Why Cameron was right to condemn Jimmy Carr

Hypocritical and politically inept? Perhaps, but Cameron was right to take a stand.

"I wonder if whoever advised Cameron to comment on Jimmy Carr has realised what they’ve done yet?" tweeted Marina Hyde this morning and most commentators seem to be in agreement that the Prime Minister has been foolish to make a moral pronouncement about a comedian's tax affairs. It’s certainly a licence for journalists to rake over Tory donors' tax returns.

But doesn’t the argument about whether or not he’s been politically inept or hypocritical, mask another uncomfortable truth: that he could be right. I understand the argument that it’s wrong for a politician to condemn someone who hasn’t broken the law – but I’m not sure I agree with it. We expect our politicians to make moral judgements, we call them out on it all the time, over issues like health, education, welfare and military intervention. It seems a nonsense to say that when someone has acted legally but in a way that makes them feel morally uncomfortable, our leaders should keep schtum.

Cameron had three options: say what he did; say the opposite ("perfectly legal, done nothing wrong") – imagine how that would have played - or played the Ed Miliband "but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality" card. Good luck with that one at the next PMQs, Ed, because that’s not what you’ve said in the past. Here’s a cracking quote from a Miliband speech last year.

The bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the people who hacked phones at the expense of victims: greedy, selfish and immoral.

Miliband was right then, just as Cameron was right yesterday.

Of course, hypocrisy litters the story left, right and centre. Various newspaper groups writing about this story employ ways and means to bring down their own tax burden. And there is an issue about where you draw the moral line. Plenty of folk avoid tax everyday, without a moment’s guilt. Pension contributions, ISAs, duty free shopping. Nothing wrong with any of them. But anyone using them is utilising a tax avoidance scheme – does that remove their right to express an opinion about the moral rectitude of rather more complicated and creative pieces of accounting? I don’t think so.

Cameron will undoubtedly live to regret his words about Carr – the newspapers will make sure of that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong to say it. Does it?

David Cameron said Jimmy Carr was "morally wrong" to avoid tax. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.