The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Reading the runes

The art of political fortune telling has come a long way since the local Chieftain's pollster would open a pig's bladder to discern his chances in the upcoming battle but after this week's polls we may have to reconsider that option. It's been an interesting week though with YouGov, ICM, Mori and Communicate Research all reporting widely different results.

The Tories' rating has been very similar in all 3 from 39-35% but there is disagreement among the pollsters on the split between Labour (ranging from 37-29%) and the LibDems on between 22-14%.

It's pretty clear that the Tories' support is in the high 30's, good but not good enough to guarantee victory in an election. Having said that though it is possible for the Tories to scrape home with that level of support. How? Well, its the gap between the two main parties that will decide the outcome of the next election. If the Tories can't increase their support over 40% they will need the LibDems to take Labour votes for them. That's why the uncertaintly over the split between Labour & the LibDems makes all the difference.

I suspect the reality is that Labour are in the low 30's & the LibDems in the high teens. Either way though, the real balance of support won't be settled until Tony Blair leaves Downing St. Only when Brown takes over will we see if Labour can recover some ground with the voters who have left them in the past few years. I don't place any great store in the hypothetical polls between Brown & Cameron. When he takes over perception of Brown will change. There will be a 'Brown Bounce' in the polls, though how high it will go and how long it will last no-one knows.

Until we see the nature of the linkely bounce and whether it signals a permanent consolidation of Labour support or a temporary hike we won't really know the landscape on which the next election will be fought. Until then interesting though they are the polls are fairly meaningless.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tax & the Tories

The Tory Tax Commission has released its report and surprise, surprise it has recommended sweeping tax cuts. Well, the real surprise of course is how similar many of the proposals are to those laid out by the LibDem Tax working party this Summer.

Although there are differences over Inheritance Tax & Stamp Duty (the Tories want extra breaks for the rich, while the :ibDem package is redistributive) the big items - cutting the basic rate by 2% to 20 & scrapping the 10% rate raising the threshold to £7,835 are both the same.

This package would cost £21billion, its already clear that Cameron will look to counter the revenue loss through a 'Green Tax' switch, both he and Osbourne indicated as much at Tory party conference and are again briefing the press now.
The approach is clever politics, setting up a fake confrontation with the 'rightwing' report and balancing its nod to the party's grassroots ideologues with a high profile green initiative.

Of course the green switch is also at the heart of the LibDem strategy. If the Tories do adopt the same approach it will be an act of political larceny on a par with Disraeli backing Parliamentary reform. none-the-less the LDs shouldnt be overly concerned. The LDs new tax policy left it exposed, with the potential for the Tories to attack them in the 20-25 seats where the party is vulnerable to Cameron's revival as a high tax party. A Conservative green switch policy will signal that the Tories have changed their strategy against the party, to trying to kill the LibDems with kindness, stealing their ground and wooing back liberal Tories who supported the LDs since 97, rather than trying to scare with horror stories.

I suspect that such a policy will have a patchy success rate. It will blunt the anti-LD message & allow Campbell to hold on to some seats he might otherwise have lost - but it will open up a bigger prize, but winning over LD voters in marginal Labour seats who don't yet trust the Tories and win them more seats overall.

Yet again Cameron seems to be positioning the Tories in a way that would make it relatively easy for the LibDems to tolerate a minority Tory Govt if thats what the next election throws up.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Just a little bit more conformity & we'll all be alright, won't we?

Two weeks ago Jack Straw reignited the simmering debate about multiculturism in the UK with his clumsy comments about Muslim women wearing the veil.

This is a tricky issue, complex with few easy answers, especially for a liberal - but the response has been predictably simplistic. We are now in the midst of a wave of Isamophobic media-led hysteria. Since Mr Straw spoke out we have had fears of Muslim teaching assistants being unintelligible, Muslim policemen cherry picking their duties, Muslim cabbies refusing to allow guide-dogs in their taxis and now fears over the building of a 'supermosque' in East London.

The problem with Straw's remarks is not that he doesn't have the right to express his discomfort at overt declarations of religious doctrine, as an atheist I have quite a lot of sympathy for that. Rather it is that he has calculatedly stirred up a hornets nest to promote his own forlorn ambition to become Labour's Deputy leader and dressed it all up as an attempt to bolster community relations.

The essence of Mr Straw's point is that the wearing of the full veil is so alien a concept in the UK that it is hurting community relations. He argues that those relations would be far better if Muslim women took the full veil off. In other words there would be less discrimination, fear & distrust of Muslims if they were just a little bit more like everyone else.

It's a cheap populist political gimmick, typical of today's Labour party, but unsurprisingly the new Rainbow Tories are jumping on the bandwagon with David Davies accusing Birtish Muslims of 'voluntary aparthied'. What is this nonsense? Should Sikhs take off their turbans or should Jews lose the skull caps to avoid upsetting other communities? - of course not, just to suggest it expose's the absurdity of the idea. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, blaming the victim for provoking the crime. The problem isn't too much diversity, its too much intolerance.

It would undoubtedly be true that if we were all alike we would have less cause to disagree with each other, but I'm afraid that kind of conformity comes at a price. One of the reasons I am a liberal is the preamble to the Liberal Democrat's constitution which boldy declares that the party 'exists to safeguard a......society in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity'.

When I was a teenager Enoch Powell came to my school, quite something for an inner city comprehensive with a 40% black intake. None the less it gave me, as the son of Jamaican immigrants who came here in the 1950's the chance to ask him whether or not he thought I was British? He replied in his ornate way - "If the passport you carry, says you are British then, by will of the Crown in Parliament, you are indeed British - but you are not English and should not want to be." For years his comment puzzled me, but in the end I saw in it an essential truth about what it is to be British.

The historian Lynda Colley describes the nation as an 'imagined community'. Britishness is the perfect example of that - it is an invented concept - Britain didn't organically evolve, the UK was willed into existence by the Act of Union 1707. That doesn't make Bristihsness any less valid or real, but it does allow us to better understand what it means. Just as the British state has changed in those 300 years so has what it means to be British. 250 years ago it was illegal to wear that symbol of Jacobinism Clan Tartan, now it is an integral part of our culture. That is the essence of Britishness, that it grows and changes with each generation. This is a nation of immigrants, our national drink is the once exotic oriental infusion of tea, our most popular dish the chicken tikka masala. For over 1,000 years wave after wave of immigration has shaped our identity. That process has never been easy or comfortable, but it is what has made us who we are - the average sentence in English contains words whose roots come from at least four different languages.

I am a multiculturalist and an integrationist. I don't believe in multiculturalism in its classic academic sense - believing that abuses of civil liberties such as female circumsicion, should be excused on the grounds of differing 'cultural outlook'. No, a multicultural society is not one that allows any & everything - it has rules, universal standards that must apply to all people & all communities, however a multicultural society is one that doesn't assume that in order to obey those rules we all have to be the same.

The fear of otherness is found in all societies, its cure is not conformity but tolerance. That tolerance and integration cannot be achieved by brow beating and bullying. It may take generations for things that are exotic or threatening to become a standard part of British culture, but like tea & tartan British they will be. Integration takes time and undertsanding not political posturing. What has made Britain such as extraordinary influence on the world was not just its ancient traditions, but its amazing vitality & flexbility. What made Britian great was its ability to accept difference and to adapt to it.

It is not just possible to retain your cultural identity as a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Afro Carribean while being British - that is the very essence of being British. It is Britishness that will change with each new wave of immigration, we will absorb these differences not through forcing conforminty but by growing and expanding our 'imagined community' and our society will be the better for it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Watch the straw men fall

David Cameron, may have finally found his Clause 4 moment.

Having manufactured a row with the rightwing phantom, in the shape of John Redwood & Edward Leigh, over tax, he is now able to show himself bravely holding on to the centre ground.

Like Blair before him he has chosen the ground for his party's internal fight carefully. He knows he will win that fight, not because the party agrees with him but because the party is so desperate for power after 3 election losses that it6 will put up with virtually anything in order to win the nest election. He knows the Tories refusing to promise tax cuts is counter-intuitive enough for to stick in th public's subconscious.

Is this change of heart genuine, are the blue-green-yellow-red Rainbow Tories for real? Well, in a sense yes - just as pre-1997 Blair, Brown & Mandelson genuinely meant to drag Labour to the centre ground so Cameron, Osbourne & Letwin do with the Tories. However, the parrallel with Labour goes further, in that the rest of the Tory gang remain much the same gnarly bunch of rancuous reactionaries as they always were whatever liberal clothes their leaders don.

If there is a Tory majority after the election (unlikely but possible with effective targeting) then between 80-100 Tory MPs will be out & out headbangers, rightwing nutters bent on leaving the EU, ending all immingartion & asylum,privatising everything that isnt nailed down & slashing both taxes & public spending. They will be organised and out to get cameron. The Major Govts troubles & indeed Tony Blair's problems with his left, will look like a little kid's picnic compared to the antics that Redwood & co will get up to if they have the chance.

Cameron knows that he can only win the election by posing as a LibDem, but a Tory govt would be dependent on the votes of a phallanx of hard right MPs. I suspect that Cameron would genuinely like to govern from the centre and indeed, like Blair would confront his party in power. However, whatever liberal sentiments he may possess these are not strong enough to sustain a government. Like Labour, once in power the baser instincts of the party will come through. Cameron talks a good liberal game - but then he talked a good Tory game when he drafted the most rightwing election manifesto ever prioduced last year.

Left alone Tories will always be Tories, as their flip-flopping on ID cards & Iraq has shown they simply cannot be trusted with a Parliamentary majority. Desperate as I am to get rid of this wretched Govt, I am deeply concerned at the prospect of a return to power by the Tories. I think that's how the country feels as well.

If, as is likely, the next election results in a hung Parliament, then the LibDems will have a real opportunity to ensure that whoever occupies No 10, is forced to adhere to Liberal values & policies, not just empty liberal slogans.