Category Archives: Politics

An open letter to Natural England on the badger cull

This letter was sent to btb@naturalengland.org.uk concerning their eight-week extension to the badger culling “trials” in Gloucestershire. I’d encourage as many like-minded people as possible to send emails of their own.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Though I understand that this letter will in all likelihood be ignored, I had to write to express my concern and profound disgust that Natural England has agreed to an eight-week extension of the badger cull in Gloucestershire. As a biological science graduate with an interest in conservation issues, I hold Natural England’s attitude toward this issue and the science surrounding it in deep disdain.No one denies that bovine TB is a harmful disease with devastating effects on the UK’s agricultural sector. However, it is also undeniable that the balance of evidence is strongly against culling badgers as an effective method of TB control, and that this evidence is becoming ever more damning with the continued failure of the cull programme to achieve its stated aims.

The badger cull was originally justified as a six-week trial to determine the effectiveness of such a policy in reducing the badger population and controlling the spread of TB. Now that the six weeks have elapsed, and nothing close to the cull target of 70% of the population has been reached, surely it is time to deem the experiment a failure and consider other methods of TB control, such as vaccination of badgers or imposing tougher biosecurity controls on dairy farmers.

To extend the cull by eight weeks totally contradicts the idea that this was a trial period, and strongly suggests that the intention all along was to allow the slaughter of badgers to proceed regardless of the results. Moreover, it defies the advice of numerous experts in the field, who have repeatedly warned that the botched cull – and its extension – may result in the spread of bovine TB getting worse, not better.

Natural England has also failed to take into account the extremely worrying allegations that illegal methods of culling, such as gassing badger setts, have been practiced by those carrying out the cull. It seems that Natural England is totally blasé about these allegations, which are not only a gross violation of the law, but also an act tantamount to environmental vandalism. The correct course of action would have been to immediately suspend the cull until a proper police investigation was conducted, with prosecutions if necessary.

According to the organisation’s web site, Natural England is there to provide “practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone.”

In taking this decision, Natural England has ignored the overwhelming consensus of scientific evidence on this subject, and agreed to sacrifice part of “England’s natural wealth” – of which our wildlife is surely a part – for the benefit not of “everyone,” but of a small number of farmers and landowners who cannot be bothered to look after their livestock properly.

I urge Natural England to reconsider the decision, and to advise the government – with reasoning grounded in science, and a desire to safeguard England’s natural wealth, of course – that the emphasis on bovine TB control needs to move towards a vaccination programme and improved biosecurity on farms as quickly as possible.

Yours faithfully,
Andy Shaw

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Labour and the Lib Dems can work together on wealth taxation

Nick Clegg has been in the news this week, rallying the troops ahead of the party conference season with his proposals for a wealth tax.

The Conservative response so far has been predictable, with George Osborne warning that taxing the rich too heavily would drive “wealth creators” overseas, and Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin dismissing the proposal as the “politics of envy.”

But what of Labour’s response? So far, the Labour line has been to focus on Clegg’s hypocrisy – he, after all, backed a budget which is gifting top rate taxpayers an income tax cut – without commenting on the principles of a wealth tax.

No doubt Labour are worried about getting bogged down in “class war” rhetoric from the Tory side, even though – as I’ve already said in previous posts – the Tories are transparently engaging in a class war of their own. But the party should be bold enough to support the idea of a wealth tax, and mature enough to recognise areas where it can work with one of the coalition parties.

My Labour (and Labour Left) comrade Darrell Goodliffe puts a convincing case that Labour should not work too closely with the Liberal Democrats, certainly not until the results of the next general election are known; I see his point, but as Darrell concedes, in specific cases where the parties can come together, and it is politically possible to do so, we should not dismiss the possibility altogether.

In the case of a wealth tax, it would be a simple matter for a Labour MP to submit an amendment of this kind to the next budget’s Finance Bill – an amendment that, with the support of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, should have enough votes to clear the Commons (it should be possible to persuade the nationalist parties to at least abstain). Thus a wealth tax could be introduced without Tory support, which is not likely to be forthcoming.

One issue with this is the precise form a wealth tax would take, which would require a period of negotiation between the two parties. The Lib Dem proposal for a “mansion tax” (quietly canned just before the last budget) might be a reasonable starting point. How Tory MPs would react to their coalition partners openly negotiating with the Opposition might pose another stumbling block, but perhaps some of them could be brought to the negotiating table too, to engineer a solution acceptable to all parties, and which does not require too much parliamentary skullduggery to pass.

The other major problem is the usual one, when it comes to the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular – are they sincere? Or is this another phony Lib Dem “initiative,” like Lords reform and the pupil premium, which sounds good at conference time, but will end up going nowhere?

One thing is for certain, though – Labour won’t find out if they continue to sit on the sidelines, carping unnoticed while the coalition parties pretend to be Government and Opposition at the same time.

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The welfare state is too important for Labour to stand by

Of the numerous initiatives spearheaded by the coalition government since they took office, few have been as controversial as the Welfare Reform Bill, currently making its way through Parliament with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith at the helm.

We all know the story. Duncan Smith, during his ill-fated tenure as Conservative Party leader, visited the notorious Easterhouse estate in Glasgow. Seeing the scars of unemployment, addiction and crime littered across the area, Duncan Smith decided he didn’t like poor people very much and vowed to spend the rest of his political career making their lives even more miserable.

That’s not exactly how Duncan Smith tells it, of course. In his version, his crusade is a moral one, determined to rid society of the scourge of “welfare dependency” and other buzzwords designed to entrench the prejudice that poverty and deprivation are entirely the fault of the poor and deprived. But, when the unemployed are forced to stack shelves in Poundland for free, and cancer patients told that they will be means-tested for their benefits – despite opposition from the House of Lords, the government has vowed to maintain this policy – it is difficult to ascribe the realignment of the British welfare state to such noble-sounding motives.

The welfare state is one of the minefields of British politics, largely because of the prejudice whipped up by the tabloid media about “benefit scroungers,” aided and abetted by the government. It has been suggested that this is increasingly being coupled to the Victorian rhetoric of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor – but when even the disabled are being treated as though they are responsible for their inability to work, one wonders whether anyone qualifies as “deserving” in the eyes of this government any more.

Shamefully, Labour has so far failed to stand up effectively to the assault on the welfare state. Part of this seems to be due to Liam Byrne, the party’s work and pensions spokesman, not liking the poor very much either. Writing for the Guardian on the anniversary of the Beveridge Report, which paved the way for the modern welfare system, Byrne argued for a “something for something” welfare culture in which those who displayed “for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society,” were rewarded, whereas the “idle” were ostracised and dismissed.

The major flaw in Byrne’s argument, apart from being a standard Blairite diatribe of promising “radical reform” which tends to be neither particularly reforming nor particularly radical, is that he misunderstands the nature of the welfare state. The welfare state is not, and has never been, about getting out what you put in – you get out what you need. We do not pay allowances to support the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled because they have somehow “earned” it. We do so because it is right.

Labour is terrified of arguing from this corner, of course, because it’s much easier to appear “tough” on benefit claimants than it is to actually be tough on the people and media outlets who peddle the hateful misinformation that causes the welfare state to bear such a stigma in the first place. Even when such misinformation has saddening real-world consequences – such as the shocking recent rise in disability hate crime – it is too difficult, it seems, for Labour to stand up and fight prejudice.

Without the heroic efforts of campaigners like The Broken of Britain, the attack on Britain’s welfare state would be practically unopposed. It was Internet activists and bloggers, not any political party, who came together to produce the Spartacus Report, which revealed the extent of opposition to reform of the Disability Living Allowance. While they can be justifiably proud of their achievements, it should be a matter of sincere regret for every Labour member that our party was not fighting alongside them.

And while those behind the Spartacus Report can point to great successes, such as the government’s defeat in the House of Lords over three critical aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill in recent weeks, they cannot oppose every aspect of this brutal and regressive legislation. That should be Labour’s job, and these campaigners should be able to rely on the Official Opposition in Parliament to listen, to support and to act. I implore the party leadership, and Liam Byrne in particular, to forget chasing swing voters for once – just do what’s right.

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Devo-max: So popular, nobody wants it

You might be forgiven for thinking that the recent wranglings over the Scottish independence referendum have played overwhelmingly into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP. After all, the UK Government’s plainly transparent concern trolling over the legality and decisiveness of any referendum held unilaterally by Holyrood has allowed the Nationalists to bang the usual drums of “Westminster domination,” with Salmond even suggesting that David Cameron’s intervention may persuade more Scots to back independence.

But we’ve also seen the mask slip a couple of times, and the deeply unpleasant, bullying core of nationalism force its way briefly to the fore. South of Scotland MSP Joan McAlpine this week branded opponents of independence “anti-Scottish,” provoking (predictably) widespread indignation. While Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures represent an outwardly tolerant, “friendly” nationalism – “civic nationalism,” as the SNP brand themselves – you don’t have to dig very far before you reach the kind of backward, bigoted attitudes held by their followers, and exemplified by McAlpine’s outburst.

Anyone who reads “below the line” on the Scotsman website, or any of the increasing number of news sites where readers can comment, has seen this sort of thing before. While the SNP leadership have always sought to distance themselves from the “cybernat” phenomenon, it’s increasingly clear that their attitudes are shared relatively high up the party hierarchy.

The SNP’s successes in recent elections have been ascribed to their effective presentation as a party that stands up for Scotland and Scots, eschewing the divisiveness of former years. Nationalism thrives on divisions, but the SNP have always been careful to place the dividing line between “us” – Scotland – and “them” – Westminster. If the ill-considered remarks of the likes of Joan McAlpine redraw that line between “us” – Scots who back independence – and “them” – Scots who don’t – then it could be much more difficult for the Nationalists to gain the kind of electoral traction that saw them win a landslide victory in May’s Holyrood elections.

The other major obstacle in the road for the Nationalist juggernaut is the persistent polling evidence that Scottish voters, given the choice in a referendum, would vote to remain in the UK. Playing up the divisions between Holyrood and Westminster is but one way the SNP will attempt to win round enough Scots to secure a vote for separation, but it may not be sufficient.

The same polling evidence also suggests that what most Scots want is for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is what Nationalists mean when they state that the “status quo” is untenable – most Scots are unhappy with the present arrangement, or at least would prefer something else. Never mind that the “status quo” is currently in a state of upheaval with the Scotland Bill currently making its way through Westminster, which proposes to devolve more powers to Holyrood, albeit not enough to placate the SNP administration.

Perhaps the holy grail in the quest for the perfect amount of Scottish autonomy is the much-referenced, never-quite-defined option known as “devo-max,” which may yet be included as a “third option” in the independence referendum. Loosely, devo-max seems to mean that all policy areas and powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. But quite how such a transition would work, or what arrangements would be hammered out between Scotland and the rest of the UK in this case, remain unexplained.

The reason the details of devo-max are not really explained are quite deliberate. The SNP suggests it is for the parties that oppose independence to elaborate fully on what devo-max would mean, arguing that it is not for the SNP to define its opponents’ political positions. The opposition, on the other hand, point out that it is the SNP’s referendum, and that the inclusion or exclusion of any options on the ballot paper should be a matter for the SNP government.

As an option that falls short of full independence but grants substantially more powers to Holyrood, it is easy to see why the non-nationalist parties are reticent about the idea of fully defining devo-max. It would still be perfectly possible for Alex Salmond to run Scotland as his own personal fiefdom under a devo-max arrangement, with the other parties being marginalised still further. While nationalists argue that it is not for them to define the positions of other parties, opponents argue that it is not for them, either, to define potential “consolation prizes” for Salmond and the SNP.

The overriding concern about the referendum debate is that it is being framed within the context of party politics, and all the mud-slinging and point-scoring that goes with it. Nobody – not even the SNP, despite their protestations to the contrary – is interested in conducting this debate in the interests, and for the benefit, of the Scottish people. If devo-max is a viable third option it is for all parties to come together and agree what it means and what it would entail, and present it as an honest possibility for inclusion in the referendum.

If the SNP’s preferred referendum date of autumn 2014 is accepted, there are two-and-a-half years before the Scottish people vote on their future. Plenty of time, then, for all sides to set aside their differences and agree a coherent set of options. A shame they seem pathologically incapable of doing so.

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Time for Labour to get serious about class

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week raised a few eyebrows, signalling as it did a new-ish direction of travel for the party. While Miliband spent the rest of the week trying to persuade everyone that his speech did not represent a shift to the left, it was obvious to most that it represented an attempt to move away from the New Labour orthodoxy that has dominated the party for the last decade and a half.

The Guardian described Miliband’s conversion as one to “ethical socialism,” something which – for obvious reasons – I’m quite happy with, but there remains a lot to be done before we can claim, in the words of Neil Kinnock, that we’ve “got our party back.”

Welfare reform remains one major issue, with Labour’s perceived failure to defend those suffering from benefit cuts still looming large. Miliband was confronted over this by disability activists at his “Q&A” session; his answers were unconvincing, though happily he agreed to discuss their concerns with them in more detail.

On the other few issues where concrete (though non-binding) policy suggestions have been made, such as on tuition fees and press reform, the proposals seem half-hearted, almost deliberately trying to please everybody and therefore pleasing no one. Labour’s strategy is obviously to try and regain economic credibility, and while this has to be an important strand of our approach going forward, it cannot be the only strand.

There are a number of conflicting views over the direction the Labour Party should take in the future. The debate so far has been dominated by one voice – that of Progress, whose Purple Book has recently been published, containing a largely Blairite vision for the future of the party. The Blairite thesis is that elections are won by attracting swing voters, and to do that Labour needs to adopt “radical” centrist policies that will appeal to suburban middle England above all else.

It is ironic that, having been so keen to dispense with the history and traditions of the labour movement when they rose to the top of the Labour Party, Blairites have failed to acknowledge that they themselves are now part of that history. The four million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2005 – compared to just a million lost between 2005 and 2010 – are strong evidence that what worked for the party in 1997 is unlikely to do so again.

Other strands of thought in Labour are the so-called “blue” and “red” camps, both of whom recognise that in chasing “swing” voters, what Labour did – what it was bound to do – was alienate its core voters. Blue Labour, which started out as a formal project but was abruptly killed off after its founding father Maurice Glasman made some ill-advised remarks on immigration, propose economically left-wing and socially conservative policies to win over the white working classes, traditionally Labour voters who have recently turned to far-right parties or – more commonly – stopped voting at all.

As Owen Jones points out in his book Chavs, the problem with targeting policies towards the “white working classes” is that, by defining voters according to their race rather than their class, we miss the point of what we are trying to achieve. Only a class-based approach can correctly define the problems our core vote face, and assign appropriate solutions.

As an opposition party and as a socialist party, Labour should be standing up for those worst affected by the actions of the Tory-led government, which are overwhelmingly the working class. This is the approach Red Labour should be taking – to speak in the language of class, to highlight the destruction being wreaked on that level of society by a government that neither understands nor cares about its impact on them.

Since the New Labour era, Labour has been afraid to speak in such terms. For one thing, as Jones spells out throughout his book, working class pride has been persistently eroded over the decades, so that the “right” thing for working class people is to be “aspirational,” which means to want to lift themselves out of the working class. Labour must work – and work hard – to restore this pride, and to provide a meaningful sense of what it means to be working class.

For another, Labour are terrified of being accused by the Tories and the right-wing media of “waging class warfare” if they dare to speak or act in such terms. But for those accusations, I say this: We have a government led by a Cabinet of millionaires, who are cutting the public services disproportionately relied on by those of lower incomes. They preside over an economy where the costs of living rocket and wages stagnate, and yet they want to make it more difficult for workers to stand up for their rights. They blame the unemployed for being out of work, and treat the sick and disabled as if they are responsible for their own illness. They punish ordinary people with VAT hikes, while simultaneously treating their rich friends to corporation tax giveaways.

And they want to talk about class warfare? I say, bring it on.

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The Boundary Review: Ask a silly question…

So, here we are. After months of speculation, the Boundary Commission for England has finally released its provisional proposals for the parliamentary constituencies on which the next general election will be contested. The headlines focus on high-profile MPs, such as Ed Balls, Nadine Dorries and George Osborne, whose seats have been abolished in the review, but this masks the fact that the proposals themselves are largely, as widely feared, a horrible mess.

The reason for this? The Boundary Commission was tasked to redraw the parliamentary boundaries with a couple of criteria in mind. Firstly, the number of constituencies was to be fixed at 600. Previous boundary reviews have not been so constrained, with the number of MPs returned fluctuating after each review – usually somewhere around 650, which is incidentally the number of MPs we have at present.

Secondly, the constituencies were required to be of equal size, within a 5% margin of error. Therefore, with a few notable exceptions (which I’ll get onto in a moment), every parliamentary constituency in the UK has an electorate of between 72,810 and 80,473.

And that’s it. No regard for pre-existing administrative divisions, local communities, geography or anything else. Add to this the Boundary Commission’s apparent phobia of splitting local government wards between parliamentary seats, and you have some truly hideous proposals. One seat, for instance, crosses the River Mersey.

This flagrant disregard for the reality on the ground would be easier to stomach if it weren’t for the previously noted exceptions. The Scottish constituencies of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (known before 2005 as the Western Isles) will retain their status as individual seats. These seats are grossly undersized anyway (Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the smallest constituency in the UK with an electorate of a little over 20,000) and will be even more so after the review is completed. In addition, the Isle of Wight has been granted two undersized seats, whereas previously it had one oversized one. Yet other considerations reflecting local culture and geography – such as the retention of the Devon-Cornwall border and the independence of Anglesey – were rejected.

Conservative supporters have long griped about parliamentary boundaries favouring Labour. It is true that if Labour and the Conservatives got the same number of votes nationwide, Labour would have more seats – after all, Labour secured a comfortable majority in 2005 with 36% of the vote, while the Tories got 37% in 2010 and still ended up 19 seats short. It is also true that, on average, Labour seats are slightly smaller than Conservative ones.

However, it is not the case that this is the sole, or even the main, cause of Labour’s electoral advantage over the Tories. Analysis by Electoral Calculus in 2006 showed that the main reason for Labour’s advantage was that, in Labour seats, voter turnout was generally lower. It takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because, in those seats, fewer voters (for all parties) tend to come to the polling station on election day. Even with equal constituency sizes, therefore, Labour will still find it easier to win a majority than the Tories.

I say “equal constituency sizes,” but what is “equality” anyway? The constituencies are calculated according to the electorate sizes received by the Boundary Commission at the start of the review several months ago, so they are already out of date. People moving around changes the number of electors in a given area, but this information was unavailable to the Boundary Commission. By 2015 the boundaries will be even further out of date, and since demographic trends are that people are moving out of (generally Labour-voting) inner cities to the (generally Tory-voting) suburbs and countryside, the boundaries in 2015 will still favour Labour.

Additionally, the Boundary Commission only takes into account registered voters, rather than total population. The highest proportion of unregistered voters are in poorer areas, which tend to vote Labour. Unregistered voters (and people who are ineligible to vote, such as children) are surely still entitled to parliamentary representation – so why weren’t the boundaries drawn on the basis of overall population, rather than voter registration?

The other unfortunate consequence of the boundary review is the loss from Parliament of 50 MPs. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in their pre-election manifestos, promised to “cut the cost of politics” by reducing the number of MPs. But this move makes MPs less accountable to voters by increasing their electorate, reduces the possibility of minor parties winning Commons seats (because they have to win over more voters to do so – indeed, preliminary notional figures indicate that Caroline Lucas would not have been an MP on the proposed boundaries), and also reduces the opportunity for women and minority candidates to be selected to contest seats. Moreover, it is alarming that the government regards democracy as a commodity, the costs of which can simply be cut.

The boundary review will not improve representation for ordinary people, or make our electoral system “fairer” in any meaningful sense of the word. A truly fair electoral system would include a measure of proportionality, to ensure that all votes are counted and all voters represented. The resources expended on redrawing the parliamentary boundaries would have been better invested in strategies to boost voter turnout across the board, improving representation and probably correcting for some of the current electoral imbalance as a side-effect.

None of this, incidentally, is the fault of the Boundary Commission (except for the silliness about not splitting wards). They were simply performing the task that they were asked to perform, by a government that either did not understand or did not care about the consequences of its policies. Instead, it is an example of the old adage, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”

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Scottish Labour’s choice of leader shouldn’t play into the SNP’s hands

Discussions on the future of Scottish Labour, after a disastrous performance in the May Scottish Parliament elections, have been pretty quiet of late. Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy are still working on their review of the Labour Party in Scotland, but also looming should be a leadership election, with Iain Gray set to stand down in September.

LabourList published a list of the potential runners and riders for any leadership contest back in May, but since then things have been pretty quiet. Until last week, that is, when Glasgow South MP Tom Harris appeared to throw his hat into the ring, telling the BBC he would be interested in the post “if the party would be interested in having me.” Harris also expressed the hope that other prominent Labour Scots, such as Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander, would stand.

At present, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party must be an MSP, but this could change after the review – the absence of these potential leaders at Holyrood may not be an obstacle to their entering the contest.

However, just because it might be possible for an MP to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party does not mean that it would be desirable; there are a number of reasons why such an arrangment should be avoided, if at all possible.

Firstly, while Alex Salmond successfully worked as SNP leader in absentia from 2004 until 2007, there is no guarantee that this would work for Labour. The effective spin doctors in the SNP and in the ever more nationalist-friendly press would be at pains to undermine both the leader and his chosen representative at Holyrood, highlighting even the tiniest division between the two.

Secondly, any attempt by a new leader to enter the Scottish Parliament via a by-election would surely end in disaster. They couldn’t enter via the resignation of a list MSP, and most of Labour’s remaining constituency seats would be easily reachable by the SNP, especially in the context of a forced by-election. The Nationalists are formidable opponents at any by-election, and for a new leader to potentially lose their first electoral contest would be a PR catastrophe for Scottish Labour dwarfing anything we’ve seen so far.

Thirdly – and most importantly, in my view – appointing a Scottish Labour leader from outside of Holyrood would play directly into the SNP’s hands, by appearing to confirm the prejudice that “all of Labour’s best talent goes to Westminster.” This myth, that the Labour benches at Holyrood are filled with second-rate politicians, is offensive to our hard-working MSPs and cements the perception that Labour is not interested in, and hence cannot deliver for Scotland.

Painting Labour as a party that takes Scotland for granted is a key tactic of the SNP, and surely contributed to our poor election performance in May. To suggest that not one of our 37 MSPs is good enough to lead the party, and we need to draft in someone from outside, would only make it easier for the Nationalists to claim that Labour isn’t interested in Holyrood, and harder for us to regain lost ground in Scotland.

To defeat nationalism, we need to tackle it head-on, not confirm its barest prejudices. The Labour leader in Scotland should be a current Member of the Scottish Parliament – anything else, and we’ve lost the battle almost before it’s begun.

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