Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 26 June 2014

Our celebrity culture facilitated Jimmy Savile's crimes

The litany of abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile is now becoming very clear following the reports today on a series of reviews carried out by NHS trusts into his behaviour in 28 different hospitals. This is on top of the many hundreds of instances of abuse that he perpetrated in other places including the BBC.

Like everyone who read these I was shocked and disgusted by what he was allowed to get away with and my heart goes out to all the victims. It is almost unbelievable that he was able to perpetrate these acts unpunished for many decades.

There is one aspect of this that I think warrants closer scrutiny because it goes to the heart of why he was able to get away with it for so long. It was how Savile's status as a celebrity afforded him access and respect way beyond what should have been considered acceptable or reasonable.

Time and again in testimony from victims we have heard how he was too powerful or that they were not believed when they confided in someone about what was happening. Sadly not believing victims of abuse is all too common but Savile's fame seems to have made him essentially bulletproof in this area.

We have seen a similar dynamic at play in the cases of Stuart Hall and Max Clifford both of whom also used their fame as leverage to abuse their victims.

As a culture I think we need to reflect long and hard on this. Because our celebrity culture today is worse than ever in terms of how we bestow status and privilege on those who fall under its auspices.

We see this reflected in how people who are famous for being musicians or sports people are invited onto TV and radio programmes to give their opinions on politics, whether they appear to be well informed or not. We see it in how celebrities are invited to pack out the best seats at all our major sporting and cultural events as VIPs. We see it when someone famous for being a moderately amusing dandy comedian and minor film star is treated as some sort of political savant by the media for writing an incoherent article effectively telling young people to disenfranchise themselves. We see it when people famous for nothing at all are able to earn millions of pounds just by keeping themselves in magazines talking about their love lives.

We see it in the eulogies and special retrospective TV and radio shows that the famous are granted when they retire or die (both Savile and Hall were given these in their positions as "national treasures" when they respectively died and retired).

Most industries and professions have anywhere from one to a handful of awards ceremonies each year to recognise achievements. Celebrities have dozens of them plenty of which are televised and most of which are reported on. They afford great opportunities for them to slap each other on the back for being so wonderful.

Of course as a country we have had centuries of inculcation in the art of deferring to our "betters". The monarchy down the ages has taught us this. See this recent ridiculous example where the BBC, reported on how Prince George behaved amongst other children:

"Eight-month-old Prince George appeared to remain calm even though there were tears from some of a similar age."
That's our nation's public broadcaster essentially pointing out how George is better than other children his own age already. Of course he's been a celebrity since birth.

I appreciate that me pointing all of this out might seem a bit beside the point. There are hundreds of victims who will never get justice and surely they should be the focus. Of course they should be and whatever reparations can be made should be.

But we cannot ignore how Savile, Hall, Clifford and perhaps others were able to use the shield of celebrity to commit, perpetuate and in the case of Savile within his lifetime completely get away with their crimes.

Just because somebody is famous, whatever the reason, does not been they are better than anyone else. Respect needs to be earned and nobody should ever be considered to be unlikely to be capable of terrible or criminal behaviour because of any perceived position within society.

Celebrity is not real, it's simply a construct. But the victims of these crimes are real. I hope the legacy of these cases is that the shield these men used has no power in future to hide the guilty.

We all need to make sure it does not.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Why Labour will not be trusted on the economy

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have been doing their best in recent times to try and convince that they can be trusted on the economy. They have tried to push the message that they will be tough and things are likely to be very tight for years to come and that if they are in government they will have to cut too.

Andrew Rawnsley wrote last week about how difficult it will be for them to do this not least in convincing their own side of the necessity.

But there is another more fundamental aspect of this that is problematic for Labour, perhaps terminally so. It is encapsulated by the following links:

"Tory led government has ideological agenda on cuts" - Angela Eagle (Labour Party Website)

Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson says coalition cuts are "ideological" (Guardian October 2010)

"Be in no doubt - these cuts are ideological" (Seb Dance - Labour Euro candidate LabourList October 2010)

These were just gleaned from two minutes' googling using the keywords "cuts" "ideological" and "Labour". But I remember there being way more than these three instances. Indeed almost every cut the government has ever announced has been opposed as "cruel", "ideological" or "unnecessary" by some Labour party spokesperson or other.

So the idea that they can suddenly in the last few months of the parliament get credibility on the economy by claiming they will be "tough" is laughable, unless they wish to renounce almost everything any spokesperson has ever said about the current government's cuts.

But maybe all of these calls were by lower level people like junior shadow ministers or those such as Johnson who have now left front bench politics....

"Ed Miliband says planned cuts are choice, not necessity" (BBC Website December 2010)

Uh oh spaghettios.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Death of 75 cuts for Clegg?

I am starting to see reports (e.g. here) that small numbers of Lib Dem local parties have held meetings to decide whether to vote to trigger a leadership election for the party. There have only been 4 so far and only 2 of them have voted to trigger the contest. It will take 75 local parties to vote for a contest before it happens.

I also understand that at least a couple of dozen other local Lib Dem parties have arranged such meetings and will hold them in the near future.

One of the problems is that many local parties are playing their cards close to their chest and the information is only leaking out in dribs and drabs.

At first when I heard parties were organising I thought it unlikely the 75 threshold would be reached and that Clegg is probably safe. However that ignores two factors. Firstly, momentum. If we start to reach say 10 or 15 parties voting for a contest and this becomes widely known this could start to feed upon itself. Local parties who hadn't got round to organising a meeting, perhaps because they thought it wouldn't make any difference might just do so. The media may help feed this too. If they start to see a real chance that significant numbers of parties could vote to effectively oust Clegg they are likely to cover the story in more detail and this could cause a feedback loop as described above spurring the undecided or reluctant to action.

The second point is that 75 parties may not be needed. If the momentum is clearly in that direction and it is becoming clear that lots of local parties are voting for a contest we could see a "men in grey suits" moment for Clegg from his senior colleagues who don't want to see the party further damaged by a "death of 75 cuts".

We have seen how ruthless the Lib Dems can be about their leaders once the writing is on the wall. Just ask Charles Kennedy or Ming Campbell whether they have any doubts about their colleague's ability to wield knives...

Thursday 12 June 2014

House of Comments - Episode 114 - May vs Gove

Episode 114 of the House of Comments podcast "May vs Gove" is out. This week I am joined by Labour PPC Uma Kumaran and freelance journalist Bobby Friedman to discuss Gove vs May, the BBC license fee and whether we're ever going to get proper parliamentary recall.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboo for hosting the podcast for us. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Friday 6 June 2014

After next year the Lib Dems will be finished

I've hesitated for a while about writing this post but I feel that now I need to.

I think that after next year's election, the Lib Dems will be finished as a serious political force in this country.

It gives me no pleasure to write this but it is a reflection of the reality the party is now facing.

When I left the Lib Dems last November I did allude to some of the policies the party had enabled or allowed in government (e.g. secret courts) that I had been very unhappy with although my primary reason for leaving was more a general disillusionment with politics. But what was also becoming increasingly apparent to me was that the path the Lib Dems were continuing to take was doing them no favours. This has been crystalised in the last few weeks with the dreadful results in the local elections, the catastrophic result in the European elections and to top it off the party's candidate in Newark losing his deposit and coming sixth.

I know that in each of these cases there are defences that can be deployed. Parties of government always get a kicking mid term. The press is virulently anti-EU so of course being "the party of in" was always going to be a difficult sell. Newark was never likely to vote Lib Dem in significant numbers and smaller local parties always get squeezed out in by-elections. Etc. Etc. Etc.

But the excuses are wearing thin. very thin.

The Lib Dems are now facing an existential crisis. Parties like Labour and the Conservatives can take a "mid-term kicking" and even lose a couple of million (or more votes) between elections and it only reduce their parliamentary representation by maybe a third. But for an already small party like the Lib Dems, a loss on this scale could mean something close to wipeout.

We have already seen a taste of this in the European elections. I saw Lib Dem after Lib Dem both online and in other media express the view that the party would probably retain "a few" MEPs. The idea that they would lose all of them was not seriously entertained at least publicly. And yet the party only retained Catherine Bearder in the South East by 8,000 votes (I cast one of them). Catherine is now the only remaining Lib Dem MEP. For a party that prides itself on being the party of Europe this is utterly devastating.

The thing is that the polls all pointed to something like that happening, coming within a hair's breadth of total wipeout and yet the Lib Dem party leadership led their troops into battle on a broken prospectus with a leader who has lost all credibility.

It pains me to say this. I have met and spent time with Nick Clegg. He is a very nice man who showed personal kindness towards me. He was generous with his time despite the fact I am sure he had more important people to be speaking to. But the fact remains that he is now politically toxic. He is the punch-line to a thousand political jokes. In the same way as Tony Blair will forever be associated with Iraq, Clegg will forever be associated with the broken pledge on tuition fees. No matter what he says and does he lacks credibility.

During the first debate with Nigel Farage in the run up to the European elections he visibly deflated when asked about that subject. He must know in his heart of hearts that he will never escape it. He has tried toughing it out pointing out that the Lib Dems have introduced a fairer system than Labour. He has tried apologising. He has tried time and again to move on from it. Nothing has worked.

But it is not just Clegg. All Lib Dems who are members of the government are equally complicit in the compromises they have made, and therefore in the eyes of much of the electorate would be similarly poisonous were they to be elevated to the leadership in Clegg's stead.

I am not saying any of this is fair. It is not. I genuinely believe that the Lib Dems came into government at a time of crisis in the national interest and have tried very hard to ameliorate the policies of what would have been a fairly hard right government. But in doing so they have scorched their own earth. You only have to read through the voluminous comments on the many, many soul searching posts recently published on Lib Dem Voice to see how so many of the party's own activists fear this analysis is correct.

Small "l" liberals like me who wanted to see liberal policies like reform of our ridiculous drugs laws have seen things actually move in the opposite direction. Those on the left have seen the party execute what they perceive as a series of betrayals. Those on the right have seen the party thwart the sort of policies they would have liked to have seen. And those who pay very little attention to politics have been exposed to a low-level background drum-beat of a narrative that constantly criticises the party in general and Clegg in particular for all of this.

I cannot see how the Lib Dems can avoid something close to wipeout next year. Until recently I had thought that incumbency would save a decent number of the party's MPs. But at 6.7% nationally which is what the party just achieved in a national election they would be back to the days of fitting all their MPs into a phone box or worse. First past the post can easily deliver that sort of outcome.

And I can see a similar pattern of denial happening with regard to next year's elections that we saw with the Euros. Clegg still seems convinced that the party will ultimately reap the rewards of an improving economy. Even though he was convinced a couple of years ago that that would have happened a year or so before the election and even though the economy is clearly improving and the Conservatives are getting the benefit of that, the Lib Dems are not. Let me spell it out. They will not. The dynamic is all wrong. The Lib Dems are getting all of the blame and the Conservatives are getting all the credit.

The only hope for the party I fear is that the next parliament is not hung. Then they can retreat with whatever is left of their parliamentary party in the Commons and rebuild. Although that could take decades.

If there is another hung parliament and the party somehow manages to get enough MPs to form a coalition and they do so then the party will be dead within 5 or 10 years, whichever way they go and whatever they do. If they go in with the Tories they will just be seen as an adjunct of them. And if they go in with Labour they will be seen as unprincipled political gadflies who will do anything to get and keep power.

I mourn this. I am in favour of pluralistic government. I like seeing parties working together. But a combination of the history of the politics of this country, the crushing electoral system that is so unforgiving, the way the media splits everything into a binary choice and the mistakes the party has made in government mean that they will never get a fair hearing unless something fundamental changes.

It is now clear that Clegg will be leader for the 2015 general election. He has seen off his little local difficulty and got rid of Lord Oakeshott into the bargain. He is probably quietly pleased with that. But all that has done is deferred the day of reckoning. It is coming though and one way or another the most likely outcome in the short to medium term is that the Lib Dems will end up a small rump unable to influence very much or do anything of note, perhaps for many years, perhaps for ever.

Disraeli once said "England does not love coalitions". We are about to see that played out.