Thursday 30 April 2015

Forty Years On

One tyranny exchanged for another.

And no lessons learned about getting mixed up in these things.

Twenty Years On

In the last days of the Major Government, Tony Blair announced that he was going to withdraw Child Benefit from Sixth Formers, and Hilary Armstrong vigorously defended that policy to me.

They never did it. But even so. Truly, Cameron is the Heir to Blair, unrestrained by Gordon Brown and the Labour Party.

There is even more chance of all of this from the Lib Dems, though. As anyone who has ever been paying attention has always known.

Ni Charlie Ni Charia

Francine Prose is right. Nothing about Charlie Hebdo entitles it to anything approaching an award from PEN.

Christopher Booker, the Founding Editor of Private Eye, had the measure both of the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and of the spiteful, juvenile publication itself.

"Ni Charlie Ni Charia" was the excellent headline in a January edition of Rivarol, a publication that propagates a dangerous perversion of the Catholic Faith into the ideology of the French Far Right.

It does so in achingly sophisticated fashion. I am given to understand that the technical term is "French".

What if Islamists had attacked Rivarol rather than Charlie Hebdo?

Would the world's torturers, media-repressers, heckler-arresters (that's you, David Cameron) and all the rest of them have wended their way to Paris in order to march in that most preposterous of things, a government-organised demonstration led by the very Head of State?

The burial of the fallen Police Officers with the Legion d'honneur was obviously fitting. But why not also of the cartoonists?

After all, their supposedly satirical organ is now being kept going at public expense, effectively nationalised, initially in order to make possible an enormously expanded print run for the most boringly predictable front page imaginable.

At least in France, satire itself is now dead.

Stop Being So Obsequious

In Sean Kemp, it has taken a Lib Dem to remind The Spectator that it was once a Tory magazine:

Can you sense it? That thrill in the air? The feeling that suddenly the Labour campaign is just somehow more 
exciting? Yes, that’s right, David Axelrod is back in the country. Try to control yourselves.

The Guardian recently revealed that 26 April was the date that The Axe was landing back in the UK.

And not a moment too soon, as some in the Labour party have started to question what Obama’s former adviser has been doing for his reported £300,000 apart from the odd conference call.

The idea that the election was a fight between the American and Lynton Crosby – who, whatever you think about him, clearly eats, breathes and sleeps this election – now seems rather quaint.

This is all a far cry from the excitement that greeted the news of Axelrod’s appointment, when various breathless pieces were written about what he would bring to Miliband’s campaign.

All of that has died down a bit, although occasionally Axelrod does get credit for a neat line (and not so neat ones: ‘happy warrior’ is a phrase previously used by the Obama camp for example).

Why the obsession with Axelrod? There’s the reflected glory of Obama obviously and the media loves tales of journalists successfully moving into politics.

But more than anything else he has one big advantage: he’s American.

Westminster is obsessed with American politics to an almost [almost?] embarrassing extent.

Presidential elections in particular are the spectator sport of choice for political geeks; plenty of people who have only just woken up to what’s been going on in Scotland could bore for England about the obscure runners and riders in various primary races.

And it’s not just actual US politics that sends some people weak at the knees; The West Wing still gets quoted bizarrely often by supposedly serious people to justify decisions.

The programme’s ‘Let Bartlet Be Bartlet’ line has been adapted to say Let Gordon Be Gordon, Let Cameron Be Cameron, Let Miliband Be Miliband, Let Clegg be Clegg and even Let Ming Be Ming.

And that’s before we even get onto the time Tony Blair’s actual Chief of Staff requested a meeting with the man who played President Bartlet’s fictional Chief of Staff.

Does any of this matter beyond being a bit embarrassing?

I think it does, because it’s symptomatic of a broader, almost wilful desire by people who should know better to misunderstand and misrepresent what really matters in politics.

Campaigns aren’t simply won or lost by the neat soundbite or the barnstorming speech.

It’s the random impressions accumulated over years combined with an effective long-term campaign strategy that count. Whether the PM suddenly starts shouting a bit to show ‘passion’ in the last week of his campaign is utterly irrelevant.

Ironically one of the best accounts of all this comes from another Obama campaign staffer. David Plouffe, arguably a more significant figure than Axelrod in Obama’s 2008 victory, sets it all out in his book The Audacity To Win.

But all that long-term stuff is boring, so we carry on acting as if Americans have some magical ingredient that can transform everything in a week, and fawn absurdly over the likes of Nate Silver for doing what plenty of political scientists over here also do.

The really big difference between British and US politics is simple – money. Without all that cash the advice of US experts is remarkably similar to that of anyone else who has worked in politics.

Maybe if we want people to start taking British politics a bit more seriously it’s time we did the same ourselves and stopped being so obsequious to anyone who comes over here with an American accent.

A Belligerent and Destructive Force

David Clark writes:

Len McCluskey this week praised Nicola Sturgeon and said that Labour should be prepared to work with the SNP. He isn’t the only English lefty to fall for the charms of Scotland’s First Minister.

‘Can I vote SNP?’ was one of the most popular Google searches among non-Scottish voters who watched the main leaders’ debate at the start of the campaign.

The effect has been similar to Cleggmania in 2010 with a rival party leader appearing to say the sorts of things many Labour supporters have longed to hear from one of their own.

Why shouldn’t they be attracted to the idea of Labour forming a progressive alliance with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP and possibly a Green or two?

For very good reasons, as it happens.

The case against a deal with the SNP is usually made by Labour tribalists and couched in terms so self-serving as to be immediately discounted by its intended audience.

The party might do better if it showed more self-awareness by acknowledging that there are valid reasons for people in Scotland to feel angry with it.

The argument for steering clear of the SNP isn’t that Labour has a monopoly of progressive virtue. It clearly doesn’t.

The real reason for being a Nat-sceptic is that, aside from nationalism, the SNP has no ideological core of its own and simply instrumentalises progressive ideas to advance the regressive goal of separatism.

For the non-Scottish left there can be no question of a principled and trusting relationship with the SNP because you can’t build a common project for social change with someone whose first and only purpose is to smash up the political community to which you both belong.

The left in England and Wales may want the UK to work differently, but they definitely want it to work. Nicola Sturgeon and her party want it to fail.

The SNP could have proved otherwise by refocusing its priorities on areas of shared interest with the rest of Britain when it lost the referendum, but it spurned the opportunity.

Like true vanguardists, the self-styled ‘45’ decided to set democracy and majority opinion aside and behave as if they were real voice of Scotland.

Their pledge that the referendum would be a “once in a generation” event was immediately ditched in a frenzy of debate about how soon a rerun could be engineered and what ruses would be needed to secure a different outcome.

Everything the SNP does is now framed with that solitary objective in mind.

The effect has been to foster a dominant attitude that is highly sectarian and trending towards totalitarian. There is only one truth and one way to be authentically Scottish – the nationalist way.

Anyone who disagrees with this is, as one SNP parliamentary candidate put it, the moral equivalent of a Nazi collaborator.

There is no space for pluralism and honest compromise with a movement in this state of mind. The normal rules of democratic conduct don’t apply because it answers to destiny alone.

When Nicola Sturgeon says that she wants to help the Labour Party, she does so in the same spirit that Lenin once advised his British followers support the Labour Party of Arthur Henderson: “as the rope supports a hanged man”.

The SNP’s progressive credentials don’t, in any case, stand up to serious scrutiny.

When Sturgeon was asked at her manifesto launch to name a redistributive policy enacted by the SNP in Holyrood, she was unable to cite a single example.

There has been plenty of middle class welfarism, but no effective measures to reduce inequality or poverty.

Indeed, the SNP in power has resembled nothing as much as New Labour in its pomp, combining the worst reflexes of authoritarian statism and market liberalism with a superior, “we know best” attitude that brooks no opposition.

With the creation of a single national police force, the routine use of armed response units, a stop and search rate four times higher than the rest of the UK and plans to create an integrated ID database, the SNP has strayed into areas that even Tony Blair’s Home Secretaries backed away from.

A new ‘named person’ law will create an army of state employed snoopers with a right to pry into the affairs of every family.

The party has also taken a lurch towards democratic centralism with a new gagging rule that obliges its MPs to "accept that no member shall within or outwith the parliament publicly criticise a group decision, policy or another member of the group".

The SNP’s ‘business friendly’ approach of sucking up to powerful tycoons like Donald Trump, Brian Souter and Rupert Murdoch is scarcely any better then Blair’s cloying embrace of the super-rich, and arguably worse.

The party’s flagship post-independence economic policy of attracting multinational companies by slashing corporation tax and undercutting the welfare budgets of other countries is the sort of tax piracy beloved of the neo-liberal right.

The SNP’s claims to be anti-austerity have been revealed as baseless.

Only opposition to Trident sets it apart; hardly an act of principle given that an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to afford nuclear weapons.

At a time when Britain is crying out for a politics of the common good, the SNP stands for a militant politics of sectional advantage.

It is rapidly acquiring the characteristics of a political religion, a faith-based movement that vilifies unbelievers and subordinates all other considerations to the attainment of national ‘rapture’ through independence.

This sets it apart from other parties, even Plaid Cymru which takes a more pragmatic approach to independence and has already worked as part of a coalition in Cardiff.

There are good reasons for people on the left to want a new kind of pluralist politics, but it’s no use pretending that you can pursue that vision with people who aren’t pluralists.

Short of a second referendum defeat, the SNP is likely to remain a belligerent and destructive force in British politics.

Progressives beware.

The American Century Is Over

The Founding Editor of The American Conservative, Scott McConnell, writes:

Someday American politicians will recognize that the world isn’t asking for their leadership.

The image of America as benevolent superpower may endure in parts of Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Republics, where some imagine American jets are going to abolish geography and clear out the Russians.

But nowhere else.

At the time of this writing, an Orioles-White Sox game in Baltimore has been cancelled because of rioting in the city, while on Saturday 37,000 fans were confined inside the stadium for hours after a game ended because of mayhem outside.

The state, which cannot protect crowds of dating couples and parents with children outside of Camden Yards, is not going to make eastern Ukraine safe for neoliberalism.

In the run-up to the Baltimore riots, Congress debated ways to tell Europeans what their Mideast policies should be.

Working with an AIPAC-drafted playbook, Maryland senator Ben Cardin and Illinois representative Peter Roskam attached language to a large trade bill intended to squelch the growing movement in Europe to label as such Israeli products that originate in the occupied territories.

The AIPAC amendments defined as primary American goals in trade talks the discouragement of European economic sanctions against Israel.

Mike Coogan’s account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers highlighted some glimpses of House legislators stunned at the brazenness of AIPAC in action.

First hearings on the bill were moved to a smaller room to keep out the public. Then, at the last moment, pro-Israel anti-boycott amendments were tacked on, with language treating Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories” as identical.

One congressman asked Chairman Paul Ryan why members of the Ways and Means Committee were unable to consider public health, or labor standards, or food safety in debating the trade legislation, but were able on short notice to rubberstamp an AIPAC-sponsored amendment.

He didn’t receive an answer.

The larger point made by the U.S. Congress is that it is wrong for Palestinians to fight for their freedom by terrorism or any form of armed struggle, but it is also wrong to seek their rights by peaceful political means such as boycott.

If you are a Palestinian, you have no legitimate way to seek political and civil rights, no avenue is open to you—and Congress is going to intervene in American trade policy to try to enforce that. Congress will make it a priority to instruct U.S. trade policymakers to protect Israeli settlements, considered illegal by virtually every country in the world.

About measures (labor practices, health and safety standards) which might protect U.S. workers and U.S. consumers, Congress doesn’t have time for.

By the way, Cardin, who introduced the senate version, represents Baltimore.

One connection between U.S. trade policy and the Baltimore riots was made explicit by John Angelos, the Oriole’s chief operating officer and son of the Oriole’s owner. Wrote Angelos:

That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards.

We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.

You need not hold the rioters as blameless as Angelos does to recognize there is truth in his argument. For two generations, while politicians have been celebrating “free trade,” America has been hemorrhaging good working class jobs.

The economic devastation has has probably hit the white working class harder than blacks, but as William Julius Wilson and others have argued, de-industrialization which followed on the heels of the civil rights revolution ensured that the black community would remain largely impoverished, despite its political gains.

In any case, we live in a far less equal and economically secure country than we did in the 1950s and 1960s.

As images of hoodlums rampaging in Baltimore traverse the globe, the Solons of Capitol Hill still imagine the world is eager to follow American leadership.

The tacking on of “pro-Israel” provisions to a trade bill without debate is but a prequel: the big enchilada for Republicans in Congress is the derailment of the Iran negotiations.

In the Capitol Hill bubble, it is assumed that the countries of Western Europe and Russia and China would follow the American lead and intensify sanctions against Iran on America’s say-so, a belief with no basis in reality.

Obama and John Kerry have recognized correctly that the sanctions regime has gained as much from Iran as it is going to get; Europe or China (and of course Russia) will not sign up for more.

Already, Washington has found to its consternation that its Western partners can’t be dissuaded from joining a China-sponsored international banking arrangement.

If the Republicans in Congress succeed in collapsing the Iran negotiations—altogether possible—they will discover that Washington is in a coalition with Israel and Saudi Arabia and no one else.

Any future president, Republican or Democrat, will find his ability to negotiate terminally compromised, as world leaders will conclude that an American chief executive cannot keep his or her word.
The American century ended some time ago; perhaps the curtain was finally drawn when Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out the case for war before the UN and said things about Iraq which turned out simply not to be true.

Those in Congress don’t yet realize it, but they will.

Wednesday 29 April 2015


With tomorrow's Sun endorsing the Conservatives in England and Wales, but the SNP in Scotland, we need to ask Nicola Sturgeon how and why she is so left-wing that Rupert Murdoch supports her.

We also need a debate between The Sun's Editor in London and The Sun's Editor in Edinburgh.

Ought that to be televised? Or might a private, ticketed event be suitable, since the whole thing could easily turn very post-watershed indeed?

Whether from television rights or from ticket sales, a fortune could undoubtedly be made. But in aid of which charity, and why?

Surrogacy Is The New Slavery

The Lie That The SNP Is Left-Wing

Manuel Cortes writes:

Last week, when I spoke at the STUC Congress against the SNP putting both Scotrail and the Caledonian Sleeper in the hands of privateers, I said that actions speak far louder than words.

Let’s face it, the SNP hardly misses an opportunity to argue that the public sector should play a key role in delivering public services.

Yet its rhetoric simply fails to live up to the reality of what it is doing in government.

The Smith Commission on further devolution concluded that “the power will be devolved to the Scottish government to allow public-sector operators to bid for rail franchises funded and specified by Scottish ministers.”

We thought that this was game, set and match for those who opposed rail privatisation in Scotland.

After all, over many years the SNP had repeatedly told us it wanted Scotland’s railways back in public ownership.

But then the SNP government acted almost immediately to stop this from happening.

In fact, it went further than the Tories dared to, by breaking up the previous franchise.

It tendered separately for Scotrail and the Caledonian Sleeper — market fundamentalism of the highest order.

This, despite the fact that every knowledgeable commentator argues that the biggest problem facing our industry is fragmentation.

Frankly, one can only suspect that the dead hand of the SNP’s biggest supporter, arch-transport privateer Brian Souter of Stagecoach, had something to do with this.

Such was the rush to flog off Scotrail that the new franchise began on April 1 — less than six weeks from the general election in which Labour is promising to make public-sector train operators a reality.

The SNP government gave away a 10-year contract with an eye-watering total value of over £7 billion — taxpayers’ and fare-payers’ money lining greedy shareholders’ pockets.

This will mean that if Labour is elected, Scotland is likely to be one of the last parts of Britain to see its railways return to the public sector.

This completely nails the lie that the SNP is somehow a party of the left.

At least unions were able to extract a number of concessions within the new franchise: “Rail staff pay, pensions and travel facilities will be protected;” “staff representation at each franchise board meeting;” and “all staff will enjoy, at least, the living wage.”

Of course, we are also now witnessing blind nationalist ideology driving nonsensical decisions.

The recent announcement that British Transport Police (BTP) will be subsumed into Police Scotland was made without any prior consultation.

The SNP government seems to be adopting the worst practices of the Westminster coalition.

You know, we have had a separate police force for our railways since the 1840s. Why fix something that ain’t broke and risk losing the specialist knowledge and skills that the BTP brings?

That is why all rail unions oppose this step.

The SNP proposals will directly affect the job security, terms, conditions and pensions of the 216 police officers and 47 civilian staff — many of whom are our members — currently employed by BTP in Scotland.

The SNP has made it clear that it will not be swayed from this ideologically motivated decision.

Frankly, rather than this narrow-mindedness, we need a more holistic approach which recognises that the security and safety threats to passengers and workers do not end at national borders.

Lastly, we are dismayed that in recent weeks we have witnessed the rush to tender vital ferry services.

There is a marked reluctance by the SNP to give any form of comfort to workers and their unions.

Ten years ago, when in opposition, the SNP argued that it did not believe that tendering of CalMac ferry services was necessary.

Our member Bristow Muldoon, who was then an MSP, led a successful rebellion of Labour backbenchers.

They secured guarantees protecting workers and these were built into the tendering process.

In doing so, they successfully frightened off privateers whose plans to make a quick buck were reliant on slashing jobs and conditions.

Consequently, CalMac remained in public hands.

Yet move the clock forward 10 years and in government, the SNP now takes a diametrically opposite view by pushing tendering.

If that volte-face wasn’t bad enough, it has so far refused to match the guarantees previously given by Labour — or even repeat those recently written into the Scotrail franchise.

What is driving this inconsistency?

Could it be that as Labour is about to slam shut the privateers’ door to the railways money-making machine, the SNP plans to open one up on vital ferry routes?

Why does it appear determined to hive off CalMac to the likes of Serco?

These are the questions that Nicola Sturgeon has yet to answer.

I will end as I started. Actions speak far louder than words.

And so far, the SNP actions have completely failed transport workers.

Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association.

Uncouth, But Not Youth

Suzanne Moore writes:

I am not down with the kids, clearly, because I no longer know who the kids are. Weirdly, I think of young people as young: teenagers, possibly early 20s.

After about 25 people seem to live in a permanent state of angst about ageing that is itself so monotonous (the quarter life crisis? Please) that they may as well be done with it and zoom straight to 50.

Lately, my confusion has grown.

Young people, we are reputedly told, do not vote and are not, therefore, catered to by politicians who gear everything up to the already-monied baby boomers. The Tories will slash and burn all benefits for those aged between 18 and 21.

“If you do not vote, then don’t complain,” says every middle-aged middle-class pundit, self righteously ignoring the fact that we do not have proportional representation and whether your vote makes any difference depends entirely on what seat you live in.

Sure, vote, but don’t misrepresent the reality of our system.

Russell Brand, famously a non-voter, has been activated by Ed Miliband or vice versa – I couldn’t possibly say – to appeal to “the youth vote”. Brand is pushing 40 and Miliband is 45.

In the video interview for Brand’s news channel The Trews, Ed did OK in tolerating Brand’s inability to let someone else have any personal space; Brand, as usual, comes on like an over-excited spider and ends up leering in Ed’s face.

This attempt to “reach out” is honourable as Ed plays the patient humanities teacher to Brand, who prefaces questions with: “I hope this doesn’t sound totally adolescent”.

Brand’s whole schtick is adolescent and it appeals to some.

When he attempts more adult analysis – as he does in his new film The Emperor’s New Clothes, essentially a critique of the failures of neo-liberalism – its all a bit dry and one yearns for a joke. Or Paul Mason.

Undoubtedly, though, Brand does have an audience – but if he is the voice of youth, what has happened to actual youth?

More and more it seems that my generation continue to grab everything as ours. There is no bit of culture we cannot claim, that we cannot colonise; data from Spotify shows that people in their mid-40s are listening to Taylor Swift and One Direction.

With every genre and every bit of musical history downloadable, we can have all the music all of the time. Everything can exist in the present tense.

We can listen to the music we listened to at 15 and then listen to what 15-year-olds listen to as well, as though we are forever young.

The same thing happens on TV.

BBC 2’s controller Kim Shillinglaw describes her mission as making TV for a mindset with a “maturity of word view” but who remain “young at heart”.

These are people my age who grew up with punk and who will lap up endless programmes that are essentially about their own youth.

We remain utterly, culturally dominant – at risk, surely, of cannibalising the younger generations. And as we have unlimited access to everything, we can claim to represent it.

But the fact is we don’t. Culturally or politically.

The lack of young voices in this election has really bothered me, but it is totally accepted by the establishment as the way elections are, the way politics is: in other words, it’s about a bunch of middle-aged guys.

This election is crucially important and yet remains distant to many people.

Partly this is because no one near power except the SNP is challenging the austerity narrative – and the SNP’s record on the subject is pretty questionable – but also because the unreal nature of political campaigning seems to occupy a bunch of blokes on Twitter and no on else.

At least Miliband stepped out of this vacuum for a bit. Who knows what young people actually think? We assume they are more left wing, but clearly they contain multitudes.

Some dress like goths and will vote Ukip. They certainly cannot be represented by Brand’s anarcho-spirituality.

With tuition fees set to rise and many trapped in low paid jobs, unable ever to think of anything other than renting, many don’t have the luxury of Brand’s millionaire mindfulness.

My feeling is that we may be creating a generation with little connection to the state who may veer ever more rightwards and we need to make these very basic arguments again.

While baby boomers have benefited from free university education, affordable housing and slouching around on the dole, how will any of that feel to those who have never had benefits or grants but know only the world of loans? How benign will this shrunken state seem?

Against this, the rhetoric of revolution may be the political equivalent of buying a Harley-Davidson and an expensive divorce while the younger folk look on knowing they can’t even afford a moped.

In all this strange generational skewing we also have the likes of Farage who may be 51 but, like Cameron, seems to have adopted the culture of a much older generation, that nasty mash-up of Benny Hill and Michael Winner.

The right wing does not even pretend to do youth culture. Or culture at all. They are securing the future of the generation that votes for them and no one else.

The result is that the young are being utterly neglected, whatever their age, wherever they are.

All of a Peace?

What is this "peace" that the nuclear "deterrent", or NATO, or the EU, is supposed to have kept?

This country has been at war for most of my adult lifetime.

And I am older than John Woodcock.

The Canary In The Cage

As Giles Fraser rather oddly puts it, but thank God for this article:

Last week a single judge unseated the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, for fixing his re-election in May 2014.

Among the reasons presented by deputy high court judge Richard Mawrey QC for removing Rahman from office, was that, in cahoots with local imams, the mayor exerted “undue spiritual influence” on some sections of the electorate, specifically voters from the Muslim Bangladeshi community.

The former mayor has now said he will appeal against the judgment

But in order properly to understand this extraordinary and highly politicised piece of law one has to rewind to the middle of the 19th century when it was first introduced as a response to the fear of the Irish, specifically of Irish Roman Catholicism.

“The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion,” wrote then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

“This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character.

Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.”

The priest and historian Charles Kingsley wrote in a letter to his wife, “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland]”.

What especially spooked the English establishment was that these people now had the vote.

In 1872, the Ballot Act introduced secret ballots into the electoral system. For the first time, landlords were not able to monitor the electoral behaviour of their tenants.

And in 1884, the Third Reform Act extended the franchise to all men, irrespective of wealth or property.

The fear, perfectly expressed by Disraeli, was that the Irish in particular, often portrayed as sub-human, would no longer defer to their masters and betters and instead be led by Rome.

In the late 19th century, the fear of Roman Catholicism mingled with the racist fear of the Irish. “Home rule means Rome rule” was a familiar slogan.

It was in this context that the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act was passed into law.

And with it the idea of “undue spiritual influence”, the purpose of which was specifically to constrain the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy on what the English establishment took to be the ignorant and impressionable minds of the Irish proletariat.

It’s an almost identical version of this 19th century law that has been passed down to us in the wording of the 1983 Representation of the People Act. Here is what it says:

“A person shall be guilty of undue influence if he … makes use of or threatens to make use of any force, violence or restraint, or inflicts or threatens to inflict, by himself or by any other person, any temporal or spiritual injury, damage, harm or loss upon or against any person in order to induce or compel that person to vote or refrain from voting.”

Most of this is fair enough. But what is “spiritual injury”?

In 1892, the bishop of Meath, Dr Nulty, wrote a colourful letter to his congregations, urging them not to vote for “Parnellism” (despite the fact that Charles Stewart Parnell had died the year before).

It “saps the very foundations of the Catholic faith” the bishop said. And, as a result of his intervention, the general election result for Meath was set aside on the grounds of “undue spiritual influence”.

Reading the bishop’s pastoral letter, it is worth noting that he did not threaten hellfire or damnation.

He simply told his congregations that, in his opinion, a vote for Parnellism was incompatible with being a good Roman Catholic.

It is unsurprising that this law has been ignored since the 19th century, despite it remaining on the statute books.

It originated in a nasty atmosphere of racist hostility towards Irish Catholicism and was used to suppress the power of the Roman clergy who were feared because they did not behave as tame establishment Anglicans.

Ignored, that is, until now.

To be clear – Lutfur Rahman was found liable for other transgressions of the law and on those I have no particular comment.

But, astonishingly, the central plank of the judge’s argument concerning “undue spiritual influence” is that the Rahman case is structurally similar to the Irish case – and, specifically, he refers to a letter written by 101 imams (and not by Rahman) urging their people to vote for Rahman.

About which the judge wrote this:

“Although written in a foreign language by clerics of a different faith, Dr Nulty would have had no difficulty in recognising this document. It is a pastoral letter, remarkably similar to his letter to the faithful of County Meath and published in the Drogheda Independent on 2 July 1892.

“In other words it is a letter from an influential cleric – in this case 101 influential clerics – informing the faithful as to their religious duty. As with the bishop, the imams’ message is clear; our religion is under attack, our enemies despise us and wish to humiliate us; it is your duty as faithful sons and daughters of the [Church][Mosque] to vote for candidate X: only he will defend our religion and our community.

“As the imams’ letter puts it ‘[our opponents are] spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable’. The bishop could not – indeed did not – express it more succinctly.”

So the judge is entirely unashamed to use a law that was developed to subdue Irish Roman Catholics and then apply it to a contemporary religious minority that is suffering from a very similar brew of racism and hostility to what is seen as their foreign religious practices, i.e., Islam.

To make matters worse, Richard Mawrey QC uses exactly the same trope of the “thick Irish” and applies it directly to Muslims.

“Time and again in the Irish cases it was stressed that the Catholic voters were men of simple faith, usually much less well educated than the clergy who were influencing them, and men whose natural instinct would be to obey the orders of their priests (even more their bishops).

“This principle still holds good.

“In carrying out the assessment a distinction must be made between a sophisticated, highly educated and politically literate community and a community which is traditional, respectful of authority and, possibly, not fully integrated with the other communities living in the same area.

“As with undue influence in the civil law sphere, it is the character of the person sought to be influenced that is key to whether influence has been applied.”

How is this not an echo of the racist assumptions of the 19th century?

And here we reach the nub of it: this is a judgment steeped in the history and prejudices of English cultural superiority.

It was created to deal with the fear that unruly Irish Catholics, many migrating to Tower Hamlets, would not vote the way the establishment wanted and expected them to vote – and the worry that, being uneducated and superstitious, they would listen instead to their clergy.

Those who have defended this law have done so because they believe it is a way of keeping politics and religion apart.

The standard line has been that it is OK for a priest to express his voting intentions, but not to sermonise his or her congregation to do the same.

It has been assumed that what is prohibited is the use of hellfire and damnation to bully the idiot faithful – though neither the bishop of Meath nor the 101 imams do anything remotely like that.

Neither mention punishment or threat or any sort of injury, spiritual or otherwise.

Now I think there is a big question about why such things should be illegal.

I mean, if I think voting for an out-and-out racist party would be a sin (and I do), and that sins have eternal consequences (and I do), then I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to say such a thing in a free society.

And from the pulpit too.

There will be plenty of people out there who will tell me I am talking nonsense. And that’s fine – this is the sort of debate that makes a free society free.

Indeed, religion is often the canary in the cage of a free society.

Furthermore, if the Tory party can arrange for 5,000 small business leaders to say vote Tory, why can’t the imams organise a letter to say vote Rahman?

Because the small business leaders are not threatening damnation, comes the reply.

But the imams have said nothing of the sort – their crime was to have been too close to Rahman (which, no doubt they were).

Indeed, it’s surely more convincing to argue that it was the business leaders who were threatening “consequences” – telling us the economy will go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t vote the right way.

Why is this not undue influence?

And come to think of it, what about Anglican bishops in the House of Lords? Surely that’s the most egregious example of undue spiritual influence.

Yet, of course, it’s the imams and those they support who suffer the consequences of the law.

I wonder why.

Work It Out

Compulsory Maths to 18?

The school leaving age is going up (even though the voting age is coming down, work that out), so they are going to be able to make Sixth Formers do anything.

It won't stop here.

Watch out for compulsory PE to 18.

Not as a qualification, just the forced hour per week that we all had to carry on doing until the end of the fifth year.

The Maths thing will be dropped a few years after that, the real job having been done.

Toxic Brands

Late last year, when Russell Brand's tiresome book came out, I was as critical of it and of him as was everyone from Sunny Hundal, through Labour Uncut, via the Daily Mirror, to the Morning Star.

We all recognised him as a figure of the libertarian ultra-Right, with views indistinguishable from those of Ayn Rand. That fact was also gushingly celebrated by Nigel Farage in The Independent.

Furthermore, I for one recognised a man who was older than I was, who was the age of a Cabinet Minister, and who was easily old enough to have teenage children, but who thought that 20 lost years of drug-induced torpor made him the voice of youth, or indeed of anything at all.

Still, there would not be much point in a debate where the protagonists already agreed.

As for David Cameron's claim to have better things to do than to meet Russell Brand, at the time we all thought that it was Tony Blair who had an entourage so trashy that no subsequent Prime Minister could ever surpass it.

How little we knew.

Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins, Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, Patrick Rock, and those are without mentioning Ministers of the Crown. Although, thankfully, not Ministers of the Crown for very much longer.

Easterhouse No More

Ros Wynne Jones writes:

And so here we are, days before the general election, at the place where “Compassionate Conservatism” was born and died. ­Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate.

Home to 25,000 people and where Iain Duncan Smith once wept over the state of the poor.

In 2002, just after becoming the leader of the Conservative Party, he assembled the masses at the local Baptist Church.

Thirteen years on, as the country gets ready for the polls, I am met by two of the people who showed him around their community – Bob Holman, a long-time activist, and Ian Montague, a former teacher.

“He used our community for a photo opportunity,” says Montague, head of Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (FARE).

“He exploited people here when he knew he was only going to make things worse.”

It is an irony beyond irony that 13 years on from IDS’ “Easterhouse Conversion” to compassion, the estate is crippled by the welfare reforms inspired by his visit.

Now that same man is pressing for the unimaginable savagery of another £12billion in welfare cuts

“Does he want Easterhouse left as dust?” one woman asks me. “Poor people wiped from the planet?”

Bob Holman, who at one time called Duncan Smith a friend, says he has only one word for him now.

“Resign!” he says. “If you want to do any good at all for poor people, resign. Go and work in the community and put things right.”

He squarely blames Duncan Smith for the rise of Scottish nationalism.

“The result is Scotland is charging down on a white horse shouting independence,” he says. “People think we can’t take any more of this. We’ve tried everything else.”

At 79, Bob is still working with the community.

He greets me in an apron, serving up cheap, nutritious soup in the cafe at the Baptist Church. It costs only a few pennies – enough for people to have a meal and keep their dignity.

“I remember Iain was very nice, very polite,” he says.

“We got on very well. He said, ‘What amazes me is this place has got volunteers and leaders, some of whom are unemployed and some are lone mums – the very people Margaret Thatcher warned us against.’”

He smiles at the memory.

“He walked up to here, about a half a mile. As he walked he saw a syringe in the gutter. ‘What if a child picked it up?’ he said. He seemed very naïve. He said he had come away ‘a changed man’. 

He took me to Tory conference and I spoke about FARE. He got up after me and promised money to charities like ours.

I am still waiting.”

After IDS was sacked as Tory leader, he set up the Centre for Social Justice in 2005.

“He said he would put social justice at the heart of British politics,” Bob says. “I still believed him.

“In 2010, he became a minister. He accepted cuts to welfare. So I went to see him in Westminster.

He said, ‘You don’t understand how moderate I am. I am stopping Osborne and Cameron doing much worse.’ I said, ‘What about the grants to local projects?’

“He said, ‘Well you’re to blame for that. Labour’s left such an economic mess we can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Well are you on the side of the poor or the side of Cameron and Osborne?’”

He breaks off, tears in his eyes.

Sandy Weddell, the Baptist minister also involved in IDS’ early visits, explains: “Bob felt the most hurt by what happened.”

Bob shakes his head: “I was the most naïve, you mean.”

Last year, Bob was so distressed by the new levels of poverty he was seeing that he called for a new version of the 1943 Our Towns report.

The original opened the British public’s eyes to urban poverty.

He nominated eight women – including TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady – to write it. One of them was Loretta Gaffney, who runs the Easterhouse Citizens Advice Bureau.

She sees the results of IDS’ vision every day.

The people who won’t go to the food bank because they are too proud, the families who can’t afford to buy their kids shoes, and whose homes are lit every fortnight by candles when their wages or benefits run out.

“Five or six years ago, we never sent anybody to the food bank,” Loretta says. “Scottish food banks gave out over 100,000 food parcels last year.”

At the heated local election hustings at the FARE community centre, the Conservative candidate looks like he wishes he were invisible.

“The Nasty Party is back,” shouts Michael Wilson, 40, born and bred on the estate. “It never went away!” shouts a woman.

No one mentions Compassionate Conservativism. But one by one, the audience’s questions herald its violent death.

Bedroom Tax, food banks, suicides after benefit sanctions, hungry schoolchildren, universal credit – modern life ‘on the broo’, Glaswegian slang for benefits, from Unemployment Bureau.

“I’m the original ‘Shettleston Man’,” Iain Henderson tells me afterwards. “IDS coined the phrase. The man with the low life expectancy and no prospects.”

Shettleston, where Iain was born, is the community neighbouring Easterhouse.

“What’s IDS done for me? Well, I’m still unemployed and I’m 51, and according to his theory I’ll be dead in 12 years.”

Another audience member laughs. “Compassionate Conservatism is the work of the devil,” she says.

What would she say if IDS came to Easterhouse now? “He’d get a Glasgow kiss.”

The saddest irony is that there is still so much governments could learn from FARE.

Founded in 1989 to work with gangs whose violence was disfiguring the estate, it is still the most extraordinary place, tackling entrenched poverty with hope and passion.

I walk with Bob to the spot where IDS was pictured on that very first visit – standing with a pained expression outside a dilapidated block of flats in an incongruous city suit and dress shoes.

Much of Easterhouse has been regenerated since 2002, no thanks to IDS, and the exact block has been pulled down.

But the wasteland left behind remains like a monument to his vanity and empty promises.

There is a matching block behind, still inhabited, washing flapping on balconies. Mattresses and junk still litter the grass.

“Now imagine this with £12billion more in welfare cuts,” Bob says.

With the toughness built up through generations of a strong community under pressure, ­Easterhouse will survive.

But for social justice to have prevailed, it should be flourishing, its people given the chance of a decent and fulfilling life.

That’s what Iain Duncan Smith claimed to have understood.

“If he did, he’s had a funny way of showing it,” Bob says.

It might be the wind cutting across the wasteland, but it looks as if there are tears in his eyes.