Friday, 24 July 2009

Blogging Hiatus

Apologies for my absence but I am afraid it will have to continue for a while - I am very busy finishing a report I am writing on barriers to participation for EM people in Scotland, and then taking a week off, so will be a couple of weeks before I return I think.

I am of course choosing a busy time to hide, what with Obama's polling showing that maybe he isn't the Messiah afterall, but just a very naughty boy; the hysterical coverage of swine flu sadly demonstrating once again that the cause of appropriate and effective public health in the UK has been wounded, perhaps fatally, by the inane media who care more for apocalyptic headlines selling papers than any sense of public responsibility - but hey, that's showbiz; the impending nightmare of the Norwich result - the question is who will it be a nightmare for? Interestingly Cameron has more to lose with the result. Oh, and the no-show of the Glasgow North East (i.e. my own constituency) by-election, with the added fun of Richard Baker's ludicrous comments thrown in.

So yeah, nothing going on, perfect time for a break! =)

See y'all soon.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Palin on the Pressure

The US Presidential election of 2008 was a massive blow to the Republican Party, leaving the Democratic Party in control of all three strands of government for the first time since the 90s. In addition they saw losses across the country in local government as well, leaving the party shattered and rudderless.

For the main figures, it has been a period of quiet recovery. John McCain has returned to being a respected Senator, Mitt Romney is working the country trying to establish himself as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2012, and Mike Huckabee has a TV show as the poster boy of the religious right. These figures are doing pretty well for themselves in the post-election period, but none of them is filling the void in leadership that the GOP is suffering from.

This void is where Sarah Palin should have fulfilled her destiny. Her selection as the VP candidate alongside John McCain was, and I still stand by my analysis, a stroke of genius in a dying campaign. McCain, despite the respect and affection that many people felt for him, was never going to win the swing voters - indeed he was never going to win the election, and neither was any other Republican. Numerous factors had guaranteed a Democrat win such as Bush fatigue etc, but the simple fact was that Obama's suave and slick presentation, unprecedented media management and sheer historical significance had created a juggernaut which swept all before - Hillary never had a chance once the mythical momentum had been achieved, and neither did the GOP. Heck, Jesus would have been beaten by the greater light of Obama's media induced messianic status. In light of this, the left field introduction of Palin prevented an absolute massacre on polling day, by shoring up a conservative vote suspicious of McCain's credentials. Lieberman or another VP candidate more in line with McCain's personal stance would have potentially lost him some core Republican states - Palin kept them red and saved a tiny modicum of pride for the party.

Post-election she had the chance to become the defacto leader of the Republican Party and its frontrunner for 2012. Yeah, people had rather massive reservations (to be polite about it!) about the idea of her sitting in the White House running the Free World, however four years would have presented the potential to shore up her Republican base and to reinvent herself on the national stage as a legitimate candidate.

However, if a week is a long time in politics, then the months since the election have been more than enough time for her to destroy her career.

Her star has well and truly fallen, most painfully demonstrated in the rambling speech she gave to announce her resignation as Governor of Alaska. This decision was a huge shock to political commentators, her party and indeed at points during her speech it seemed as if it was a shock to her too. Her comments that she was leaving because she was term-limited instantly destroyed her Presidential aspirations by guaranteeing that she could only ever stand for one term - by her own admission anything more would be a betrayal of the electorate. Her positive ratings in Alaska had plummeted from the stratospheric height of the mid-80s to their current status in the mid-50s, sitting alongside a virtually non-existent legislative programme. Ironically before her selection as VP candidate she had created her success on the basis of her willingness to work with political opponents and to stand up to her own party. Now, she escapes from her role in Alaska by leading pro-life talks in other parts of the US, leaving her in the position whereby neither party will work with her now in her home state.

The decision to escape from Alaska makes a certain sense on the basis that, to be brutally honest, the state does not matter in the slightest when it comes to national US politics. Indeed, it is so detached from the rest of the nation that it counts as a negative for politicians with aspirations of national office. However, her manner of doing so has undercut her position. Not only has she fatally damaged her own chances of the Presidency, but she has also destroyed her opportunity to at least become the Republican kingmaker and leader. Her handling of her resignation has infuriated and embarrassed her own party, building on top of the damage she did by comments she made about McCain and his campaign. She has built up a popularity amongst elements of the right, however others such as Huckabee remain more convincing at holding that position.

It didn't need to be this way. Following the election she had the potential to guarantee a very decent run for the nomination in 2012. She should have been blitzing the media with a positive message, making fun of the ridicule she was subjected to and ensuring that she remained the best known Republican in the country. She should have been scrutinising every single utterance from Obama's lips and building up a network of advisors who could have helped to build a consistent message and line of attack. And she should have been building up her network across the country amongst Republican activists, not just of the religious right but of the wider conservative movement, creating a groundswell of activism to counter-act the Obama factor which is already slightly dulled by the realities of government.

Instead, she has alternatively shunned and attacked the media, reinforcing the negative perception of her. She has been absent from serious policy debate, leaving others in her increasingly fragmented party to fight the GOP corner with no demonstrations of leadership qualities. And she has attacked her own party, stoking discord at a time when they required unity and foolishly picking targets like McCain to attack.

She is not completely finished, after all America is the land of second chances. However the period since the election has been wasted and has left her barely clinging on to political significance. While Romney has slickly played the conservative field, working hard to overcome the concerns about his personal religious faith, she has slowly destroyed her chances, leaving her with nothing but bridges to nowhere.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Labour's Role in Rural Politics

I have been thinking about the role, or currently lack of, for the Labour Party in the rural areas of the UK.

The fact is that as a party, we seem to be virtually non-existent in many rural constituencies. Of course, there are historical reasons behind this situation. We are a party who came in to existence fighting for the causes and needs of the urban working class, and our fortunes have remained closely tied to that cause. However, there are equal concerns about solidarity and poverty amongst rural constituencies as in urban, and yet we as a party are not seen as fighting these causes. Instead the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP are seen as being concerned with rural issues, pushing us out of the way.

Of course, specific policies have increased this feeling of neglect in the rural seats. The ban on fox hunting was seen as an attack by urban dwellers on rural inhabitants, underpinned by a snobbery on behalf of those in the cities. Now, I don't want to dwell on the issue of fox hunting itself, but the perception of the policy was very important, and very negative to the party. Added to feelings that we do not do enough for the Farming and Fishing industries, we are dismissed as irrelevant, and indeed hostile, to rural communities.

However, there are a variety of crucial issues challenging these communities which we should be championing as issues of social justice. I would like to explore some of these, and propose some policies which may help to demonstrate that we are a party for all, not just those in the industrialised centres.

The lack of affordable housing is a key issue affecting rural communities, particularly in areas where holiday homes have become prevalent and have forced prices unnaturally high. Some approaches are being tried out, but I would suggest:
  • Implementing maximum numbers for holiday home purchases
  • Ringfencing money for councils in rural areas to use for building affordable social housing
  • Subsidies for young people purchasing homes in rural communities
  • Suspension of right to buy

Loss of Young People
This is one of the most damaging challenges facing rural communities. For example, Dumfries and Galloway region is facing 28% drop in school leavers, and a 38% drop in working-age residents by 2013. This poses massive economic and social implications for the regions. I know, growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, that having left I would not return. I know that there are some attempts being made to encourage young people to either stay in the areas, or at least to return, but more must be done to ensure that opportunities exist that will encourage young people to decide to make their homes in the rural areas. This issue of course ties closely into the issue of housing outlined above, and the job creation issues that I will turn to next.

  • Financial and technical support for rural colleges and centres of learning
  • Widen access and support for distance learning in a variety of courses
  • Council Tax subsidies for young people choosing to stay and work/study in the area
  • School exchanges/link ups between schools in rural and urban locations
  • Increase support and resources for sports and leisure facilities
  • Create a youth forum for each rural area with support from Local Authorities and direct say in the provision of youth, leisure and other related issues

Employment and Enterprise
Job creation is key to vibrant rural communities, and to sustaining the policies implemented for the purposes of retaining young people and encouraging inward migration to our rural regions. We need to ensure support for the traditional industries such as farming and fishing in a sustainable fashion, whilst also rewarding businesses who create work in the rural regions.

  • Subsidies/tax breaks for companies investing in job creation in rural communities
  • Strong enterprise agencies with focus on rural communities, like the existing Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Start-up funds for local people to create businesses that meet needs and gaps in their communities
  • Support traditional industries, and work with them rather than against them in regards to modernisation and required changes to their structures.
  • Support and develop co-operatives as a sustainable means for meeting needs of communities - this also encourages ownership and localised solutions

Immigration is currently a hot topic, but it has an additional relevance and importance to rural communities. There is a real need for immigration to rural areas to counterbalance population loss, however, due to the smaller communities live in rural areas changes and challenges presented by immigrant populations are more noticeable. Support is needed to ensure that the benefits of immigration are demonstrated to the existing communities, but with resources to help these immigrant communities become part of the regions, contributing to their future.

  • Education
  • Money made available for easily accessible English classes and cultural classes
  • Money to make classes in immigrant languages (such as Polish) available for existing communities
  • Support for Community/Parish Councils to allow them to play role in helping immigrants to successfully integrate

Culture and Tourism
We need to start actively promoting the vital role that rural tourism plays in the local and national economy. Programmes such as the Year of Highland Culture emphasised the desirability of the Highlands as both tourist and business locations, and were successful in demonstrating that rural regions are positive contributors to the country. Furthermore, rural communities posses distinct and important cultures and histories, all of which contribute to our national identity. The UK is about more than just the cities, and more pride in our rural heritage would be economically and socially beneficial.

  • Follow-up concept of Highland Culture year to encourage further focus on rural communities
  • Change of language in national and political debates - the UK is about more than just London/the big cities!
  • Ensure that rural concerns are listened to in national debates - do not just dismiss them out of hand as being 'less sophisticated' than urban concerns and ideas
  • Encourage investment in tourism - main forms of economic investment in many rural communities

Finally, the infrastructure available in rural communities is vital. Localism is a popular political concept just now - but in rural communities there is really no alternative. There must be investment in transport links for both the local populace and business purposes, with growing environmental concerns not automatically ruling out support for issues such as rural airports, which can be crucial to development of those areas.

  • Commitment to local hospitals and health centres
  • Support for air ambulance facilities for outlying areas
  • Investment in road and rail links - i.e. expansion of A9 to Inverness into dual carriageway, as being proposed by the SNP
  • Investment in rural airports - explore options for ensuring flights remain at reasonable prices
  • Dialogue with transport firms who stop services to explore why - introduce support for companies who commit to sustaining links to rural communities

Well, I've rattled through a range of ideas and thoughts - I am keen to hear what others think. I believe that for Labour to be the progressive party that we aim to be, it is vital that we are not just a party for some, but rather for all. In regards to the areas that I have outlined above, I believe that we can introduce policies that sustain our progressive commitments, whilst encouraging vibrant rural communities. There is a danger that we view the rural constituencies in a similar way to how the Democrats view the 'Red States' (those voting Republican) in the South and Mid-West of the US - namely, un winnable and therefore not worth thinking about. If our aim is to create and sustain a country where every citizen is able to play as full a role as possible, then we must listen to rural concerns, and work to celebrate the contribution that these communities make.