5 March 2009

Top 5 articles of the day

The Return of Morality – Tom Harris

Why not talk to the Lib Dems before the election, Mr Brown? - Vernon Bogdanor

How Alan Johnson could be PM - John Rentoul

Obama could be a great ally to a prime minister, but not this one – James Forsyth

Don’t write Gordon off just yet - Mary Riddell

What Gordons speech looked like

Labour is wrong to go after Fred Goodwin

This week the government stepped tentatively away from earlier indications that it might retrospectively change the law to deny Sir Fred Goodwin his vast pension pot of almost £17m.

Lawyers have already stated that the government would almost certainly fail to recoup any of Sir Fred's £16.9 million pension pot and have suggested that even an unlikely eventual success would take years and require a considerable amount in legal fees.

There is no doubt that this money is an obscene amount to be paid to a businessman who oversaw unprecedented failure and incompetence. But the government is wrong to make an example of Sir Fred Goodwin for short term populist political gain.

Ministers were certainly wrong to approve this deal – but the simple fact of the matter is that they did. Lord Myners, the City Minister who sanctioned the deal, is now under pressure from MPs and trade unions to resign. The minister admits he was involved in negotiations over Sir Fred's early retirement – which effectively doubled the size of the pot – but claims he was unaware he could have blocked the package on offer according to The Telegraph.

We step on to dangerous legal and political ground when the Prime Minister says he is willing to use all legal means at his disposal to overturn what is a perfectly legitimate employment contract. The reality is that consent has been given - the fact that the government might now, with the clarity of hindsight, wish that they had not consented to the deal is neither here nor there.

Additionally, at the time that the deal for this pension package was struck the Royal Bank of Scotland was a private company receiving no government funds. I simply can not support action that justified a government assuming the right to demand from private enterprise the return of money paid to former employees.

If we want to launch a wider debate about how such salary and pension packages are fundamentally unjustifiable then that should be welcomed. I find the huge sums of money paid to many, irrespective of profession, to be largely obscene and indefensible. But I am not convinced that this is the debate the government is launching with these actions.

Perhaps Sir Fed should voluntarily return some of his pension fund as a relatively small gesture to the thousands of workers on more modest salaries who will lose their jobs and their livelihoods as a direct result of bankers’ incompetence.

But aside from a plea to Sir Fred’s better angels all the government can and should do is ensure that difficult lessons are learnt from this debacle; reactionary rhetoric won’t erase the mistake.

The Government is wrong to bar the Dutch MP

The British Government yesterday banned a Dutch MP from entering the country for fear his incendiary beliefs would incite racial hatred against Muslim populations.

The MP, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, had been invited to Britain by UK Independence Party peer Lord Pearson to show his controversial film which links the Koran to terrorism and in which he labels it a “fascist book”.

Before leaving his native country he received word from the British Embassy in the Netherlands informing him that he would not be granted permission to enter the UK.

Mr. Wilders has called the move by the Home Office “cowardly” and the UKIP Lord who invited him has been equally vocal in labeling the decision as ‘appeasement’ of extremists. Those defending the ban, such as Labour’s Lord Ahmed have claimed that Geert Wilders presence in the UK would “create more incitement, and racial violence”.

The Home Office has defended the ban, citing EU law enabling member states to exclude anyone whose presence is deemed to threaten public security.

I do not believe that this includes Geert Wilders.

I think the first thing that must be made clear is that this man is a vile, reprehensible bigot whose beliefs range from the ill informed to the vehemently racist.

He faces trial in his own country for inciting hatred, and he speaks endlessly on the threats that immigration pose to his country, consistently condemning what he refers to as an ‘Islamic invasion’.

He refers to the Islamic founder as a “terrorist” and a “war criminal” and he compares the Koran to Mein Kampf for its ‘incendiary content’. He then goes on to demand an outright ban on the Koran.

Yet I still believe it is the wrong decision to prevent this man from entering Britain.

His views clearly have no place in the modern and tolerant British society Labour has envisioned in the past decade. Yet it is a mistake to ban this unsavory individual from entering the country for several reasons.

We have laws preventing the incitement of racial hatred – and if he should overstep this mark at any point whilst in this country I would hope that our authorities would deal with him rapidly and severely. However, until that moment let us prompt him to defend his ideas and debate his beliefs openly. We as a mature liberal democracy should feel able to put on display for all to see the intellectual bankruptcy of his beliefs.

By stifling his words we simple magnify them and empower him with a martyr status unbecoming of the man and of the beliefs.

Of course we must protect people in society from all those who seek to fuel division and distrust, but wherever possible and within recognised limits, we must always be on the side of free speech and free expression.

We must also establish a consistency in whom we deem undeserving of entering this country to air detestable views. Some have questioned the hypocrisy of the decision to ban Mr. Wilders when visas have been routinely granted to performers who have regularly incited gun crime and murder.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tactchell has claimed that "the Home Secretary regularly grants visas… to Jamaican reggae singers who openly incite the murder of lesbian and gay people”.

"It is double standards to ban Geert Wilders and not [this performer].”

So let us challenge Geert Wilders to defend his baseless views and misguided beliefs in a court of public opinion and open scrutiny. That is the only way we can tackle bigotry and hatred; pushing him underground only gives him a perceived legitimacy that he could not hope for nor gain when confronted candidly."

For all our progress, Labour must not take the gay vote for granted

Over at CentreRight this week Graeme Archer writes, in what Iain Dale describes as “a beautifully written article”, why he believes that gay people in the United Kingdom are naturally conservative.

The article is focused around the introduction of legislation to protect homosexuals from incitement to hatred, a move that Archer strongly opposes.

The argument that gay people are naturally conservative is a strange claim to anyone who is familiar with Labour’s record on gay rights. His argument is based on the pretext that, in facing discrimination and prejudice throughout life, homosexuals will learn to become self-reliant individuals. “You're fine. You're OK. It doesn't matter what they think about you, or write on some website: you're OK. You either develop that ability for yourself, or you will suffer. No amount of legislation will alter that, still the first and most important lesson any gay person has to internalize”.

He goes on to add that “the words of the people who hate us are real things, with power, in the universe, and I regret them. But their words are less powerful than our own quiet, confident existence”.

Of course he is right in the respect that the prejudice and intolerance that gay men and women face is real and vicious. But he seems to equate being gay and being a conservative with the development of some form of bunker mentality, where we develop coping mechanisms to deal with a world that would rather we did not exist.

I have clearly been under the false impression that campaigning for a free, open and tolerant society was the calling of those who face discrimination. Apparently, however, we are all to accept our fates with mute suffering.

His notion that legislation can not help eradicate discrimination is also somewhat of a mystery to me. Public attitudes do not magically liberalise over night. The Sun does not take a decided step away from antiquated homophobic attitudes because it realises the error of its ways.

Quite simply, legislation does matter and legislation does change public attitudes. Civil partnerships were a watershed moment in the gay rights movement; it was a moment where relationships could step out from the shadow of stereotypes of gay promiscuity and be celebrated in public. What the conservatives don’t seem to realize is that the progress we take for granted now did not happen by accident or because inequality was meet with dignified silence. It happened because of the consistent dedication of activists and campaigners, both within the Labour Party and within the LGBT community more broadly.

The primary thrust of his argument is that gay people in Britain are ‘small-C’ conservatives, but he can’t help but claim that homosexuals are “just as desperate for a Tory administration as our heterosexual friends”.

Now this is the bit that really perplexes me.

We only need to look at the Conservative Party’s recent record on gay equality to realise that David Cameron’s ‘shiny happy people’ fa├žade runs no further than Notting Hill.

The Liberal Democrats have claimed that, since 1998, 80 percent of the 25-member shadow cabinet team has voted against major items of gay rights legislation and that ninety percent of those eligible voted against the equalisation of the age of consent and 85 percent voted against the repeal of Section 28.

Among Tory MPs, 85 percent failed to vote for regulations passed outlawing the denial of goods and services based on sexuality and 54 percent polled in 2007 opposed equal rights for homosexual couples.

When David Cameron was a candidate for Witney he told a local paper that the Blair government “continues to be obsessed with their 'fringe' agenda, including deeply unpopular moves like repealing Section 28 and allowing the promotion of homosexuality in schools,” and that “Blair has moved heaven and earth to allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools”.

Cameron’s new party Chair, Eric Pickles has never voted on gay equality and Sayeeda Warsi, his Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, has accused Labour of “allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships”, and went on to denounce the “promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”.

Now I do not believe that that Cameron will walk in to No.10 and drop any pretence of a ‘modern Conservative Party’ in order to set about systematically dismantling gay rights legislation. But when he finds himself struggling for Tory support for his flagship policies we can expect him to use gay bashing politics as ‘red meat’ for backbenchers, buying their votes and undermining rights that have been won.

The real lesson from this article though is that Labour must not make sweeping generalistions of the political leanings of the gay community or take their support for granted. Despite the progress that has been made in the previous decade we simply can not take the ‘pink vote’ as a loyal homogenous voting group; we may be gay but we are also homeowners, businessmen and women, motorists, commuters and parents and we, as a party, will ultimately be judged on our entire record at the next election.