The humbug of Halloween


Without wishing to appear unduly grumpy I can’t be alone in thinking that the Americanisation of our culture seems to approach its zenith or nadir (depending on how you look at it) at this time of year with trick or treating. And reflecting on this last weekend I’m inclined to think that surely we can do better than this?

And without being overly dramatic this is not simply a shame. It’s a tragedy. Halloween has a long and colourful history. It has been celebrated in Wales since pre-Roman times and like many of our modern festivals has been both a pagan and Christian festival rooted in the changing seasons and onset of winter. Today the the Welsh Nos Galon Gaeaf still reminds us of these early traditions.

My childhood memories of Halloween are mainly of ducking apples and the pain of trying to carve a face out of a turnip. I knew no-one who had a pumpkin in those days. Today Halloween now seems to last a month and is dominated by a dreadful commercialisation, trick or treating and a variety of outlandish costumes. I remain unconvinced that “sexy corn-on-the-cob” is an appropriate dress for anyone at any time of the year.
And the growth of Halloween has also seen the decline of Bonfire Night as a national event in our public culture and consciousness. I spent many weeks dragging a guy around the streets of Tredegar, hoping that my father would not recognise the trousers that had been stuffed with newspaper but can’t remember the last time I saw a child with a guy asking for a “penny for the guy”. Again I recognise that not everyone approves of some of this imagery but it is a part of our shared history in these islands.

Now I am usually someone who welcomes American cultural influences and certainly have never been convinced by those who would seek to create a false choice between an American or European future. I’ve never felt it necessary to choose. I like parts of both. Our politics has a lot to learn from America in terms of openness and accountability. Our wider public culture can learn a lot about citizenship and equality. But the suffocation of our history and the importation of a commercialisation that reduces a 2,000 year tradition to a cut and paste, takeaway and throwaway evening is for me probably a step too far. Here we have more to learn from our friends on the European mainland of the importance of creating and protecting a space for our traditional culture and customs.

Instead of this ready-made superficiality of Halloween I would prefer my children to enjoy learning of a festival which teaches us about our history and our own rich Welsh and Celtic traditions. Samhain, the Celtic New Year, is probably the best-known of our early traditions dating back to pre-Roman times. It was from this festival that our Jack O’lanterns are derived as is the tradition of dressing up, wearing masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts that may be thought to be present. It was Samhain that gave us much of the richness of Halloween and the associations with witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and various other demons. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes, leading to people lighting bonfires to frighten away evil spirits.

Today’s Nos Galan Gaeaf echoes these traditions and memories. A night when spirits walk the earth and where the ghosts of the dead will appear at midnight. In some parts of Wales, the ghost was often the Ladi wen (white lady), elsewhere it could have been the more frightening Hwch ddu gwta (tail-less black sow) that appeared. Again huge bonfires would be lit on the hillsides to offer protection. Today’s traditions of ducking apples also have these ancient roots with apples and potatoes used to celebrate the event.

I also fully recognise that my hated trick or treat also has its roots in this history and there are certainly well-documented traditions of groups of youths dressing up in women’s clothes with the girls in men’s clothing, wandering from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or nuts. In other areas young men would dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces. After chanting some rhymes, they would be given gifts of apples or nuts or if they were lucky some beer. These groups, the gwrachod (witches), again speak of the associations of visiting spirits and the dead. Not surprisingly the visits of these groups were taken seriously as indicators of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from the household. Again our customs speaks of an ancient oral historical tradition where these stories are passed down the generations as a community culture and not one supported by governments and the state.

So I would prefer to not allow our history to be packed up and resold as someone else’s modern tradition. My fear is that unless we are clear and determined that we wish to create a Wales that is not only prosperous in economic terms but also prosperous in social and cultural terms then this culture will become simply the stuff of history text-books and we will all be the poorer.

But rejecting these particular cultural imports of our American friends is not by itself sufficient. I remember Gwyn Alf Williams speaking of the importance for today of a country that knows and understands its own history and cultural inheritance. In Wales we can trace this inheritance further into history in a way that few modern nations are able to do. And remembering our past and reinventing our traditions for the present and the future is something that in Wales we have done for nearly two millennia. The key today is to not simply hold onto these traditions and customs but to reinvent them for a new age.

Constitutional reform for beginners


It hasn’t been a good week for Britain.

I wrote earlier in the week to express my disappointment with the latest draft Wales Bill. A disappointment that appears to be widely shared across political parties and the Welsh political community. I am yet to see or hear of any non-Conservative speaking up in support of Crabb’s lasting settlement.

The Conservatives are not natural constitutional reformers and yesterday’s vote on English laws is an example of their intellectual confusion on such things. Yesterday the House of Commons was compelled to vote for constitutional change which is again ill-thought out and will create far more problems that it solves.

I cannot believe that Welsh Conservatives danced happily through the Aye lobby yesterday afternoon, excited at the prospect of losing their votes on whole swaths of legislation which is critical to the success of their government and in some cases will help define this government.

And this creates a real lasting problem for the whole of the UK Parliament and especially its Celtic members. Stephen Crabb has indicated that he would like, one day, to serve in the UK Cabinet in a different role. Which is entirely understandable and in the past a wholly reasonable ambition. But which role could a Welsh MP now fulfil? It would be curious at best to see a Minister taking through legislation upon which they themselves could not vote. And if it becomes impossible for an MP representing a seat outside of England to serve in a number of middle-ranking roles in the UK cabinet then the chances of our MPs reaching the great offices of state become reduced, and the chances of a Welsh MP becoming Prime Minister are reduced even further. And this is not simply an issue for the over-ambitious backbencher. It is a significant problem for the future of the UK as a multi-national state.

And if the location of an MP’s seat is the defining issue in terms of the legislation they consider then why do MPs from England continue to sit on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and take evidence on issues which affect only Wales? Surely consistency would demand their removal?

The hard reality is that this measure does and will create conflict within the legislature. And that is always a bad thing. And it creates conflict in the process of law-making. Take the Localism Act from the last Parliament. A UK Act where different clauses and different sections applied in different ways to different parts of the UK. Some clauses has a UK application, others a GB application, and then others applied to England and some to Wales and England. In the current Parliament such a bill would now have different MPs voting on different clauses and different sections. Would English MPs have a vote on sections which apply only to Wales?

It’s probably true to suggest that there has been a sense amongst many English Members that the Celts get an easy ride, voting on schools etc in England and then free to complain about the decisions of the devolved institution in their own country over which they have no control and little influence. The real tragedy here is that this is a Westminster fix for an issue which is a UK-wide and goes to heart of the sort of state we want the UK to be in the future.

Now it’s not for people like me to dictate how devolution should work for English communities but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that where the UK Conservative Government has a radical and reforming agenda which is at once exciting and far-reaching is where it speaks of a northern powerhouse and devolving significant powers, budgets and responsibilities to groups of English councils. It is done with consent and without referenda. A lesson there for Wales. It would appear that were this agenda to be pursued across large parts of England then the demand for English votes in the House of Commons would become irrelevant. Here the future House of Commons would have differential responsibilities for different parts of the UK. No-one is advantaged and no-one disadvantaged.

I discovered last week a document that had been buried deep in the background papers for the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. The document was the Welsh Government’s submission to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee’s enquiry into the Union and Devolution. The reason that I mention it is that it contains almost the only intelligent analysis on the future shape and nature of the UK state that I have seen in the last twenty years or so. It is recommended reading. Honestly.

It is a tragedy that the UK Government has been unable or unwilling to publish a similar document outlining their vision for the future shape of the UK state. The constitutional convention appears further away than ever at a time when it is needed more than ever.

The Wales Bill – is this the best that we can do?


The draft Wales Bill is a timid little thing. It is clear from first reading that it falls far short of the Secretary of State’s rhetoric and promises. Far from creating the basis for a lasting settlement it is in serious danger of being yet another unhappy chapter in the miserable recent history of Welsh devolution whereby successive Wales Acts are passed every few years with each one conceding as little as possible only to be replaced by another within four or five years.

This cycle of failure is not the responsibility of Cardiff Bay but is firmly the responsibility of the Westminster system and of the Wales Office. It’s time for all those MPs who grizzle about the governance of Wales to put their own house in order and to provide the people of Wales with a settlement that reflects and respects the 2011 referendum and which ends the constitutional debate for a generation.

When the Secretary of State spoke at the National Assembly in June he gave a wide-ranging, generous and gracious speech. He reached out to Members, some of whom were suspicious and sometimes distrustful. At the time I felt strongly that we had a responsibility to respond in a positive way and to engage in a serious and far-sighted conversation about the future of Wales and the future of the United Kingdom. Reading the bill today I feel short-changed, let down and I also feel somewhat foolish that I may have been taken in by the rhetoric.

So this is a personal challenge for the Secretary of State as much as it is a political challenge. Is Stephen Crabb a man of vision who can bring people together to agree a comprehensive and sustainable settlement? An agreement which will bring long-term stability and clarity to a settlement which has been plagued by a lack of ambition and any sense of joint endeavour since before 1997? And an agreement which is an agreement and not an imposition? Or is he someone who prefers spin to substance?

We are told that the draft bill will now be subject to consultation and that the UK Government are open to amendments based upon that conversation. I, like many others, will judge the Secretary of State’s work by his own words where he has been clear that he wants to create a lasting settlement – “clearer, stronger and fairer”.

So far the omens are not especially good. The Scottish referendum started a process which was to culminate in an announcement of agreed new powers by St Davids Day. In reality the St Davids Day Agreement was an agreement within the Conservative Party. It reflected the lowest possible common denominator and the furtherest extent of the tolerance of Welsh Tory MPs. And as such it also reflected where power now lies in the Welsh Conservatives. And that is firmly in London with the Westminster Party calling the shots. It is difficult to see anywhere where the influence of the Welsh Assembly Party has driven the vision with the possible exception of issues over the name of the institution and its ability to manage itself. And if the Secretary of State is not willing to listen to his own colleagues what are the chances of him listening to the rest of us?

This draft bill does not form the basis for a lasting settlement. And this is not simply about playing politics ahead of an election. It’s only a few weeks since I sat in the Chamber and listened to Paul Davies telling us that any diminution of the current powers would be unacceptable and it was no surprise to hear of Sir Paul Silk’s disappointment that the findings of yet another commission of the great and the good has been put aside on the basis of what appears to be political expediency.

Most of us are tired of twenty years of sterile debate on the constitution. It’s time for a settlement based upon the principles accepted by the referendum in 2011 and then endorsed by most political parties in subsequent elections. If politicians are unable to deliver this lasting settlement then perhaps its time to create not another commission or committee but a peoples’ constitutional convention led not by politicians but people, representative of the life of the nation, but not tied to individual parties. Either this or perhaps the Welsh political parties should agree a joint statement which will form the basis of a manifesto commitment in next year’s Welsh elections. Either way it is time to put aside the old arguments and create a lasting settlement which reflects the settled will of the Welsh people rather than suffered the consequences of yet another inadequate compromise within a single political party.

Stormy waters in the Bay


It’s been quite a week.

The sacking of Jenny Rathbone as the chair of the All-Wales Programme Monitoring Committee is one of those political issues that from time to time causes significant disruption to politicians and journalists but without ever touching or troubling the wider electorate. These things are usually dismissed by those who wish to dismiss such matters as merely a subject for the chattering classes. Rarely is there a substantive debate on either the issue or what it represents. And this is a shame because quite often wider issues are raised by such things.

Jenny has a long reputation as a hard-working campaigner and as a forthright political figure unafraid to speak her mind on a range of subjects. She certainly challenged me as a minister over many aspects of CAP reform and food policy and it never occurred to me for a moment that she shouldn’t do so.

Her political roots are deep in the same north London Islington party as Jeremy Corbyn and she appears to share the same dissenting voice as our new leader. And this voice is important. The dissenting tradition has been a strong part of the culture and history of the Labour party and the wider Labour movement. There are certainly times when this tradition sits uneasily with the terror of the whipping system in local government, the Assembly or Parliament. Perhaps today the tradition is honoured more in the abstract than in the particular.

My experience of the Bay is that discipline is enforced as much by peer pressure as by an unexpected visit from the chief whip. In a small chamber the pressure from friends and from colleagues is far more powerful than in Westminster where it appears to be possible to avoid meeting a colleague for years on end. And whilst there is much uninformed comment about the power of the whip in the Labour group my experience is again somewhat different. There is no whip applied on matters of scrutiny and I have never been approached by the chief whip for a quiet word after a particularly bruising encounter with a minister. In the privacy of government I witnessed our current chief whip standing up for backbenchers and telling ministers quite clearly that it is job of backbenchers to scrutinise and to hold ministers to account. And to be fair this is something that most ministers understand and recognise without question.

So why was Jenny sacked for saying something on the M4 which is wholly unrelated to her previous role and for expressing concern on an issue where there is considerable disagreement within the Labour group?

It is clear that this has been handled poorly by the government and the advice received by the First Minister has led to far greater difficulties for the government than the original offence. Jenny’s views on the M4 are well-known and she has expressed those same views on many occasions. Ironically the Government has now appointed Mick Antoniw to take Jenny’s place. Mick is well-known for his opposition to the government’s proposals on the M4 and used an interview on Radio Wales to repeat those views on the morning of his appointment.

Jenny’s comments on the wider culture in the Bay and in government are perhaps more interesting. In general most ministers are quite relaxed about backbenchers opposing or questioning their proposals. I have certainly taken full advantage of Leighton’s patience on local government reorganisation and Edwina’s patience on the M4 itself. Neither minister has at any time questioned my right to speak out or to campaign on either issue.

But there does seem to be an increasing tendency of some in government to impose their views in areas where it is not appropriate to do so. I have already expressed my disappointment with the First Minister’s decision on this matter. It has clearly created some difficulty in the Labour group which was unnecessary and created a situation where members are now playing out these divisions in public.

Our democracy in the Assembly is quite young and it occasionally suffers from growing pains. In a more mature democracy such things would probably pass without comment. But our democracy is one where we are still creating a political culture in which dissent is not only tolerated but valued for providing a broader and wider debate. What is the point of backbenchers if it is not to say what they believe to be true?

And this is not limited to Labour. Plaid leader, Leanne Wood, sacked Dafydd Elis Thomas as a committee chair for making comments which in the Labour party would have got him elected as party leader. At the same time Nick Ramsay was sacked as a committee chair by his party leader for disagreeing on an obscure element of taxation policy which was subsequently dropped by the UK Government.

So what to do about this state of affairs? My own view is that the Assembly should adopt the same approach as Westminster where committee chairs are elected by all members rather than remain in the gift of whips and party leaders who use such positions as either reward or punishment as necessary. This would serve to strengthen both the institution and the independence of the scrutiny process.

The Programme Monitoring Committee, from which Jenny was sacked, is of course not an Assembly committee. The rules which establish the committee insist that the chair is a representative of the Welsh Government, although the EU legislation establishing the monitoring framework does not insist upon this. Like many others I was surprised to learn that the Welsh Government insist that the chair accept the doctrine of collective responsibility which is normally only applicable in an executive role. This is not an executive role it is a scrutiny role and that is different. An executive cannot scrutinise itself. The EU legislation is clear that the Committee  “should be able to make observations to managing authorities…and monitor actions taken as a result of its observations” which does seem to imply a certain distance or freedom from the restrictions of government. Perhaps the best approach now would be to amend these rules to remove the collective responsibility demand and allow the Assembly to appoint the chair. This would guarantee the independence of the scrutiny process which oversees the expenditure of many millions of pounds and would bring this committee into line with others in the scrutiny of the government’s actions.

Failing the Blaenau Gwent Test

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One of the few statutory task left to the Secretary of State for Wales is address the National Assembly on the Queen’s Speech and the implications for Wales of the bills and policies announced by the UK Government in its new programme.

This was a task that Stephen Crabb performed for the first time at the end of June. He spoke well and fluently, attempting to reach out, being generous both to the Welsh Government and to the institution. In his opening speech he made the case that the new UK Government would be on the side of the ordinary family – “Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the mission statement of this new UK Government is to help working people, to champion social justice, and to unite all the peoples of the nations. Through the Queen’s Speech last month, we announced our legislative programme to build on the important work we started five years ago, to improve the lives of everyone in our country”.

It was a remarkable statement for a Conservative Minister and in my contribution to the debate I set Crabb what I described as the Blaenau Gwent Test – “the test I will set you, Secretary of State, for the success or failure of this Government is what happens to the people of Blaenau Gwent. Welfare reform has already taken £30 million a year out of the communities of Blaenau Gwent. That’s not £30 million taken away from the strongest, the most powerful and the wealthiest—it’s £30 million that is increasing child poverty and leading to greater and more intense hardship than ever. If you are up to your words, and if you stand by the challenges you’ve set yourself, you will protect the poorest and most vulnerable and you will ensure that it is the wealthiest and most powerful who share the burden”.

It was a test that he readily accepted, in replying to the debate Stephen Crabb said, “The Member for Blaenau Gwent, Alun Davies, threw out a challenge to me about Blaenau Gwent. He called it the Blaenau Gwent test and I’m very happy to accept the Blaenau Gwent test. And just to remind him that under the watch of the previous Labour Government, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent went up 83% and youth unemployment went up 61%. In the last five years, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent has come down by 40% and youth unemployment down by 52%”.

It is fair to say that the first challenge for the Secretary of State in meeting the Blaenau Gwent Test was the UK Government’s budget in July since it was this budget that out the UK Government’s approach for the next five years. Predictably it contained a lot that appalled me. But rather than simply issue a press release I decided to ask the National Assembly’s research service for an independent analysis of how the budget would impact the people of Blaenau Gwent. I received their findings last week. And it is shocking.

In short, the people of the borough can expect to see a reduction in their incomes of around £33m as a direct result of the measures contained in that budget. Here’s the overview.

Budget impact overview table

In reading this, today’s debate in the House on Commons on tax credits is well-timed. And in criticising their decisions on these individual matters we also need to take issue with the Conservative ideology and philosophy. It is clear from this analysis that the Conservative UK Government is making poor people pay for the mistakes which led to the financial crisis. Those people who have least are being forced to pay the most. The people who have least influence on the banks are paying the greatest price. This is class war at its most brutal.

Stephen Crabb made great play of the compassion of the new Conservatives. Has he raised the impact of the budget on the most fragile communities in Wales with his cabinet colleagues? Has he argued to protect the most vulnerable families? Has he made the case for those people who are working hard at two or more jobs to make ends meet? If he cannot answer those questions then he faces the real acquisition that his approach is all PR and lacks any real substance. His words will count for nothing.

The cuts to benefits will increase poverty directly. The cuts to tax credits will increase in-work poverty. For too many people they will see no hope and no future for them and their families. The Secretary of State is very fond of quoting employment statistics when he is confronted with the consequences of his policies for real people. This research shows clearly that for too many people work is no longer the route out of poverty. By making work a less viable way of moving out of poverty the Chancellor has take away any realistic hope for the future for those very people who he claims to want to help.

Taken together with the wider reductions in public spending which will lead to significant reductions in public services this analysis draws a picture of increasing deprivation in many of Wales’ poorest communities. It also paints a picture of a desperate daily struggle for too many people. And in making these decisions, it is not only those who will see these reductions in their personal incomes that will suffer, it is the whole community. This is money that will be taken out of the local economy, from local town centres, local shops and local businesses. In attacking the poorest people this is a wider attack on the economical viability of the whole community.

After an over-long summer of looking inwards it’s time for Labour to oppose this government, not only their decisions but the philosophy that underpins those decisions. And to do so with a renewed vigour and determination. As this analysis shows all too clearly it’s the poor and vulnerable who need desperately a Labour UK Government and who pay the highest and harshest price for a ruthless Tory ideological warfare dressed up in reasonable language as economic and financial good sense.

At last. It’s over.

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How quickly we forget. I remember hearing the exit poll at 10.00pm on May 7th sitting in my car outside the leisure centre in Ebbw Vale. I remember my heart sinking. It couldn’t be right. And of course it wasn’t. The result was actually worse than it predicted.

In the count we walked around like zombies. I made a point of saying a word of congratulations to the Conservative candidate who was even more surprised than we were to see the exit poll result.

It was this sick feeling of defeat that I brought to mind when I voted. I also had in mind the very real anger that I feel when I see the callousness and carelessness of a government that seems to think little of the impact of its policies on people who are vulnerable and who are already terrified of what the summer’s budget will mean for them and their families.

I have already discussed too many times the rationale for my thinking on this leadership election and why I decided to support Andy Burnham.

Despite the excitement of an over-long summer I have seen nothing which has changed my mind. Andy can return Labour to power and to Government. Rooted in Labour principles and Labour values, he has a radical vision for the future but is able to turn the rhetoric into the hard reality of policy. His is the authentic voice that can speak to millions of people of their hopes and ambitions for their families. I believe that he can win the trust and confidence of the British people and he can reach out to all those people who simply weren’t convinced of us in May and are not likely to be convinced by us if we walk away from those fears today.

With my second and third votes I tried to vote for those candidates who I felt would drive change both within the party but crucially who also recognise the fundamental nature of the social and cultural changes that are taking place with our society today as well as the wider economic, technological, environmental challenges of our age.

At the beginning of the summer I was optimistic that we would enjoy an engaging period of active debate about how we as a party and as movement would face those challenges. I was also hopeful of a wider debate over the nature of social justice and a new approach to eradicating poverty in a country and a world that is trying to find a way of dealing with extreme economic and social shocks. I fear that I was one of those who argued for a longer election which I believed would allow us the space and time to find a way of articulating a different but compelling argument to that of the Tories who are now driving profound political change with a government that appears to be living in daily terror of its right wing. How could I have been so naive? I assume that the mistakes over the vote on the Welfare Bill remains at the heart of all of this but its all too easy to blame others.

My view remains that Labour is neither a protest group nor a pressure group. It is a political party that seeks to govern on behalf of the ordinary people of this country. It is only by governing that our values and principles can be turned into actions. It has been this basic truth that has driven our most successful leaders for a century. Nye’s admonishment to Jennie Lee over her enduring support for the ILP still rings true – “pure and impotent” is a rebuke to anyone who believes that we can ignore the feelings of the electorate who hold the keys of power.

And Labour in power has always needed to compromise. There’s nothing new and nothing wrong in shaping and moulding our beliefs and values in the face of the sometimes harsh reality that government forces us to face. Many people today today forget that it was Clem Attlee who insisted that Britain must have an atomic bomb. Not him a unilateralist or seeking to withdraw from an interventionist foreign policy. And it was support for this policy that led Nye to break Michael Foot’s heart in Brighton in 1957. We can go on through the stresses of the sixties and seventies. Perhaps the many people who have spent the summer happily tripping over themselves to attack Labour’s most successful leader in a century have also forgotten that Blair led the only recent government to have reduced poverty and inequality in some of our poorest communities whilst Brown also managed the biggest international financial crisis of our lifetimes. But i don’t suppose those minor details matter.

Following May’s election, we need to face some hard truths. And as hard as facing those truths may be – it will be far harder for those people we let down by not doing so.

And we need to be clear as we move forward after Saturday’s result is known. Anyone whose economic policy is based on printing money whenever its needed or whose energy policies are based on reopening the mines is not someone who is facing the same hard truths as those people who are bearing the brunt of Tory attacks. And Labour must not go down that route. Whoever leads the party, we must remain a credible opposition and a credible alternative government. We cannot sacrifice that credibility on the altar of political purity.

This is not an academic exercise. In Wales we will face Assembly elections in eight months. I do not subscribe to the theory advanced in some parts of the Bay that our UK Leader is no importance to us. We are a part of the UK Labour Party and the UK Labour movement. Wales is a part of the UK political culture and the impact of the new leader will be felt as keenly in Tredegar as it will be felt on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

I have already made clear my view that this Welsh election will be more focussed on the record of the current Welsh Government than any other Assembly election we have fought since 1999. And that record will come under a ferocious attack from the Conservatives with Plaid and the Lib Dems in their slipstream. We had a taste of that this morning with a thinly disguised political attack based upon a letter leaked by a UK Department of State. We can expect a lot more of that over the coming months. I only hope that the BBC will become more suspicious of such things. And the Bevan Foundation’s report on the future shape of Wales sets both challenges and an agenda for next May.

The argument that about 30% of the electorate didn’t vote Labour in May because there was no socialist option available to them is difficult to take seriously. The proposition that these people would then be marshalled into the polling station by a resurgent socialist insurgency urged on by late middle aged revolutionaries is unlikely. I’d prefer a strategy that reaches out to those people who feel that Labour may represent their family’s hopes and ambitions but feel uneasy about trusting their children’s education or their parent’s health to a government that they may feel is distant, remote and impervious to their fears or concerns. A strategy that seeks to rebuild trust and does so without hubris and without an assumption of power.

And whilst that may not be as appealing as revolutionary socialism, my guess is that it’s closer to the message that people were trying to send us on that spring day in early May.

The tragedy of Aylan


I hope that both The Sun and Katie Hopkins are deeply ashamed of themselves. Those words and the decision to publish them were both not only wrong but immoral. And this week those words have become haunting. Does Katie look at Aylan’s body and still not care? And what of The Sun’s editor? Does The Sun feel any responsibility for any of this?

The image of Aylan Kurdi has dominated the front pages of newspapers this week, including with some extraordinary hypocrisy, The Sun itself. The heartbreaking picture of his small body lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey is powerful and made all the more powerful when it first appeared on social media alongside hundreds of photos of smiling children on their first day at school.

It is one of the most distressing and painful images that we’ve seen for years. He could have been my son or anyone’s son. And subsequent photos of him with his older brother and an interview with his dad paints a picture of a happy little boy which helps make this tragedy all the more real for all of us.

His death is a direct challenge to the position taken by the UK Government and by governments across Europe. It is a test for Cameron and it is a test for Europe. And it speaks volumes of the crisis of leadership across our continent that Germany appears to be the only state that recognises the scale of the response needed. It is a crisis of morality in our society, in our media and in our politics.

In Aylan’s death I hope that we will all face, and try to answer, the question as to why are we so resistant to the idea of taking people to our homes and protecting them from extreme violence? Surely this is at the heart of our humanity and who we believe ourselves to be as a nation and as a country?

Our history is one where we have welcomed people to our shores and offered them the protection and support that they need and that we can share. Such headlines attacking the kinder transport in the thirties would have been inconceivable so why is escaping from Kobane so different today? Clearly the scale and the numbers are huge, but we are richer today, we have the experience of the past and we have the structures of European governance that we didn’t have 80 years ago.

This summer has been one where our screens and papers have been filled with the human impact of the wars in the Middle East and Africa. As we’d expect parts of the press have been most guilty of creating a an image of desperate people trying to escape war, slaughter and genocide as a threat to our holiday plans. But I can think of no part of the media that has emerged from this summer with much integrity.

Where was the public outcry when the article described above was published in The Sun? At what point did describing human beings as “cockroaches” become an acceptable part of our public discourse? At one level it’s possible to dismiss Katie Hopkins and The Sun as examples of the worst parts of the gutter press, but what of David Cameron describing people in Calais as a “swarm”? In terms of creating a national mood are they really so different? What is certainly different is that David Cameron should know better than to play to this particular gallery.

But why are we surprised? The events and coverage of this summer are not new. For too long we have allowed a debate on immigration which has been largely driven by anti-Europeans and the rest of the right wing all fuelled by their cheerleaders in The Sun, Daily Mail and the rest. And their hypocrisy when confronted with the reality of the atmosphere that they themselves have helped create is simply sickening. Rather than confront and challenge this debate, all too often we have run away from the difficult choices involved in taking on these arguments and winning a public debate based on principle, doing the right thing and our basic humanitarian instincts.

It’s nearly 70 years since Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language and it is striking how his invective against weasel words and opaque phraseology would be true today and never so true as now. We have used terms like “migrant” or “Asylum-seeker” as pejorative terms to disguise the real human impact of policies that have been pursued by the government in our name and on our behalf. The media have, either through idleness or intent, also made use of the same language to perpetuate a story that poor people who are risking everything to survive the horrors of Syria and escape the genocidal Islamic State are a threat to our lives and our communities. Again language is defining not only the terms of the debate but helping to create a nasty intolerant culture which has dehumanised both them and us.

And Alylan’s death is the direct consequence of this culture and this political failure.

And the political failure is profound. For far too long we have run away from challenging the rhetoric of UKIP and their friends on the far-right. We have become accustomed to the language of chauvinism and the fear and intolerance of those people who are not from around here or who are different to us. We blamed Eastern European nurses and African cleaners for the depth of the economic crisis because its easier than asking the really tough questions. It’s no wonder that we haven’t heard from Farage over the last few days.

The language and tone of the UK Government and particularly Cameron over the last 24 hours has been appalling. Ironically the UK’s approach to securing safety and security for people close to their homes is not intrinsically wrong or bad. But their failure to recognise that approach is a wholly inadequate response is criminal. My fear is that the reality of this policy is that it is driven by fear of the press and the right wing than it is driven by the desire to do the right thing

It is telling that it is Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon as First Ministers in Wales and Scotland who are making clear that both countries are ready and willing to play our part. The optimist inside me believes that is a further example of how the politics of Wales and Scotland are becoming increasingly different and more tolerant than that of the hot-house of Westminster. I hope that since some Conservatives, all the candidates for the Labour leadership and other backbenchers are also demanding urgent action that the culture of that place may change as well.

Given the scale of the media coverage of Aylan’s death it appears that in death he will be accorded more respect than in life. But it is a real tragedy that it has taken this little boy’s terrible death to galvanise European leaders to take action and to shame the UK press into silence. Why is it always this way? I remember witnessing at first hand the human impact of genocide in Rwanda and again in the Balkans. In both cases it took a public outcry over the deaths of thousands of people before politicians took action. As politicians we really must live up to the post-Rwanda slogan of “Never Again” and to make it real.

But let us be clear. Doing the right thing today means going beyond refugee quotas and protection of the aid budget. It means a determined challenge to those chauvinists who have stigmatised and demonised other people because of where they were born, their language or their customs.