2011: a year of unintended consequences

From OccupyLSX to Leveson, the British political system is not working well.

There are certain things which are less interesting in themselves than for the impact they have on other people.

Take for example the "Occupy LSX" protest. Whatever the protest stands for -- and there are varied and sometimes conflicting views on this -- its mere existence was enough to cause a mild crisis in the Church of England and to expose starkly the casual idiocy of those who managed a great cathedral. Now it is forcing the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of London to the High Court to defend its attempt to use legal coercion to evict the protest. And so we have the merry spectacle of a powerful and essentially private body -- with no real electoral legitimacy whatsoever -- trying to bandy "public interest" and "free expression" arguments as if they knew or cared what those concepts meant.

Or look at Julian Assange. Whatever the merits of his continual refusal to return to Sweden to be questioned about serious sexual assault and rape allegations, and notwithstanding the silly and counter-productive litigation tactics he adopted at the start of his extradition case, he has now inadvertently got the issue of the illiberal European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime squarely before the Supreme Court. The question to be decided is a narrow one, and it is more likely or not that he will lose, but there are serious general questions to be asked about the use and misuse of EAWs and -- almost despite himself -- it may well be that this generally irresponsible charlatan will form the basis of a progressive shift in the judicial treatment of these over-powerful legal weapons.

And most of all, there is the Leveson inquiry. It cannot be over-emphasised how this inquiry did not come about as a natural consequence of a working political process. Indeed, had it not been that the Metropolitan police just had to do something back in 2005 when it was obvious the mobiles of the Royal Household were being tampered with, then there would not have been the convictions of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman and -- significantly -- no seizure of Mulcaire's notebooks. In turn, there would not have been any civil litigation which uncovered the "For Neville" email and so no Gordon Taylor case. And without that litigation, there would not have been what was uncovered by last year's New York Times exposé and the dogged journalism of Nick Davies and the Guardian, and without David Cameron's lousy judgment in appointing Andrew Coulson there would have not been a political need to call an inquiry. All for the want of a less clumsy hack of Prince William's phone, the News of the World and the credibility of the British tabloid press were lost.

Along the way, each entity with the formal power and public responsibility to address the unlawful and unethical practices of the tabloid press failed to do so. The Metropolitan police closed down the investigation for no good reason; the Information Commissioner's Office took as little action as it could; and the Press Complaints Commission nodded along to what the tabloids told it. But once the scandal emerged then this lack of activity could not be sustained or justified. Something had to give.

What made the difference was the revelation that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. Contrary to the self-serving misdirections of those who appear to have learned nothing from the public outrage, the true significance of that sensational news was not because there had been deletions. It was instead that, at a stroke, it was apparent that hacking was not restricted to celebrities. Anyone caught up in a news story over a five to ten year period may well have had their phone hacked: soldiers, terrorism survivors, grieving or concerned parents, as well as missing school children. The spite and intrusions of the tabloids were no longer the trivial problem of famous people.

However, the true value of the Leveson Inquiry will probably not be in its proposals. No two media pundits seem to agree what would work to make the tabloid press ethical. It certainly would not be new laws and codes and enforcement bodies: all those were in place, and the abuses happened anyway. So the Leveson Inquiry undoubtedly will not so much be important for what it proposes, but what it has allowed to be revealed about others -- currently the tabloids, and soon the police. It will show what was actually going on all the time, whilst the formal public bodies did nothing to stop it.

There is something rotten about a political system where the true nature of power relations -- the very stuff of politics -- is routinely exposed by external events. No political system is perfect; but it is not wrong to expect a political system to be able to work in some fashion. Power will always tend to corrupt, and those with power will always tend to abuse it. One good test of a mature political system is to recognise and check these tendencies. But few, if any, would say that the British political system is now working at all well.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.