Friday, 30 September 2016

Jeremy Corbyn: Leading Labour into the abyss

I've spent the last couple of weeks enjoying a great holiday on the Caribbean island of St Kitts.

I returned just in time to witness the response to Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as Labour Party leader. The result was of no surprise and Corbyn even increased the size of his vote. Regardless of what Corbyn supporters might say his victory is bad for the Labour Party and bad for democracy in the UK.

As a member of the GMB Union I voted in both this month's leadership election voting for Owen Smith, and in last year's election when I voted for Liz Kendall. I didn't think Jeremy Corbyn would be the right leader for the Labour Party in 2015 and the last 12 months have only confirmed my feelings that he is essentially killing the Labour Party.

I understand Corbyn's appeal, and I recognise that a lot of people in the country, particularly on the left are looking for something different in politics. It's not something unique to Britain. We've seen the rise in anti-establishment politics around the world. Donald Trump and Bennie Sanders are examples of this in America.

In Europe you have Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, France's National Front and in Greece the far left party of Syriza are now in government. Corbyn is part of this protest movement.

The problem is that this protest movement should not and cannot be in charge a mainstream party like the Labour Party. The purpose of the Labour Party is to win power on behalf of working people. It is not a protest party which is what Labour has and will continue to be under Corbyn.

Labour: A party to please itself

I have to admit, I thought Corbyn gave a good speech at this week's Party Conference in Liverpool. It was well delivered and you can see that he has certainly grown into the role of Labour leader. But ultimately there was nothing in the speech or the conference as a whole to suggest anything other than a huge defeat for Labour at the next General Election.

If I have learnt anything about the success and popularity of the Jeremy Corbyn it's this. Labour has become a party that is run by and for the interests of its growing membership.

It's quite revealing that those members of the party pre 2015 voted in favour of Owen Smith - those who joined the party post 2015 voted overwhelmingly in favour of Corbyn. In some ways this reveals a certain level of entryism as it's new members with no longstanding affiliation to the party who are mainly in support of Corbyn.

The problem Labour have had for years is the tension that exists in the party between the demands of pragmatism and winning power to enable change and that of principles and values and not wanting to compromise. This partly explains why Tony Blair's 3 election wins are not celebrated.

I'm a pragmatist and support the views of Labour moderates and MPs who understand that you cannot do anything without first achieving power.

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party is all about party members wrapping themselves up in a warm comfort blanket, feeling comfortable in their comfort zone. They don't want to do compromise and put forward policies and statements that reflect where many of the electorate actually are.

Politics is hard but by sticking to principles and never getting elected means principles are never put on the line. Tough decisions and compromises never have to be made. This might make people feel good but part of me thinks it's a bit gutless.

If the party is serious about winning the next election then it needs to reconnect with its traditional Northern working-class base, but the truth is Labour are culturally out of step with many of these people. This was reflected in Corbyn's announcement about immigration controls.

Secondly, Labour will have to win votes from some voters who voted Conservative in 2015 and 2010 but the sad and deluded fact is that some party members and activists don't want these votes. That's fine but you cannot win elections without appealing to some of these floating voters.

Does Corbyn's Labour Party even care? I don't think so!

My own personal problem with Corbyn's Labour Party and the hard left

Politics isn't just about policies and leadership or the ability to make the right decisions; it's also about gut feeling and instinct.

When it comes to the political spectrum I consider myself very much center-left. In that context the Labour Party is my natural political home, however my gut feeling tells me that under no circumstances can I ever vote for the Labour Party while Corbyn remains leader.

From a policy point of view, this week's conference has made clear that Labour are an unashamedly Socialist Party. I know this makes members feel good about themselves but I am a Social Democrat. I'm considered too right-wing for most Labour Party members who will most likely call me 'Tory lite' or a Blairite'. That's fine by me they shouldn't expect my vote.

But it goes much further than this. Do you remember last year when Corbyn was elected, promising a new kind of politics? A gentler politics?

I'm always sceptical when people put forward claims of a 'new politics.' Corbyn is presenting an updated version of traditional socialism. There's nothing new about socialism, I'm perfectly aware of it. It's been around since the 19th Century. Nationalising the railways for example is not radical new politics it's been done before.

Labour and the hard left like to consider themselves as progressives in their political objectives but in many cases they're incredibly conservative. They're conservative in the sense that they want to turn the clock back to a period (most likely before Margret Thatcher's election in 1979) to an imagined better age. In this sense they're simply a left-wing version of UKIP.

As for a kinder, gentler politics. That wish didn't last very long. I cannot remember a time when there has been so much bitterness and hatred exposed in politics but then anyone familiar with the hard left will know that such politics can be incredibly abusive, aggressive, bigoted and at times downright nasty. It's been made worse with social media. Anyone who disagrees with Corbyn and groups like Momentum are immediately denounced as Tories, Blairites, defenders of the Neo-Liberal consensus. It's so boring and pathetic.

There's been a marked increase in complaints of anti-semitism within the Labour Party but these complaints have been addressed only half hardheartedly and are generally considered to be part of a wider conspiracy against Corbyn. It's ridiculous.

I agree with the sentiment that Labour under Corbyn is at worst a personality cult! This is someone who has spent 30 years on the back benches. This is not someone who could be considered a political or intellectual heavyweight during that time, but here we are being led to believe by some that he will change the world whilst walking on water!

If we've learnt anything from the last week is that Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly lead Labour into the next election. I won't be voting for him and to be honest I'm not sure I will vote for anyone. Labour under Corbyn represents a party and a form of left-wing politics that I'm uncomfortable with and is out of step with your average Briton.

Intellectually it has little to say to me or shows signs of wanting to address and deal with some of the big challenges we currently face (Brexit anyone). In truth I'm bored of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left in this country. Labour will be led off a cliff at the next election, it's debatable whether they will recover.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Rio Olympics: When did Team GB become a sporting giant?

When I first started watching the Olympics in the 80s and early 90s If Britain won 5 Gold medals that was usually considered a success. By the time I watched my fourth Olympics in Atlanta in 96 Britain finished 36th in the medals table and only one gold medal.

To see Great Britain re-invent itself as a sporting powerhouse over the last 3 Olympics still takes a little getting use to but don’t worry I’m not complaining about it, I’m loving it!

At the start of this summer’s Olympics I thought realistically the best we could hope for was to finish third behind the USA and China. To beat China into second place is incredible!

What’s been really great to see, is that we’ve continued to win medals in our strongest events like cycling, rowing and sailing but we’ve now become successful in sports like gymnastics where Max Whitlock won 2 gold medals. For most of my life I simply accepted that Britain couldn’t do gymnastics.

So the question everyone is asking is how have we become world beaters? From the nadir of 1996 it’s clear that lottery funding has transformed British sport. But it’s not just the money that’s being spent it’s how it is allocated that’s been crucial.

Every sport has its Olympic target in terms of medals they should be winning. Those sports that meet and exceed their targets like cycling get an increase in lottery funding, those that fail see a decrease. Success is rewarded and failure is punished. This may be harsh but after London 2012 Britain’s swimming team has their funding reduced after failing to meet their targets but this time in Rio they’ve had one of their most successful ever Olympics.

What’s really changed in the last 10 – 15 years is that there has been better funding for our Olympic sports and structures have been put in place that create, nurture and sustain successful athletes.

Britain has always been a sporting nation but in previous Olympics our culture seemed to be one of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. We had too much of the old amateur ethos.

We didn’t have the attitude of the old Soviet Union or today’s China who view sport as a way of showcasing national power and prestige. We occasionally won individual gold medals but that was a result of individual athletes succeeding on their own terms.

Today, in sports such as cycling, our athletes succeed not only because they have the talent, ability and desire to win but because they are part of a much bigger system that generates success. This is the key difference for me.

I certainly don’t miss the days of Team GB winning a handful of medals at Olympics, I always thought we underachieved, now we’re punching above our weight and it feels good. It’s inspiring to see athletes from all different backgrounds and all walks of life succeed in a variety of sports.

We don’t need to win to prove a point to the rest of the world. We can win because we want to be the best that we can be and this is what I love about our Olympic athletes.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The cost of the Olympics pose awkward questions for the future

It's been quite a low key start to this year's Olympics.

There hasn't been the same level of buzz and excitement in the lead up to Rio's Games. I think there's a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly after our own London Games in 2012 it was always going to be difficult to have the same level of excitement. Secondly, within Brazil itself the Games seem to have arrived at just the wrong time with the country mired in economic and political problems.

Rio's opening ceremony costs and production were scaled back and made simpler in response to the economic situation inside the country. Just like with our London Games, the situation in Brazil has raised questions on the purpose and supposed benefits that having the Olympics can bring to a city and country.

I think this debate is more pertinent in a country like Brazil when you consider the extreme levels of inequality that exist. It becomes increasingly difficult to support holding an event like the Olympics when so many of the local inhabitants are living in poverty.

The beach front on Ipenema and leblon

This got me thinking about the debate of hosting not just the Olympics but also World Cups. They are the two biggest and most prestigious sporting events in the world. But as we found with our own Olympics, when countries are asked to spend billions hosting these events on behalf of the IOC and FIFA there are legitimate questions on what the benefits will be for the host city and country in the short and long-term.

On a personal level, I visited Rio in 2013. I took a tour of the city's most famous Favela, Rochina. To say the experience was an eye opener would be an understatement. After spending my first few days in the affluent beach districts of Leblon and Ipenema, visiting Rochina (20 minutes away) was like travelling to a different country. I remember asking my tour guide whether the 2014 World Cup and Rio Olympics would really make a difference to communities like Rochina.

There have been improvements and after decades of neglect, the Brazilian government has made more of an effort to address the problems of Brazil's poor. However, with the economy in Brazil now struggling, justifying the Olympics in a city like Rio is quite difficult.

View of Rochina, Rio's biggest Favela

The IOC and FIFA are now at a point where there are only so many countries in the world that have the resources and infrastructure to hold these events. In Western democracies, governments simply can't spend billions on these events without justifying them to their electorate. The problem for the likes of the IOC are that more countries are looking at the cost of the Olympics and deciding they can do without them.

For the 2018 Winter Olympics the IOC were faced with the embarrassing situation of potential host cities failing to get enough backing from their public during the bid process.

Apparently the IOC had their hearts set on Oslo, Norway. They wanted a Winter Olympics back in Europe and in a country with a tradition of winter sports. Unfortunately, Norway had different ideas.

Local news out-lets got hold of the IOC's outlandish demands for their elite committee members. Once this became public, the Norwegian people said thanks but no thanks and decided they didn't want the Olympic Games.

In the end the 2018 Winter Olympics were awarded to China, but China isn't a democracy and the Chinese Communist Party can do what they like without having to be held accountable to the Chinese people.

How many cities and countries realistically want to host the Olympic Games, have the resources and infrastructure and the backing of their own populations?

I think we're getting to a point where there's a small number of countries and cities that can hold the Olympics. A thought I have is that perhaps we should look at selecting a group of cities around the world, perhaps 10 and say you will hold the Olympics over the course of the next 50 years and rotate the Olympics between these chosen cities.

London would definitely be a member of that group, elsewhere in Europe you could include Paris who seem an obvious European choice but after Tokyo's turn in 2020 where does the Olympics go next? Who wants and can realistically host it?

These are legitimate questions that need to be asked. As much as I love sport and the Olympics, it simply isn't appropriate to hold such lavish and vast sporting events if they do not have the backing of the host population; and if they don't provide any long term tangible benefits and for those people.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Conservative Party Leadership: What a drama

After last month's Brexit referendum result and David Cameron's decision to resign it was assumed that we'd now be in the midst of the Conservative Party leadership election with Boris Johnson odds on favourite to become the country's new Prime Minister.

If a week is a long time in politics then last month's referendum now feels like a life time ago. Rather then the Boris Johnson coronation many expected we instead have Theresa May as our new Prime Minister.

Everything is moving so fast at the moment in British politics I can't ever remember a time like it.

Boris Johnson's campaign crashed and burned within a week of the Brexit result and it many ways it was hardly surprising. After successfully convincing over 50% of referendum voters to vote for Brexit it quickly became obvious that Boris and his Brexit colleagues didn't have any immediate plan on what would happen next. Despite this, nobody really expected Michael Gove to politically stab Boris in the back by launching his own bid for Tory leader, and thereby derail Boris' long term political ambition.

As brutal as it all seems, I don't have much sympathy for Boris or any other politician when this sort of thing happens. This is the life they chose, a bit like mafia mob bosses who end up getting 'whacked'. It's an occupational hazard.

Besides, I'm very much in agreement with Ken Clarke when I say the idea of Boris as Prime Minister is ridiculous. It always baffled me as to why Boris had so much support amongst some Tories. Boris is clearly a very clever and able person but he's also someone who has blagged and winged his way through his career.

When you look at some of his gaffes and his personal and professional behavior over the last 20 years, it's incredible that he was even in the running to become Prime Minister. Boris has always been a unique one-off. If it was anyone else their career would have been finished years ago.

If the appeal of Boris Johnson has always baffled some, it doesn't quite compare to the extraordinary rise of Andrea Leadsom.

I'd never heard of her 4 weeks ago, yet somehow she made it to the last two for Tory Party members to decide who should be our PM. Thankfully and quite rightly, she's now withdrawn following the ridiculous interview she gave to the Times, where she insinuated that because she has children and Theresa May doesn't she has a 'tangible stake' in society.

When I first heard that I thought' 'Are you really going to go there?' As part of her humiliating climb down she then accused the Paper of gutter journalism despite the fact that the paper simply quoted exactly what she had said.

When it comes to Andrea Leadsom, the country has dodged a bullet. She was far too inexperienced for the role and far too right wing for my liking. She would have been a disaster.

So here we are with a new Prime Minister. You have to have a certain amount of respect for the way the Tory Party ruthlessly operates when it comes to getting rid of and electing their leaders. You can't help but think: Are you watching Labour, when you consider the shambles of Labour MPs in their attempts to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn.

I'm glad it's Theresa May has been elected. As a non Tory voter I can live with her. It's good to have another female PM and it's also good that she's slightly older. In the last few decades there's been a preference for younger leaders but with so many difficult and pressing issues facing world leaders I think it's good that we again look at older politicians with more experience.

There's no doubt that we're entering a new era in British politics and history and it's going to be fascinating to see how Theresa May and this new Conservative government will tackle Brexit.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Chilcot Report

Another dramatic week in British politics with the long awaited publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War.

It was a pretty damning indictment of Tony Blair's decision to take the country into war and his reputation now lays in tatters.

When I considered many of the main findings it confirmed to many people what we already knew or suspected about the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein.

Back in 2002/2003 in the run up to the Iraq War, at no point did I ever believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. If he did possess them I certainly didn't believe he posed any kind of threat to the UK. The Chilcot Report confirms much of this.

What was clear between 2001 - 2003 was that a decision had been made by President George Bush and his Neo-Con allies that Saddam Hussein had to be removed from power. This decision was made in the aftermath of 9/11.

The United States were always going to invade Iraq and there was little that Britain could have said or done to stop this from happening. The question for this country was whether it was right for Tony Blair to ally himself so closely with America in this decision to go to war.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it's clear that Tony Blair and those who supported the decision to go to war got it wrong. History has judged this decision even more harshly when you consider the utter chaos consumed Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam.

What is perhaps most damning and shameful is the total lack of planning on how Iraq would be governed following regime change. You tend to find that countries that have been ruled for decades by dictators maintain a certain level of stability. However once those leaders are removed the power vacuum that emerges unleashes a whole number of political, cultural and ethnic forces that can be uncontrollable.

This is exactly what we've seen in Iraq. Perhaps if there had been better planning on how Iraq might look after Saddam's removal and the sectarian violence kept under control, we might be looking back on the decision to go to war in a different light.

One thing I did agree with Tony Blair on is that we can't say with 100% how Iraq would look had we not removed Saddam Hussein.

In 2011 we witnessed a number of uprising across the Middle East which was called the 'Arab Spring'. Government and leaders such as Colonel Gaddafi were removed from power. The uprising in Syria has resulted in the prolonged civil war which continues to this day.

Are we meant to believe that Saddam Hussein and Iraq would have been immune from this uprising across the region? It's perfectly conceivable that Iraq could have turned into another Syria. We will never know but it's a distinct possibility.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake, and its repercussions have and continue to influence the level of trust we have in politicians and the country's foreign policy.

In terms of Tony Blair, it's not fashionable to say but I always thought he was quite a good leader and there were a lot of things that he and New Labour achieved that were of benefit to the country. Many will disagree but what's sad is that his reputation now lies in tatters and he will always be associated with Iraq.