Sunday, January 27, 2008

Young Fogies

Martin Kettle in Saturday's Guardian was musing on the "juvenalisation" of British politics; referring to the marked trend for younger leaders. Ming Campbell was driven out for being an old duffer. Nick Clegg and David Cameron are both 41; and in the Cabinet there are the two Balls, Purnell, the Milibands, and so on (seven of the Cabinet are 40 or under). The average age of Cabinet Ministers is 49; in Wilson's March 1974 Cabinet it was 55. I'm not quite sure politicians in their later thirties and early forties are appropriately described as "juveniles", but I know what Kettle means.

Does age matter? I think probably a Cabinet should try to "balance" these things ( a rather boring conclusion but there you are). There does see to be a lack of weighty older politicians in Brown's Cabinet. The problem with younger politicians is that they have no memory: no years of experience, of previous failure and frustration, to draw upon. Blair was the least experienced PM for decades. Would an older wiser head have been more wary of Iraq? (Then again Eden was nearly 60, and a hugely experienced politician, when he rushed into Suez). I also doubt that younger Ministers are more radical: Attlee's Cabinet was pretty long in the tooth.

Far more worrying than age is that politicians these days tend increasingly to simply have no experience of anything except politics. The trajectory nowadays is from university, and possibly university politics, to becoming a researcher or party worker and then MP perhaps via a short stint in a cognate field such as PR or broadcasting. The days of the Bevins and Bevans - with their experience of life outside the London media and politics and PR circuit - have long gone. There are exceptions - Alan Johnson - but they are few and far between. There are also far fewer characters in politics; all these PR-savvy wannabees look and sound the same. Young they may be, but God aren't they boring? Most were, as they say, "born middle-aged".

Purnell was on the Marr show this morning. Articulate enough but I can't say I took to him. The suit is too sharp and the shoes too shiny.

Obama still no innocent

Apropos of my post the other day ("Obama not quite so innocent") today's Observer has an extraordinary one-sided article by Paul Harris, which reads as if written by an Obama staffer. It accuses the Clintons of running a dirty campaign. I believe it. (Bill Clinton more or less admitted it the other day: "This is a contact sport"). The not-so-gentle reminder of Obama's middle name (Hussein) is certainly dirty politics. But Obama is still no innocent. He and his people most certainly used race in South Carolina, suggesting Hillary had denigrated Martin Luther King (while contriving to deny doing so). Now Obama's people are denying that Michelle Obama's comments ("If you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House") were directed at Hillary Clinton; she was it seems "taken out of context". As Bill would say: "Give me a break". Hillary Clinton mentioned Obama's links with slum landlord Rezko (in reply to his taunt about her serving on the board of WalMart); dirty politics, sure, but Obama did have such links, and continued to have them, despite the fact that Rezko's activities were well-reported in the local media, not least in the Chicago Tribune (which was reporting Rezko's questionable fund-raising activities for the Governor of Illinois back in 2004). Yet Obama claims he had no idea there was anything improper about Rezko. Of course, it is pretty hard for any successful politician in the Democratic Party in Chicago to stay clean. But Rezko is a big problem for Obama: the guy is going on trial, Obama's relationship with him goes back 17 years, and he helped the Obama's buy their "dream house" for $300,000 less than the asking price. And let's face it, what does "slum landlord" mean in Chicago? How should that be translated?

My feeling is that this is nothing to what Obama would face if he were to win the Democratic nomination. The Republican attack dogs would eat him alive. Look what happened to John Kerry with the malicious "Swift Boat" campaign. Think back to Willie Horton. Obama's middle name, the (false) claim that he attended a Muslim school, his links with Rezko, his (admitted) use of cocaine in the past: all that - and more - would be resurrected. He is getting a very, very easy ride in the media just now, which has decided to target the Clintons. The Republicans would dearly love Obama to get the Democratic nomination. I don't think he will. The victory in South Carolina is, I think, pyrrhic. He won with the support of 80% of black voters who are 53% of Democratic voters in the state. He will not have that advantage in California, New York, New Jersey, and so on. And he can't be "the black candiate" in South Carolina and "the candidate of no colour" elsewhere. It seems he is also distrusted by Latino voters who have a big influence in California, New Mexico, Arizona, etc on Super Tuesday. Recent polls show Hillary has a big lead among Latino Democrats: 59% compared to 15% for Obama. Racism between blacks and Latinos (both ways, I guess) is, sadly, a factor here.

According to the Observer the bookies have Clinton on 10-11 to be the next President, Barack Obama on 3-1, John McCain on 7-2, Mitt Romney on 9-1.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Permatanned one goes

Gordon Brown doesn't come out of the Hain fiasco very well. If he thought Hain "incompetent" he should have sacked him. If he wanted to keep him, he should not have branded him "incompetent". As for Hain, what a stupid way to lose a Cabinet post; blowing a pretty huge bundle of cash trying to get a non-job and failing spectacularly. Two points: interesting to see the role John Underwood played in the so-called Think Tank which was plainly a front for pushing cash in Hain's direction. I assume this is the same Underwood who, in a previous incarnation, was "The Hammer of the Trots"? Odd how things turn out. Will Inspector Plod be inquiring into whether what Underwood did was strictly legal? Second, there seems to be some sympathy for Hain: centre-left, victim of Labour tribalism (because of his past as a Young Liberal), a competent Minister. But Hain played a pretty murky role in trying to stop Rhodri Morgan becoming Welsh Labour Leader (It was Hain who ran Alun Michael's 1999 campaign to become Welsh Labour Leader. Michael won courtesy of the block vote. Did someone say New Labour? And of course Michael was Blair's poodle. Yes, the poodle had a poodle of his own). And Hain's role in Merthyr Tydfil at the last election was not especially honourable. He is no stranger to machine-politics. This limits my sympathy somewhat.

Andrew Marr last Sunday was quite good on the think tank that did no thinking. Given the influence of think tanks on British politics, he mused, perhaps that was no bad thing.

Incompetence over Iraq

Jonathan Steele's articles in G2 this week on Iraq reveal a sorry tale of arrogance and incompetence. Monday's article focused on the determination of Blair to go to war - he had obviously a promise to Bush to redeem.
  • 52 retired Foreign Office Arabists advised against the war. They were ignored.
  • The Foreign Office appears not to have offered any analysis of the "likely consequences" of invading Iraq ("Ministers never asked for it; officials never gave it"). No one in Whitehall recalled "the difficulties of Britain's imperial involvement in Iraq" in the past; no one "pointed out that Saddam's removal would very probably give a boost to to Shia Islamists and strengthen the Islamist parties that were allied to Iran"; officials "were poor in forecasting future scenarios" and were "weak on Iraqi history".
  • There was a "failure to comprehend that western armies cannot successfully take over Arab countries and force them to run along western lines"; that people "prefer to run their own affairs"; that occupations are "inherently humiliating"; that people "resent foreigners taking over their own country".

Blair's style was "not to encourage his policy preferences to be questioned, or call for nuanced assessments of possible consequences". In November 2002 he invited 6 distinguished academics to Downing Street: three of them specialists on Iraq. According to one of them (George Joff) they all stressed that Iraq was a "complicated country", that there are "tremendous intercommunal resentments" and "don't imagine you'll be welcomed". Blair's response? Just what one would expect of a Happy-Clappy bible-thumper: "But the man (Saddam) is uniquely evil, isn't he?" It begins to look as though Blair's was a "faith-led" Premiership, with no regard for empirical realities.

Steele's account reveals what Brown might call "an incompetence" of truly staggering proportions; on a scale that is scarcely credible. Politaholic is just a humble ordinary guy. But from where I sit, if I were a PM contemplating a war, I'd want ooodles of advice from people who know what they're talking about, and I'd bloody well listen to it. Wouldn't anyone? Er, no; not Blair, and not his compliant Cabinet either. On Steele's account, these people are not competent to run an ice-cream stall.

Obama not quite so innocent?

We are hearing quite a lot about the Clintons playing dirty in the US primary elections. This consists mostly of Bill calling into question Obama's record of opposition to the Iraq war. This suggests that the Obamas can play hard-ball also:

And this, quite amusing, is classic negative campaigning:

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hillary's Win

Not having any special insight into the minds of new Hampshire Democrats Politaholic expected Barach Obama to win the primary since that is what the opinion polls indicated. But, astonishingly, Hillary Clinton pulled off a "comeback" even more impressive than that of Bill in 1992 (who only finished second in New Hampshire). What happened? Several explanations are being advanced: (i) Skipper puts it down to the Clinton machine's better organisation in "getting out the vote", (ii) an article in the Guardian suggested the "Bradley effect" (white voters say they will vote for a black candidate when polled, but when they actually vote decline to do so: it goes back to the 1982 campaign by Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, who sought the Democratic nomination for Governor of California; the polls showed him ahead, but he narrowly lost); (iii) some are putting it down to what is best described as her "emotional" coffee shop perfomance (she did not in fact blub) - and this explanation may be supported by the greater proportion of women voting for Hillary. There is probably some truth in all of this. There is also the possibility that the tendency of New Hampshire voters to thumb their noses at Iowa played a small part. But I think there is another factor as well. Obama seems to me to have been getting an extraordinary easy ride. It seems to me that the Republicans would very much like to see Obama defeat Hillary. Why? Because although he can win the Democratic nomination he cannot, in my view, win the Presidency. In my view white America will not vote for a black President, even one who is "whiter-than-white". Racism is still an open sore in American society; Obama cannot simply spirit it away with his "charisma". What's more, in a Presidential campaign his inexperience - only four years in the Senate - would be relentlessly focused upon. Third, the conservative media and the Republican machine - currently rather benign towards Obama - would turn nasty. It would be a dirty election. I think many Democrats realise this; they realise that they have to pick a candidate who has a chance of winning in November, and although Hillary is also a divisive figure, who is hated beyond measure by the conservatives (by the sort of people who think women should stay at home and bake cookies), she would have a far better chance in November than Obama. Another point is that in the coffee-shop performance she reminded Democrats of something: her long-standing committment to the party. Obama - the "celebrity" candidate - is a blow-in by comparison. Hillary is not just "Bill's wife" (although there was a rather stupid article in the Guardian this week suggesting just that): she is a very serious, substantial political figure. There is no doubt she is flawed individual, who has trimmed her sails more than once over Iraq and much else. But in terms of American mainstream politics - and certainly in terms of those with any chance of winning the Presidency - she is as liberal as it gets.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Apropos George and Bill

I've just stumbled upon this is YouTube. It's great!