Saturday, 26 March 2011

That march: two views

A couple of perspectives on today's big anti-cuts demo, which deserve to be quoted at length.

First, Philip Collins, former Blair speechwriter, writing in The Times yesterday (paywall):

The March for the Alternative, which the TUC has organised for Hyde Park tomorrow morning, could be a serious intervention in the debate. But, in point of fact, it isn’t serious at all.
What you see in the Labour response to the cuts are the British Left’s two signature characteristics: moral indignation and political failure.
It’s evident in every aspect of the TUC campaign. No further evidence is needed than the irony of the title. The one thing the marchers have not got is any alternative. What they have instead is synthetic anger and stock-in-trade exaggeration.
Trade unions are still the largest voluntary organisations in the country. They could be demanding responsibility under the banner of the Big Society.
Instead, they will be standing in Hyde Park tomorrow morning under the banner of “No Cuts. No Fees. No Sackings. Make the Bankers Pay”. The sheer enjoyed futility of this prompts the unsettling thought that the organisers don’t, deep down, expect the march to matter. They know that George Osborne is not listening. They know, too, that they don’t have the public support to turn this into the General Strike or the Jarrow March.
So what is the point? Why organise a march rather than, say, devise a list of reasonable grievances and negotiate? It’s because marching is an act of self-expression for a movement that prizes purity over politics.
It’s the emotional signature of the oppositionalist for whom slogans stand for deeds. He is someone whose moral righteousness only increases the more it falls on deaf ears. The infuriatingly unrealistic nature of his demands should alert you to the fact that, if by some miracle he should succeed, he would lose the cause that animates his moral superiority. What he wants is forever to fall short, so that he can continue, in the torrent of military metaphors that you find on every anti-cuts website, “the fight” or “the struggle”.
This is a cast of mind that finds heroism, rather than failure, in failure. It is astonishing, when you think about it, that Ed Miliband won the leadership by breaking with the party’s serial winner, Tony Blair, rather than with Gordon Brown, yet one more in the line of titanic losers. But the Labour Party is better understood through its failures than its successes. 
Ten months after a huge defeat, something strange is happening to the Labour Party. It hasn’t descended into recrimination, as it did in the split between the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites after 1951. It hasn’t veered wildly to the left as it did after 1979. It has started enjoying itself. It has become quiescent and comfortable in the role that, in truth, it rather likes: the natural party of opposition.

It’s not true, just because they are now the paymasters, that the Labour leader thinks the same as the trade union leaders. But there is a continuum in the comfort zone; Mr Miliband is at one end and the TUC is at the other. If they don’t throw this mood off, it will be fatal.
You’ll see it in the relish in Hyde Park tomorrow. It will be clear from every speech that the Labour movement hates the cuts. Almost as much as it loves them.

And here's Rob Marchant at Labour Uncut, on Ed Miliband's difficult tightrope-walking act today:

On Saturday, Ed Miliband will be speaking, but not marching, at one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations for many years.  Activist Luke Akehurst writes passionately and eloquently about the need for all of us involved in the Labour movement to march, and, on the face of it, it is an obvious way to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Tories. But there is a big difference between it being right for individual members to be involved, and it being right for the leader of the Labour party to speak there.
Ed is in an uncomfortable position – “walking a tightrope”, as the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan  puts it. He’s not wrong: look, and you can find at least five compelling reasons for his not being involved in the demo.
One: Labour didn’t organise the demo, the TUC did. Who knows what other people will say? Who can say what they will do? Things do not bode well regarding the other speakers. “Keep your sleazy hands off our kids”, Unite’s Len McCluskey told the progressive London conference, in a message directed at the metropolitan police (not very good political judgement, it would seem, considering the met themselves now stand to lose heavily from the cuts and could have been a useful ally against them). And if, like the earlier student demo, there are police clashes, heaven help us.
Two: the talking-to-the-wrong-constituency argument. We are playing to the principal constituency of those who work in public services or are in the trade union movement, and who are therefore somewhat more likely to be already against public sector cuts. But we are not necessarily pulling in those who are not in those demographics – many of whom agree that cuts are necessary – and who think that debt-reduction is an urgent priority. What exactly are we gaining by excluding these people? Oh, and what happens when the righteous demos give way to unpopular strikes which directly affect them?
Three: the visuals. Unbearably superficial though it might sound, in the age of image and 24-hour rolling news, it’s not an option to forget what things look like. Protesting and being prime-minister-in-waiting are not necessarily incompatible but they are, at best, tricky bedfellows. Also, modern politics has different presentational norms from 1970s politics; what may have seemed noble “power to the people” fighting then may now merely look merely “long-haired protest group”.  Stop the War rather than Jarrow.  We can differentiate, but don’t assume that others will.
And do we really think it’ll make a difference, the not marching? Just because Ed will not be marching (or wearing a donkey jacket à la Michael Foot, thank God), and even if the demonstrators show exemplary behaviour, this does not mean he will be portrayed on the evening news as the aspiring prime minister we need him to be. Cut to Ed. Now cut to McCluskey. Cut to Tony Benn. Cut to Bob Crow. Don’t forget there will be the Trafalgar Square follow-on demo with Galloway and assorted fellow-travellers, probably in the same clip. And the overall, 30-second impression to the public is…?
Four: the message will be dangerously distorted. Akehurst and former general secretary,  Peter Watt, have correctly identified that Labour’s subtler message “we think cuts are ok but not this far, this fast” will be easily subsumed into a general “no cuts” message. Against all cuts, period: a message which hardly helps our economic credibility, when the Tories and the right-wing press are daily peddling the too-easily-digested story that “Labour maxed out the credit card”. In reality, we are trying to ride two horses at once – cuts and no cuts – and, at some point, we’ll fall off.
Five: the in-the-pocket-of-the-unions argument. The importance of union support in Miliband’s election and the movement’s current domination of party financing are well-known. As Hasan notes in the same article, Unite has made no secret of its desire to put pressure on Labour to be supportive. Even if this pressure is no more than usual (and hardly an astonishing fact), we are giving a free kick to the media, because the reality is irrelevant. The mere perception that the brothers strong-armed him into attendance will be enough.
One or two of these reasons would allow room for debate about the pros and cons, but five? Set against all this, if we chose the opposite road, there would be one big disadvantage: the opprobrium of some parts of the movement for the leader not having been with them. People would feel that Ed had let them down, it’s true (they may feel that anyway, because he is slightly semi-detached from it all. So the damage may already have been done). But how long would this last? And in playing to our own constituency, rather than that which we need to win, are we making the wise choice?
It’ll probably make us feel good, to march together and swell with righteous indignation at the Tories. We need a bit of that, and welcome. It’s important to show a level of solidarity with our core supporters. And it’s also self-evident that it’s much too late for Ed to pull out now. But, against that, you can’t help feeling that our political management of the demo will turn out to have been a significant error of judgement in three critical battles. The battle for economic credibility; the battle for political credibility; and, in the end, what remains of the battle against the cuts themselves. A lose, lose, lose.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

'You should begin by reforming your own home'

Pakistani actress Veena Malik, in trouble with religious fundamentalists after her appearance on the Indian version of 'Big Brother', hits back at a cleric who accuses her of betraying Islam and her country:

If you want to do something for the glory of Islam, you have plenty of opportunities. Bribery, robbery, theft and killing in the name of Islam. There are many things to talk about. Why Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman? Because Veena Mali is a soft target for you.
There are many other things for you to deal with. There are Islamic clerics who rape the children they teach in their mosques and so much more. Pakistan is infamous for many reasons other than Veena Malik [...] You should begin by reforming your own home and only then ask me to do the same.
Most telling admission by the mullah? ‘Let me tell you that I did not watch the show…’

Be sure to watch the video through to the end.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The week in links

Here's a few things you might have missed over the past seven days.

Khaled Mattawa makes a powerful case for intervention in Libya, while Michael Rubin urges President Obama to step up to the plate. Mark Bahnisch critiques the Left's take on Libya. Alan Johnson and Michael Walzer exchange views on intervention, and Michael J. Totten asks the Arab world for something in return. And Josh Rogin provides a fascinating insight into why the White House changed its mind on the no-fly zone. When the UN finally does the right thing, the people of Benghazi celebrate.

Meanwhile, the Arab spring spreads. Next stop Damascus? Malik Al-Abdeh reports on the first signs of revolt in Syria. Looks like there might not be too many more fawning photoshoots for Vogue, Mrs. Al-Assad.

Further east, Shehrbano Taseer, the brave and outspoken daughter of murdered liberal politician Salman Taseer, discusses the state of things in Pakistan, in a three part interview. And speaking of brave young women: Harry's Place reports on the worrying arrest and interrogation of Iranian poetess Hila Sadighi.

In the aftermath of the savage murder of a  young Israeli family in Itamar, Claire Berlinski reflects on writing about terrorism. Meanwhile, a report on IDF soldiers and paramedics at the same settlement saving the life of an Arab mother and baby gives the lie to the nonsense of 'Israel Apartheid Week'.

Finally, back home, Nick Cohen and Rob Marchant reflect on Labour's prospects in the light of Ed Miliband's performance as leader and his brother David's recent speech.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Some Saturday morning glee

A footnote to my Bruno Mars post the other day. You know you've arrived when two of your songs get featured in the same episode of 'Glee' (note to US readers: we're quite a few episodes behind you over here). OK, it's camp and kitsch as hell, but it certainly cheers up my Monday nights. Let's hope it does the same for this rather grey Saturday morning (hey - the sun just came out...).

Lessons for the Left from Barnsley

Hearty congratulations to Dan Jarvis on winning the Barnsley by-election for Labour with an increased majority. Jarvis, a former Army major who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is just the kind of mainstream candidate that Labour needs more of, if it's to persuade the electorate once again (as it did so successfully under Tony Blair) that it’s the party of the whole country, and of government, and not just a protest movement or an unrepresentative oppositionalist rump.

But Labour shouldn’t take too much comfort from the Barnsley result. It can’t be a healthy state of affairs when the Liberal Democrats are beaten into sixth place behind the neo-fascist British National Party. Or when the second-place protest vote goes to the ultra-conservative little-Englanders of UKIP. For all their cosying up to the Cameronians, the LibDems are still the second largest progressive party in Britain. They're the natural allies of Labour and (as Peter Mandelson has been suggesting this week) potentially their partners in a future government. I'm as sickened by Nick Clegg and his Coalition compromises as the next person, but it's not in Labour's interest - and certainly doesn't do anything for re-building a centre-left majority - for his party's vote to collapse. The Barnsley results shows that Labour might pick up some of the fall-out in that event, but so would the illiberal anti-immigrant right.

So, some good news for Labour. But it's definitely two rather than three cheers for democracy.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Life on Mars

Time for a musical interlude.

One of the great things about having teenagers in the house (and yes, there are some) is their determination to remind you that pop music did not, after all, come to an abrupt end in 1979. No car journey with my son or daughter is complete without an insistence that we listen to a sample of their latest musical discoveries on the omnipresent iPod. I suppose we should be flattered that they don’t consider our musical tastes completely beyond redemption. Cultural curmudgeon that I am, though, I mostly remain doggedly unimpressed, wearily commenting that so-and-so was doing the same kind of thing thirty years ago, only better...

But just occasionally, something will stand out and I’ll have to admit that the rumours of pop music's death may have been premature. So it is with Bruno Mars, whom my offspring claim to have discovered on Youtube long before his current rise to fame. The guy certainly can sing and he’s a hugely versatile songwriter, as his recent album demonstrates. If I had to pick a favourite track, it would be the perfectly- crafted ‘Somewhere in Brooklyn’ which, as I never tire of telling my son and daughter, is in the great tradition of romantic railway songs. Although the two are very different musically, it always makes me think of Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’. Looking up the video for the latter reminded me that he, too, name-checks Brooklyn. And both Waits and Mars share a penchant for old-fashioned men's hats. A little bit of unconscious imitation going on there?

On a more kitsch and cutesy note, the other evening my son turned up this video of a 4-year-old Bruno Mars doing a stunning Elvis impersonation, and being interviewed by Jonathan Ross into the bargain. Love that lip curl.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

That speech in brief

A month after David Cameron's multiculturalism speech, I'm still trying to gather my thoughts about it into a coherent blog post. Watch this space.

In the meantime, you could do worse than read what some others have had to say, and I particularly recommend these responses by Martin Bright, Alan JohnsonMichael Weiss and Douglas Murray.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world*

...when the latest edition of the supposedly liberal-left-leaning London Review of Books includes a major article on the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’ by Alastair Crooke of Conflicts Forum, an organisation that acts as cheerleader for the racist, misogynist, terrorist Hamas; a long lead article by Judith Butler, notorious for describing the same organisation as ‘part of the global left’, and a hagiographic review by the anti-rationalist pro-faithist Terry Eagleton of Eric Hobsbawm’s latest book, which glosses over the latter’s acquiescence in Stalinism.

…while the current edition of Standpoint, published by the right-leaning Social Affairs Unit, features a timely piece by David Cesarani on the part played by anti-Semitism in the downfall of NUS president Aaron Porter, a critique by Douglas Murray of public funding of reactionary Islamist organisatons, and an insightful and sympathetic on-the-ground account of the Egyptian democratic revolution from Shiraz Maher, not to mention reviews by stalwart liberal commenators such as Nick Cohen and Clive James.

Of course, left-wing readers of Standpoint have to put up with a bit of predictable rightwing-ery from the likes of John Bolton and Melanie Phillips, just as there are still occasional nuggets of liberal sanity to be found in the LRB. But it's come to something when your average anti-totalitarian secular-humanist social democrat can find more to agree with, and less to make him/her throw up his/her hands in horror, in the former publication than in the latter.

* copyright Ray Davies