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

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Labour's free cancer drug scheme

It has largely gone unnoticed by the British press and the vast majority of people, mainly due to events on the other side of the Atlantic, but this week the government showed that it still had some life left in it.

On Tuesday, the Health Secretary Alan Johnson, announced that up to 150,000 cancer patients in the UK can now start applying for free prescriptions on the NHS. This comes in the wake of Gordon Brown's announcement last September that he was abolishing charges for the treatment of cancer from April this year.

Under the proposals, patients can apply for certificates which would entitle them to all NHS prescriptions free of charge.

This will mainly affect cancer patients with long term conditions and it is estimated that it could save each patient approximately £100 a year. In the long term, five million people will be affected.

I mention this story because there is a quiet revolution in cancer care going on in this country which has largely been ignored.

A few weeks ago, the government reversed its decision to stop patients who want to 'top up' their treatment by going private from doing so. It also recommended to NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) that the criteria under which cancer drugs are judged will change, so that more people suffering from long term rarer cancers will now get the funding for drugs from their PCT, that they desperately need.

Not only does cancer threaten your life, it can also makes you poor. The government has at long last recognised this. By abolishing prescription charges for cancer patients it will transform the lives of thousands of people who are battling various forms of cancer.

This is exactly the sort of progressive policy Labour should be responsible for. It shows that as a government we are still capable, even under the most trying economic circumstances, of helping people in a fair and proper way.

It is worth noting that the Conservatives had no such policy to do the same. If they got in, would some of their proposed tax cuts chip away at policies like this, for instance? You bet.

The message: Labour still has the ideas and is still capable of doing the right thing.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Obama's audacious start

Contrary to what everyone has been saying about the drama surrounding Obama's 'second inauguration', I think the President has got off to an audacious start.

In the last few days, he has ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay within one year and set about dismantling the Bush Administration's network of torture camps, prisons and clandestine detention centres. He has also publicly banned torture and rendition and called for a new approach to detainees.

It is a complete repudiation of the way George Bush prosecuted the war on terror. It should make the possibility of prosecutions against some Bush administration officials, for human rights abuses, all the more likely. Let's hope so. That would lead to proper justice.

The cynic in me might say that Obama's swift action was a clever ploy to change the news agenda after all the fuss about the second inauguration. It is quite clear that this rattled Obama (the constitutional professor) and he wanted it settled quickly, so his actions do help to change the news story.

But more importantly they also help to restore America's standing in the world. He cannot do this overnight, the proof will be in the pudding and what the Obama Administration does in the months ahead. But they do at least draw a line in the sand and dismantle the legal apparatus, which was so self defeating and so damaging to America, that Bush and his cronies put in place.

On a side note, Hillary Clinton's rapturous reception at the State Department is also interesting. I am desperate for her to make a success of this job and the will from her officials certainly seems to be there. Let us not forget, that after Obama, she remains the most powerful political figure in America.

The fact that Obama says he wants to be engaged with the Gaza/Palestine issue from Day One, unlike Bush, and his appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy to the Middle East give Clinton the very real chance of helping to broker a peace settlement there. I don't believe she would have taken the job, had she not thought she would have a chance to do this. But I do hope she does not get distracted by the petty politics and the drama that usually surrounds the Clinton roadshow. She has the very real chance of being remembered as a great statesman(woman) so my message to her - don't blow it.

Finally, just this morning Obama has overturned the ban on US funding for international organisations that offer advice or perform abortions. Under the "golden gag rule" as it was known, aid groups could not even discuss abortion. This policy had become another battle line in the cultural wars but the low key way in which Obama overturned it suggests a new approach to polarising issues like this which is less confrontational. Good. I hope his next step will be to lift the restriction on federal funding for stem cell research.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The First Day

Day one of the Obama Presidency and he has hit the ground running.

On his first full day in office, Obama suspended all trials at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay while a thorough investigation is carried out into what goes on there.

He also ordered a pay freeze for senior staff at the White House and tightened the rules on lobbying.

All three acts send out a clear message of the sort of Presidency Obama wants.

Transparent, accountable and law-abiding.

In between meeting with his national security team and his economic advisers, he also telephoned leaders in the Middle East - a clear sign of where President Obama's foreign policy focus will lie in the weeks, months and years ahead. Note, not a single call was made to any European leader as far as we know - interesting, in itself.

The lightning speed with which he suspended all trials at Guantanamo Bay though is particularly important. This action was not just a symbol of change or a sop thrown to liberals like me. It was also a sign that the rule of law will be of the utmost importance to this former lawyer and constitutional teacher.

It is an attempt to start redressing the gross constitutional abuses that have been carried out in the Bush and Cheney years and it sends out a message that this President will not sacrifice liberty and the rule of law for political expediency or security. It was the right thing to do.

So far so good eh?

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

President Obama calls for new 'age of responsibility'

We’ve all just become part of history.

A son of Africa is now President of the United States.

‘President Obama’ – it’s got a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?

In all honesty, I had tears streaming down my face from the moment Aretha Franklin started singing. I found it difficult to stop. It wasn’t just the pomp and ceremony that sent a shiver down my spine, it was also the knowledge and relief that a man I have wished and willed to become President for the last four years, finally made it.

On days like this, you are reminded that not only is the President a political figure but also Head of State and a symbol of hope for millions of people around the world. The grand tradition of ceremonies and parades and poetry readings is the sort of spectacle you would only get in America and it is all the more special for it.

One of the most beautiful moments in the ceremony, was the benediction given by The Reverend Dr Joseph Lowery (a hero of the civil rights movement). It was moving and emotional and funny. It deserves a second viewing.

After the swearing in ceremony, in which it was clear President Obama was nervous, he began his inaugural speech.

Almost immediately, he started to address the problems confronting America. It was a chastened, business-like and direct approach. He warned of “serious challenges” ahead but promised that these challenges “will be met”.

He told America that it had chosen ‘hope’ over ‘fear’ and he attacked the ‘irresponsibility and greed’ of some people and the ‘dogma and divisiveness’ of others.

He called for, “A new era of responsibility, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world”.

As predicted he called for a new relationship between America and the Muslim world based on mutual respect and he said that at times America had not got the balance right between liberty and security. This means an end to Guantanamo and the Bush Administration’s policies of torture.

However, the biggest applause came when he mentioned his father, his social standing and the changes that had occurred since the civil rights struggle. The reference to his father certainly resonated in a city that was built on the back of slavery and which to this day still has a large Black underclass. As a white Brit, I am not sure that I can truly understand what it means for African Americans to see a Black man elected President. But I know that if ‘Hail to the Chief’ can be played for a man whose father was Kenyan and whose mother comes from Kansas, then the American Dream must still be alive.

The speech summed up the problems of America and promised hope for the future. By urging America to “reaffirm its enduring spirit” his words as one television commentator said were both timely and timeless.

Today was a celebration, not just for Barack Obama or even the African American people, but a celebration also of America’s genuine capacity to renew itself again and again.

As Bush looked tired and shrunken and Cheney was wheeled away in his chair, President Obama knows that the weight of the world’s expectations rest on his shoulders.

His popularity will give him a cushion for the time being but tomorrow morning as he steps into the Oval Office he will be met with a huge in-tray of problems that need to be tackled straight away.

Roll on the first one hundred days…

Sunday, 18 January 2009

In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln

What can we expect from Obama's inauguration?

Right at this moment, Barack Hussein Obama is making his way to Washington by train - in a clear echo of the journey Abraham Lincoln once took.

In two days' time, he will be sworn in as President of the United States. He is using his full name.
His inaugural address, written by Jon Favreau, his speech-writer, promises to be one of the best yet.

Expectations are high. Can he beat Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" 1961 inaugural speech or indeed any of Lincoln's speeches? The chances are that he will.

Obama is a great orator so I expect to hear the lofty rhetoric, the references to President Lincoln and Dr King, the appeal to America's "better angels" and the post-partisanship which characterised the election campaign.

But I also think there will be specifics in the speech, which will signal a break with the failures of the Bush years.

I expect him to announce the closure of Guantanamo Bay. I expect him to publicly announce an end to torture, rendition and illegal detention (even if he doesn't use those exact words). He is smart enough to know that America needs to restore its moral standing in the world and both announcements will send out a clear message.

He will pick certain issues like climate change to show how an Obama Administration will be different.

I think he will also make a direct appeal to the Muslim world and call for a new relationship between the 'West' and the 'rest'.

In some respects, on the domestic front, the speech is going to be harder to give. He has to convey the severity of the economic situation to the American people without descending into pessimism or negativity. This requires a fine juggling act.

He must appeal for bipartisanship and co-operation (so he can get his stimulus passed) but he must also find a way of telling people that the spending commitments he made in the campaign can no longer be realised. It will be difficult stuff.

But inaugurations are not for nitty-gritty policies either. They are there to set the tone and direction and create an impression of what an Administration would be like. Obama will stick to a message of change and hope.

As Obama lays his hand on Lincoln's bible and gets sworn in with Michelle and the girls surrounding him, it will be a powerful weapon in the war of ideas that divides America from its enemies. It will herald a fresh start and a new future. It really is that seismic.

Just after President Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson was quoted as saying: "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men".

With Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, perhaps we can finally lay to rest views like that. The triumph of Barack Obama to the Presidency is also a triumph for the African-American people who have endured enormous pain and suffering over hundreds of years. This will be their day, as much as anybody else's.

President Lincoln said that America the nation was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and that government was "of the people, by the people and for the people". I don't think it would be stretching it too far to say that come Tuesday, we may be a little closer to fulfilling his dream.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Two days to go until the Inauguration

There are just over two days to go now until Barack Obama is sworn in as 44th President.

It takes place at midday on Tuesday so I thought now would be a good time to remind ourselves of what exactly happens

This might be fictional example, but I think the West Wing (like everything else it does) perfectly captures the moment....

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Six Days To Go Until The Inauguration

There are now six days to go until Barack Obama is sworn in as President of the United States. Apparently, this is going to be the most expensive inauguration in history with millions of people descending on Washington.

When Andrew Jackson was sworn in as President in 1828, the streets were filled with people as well. At the time, Washington had never seen anything quite like it. Some people saw it as a symbol of the triumph of democracy, others saw it as a dangerous example of populism and people power.

On the day itself Jackson invited the crowds to the White House for a party. Things got so out of hand that the whole place was trashed and people only left when the White House staff threw the huge kegs of beer out of the windows and onto the White House lawn. Needless to say, the crowds jumped out after them and got very drunk. By this stage, the President had been led to safety.

Anyway, that was then and this is now.

David Plouffe who has been Barack Obama's Campaign Manager for the past two years is the man responsible for building up the incredible grassroots organisation that helped secure Obama the nomination and then the White House.

I found this clip of him discussing Obama's inaugural and what it means to him. I didn't know but Obama will get sworn in on Lincoln's Bible.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

National Internship Scheme won't do enough to help graduates

As a recent graduate, I am intrigued by Gordon Brown’s idea for a national internship scheme.

Under his proposals, university graduates unable to find a job at the end of their courses could be offered paid internships to prevent them joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Companies like Barclay’s and Microsoft have signed up to the scheme.

When the Government persuaded people of the idea of tuition fees, it was partly under the presumption that students from the best universities (where students paid higher fees) would land lucrative jobs and therefore have no trouble paying back large student loans over the course of a lifetime.

But things look a little different now that we are in the midst of a full blown economic recession.

Graduates from some of Britain’s best universities are struggling to find jobs. Milkround schemes have closed down. Banks and law firms are postponing their graduate intake. Most recently, one bank was fined by the FSA for faking its graduate scheme. It had no intention of taking anyone on but it didn’t want its competitors to know it was struggling.

The intern scheme put forward by the Government is the sort of policy innovation that we should welcome and it is probably the best, under the circumstances, that we can expect. We should not let graduates just fend for themselves. It will at least improve participants’ skills and experience and may in some cases lead to full time work. If, as the Government hopes, the interns will be paid at a rate slightly higher than undergraduates' income from grants and loans then at least they are getting some payment.

However, the internship scheme is probably not enough to tackle the scale of the problem. There will be tens of thousands of students hitting the job market in July and not enough internship places to go around for those not lucky enough to get a job. There will still be a lot of disappointed debt-ridden graduates come July who will be very angry with the Government.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

David Cameron's Economic Policy

Friday, 9 January 2009

To call or not to call?

Nick Clegg reshuffled his shadow Cabinet team yesterday.

If rumours are to be believed, David Cameron is about to do the same.

Are both opposition leaders gearing themselves up for a General Election?

The signs at first appear promising.

Firstly, the polls look good. The Conservatives have slipped since the autumn and are now hovering at around 40 points. Labour meanwhile has clawed its way up from those disastrous autumn depths to a respectable 36 to 37 points. This means there is plenty to play for and a well fought election campaign from Labour could see the Party just sneak in.

Secondly, the Government is more effective, better disciplined and appears stronger. Thanks, I would say, to Peter Mandelson’s return. It appears to know which political direction it is heading in unlike the Tories who seem distracted and out of their depth.

Thirdly, the recession is not (yet) hurting people. The financial crisis has not quite filtered down yet so people are not feeling the pain in their pockets. Every economic commentator says it’s only a matter of time before more jobs are lost but for the moment people are not blaming the Government.

Finally, the Conservative solution to the crisis has been dreadful. Osborne is a drag on the ticket, but the policy response is nothing short of scandalous. Their laissez-fair approach contradicts everything coming out of the Obama administration-in-waiting, the EU, the CBI, France, Germany, the Institute of Directors and the IMF to name but a few. It look uncaring, outdated and a return to the Tory Party of the 1980s.

The next few months look like the best time for the Prime Minister to call an election. But I still don’t think he will.

Gordon doesn’t want another disastrous will-he-or-won’t-he election that never was. He needs to make a decision and stick to it. Speculation will destroy the Government.

Secondly, the Prime Minister, for all his bombast and activity over the last few months, is still essentially a cautious man. He will not relish an election campaign against David Cameron and he would still rather wait and see then risk an early election.

But if he is playing the part of Mr Micawber and waiting for something to ‘turn up’, he could be severely disappointed.

In times of recession, the electorate blames the Government and as we are constantly being told Britain is heading towards a severe recession.

Before we get there, maybe it would be better for Gordon to call it and call it now.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Obama's Silence Speaks Volumes

Barack Obama has faced stinging criticism over the last few days because of his silence on the Israeli-Gaza crisis.

The Guardian and Independent newspapers seem to have worked themselves up into a rage that the President-elect has not criticised Israel for its actions.

But Barack Obama’s reticence to speak out reflects something much deeper than merely a desire for the US not to have two Commanders-in-Chief operating at the same time.

Those that criticise Obama simply don’t know him.

What do you expect from the “No Drama, Obama” candidate?

As we discovered during the election campaign, Obama won’t be rushed or browbeaten into anything. His approach is measured and calm and deliberate. Exactly the opposite of the Bush years.

Solving the problems of the Middle East and the Palestinians will take decades. Obama is surely right to approach the situation carefully and thoughtfully. After all, the Israel-Gaza crisis nearly ruined the last two Democratic Presidencies. Caution and pragmatism in foreign affairs will win the day. His choices for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and now CIA Director confirm this.

Choosing Leon Panetta as CIA Director inspires confidence. An outsider, who strongly opposes the Bush Administration’s use of torture and Guantanamo Bay, Panetta will bring fresh thinking to an organisation totally discredited after the war in Iraq.

The fact that Obama has chosen not to intervene in the current crisis does not mean to say he will preside over American isolationism or retrenchment in the future either.

But his approach to foreign affairs will be different.

It will be more consensual, more long term and more strategic. The Obama Administration is not going to shoot from the hip.

He plays a long game. He bides his time. And then he makes a decision - anyone who watched him in those early primaries knows that.

So liberal commentators should stop complaining and shut up. This present crisis is awful and messy and tragic and Obama will get to it.

But for the time being he is thinking and planning.

Two qualities George Bush never had and Obama has in spades.