May 2009


Minty-fresh new(ish) party member Mark Thompson asked this very question about Charlotte Gore a few days ago, oddly enough. But this morning he has a considerable claim to that position himself.

Here’s Polly Toynbee in the Guardian writing about – yes – the need for full constitutional reform:

Here’s interesting evidence: research by a political blogger about the correlation between greed in MPs and the safety of their seats. Of the 94 implicated so far, there were nearly three times more in the top quarter of safest seats than in the bottom quarter of most marginal constituencies. Seats where parties can run a donkey in a red or blue rosette breed complacency and tempt corruption. Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition. Time for a constitutional revolution.

This is fabulous work. A few well-placed emails obviously go a long way. Three cheers and a People’s Republican Guard of Honour for Mark Reckons!

Of course, a cynic would point out that it makes sense for Polly et al to suddenly start seeing the point of electoral reform. Their beloved party is, after all, about to be crucified in the First Past The Post system. Since the government has proven itself incapable time and again of doing anything either right or popular, electoral reform is the only way left of reducing the coming Tory majority now. Expect to see more Labour affiliates weighing in on this one over the coming weeks. And Tory commentators finding lots of terribly good reasons why it’s a bad idea.

Here’s what should have happened (well, actually, what should have happened is that the Lib Dems should have collectively published their expenses months ago, but in the absence of that…) and in what order:

1. Clegg to apologise  and arrange for all affected MPs to make reparations – tick.

2. Clegg to commit party to return second home capital gains to  taxpayer – tick.

3. Clegg to follow Cameron in committing to all MPs publishing expenses online from today onwards, starting asap - STILL OUTSTANDING

4. As a result of (3), Clegg to call on Cameron to follow him with regard to step (2).

5. a. Chris Rennard to prove to satisfaction of all that he does live in Eastbourne as his main residence, or, failing that

b. Clegg to sack him immediately from post and consider, possibly by involving the party as a whole, whether he should retain the whip – STILL OUTSTANDING.

6. This resolved, Clegg to call for the Speaker to resign – tick.

7. Clegg to follow up this call by calling for full constitutional reform – tick.

You see, I hope, my difficulty with what has happened in the last few days. This has the basic shape of the strongest narrative yet created by the Liberal Democrats – the best chance we’ll ever have to push the total constitutional and electoral reform the system so desperately needs as a popular issue. Preliminary examination of the figures over at Mark Reckons suggest that there may be a correlation between the safeness of a seat and the likelihood that the incumbent is up to no good. Well, that’s not difficult to explain.

Clegg has, this morning, become the first politician in modern history not only to call for the sacking of the Speaker, but for a written constitution. The former is a gambit that paves the way for the latter, and the latter has the potential to be little less than a revolution. If Clegg can make this work over the next few days, we are in “we dare not fail” territory. But a couple of critical steps in my little list are still missing.

Those missing steps happen to be the ones that matter most to Ordinary People, as distinct from the political la-la land occupied by the Westminster Village, the media and the blogosphere. Ordinary People couldn’t give a flying damn what happens to some old bloke in a black lace dress. Ordinary People want apologies, humiliation, revenge, reparation and the delivery of anything – anything – that might remain unconfessed. Only then might they be prepared to listen – until then, even the most startlingly radical proposals, even the most iconoclastic of bold moves will only be greeted like more of the same.

If the missing steps are taken, then I believe there’s no limit to what we can do, now that Clegg has seized the media agenda by calling on the Speaker to resign. Any Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells who has pledged their vote to UKIP this week may not care overmuch for the nuances of parliamentary convention, but they must surely to see the merits in sweeping away the current electoral system in favour of the one that’s going to enable minority parties to do even better.

If Clegg won’t prioritise step 3, the Federal Executive  meeting on Monday must force it on his attention. And Clegg must work out what to do about Chris Rennard. Because if he really is, as the evidence suggests, living  in London and claiming he lives in Eastbourne, then it’s not a question of if he has to be defenestrated, but when. All Clegg will get to choose is the when. If he can carry the reform torch as full-bloodedly as his actions today suggest, then it would be a crying shame if he trips up on a Rennard-shaped revelation just as he’s starting to get the point across.

The rewards if Clegg can get this right are potentially enormous, not so much for the party per se, which is as mired in the scandal as the other two, as for democracy itself. This is as it should be. Labour and the Tories will always block attempts at root and branch parliamentary reform because they benefit from the status quo – we know that. It was always going to have to be us, whether we expected to profit by it in the polls or not. And the cause for reform will never have popular opinion there for the taking like this again.

The other day, I re-watched one of my favourite childhood films.

215px-Zulu_film_poster

I was reminded of it by this tweet from Labour blogger Sadie Smith.

Fortunately, Sadie is, of course, completely and utterly wrong. It’s wonderful – probably still the best war film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of them. It doesn’t have the scale of Apocalypse Now, the pathos of The Great Escape or the special effects of many modern efforts, but it has an intimacy, a suspense and a set-piece scariness which thrilled me to bits as a child.

I still feel echoes of that now, like when the Zulus crest the hill for the first time, tiny black dots against the veldt sky, to the shiver of violin strings, and the camera ranges along the hill to show more… and more… and more of them. In fact the photography throughout is just masterful. You can taste the agoraphobia and the fear – you are there, on that plain with the 24th Foot, behind a few feet of mealie bags, waiting.

bourne, hitch and allen

Stretcher-bearers!

It stars Michael Caine in his breakthrough role, the wonderful Nigel Green whose Colour Sergeant Bourne (above left) will live in your pub quote memory for ever (“No com-edians, please.”) and the vastly under-rated James Booth as the devilishly exciting (well, I was six and he said “bloody!”) Private Henry Hook. It has a wonderful ensemble supporting cast of ordinary gentle-voiced Welshmen and Londoners with sideburns that really do look as if they’ve been shipped out from the valleys and dock wharves of nineteenth-century Britain. More marvellous yet (I only discovered this quite recently) it has the real descendant of the Zulu king of the day, Cetewayo, playing the role of his ancestor and leading his own people, in full traditional ceremonial dress, in the battle scenes.

And it has the great Jack Hawkins, roaring across the screen like a biblical allegory – which he is – in the role of the missionary Otto Witt, treating peace with the aid of his daughter, the only female speaking part in the film. The daughter Margareta, who seemed to me unimaginably beautiful then and still does, was yet another way into the film for my six-year-old self. Yes I wanted to be raffish Henry Hook, capable Sergeant Bourne, and strong, silent Lieutenant Chard, I could feel the fearful lump in the throat of Private Cole and hold my breath as I broke out of the hospital with Hook, 612 Williams, 593 Jones and 716 Jones, yards ahead of our pursuers. And I could also feel Margareta’s discomfort as she, a nineteenth-century pastor’s daughter, sat among six-foot half-naked warriors with assegais, watching a mass marriage tribal dance. Still physically vulnerable myself, I felt  every pounding of her heart as the war cries started to go up over her head.

Now, it’s not that I’ve not seen it since I was six – no bank holiday weekend in Sidney Sussex TV room was complete without a Zulu-and-Haribo session – but watching that film after a couple of years spent in the political blogosphere is a very different experience. I realised how this film would look to the gender activism mindset I was barely aware of before the blogosphere. The only woman character is afraid, sometimes ineffectual, even subject to abuse at the hands of the men. Margareta has plenty of spirit at times, but she’s also priggish and in the end is simply overcome by brute strength. All is not lost, as she ends up being the means of her father’s salvation – but still the film is chockful of more appealing characters than her.

So why was I never offended, or troubled, or otherwise culturally damaged by this? Well, I had a bit of an odd upbringing culturally. I think it can be traced to the fact that my grandfather was born in 1910 and only had my father when he was forty. So my father’s upbringing was a little bit more Boy’s Own Paper, a bit more 1930s than perhaps was normal. And mine, in turn, was in some ways more 1960s than 1980s in terms of what I watched, what I read, what we talked about. Without being, particularly, a tomboy, I loved history and adventure and escapades and scrapes and exciting stories, on the page or in celluloid, and if there wasn’t any around I’d make up my own (and wars with My Little Ponies are a bit of a stretch, I can tell you; luckily I soon acquired a small brother who appeared to come with lots of Cowboy Playmobil and Pirate Lego and that was much easier).

In other words, all my favourite role models and stories from that time were to do with men and you know what? I think it has worked. It never occurred to me to differentiate the role models  I was offered on the basis gender, and in thirty years I realise I never have.

I loved Zulu, so I aspired to be brave and honourable. I loved the Goons and Spike Milligan’s War Diaries, so I aspired to be funny.  I loved reading war stories – biographies of Douglas Bader, various POW camp escape stories, Colditz – so I aspired to be ingenious and resourceful, and battle against odds. At eight or nine I read an old Josephine Tay novel, the Daughter of Time, and my love of medieval history was born, so I aspired to go to Oxford or Cambridge to study it, and I did, I went to both. My role models had never intimated  to me that I couldn’t aspire to do anything I wanted, and I didn’t know women weren’t supposed to get firsts, so I got a first. None of the usual barriers, none of the usual doubts that women are supposed to possess ever seemed to apply to me. I had a permanent psychological get out of jail free card.

What alchemy of genetics and nurture allowed me to absorb all these male influences and strive to match them, and often succeed, without my at any point being undermined by a great wash of hormonal self-doubt? The same wash that causes so many women to demand female role models before they, or their daughters, can do anything? We are constantly being told that politics needs more female role models. What is it about me that doesn’t need specifically female role models if so many others apparently do? I wish I knew. If I did, I could bottle it and sell it. Oh, I have self-doubt like everybody else, and went through the usual teenage angst like everybody else. But there’s nothing uniquely female about any of that.

I think background and schooling had a lot to do with it. The pure statistical fact of being born in Surrey, even if not to a wealthy family, immunises you to a lot of life’s woes, sad to say, and I went to an all-girls’ state school whose teaching and management was, in retrospect, little short of magnificent. And there were role models there too – a fantastic and lovely history teacher, the elegant headmistress and wooden boards in the hall full of the names of previous gels. And all that seemed to jumble itself up with Spike Milligan and Stalag Luft III just fine.

The funny thing is that the more I read about feminism, the more I recognise its earliest progenitors as twin souls of my own – writing liberal tracts, bashing windows in, reading papers to the Royal Society, flying the English Channel and running country estates without it ever crossing their minds that they needed anyone to show them how to do it. They didn’t need female role models – they got on with being them. They didn’t need a “safe space” for their activities or their debates – the world was their space. They grew up, interestingly, in exactly the age of over-confident empire whose frontier badlands are invoked by Zulu.

So now, lucky me, when I look at the Lib Dem parliamentary party, I get so many more role models to choose from. I want to be like Chris Huhne, because he’s a right fierce and effective wossname and I reckon I could do with being a little more like that. I want to be like Vince, because honestly who doesn’t? I want to be like Nick because he’s an eternal optimist and a tryer, and quitting too soon is one of my worst failings. I want to be like Steve Webb, because he’s clever and impassioned and reminds me of some of my tutors, I want to be like Lynne Featherstone because she’s just so capable and self-assured and glamorous and reminds me of CJ Cregg in the West Wing, I want to be like David Howarth because he’s brilliant and forensic, I want to be like Norman Baker because he’s One of the Good Guys and like John Hemmings because he is the King of all the Geeks.

It seems strange to me, the idea that I can only be inspired, or confirmed, or protected in any endeavour if someone else with the same genital configuration has already done it. The whole rich panoply of human courage, and kindness, and greatness to choose from, and you cut out the half that’s been, for various historical reasons, most active for the last several millenia? What on earth is wrong with women having men as role models? People of both genders have wonderful qualities and have achieved wonderful things and they’re all there for study and emulation. Isn’t the whole luxury of living in a post-feminist world that we can do this now?

If I ever have daughters, I’ll be showing them Zulu.

As some regular citizens may know, I relocated the Republic to Manchester a couple of months ago. As one of nature’s drifters peripatetics, I am having tremendous fun working out how I fit in here, what I like (the civilised scale of things, rent prices, access to countryside, food markets, trains) and what I don’t (surburban pubs, rain, buses, the lack of decent civic architecture in the centre).

And it seems particularly irksome that, just as I am settling in and getting to like the place, the government has decided to start throwing buckets of shit all over it. Is there anything, any corner of my modest little life that the Labour Party isn’t determined to cover in crap? They’ve overseen the housing bubble that forces me to continue as a feckless renter at an age when I am really starting to see the point of gardening, they’ve presided over the recession that has taken three quarters of my freelance work away, they took my precious 10p band off me, they’re freely murdering the pubs I like drinking in,  and as a continuation of that they’ve made absolutely everyone under thirty who likes a drink or two feel just a little bit like a stain on society. Well, fuck you very much. And that’s just how I feel. I haven’t even had to pay tuition fees, lose a job or be on the wrong end of a stop and search procedure.

But I digress. Manchester always seems to be first in line when real policy turds are being handed out at Whitehall. Congestion charge? We’ll try it in Manchester. Bizarre terror propaganda to be trialled in hairdressers? Hm, tricky, the south-east would never wear that, we’d have London up in arms – give it to Manchester. ID cards? Haha, let those Mancs have it, they swallow any old crap.

But there is at least some potential for this to backfire on the beleaguered government, horribly horribly. This Manchester ID cards trial, which begins in the autumn, is a “voluntary scheme”, for all love, which involves paying £30 to the government! Oh yeah, well, you’ve convinced me. Yes, it’s completely reasonable for a Minister who claimed her bath plug on expenses to sit in an office in London and decide that an entire city in the great big Not London area will be only too pleased to cough up thirty quid per head in the middle of a recession in order to make their identities slightly more vulnerable to theft. Of course!

Seriously, who in Whitehall decided that the best people to make that sort of imposition on were – saving your presences – a bunch of chippy northerners?

This is so not going to work. You know the old saying, “Tha can allus tell a Yorkshireman, but tha can’t tell ‘en much”? Well, the Greater Manchester version seems, on my acquaintance so far, to be subtly different, and more along the lines of “Yer want me to do wha’? Ah, jus’ sod off, yer fookin ponce.”

This is a population with a fierce civic pride and a radical political tradition as well as all the usual northern jumpiness about being ruled from London. That mix and the destruction to manufacturing meted out by Thatcher have traditionally made it a  Labour stronghold, which is presumably why it’s now first in line for the buckets-of-shit approach to policy piloting.

(Another probable rationale for using Manchester as a guinea pig that occurs to me – and I hope the  person who “strategised” this one rots in whatever hells may be – is that Manchester is almost unique outside London for having been on the receiving end of a terrorism incident within living memory. Do they think Mancunians will be more receptive to the “it stops terrorists” line?)

Anyway, that very same mix that made Manchester a Labour stronghold could just be the mix that spits the ID card scheme back in the government’s face. To date there are 77 comments on the Manchester Evening News item on the subject, two of which are in favour of ID cards. Elsewhere, the MEN repoorts that pilots at Manchester airport, who have been chosen as a special treat to be the compulsory guinea pigs, will boycott ID cards “with all legal means possible”.

It’s a great early sign, and there are others. The congestion charge was slung out without ceremony, Manchester No2ID has a particularly active branch  here with regular information stalls in the city centre and MEN often comes across as a very liberal newspaper.

Yet I am, to be honest, writing this in more a state of hope than of certainty. I don’t know this place well enough yet to take its cultural temperature accurately. We won’t get a referendum on this one – we’ll need to do more than just turn up and put the cross in the “No fookin way” box. A lot of people will have to be sufficiently committed to actively object, and spread the word about the problems ID cards represent.

I know damn well what Londoners would make of having this forced on them. But will the Mancs be up for it, really be  up for giving this the reception it deserves? Don’t tell me you’re going to let some bloody southerner be angrier than you…

When was Polly Toynbee granted the unique privilege of having comments disallowed on her Comment is Free pieces? I don’t read her often enough – is this a new thing? The only time I’ve ever seen comments disabled on a CiF piece was a recent example of Clegg’s, for legal reasons as it discussed the Barclays tax case.

I would have thought Polly would be comparatively safe from the baying hordes today too – partly because she’s written a good piece and partly because Peter Hain will surely draw all the fire with this desperate fear-the-BNP-and-vote-Labour effort.

Anyway, Polly is done with the nosepeg, it seems. She catalogues the failures of Gordon Brown and correctly identifies the rotten corrosion at the heart of the Labour party. She points out that Labour are too inert even to tackle Tory U-turns – without falling into that whiny “the Tories are worse” trap that gets more contemptible every time I hear it.

But she does have one last bullet in her gun:

This week a survey on the ConservativeHome website of likely new Tory MPs was an eye-opener. They are socially conservative, anti-environment, anti-Europe, anti-abortion, anti-gay adoption, pro-hunting and strongly in favour of the married couples’ allowance that redistributes tax to the middle class. Only 15% see the climate as ­important: terrorism matters much more. Most want to cut money for Scotland: a Tory win will trigger new support for independence. They are well to the right of their leader, even his tougher guise. Lord Ashcroft, who channels money to favoured marginals, has nurtured a nest of MPs more to his own liking.

Labour needs to make sure as few of these as possible reach the Commons.

I won’t trouble you with the details of the rest of that latter paragraph. You can fill in Pollyblanks well enough for yourself. Basically, she wants massive redistribution to take place, suddenly, in Labour’s hour of death – no more ID cards, no more winter fuel payments for wealthy over-60s (Polly gets one!). Identify the cuts that the Tories will, and make the wealth transfer that they won’t make. This is, apparently, a “Labour answer” as if for all the world Labour hasn’t been in power for the last twelve years and signally failing to do exactly that.

No-one, no-one at all now believes that this will happen. I don’t think Polly really believes it. Labour will not suddenly turn into a set of good guys, even if being the good guys is the obvious path to success – look at the Gurkhas. This government has a tin ear. It does bad things for the sake of it, even when they’re also the harder thing to do.

Polly’s aiming her gun at the wrong people.  What she needs to do is turn her one remaining bullet on the Labour party itself. If she really, really wants to have those young Ashcroftians stopped, and if Labour really, earnestly believes that their ascendancy would be that fatal for the country, then there’s only one thing to do.

I’m not given to sweeping loyalist statements, I hope, but some political atmospheres seem characterised by such huge, sky-high patterns that they’re impossible to ignore. With all our imperfections – and I’m far from happy with some areas of policy – the Lib Dems are now, quite clearly, the natural home of progressive politics (in itself not a phrase I use lightly). Labour voters, supporters, media commentators and even Labour MPs should get behind the Liberal Democrats, examine their programme for government critically, point out the flaws, trumpet the glories, recommend them to the nation and vote for them.

This is the only way Polly’s going to get the last laugh on the Ashcroft crew. Of course, it’s highly unlikely. But, to be honest, it’s now no less likely than the prospect of Labour morphing into a half-decent government.

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