotland Yard, where the people who are paid to out-think, out-manoeuvre and out-play terror sit, someone must have let the air exhale through their pursed lips and thought, is that the best they could do?
There were no chemical or biological agents, acres of central London were not closed for years by a dirty radioactive bomb. All of that might come to pass as the hourglass runs out on the next attack, but this time they can say - with some justification - "London can take it." It was knocked off its axis for a few hours but a pulsing, vibrant life still runs through this wonderful city.

Carmichael secures emergency debate on English Votes

An urgent Commons debate is to be held on Tuesday over Tory plans for English Votes for English Laws.

Alistair Carmichael, the only Scottish Lib Dem MP, secured the emergency debate on plans to exclude Scottish MPs from certain Commons votes after a direct appeal to the Speaker.

Under the little-used Standing Order 24, Carmichael asked the Speaker to cancel Tuesday’s Commons business in the Commons and instead hold an urgent debate for all MPs on the government’s proposals.

The Tories plan to change the standing orders of the Commons in one day instead of changing the law to introduce so-called EVEL. Doing so would have avoided a debate on the issue.

Carmichael told MPs: “Addressing the democratic position of the people of England is apparently to be done from scratch in one day in this chamber alone.

“Obviously I am concerned about the message that this proposal sends to the people of Scotland but, quite apart from that, I happen to think that the people of England deserve better treatment than this.

“Let there be no doubt – we are dealing here with a major constitutional change. It is one which undermines a fundamental principle of the workings of this house – namely that no matter where we come from, once we get here, we are all equal.

“To seek to do this in one day by amendment to our standing orders may be technically competent but it is still an abuse of process. It is constitutionally outrageous and I fear that it puts a further unnecessary strain on the union.”

The move for the three hour debate was supported by Labour and SNP MPs and granted by the Speaker.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

SNP duck Commons vote on their own EU veto-lock

For the Daily Record

The SNP’s MPs have been accused of a fiasco after failing to put demands for a Scottish veto on the EU referendum to a Commons vote.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has a veto-lock as the SNP’s top priority in the EU referendum bill currently going through the Commons.

But when the SNP amendment in the name of Alex Salmond came to a vote in the Commons the party failed to call for it so the amendment automatically fell.

The SNP claimed yesterday the ploy was a clever move to have the amendment to brought back at the next stage of the Bill.

But experienced Commons observers were surprised by what they saw as a political own-gaol.

Footage of the process registers the bemusement on the face of deputy Commons Speaker Sir Roger Gale when the vote was not called by the SNP benches.

Labour’s Ian Murray MP yesterday accused the SNP “hollow rhetoric” as he laid into the nats for deliberately misrepresenting what was happening in Commons votes.

The shadow Scottish Secretary said: “The SNPs number one policy priority for the EU referendum was to have a double lock so that the UK could not come out of Europe unless all nations of the UK voted to do so.

“So, strange that when their amendment was called for a vote they did not vote for their own amendment.”
“For them ‘standing up for Scotland’ seems to be more about political posturing than actual action.”

An SNP spokesman said: “It is disappointing that Labour don’t appear to understand the rules in parliament.”

The SNP voting shambles came to light as Murray raised a point of order with the Commons Speaker about nationalist MPs repeatedly misrepresenting official votes in the Commons in their online tweets.

Murray said the SNP was “bringing the House into disrepute” after SNP MPs had repeatedly tweeted that Labour MP were voting with Tories on the Scotland Bill an the EU referendum bill, when they were not.

“Certain SNP MPs have tweeted out completely the contrary to what the votes were,” said Murray.
SNP leader of the Commons Pete Wishart mocked Murray by  making crying his eyes out gestures as the Labour MP was at the dispatch box.

Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing was more sympathetic and  said she hoped “a reasoned report of what happens in this chamber will be disseminated widely throughout the country by many means of communication.”

Tweets claiming that Labour had voted with the Tories were afterwards deleted from some twitter accounts.

The dispute was played out against the backdrop of the Commons voting against giving 16 and 17 year olds a say in the EU referendum. MPs voted down a Labour bid to give teenagers the vote by 310 votes to 265 with the SNP supporting Labour in the lobby.

Footnote: Here's the Common's Deputy Speaker waiting for the SNP to call the veto-lock vote: