Friday, 26 September 2008

George Osborne: Not In For a Relaxing Weekend

A poll for the BBC Daily Politics suggests that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are more trusted ‘to steer Britain's economy through the current downturn’ than are David Cameron and George Osborne. The Labour duo get 36% approval and the Tories 30%. 5% is a poor show for Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, given how widely ex-Shell man Cable’s economic analyses are admired in the papers. (Maybe Cable needs to get rid of that Clegg guy.) But at any rate, perhaps the most telling faction in this survey are the 24% who Just Don’t Know. Hard to blame them, really.
So, just to remind George Osborne that next Monday is a Big, Big Day for him. Big Tory conference speech. No drinking on Sunday night, George, early to bed for you with the draft and a red pen.
Economically it’s generally seemed to me that Cameron’s Tories have been shadowing Labour cautiously and looking to stay out of bother. That’s a low-risk game: the ERM disaster of 1992 didn’t cost John Smith any kudos, even though Labour’s policy was no different to the Major government’s. Moreover Cameron’s profile and approval rating has been more closely associated with stands on ‘the broken society’, education, crime, environmentalism etc. Meanwhile Osborne’s line on the economy has felt respectful toward public spending and shy of ‘unfunded’ tax cuts - though, of course, last year’s Conference-delivered pledge to cut inheritance tax for all but millionaires brought a full-throated roar from Middle England that was hugely influential, not least with the Government.
But this year, the utterly wretched state of the economy and the popular anger and bewilderment out there means that Osborne must be very focused and forceful and seen to be straining at the leash for his big chance to turn the world right-side-up again. That’s a test for a smart young operator who has clearly oscillated between poles of opinion within the tenuously ‘modernised’ Tories, and who must hear an awful lot of mutterings about how it was mainly timing and ambition and a bit of a W11 cabal that combined to propel him to a job at the very limit of his competence.
So how will Osborne be feeling about tax cuts this year? Cameron is said to have warmed to them, perhaps having sampled a little of the warmth that would-be Tory voters feel in return for any such pledges. But then Cameron’s ascent to the leadership was founded on the game notion of ‘compassionate conservatism’, so there is a certain imperative for the Tories to funnel any new tax cuts to low/fixed income workers – maybe raising the initial personal tax threshold above subsistence level – maybe devising forms of assistance that are a bit less forbidding than tax credits, though Osborne seems to be sticking by these.
By the by, one of the would-be populist measures that the newly influential Taxpayers Alliance has got behind – namely the Cut the VAT Coalition calling for a reduction in VAT to 5% for all building repair and maintenance work – has got me interested on first inspection.
Anyhow, I imagine Tory Party members would expect at least a pledge of no rises in income tax or national insurance (since Brown may be - allegedly - seeding the ground for a rise in the latter.)
Given the general grousing mood in the country, there must be a good many Tories who feel (in line with red-blooded Labour folk) that the corporate sector needs to suffer this year. But other Tories are bound to be dogmatic that only tax cuts can stimulate growth (what’s that again?) and that (South East) Britain’s wealth-creators must always be stroked and nurtured and protected and not driven from these shores – that peculiar socialism of the rich. So I’m curious to know how your average Joe/Jane Tory feels about bailouts for failing banks.
Less complicatedly, I’d bet that a big majority of Tories will feel it’s time (O, Now More Than Ever!) for Gordon Brown’s fat public sector to take some pain and be scaled down – recruitment freezes, executive salaries slashed, final salary pensions discontinued etc.
If the notion of newly Popular Toryism is to acquire a reality beyond the polls then Osborne needs to position himself as the defender of ordinary households hunkering down to cope with a recession. Everyone has told me to prepare myself for the vision of a sea of blue rinse in the Tory conference hall. But then the Tories need to be the party of pensioners if they want that working majority in 2010: hence the importance of pensions, fuel poverty, etc.
So I hope I get to Birmingham in time on Monday, even if only in time to find a working television set.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Democrats 08: 'More mush from the wimps'?

Down the years I’ve often admired the polemical writings of Alexander Cockburn (pictured), the Scottish-born, Irish-reared but essentially posh-English radical columnist who has plied his trade in the US since the early 1970s. For a variety of reasons I’ve found his stuff a good deal less interesting since sometime around the late Clinton era and the founding of his website; but that could be me getting soft, and it doesn't detract from all the good stuff of his that I've enjoyed. Tonight, watching Newsnight again (what kind of masochist fool am I?) I had to shout at the TV during an item on John McCain’s phony opportunistic stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign on the pretence of adding his witless views on economics to the current mess besetting America – and in the spirit of ‘bipartisanism’, no less. Jeremy Paxman presented this story with his now-terminally arrogant/obfuscating blather, interviewing Rep and Dem strategists and asking exactly the wrong questions. The Rep guy was a smooth moron of an attack-dog who nevertheless made his moron point (Obama is an irresponsible un-American pencil-neck jerk) loudly and sharply and repeatedly. The Dem guy was a bespectacled fellow called Rosenberg who spoke carefully and declared that he didn’t like to be spoken to in the coarse manner that he was hearing.
‘More mush from the wimps’, I thought to myself - this a memorable term first applied by the Boston Globe to lambaste some pusillanimous aspect of the Carter administration. Recalling where I first heard tell of same term, I pulled down my old paperback of Cockburn’s Corruptions of Empire, consulting again his ‘Archive of the Reagan Era’, which saw him write on January 27 1983 of a ‘Bipartisan Appeal’ led by Peter Peterson (then CEO of Lehman Brothers, formerly Nixon’s commerce secretary), the appeal in question being a union of major US banks and multinational corporations seeking a reduction in the budget deficit.
Cockburn wrote, ‘It is axiomatic that methodical use of the word ‘bipartisan’ indicates that some gross deception is about to be practiced on the persons (and usually the pockets) of the citizenry and that the perpetrators wish to indicate by the deployment of bipartisanship that normal democratic procedures and alternatives have been suspended… Many of the people who got the economy into its present mess and who have been profiting vastly under present conditions signed the appeal with a shamelessness that would be irksome in a child but is repulsive in persons of mature age.’
Timely words, I think. For this is just the sort of rubbish McCain is now up to. So what is Barack Obama’s view on what Cockburn in a recent Counterpunch column quite reasonably calls ‘a bailout program designed to bail out the thieves running our financial system, and stick middle America with the price-tag’? This is not a moment to sit on one's hands: if Obama wants so badly to debate McCain on Friday night, then I hope he's got something sharp and wholly partisan to say, otherwise what's the point of him?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Ahmadinejad, positively gay with glee at the UN

Quite a day in politics. Maybe 6 out of 10 for Brown at Labour conference, I’d say - the usual sanctimony, with more polished attempts at levity (from a low base). In Washington the US financial institutions bailout is getting a hammering off Republican congressmen for being snide, unjust, un-American, and socialistic, and it’s certainly the first two: there must be another way to punish the guilty scavengers while protecting the benighted taxpayer. Meanwhile Newsnight seemed pleased to report that Ahmadinejad has once more reveled in the UN General Assembly's limelight in order to pronounce that ‘the American empire is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders.’ The first part is true for all sorts of reasons. As to the second, I assume we all know how hatefully hypocritical are these words in the mouth of this disgraceful little ratbag; but I do worry that certain constituencies out there think these views statesmanlike, sagacious and all-round impressive. Allah be praised, then, for Newsnight’s Mark Urban, peace be upon him, who drew attention to what he described as some ‘toxic’ remarks from the Iranian President in respect of the ‘Zionist regime’ and ‘the cesspool created by itself and its supporters.’ I trust all keen critics and opponents of Israel, well in charge of the copious evidence supporting their positions, understand too that for Ahmadinejad the Problem of the Jewish State is one arising from absolute first principles, and requiring a final solution. He should get back to his own little cesspool.

Monday, 22 September 2008

David Miliband, Man of a Thousand Faces

Out of all the thousands of photos snapped during big moments at events such as political party conferences... well, I can't say I understand why some images are more widely disseminated than others, and a select fewer picked out from within that first selection for widespread reproduction in media outlets...
But I think I can say with some certainty that a lot of people who are involved in such selections for the purpose of illustrating this year's Labour Party conference are people who don't like David Miliband very much - or indeed wish him plenty harm. Because everywhere I look on the web tonight there are people reporting Miliband's conference speech alongside photos of him looking like Goofy.
Meanwhile the BBC are very pleased with themselves because they can report that Miliband was indiscreet within their earshot while chatting to an aide after his speech: ‘I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment.’ We'll have to see about that - the wisdom of avoiding 'Heseltine moments', that is, as opposed to the wisdom of teasing/charming a frankly less-than-adoring half-full conference hall. None of this is terribly convincing for Labour supporters of any stripe. The proper measure of it will come when the Tories meet in Birmingham next week. I'll see you there.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Metallica, or rocking the middle years...

Should I buy the new Metallica album? Will I listen to it more than once? Or will I be able to play it at the volume that befits it, without disturbing my kid or the neighbours? These are not exactly rock 'n' roll questions; so it may be that to ask them is, sadly, to answer them. Earlier today my brother casually informed me that he attended this week's already legendary Later... with Jools Holland which pitted Metallica alongside Carla Bruni. He wasn't all that bothered, frankly... so, had he known I cared, he could have easily slipped his ticket to me (or indeed flogged it for at least £1000 on the night.) But then, to return to the issue of my fast-vanishing rock 'n' roll credentials, I'm not sure I could have got the evening off to get along there anyway. I'm perfectly happy using BBC iPlayer to inspect the band's performances of Cyanide and Enter Sandman, and searching YouTube for the (rather long) video to the lead 'single' from the new album. No wonder music sales are sinking fast. But then one assumes the bands now look to make their big money from live performance. In which case they'll not be getting owt from me in the foreseeable. Still, Metallica, I'm with thee in spirit if nowhere else.