This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Saturday, 30 August 2008

John McCain chooses Miss. Congeniality

John McCain has chosen Sarah Palin, a former beauty Queen and currently the Governor of Alaska, to be his Vice Presidential candidate.

I am in two minds about this.

On the one hand, it is an audacious move. It will generate enormous media interest and public excitement over the next few days. It will also rally the Republican base and evangelical vote - Palin is anti-abortion, fiscally conservative, a member of the NRA, anti-gay marriage and religious - so McCain will be able to extend his appeal on the Right.

It is also a blatant attempt to appeal to the 'Hillaryites' who are still annoyed that their candidate didn't make it.

McCain interviewed her for the job and ultimately made the final decision. It is possible that he sees a steel glint in her eyes that we have yet to discover.

However, the decision also smacks of utter desperation.

Palin is unknown outside of her home state. She has no knowledge or experience of foreign policy and is mired in her own corruption scandal back at home.

I think the McCain camp also overestimates the hostility of female Clinton supporters towards Obama. They may be disgruntled for now, but it is quite another thing to switch sides and vote Republican in November. Will they be willing to vote for a woman even though she is anti-abortion? I just don't see how she appeals to them.

Palin will also find it difficult to hold her own against Joe Biden in the debates and on the stump. It will be clear from the start who is the more experienced campaigner and unlike Obama she has not been through the rigours of a Primary season.

However, the Obama camp has to be careful about the way they go after her. When it comes to the debates, Biden will have to tone down his combative and blustering nature. He must also avoid being seen as patronising and belittling. It will be a fine line.

My guess is Palin will probably surprise us and turn out to be quite a good campaigner. If I was McCain I would let her work on shoring up the Republican base, while I concentrated on the Independents. The media and women's groups will also love it initially. But, I think over the next few weeks it will become quite clear who has the stronger ticket. The ethics cloud hanging over her head may come back to haunt her and her extremist policy stances will do very little to win over Independents and Hillaryites.

The decision also tells us something very interesting about McCain's character. If he were to be elected, he would be in charge. There would be none of the co-Presidency we have seen under Bush and Cheney. If Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge had been chosen, for instance, then they would have established their own centres of power. But does anyone seriously think Palin is going to stand up to McCain? Offer him policy advice? The answer is no. Unlike the Obama/Biden ticket, this ticket doesn't look like one ready to govern now.

She will turn out to be mere window dressing. In time, Americans will see right through it.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Democratic Convention Day Four - Barack Obama and the Promise of America

Barack Obama talked about the "Promise of America" last night in the most important speech of his career so far.

Accepting the Democratic nomination for president in an outdoor stadium of 80,000 people, Obama carefully interwove soaring flights of rhetoric and oratory with detailed policy proposals and a workmanlike approach to the job at hand.

He stuck to his message of change and linked his candidacy for the presidency with what he referred to as the promise of America. It was fitting that it was 45 years to the day that Dr. King had made his famous speech after the march on Washington.

It was a departure from previous speeches, in which Obama has often veered off into abstract concepts of change and hope. These themes were still there but Obama offered as well specific policy proposals which should help to minimise Republican attacks that he is messianic and/or full of hot air.

He proposed a new tax code and the elimination of capital gains tax for companies that invested at home rather than outsourced abroad.

He pledged to reduce tax for 95% of middle class Americans.

He offered to end the American dependence on oil from the Middle East within ten years.

He said he would carefully look at nuclear power and push forward with a renewables revolution.

He pledged policies on education and health care and said he would do everything in his power to enforce equal pay for women.

He also tackled the contentious issues of abortion, gun control, immigration and gay rights, sounding every bit like the kind of President Americans have been crying out for.

People who criticise him for not producing specifics now need to shut up.

He also repeatedly attacked John McCain and the Republicans throughout the speech - for me, the best part.

He opened up a strong line of attack in which he dealt with the issue of 'experience' head on. He made it about judgement and temperament, thereby subtly questioning McCain's suitability for the job.

Like Bill Clinton on Wednesday night, Obama suggested that experience was one thing but judgement was quite different and McCain had neither the temperament nor the judgement to become President. He reminded us that McCain had voted with Bush over 90% of the time and we should not be ready to accept only a 10% chance of change.

In one of the best criticisms of McCain, Obama also pointed to McCain's world view and subtly reminded us of his opponent's age: "We need a president who can face the threats of the future, not keep grasping at the ideas of the past."

He also told voters about his own life story, rebutting charges from the Republican camp that he is nothing more than a vacuous celebrity.

I think Obama judged the whole thing brilliantly. He was quite right to tone the rhetoric down and concentrate on some of the more bread and butter issues. The setting, lights and music also looked perfect and getting individual voters to introduce him (I particularly liked the Hispanic teacher) gave the whole thing a more real, earthy quality which should play well. There are now 67 days to go until the General Election.

Finally last night Obama introduced himself to the American public. If they are anything like me, they will like what they see.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Democratic Convention Day Three - Bill and Joe Deliver the Goods

The Democratic convention was treated to two very fine performances last night.

Both President Clinton and Senator Biden gave excellent speeches in which they vouched for Barack Obama's character and went straight for McCain's jugular.

The night had already started emotionally. The roll call of delegate votes is always strange to watch at the best of times. Each state delegation calls out who they are going to support as well as giving their own state a massive plug. But when it got to New York, Hillary Clinton surprised us with a cleverly orchestrated appearance in which she moved a motion of acclamation. In other words, she stopped the roll call and called for the Convention to endorse Obama. I am a sucker for moments like this and I did have tears in my eyes when it happened. Her actions put Obama over the edge and gave him the nomination.

When Bill appeared, the Convention went wild. I loved it when they played "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow." Ah, the memories! He gave a great speech in which he explicitly endorsed Obama and showed the Democrats just how they could attack McCain. He did a lot to rehabilitate himself in my eyes. He had a couple of great lines too: "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." Slam Dunk and thank you.

With the crowd more than nicely warmed up, Biden also delivered the goods. In particular, he went after McCain's biggest supposed strength: his foreign policy experience. For me the best single line in his speech was: "The times require more than just a good soldier, they require a wise leader." This was exactly the right thing to say. Biden has the credibility to question McCain's stance on foreign policy and national security. His mantra seemed to be, "John McCain wrong, Barack Obama right." Experience is fine, but judgement is something else. I should never have questioned Obama's decision to choose Biden. After last night's speech, I understand why he was chosen as VP candidate. Biden came across as wise and experienced. A man with a good back story who would take the fight to the Republicans and appeal to those white working class communities in the rust belt who Obama is struggling to touch.

In the end both speeches tackled the thorny issue of judgement. Clinton and Biden argued forcefully that compared to McCain, Obama's judgement was spot on. He was ready to lead now. Exactly the sort of thing we needed to hear.

Tonight, Obama gives the most important speech of his life.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Democratic Convention Day Two - Did Hillary nail it?

Did Hillary nail it? Was her speech a slam dunk?

The common consensus seems to be that she did. It was the speech of her life, even better than her very good concession speech.

I liked it because there were no misty eyed reflections about her campaign. No sense of defeat. Instead, it was punchy, resilient and with a clear a sense of purpose. She was unequivocal in her endorsement of Barack Obama. The speech will help to erode tensions within the Party and present a united front to the electorate.

It was also peppered with some exceptionally fine rhetoric and oratory. As well as urging Democrats to come together to support Obama she also went on the attack when it came to the Republicans. Three lines stand out:

"No way, No How, No McCain."

"We don't need four more years of the last eight years." And...

"With an agenda like that it makes sense George Bush and John McCain will meet together in the twin cities because these days they're awfully hard to tell apart."

These quotes will and should be replayed as much as possible. The Democratic strategy has to be about linking McCain with the Bush years.

She did talk a lot about herself and she did talk a lot about Democratic values but on every occasion she tied it back to Obama. I don't know how she could have shown more support than this.

It was more like a Presidential statement than anything else. Perhaps, if she had found that voice more during the Primary campaign, she would be making that speech on Thursday night instead of Obama.

A word of caution though.

In today's Guardian, Michael Tomasky has written an excellent piece. He points out that Hillary did not vouch for Obama's character in the speech nor did she say anything about his abilities as Commander-in-Chief. Strange considering this is his main area of weakness and her main focus of attack during the Primary season. It is possible that in a few weeks time we will have forgotten Hillary's calls for unity and the Party will remain divided.

I find this unlikely though.

The speech helped shut down the negative narrative that was beginning to define the convention and create a more positive climate in time for Obama's speech. It moved me and I am Barack Obama's biggest fan and for Democrats at least, it should put the wind behind their sails. It was a call to arms for Democrats everywhere.

"Before we keep going, we need to get going by electing Barack Obama."

Good on ya Hillary! I could not have put it better myself.

Joe Biden now has a big job matching that and we will wait and see what Bill says tonight...

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Democratic Convention Day One - Did Michelle do enough?

I think the answer is yes.

Michelle Obama delivered a convention address last night that was perfectly pitched. It was accessible, genuine and heartfelt.

By stressing the common themes of family, change and values the Obama camp hoped Michelle would make an an emotional connection with voters. I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase "American family." And by successfully linking her family's rise and success with the fulfillment of the American dream - "America's a place where you can make it if you try" - Michelle forced voters to make an important connection in their minds between the Obama family and voters' perceptions of the 'typical' American family.

It seems odd now that anyone would question it but the speech also helped to erase doubts that she was 'an angry black woman.' It was simple and family based which should go down well with female voters who feel hard done by after Clinton's defeat. Incidentally, there was a warm tribute to Hillary which I thought was a nice touch and should help to improve Democratic unity.

If, at times, the speech seemed cloying and schmaltzy then this was OK too. After all, Americans go mad for this sort of thing. And if you can't do it when your husband is about to be officially nominated as Presidential candidate, when can you do it?

When Obama appeared by VT link at the end, there was also a good joke about him pestering Michelle until she went out with him and how Americans would need a persistent President. The little girls also looked cute. If the object of the address had been to introduce Michelle to the American people then it worked very well.

Tonight, Hillary makes her debut. She needs to go out of her way to show that she is right behind Obama's candidacy, if not rumours of Democratic disunity will haunt the rest of the week and the campaign.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

One House Too Many

John McCain can't remember how many houses he owns. Here's one house I hope he never gets his hands on...

Saturday, 23 August 2008

A Safe Pick

Barack Obama has named the Delaware Senator, Joe Biden, as his running mate.

It is not the most exciting choice, but it is a solid one.

Biden brings foreign policy expertise to the ticket. He has been Chair of the Senate foreign relations committee for years and is comfortable dealing with the men in uniform. The recent crisis in Georgia put further pressure on the Obama camp to find a running mate who had some expertise in this area. Biden is more than capable of countering the accusations from the McCain camp that the Democrats will be weak on foreign policy.

Biden is also older. With an electorate increasingly aged, this has got to be a good thing. Obama has never been great at reaching the grey vote.

He is also combative. He will take the fight right to the Republicans and with the campaign getting increasingly negative and the attacks on Obama more personal, this is an absolute necessity. In Biden, the Democrats have found someone who can give as good as he gets.

He is also a Catholic and pro-abortion. Two demographics the Democrats need to win back the White House.

All in all it is a steady choice, if not exactly an inspiring one.

It would have been better had Obama copied Clinton's example in 1992 and chosen a running mate who was just as transformational as he is. But that is always a risky move.

As it is, Obama has found a candidate who balances his foreign policy inexperience and also knows a thing or two about governing.

The only problems I can see are that in choosing Biden, Obama draws more attention to his lack of foreign policy credentials. The Republicans are bound to exploit this.

Biden is also known for his gaffes, so these will be regurgitated by the Republican attack machine over the next few months and used to embarrass the Democrats.

But, no choice is ever perfect and in choosing Joe Biden, Obama has found a solid, experienced politician who will campaign well and take the fight right to the Republicans.

Roll on the convention....

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Who do we have to thank for Beijing?

Do you think Britain's current success in the Beijing Olympics has anything to do with the increased investment in sport over the last ten years?

According to the Office of National Statistics, when Labour came to power in 1997 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport spent less than £50 million per year on sport. That figure is now closer to £257 million.

This means that between 2003 and 2012, Labour will spend close to £2.4 billion on sport.

This investment has gone on many things including improved community sports facilities, a national sports coaching strategy, 430 specialist sports colleges and grants and sponsorship for athletes.

It was also a Labour Prime Minister who was responsible for winning us the Olympics in 2012.

Now the Government has announced that it will spend £140 million on a Swimming Challenge Fund. It hopes that by 2012 all over 60s and under-16s will get to swim for free. It also promises that by 2012 all children will have access to 5 hours of sport a week.

Not only is this good for the health of the nation, it also helps to reduce crime by giving kids something to do and makes us feel proud when we see our athletes doing so well at international tournaments.

When Mrs. Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, many Tories applauded her. But the realisation of this belief meant that for 18 years, investment in our parks, recreational areas and sports facilities (like so much else) fell way below the European average. Our community facilities were left to rot. No wonder we did so badly in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Our athletes are doing well this year because they have put in enormous effort and hard work to get there. But they have also done well because for the last 10 years they have had a government that has supported them.

A Tory Government would never have done that. We would do well to remember it.

Great Hatred, Little Room

I have just finished reading Jonathan Powell's book on the Northern Ireland peace process, Great Hatred, Little Room.

Powell was Tony Blair's Chief of Staff for over ten years and the chief negotiator during the peace process. If, like me, you are not familiar with the intricacies of Northern Irish politics (who could blame us?) and have only picked up information from the TV or the newspapers, then I think this book would be a good place to start.

Powell has an insider's view of the personalities and politics involved which makes for a riveting account. He also writes clearly about the history of the conflict and is honest about the mistakes he made.

I came away with two conclusions after reading the book:

One, the importance of talking. Powell's argument is that all sides in a conflict should always keep talking even if sometimes the problems seem intractable. When the talks stop, the vacuum is filled with violence. It is not hard to see how this policy could be adopted in other areas of conflict around the world. Indeed, one of the differences between Obama and McCain is that Obama argues persuasively that America should talk even to its most inveterate foes.

Secondly, the importance of a Prime Minister having good advisors. Powell was one of many loyal advisors who worked for Blair for a long time. By and large, they were well-rounded individuals who provided him with balanced, careful advice. They were also a good mixture of men and women, young and old, left and right. Brown has never had a strong team around him and indeed part of his problem may well be the quality of advice and personalities that he surrounds himself with.
This is a well-written, interesting political account of the peace process that sheds light on the politics and personalities who contributed so much to peace in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Tories say move south

The right-wing Tory think-tank, Policy Exchange, published a report today in which it argued that northerners have no chance of a better life and should move south instead.

The report claimed that cities like Sunderland, Rochdale and Bradford could not be revived and had "little prospect of offering their residents the standard of living to which they aspire." The report said it was time to stop pretending Sunderland had a bright future.

It also argued that people in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool should move south where they would enjoy a higher standard of living.

If this report was not so funny, it would make me furious. And this is supposedly David Cameron's favourite think-tank! It tells you what the Tory leader really thinks.

It reminds me of Norman Tebbit telling everybody to get on their bikes in the 1980s.

Ill-informed, uncaring, unsympathetic, right-wing, Thatcherite, London-centric rubbish. The Tories have not changed one bit. They should be crucified for this.

If the Tories could escape, for just one second, from their London/South-East centric bubble they would see that the North is booming. Manchester has enjoyed a renaissance. Liverpool is European Capital of Culture. (See my earlier post) Hale has more millionaires than anywhere else in the UK. Our northern cities are being rejuvenated. People do enjoy a high standard of living.

But this is not the point.

The point is that the Tories are STILL offering the same old solutions to the problems we face. Instead of facing up to the fact that they ruined our northern cities and towns through eighteen years of neglect and under-investment and offering a workable solution to improve places like Sunderland, the Tories have taken a leaf out of Tebbit's book and told people to move south.

Tebbit - talk about the undead.

It has taken ten years of Labour Government to reverse the decline. Investment in our services, infrastructure and industries has transformed many areas. There is more to do but the Tories offer us no solutions. Instead they hark back to a 30-year old view of the north.

What turns my stomach the most is when the report warns that politics has been dominated by ministers representing poorer towns - as if this was a bad thing! Thank God, I say.

At least Labour has been a voice for all those communities who were counted out by the Thatcherites and their cronies. If the Tories had their way, Britain would be governed by the rich and for the rich with the south-east getting everything.

If you really want to know the difference between what Labour offers and what the Tories offer you could start by reading this report. Labour invests and helps to rejuvenate. The Tories peddle the same poison and prejudice.

Same old Tories, same old solutions. No one is falling for it.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Obama must do the unexpected

As Barack Obama takes a few days rest in Hawaii this week, one of the many things weighing on his mind will be who to choose as Vice President. A decision has to be made within the next two weeks.

Hillary comes with too much baggage. John Edwards extra-marital affair rules him out as well.

The common consensus amongst the commentariat and blogosphere is that Obama needs to choose an older, whiter, more experienced foreign affairs specialist who can compliment his youth and inexperience. If the individual in question is a a former Republican all the better.

If Obama listens to this advice he will lose.

It may seem like clever politics to choose a Veep who can balance the ticket but it would be the wrong strategy.

Most Presidential candidates do choose VPs who balance them in some way - politically, geographically even religiously.

But Obama is running on a platform of generational change. If he chooses a candidate who is more hawkish than him and has greater foreign affairs experience it will only underline his own weaknesses in that area and provide the McCain camp with an open goal.

Obama should learn from the grand-master himself. When Bill Clinton was running in 1992 he chose another southern, centrist Democrat Al Gore to be his VP. Instead of trying to balance the ticket he chose someone like himself. This only served to enhance Clinton's message that he represented a new type of politics and offered real change.

Obama should do the same. He should pick a candidate - woman, Hispanic, liberal or young - who offers the same generational break with the past that he does. If there is one thing voters want this time around it is a rupture with the politics of the "Same old same old." Of course this is a riskier strategy. Obama could do the easy thing and choose an individual who is unlike him in every way. But if he wants a mandate for change and a win in November he should do the unexpected and pick someone like himself.

After all, he is the Democrat's greatest strength.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Paris Hilton Responds to McCain

Here's a bit of light relief.

Paris Hilton has responded to John McCain's criticism of Obama's celebrity with her very own campaign ad.

I think the best bit is when she looks into the camera and says, "See you at the debate bitches."


Monday, 4 August 2008

Cabinet Meetings in Bognor Regis

Beware the Cabinet roadshow coming to a town near you.

The Government announced today that from September onwards some Cabinet meetings would be held in cities and towns around the country.

Apparently, this idea has been cooked up by the Communities Secretary Hazel Blears and is popular with the Prime Minister who hopes it will be a chance for him to reconnect with voters. It could be called the "Listen and Learn" tour.

Apparently, the last time a Cabinet Meeting was held outside Westminster was in 1921 when Lloyd George took his Cabinet to Inverness. He resigned as leader the next year and the Liberals have been out of power ever since.

No doubt some Tories will argue that this is pure gimmickry and tokenism. Would they be wrong?

Probably not. This is a nice idea but it will not make a blind bit of difference. If they just end up having a Cabinet meeting behind closed doors in Bognor or Blackpool then what's the point? And would you really want one of these grinning faces meeting you down the local precinct? I think I would prefer it if the Cabinet stayed in London and got on with the business of governing.

Some people might say that was a novel idea. I couldn't possibly comment.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

An Energy Policy for Labour

Energy is the hot topic of the moment.

Gas and electricity prices are rising. People are feeling it in their pockets. Winter is only round the corner.

Britain's energy supply is too dependent on the whims of foreign governments - not all of them always friendly.

And we are sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe if we do not find more sustainable energy sources.

This is why the Government needs a coherent energy policy which addresses voters' concerns.

First things first, Labour should stick to its target of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016. Currently, 2.5 million households spend more than 10% of their household income on gas and electricity. Elderly people are affected the most. Labour introduced the winter fuel allowance which has helped elderly people get through those dark months but it is time to link the fuel allowance with income to ensure the very poorest people in society receive the most help.

Secondly, Labour should impose a windfall levy on the energy companies. This would generate £10 billion which could be in the form of a rebate for each household. This would help ease the pain for many families immediately particularly during winter.

Thirdly, the Government should work with energy suppliers to invest more in insulation. A huge investment programme over the next decade would reduce bills and help the environment. It would also be good for Britain's insulation industry!

Fourthly, Labour should introduce smart meters in every household. Customers on pre-pay meters spend £140 more a year on average than other customers. Introducing meters which show consumption use and costs would change behaviour and reduce bills. We could start with council owned housing.

Finally, each year the energy companies are given permits which allow them to produce a certain amount of carbon dioxide for free. Often, the energy companies trade these permits rather than use them. This represent a £9 billion Government giveaway. Labour could close this loophole down or use the money to invest in renewable technology.

Labour is rightly pushing for more nuclear power stations which will help to reduce our dependence on North Sea oil and foreign sources (as well as being better for the environment) but the Prime Minister could also push for a Renewables Revolution.

Labour needs to show the leadership and vision the country demands by pushing for a transition from a high-carbon economy to a low-carbon economy - a revolution in Renewables technology would be required. Who knows how many jobs this might create or what new technology would be developed as a result? It would be better for our economy, our environment and our security - the kind of bold thinking we need at the moment.

The Prime Minister could show how serious he was about the issue by creating a new Cabinet role: Secretary of State for Energy. He or she would cut across Whitehall boundaries and be responsible for implementing a long term strategy for energy security.

Policy that plans for the short and long term will allow us to ease the pain many households are now feeling and plan for our security and welfare in the future.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Conservative MPs Break Expenses Rules

The Wintertons are one of Westminster's most loathsome political couples.

Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield and Anne Winteron, MP for Congleton, are the types of Tories who think they were born to rule.

Each one of them has courted controversy since they were first elected. In the past, they have made ill-advised comments about the Morcambe Bay cockle-pickers and "joked" about Asian people.

Most recently, the Parliamentary Standards Commission found them guilty of breaking the rules when it came to expenses. Over the last six years, they have siphoned off nearly £140,000 of tax-payers money claiming rent on a flat they had already bought outright and finished paying the mortgage on.

Even David Cameron called their actions "indefensible."

And Anne Winterton recently had the temerity to question Gordon Brown's morals at PMQs. The cheek of her!

The Winterton's claim that they did not know they were breaking Parliamentary rules when it came to expenses. They hoped to avoid paying inheritance tax - typical Tories!
But when will MPs learn that the onus of responsibility is on them to know the rules and act accordingly? They have a moral duty to pay the money back.

Of course they will never do this. Even now, they refuse to reveal details of their expenses, in direct opposition to the expressed wishes of their Party leader.

Seeing them on Granada TV tonight trying to justify their actions, I was reminded of all those sleazy Tories who think that the tax-payer actually owes them something. What an odious couple. So long as the Conservative Party allows its MPs to act disgracefully like this without taking action to reprimand them, David Cameron's argument that he represents a new type of politics should be taken with a very big pinch of salt.