Ten stories I spotted while on hols

From Obama and health care to Rod Liddle and multiculturalism.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I've been away on holiday, visiting the in-laws in the United States.

But I thought I'd do a quick run-through of the top ten stories I spotted -- and wanted to blog about but couldn't -- while I was on vacation.

In no particular order:

1) Health care: Barack Obama persuaded a recalcitrant, divided and dysfunctional Congress to pass his historic health-care reform bill. This was no small achievement, in a nation where one American woman I bumped into compared buying health insurance to buying car insurance: it should be each person's individual responsibility. Writing on our letters page in this week's double-issue of the magazine, LabourList's Alex Smith takes us to task for Andrew Stephen's "tepid and more than a little begrudging" praise of Obama's legislative achievement. But here's the problem. While I agree with Vice-President Joe Biden that the reform was a "big f--king deal", as it will ultimately provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, it will still leave at least 15 million Americans uninsured in the long run. Nor does the law introduce a single-payer system, or even the much-discussed, centrist and popular "public option". It is a bad law. But I do support the (bad) law because anything -- anything! -- is better than the current, awful US health-care system.

2) Israeli-US relations: Talking of Biden, it was amusing and amazing to see the self-destructive Israeli right embarrass and insult one of America's most pro-Israeli politicians during his visit to the Jewish state by announcing a new planning and expansion phase for 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem. Binyamin Netanyahu apologised -- but only for the timing. Or, in the words of Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Ehud Barak and now Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation: "I'm sorry I slapped you on Monday: next time, I promise, it won't be on a Monday." But it wasn't just Biden who was insulted. Here is Prime Minister Netanyahu's brother-in-law, commenting on the "anti-Semitic" Barack Obama: "It needs to be said clearly and simply: There is an anti-Semitic president in the US. It's not that Obama doesn't sympathise with [Netanyahu]. He doesn't sympathise with the people of Israel." Hilarious.

3) BNP divisions: The Sunday Times reported at the weekend how "Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, has told police that a senior colleague threatened to kill him after an investigation into a political 'conspiracy'. Mark Collett, the BNP's head of publicity, has been arrested and suspended from the party after the discovery of an alleged plot by a 'small clique' of officials to overthrow its leadership." Is this the behaviour one would expect from the officials of a mainstream political party? Will the BBC and others now get the message that the British National Party is a collection of loons and thugs, and not a normal party? Can you imagine Tony Blair reporting Alastair Campbell to the police, claiming Ali C was trying to kill him?

4) MPs for hire: My reaction to the secretly filmed footage of Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers prostituting themselves to a fictional US public relations firm, courtesy of Channel 4's Dispatches? Disgust. But not surprise. I'm proud to point out that I skewered this trio of venal Blairite ultras in two separate blog posts in recent months. I despise their money-grubbing antics, which have further undermined trust in our political classes. These three former cabinet ministers were, in the words of Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian, "soliciting work more like whores than taxi drivers". Hats off to my former Channel 4 colleagues Dorothy Byrne and Kevin Sutcliffe for commissioning this excellent sting operation, and to my friend Antony Barnett for reporting it.

5) Paedophiles and the Catholic Church: In the wake of revelations that the Church covered up decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns, I find it difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church has "lost all credibility".Given the current Pope's alleged involvement, I also wonder whether it isn't time for Catholic cardinals and theologians to re-evaluate the 140-year-old doctrine of "papal infallibility". Meanwhile, Geoffrey Robertson, QC is calling for the Pope to be tried at the International Criminal Court.

6) Tories, big business and National Insurance: Shock! Horror! Right-wing business leaders support Tory tax cut. Shock! Horror! The business leaders backing the Tory proposal to stop the rise in National Insurance include a number who've given close to half a million pounds in personal donations to the Tory party. Hold the press!

7) Afghanistan deaths: In under-reported remarks, the near-deified commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Meanwhile, Afghan officials have stated that Nato jets killed four civilians, including a child, during a firefight with Taliban militants in Helmand Province this week. Fantastic. Winning hearts and minds, I guess . . .

8) Iraq elections (and deaths): Did you know that Iraq's much-awaited and much-praised parliamentary elections last month, in the words of National Public Radio, "left no clear winner, promising months of horse-trading among the Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs"? You might not, given the meagre coverage Iraq gets in our newspapers these days. Did you know that the top Shia bad boy, Moqtada al-Sadr, is now the Nick Clegg of Iraqi politics? With some 40 seats, the Sadrists are the new kingmakers in Baghdad. What an irony. Oh, and have you seen the disturbing and graphic Wikileaks video (dated 12 July 2007) of two US helicopter gunships opening fire on, and killing, 12 unarmed Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency? "Look at those dead b******s," one crew member says. "Nice," another responds.

9) Blair's return: I'm sorry to have missed Tony Blair's speech to Trimdon Labour Club in his former constituency, Sedgefield. The perma-tanned ex-premier praised Gordon Brown's "experience, judgement and boldness" and rightly described the Tories' claim that it was Time for Change as "the most vacuous slogan in politics". But did the multimillionaire consultant to JPMorgan and Louis Vuitton, who arrived in a BMW 7-Series, make any contribution to the cash-strapped and struggling Labour Club? From the Times: "Keith Thompson, 50, vice-chairman of the club and a parish councillor who has voted Labour all his life, said: 'We have written to Blair four times since last August and not even received a reply. He has come and used and abused it. There are a lot of people who think that. That is the talk in the club.' " Lovely . . .

10) Rod Liddle and the Press Complaints Commission: I can't say I wasn't pleased to see the toothless PCC censure the Spectator journalist for crass and inaccurate remarks last year, on his blog, about the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London being perpetrated by young African-Caribbean men. I'm just astonished it had nothing to say about his concluding remarks: "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks." What were you thinking, Rod?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition