Friday, 29 May 2009

The UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka is a disappointment

On Wednesday evening, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva refused to answer calls for a UN inquiry into war crimes and backed the Sri Lankan Government by praising its victory over the Tamil Tigers.

After weeks and weeks of demonstrations by Sri Lankan Tamils in Parliament Square, after allegations from both sides accusing each other of committing terrible atrocities, after actions from the Sri Lankan Government which blocked not only foreign journalists, but also international aid organizations such as the Red Cross from accessing the conflict area, it is hard to understand why the UNHRC would come to this decision.

Of course we must assume that propaganda has been published and spread by both sides. But the Sri Lankan Government’s claim to “not be responsible for the death of even one of the 7,000 civilians” the UN estimates were killed in the first four months of the year seems rather dubious.

Sri Lankan lobbyists have successfully convinced the majority at the UNHRC that the Tamil conflict is a domestic matter which it does not wish to interfere in. The Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, described the call from European countries for an inquiry to be a “punitive and mean-spirited agenda” and claimed that the “vast mass of humanity are in support of Sri Lanka.”

It is important to understand that the UNHRC has no enforcement power, no other tool than to make recommendations to the General Assembly about situations in which human rights are violated. A key component of its work is based on the Universal Periodic Review, which aims to assess the human rights situations in all 192 UN Member States.

It is therefore highly surprising, but mainly disappointing, that it now refuses to do exactly that in Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war it seems almost na├»ve to assume that no atrocities were committed by the Government’s military forces. Proving this would, of course, require an independent inquiry; refusing this could be seen as a confession to guilt.

When the UNHRC was established in 2006, the US voted against the relevant General Assembly Resolution, claiming that it did not have adequate provision to keep states which abused human rights from being on the Council. There have been critical voices in the past which claimed that the body was “too politicized” to function and that its existence was therefore obsolete. After Wednesday’s resolution, the Council itself has given these voices their strongest support. Its function, role and capacities need to be urgently reassessed.

A time to celebrate

I have finally joined this blog at a time I think all women everywhere should be celebrating, and decided to post straight away in the hope someone out there might start thinking. On 30th May 1929 women here under the age of 30 were able to vote in a General Election for the very first time. So shouldn't all our leading women be out there reminding women (and especially women under 30) how precious the right to vote should be to them? The little celebrations I am preparing for tomorrow are hosted by a woman of 80 who helps remind us how much we owe to her generation and her mothers. But crucially too, as well as a couple of women around 30, our top woman Euro candidate will be there to remind us that only Labour have an equal number of male and female candidates - and that women owe so much of their quality of life to the political work of women in Europe and at home. Yes we have some big issues to tackle right now - but at least we are allowed to go to the polling station. Our sisters fought so hard for that right without the luxury of blogging networks. Lets all sing and celebrate our achievements.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Countdown to the NEC on Tuesday

I've written two pieces on the expenses scandal on LabourList here and here But with every new frontpage, the extent of the moral decrepitude of some of our MPs becomes clear. Quite rightly Labour Party members are now voicing their right to have their say.

We understand from the Guardian that the National Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday 19th will consider whether Constituency Labour Parties should be given the right to push their Labour MP through a reselection process. This has inspired a letter which has been drawn up by a number of Labour activists, including Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and Councillors, calling on the NEC to take strong action to:

  • Organise a thorough review of suspected excessive and abusive claims - regardless of whether they were eventually signed off by an over-worked Fees Office.
  • Support the immediate removal of the whip from individual MPs who have brought the party into disrepute over this issue and allow CLPs to trigger reselection ballots against them.
Liberal Conspiracy has more comment here.

If you are interested in signing the full letter, send an email to the main signatories: Cllr Richard Bingley, Fred Grindrod (National Policy Forum and Former Parliamentary Candidate)
Beryl Milnes (Former Chair of Hemel Hempstead CLP) and Tom Flynn (Labour Parliamentary Candidate) at necletter@hotmail.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Ann Black, a conscientious NEC member has sent out the following email:
Hi all

Thanks to everyone who has already mailed about this. Like other NEC members I recognise and appreciate the hundreds of hours of unpaid time put in by volunteers on the ground, most of whom do not even claim expenses for travel, postage and telephone calls, but give them freely to help in electing Labour representatives. I know that campaigners now also have to deal with outright hostility to politics and politicians.

The NEC meets on Tuesday 19 May and, according to yesterday’s Guardian, will discuss automatically deselecting any Labour MP found to have made improper expense claims. I am not clear whether this means only MPs who have actually broken the rules, or extends to those whose claims were authorised but appear to have stretched the rules beyond reasonable limits. I would welcome your views on this, and on the criteria for deciding what is reasonable.

Some members have suggested that all Labour MPs should be subject to a formal or informal reselection process by their constituency party. Others believe this would create doubts about MPs whose integrity is not in question. Again I’d appreciate your thoughts on whether and how constituencies should approach this, particularly if you live in a Labour seat.

I’d also be grateful for any other ideas on how to rebuild trust within the party and with the country, and on what the NEC should be doing in addition to the actions and statements from the prime minister.

I anticipate a lot of replies, and will read and take them all into account, though may not have time to respond to them individually before Tuesday.

Thanks for sticking with the party.

Ann Black
NEC constituency representative
annblack50@btinternet.com / annblack50@yahoo.co.uk
I would encourage all Labour women to have their say. These are unprecedented and horrible times, but we have to ensure that our voices are heard loud and clear.

Labour needs to be more confident on the expenses crisis

There is no doubt that the expenses issue is a constitutional crisis, the likes of which I do not think we have seen in our time, not may see for another generation. In 100 years time, what we are going through will be the a key topic I am sure in many a GCSE student's history and politics class. It is hugely serious, and enormously sad. I for one feel enormously let down by politicians across all parties who have clearly done the "unforgiveable" - simply because they could.

Perhaps it is the final trigger that will bring the parliamentary expenses system into the 21st century. I have never understood why expenses whether for Westminster or Europe were so loosely defined. Perhaps this comes from having had a career in the private sector, where my expenses have always had to be backed up by receipts, scrutiny was clear, and accountability was clear. As well as the finance teams monitoring expenditure and rules, so did the business you were in. For projects I have run, I had to estimate project expenses and be accountable to the business for costs incurred. Accountability, and clarity of accountability is a jolly good thing.

The crisis we are currently going through has been exacerbated I believe by Labour's reluctance to get on the front foot. I knew from talking to journalists a year ago that this was the issue political journalists were going to hold on to like a dog to a bone. It was never going to go away. The end result we were going to arrive at, by hook or by crook, was transparency of the expenses. There is no doubt this fervour by the media would have been fed by inside information that was not in the public domain; they knew the extent of the story perhaps more than politicians and certainly the public. Politicians may have known about their own expenses but very little about each others; hence the system blindness that led do a total underestimation of this issue.

That's why for the Speaker to have led the resistance in making expenses information public has been perhaps the biggest tactical blunder. And I for one would join the calls for him to go. The resistance to making this information public only delayed the inevitable, and the resulting impression of the political class desperate to hold onto its privileges has been as damaging as the exposure of an out of date expenses system, totally out of touch with today's standards and expectations.

But one thing that puzzles me is why Labour has not taken a more confident ground on this issue. It is Labour that came in in 1997 with a desire to clean up British politics. Political donations reform through the PPERA has meant that for the first time all can see who is potentially pulling the purse strings of political parties. The removal of hereditary peers; unquestioned for generations, and against which as an injustice the expenses system is like a younger cousin. Freedom of Information - courageous and morally right. Labour brought it in. And once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot push it back it in.

We should still be the rightful leaders to sort out the expenses system - it has been the predictable consequence of what we began in 1997. And even at this time, I am proud to be Labour, and that the exposure of this issue would most likely not have happened without my party. But it means that now we need to find the courage to step forward and to consistently be leaders not followers on this issue.

But to do that is going to require real clarity. Clarity on who is in charge, and who we want the public to know is in charge. Clarity on how to respond to the public mood. Clarity on how the parties must work together - things will only change if consensus is reached. Clarity on how we think the expenses rules should change, which were clearly wrong and in which there is no public confidence. Clarity on who is accountable for the system, including the fees office who I hear have apologised to some MPs for the advice they gave; but who had a responsibility to the public on this and have little defence for what they have allowed to happen.

No crisis in insurmountable in my opinion; no valley of despair is so deep that there is no way out. There is always a way forward, and it may well be a long march. But with confidence, a clear view of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and communication of this, tough action against Labour MPs who have crossed the line (e.g Elliot Morley and David Chaytor), but equally defence of those who have been potentially libelled or certainly unfairly treated in this frenzy (e.g. Phil Woolas, Ed and Yvette).

This is vital; MPs who have either minor misdemeanours or factually incorrect allegations against them should not be listed alongside the potentially criminally fraudulent; they should not be hung out to dry or given to the lynch mob that is the Tory led media. Gordon's leadership is not under challenge; but his support could start to fall away if the party does not show it is prepared to defend the right-doers as well as punish the wrong-doers. We will start to see an "each person for themselves" response that will simply lead to death by 1000 cuts.

This story has a long way to go before it ends. But by being leading player, we might yet be surprised at how this story starts to turn, where the public mood goes and the confidence in politics that could and should start to return. We really should take the moral high ground on this issue and find the courage to do it, that we know is there in our leaders and in our party values more widely.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Derek Draper resigns from LabourList

A lot of vitriol has been thrown at Derek Draper who despite everything, staged quite a remarkable political comeback in the last two years. Some of the bile has been undeserved, but having been a close observer of e-campaigning and new media, I find it unsurprising. There were many things that Derek did wrong, but at the root of it all was a fundamental misunderstanding of how political debate and campaigning had been developing on the internet and how Labour activists needed to work with it.

As Susan Boyle demonstrates, the internet provides a space for anyone, talented or not, to reach a potentially vast audience. Most people never reach beyond a close circle of friends, but when they have something that captures the imagination of people, their audience can be huge. This cannot, and should not, be controlled by a central committee. Derek made the mistake of thinking that he, or his friends, could reshape the political debate space on the internet by traditional attack politics. He was entering a world which, yes, had been overly shaped by the political right, but which had an equilibrium which needed to be carefully managed.

The two main protagonists for Derek seemed to be Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, rather than the Conservative Party and ConservativeHome. This meant that every intervention he made was based on personality politics rather than practical politics. There are decent ways of taking on Iain and Guido, but sadly Derek made every mistake in the book which not only degraded the left blogosphere in the eyes of everyone, but also gained more notoriety for his enemies in the process. I would wager that more people read both their blogs while Derek was 'taking them on' than while he wasn't. It hasn't exposed the real racism and sexism which exists in the comments on Guido's site, nor does it take head-on the progressive sounding, but essentially Thatcherite politics of Iain Dale.

Derek has posted a statement on LabourList which is revealing. It's almost as if he thinks the fact that someone hacked into his account should be judged more harshly than the fact that he, at one point, entertained the idea of making up disgusting rumours about senior opposition politicians in concert with someone working in Downing Street while trying to pose as someone editing an independent Labour blog. Yes, of course everyone can see their mistakes in hindsight, and his apology should be accepted and we should all move on eventually. But I don't think we really can until there is a more genuine understanding of why so many Labour party members were sickened by this style of politics in the first place. The statement reads more in anger than in sorrow. This isn't what we hoped for.

What I do hope for is that Alex Smith, who has ably worked as Derek's Deputy Editor and who I expect has been responsible for shepherding much of the more sensible engagement with Labour Party members including a very good Young Labour weekend edited by Richard Angell, will be allowed to guide LabourList to a better place. I don't think the vast majority of Labour people who visit LL think that it should be allowed to wither on the vine. It feels now like a space which we might all be able to claim as our own, rather than something which felt like Derek's plaything. But we should let it grow organically. Keep posting, keep arguing, and see where it is in a year's time. If Derek wants us to salute him for his legacy he should wait until then.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Memories of 1997.

It's May 1st today, the 12 year anniversary of Labour's sweep to power in 1997. Tony Blair, then young, fresh with a head full of fluffy dark hair, took to the stage and announced that ''A new dawn has broken, has it not?'' The start of something better, a new era of hope and possibility had arrived. And oh my, was it overdue.

I was 8 years old and living in the rural Tory heartland of Northamptonshire. I remember the election well, and John Major being PM. That day, I awoke to my radio alarm and the local station's presenters complaining that ''This is awful - everything's going to change. The bins are changing, even the lampposts are going to change!'' Needless to say, my 8-year-old self wasn't filled with joy. I mean, what was wrong with the lampposts?!

I remember my Mum talking about the fact Tony Blair had won, and how he seemed like a good man, and sitting down to watch the news. It all just felt a bit strange, when I thought of the PM, I could only see John Major, and I felt a bit bad that he'd lost his job, but amazed at all the excitement everywhere. Everywhere, it seemed, except my school or my village...

May 1st 1997 has shaped that 8-year-old's life in more ways than I could ever have known or imagined at the time.12 years on, at 20, I'm sitting here a by-product of the Blair years. The national curriculum, double the amount of spending in schools, lower class sizes (my own down from 37), treble the amount of spending in our hospitals - and those are just the things that helped this 8-year-old.

For everyone else, there's the minimum wage, double the spending on overseas aid to and dropping the debt of the very poorest countries, the New Deal - helping over a million left unemployed by the Tories back into work, Sure Start, better maternity leave and the introduction of paternity leave, the halving of NHS operation waiting times, record numbers of police on our streets, the introduction of civil partnerships and negotiating peace in Northern Ireland.

And, of course, the Tories called the minimum wage 'dangerous' and even David Cameron opposed paternity leave (before taking it himself, that is).I am so proud to be a member of this Labour party - the only party with the values of fairness and opportunity for the many, and not just the few, running through it's veins.12 years in and of course there are calls for 'change' - but change for the sake of change will only drag us back to the way things were with the Tories 'do nothing, the market will fix it' approach.

Labour party members all received an email from the PM this week to mark the 12 year anniversary and this part just really showed why we can't take that gamble with the Tories. They are not only reluctant to come forwards with any real policy ideas, and have had no sense of direction over the current economic situation, but, as Gordon Brown quite rightly points out - ''While our party offers a £145 tax cut for 22 million basic rate taxpayers, the Tories talk of putting “some taxes up” and prioritising a multi-million pound inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest few.

And while our party focuses on spending money to help people back into work, David Cameron’s Conservatives refuse to spend a single extra penny to help the unemployed and talk about £20 billion of cuts to public services. He should be straight with the British public about where he’s going to cut and who will have the help they rely on dragged out from underneath them''.

The party of the many, and not just the few. 12 years on and Labour are still fighting for all of us.

This is why I am so proud to represent this Labour party.