Friday, 30 October 2009

Is there common ground in the polarised Kaminski row?

Here is a rather curious thing about the highly polarised debate over the new European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, and the political history of its leader Michal Kaminski.

With one side mostly shouting "smears" at any questions about Kaminski's history and the other seeming to shout "extremist" in interrogating it, the surprising thing is there is relatively little disagreement about the facts of Michal Kaminski's history, nor even too much dispute about what the major British parties think about most of those controversies.

It remains true that Left and right are not going to agree about the political sense of making Michal Kaminski the leader of a European Parliament group, detached from the major west European centre-right parties.

Even so, there may be more common ground about the case of Michal Kaminski than you would think. Here are six things which I do not think many on the right or left or independent media voices could seriously dispute about Kaminski, though they do disagree about the weight to give to these facts.

1. Michal Kaminski was a member of a far right group in his youth.

This seems to be undisputed. The Polish Chief Rabbi today said on the Today programme: "as a teenager [Kaminski] did join an organisation in Polish known as NOP which is unfortunately openly anti-semitic and neo-nazi. He also quit that organisation as a teenager."

(There is a disagreement over calls for David Miliband should apologise for pointing to Kaminski's history. The Foreign Secretary can legitimately argue that his description of Kaminski as "a man denounced by the Chief Rabbi of Poland for an anti semitic, neo Nazi past" is consistent with the Chief Rabbi's new comments, as well as his earlier July statement).

(There remain contested issues over details of the timing, and the nature of the group at that time: Kaminski's official account has been that he was only a member aged 15 to 17, when it was part of the anti-Communist underground; but the Daily Telegraph reported that he was a member aged 17 to 20, so between 1989 and 1991 after Communism. This is also part of the argument about the nature of the NOP, discussed in this Left Foot Forward thread).

2. * Michal Kaminski opposed the Polish government's apology over the Jewadbne massacre and all major British parties - both his allies and opponents - oppose his position and would contest his language over this.

The fact of Kaminski's campaign in opposition to the Jewadbne apology now appears entirely uncontested, after he dropped his claim to The Observer in July that he always supported the apology and "never tried to stop the commemoration". He has dropped his denial this summer that he "never gave an interview" arguing that an apology depend on “someone from the Jewish side will apologise for what the Jews did during the Soviet occupation", instead repeating (in slightly gentler language) the argument of an analogy with an apology "from the whole Jewish nation" in his Jewish Chronicle interview three weeks ago.

It is also clear that the major British politicians disagree with and disapprove of Kaminski's position on the Jewadbne apology - and that the Conservatives do not agree with or condone his language about a Jewish apology (though that latter criticism has been more muted than it might have been).

(So the disagreement here is about how strongly this Kaminski argument is criticised; which is linked to some disagreement about how far the 2001 campaign had anti-semitic undertones or links, given that there were both mainstream and extremist arguments about the apology).

3. Michal Kaminski has stated his clear opposition to anti-semitism now; the Jewish Chief Rabbi has welcomed this, stating rather carefully that "I have heard from Mr KamiƄski in public and in private. I certainly see him as a man that today is against antisemitism," while not withdrawing his earlier remarks about Kaminski's regrettable associations.

The fact of Kaminski's public opposition now to anti-semitism is not contested by Labour voices. Denis MacShane writes that he does not accuse Kaminski of anti-semitism now, though he does strongly challenge his Jewadbne position, especially calling for a withdrawal of the calls for Jewish apologies.

All of the British political parties share a commitment to challenging anti-semitism, and believe that it is important to maintain this. Denis MacShane worked on a cross-party basis to chair a Parliamentary group inquiry on anti-semitism which reported in 2007 on how to tackle a rise in anti-semitism, and which forms the basis of his recent book Globalising Hatred.

Critical media voices like Martin Bright of the Jewish Chronicle who find some of Kaminski's views alarming, are not accusing him of anti-semitism. Bright wrote that "I have no reason to believe he is an antisemite or to doubt his commitment to the state of Israel. But I also have a much clearer idea of precisely what he is: a socially conservative east-European Catholic nationalist with all the unfortunate baggage this entails".

4. Michal Kaminski supports Israel

The Economist intelligently discussed the need to make a distinction "between attitudes to Jews and attitudes to Israel".

The case of Nick Griffin, and his support for the Gaza operation, clearly shows that anti-semites can be vocally pro-Israel.

But Kaminski is not Griffin, and his support for the state of Israel is not contested.

5. Michal Kaminski has given contradictory accounts of his own political history.

The Economist's argument that "even his denials contain suspicious self-contradictions" also seems to me to be entirely uncontested, given how many times he has had to reverse the facts of his public account.

This may explain why the Conservatives' "due diligence" process uncovered no issue of concern, and why it remains difficult to get at the truth. I think it certainly shows that simply taking Kaminski's own statements at face value, and charging those who scrutinise them as smearing him is unwise and unfair.

It may be part of the reason why some relevant questions - such as Kaminski's role in promoting anti-semitic rumours about President Kasniewski having a Jewish grandmother during the 1995 Presidential campaign - remain unanswered.

But Kaminski's shifting accounts do not prove that he is a secret extremist. A (relatively) more benign explanation is that some of the answers would be inconvenient or embarassing, and that he hoped the questions would go away if dismissed. That was unwise, and the failed cover up is a legitimate reason to question the quality of his leadership, while his supporters may question how far these evasions were fundamentally important untruths.

6. Michal Kaminski has operated in democratic politics for several years.

Kaminski has been a mainstream politician on the Catholic nationalist Polish right, known primarily for bringing in modern media 'spin' techniques, though several of his statements would never be made by a British or west European context, such as those about gays, which he has appeared to regret in more recent intervews.

There are many reasons why British politicians may criticise the authoritarian populism of the Law and Justice party. He has not been a pariah politician as an MEP since 2004, and the party was part of the EPP group. (There were many protests including in Britain in 2005-6 at some outlandish homophobic statements, and the banning of pride marches, while ConservativeHome readers were divided with 36% polled in 2006 feeling the party's homophobia meant it would not be an appropriate partner, with a narrow majority being supportive of an anti-federalist alliance). But Law & Justice are generally accepted to be a democratic right-wing party even if, in Polish domestic politics, most British Conservatives would almost certainly be closer to the Civic Platform governing party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Polish domestic politics. (Daniel Hannan is a strong advocate of Kaminski).

The challenge from the centre-left is not that Law & Justice are entirely beyond the pale - but about the political sense or strategy of preferring these new right-wing allies to the centre-right mainstream including all of the major west European conservative and Christian Democratic parties.


The disagreement

So that is the history of Michal Kaminski.

I do not think much of the account above is contested as a matter of fact, as opposed to debating how much weight the different aspects of his complex and sometimes contradictory political history should have in judging a leader of a democratic right-of-centre alliance.

Kaminski is not a neo-fascist, but he has had several political associations he now wishes to avoid or play down; the evidence that this involved making at least opportunist use of anti-semitic arguments or links in the past is strong; I also find the evidence that he has substantially changed his views fairly convincing.

So opponents of the Conservative Party will continue to question whether he was a good or appropriate choice to lead a modern Euro-reformist or Eurosceptic group. Many will agree with the judgement The Economist's Bagehot column of Kaminski that "at best he is a distastefully cynical demagogue", and will not think the (undisputable) fact that "there are viler and more extreme politicians in both these countries" is a recommendation for a pan-European leadership role.

Conservatives will argue that the politics of post-Communism are complicated, and that
their political opponents are mostly concerned that the new group will break the mould of European politics; while Labour will argue that the more likely outcome is that the new group will be cut off from power and influence and will risk isolating the British centre-right.

These arguments have often centred on the personal history of Michal Kaminski. Those issues matter - though, barring important new revelations, there may not be much more to add to the arguments on either side. That might mean that more attention is paid to the much broader political argument about the wisdom or folly of the Conservatives' new alliances - and what that might reveal about the different political visions of Britain's role in the European Union.

When is a majority not a majority?

A central argument of the Conservative union reforms of the 1980s was that a ballot was necessary to call a strike. Not calling a national ballot was one of the political mistakes made by Arthur Scargill in the NUM miners' strike 25 years ago.

Now the Conservatives are considering legislation so that strike ballots would not be eligible unless 50% of those being called out (and so eligible to vote) vote yes.

The Guardian reports:

The Tories are looking at introducing laws setting new minimum turnout thresholds for strike ballots on the basis that they can only be lawful disputes if a majority of those being called out on strike have voted for it in a ballot. In the case of the Royal Mail dispute there was a clear majority for the strike among those voting, but not among the total workforce.

The Unions Together campaign point out that there is no Conservative MP in the House of Commons with a majority of the eligible electorate. (The Conservative party opposes modest reforms, such as the Alternative Vote, which requires a candidate to get 50% of those voting, though that is the principle by which Tory candidates are selected).

They have launched an online petition and campaign against the proposal, arguing that it would have been too extreme for Margaret Thatcher.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Up to a point, Chief Rabbi

The Jewish Chronicle reports the Polish Chief Rabbi's latest statement on Michal Kaminski's controversial political history

An email sent to the think-tank Policy Exchange, Rabbi Schudrich said: "There is no doubt that Kaminski is a strong friend of the State of Israel. He himself has spoken out against anti-Semitism on several occasions during the past decade.

"It is a grotesque distortion that people are quoting me to prove that Kaminski is an anti-Semite. Portraying Kaminski as a neo Nazi plays into the painful and false stereotype that all Poles are anti-Semitic."

"I would also like to clarify that the headline of James Macintyre article of July 29, 2009 entitled: "Jewish Leaders Turn on Cameron's Tories: Poland's chief rabbi and others call on Cameron to sever ties with Polish MEP" does not represent what I said to the author.

"I made no political statement and this headline is misleading and untrue."

So how did such a report arise?

The New Statesman had already published the email from the Rabbi: he does not withdraw the content of this.

Dear James,

I do not comment on political decisions. However, it is clear that Mr Kaminski was a member of NOP, a group that is openly far right and neo-nazi. Anyone who would want to align himself with a person who was an active member of NOP and the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne (which was established to deny historical facts of the massacre at Jedwabne) needs to understand with what and by whom he is being represented.

Michael Schudrich

No political statement?

Up to a point, Chief Rabbi.

While he is challenging a headline, both that headline and the report seem to me a very fair report of his statement - and indeed, the only possible plausible interpretation of his own words.

Curiously, this latest statement from the office of the Polish Chief Rabbi comes in an email correspondence with the Policy Exchange think-tank. (The centre-right group has charitable status, which means that it must steer clear of political activity or partisan involvement, though it has strong links with and influence on the Cameron Conservatives, and its director Neil O'Brien built a reputation as an effective Eurosceptic campaigner before joining the think-tank).

So where are we now?

Tory blogger Iain Dale is certain this is a decisive intervention, having himself long ago exonerated Kaminski as having no questions to answer.

Toby Helm of The Observer reports there has been intense political pressure in Poland on the Rabbi.

If the initial email intended to stay out of a political argument, it hardly succeeded. Nor could that be plausibly thought to be its intent. The Chief Rabbi appears to regret that, without withdrawing the content of it, but rather I doubt his latest email gets him out of the political fray either.

Where does this leave the leader of the Tories' new European group?

The evidence that Michal Kaminski made at least opportunistic use of anti-semitic sentiments remains strong, and efforts to refute this have unravelled. (I have not seen his response to reports that he was among those involved in the 1995 campaign against Kasniewski’s presidential bid who were pushing the story that Kasniewski’s grandmother was Jewish). As over the campaign against the massacre apology, at key moments in his career Kaminski does appear to have made an opportunist bid to use and play to quite widespread anti-semitic opinion.

This does not mean that he could not turn into a moderate mainstream right-wing political leader. The Chief Rabbi's statement - whatever the pressure - may weigh on the ledger for those who believe that his views have changed.

That Kaminski's own account of his history has fallen apart under scrutiny is surely beyond dispute.

Curiously, that might now be said of the Chief Rabbi too.

Labour's blogosphere and the erosion of civil liberties

Is Labour's blogosphere complicit in the erosion of civil liberties?

As we know from this week's Guardian, ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) has been putting together a database of UK political activists under the banner of monitoring what it defines as 'domestic extremism'.

A couple of days ago I posted on this topic here at Next Left, focusing in particular on the Home Secretary's inadequate response to the revelations. As I explained, his response was equivocal (gist: I don't think the police are doing anything dodgy, but if they are, I'm not responsible). And he tried to defuse the importance of the issue by treating the whole thing in a jokey manner.

The jokeyness was profoundly ill-judged. The vast majority of these 'domestic extremists' are simply people of conscience who are willing to go public and protest about the social evils they perceive around them. I strongly suspect that well over half the members of any Quaker meeting around the country would fit into this category!

To dismiss the anxieties and activism of these fellow citizens with the sort of glib joke that Alan Johnson did is to show contempt for these people and for the politics of conscience they represent - a political tradition that goes back from today's Climate Camp through anti-war, anti-colonial, and anti-slavery movements, suffragism, Chartism, and the Levellers during the English Civil War.

Historically, the Labour party and the wider labour movement have been part of this tradition - or at least, connected to it, if, at times, in an uneasy relationship with it. It ought, then, to be a concern for those of us in the Labour party when a Labour government seems quite happy to let the police treat huge swathes of contemporary protest politics, expressive of this self-same tradition, as quasi-criminal activity. And when a Labour Home Secretary treats protestors with such contempt.

Let us turn, then, to the Labour blogosphere. Here is a medium in which party members can voice their concerns in an immediate, forthright manner. I've had a look at three Labour-inclined sites: LabourList, Labourhome and Compass's website. What do we see?

Now obviously one can't reasonably expect every site to cover every issue. It would actually be quite tedious if they did. However, I am struck by the collective silence of these three Labour sites on the issue of ACPO's database and its civil liberties implications. (If I have missed something, someone will doubtless let me know!)

And I don't think this reaction - or non-reaction - to ACPO's subversion of our liberties (for are they not amongst the real 'domestic extremists'?) is unusual. Just how much comment on the policing issues raised by the G20 protests was there in the wider Labour blogosphere (outside of Next Left)? I can recall very, very little.

This has consequences. The less we hear critical voices on this topic from within the party, then obviously the less pressure there is on the government to alter course. The silence assists the drift towards authoritarianism.

I assume, of course, that others in the party, those who participate in the Labour blogosphere, share my underlying opposition to authoritarianism.

The worrying thought is: perhaps they - perhaps you - don't share this opposition with me.

Perhaps what we are witnessing here, at the end of the New Labour story, is the Labour party's final abandonment of the 'politics of conscience', of the protest tradition, and its full transformation into a party of executive authoritarianism.

That transformation is completed, not when a Labour government helps make the state more authoritarian (for all governments of all parties will sometimes do authoritarian things), but when such action ceases to be a matter of urgent concern and opposition for a significant number of people in the party. This transformation is completed when the wider party culture is such that the response to obvious and alarming authoritarianism is...collective silence.

There is, of course, an easy way to refute this hypothesis...

Postscript: Guy Aitchison at OurKingdom has written to Alex Smith at LabourList to ask why LabourList has not produced any comment on The Guardian's ACPO revelations and the government's response. I am sure that Next Left readers will be keen to know Alex Smith's reply.

Not Blair, says ex-Blairite

Charles Clarke makes a cogent case in The Independent against Tony Blair being appointed as President of the European Council. And he argues that it would make strategic sense for the UK to put its efforts into securing the more hands-on role of High Representative, particularly if we want to reverse the risk of drifting out of many major EU strategic discussions.

It remains very doubtful that Tony Blair will command the support he needs to secure this appointment and the UK should certainly not be putting all its eggs in the basket of winning the Presidency. The EU's High Representative is less in the limelight but will be a role of great significance. It is well-suited to the UK, with its strong internationalist stance on matters from aid and trade to military commitment and expertise. A British contribution here would make the EU a weightier player in world affairs.

It seems that there is currently no front-runner for this role from other countries, whereas a number of Brits are well-respected internationally. They include Tony Blair (for whom this role would be far better suited), Peter Mandelson, David Miliband, George Robertson and Paddy Ashdown. Any of these would do the job very well, benefiting both Europe and the UK.

Clarke's assessment of the EU politics and the UK position strikes me as convincing. And his concern that Blair's "presence would encourage the rerunning of past battles rather than enabling a new approach to be fashioned" is very much framed consistently with Clarke's belief that, while he remains is an admirer of his former boss, there is no such thing as Blairism now.

Timothy Garton-Ash also argues in The Guardian that the considerable "traffic stopping" pros of a Blair Presidency would be outweighed by the cons.

So Garton-Ash's candidate for President is former Finnish President and UN international mediator Martti Ahtisaari. (Next Left felt that this was one the Nobel Prize committee got right in 2008).

However, Garton-Ash's personal dream team of Ahtisaari-Fischer would look like a takeover of EU foreign policy by the European Council of Foreign Relations, the pan-European think-tankwhich they co-chair and which my former colleague Mark Leonard directs.

The ECFR is only two years old but combining innovative thinking with diplomatic firepower on a model not dissimilar to that of the heavyweight US international think-tanks has given it a significant impact in trying to bring more coherent and strategic thinking to major EU foreign policy challenges.


David Miliband made an excellent speech the other day: how often is the case for a European foreign policy dimension being in our national and international interests heard?

But the Foreign Secretary has been very clear that he is not running for High Representative, even taking to twitter to make the case:

Re gdn/times stories I'm not running for Europe High Rep job. I'm the Foreign Sec thank you very much - fully booked.
9:17 AM Oct 23rd from txt

Though Garton-Ash thinks, if the Blair presidential candidacy fails, he may be persuadable.

But after Miliband's challenge to their new EU alliances, that might, perhaps, upset the Conservatives as much or even more than a Blair Presidency.

Yet it also seems that the Conservatives would be very uncomfortable with any British candidate who might have a credible chance of securing one of the major EU roles.

Making a domestic political argument and running noisy party-facing campaigns against British candidates for major international jobs is a novel development: I don't recall that happening over Peter Carrington or George Robertson at Nato, or the major EU jobs held by Roy Jenkins, Leon Brittan, Chris Patten or even Peter Mandelson.

That is another consequence of the strength of the Conservative Eurosceptic challenge to both the EU mainstream and to the traditional 'Foreign Office view' of how to pursue British interests in a multilateral world. But I think it probably also reflects a little on the noisier, more demotic and often more partisan politics of the internet age.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Help! Can anyone find a Tory blogger who believes that climate change is a real threat?

None of the top ten Conservative bloggers believes the theory that man-made global warming is an established fact; all ten reject David Cameron's view that the issue should be an urgent priority if the party were in government.

Party leader David Cameron has said that "the dangers of climate change are stark and very real. If we don't act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster".

The Tory blogs could hardly disagree more. The scale of the Tory netroots revolt over climate change is revealed by Next Left's survey of the climate change views of this year's top 10 Conservative blogs, as identified by Total Politics magazine's blog awards poll.

Indeed, Next Left can now declare that the unlikely winner of 'greenest top Tory blogger' is John Redwood MP, who had never previously been mistaken for Zac Goldsmith. Redwood's combines his own scepticism with the argument that it would be prudent to take some steps to adapt to possible negative consequences, while welcoming the benefits of global warming too. This would appear to mark Redwood out as a deep green when compared to his fellow Tory top bloggers.

Vocal complaints against the climate change orthodoxy and complaints that it crowds out dissenting views ironically dominates much of the climate change discussion on the major right-wing blog. Perhaps there is more than one kind of 'stifing consensus', though the Tory blogs range from different varieties of agnosticism to the absolute certainty that climate change is a fraud, expressed in rising backbench star Douglas Carswell MP's attack on a "lunatic consensus".

Pointing out the scale of climate scepticism among the online opinion formers on the right does not, of course, prove that they are wrong, or right. That is a matter of scientific evidence. (Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts). But, as a matter of politics, the lack of support for party policy from the most prominent netroots voices on this high profile issue suggests there will be vocal pressure from the party will be to play down the climate change issue.

Some will be deeply concerned about that; others will celebrate it.

Polling finds a strong majority of the British public do think global warming is real and man-made by a margin of 71% to 23%, .the level of Tory opposition to the idea appears to have a strong ideological component.

I am grateful to LibDem blogger Mark Reckons for flagging up his earlier post on this subject. And this post is dedicated to Tim Montgomerie for his willingness to take part in the Fabian fringe at Labour conference, where his argument that the party is far from convinced on climate change.

Climate change and the top Tory blogs

These are the top 10 Conservative blogs, in the Total Politics blog awards, and the reasons they give for being much more sceptical about climate change than David Cameron and the official party policy.

1. Iain Dale is not convinced that climate change is man made. Read a selection of climate posts here.

I used the phrase "preaching climate change religion bollocks" for a reason ... I dislike the messianic side of those like Gore who treat Climate Change as a pseudo religion which if you deign to question you're considered a nutter. I do question it, but I do it out of curiosity, not out of dogma. Let me make my position clear. I do believe climate change is taking place, but I have an open mind on the extent to which it is (if at all) man made. I am unconvinced by both the Stern Report and the IPCC report, which seems to change its evidence according to the conclusion. I am prepared to listen to the arguments of the climate change sceptics, just as I am to those I respect on the other side of the argument.

2. Probably the most influential Tory blogger is Tim Montgomerie, founder of Conservative Home which he co-edits with Jonathan Isaby. "Conservatives are concerned about the environment," he told the Fabian fringe meeting in Brighton. "Not climate change, but definitely the environment".

"I don't think the parliamentary party or the grassroots are convinced about climate change ... As someone who is very sceptical about what we can do about climate change, I think keeping the lights on will prevail", he said. ConservativeHome members' survey found that 86% of readers agreed with the statement that ""Within the next few years the average voter will be much more worried about the cost and availability of energy than they'll be worried about climate change."

The site has editorialised in favour of Nigel Lawson's scepticism on climate change, while running pieces from different perspectives, such as Nick Hurd in favour of party policy, and several pieces from Roger Helmer MEP who is campaigning for the party to declare climate change a media-driven frenzy.

3. Dizzy Thinks has expressed a neutral view on climate change, challenging the idea that the peer reviewed evidence favours the consensus view.

Before someone screams that I'm a "climate change denier", I'm not. However, I'm also not a "climate change believer". What I have never accepted is the argument that there is a "scientific consensus" on the subject and therefore I must accept it as true

Dizzy is an ex-Conservative party member. He is included because we have taken the top 10 Total Politics list, which would be widely accepted as the best known list, so that we can not be thought to have skewed the selection of top blogs.

(In any event, the number 11 blogger Donal Blaney thinks "the continued obsession with climate change at a time of economic meltdown is madness" and thinks the wet summer weather disproved the climate change hypothesis, and writes that "the earth is cooling, not warming").

4. Daniel Hannan MEP is sceptical about climate change, being among those to argue that problems in accurate weather forecasting cast doubt on climate science. He has, however, been less vocal on thse issues than his co-author and close collaborator Douglas Carswell MP.

5. Tory Bear mostly deals in political gossip but is a strong disbeliever, certain that climate change story is a lefty green myth. Blogged recently that the real inconvenient truth of the lack of evidence for hypothesis of global warming "is what most sensible people have been arguing for years".

6. Archbishop Cranmer focuses on the spiritual more than the temporal, but is a strong sceptic about the "religion of climate change", expressing high praise for Northern Ireland environment minister Sammy Wilson's halting of a UK-wide advertising campaign on the grounds that it was 'insidious propaganda':

no amount of money is ever going to control solar activity, no matter how well-meaning the religious fervour which underpins the theory, or how sincere the fanatical zealots who propagate it. The notion of man-made global warming is a political agenda to deprive people of their liberty, property, and livelihoods.

7. John Redwood MP - has a cautious, and prudential view. He is sceptical about how much difference human emissions are making - noting

We do need to know more about cloud formation, water vapour, sun flares and spots and volcanic activity to be sure what is causing the phase of warming that started in 1975 after 35 years of cooling.

I have always thought we should remain sceptical about all scientific theories, for that is the way that science advances by constantly submitting theories to test. Meanwhile we are living in a period when things are warming up, so we should manage any unhelpful consequences of that and welcome the good effects it will have.

This makes him rather more open to the possibility of man-made global warming than most of the other blogs here, and he has written that "Prudence' nonetheless dictates that we should take action now to proect ourselves against the possible bad consequences of global warming.

Redwood has been present to participate in relatively few major Commons divisions on this issue, according to the public whip website.

8. Douglas Carswell MP has blogged about the "lunatic consensus on climate change", which suggests he thinks anybody who holds the 'mainstream' view of this issue, such as his own party leader, is literally mad.

Carswell is 110% convinced that Ian Plimer's "brilliant" book has debunked the climate change myth and should end the argument. And Carswell can not understand how anybody could criticise a book with so many footnotes!

I keep getting folk posting comments telling me how wrong he is. Not just wrong, but totally wrong, apparently. All his facts made up, some suggest. His opinions presented without supporting evidence.

In fact Plimer's book is one of the most heavily footnoted publications you'll find. One thing he doesn't seem short of is evidence to back up what he says.

Of course, none of those shouting about how wrong Plimer is seem to take the trouble to show how and why he is wrong. More often they link to another site that merely regurgitates the consensus on man-made climate change.

Not everyone agrees. But we have heard enough to award Douglas Carswell the hotly contested prize of being the strongest opponent of climate change theory among the top ten Tory blogs.

9. Letters from a Tory

This issue is not a major focus for the site: it does not feature in the site's Manifesto. Mark Reckons noted LFAT's challenge to the 'irritating nonsense' of climate camp protests but LFAT's challenge to Al Gore was based on the idea that EU coordination would be required to make a difference. (Though LFAT also favours UK withdrawal from the EU).

As that seemed inconclusive, Next Left sent an email to the author, and received a characteristically courteous reply:

This might sound strange, given my opinionated blogging, but I honestly have no idea what the hell is going on with climate change. You get the official line of '50 days to save the world' or whatever, and then you get the 'we've now got global cooling, everything's fine, the evidence is all rubbish and full of lies' side of the debate - and I have no idea what to make of it all ...

There are just so many opinions, so many sources of evidence, so many accusations, so many claims, so many politicians with their own agendas, so many pressure groups with their own agendas, so many cynical bloggers, so many climate change 'deniers', so many critics on both sides that I just don't know what to make of this issue.

I just feel that it's not worth having an opinion on climate change unless you spend months looking at this stuff and genuinely listening to both sides, and I just don't have the time or the resources to do that nor have I come across anyone who seems to have already achieved this.

Hope my complete failure to answer your question is helpful....

10. Burning Our Money is a declared agnostic/sceptic about climate change.

On global warming, Tyler likes to characterise himself as an agnostic. Which means he can see the planet is warming, but is unconvinced anyone really understands why.

Though leans towards the revisionists, writing of Channel 4's controversial "Great Global Warming Swindle"

It's well worth the hour and a quarter, if only to arm yourself against the BBC's next global warming scare story, or its reporting of the egregious polemics from the International Panel on Climate Change as fact, or even its everyday line that evil capitalists and 4x4 drivers are destroying the planet... Yes, of course it's almost certainly a lot more complicated than this doc suggests. But here we have a serious yet accessible counterweight to the uncritical hysteria we're constantly served up with elsewhere.


So there we have it. Ten out of ten, albeit to differing degrees.

The right-wing blog consensus is strengthened by the most prominent less party aligned blogs on the top 100 right-of-centre list. The top 10 includes three blogs not on the Conservative list, but they do not do anything to increase diversity of climate debate on the right: Guido Fawkes is campaigning for a recognition that solar activity, not carbon, causes climate change; The Spectator is championing Ian Plimer as "the man who has exposed the great climate change con trick"; while Devil's Kitchen is a committed critic of the AGW theory.

The Tory frontbench is not entirely without support on the Conservative blogs. Those who do want to see a sustained cross-party consensus on climate change might particularly wish success to Richard Willis, a Reading Conservative councillor who is number 20 on the Total Politics list, in his efforts to convince his party that Margaret Thatcher was a climate change pioneer, while several Tory modernisers can be found huddled at Platform 10, ranked 63rd on the Total Politics list, backing the 10:10 campaign as well as all women shortlists and other heresies against the Tory blogosphere worldview.

However, David Cameron's failure to carry the argument within the right may worry the Conservative leader. There is also evidence that Conservative councils have been least likely to sign up to the 10:10 campaign.

Cameron said this month "There is now widespread agreement about the nature and scale of the threat posed by climate change ... Of course, there will always be some who deny the science and the scope of the threat posed. They say ninety percent certainty is not good enough. But that is not a justification for inaction. I say to them, would you ask your children to live in a house which ninety percent of the experts told you was going to burn down?"

It may be an argument that he needs to take into his own party more often.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Kaminski question which Cameron didn't answer

David Cameron says of the man the Conservatives have chosen to lead their new European grouping, Michal Kaminski:

“I see this as a totally politically-driven campaign and particular nonsense.

“In terms of Michal Kaminski, who I have met, he is not a homophobe, he’s not a racist, he’s not an anti-semite. When he came to the Conservative conference the one event I know of he had lunch with the Israeli ambassador.

There are many serious and contested questions about Kaminski - and

But there is one issue that is surely uncontested.

Does David Cameron think Michal Kaminski told the truth about his political history when questioned about it before and after becoming leader of the ECR? If not, why not?

Following our earlier post, here is a recap on just some of the claims made since becoming leader of the ECR which have fallen apart.

1. Kaminski claimed to the Observer he "never opposed" the Jewadbne apology - now admits that he did campaign publicly against it, with TV footage of this having surfaced too. This was also one of the highest profile episodes in recent Polish politics, in his constituency, yet Kaminski said he may have been there in support, but could not remember.

2. Kaminski claimed to the Observer "I never said it. It is absolutely not true ... I never gave an interview" over calls for an apology from "the whole Jewish nation" published in a paper with some questionable associations. The clipping has been verified - and now he has repeated this unfortunate call to the Jewish chronicle.

3. Kaminski claimed to the Daily Telegraph that he had only been a member of the far right NOP 'National Rebirth of Poland' only while it was an underground opposition movement, when he was 15 to 17. The newspaper reported that the party membership records show he was a member for three years after 1989, when he was 17 to 20.

4. Kaminski claimed to the Jewish Chronicle that he never wore the Chrobry sword - then said it was a misunderstanding over pronunciation - then admitted he did, now claiming it only became a fascist symbol later, despite it being the main symbol of the radical Catholic totalitarian Falangist movement in Poland from 1935.

It is perfectly possible that Kaminski has changed - but he is not telling the truth about his political journey.

I doubt he told the Tories the full story either.

I have little doubt it was their unintentional mistake.

Why do the Conservatives think this is a leader they can trust?

Two questions for Uncle Al

Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, has weighed in on The Guardian's story that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is running a 'giant database of political activists' whom it categorises as 'domestic extremists'.

Alan tells us, on the one hand, that 'I haven't issued any guidelines [to police] on the definition of that phrase [domestic extremism].' Roughly translated: if the police are doing something dodgy, it's not my fault....

But then he also tells us: 'The police know what they are doing, they know how to tackle these demonstrations, they do it very effectively.'

Let's just pause here for a minute. Isn't it revealing that Alan regards demonstrations as things that have to be 'tackled'?

And then there is the claim that 'the police know what they are doing' and handle (sorry, tackle) demonstrations 'very effectively'.

To put it mildly, these comments are not altogether persuasive in light of what happened at the G20 protests in April.

In case Alan isn't aware of it, we should perhaps remind him that the Home Office's very own Inspectorate of Constabulary issued a report in July which pointed out, amongst other things, that the police did not have a correct understanding of the law in planning and carrying out their operations at the G20 protests. For example, operational planning revealed a basic misunderstanding of the legal status of kettling. (Kettling is currently lawful but only provided certain conditions are met, and the HMIC report suggested the police had not been adequately aware of these conditions.)

But let's hear what else Alan has to say: '[Animal rights activism] is just one form of domestic extremism. If the police want to use that as a term, I certainly wouldn't fall to the floor clutching my box of Kleenex.'

Now the basic facts of the matter are these: a powerful police body (ACPO), which is not democratically accountable or bound by Freedom of Information law, invents a political category of its own - 'domestic extremist' - and starts merrily collecting data on anyone it judges to fit into this category...quite possibly with a view to using this data to help the police (and perhaps corporate security services) take action to prevent future demonstrations and protest activity.

As Henry Porter and Anthony Barnett, among others, have pointed out, this clearly raises some quite basic issues about the nature of policing in a free society. And what is Alan's response? First, equivocation (gist: don't blame me if the police are doing something wrong...but I doubt they are doing anything wrong) followed by a remark which has the tone of an avuncular josher, an amiable uncle trying, in the face of an embrassing situation, to reassure one with a bit of a joke: he 'won't be falling to the floor clutching [his] Kleenex.'

The constitutional issues at stake surely call for something a tad less flippant than this.

Perhaps Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for the Home Office, has nothing very serious to say by way of reassurance on the matter and so instead we get the embarrassed, flippant jokeyness of Uncle Al.

Here are two questions for Uncle Al. I put them forward in the hope that, in replying to them, he might reveal a more serious and considered response to the major constitutional issues raised by ACPO's behaviour.

First question: Do you, Alan Johnson, agree with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary that the first duty of the police in engaging with demonstrators is to facilitate peaceful protest?

Second question: Do you, Alan Johnson, think it is compatible with this first duty for the police/ACPO to make it its business to collect data indiscriminately on people who choose to engage in peaceful protest?

No equivocation; no avuncular joshing; serious answers to serious questions, please.

Postscript: Guy Aitchison has an interesting post on this theme at OurKingdom.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Nadine phones a friend

Nadine Dorries last week on ConservativeHome.

Sometimes I feel sorry for some of the Labour women who were selected via all-women shortlists. Everyone knows who they are.

Now here's Nadine Dorries today on twitter:

How many women are their in Gordon Browns cabinet who were selected via an all woman shortlist? And, who are they? Anyone know?

Yes - everyone does, Nadine. Everyone.

Especially since Nadine's claim that "everyone knows who they are" was approvingly quoted with great gustos of agreement by Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail on Friday, albeit while unfortunately proving that "everyone" did not include Platell herself, as she attacked Caroline Flint and Ruth Kelly for being selected on all women shortlists.

But, since we are crowd-sourcing here, I am perfectly happy to play the phone a friend role for Nadine.

Indeed, as I wrote on the shortlists debate just before Dorries' first ConservativeHome post was published, "After all, 35 of Labour's new women MPs in 1997 were selected on all women shortlists and 30 were not. (You can find the list in the appendix of the Nuffield study, but I guarantee that you would simply be guessing if you tried to separate them by means of selection)".

If you don't have the book to hand, why not try this link to the House of Commons library paper, so helpfully updated last Monday.

After all, anybody who reads that would be able to find out what it seems that everyone already knows.

UPDATE: Tuesday. Nadine Dorries sent a further tweet on Monday night suggesting her twitter question was intended to be rhetorical, having stated that there were no AWS women in the Cabinet on Any Questions last weekend? See my comment in the thread for more on this. The idea that everybody knows which women were selected on AWS remains, in my view, absurd.

Living with Duchenne: the lifethrualens project

I have just got back from a terrific conference over the weekend organized by Action Duchenne.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a severe muscle-wasting disease which affects about 1 in 3,000 boys/men (it is much rarer for girls/women to have DMD). A genetic glitch causes the boy's body to fail to produce a protein called dystrophin. This causes the muscles to weaken over time. Without treatment, a boy with DMD will typically be in a wheelchair around the age of 10 and will die of heart or respiratory failure in his teens.

In very recent years there have been advances in how the symptoms of DMD are managed and these have improved life expectancy and quality of life for many young men. Many boys with DMD are now living into their 20s and 30s - though some still die in their teens.

And there is still no cure for DMD. There is, as yet, no drug that can halt or slow down the underlying process of muscle degeneration. There have been major breakthroughs, and many of us are hopeful that there will be such a drug available in the near future. But we don't have it yet.

So you can imagine that it came as a shock when my wife (Kathy) and I were told in the summer of last year that our 5-year old son, Isaac, has DMD. Since the fateful day when we got Isaac's diagnosis, Kathy and I have been on a long and steep learning-curve as we have struggled to understand DMD, its effects, and how to respond to the challenges it poses.

We have had to liaise with a huge range of specialists: pediatricians who made the initial diagnosis; neuromuscular specialists; Speech Therapists; Occupational Therapists; educational psychologists; physiotherapists; dieticians; and special needs teachers and teaching assistants. We have had to arrange a Statement of Special Needs with the local education authority and find a school which we think will execute it effectively. The array of support we have received from within the 'welfare state' has been very good, often wonderful, though at times we have had to work hard to make the various bits of the welfare state join and work together. For parents of children with DMD, 'co-production' in the welfare state is not simply a trendy policy wonk concept, but a long-standing and continuing reality.

Throughout this process, Action Duchenne has been a great help to us. The annual conference brings parents together with medical specialists to discuss everything from physiotherapy exercises and how to talk to your son about DMD through to policy needs and the latest research on drug therapies. Action Duchenne provides a 'family' for those affected by DMD and, not least, a source of empowerment. Through its efforts to spread information and raise aspirations, Action Duchenne helps us go into those meetings with various representatives of the welfare state and - when necessary - demand what we need and should be getting.

In some future posts I will take up some of the key policy issues surrounding DMD, issues which I think would benefit from a bit of old-fashioned Fabian-style social policy research.

One issue, highlighted in the recent Walton Report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Muscular Dystrophy, concerns the inequality in the standards of care for DMD boys across the UK. Basically, if you live close enough to Newcastle or London, care standards are - or can be - very good. But they can vary considerably elsewhere. Given how crucial high quality care is to life expectancy and quality of life for boys and men with DMD, this inequality in care standards is very alarming.

Another issue concerns the failure to develop adequate policies to reflect the fact that more and more DMD boys are growing into adulthood and wanting to move into higher education and jobs and live rewarding, adult lives.

But to start with, before we get to the policy, it might help us to get a sense of the lived reality of DMD. An excellent place to start is with the 'Life Thru a Lens' project. Nine young men with DMD have used photography to convey the reality of their lives.

Take the time to take a look.

The IEA: Fabian means to anti-Fabian ends

The very existence of the Institute of Economic Affairs is a reluctant Hayekian tribute to the Fabians.

Founder Anthony Fisher had told its first director Ralph Harris, several years before the IEA was born, that the right had failed to engage in the battle of ideas.

'One day when my ship comes in, I’d like to create something which will do for the non-Labour parties what
the [socialist] Fabian Society did for the Labour Party.’

This attempt to use Fabian means to overturn Fabian ends is also discussed in detail in Richard Cockett's 1990s book Thinking the Unthinkable on the role of the think-tanks in creating the New Right.

So it is certainly appropriate to send our congratulations to Mark Littlewood, who is the new director of the think-tank as it seeks to step up its modern agenda-setting ambitions. according to a report at Guido Fawkes website.

Littlewood is a former LibDem head of communications, but his libertarianism has seen him a good way to the right of the LibDem mainstream on most significant policy issues. ("There will be organic champagne corks popping in Cowley Street", writes Fawkes, noting the IEA's policy on staff severing party connections).

Littlewood is an articulate and energetic public advocate of libertarianism, though I had written before about being pretty unimpressed by the lack of any evident research for the public statements of his previous Progressive Vision think-tank, which seemed to lead to the rather predictable advocacy of maximum deregulation of absolutely everything.

Still, Fabians would say that wouldn't they.

And the resources of the IEA make it a very different proposition, so ought to make for a more research-based advocacy of its smaller government mission.

So good luck Mark, even if we are not likely to agree on all that much.

Let the battle of ideas recommence!

UPDATE: Here is an official statement from the IEA blog.

Mark Littlewood said:

“This is an enormously exciting opportunity. But it is also an awesome responsibility. The IEA has made an incredible contribution to the understanding of the importance of free markets over the past five decades.

I am determined to ensure that the Institute builds on its rich history to ensure that the case for free markets is made loudly and clearly at this challenging time, when politicians of all parties show an alarming tendency to place trust in increasing regulation and statist solutions to cure many of society’s ills.

The need for the IEA has never been greater and I’m honoured to be given the chance to play such a key role in building on the Institute’s reputation, influence and history.”

(He may have heard a different David Cameron conference speech to the rest of us).

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Why has the Spectator become Mbeki's unlikely ally on HIV-AIDS?

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson thinks it is time to question the Aids consensus, as The Spectator this week hosts a screening and panel debate on a controversial US documentary 'House of Numbers which seeks to open up a debate about whether HIV causes AIDS at all.

Nelson blogs:

Is it legitimate to discuss the strength of the link between HIV and Aids? It’s one of these hugely emotive subjects, with a fairly strong and vociferous lobby saying that any open discussion is deplorable and tantamount to Aids denialism. Whenever any debate hits this level, I get deeply suspicious.

The New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan spots an emerging pattern of Spectator denialism;

Ben Goldacre at the Guardian is scathing about the bad science of the film, about which he had written before.

Graeme Archer on centre-right thinks the piece captures a broader rise of denialism and a pernicious misunderstanding of scientific evidence.

But my first thought was how much this all simply felt like 'deja vu all over again'.

It is a decade and a half since Andrew Neil's Sunday Times put a great deal of energy into a long-running campaign challenging the HIV/AIDS link, leading to several very public spats with the science journal Nature and many others.

(With Andrew Neil chairing The Spectator's publishing group, one would not have to be a conspiracy theorist to at least wonder whether there could possibly be any other dots to join up here; I am not aware of Neil making any recent statement about what he now thinks of the AIDS issue, and the controversial Sunday Times coverage of 1993-4).

But the scientific and public policy debate in this area also had an enormously high political and media profile over the last decade particularly because of former South African President Thabo Mbeki's stance on questioning the HIV/AIDS link.

Mbeki made significant efforts to give a platform and profile to those who sought to challenge the mainstream scientific consensus. And South Africa adopted an AIDS strategy very much at odds with mainstream policy and scientific opinion, notably in anti-retroviral drugs to AIDS patients, and or to prevent the infection of newborn babies.

A peer-reviewed Harvard study published last year suggested that, had South Africa followed similar policies to Botswana and Nambia, then around 365,000 premature deaths might have been prevented. (This estimate was described by other leading epidimologists to the New York Times as 'reasonable' and based on 'truly conservative assumptions').

Mbeki's departure from office saw his controversial health minister replaced by veteran ANC activist Barbara Hogan, who responded to the study by saying:

“I feel ashamed that we have to own up to what Harvard is saying. The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa.”

Throughout all of this, there was never much international support for Mbeki's position (except for former Sunday Times science correspondent Neville Hodgkinson, who had left the paper when a new editor did not wish to continue to push the AIDS issue).

Yet Mbeki does seem to have, belatedly, discovered an unlikely ally, as The Spectator this week seeks to bring AIDS scepticism back into mainstream debate here in Britain.

Fraser Nelson blogs that he just wants to ask questions - almost as if all of this debate hasn't taken place.

While the challenge to the HIV/AIDS link was strongly rebuffed in 1993, perhaps some weight might have been given to the point that the existence of the disease was itself fairly new, so that more evidence might emerge. There was academic evidence of the impact of HIV on Aids in Africa fifteen years ago, but the weight of evidence since then has struck most informed observers as overwhelming.

It is far from clear that there is much, if anything, new in this recurring controversy. All of the individuals and arguments reported sound extremely familiar from these long-running debates.

Ben Goldacre had written about the film a month ago, and wrote at new year about the death of the anti-AIDS drugs activist featured in the film, following that of her three year old daughter from AIDS, after she had refused anti-retroviral drugs in pregnancy. (Anecdotes and data are different things, but the film's failure to mention this, except in small print at the end of the credits, does rather fatally undermine the idea that its motivation was to "just ask questions"). See also the interesting account from New Humanist editor Caspar Melville, who writes that he found out about the film's links to the AIDS-denial movement after chairing a Cambridge film festival panel about the film.

It looks to me as though the more interesting questions here are about journalism, rather than AIDS science.

So what is The Spectator up to?

Clearly, the Speccy is seeking to be provocative - but it may be hard to get a handle on the mix of two different possible motivations, one journalistic and the other political.

Weekly magazines have to be attention-seeking, polemical and controversial. Breaking taboos can be one easy and sometimes powerful way to try to do that. Yet there can be diminishing returns if it becomes a predictable, one-note approach. Choose one issue, and marshall good evidence, to challenge the scientific estabishment and "the debate" might matter. Do it on every single issue and many people are going to think it is either crankery or trolling.

Our weekly political magazines have also, traditionally, taken pride in their authority and reputation for critical intelligence too. Indeed that is foundational to any ability to undertake controversialist taboo-breaking in a way that is worthy of notice. Putting that reputation behind a heretical case is a good idea if (and only if) you genuinely believe that the heretics have something important to bring to the table.

If The Spectator wants to be sceptical about MMR, global warming and HIV/AIDS, then you get to the point where the big, newsworthy surprise would be a cover story declaring for David Cameron on climate change.

Challenging the scientific establishment not on one issue, but on almost every issue, may make this as much an ideological agenda as a journalistic one. The argument then becomes primarily about the nature of scientific expertise itself, or indeed all evidence or expertise in public debate.

And that is reminiscient of the emerging schism on the US right - between what might be called the rationalist and the irrationalist wings of the US conservative movement. Bush speechwriter David Frum worries about the Palinisation of the US right risks rejecting "a functional and serious conservative movement" for "a Poujadist mob of cynical know-nothings"

On this occasion, my guess is the Spectator is engaged more in mischevious stirring, rather than any deeply held interest in the HIV/AIDS issue itself.

If this were mostly controversy for controversy's sake, then the subject chosen might be thought to be in questionable taste. But that might not be particularly consequential. However much magazines aspire to 'thought leadership', its interventions are of course of an entirely different magnitude to those of Mbeki, or even of the Sunday Times in the 1990s. The impact of this Spectator debate on UK scientific, policy or public debate on this question is almost certain to be negligible.

But a more interesting question may be where The Spectator might want to take its scepticism about science next. Were the editor to seriously hold the view that, the more strongly held a scientific 'consensus' view, the more worthwhile it would be to challenge it, then there is really only one place that should end up.

Forget AIDS. Forget climate change even. There is surely one yet bigger question where the science seems entirely settled - yet is ideologically contested - and where those attempts to question the consensus then generate a vociferous scientific backlash.

"Whenever any debate hits this level, I get deeply suspicious", writes the editor.

So how long, I wonder, before we might now expect The Spectator to ask another question:

Is the theory of evolution really all it is cracked up to be?

When Dave was too right-wing for Ken Clarke

Gyles Brandreth's somewhat rambling interview in the Sunday Times does contain a little bit of politics:

When David Cameron was a political adviser to Norman Lamont, and when Lamont was dropped by John Major, his special advisers were dropped as well. I thought it was a mistake to drop him, so I wrote a memo to the new chancellor, Kenneth Clarke. I said, we mustn’t lose this man, he is gold, and I remember having a conversation with Clarke, who was saying he’s Lamont’s man, very right-wing. I said, no no, he was working for Lamont and therefore reflected Lamont, but I think you’ll find he’s our kind of Conservative, a liberal Conservative. Clarke still dropped him. Wouldn’t be persuaded. Wouldn’t. He went. I failed. But it can’t be taken away from me that I spotted him when people hadn’t even heard of him.

Brandreth thinks Clarke was mistaken.

Much of the Conservative Party continues to live in the hope that he wasn't.

Hat tip: Events, dear boy, events

Saturday, 24 October 2009


Timothy Garton-Ash has a cracking New York Review of Books review essay on 1989, including the distortions of hindsight when discussing events 'which no one foresaw, but everyone could explain afterwards', and discussing the necessity and impossibility of writing the history of a truly international event which was made from both above and below.

A couple of snippets.

Melvyn P. Leffler notes how then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested that Gorbachev's policies "may be a temporary aberration in the behavior of our foremost adversary.") Nor did Bush set much store by bearded dissidents who looked like something out of Berkeley in the 1960s ... It is perhaps a characteristic of superpowers that they think they make history. Big events must surely be made by big powers. Yet in the nine months that gave birth to a new world, from February to November 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives. They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.

The fact that Tiananmen happened in China is one of the reasons it did not happen in Europe. However, an influence then flowed back in the other direction: from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to China. The Chinese Communist Party systematically studied the lessons of the collapse of communism in Europe, to make sure it did not happen to them. Today's China is a result of that learning process.

And one vignette on British freedom of information compared to Kremlin sources, relating to Margaret Thatcher's opposition to German reunification (on which Garton-Ash also wrote in The Guardian last week).

It is shaming, for an Englishman, to learn how shamelessly Margaret Thatcher seems to have betrayed her public promises to Germany. "The words written in the NATO communique may sound different, but disregard them," she apparently told Gorbachev in September 1989, according to a note of their conversation prepared by Chernyaev. "We do not want the unification of Germany." (Sarotte also obtained the British record of this conversation, using Britain's Freedom of Information Act. She notes that "it did not contain these comments, but it was redacted.")

The essay can also be read in the NYRB print pullout in today's Guardian Review, and at the NYRB website. A second part on the velvet revolutions follows in the next issue.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fact-check for Amanda Platell

There is quite a lot of nonsense written about all women shortlists.

Nadine Dorries is chuffed to be much praised by a research-free rant in today's Daily Mail from Amanda Platell.

Yesterday, I blogged questioning the "two classes of MP" talking point:

After all, 35 of Labour's new women MPs in 1997 were selected on all women shortlists and 30 were not. (You can find the list in the appendix of the Nuffield study, but I guarantee that you would simply be guessing if you tried to separate them by means of selection).

So it is very kind of Amanda Platell to immediately prove the point, chuntering on in today's Daily Mail about the difference between women selected on merit and those who are not:

All the more so when Labour's own experiment with female shortlists proved to be so disastrous.

Has Cameron learned nothing from the catastrophe that was Blair's Babes - the female intake of the 1997 election?

Remember Ruth Kelly? Jacqui Smith? Caroline Flint? As with so many Labour ladies, they turned out to be stunningly incompetent or ill-suited for high office. It was a national embarrassment.

It seems very clear that Platell thinks Kelly, Smith and Flint were all selected from all women shortlists.

Her argument makes no sense at all otherwise.

And she's wrong - having failed to bother to check her prejudices against the actualite.

Though Platell approvingly quotes Dorries' comment that "everyone knows who they are" - though everyone, in this case, does not include Platell herself. (She's not wrong about all three, so perhaps her recollection of the Redditch selection was a little sharper).

On the off chance that the Daily Mail do want to start fact-checking their articles in future, here's the full AWS selections list helpfully republished by the House of Commons library.


Platell's admiration for Nadine Dorries MP is, however, boundless and can only have increased after Dorries reinvented statistics yesterday to prove that women don't want to be MPs, writing on ConservativeHome that:

As only 30% of applications to become an MP are from women, and that’s after all the hype and window dressing, we have to ask the question, what do women really want? Because it’s becoming pretty obvious that 70% of them don't want to be an MP.

By contrast, there was a reasonably sensible discussion of yesterday's Next Left post over on Liberal Conspiracy.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Can we talk sense about shortlists?

291 women and 4559 men have been elected to the House of Commons since women were enfranchised in 1918.

So those shouting "not in my name" and "meritocracy" to argue against the possible means of all women shortlists do have a prima facie case to answer.

There may have been a fairly bland consensus among the party leaders at the Speakers' Conference. But David Cameron's claims that his party gets it enough to continue if he fell under a bus is rather challenged by the ferocity of the response from the Tory netroots to his rather modest proposal to use HQ powers in late selections to select more women. Aspiring candidate Iain Dale declares not in my name while the Isaby/Montgomerie co-premiership at ConservativeHome seems to think the sky might fall in. (Tory ppc Joanne Cash has offered a rare pro-leadership view from the centre-right).

By definition, meritocrats must share the goal of "fair chances and no unfair barriers".

The simple question: what is the cause of the scale of under-representation? And what is the solution to deliver fair chances and equal representation?

Some may think the use of the historic aggregate is an unfair dredging up of ancient history. But when we elect more men every time than we have elected women in a century, that can be challenged.

Or take a more recent, post-millennial moment: 2001 was the last General Election in which no party used an all women shortlist measure. How did we do on gender equity? Most noticed a small drop from 120 to 118 women in the Commons. The real story was missed. Just 9 out of 92 MPs elected in mainland Britain were women. Not quite 10%. (Slightly disguised by 3 of the 6 new Northern Irish MPs being women: an unlikely feminist assist). The Conservative class of 2001 - 38 white men and 1 women (2.5%)- was well below the post-1918 historic Commons average.

Whose meritocracy is it anyway?

By contrast, 26 of Labour's 40 new MPs in 2005 were women: the only party group in history to contain more women than men. 23 of them elected using all women shortlists.

Now, each of the three major parties selects women in around one in four Parliamentary selections.

This does mean that the party using all women shortlists is not now selecting more women candidates than the other two major parties which are not. Nevertheless, easily the main reason for the Conservatives and LibDems speeding up progress is that Labour went so far ahead (while still, itself, being only halfway to equity). The progress of the non-shortlist using parties is a politically necessary response to the progress made by a political rival.

This is, in large measure, a result of Labour's use of all women shortlists. The graph makes a dramatic point

See too the glacial progress before 1997:

Labour female MPs
1979: 11/269 (4.1%); 1983: 10/209 (4.8%); 1987: 21/229 (9.2%); 1992: 37/271 (13.7%) 1997: 101/419 (25%)

1979: 8/339 (2.4%); 1983: 13/397 (3.3%); 1987: 17/376 (4.5%); 1992: 20/336 (6.0%); 1997: 13/198 (6.6%)

These numbers can form the basis for a powerful case, but the shortlists debate is not an open and shut argument.

For the anti-shortlists argument to be plausible - and I don't rule that out - it needs to be based on more than polemic. It needs to be rooted in the evidence about what is happening, and to develop a serious account of why we don't have fair chances and how we might get there.

Personally, I am a moderate, cautious supporter of all women shortlists: the case that they have been necessary to deliver progress stands up, but they have limits too. Hence my concern, in my own evidence to the Speaker's Conference, that the measure can have "diminishing returns". (For much more on the data, and the complexities of the debate on pros and cons, see this earlier Next Left post on liberal means, feminism and representation).


I think that there are only three possible broad categories of reason why there might be systematically less women then men in our politics.

(i) That women are less able - and have less aptitude for politics than men;

(ii) That women are less interested in politics than men;

(iii) That there are structural and/or cultural barriers to fair chances which mean that women are systematically less likely to selected and elected as MPs than men.

(i) is simply prejudice. It may, however, be subconsciously more widely held than people realise.

Have you ever heard a vociferous critic of John Major, Norman Lamont or Gordon Brown generalise about what this reveals about the problem of having men in senior political roles? Yet those who disagree with Margaret Thatcher, Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith or Theresa May very often tell us that this says something about women in politics. Under-representation and the novelty factor routinely legitimise this sexist response.

There are brilliant and useless MPs of both genders. Yet it seems to me fairly evident that that there are, overall, probably rather more mediocre men than women in the House of Commons right now, not least because, with five times as many men, we are digging rather further down the male ability range.

(ii) is held by some: I expect Mr Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail might think this both true, and a jolly good thing.

But, for those not relying on a traditional segregation of gender roles which would see women playing a minor role in public affairs, I would suggest that where there is evidence of a significant "lack of women coming forward" issue would speak to the need to change political culture and institutions so that they do not either discriminate against or deter half of the population.

I do not see what the foundation is for the argument that a political party should seek to offer "fair chances for those who come forward" as opposed to treating as an indicator of "fair chances" the broad balance of those actually elected or selected.
Otherwise, systematic cultural barriers which simply repelled candidates from ever applying are overlooked, and the parties' stated aspirations to reflect the society they wish to serve is lost.

There are a great many institutions in our society who sometimes say "it is not our role to try to fix society: we just select the best candidate for the job". Universities, law firms, FTSE 100 companies and newspaper editors all say this when questioned. It is both a fair point, and one which occasionally serves as an excuse for inaction too. Perhaps the last institutions which might want to say that are political parties. Indeed, progress within the political sphere could well be one way to drive a shift in the broader civic and public culture, which might affect what happens in the boardroom, the media and other areas.

(iii) is I think rather difficult to disagree with. At one level, I think that there must be some account of (iii) is universaly accepted - certainly by anyone not strongly committed to (i) or (ii). I don't think anybody denies that the gender imbalance is real and systematic. I don't think anybody has seriously suggested that it is just bad luck, and that we could just wake up after one election and find an 80% female and 20% male Parliament instead.

That does not, of course, establish a case for any particular means of addressing the imbalance. It does mean that anybody sailing under the banner of 'meritocracy' needs to have an account of how to achieve 'fair chances and no unfair barriers' for men and women.

And the two classes of MP objection is a radio talking point. I doubt it exists in the real world at all.

After all, 35 of Labour's new women MPs in 1997 were selected on all women shortlists and 30 were not. (You can find the list in the appendix of the Nuffield study, but I guarantee that you would simply be guessing if you tried to separate them by means of selection). Similarly, I simply don't see it as any reflection on the talents of incoming Labour candidates such as Rushanara Ali and Stella Creasy that one was elected by one means and the other by another. (Again, I am not telling you which!).


I am also an opponent of all minority shortlists. For those who want more than a rhetorical soundbite - either against a slippery slope (as Isaby/Montgomerie and Dale fear from the right), or in favour of applying the same methods to one issue as another (as Diane Abbott and Operation Black Vote advocate).

Dale writes: "Imposing all female shortlists is a fundamentally unconservative thing to do and one has to ask where it will lead. All black shortlists? All gay shortlists? All disabled shortlists? All christian shortlists? All muslim shortlists?"

I think that several very relevant differences apply. Some of these are philosophical and political concerns about the different consequences, as I argued in the New Statesman

The analogy is weak. Women, 51 per cent of the population, can be found almost everywhere in roughly equal numbers to men. It is easy enough to work out who is a woman and who is not. Such factors do not apply to minority representation. The call for all-minority shortlists is rooted in 1970s thinking about "ethnic minorities". This is of ever-decreasing relevance to third- and fourth-generation multi-ethnic Britain (in which mixed-race people will outnumber those of any single minority group by 2015). All-minority shortlists might not be exactly unworkable, but they would take us backwards.

But I do think that the knock-out argument is the clear evidence which I put to the Speakers' Conference.

We now know that it is possible to break down the 'ethnic penalty' to fair chances for BME candidates by current measures - because Labour has already achieved this, not much more than two decades after the first post-war black and Asian MPs were elected.

Unfortunately, nobody can make that claim on gender - where there is a longer history, and indeed a stronger base of comparative international evidence as to how often strong positive measures have been needed.

The challenge to meritocrats who think all women shortlists are the wrong route is to set out a serious argument about how to change this.

The different patterns in these different areas also raises a series of interesting questions about why the gender penalty to fair chances has proved much more stubborn than that of ethnicity: this suggests the "who can be an MP stereotype" is not as dominant a factor as is often implied, and that greater attention paid to the time and economic costs of seeking selection, and the strong effect this has on those with caring responsibilities as well as for working-class candidates of both sexes.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Just joking, says 'hang the army' Griffin

The real dilemma for the BNP is this: you want to pose as patriotic, but you hate everything about the country you live in.

So the whole 'saleability strategy' of keeping the core racist and fascist ideology hidden depends on keeping that inner rage under wraps.

Yet we got a glimpse of that today with BNP leader Nick Griffin's lurid desire to string up the military top brass.

You don't have to read much between the lines to find a violent Nuremberg revenge fantasy of the frustrated neo-fascist. (Asked what drives you by Catherine Mayer of Time Magazine, Griffin said ""I don’t know. You need a psychiatrist inside my head", but I suspect such therapy might just take the edge of his politics).

But the reaction has persuaded Griffin that it wasn't so smart after all. Having hit the top of the news agenda, he is deploying a ludicrous 'only joking' defence, telling BBC political editor Nick Robinson that the remarks were 'black humour'.

Without wanting to bash the BBC, I was disappointed in Robinson's response:

I suggested to Mr Griffin that the families of victims of World War II and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might not get the joke. He did not respond.

Yet Griffin's statement that the remarks were a joke is obviously false.

If repeated, it should be challenged, whether by politicians or broadcasters.

This was no off-the-cuff remark in a broadcast interview. The comments formed part of a 750 word article on the BNP website. There is not one dot, comma or semi-colon of irony, satire or humour to be found anywhere in it.

And the statement was entirely consistent with the BNP's ultra-isolationist foreign policy.

Having come out today as Nick 'hang the Army' Griffin, the BNP leader deserves to find that this one sticks.


PS: The attempt to deny his own public statements repeats Griffin's well established pattern of claiming that scrutiny of his on the record remarks is illegitimate.

The BNP claims that attempts to ask Griffin about holocaust denial - including calling it the "holohoaux" - are smears. (The leader himself bizarrely told Kenan Malik for radio 4's Analysis programme recently that European law prevents him from saying what he does and does not believe now about the holocaust.

I’ve changed my mind on some of those points, but I cannot talk about these. I can’t tell you what I used to believe, why I’ve changed my mind on some things, and what I believe now. I’m not allowed to by European law.

Nick Griffin wants ex-head of the Army executed

In their heart of hearts, the deepest regret of the BNP is that their side got the wrong result when the Nazis lost world war two. That is why Nick Griffin has bemoaned the difficulty of making fascism acceptable in Britain, and why the party pretends to be a more moderate political force, though this always struggles to be even skin-deep, if you will excuse the pun.

So it is good news that the energetic and imaginative centre-right anti-BNP campaign 'Nothing British' have co-ordinated war veterans to express their disgust at the BNP's attempts to hijack military imagery.

Yet again, the BNP response offers a small flash of their inner soul.

Left Foot Forward reports the bizarre ranting of BNP leader Nick Griffin in reply:

Those Tory generals who today attacked the British National Party should remember that at the Nuremburg (sic) Trials, the politicians and generals accused of waging illegal aggressive wars were all charged — and hanged — together …

“Along with the political leadership of Nazi Germany, the chiefs of staff of the German army, Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel, were also charged with waging aggressive war.

“Sir Richard [Dannatt] and Sir Ken [(sic) Sir Mike Jackson] fall squarely into this bracket, and they must not think that they will escape culpability for pursuing the illegal wars in Iran and Afghanistan.”

That also saves me from linking directly to the BNP website, though Left Foot Forward note that they can't spell Nuremberg (surprising, given a quite strong level of historic interest in the subject) and have unfortunately mixed up Sir Mike Jackson with Sir Ken Jackson, the veteran ex-union leader.

But I guess that won't trouble Mr Griffin too much. Executing the right people is always difficult in a neo-fascist wonderland.

Facts about diversity in Parliament

The three party leaders all speak to the Speaker's Conference this morning.

I made a formal submission to the conference, drawing on Fabian research (summarised in this Comment is Free piece) into the current patterns of candidate selection, and gave oral evidence in July - the transcript is available here.

I have mainly covered race and gender. I am not aware of current datasets on disability or the chances of gay candidates, and would welcome any information.

The overall story is of under-recognised progress on ethnic representation when it comes to the gateway of Parliamentary selections, but less progress than many people think on gender. And there are later issues about the value given to seniority in British politics, which means that getting a more balanced intake may be reflected in who holds power more slowly.

Here is a summary on race.

The debate is much more pessimistic than the facts support

The often repeated claim that, at current rates of progress, it will take 75 years to have "a Parliament that looks like Britain" in terms of ethnic diversity is wrong

The current rate of progress is about three times as fast as is being claimed. The methodology of a linear projection of this sort is flawed, but those using it should more accurately say 25-30 years.

Isn't that also too long?

Maybe. But it also depends what the goal is. For me, the primary objectives is "fair chances and no unfair barriers" to all candidates, whatever their background. That is achieved if women win 50% of selections and BME candidates 8% of selections, with the number fluctuating higher and lower, according to random variations. The "Parliament that looks like Britain" is a by=product of this, and takes three to five Parliaments to come through fully. Those who wish to accelerate progress further have to make a trade-off with fair chances: for example, giving absolute priority to a gender balanced Commons overall could most directly be achieved by asking parties to select no men at all for two Parliaments, but would obviously have an impact on fair chances by producing 100% female intakes to try to rebalance the current 5-1 split in the House.

How are the parties doing?

It is estimated that around 7% of the class of 2010 will be made up of non-white candidates. This would be unprecedented, and close to the 8% benchmark, but it is made up of different outcomes across different parties.

Labour has made unprecedented recent progress. 2% of Labour MPs before 1997 were non-white, and so were just 2% of its landslide intake. But 7.5% of its class of 2005 were BME, and 10% of new candidates. Labour is the first party in western Europe to show that an 'ethnic penalty' to fair chances can be defeated.

The Conservatives have done very well in this Parliament. They elected 38 white men and one woman in their class of 2001, and have only two non-white MPs (1%). But they are now selecting BME candidates in 5% of new selections. That is not yet the 8% mark they might aspire to - but it means the Conservative party in 2009 is now where Labour was in 2001. The challenge is to ensure this is not a "one-off" event as part of the Cameroon rebranding.

The LibDems are stuck, with no candidates in winnable seats. They often have a high number of BME candidates - more than the Conservatives - but they are very much selected in areas with high minority ethnic populations, and the LibDems have a weak chance of winning these seats. They need to break this "ethnic candidates for ethnic seats" model if they wish to have non-white MPs in the LibDem parliamentary party. (Considering all black shortlists is not going to help with this problem, unless they will hold them in St Ives, Winchester or York: what they need to do is hold a national all member competition to identify perhaps five talented individuals, so that they have a high profile in future Westminster, European and other selections).

The number of black, Asian and mixed race candidates at the next election is unlikely to be affected by political swing.

A couple of MPs have suggested to me that I must be relying on projections about the electoral outcome. Parmjit Dhanda made this point in the Commons evidence session. Interestingly, (and counter-intuitively) this is not the case: the number is unlikely to be affected at all by the relative national performance of the Labour and Conservative parties, for two reasons.

Firstly, those BME Labour MPs with relatively high BME populations tend to have fairly safe seats, and that is true of a fair share of the seats held by black and Asian MPs.

Secondly, among marginal and contested seats, there looks set to be a more or less one for one off-setting number of gains and losses between Labour and the Conservatives, whichever party does well.

The exception to this is that the net number is likely to be one more or one less depending on whether Dawn Butler or Sarah Teather wins in Brent, where Butler begins as the favourite. (If the LibDems do well against Labour generally, they have no BME candidates in these target seats, so the defeat of a Labour BME MP does not then see a LibDem elected elsewhere).