Talking Politics
  • By Richard Heller

    "Mr Speaker, I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in paying tribute to Private John Everyman of the Midshire Regiment who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan. He was a very brave and dedicated soldier, deeply respected by all his colleagues, and we owe him a deep debt of gratitude…"

    We have been hearing tributes like these at prime minister's questions since the Iraq war, and sadly, we can expect more of them this year. Of course, the most important aspect of these tributes is their impact on the comrades and friends and families of the victim. No one would deny them in their loss any comfort and pride which they might take from hearing the name put on record in the House of Commons.

    But all the rest of us are entitled to our feelings at such moments, and I wonder if I am alone in mine.

    It makes me angry to hear politicians — whoever they are — reading out prepared phrases about soldiers they pretend to have known. I cannot stop thinking that

    Read More »from Our forces deserve more than pieties from politicians
  • Photo: AFP/Getty ImagesLondon may have seized the initiative in the Scottish independence referendum debate, but it has by no means made certain it will get its way.

    Yesterday the Scotland Office launched a consultation paper on Scotland's constitutional future, outlining the way in which it proposes to give the people of Scotland their say on this key issue for the United Kingdom's future.

    Its biggest play is its attempt to scotch, once and for all, the distinction between a 'binding' and an 'advisory' referendum. This, according to Scotland Office officials, is nothing but a red herring. Whitehall lawyers believe they have a cast-iron case which they believe would stand up in the supreme court: any referendum held by the Scottish parliament would be illegal, full stop.

    That would be a huge setback to the Scottish National party, which has been sniffing around the issue of an advisory referendum for some time. Take its 2007 paper on the issue: "At present the constitution is reserved, but it is arguable

    Read More »from Can London stop the SNP’s independence referendum?
  • The problem with Ed

    Journalists are doing the government's job for it, so much so that David Cameron's last TV interview saw him defending Ed Miliband's performance. The range of attack dogs growling against Miliband is simply astonishing. This morning the Labour leader tried to relaunch his agenda in time for 2012. There was little there to significantly change the course of events.

    He appeared on the Today programme, where John Humphrys relentlessly told him to apologise for Labour's economic record in office before insinuating he was too ugly to connect with the public. Online, political commentators were as crude as possible, attacking his tone and his language as if sizing up a blind date.

    By the time journalists had gathered for his speech, they began attacking the lack of bacon sandwiches. The Labour leader was late, sparking a wave of increasingly vitriolic attacks on him. "Never seen a speech go down so badly before it's even been given," one online commentator remarked.

    It all highlights the

    Read More »from The problem with Ed
  • By Dr Matthew Ashton

    So far David Cameron's coalition government looks like it will be remembered mostly for its austerity.

    However the news today that the Cabinet is in talks about allowing a binding referendum on Scottish independence could completely change that. If true then this would be possibly the biggest gamble of Cameron's leadership with the future of the entire UK at stake.

    Essentially he's trying to out-bluff Alex Salmond, which as any political expert will tell you is a pretty difficult task.

    Salmond has long spoken of his desire to hold a referendum, but only on his terms. By offering him the option of a binding referendum, but only within a very limited timeframe, Cameron is asking him to jump now or not at all. I'd also be very surprised if Cameron doesn't attempt to work it in his favour - for instance, deciding when the referendum will take place.

    While Salmond remains extremely popular with the Scottish electorate, the credit crunch has had a serious impact on his

    Read More »from Cameron is trying to out-bluff Salmond over Scottish independence
  • The obscenity trail, extreme sex and modern censorship.

    By Jane Fae

    You may not be aware of the Peacock case — but its impact on obscenity laws in the UK could be seismic.

    Shortly before 13:00 GMT on Friday, a jury decided that a series of actions, including 'fisting', erotic urination, and some pretty severe sado-masochistic beatings did not constitute obscenity under the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) — thereby throwing the entire edifice of that law into disarray. Already, supporters of greater freedom of expression in the erotic arena are celebrating the end of an era.

    Various bodies - not least the British Board of Film Classification — now need to digest this result. Longer term, the political prognosis for current Obscenity law is not good. Some time soon we may be starting the long trek of consultation, white paper and eventually new legislation to replace the discredited old OPA with a shiny new version. Or we might just dispense with the notion of obscenity from UK law

    Read More »from Are we seeing the death of obscenity?
  • Is it just me, or is everyone putting it on now? The Twitter outrage came from the right today. It's been a while. Usually it's the left. Perhaps they felt left out. Dianne Abbott said "white people love playing 'divide and rule'" on the social media site last night and by this morning it was Lady Chatterley's Lover all over again, with added false equivalence and heavy-handed moralising.

    I'm not the right person to have opinions on this stuff. I simply couldn't care less. I don't care when clothing companies make T-shirts that supposedly objectify women. I don't care if people make generalisations about my race or other people's race. I don't care when a female character in a TV series says all men are afraid of commitment. I don't care when Jeremy Clarkson says something repugnant. That's your special ticket right there, your free pass out of an early coronary. Just don't care until someone says something they really mean. Get the balance right between serious thought and incitement

    Read More »from The Dianne Abbott row is just noise – but it raises questions about her judgement
  • The accusation from the Labour party, reported in the Guardian, that the BBC is currently biased against them is problematic for a number of reasons. Normally when a political party accuses a news organisation or journalist of lacking impartiality, what they're really saying is 'you're not reporting us in the way we'd like'. In this case Labour seems to be arguing that the BBC is giving more coverage to coalition politicians and policies than to their own side. Now this may well be true - I've yet to see their data - but I'd maintain that measuring bias is much more complex than simply a question of quantitative content analysis.

    Anyone with a stopwatch and a pen and paper can record how much airtime a political party is given, but that rarely gives the full story. For instance, what was the context of the show they appeared on and how were they treated? What did the watching or listening viewers make of it? How the wider public interprets news stories can differ massively from the

    Read More »from The problems of measuring political bias at the BBC
  • By Richard Heller

    Dear Ed,

    You are probably sick of advice on how to lead the Labour party. But it goes with the job and remember that most of it comes to you free from people who really want you to win the next election. In that spirit, here are my suggestions for 2012.

    One, never complain about unfair media coverage. Even when that's true it makes you look like a loser. Concentrate all your energy on making news that is worth covering, and if the mainstream media continue to ignore it, bypass them — that gets easier all the time.

    Two, it may sound a small thing but make sure that your mail gets answered promptly and competently. Make all your shadow ministers do the same. That is not happening now. How can you hope to reach voters in general if you do not even communicate with the ones who actually want to hear from you? Of course letter-writers are a minority among voters, but one that is politically engaged and one which influences the attitudes of others. Ignoring them is bad

    Read More »from Some new year’s advice for Ed Miliband
  • The worst political losers of 2011

    Here's's guide to the worst losers of the year in politics:

    10 - Oliver Letwin

    The 'Gandalf' of the Tory election campaign continued to behave in an eccentric manner this year, once again creating problems of his own devising with which to derail his political career. His decision to stress the role of "discipline and fear" to public service provision prompted headlines of a particularly dangerous sort, because it played into Labour accusations that the spending cuts are motivated more by ideology than the deficit. The photos of him dumping correspondence, including constituents' letters, in a park bin were even more dangerous, because they invited accusations of bumbling incompetence, rather than political malice. The episode became a running joke with political journalists and will inevitably be raised as evidence of his 'judgement' if he finds himself in hot water again.

    9 - Chris Huhne

    The energy secretary has developed a reputation as the troublemaker in chief among

    Read More »from The worst political losers of 2011
  • Here's's guide to the biggest winners of the year in politics:

    10 - Andy Burnham

    Andy Burnham was the forgotten man of Labour's leadership election. He came fourth in the end, having failed to dispel an air of pointlessness which hovered over his campaign. But apart from Ed Balls, who arguably saved his career, Burnham was the losing candidate who used the contest to greatest effect. While David Miliband melted into the shadows and Diane Abbott failed to capitalise on her increased public profile, the former health secretary nabbed the shadow education brief, in which he excelled against the turbulent Michael Gove. A few months later he was replacing the competent John Healey, who had good reason to feel hard-done-by, in the most politically profitable role in opposition: shadow health secretary. Burnham, who had become intensely popular in the party, is now taking the fought to Andrew Lansley over NHS reform — a winnable battle in which serious political profits can be

    Read More »from The biggest political winners of 2011


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