Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Crash and Burn

As the election campaign enters its final weekend - a bank holiday weekend no less - it is not surprising that the news headline this morning is a non-story about how Gordon Brown would like MPs to decide all future wars. Hardly a campaign pledge likely to win any votes.

It seems to me that interest in the General Election is now dying away. An unscientific analysis of my visitor logs shows pretty clearly that hits have been on a gentle decline since April 19th, when for some reason excitement hit its peak. Despite the Iraq rumblings returning, the electorate is still not charged up about this campaign. Indeed, it's possibly fair to argue that they may have been when it started, but are now utterly fed up.

Imagine if we had the USA system. This country probably couldn't stand two year election campaigns. Hardly surprising that turnout hits such lows over there.

But when you look at it, is it really surprising that this campaign is going to be remembered as one of the dullest? Why have the Tories, who started the campaign with immigration and asylum, come back to it for the closing days? I thought they wanted to demonstrate they weren't obsessed by it. Meanwhile, Howard has took a pasting for his views that "regime change plus" would have been a good basis for invading Iraq. His statements on Question Time actually make him more gung-ho than Tony Blair, now I look at it again.

The newspapers, however, seems to be revelling that at last the debate has turned to health. They are pleased that a real issue has emerged. They would say that, of course; they need something to fill their column inches after all. Actually, apart from MRSA - which is hardly a political issue - and now the GP 48 hour thing, the discussion on health has been extremely narrow. It is probably uninteresting to most people. Every time the three representatives of health issues from the main parties appear on TV, I find it incredibly difficult to see the difference. You couldn't fit a cigarette paper between all three parties stances on the NHS. Once more, it is unsurprising why this campaign has been so dull. No one is interested in talking about the future of NHS funding. There is no honest debate.

Thus, in the absence of anything more interesting it was inevitable that someone would end up doing a study about which politicians are the most attractive. That someone being the BBC. Even they are struggling to keep people engaged.

Before the election was called, I was predicting one of the lowest turnouts in history. I thought it would go below last time's low of 59%. On reflection, I believe this could be wrong. I have been mildly surprised about the amount of people who are politically motivated this time, and so I'm predicting a similar level, or perhaps just above at around 63%. But it's still a travesty that most people will not vote than vote for the winning party.

I also predicted that this election was gearing up to be the worst ever. It's not nice to be vindicated on such cynical statements.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Grill the Leaders

Last night's TV grilling of all the leaders turned out to be a more interesting affair that I thought it would be. It actually worked out so well that each leader got equal time to answer questions on their policies, rather than sit there and be berated by the opposition every time they respond, that I think it was better than a US-presidential style debate after all.

Charles Kennedy had the easiest ride of the three, and he generally made it work well. The audience didn't ask him particularly tough questions, and when it got to Iraq I believe he put forward his response more aggressively and passionately than I've ever seen him. He was still a bit hazy on local income tax, but he has improved his style by elaborating. Notice that he struggled a bit in explaining that some people will pay more, but he was very careful to redirect the issue into economic fairness by pointing out the rich pay less as a proportion of their income than the poor, which gained a significant applause from the audience.

That's the strategy other politicians use: they are asked a question, they sort of dodge it, and then go beyond it. I believe Kennedy went one better last night: he answered most questions straight, and then went beyond to justify it by putting it in context of their goal of a "fair society". Much better.

Michael Howard arrived and I noticed how the atmosphere changed. People do realise that Charles Kennedy is not going to be the next PM, and the more relaxed audience suddenly turned very critical. They appreciated the fact that Howard could be next in Number 10... and grilled him accordingly. Perhaps unfair to set different standards, but the spectacle was enjoyable.

He struggled to square the circle on Iraq. He tried to explain his immigration policies, but the audience was often very mean. I personally don't think his policies are racist (although they could appeal to racists), but a number of audience members called it that. He smoothly went through tax and spend, which possibly won him votes, but overall the hostile audience made his term in the chair rather difficult. He didn't do badly, but he could have done better.

Blair put in the worst performance, when this used to be the thing he shined the most at. The audience turned up the hostility another notch, and he was given very little opportunity to wheel out the classics of low inflation, low interest rates, record investment in public services, etc. Instead, the audience demonstrated to Blair that they are concerned about the situation in Iraq. For weeks he has refused to believe that this is an issue that resonates in the country, but he was forced to eat his words last night.

He looked a little nervous, and the sweat started pouring off his head. The audience groaned when he said again that we shouldn't expect tax rises, and was put on the defensive by some incisive questioning on student tuition fees. Then the bombshell was dropped about his targets distorting clinical priorities - which he didn't seem to understand was going on. His response was the usual "I will take personal charge and investigate this!" but Hero Tony coming to Save The Day doesn't wash with the public as much as it used to.

All in all, Charles Kennedy probably came out top - but perhaps only because he had an easy ride from the audience - with Howard second and Blair bottom. It reminded me why I hate Blair so much, and I'm sure other people found it useful to confirm or change their votes. It won't make a massive difference, but it was an entertaining spectacle nevertheless.

The other interesting point to conclude is that last night's debate clearly showed that people are interested in Iraq. We're constantly being told it's not an issue "on the doorsteps" (wherever that may be) but it was good to see all three of them getting at least 10 minutes on it. I'm sure a lot of people made up their mind last night. I was pleased that the audience seemed to be well informed and weren't taken aback by the first answer given to their question. A lot of people aren't buying the "But if I had taken your view, Saddam would still be in power!" blackmail, particularly if you consider that Iraqis likely don't give a shit about the glorious (and very corrupt) government they have elected. They would take peace, security and growing prosperity however it was delivered.

If the new Iraqi government does not deliver on these issues very soon, democracy will begin to be seen as a white elephant. Right now, there are still dozens of people dying in Iraq every day. There is still not enough electricity or water supplies, but the oil is free flowing out the country with not much coming back. Democracy is having its reputation tarnished right now. Just because a country has an elected government, it doesn't automatically follow that it is a success. This seems to be Blair's Blackmail, but we must resist being bribed with it.

This time next week we will all know the result of the election. The past few days could still make it interesting. I live in hope.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

In Summary

Lord Goldsmith and his "Legal Opinions 4 U" department have been up all night trying to defend themselves from the charges being placed against them thanks to the leaking last night of his advice on the legality of the war given to Tony Blair on March 7th, 2003.

It's good to see that at least he had backbone at some point. As many people have already pointed out, very few events happened between the 7th and the 17th of March when the AG told the country that the war was legal. But the defence for him changing is mind is simply that "events" made it clear Saddam was not complying.

Slowly but surely, the whole case for the war is unravelling. Leaving aside any myths being perpetuated about the wonderfulness of Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which have been blown apart in some superb posts over a couple of days by Justin at Chicken Yoghurt) and how toppling Saddam is apparently enough justification for the war, it is becoming apparent that those of us who were deeply cynical about this whole farce at the time because of the sudden rush to war were onto something.

Something did happen in those 10 days and we have yet to find out what. The fact is that this war was either legal or illegal; there is no shade of grey. If you have doubts, then the status quo must prevail. The AG had doubts on the 7th of May. Those doubts should be enough for most people to conclude that action is illegal. If the war was illegal, then the whole case falls. The bringing of "Freedom" and "Liberation" to the Iraqis becomes irrelevant... they are no longer defences for the action, since British troops could be prosecuted, and the ignorance for international rule of law will have been set.

This is why the government is desperate to keep this off the agenda. Right now they can wriggle and squirm and say "Saddam was a bad man and we got rid of him" and make it difficult for those of us who were opposed to continue to do so without looking like a Saddam-luvvie. But if it is shown to be illegal, then they can no longer hide behind this, because it means they had no right to enforce regime change. Riding roughshod over international law will give carte-blanche for other nations to do the same. Sure, Israel has been doing it for decades. But now other countries can botch some evidence of a threat, freely invade each other and install their own puppet regimes. The precedent is set.

However, even if we accept that the war was legal, we are then faced with another dilemma. If international law has now been cast that the doctrine of pre-emption is admissable, and toppling of regimes in order to preserve some arbitrary standard of human rights (who makes this decision is as yet unclear) is wholly legitimate, then there is now reasonable grounds for invading the following countries:

Saudi Arabia
North Korea

The list doubtless continues. But the fact remains that a number of these countries are strong allies. Others are keeping the US economy afloat. There are occasionally token gestures made against some saying that they "must respect human rights". However, we would never dream of invading any of these.

Once again, it brings us back to what the rush to war was. Was there another reason hidden behind the public spectacle? In the absence of anything else, is hardly surprising that people leap to the conclusion that the war was for seeking control of Iraq's oil supplies. I feel that this must have been involved somewhere, but there was more to it. There were already a quarter of a million troops amassed down there, waiting to go. It's clear there was some sort of timetable in action, and they couldn't wait any longer. The inspectors were getting compliance - and so the only justification for war in international law: i.e. the disobedience of UN Security Council resolutions was also flawed. The UN is the only judge we have. Member states execute UN resolutions. They do not have the authority to judge them as well.

Of course, the other important point to consider is the fact that before the war Blair was claiming that if Saddam "fully complied" with the UN resolutions, then there would be no war in the first place. This also rather makes a mockery of the fact that we should celebrate Saddam's demise, since Blair would appear to have been quite happy to leave him in power if Iraq complied with the resolutions. Blair had no interest in the human rights angle before the war, simply because to build a case on it would have led to the war being called illegal openly. Only afterwards did this response emerge as a way of smearing opponents who had a principled opposition to the war.

What this whole sorry affair rests on is that no one dare challenge the authority of the United States and the UK as its chum. No one wants to find out if it was illegal or not, because if they did they would suffer severe diplomatic and economic consequences. It's clear that regardless of international law, we have set precedents in the past for other arguably illegal conflicts. But we are allowed to make it up as we go along, since we have the ability and the position to do so. It would take someone with nothing to lose to bring a case.

A country like the "Democratic" Republic of Congo. Can you imagine the hypocrisy of such a country bringing a case against the UK to the International Criminal Court? But they are signed and ratified to the ICC. There's no reason why they couldn't.

And this is why we no longer have a shred of moral authority. Our actions on the international stage and our disregard for the the rule of law has brought us this low - that our records could be challenged by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Either way we have a problem. Legal, then we have a precedent set for upholding human rights across the world, a standard that we can arbitrarily set and interfere with nations as we see fit. Except, we don't. Making us hypocrites. If we accept that, then why are only the Iraqi people important? Why should only they be "free"? We have now appointed ourselves world police. We have to uphold that. The UN becomes irrelevant, because we can now write, execute and judge the law.

Illegal, and the consequences are dire. The world order collapses. The UN is still irrelevant. Nations can blast each other back to the stone age and it won't really matter, because international law is irrelevant. After all, if the UK can selectively ignore it, why not everyone else? Now anyone can write, execute and judge the law. Rule of law was established by liberals in the 19th and 20th centuries to protect everyone from the arbitrary rule of Kings claiming they have divinity. What's to stop anyone from doing the same?

All this comes courtesy of our Tone.
So don't forget to thank him for it on May 5th.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Another day, another accusation...

It seems the days don't go by at the moment without Michael Howard taking his time to carefully point out to everyone that Tony Blair is a liar. Of course, most sensible people already know this, so Howard is achieving nothing new. By banging on about it, he is beginning to look rather opportunistic. At least last week we were being told about his policies; this week we're just being told why Tony Blair is bad and how he shouldn't be given another chance. Negativity everywhere.

This morning is no exception; Howard has done it again. Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy is telling everyone the party is in the best mood since 1983. They're going to look stupid on election day if it transpires they gain very few seats while they were wasting valuable campaign time harking back to the "heady days" of the SDP.

There's a distinct sense of "here we go again" setting in everywhere. Most bloggers have stepped back a gear, and even the mainstream media is apparently tiring with little to offer in terms of new insight. The problem is that we've completely exhausted the debates on immigration and the economy. Yet, there are so many things in this campaign that have not been touched on. Education is still shockingly absent, although Labour are trying to raise the issue today. Health is barely given a mention apart from letting us all know that Miserable Matron and the MRSA "battle" is on the way back.

The bandwagons cannot roll on with accusations alone. The more we hear someone is a liar, the more we become desensitised to the word. It would have been big news to call another politician a liar even just a decade ago. Now it's a daily event, and it isn't shocking any more. We simply expect to hear this about our politicians, thus further fueling our cynicism of the whole damn process.

The system is rotten. That has been the case from the very beginning, and it's what I discussed yesterday. But now it appears that everyone who resides within it is just as bad. I'm not sure what the solution is, but the quicker we're out of this current election cycle so we can give it a good post-mortem, the better.

The Tories are writhing in pain, and the electorate is waiting to step forth with the lethal injection to put it out of its misery. Unfortunately, it still looks like another landslide is on the cards. I'd rather we just had it now to get it over with than keep waiting and hearing the latest garbage about the Tories slipping in via the back door. Then we can finally see the end of this tawdry affair and the lazy campaigning mud-slinging from all parties. Next Thursday can't come too soon.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

We The People Suckers

Last night I watched Channel 4's Dispatches programme on why politicians cannot tell the truth. It was presented by Peter Oborne, journalist for the Spectator. He did one of these programmes for the US Presidential election too which was very good, so I was expecting a similar standard.

He achieved it, and went way beyond. The angle of the programme was that politics today is nothing but a targeted grab at the 800,000 voters in marginal constituencies liable to change via the modern marketing methods that sells political parties as if they were a choice between a Snickers, a Twix or a Mars Bar. Meanwhile, the serious issues that are going to affect this country - the future of NHS funding, global warming, etc. are ignored, because to discuss them would be political suicide, or as Tony Blair put it, "the political realities" constrain them.

This thesis is not a new one. However, the programme was brilliant in the fact that it carefully took its time to flesh out the argument, giving us a superb insight into the marketing tools such as the Tories "VoterVault" and the Mosaic consumer profiling that the politicians use to send exactly the right message to the owners of the house. Families? Send them leaflets on childcare. Pensioners? Talk about the burden of council tax. It's slick. It's professional.

It's also killing politics. Unsurprisingly, Peter Oborne was unable to find anyone in the street who could disagree with the key planks of any party's strategy - and that is the point. The three parties are all fighting over the same ground. So much so that no one can actually tell the difference.

The demise of ideology is why people are finding it difficult to care about politics any more. There is no rallying call for anyone, apart from those who just so happen to have opinions that put them in the centre. These people are the lucky ones who matter. They can be summoned by everyone at the same time. For anyone out on the left or the right, we're pretty much stuffed. Our votes don't count because we don't change our minds enough - we're more steadfast when it comes to our ideology, sticking with it through thick and thin. Or in many cases, we just decide not to vote because no one matches what we want.

It made me wonder. Perhaps those of us who enjoy politics are actually the fools. We like to spend our time berating those who don't vote. We bemoan the fact that turnout is on a permanent downward spiral. We know best. We know politics is important.

Maybe we're the suckers. What if those who don't turnout are right? Perhaps they're the sensible ones for realising that the system is entirely flawed from top to bottom. While we spend our time endlessly bickering over who is the right party for Britain, we've been hoodwinked by the system for making us think that our vote actually means something. Those who don't vote have already cottoned onto all this - that no matter how you vote, you'll always get a government that reacts to events in a manner that doesn't piss off that nice little slice of middle England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland don't even come into the equation.

Before politicians knew about these people who Swing All Ways, they had to go on their gut feeling. They weren't to know what was going to be popular until they opened their mouths and said it. Now we have endless testing of policy to find what goes down the best in those little cosy living-room chats with the focus groupies. So before political marketing, politicians had no choice but to exploit ideological divisions. They were the only tools of political marketing. They were the only way to bring people together. They had visions for the future. Now, all politics is about the here and now. Tomorrow can wait, since it is always a day away.

Clement Attlee and his Labour government of 1945-1951 did not bring in the NHS because they thought it would go down an absolute storm in middle England, ensuring Labour dominance for the next decade. No. They did it because they thought it was best for Britain. They believed in it.

This is what is wrong with politics. We don't have politicians who genuinely want to do things that are best for Britain. We have politicians who want to take office and keep it at all costs. When Labour realised the Tories were winning middle England with their tough line on immigration, they came along and cloned their points system with very few differences. They didn't suddenly decide their ideology had been wrong all the time because it didn't have a points system for immigration. They don't honestly believe a points system is best for Britain. All they know is that a points system sounds tough, it sounds harsh, and it matches what middle England wants - therefore, it must be Right. They realised that they needed to close the gap with the Tories, as to not do so would put their future in jeopardy.

This pattern repeats itself infinitely across politics. It's tedious and tiresome. There is little solution. Even pure PR with a list system is not a saviour, since we still end up targeting the biggest and most electorally significant groups in society. The problem is terminal. The future consists of lurching from one problem to the next in ever more populist measures so that one group of people always remain happy.

But why should we complain? After all, all the parties are leading us to a Fair Society. A Just Society, forever going forward, watched over by the Loving Matron. With opportunities for all, including hard working families, and those who play by the rules. Doesn't that please everyone?

Monday, April 25, 2005


Much better. Well done Charles...
Kennedy seeks Iraq war 'justice'

Every Labour and Conservative candidate should be held to account by voters over the Iraq war, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has argued.

Mr Kennedy said Tony Blair had taken the UK into an illegal war and voters could deliver "justice by the ballot box" at the general election.
I've been calling for this for some days now, and I'm glad to see he has grasped the opportunity the Mail on Sunday's article has presented. However, he must remain resolute. Sure, he can't bang on about it for the next week, but a couple of days reminder can't hurt anyone. Labour and the Tories are already trying to gloss over it, as they have both moved onto new issues this morning.

So the Lib Dems must try to keep the agenda focused on them. If they do so, it will mean that as is normal, Labour will present a press conference on something and the journalists will spend all the time after it asking questions on unrelated issues, and hopefully that will include Iraq.

Meanwhile, Labour's top brass has begun to steer the good ship Nuclear into a u-turn. Yes. Those membership cards for CND long buried deep in landfills, Tony Blair has decided it is time to reconsider nuclear power as the option for Saving the Day and meeting carbon dioxide reduction pledges.

A classic. Yet another principle sold down the river. More wavering and flip flopping that the opposition parties must capitalise on. Nuclear power is dangerous, and we still don't know what to do with the mountain of waste it produces. But old Blair doesn't want to rock the boat as he's fed up of local councils chucking all proposals for wind power in the bin. It seems the NIMBYs have won. Or have they? Perhaps they will now be pleased that the plans have turned to having a brand new Sellafield on their doorsteps!

This is yet another reason why the Lib Dems have my vote this time. This further u-turn, and the Lib Dems opposition to nuclear power, is a chance to remind all traditional Labour voters of exactly what Blair has done to their party. They must stop voting out of loyalty. Choose based on what you think is best for society. New Labour has no credibility in the causes of social justice; they are more concerned about fighting illegal wars in Iraq.

There can be no denying that New Labour is not the party it was. New Labour has offered token gestures to the old left, but they are few and far between. New Labour has no right to bear the name "Labour" and it might as well just change its name completely. Another day, another tenet of the party dead and buried.

That's New Labour.

Sunday, April 24, 2005


There will be many people willing today's article in the Mail on Sunday about the legality of the Iraq war to be true. I'm holding myself back from believing that they have an entire copy of the Government's legal advice from the Attorney-General simply because it is from the Mail on Sunday. Although they did support the war, they must see the benefits of embarassing Blair and what it can do electorally.

If it is true, it is naturally a scandal but not at all surprising to me and many others who've thought this whole Iraq war has been a catastrophe from start to finish. The news that it might well have been "illegal" is something that numerous international law experts have been saying for some time so it is hardly a groundbreaking moment in the long and appalling history of this whole charade.

But at the very least I hope this makes Iraq return to the headlines. The Lib Dems must use this opportunity to show their passion on this issue and remind everyone that they were the only party to have a principled opposition to it. If they can cause a fuss they can put Blair on the defensive once more. And if they can remind those 1-2 million who went on the anti-war march to vote for the best placed party to represent their views, then they could see a considerable rise in opinion poll results for them.

There are many things this election has not covered. Iraq is just one of them. People may say that this is because no one is interested any more. If that is true, then why has immigration been such an important part of this campaign? It is consistently pretty low down in polls of voter lists of priorities where they are asked open-ended questions, rather than ticking boxes on a closed-list. This is because it's not in the Conservatives' or Labour's best interests to stoke up the Iraq affair. The Lib Dems get very little chance to set the agenda, so now it has been raised by someone else they must take this opportunity and ride it all the way to polling day.

They must also strongly resist the Conservatives' sheer hypocrisy in their attempt to smear Blair over this issue. They wanted the war more than anyone. They do not have the right to criticise Blair over this, but they will get the headlines if the Lib Dems don't stand up and be counted.

In a week's time, the election will be drawing to a close. It's understandable that some smaller parties may not want to peak too early. But this is now the last chance for the Lib Dems. If they drop this now, it will be a serious opportunity missed and they may regret it for generations to come.