Tuesday, 9 June 2015

No, you don’t have to nominate Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left Labour MP, wants to stand for the Labour Party leadership.  But he’s not doing terribly well, with only eleven nominations from his fellow Labour MPs (leadership hopefuls need to be nominated by at least 35 MPs to make the cut, and be able to stand for leader).  Most people, I think, would take this distinct lack of faith from their parliamentary colleagues as a sign that they shouldn’t really be in the contest at all.  But in Corbyn’s case, there has been no such realisation – instead, a slightly surreal campaign has sprung up, pushed by supporters of Corbyn both inside and outside the Parliamentary Labour Party, urging Labour MPs to nominate Corbyn even if they don’t agree with him.  Which, I think you’ll agree, is a little odd.

What is the point of nominating Corbyn if you don’t think he’d be a good candidate for the leadership?  Well, the Corbynites argue, even if you personally don’t agree with our chap, he at least deserves a chance to state his views.  His inclusion in the leadership contest will ‘widen the debate’.

Yes, that’s almost certainly true!  But if the object is to ‘widen the debate’ by including a bunch of opinions very few people actually agree with – instead of, y’know, actually finding an effective leader who can make Labour electable again – then why not stick Jean-Marie Le Pen in there too?!  Sure, nobody in the Labour Party will actually like anything he says – but having him there will ‘widen the debate’, so they should nominate him anyway!  (Obviously this is absurd – Jean-Marie Le Pen is not even a Labour MP! – but I think you see the point I’m trying to make…)

By this logic, lots of people should vote at the next election for the nutty authoritarian idealism of the Green Party, or the closed-minded, racist nastiness of the BNP – even if they don’t like any of their policies – because including those parties will ‘widen the debate’.  After all, having – say – eight or nine BNP MPs in the House Of Commons would certainly ‘widen the debate’!  So we should all vote for them!  Would that really be for the best, though?

The irony is that I suspect those pushing for Labour MPs to nominate Corbyn even if they don’t like him are some of the same people who were frothing at the mouth after last month’s General Election, squealing that the result of the vote didn’t accurately reflect the views of the people who had voted.  If Labour MPs nominate Corbyn simply to ‘widen the debate’, the same will be true of the leaderships contest – the candidates nominated won’t actually reflect the views of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  What is the point of 'widening the debate' to include views that don't actually represent the people the debate is for?

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to be the leader of the Labour Party, then he has every right to put himself forward for it.  And good luck to him!  But if people don’t buy what he’s selling, there’s no compulsion for his colleagues to nominate him regardless.  If Labour MPs don’t want Corbyn to be the leader of their party, it would be foolish of them to nominate him.  So, if Corbyn wants in, he needs to offer an agenda which will appeal to enough people to get him elected based on people actually supporting him – just like everybody else on that ballot has had to.  Labour's hard left should stop trying to parachute in a candidate if that candidate has no right to be on the ballot on merit.

Friday, 5 June 2015

#RedToriesOut and SNP homogeneity

One of the (many) social media slogans of the armies of online Scottish National Party activists – or 'cybernats' – is 'Red Tories Out'.  'Red Tories' is a derogatory reference to the Labour party, implying that they are just the same as – for which, read 'just as bad as' – the Conservatives.  It's a nasty, small-minded slur, not least because the claim that Labour and the Conservatives are 'the same' is demonstrably nonsense, as is borne out by the differing attitudes of the SNP leadership towards each – and also because it further legitimises the use of the word 'Tory' as a generic political insult, which is rather disrespectful to people who hold the perfectly legitimate (even if you don't agree with them) political views of the Conservative party.

But what's really intriguing is the '…Out'.  Red Tories Out.  Out of where?  When David Cameron won his second term as Prime Minister last month, protestors gathered in London to shout 'Tories Out Now!'  But Labour (the 'Red Tories') are not 'in'.  They are in opposition at Westminster – and they are in opposition also in the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.  The only place where Labour hold any power is in the Welsh Assembly; is that what all those SNP supporters on Twitter are getting so hot-under-the-collar about?

I asked one of the SNP-supporting Tweeters you sometimes see – y'know the sort, 'We Are The 45', 'We Are The 56', yellow and black avatar, the referendum isn't over, type of chap – what it all meant.  He was perfectly pleasant, actually.  But he told me that 'Red Tories Out' meant 'out of Scotland'.  I'm sure this isn't true of all SNP activists, or members – but it would seem that there is a school of thought within the Nationalist movement which wants to drive the Labour party and its supporters into the sea.

In other words, they want to establish a one-party state.

'Traitors to Scotland'.  Their crime?  To have a
different point-of-view.

With the Liberal Democrats' decimation at the election, and Conservative support in Scotland still very low, Labour are the only effective alternative to the SNP.  And some SNP supporters want this dissension quashed.  Wiped out.  Is that healthy?

In the world of sport, the greatest performances are borne of the greatest rivalries.  Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are considered two of the 'greats' of tennis – but neither would've been 'great' without the other to push him.  The same is true of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in Formula 1.  Having a strong rival forces you to raise your game.  In politics, just as in sport, competition is healthy and produces better results.

The SNP likes to think of itself as 'progressive' – but a society in which there is only one mainstream political view is a society which stagnates.  The ruling party can do as it wills, with no opposition to hold it to account.

When any difference of opinion is crushed as insubordination – or when a culture develops in which disagreement is tantamount to treason – nobody benefits; support for the ruling party is as much an article of faith, with no rational basis for it, as it is rooted in an objective appreciation of their arguments.  This is especially true when you consider that party rules prohibit SNP MPs from speaking out against the party line at all; the whole basis of the organisation seems to be to smother and stifle disagreement, instead of confronting and defeating it – and this has resulted, as I wrote in my immediate reactions to the General Election, in SNP politicians and activists believing that they exist to represent the totality of Scottish though, rather than certain specific policies and viewpoints.

In the end, this creates a mentality where, if you are not a 'true believer', you are an outcast.  But this is no way to conduct politics.  It is only through challenging prevalent ideas, and questioning the status quo, that progress is made, that new ideas can develop, and that a society can grow.  That, after all, is how the SNP rose to prominence in the first place – by being an alternative; a different point-of-view; outsiders.  Now, however, they are very much the establishment – and their supporters are throwing their weight around more and more.

In contrast, pluralism allows for the open, noisy clash of ideas – as opposed to the suppression of 'bad' ideas – which politics should be all about.  He may be the cybernats' favourite hate figure, but I agree with Jim Murphy (the outgoing leader of Scottish Labour) when he says that 'Scotland needs a strong Labour Party'; even when you disagree with what they say, the need for strong opposition parties should be clear to everyone.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The furore over MPs' pay shows political campaigning at its worst

The prickly topic of MPs' pay is in the news again.  And when I say 'in the news', I also mean that self-righteous social media warriors are shouting through a dense smog of knee-jerk outrage and sharing poorly-researched, inaccurate 'infographics' which look like a nine-year-old created them in Microsoft Paint.

Leaving aside the sheer ignorance of many of these campaigners – I have lost count of how many Tweets I have seen blaming David Cameron for this, when in fact MPs' pay is set by an independent body precisely to stop it becoming such a contentious political issue (and how did that work out for you?!) – it occurs to me there are some very nasty political implications in this vilification of MPs.

One thing which comes up time and time again is the idea that MPs can, or should, 'reject' their pay rise.  According to IPSA (the independent body responsible for MPs' pay), actually, they can't – but more to the point, I fail to see why they should.  Taking a rise of £7000 would be 'out-of-touch', we are told.  (The most pointless, nonsensical, unmeaning insult in politics strikes again!)

But surely what would be really 'out-of-touch' would be not taking a £7000 pay rise!  After all, we're always being told that we want politicians who are 'ordinary' people – people who are just like us, with the same priorities and the same experiences as us.  How many ordinary people do you know who would turn down an extra £7000 a year?

No, what's really 'out-of-touch' is already being rich enough that you can afford to haughtily wave away the offer of an extra £7000 because you think doing so will make you look good.  Because that's all turning down the pay rise would be: a PR stunt.  MPs with enough independent wealth that £7000 is neither here nor there to them will make a big show of what good guys they are by ostentatiously not accepting their pay rise, or giving it away to charity – thus putting pressure on MPs from more modest backgrounds, who are not already vastly wealthy, to behave likewise or else be seen to be venal, greedy and self-serving.

I think MPs' pay needs to be enough to attract talented people to do what is actually a very tough and under appreciated job – and I mean talented people from all backgrounds.  But so, too, do attitudes towards this sensitive issue.

For bright, capable people who might be considering going into politics, especially people from lower income backgrounds, too low a salary might put them off and they will go into other areas instead.  So might the enormous personal costs of even becoming a candidate in the first place (not much is spoken about the fact that MPs have had to invest a lot of their own money and time in being selected as a candidate and winning their seat before they get the rewards of their higher-and-average salary).  But from my point-of-view, what would put people off going into politics the most is this furious, incensed obloquy from the public and the press.

I'm not sure I could handle the constant contradictions of having to be an 'ordinary' person to whom the voting public can 'relate', and yet also being expected to behave in ways no 'ordinary' person would, turning down a bit of extra cash when you are offered it.  But the fact is that however you conduct yourself in matters like these, people will scream that you are avaricious, lazy, and only looking out for yourself – even thought they often won't have any of the actual facts to hand.

Politicians need to be scrutinised, and they need to be held to account by each other, by the press, and ultimately by the public.  But they need to be scrutinised in an informed and rational way.  To my mind, one of the biggest barriers to entry is just how uninformed so many of the people who pretend to care about politics are; how quickly outright lies and deceit can spread when they paint the negative image of politicians people are clamouring to see; and how quick and eager people are to believe the very worst about politicians, even when what they're being told is patently not true.

It is a backwards-looking process (as I have already written about in regards to conspiracy theories), working back from a pre-determined conclusion borne of entrenched prejudices rather than a careful consideration of the evidence available.  Anti-government campaigners already know that they want to portray politicians in a bad light before they have written a word; they have their conclusion mapped out before they have the facts, so they either twist the facts, or cherry-pick convenient ones to suit the case they are trying to build – or they simply disregard facts entirely.

How many of the 'activists' who are angry about IPSA recommending a pay rise for MPs have actually bothered to look into how parliament works, and what an MP's job really entails?  Do they watch the BBC Parliament channel?  Do they read Hansard?  Do they meet their local MPs and get to know them before meting out aggressive and judgemental online content about what awful, nasty, evil people they are?  Do they know how IPSA came to the conclusions they did on the topic of MPs' pay, and the reasoning behind their recommendation that it should be increased?

Or do they – as I suspect – catch a whiff of a controversial issue which can be used to whip up an angry rabble and instantly reach for the Photoshop and the bold, all-caps font without bothering to look into the details any further and find out what it's actually all about?  My concern is: should we really be letting such people set the agenda in issues like these?

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy's untimely death is not your soapbox

I was very saddened to wake this morning to news that the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy had passed away at the age of fifty-five.  I was almost as saddened to see that, amongst the many and varied warm, personal tributes to the former MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, a few people on social media have decided that Mr Kennedy's passing is the perfect platform for their own axe-grinding political prejudices.

Of course Charles Kennedy had principles.  But Nick Clegg led his party into coalition on principle too.  If the Lib Dems hadn't gone into government with the Conservatives, would their voteshare have collapsed so dramatically at last month's general election?  Of course not.  To do something even though it is bound to be unpopular and lose you votes, because you think it is the right course of action, is surely the very definition of 'principled'.

Using Mr Kennedy's death as an opportunity to take a swipe at those in the Lib Dems who supported going into coalition in 2010 seems cheap.  Undignified.  When you say 'RIP Charles Kennedy', it is a statement of respect for someone who is sadly no longer with us; how respectful is it to cherry-pick certain aspects of Mr Kennedy's life which tally with your own world view, and use them for tacky political points-scoring, or to push your own agenda?

When someone well-known dies, and your response boils down to 'the best thing about Charles Kennedy was how he agreed with me and vindicated my opinions!' that's not a eulogy, that's petty, self-serving banner-waving.  Charles Kennedy's death is not all about you.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Wembley: One week on

This time last week, I was taking my place in the stands at Wembley Stadium (Block 121, Row 19, Seat 274 – if you're interested), preparing to watch Norwich City play Middlesborough for the honour of promotion to the Premier League in what's been dubbed the 'richest match in football', the Championship Play-Off Final.  As I did so, I thought back to a piece I wrote in this Blog a few months before, called What If Norwich Don't Go Up? – and I wondered whether I'd need it in a few hours time.

A photo posted by Kit Marsden (@manek43509) on

Thankfully, Norwich dominated the game, and ran out 2-0 winners to secure a return to the top flight at the first time of asking.  The jubilation of Norwich supporters at the final whistle was a far cry from the despair we'd all felt almost exactly a year before, as we were relegated from the Premier League.

A video posted by Kit Marsden (@manek43509) on

But even in the midst of these joyous scenes, I was conscious that we were now in for a long summer of speculation, transfer rumours, and arguing on fan forum websites and social media.  So, having deliberately waited a week for the dust to settle and the euphoria to die down slightly, here are my thoughts on Norwich City going forward into the Premier League in 2015…

Shortly after our relegation last season, I wrote a long piece about our attitude as a club, and about setting long-term aims.  I spoke about wanting to become an established Premier League club – not a 'yo-yo club' which bounces up and down between the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League.

In my view, our approach should be the same as I outlined when I wrote about What If Norwich Don't Go Up? – evolution, not revolution.  The way to get the stability we need is to stick with what we know works; as I said before, we have a good thing going with Alex Neil, and with a squad of players who are hungry for success and working hard, and we shouldn't jeopardise that with big changes.

I was pleased to see that the club wasted very little time in making Graham Dorrans' loan contract into a permanent move.  I like what Dorrans brings to the team, and he has good Premier League experience with West Brom.  For me, keeping hold of the players – and the coaching team – that we currently have has to be our first priority.

After that, we can look at strengthening in a few key areas.  Not replacing the players we have, for the most part, but adding to the squad in subtle, but clever ways.  In my opinion, there are two main positions to look at: centre-back, and centre-forward.  Let's talk about each individually.

Defensively, Norwich City have been a case-study in how important it is to get the right manager.  At the start of the season which has just ended, we were shaky at the back, and unsure of ourselves; Alex Neil, however, has taken the same players and toughened up our defence no end.  Sebastien Bassong – a proven Premier League defender, and a former Player Of The Season for Norwich – was out in the wilderness until Neil took charge, but in the Play-Offs we saw Bassong back to his best.  Steven Whittaker has long been thought of as something of a weak point by Norwich fans, but when I saw him at Wembley he looked Premier League quality.

Unfortunately – and it pains me to say this – the same cannot be said for Russell Martin.  To be fair to Martin, centre-back isn't actually his favoured position – but although he has been a great servant to the club and a fantastic Captain all season, he has been culpable for some of the mistakes which have cost us.  Think back to the Play-Off Semi-Finals against Ipswich, and ask yourself whose poor clearances led to Ipswich's equalising goal at Portman Road.  We can't afford these sorts of slips against Premier League opposition.  This is why I feel another dedicated, quality centre-back to partner Bassong would be a worthwhile investment.

Who should be we get?  This is where, whatever you suggest, you get a load of stick from other football fans for being either unrealistic or unambitious (or sometimes, even, both), or just for not knowing what you're talking about.  Personally, however, I quite like the idea of Steven Caulker from recently relegated QPR.

The striker position is a more contentious one.  My opinion is that we already have some good forward players in Cameron Jerome, Gary Hooper and Lewis Grabban.  I think most people would agree with this.  But after that, it gets a bit tricky.  What is to be done, for example, about club record signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel – currently on loan at Saint-Étienne in France?

Van Wolfswinkel is unfortunate in that he has come to symbolise everything that was bad about the disastrous 2013-14 Premier League campaign, which ultimately ended with Norwich being relegated to the Championship.  He arrived at the club with a lot of hype, and an enormous price tag, but ended up scoring only one goal on the opening day of what was otherwise an injury-blighted, disappointing season.  The case against Van Wolfswinkel rests entirely on this statistic – one goal in a whole season is poor for a player supposed to be an élite striker.  The obsession with this statistic is, however, wilfully short-sighted and – I think – slightly unfair.

I think it is worth giving Van Wolfswinkel a second chance in the Premier League.  It is true that his scoring record in what is so far his only season in the division is pitiful, but this doesn't tell the whole story.  I don't think it is simply the case – as some Norwich supporters have suggested – that Van Wolfswinkel simply "isn't good enough" for the Premier League; his 2013-14 season was compromised from the start by the pressure of stepping into the shoes of club legend and former talismanic striker Grant Holt – and he was further hampered injuries, and then by being rushed back into first team action too soon after injury, and then by ongoing confidence issues caused by being an obvious focal point for fan's frustrations during the season as he struggled to live up to the almost unreal levels of hype which accompanied his arrival at the club, and as the rest of the team floundered around him.

We have already seen that players such as Whittaker and Bassong have been revitalised under Alex Neil – I think Neil is a tactically astute manager, but also a manager who can handle people, and who has shown himself to be capable of getting the best out of players, and he would be able to work this magic on Van Wolfswinkel too.  With his confidence back, and in a somewhat less high-profile a rôle as an impact substitute or as a second striker playing off (say) Cameron Jerome, the dutchman may yet have a part to play in the Norwich City story.  It's worth a shot.

We should also, however, buy another striker.  There are clamours to discover "the next Michu" – a previously unknown player from outside the usual hunting grounds who turns out to be a revelation in the Premier League.  Unfortunately, the example of Michu shows what a gamble this can also be, considering his fall from grace after his first dazzling season with Swansea – an obscure player might turn out to be a twenty-goal-a-season bargain of the century, but could just as easily be another big flop.

My opinion is that it's better to buy a proven striker with a good track record at the highest level – but someone who is possibly coming towards the end of their career.  In the much the same way that, for example, Samuel Eto'o ended up at Everton after an illustrious career at Champions' League clubs.  Of course, we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves if we start comparing Norwich even with clubs like Everton, in terms of what we can afford when it comes to buying a striker – but there must be someone around who was previously a top-class player, who's getting on a little and wouldn't get a look in at the big clubs now, but who's looking to play one or two more seasons of football and could still do a decent job?

One name that's been mentioned a couple of times is Luca Toni.  He's thirty-eight now, but after a career playing for some of the biggest names in club football, the Italian has shown he can still score goals for mid-table Verona in Serie A.  Would they perhaps be willing to sell – or loan – him?  Would he be willing to come?  Who knows!  But it's got to be worth a try.