Political Reform: Promises Lacking Promise

(Guardian) – IN THE PLANNING GRIDS and the morning broadcasts, it was billed as the day for political reform – the moment for members of a rotting parliament to sow the seeds of a fresher future. In the event, yesterday brought a dismal dose of Westminster business as usual.

While Gordon Brown and David Cameron and their baying tribes jeered at each other about everything except the constitution, real reforms to the Commons were being secretly strangled by the whips. Later on, the prime minister set out strong proposals to elect the Lords and modest ones to overhaul the voting system, but he has claimed to be a reformer before, and his words now carry little credibility since – after three years in office – he is going to the country with no progress made on either of these counts. The Conservatives, by contrast, are openly bent on frustrating progress on both. The country is being asked to choose between a party which talks bold but does not deliver, and one which does not even bother to talk.

Faced with the great tide of fury unleashed by the expenses saga, the Conservatives have felt obliged to devise some detailed schemes which they can claim would change the way politics is conducted. Like Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they are pledging to give people the power to recall rogue MPs, and the eminently sensible shadow leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, has devised a workable plan to allow voters to root out parliamentarians in those rare cases where they are caught with their hands in the till. But Tory and Labour traditionalists alike seem utterly unable to grasp the wider connection between our sclerotic institutions and the culture of sleaze. A bankrupt electoral system creates 400 safe seats whose representatives have no need to care a fig what local people think. What could be a more obvious invitation to skulduggery?

One thing that might be is an upper house composed of unelected legislators appointed for life. Channel 4 recently lured the Conservative backbencher, Sir John Butterfill, into marketing himself on the basis that he soon hoped to be free to serve business interests in the Lords. He got caught out, and so this one individual will not have the chance to profit as he had hoped, but his self-serving behaviour should not surprise – it is the predictable product of an institution which confers power without accountability.

The Liberal Democrats have long made such arguments against the Conservatives, and have made them much more consistently than Labour. But out of power for 90 years, their demands for reform only gain traction when they can work with others across party lines, and politicians are for the most part loathe to clamber out of their trenches. The great coalition of MPs that recently came together to endorse reforms to the way that the House of Commons timetables its business provided an impressive exception to this rule.

The question might appear a technical one, but it really does matter a great deal whether the governing faction continues to have sole control over what MPs discuss, or whether instead the power is shifted to the people’s representatives as a whole. Labour’s Tony Wright set out the case for reform, in plans which won cross-party backing on the floor of the house. But now, in a manner which only underlines Mr Wright’s point, the government is saying that there is no time to effect the house’s will. More enlightened ministers are sorely disappointed, not least because they are well aware that as they could soon be on the opposition benches, so it is hardly in their interests to bequeath a neutered house. They have, however, been let down by a prime minister who, when it really counted, lacked the bottle to back them in seeing off the forces of reaction in the whips office. He said yesterday that: “too much of our politics has been a closed shop … for too long”. It is a pity that, up until now, he has failed to find the courage of his convictions.

Intercepting Mail Is Worthy Of The Stasi

(Henry Porter) – The last days of this dreadful government are being accompanied by an attack on rights and privacy that seems unprecedented during Labour’s 13-year rule.

The government is now drawing up plans to amend the Postal Services Act to allow tax inspectors to intercept and open people’s mail before it is delivered. Given the state’s ambitions to collect all communications data this is hardly surprising, but we must ask ourselves how many more rights are seized by government and its agencies before Britain becomes the GDR‘s most obvious European imitator.

Currently postal workers have the right to intercept suspicious letters and packages and pass them to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and then at an agreed moment the item is opened in front of the addressee. The change in the law will mean that HMRC will be able to open whatever it likes without the addressee being present or being made aware of the interception.

As usual, the government and HMRC public relations people underplay the wide-ranging and dangerous nature of this proposal by insisting that the new measure is simply designed to deal with the problem of tobacco smuggling. But the change, disclosed in a document published with the budget, means that HMRC will be able to trawl through private mail pretty much at will.

Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Heather Taylor, a senior tax partner at Grant Thornton, said: “This seems like a very small and limited change, but it could be a very big step for increased powers HMRC. Once new powers are in the hands of HMRC they tend to be extended.”

This is a very alarming development, and it is worth remembering who the HMRC employees work for and who is paying the bills for the enormous waste of money by government that, together with the attack on democratic rights, is one of the dominant features of the last 13 years. They work for us, the taxpayers – British citizens who are now to be relegated to the units of control familiar to the East German authorities.

Years ago I found myself in a dismal room at the Stasi headquarters in the East German town of Leipzig and saw the piles of opened mail left by Stasi officers when the Berlin Wall came down. There was a pulping machine, adapted from a piece of agricultural machinery, which had been hastily used to destroy the evidence of the massive programme of interception. It was an impressive sight and to me a lasting symbol of the East German dictatorship.

It seems extraordinary that we are about to allow the exact same type of interception to be established in Britain with such little complaint. How long will it be before we protest? Where is the political leadership needed to assert that these sorts of laws are unacceptable in a democracy? And for Pete’s sake, how does the government square the measure with the rights to privacy “guaranteed” by its own Human Rights Act?

We Are In Danger Of Ignoring Britain’s Real Debt Disaster

(Charles Moore) – EVERY DAY, especially in this Budget week, you can read articles to your heart’s discontent about government debt. I am not objecting to that: government debt is just as big a problem as people say it is. But you read very little just now about the personal debt which threatened to destroy us 18 months ago. Yet it explains our unhappiness, and our poor future, just as clearly as does Gordon Brown’s borrowing. You have to put the two forms of debt together to see why we, as a country, as individuals, and as a political system with an election coming, do not know what to do next.

In 2003, which is now generally accepted as the year when policy in the Western world decisively took the path of profligacy, the mortgage debt of the British people amounted to £775 billion, or 68 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. This year, it is reckoned to be £1,253 billion, which is 86 per cent of GDP and works out at £49,000 per household. On top of that is another £340 billion of other forms of household debt, which pushes what we, as individuals, owe, to 9 per cent more than what the country produces in a year. All this debt is still growing.

People don’t talk about this much at present because Mr Brown “saved” the banks, and interest rates are almost as low as they could be, so immediate disaster has been averted. We have so far avoided the point at which hundreds of thousands of people have to surrender their keys to the mortgage provider and start sleeping rough. But when you consider that 43 per cent of all mortgages are now interest-only, you can see how precarious the situation is.

People paying interest-only mortgages are more like tenants than owners. The interest is like the rent. They have somewhere to live, but if they cannot pay each month, they end up with nothing. Such borrowers do not see it that way, though. If they were paying rent, they would not rush round installing new kitchens and carpets. But because they have been led to believe that they are owners, they do. Behind their behaviour is the faith that everything will come out all right in the end. Their house will become more valuable, so they can borrow against it for spending purposes, and when they get older, they can sell it to advantage (and without tax), buy a smaller place, and turn the difference into a pension.

These expectations are now confounded. Too much of tomorrow has been used for today. It is not certain that the house-price gamble any longer pays off. It is certain that we shall all have to pay more tax, that we will be less able to provide for a decent pension, and that things will be much tougher for the younger generation.

Yet public and political attitudes still have not adjusted. It is still considered a good thing to “help first-time buyers”, and Alistair Darling duly obliged this week by removing stamp duty completely from all houses costing less than £250,000. It was almost certainly an astute political move. But then you notice that first-time buyers are currently borrowing an average of between four and five times their annual household income when, to be safe, that multiple should stay below three. You can see the strain. And when you recognise that the rise in interest rates which must, eventually, come would expose all those interest-only borrowers to sharp “rent” increases on undiminished debt, you can see the danger. Such borrowers are a different version of the “sub-prime” which devastated America. It would be much kinder to help them pay down debt quicker than to devise new, clever ways of inciting them, or new entrants, to borrow more.

It is wrong to go on presenting the bottom rung of the housing ladder as an essential mark of modern adulthood, like losing your virginity or passing your driving test. It is foolish for the Government to offer equity share to first-time buyers when the housing market is, in real terms, going down. As with endowment mortgages and private pensions in the past, this looks like mis-selling. Indeed, in relation to money, you could say that all our politics in the 21st century has been a form of mis-selling.

Even now, though, we are gullible. Artificially low interest rates have made people think that things are looking up. The outlook is “brighter” for house prices, we read. As Spring comes at last, people linger longer at the estate agents’ window, unaware that the cost of debt servicing is already rising. It may well be right, because of our near-collapse in 2008, not to put up rates yet, but rates held down for too long persuade people to forget risk, which is why we got where we are. It suits Mr Brown to encourage that oblivion. Between now and May, he has to try to make us feel hopeful, when the truth, in exact reversal of the winning slogan of 1997, is that things can only get worse.

The opposition parties aren’t in a much better situation. They know they will not be thanked for preaching gloom. It is often said, rightly, that politicians need to offer hope; but there are times, and this is one of them, when hope can be only a distant prospect.

This is because, as this column has repeated since the credit crunch began, Everything is Different Now. For half a century, we experienced the “revolution of rising expectations”. That revolution went on for so long that the expectations outreached reality. The revolution of lowering expectations is only just beginning.

And it could be that revolution is the right word. At the height of our boom, it became fashionable to disdain economic growth. People forgot that the history of the world is one in which most human beings have had a very hard time. A social order which produces steadily, genuinely growing prosperity for most citizens is therefore a great and rare achievement. It was the failure of socialism to ensure such prosperity which lost it the Cold War. But if I were a Communist now, I would be rubbing my hands. The promise of liberal capitalism is that people are free to share in and accumulate the rewards of their labours, and that this, in turn, will help those rewards increase. For millions of people, this is now not happening. Every expectation of intergenerational security on which bourgeois life thrives is blocked. With the public purse as empty as the voters’ pockets, no political party can see the way through this. Ministers, bankers, Parliament have all failed, while looking after themselves comfortably in the process. So the conditions are ripe for a new politics of grievance and anger. Which is where revolutions begin.

A Happy Ending For The Ghurkhas? Think Again!

(Nick Cohen) – A CULTURE THAT PREFERS FAST FOOD to home-cooked meals and Twenty20 cricket to five-day Tests cannot endure the long haul of political struggle. Boredom sets in. Fickle eyes flick away. “Been there, done that,” we say, a crass cliché at the best of times that turns delusional when we apply it to a political world in which very few causes are done within a decade, let alone a news cycle.

For those who like their gratification instant, no story appeared more satisfying than the campaign to give Ghurkha soldiers the right to settle in Britain. The plot was so pat Richard Curtis could have directed it. A legal action, initiated by London solicitors Howe & Co, to compel the government to grant residency rights to some of the 36,000 soldiers who had retired before 1997 provided the back-story. The audience joined the action in April last year, when Nick Clegg demanded that Parliament do what the judges could not. He thundered at Gordon Brown: “If someone is prepared to die for this country, surely they deserve to live in this country?” David Cameron said the same, but Brown failed to listen or understand the public mood.

Even voters who denounced immigration were on the Ghurkhas’ side, reasoning that if Britain let in people who hated it, the government should not bar those who had fought for it. In Joanna Lumley, the Ghurkhas had a formidable champion. The daughter of Major James Lumley of the 6th Ghurkha Rifles served her family’s regiment well by confronting Phil Woolas, Labour’s immigration minister, at the BBC. She was glamorous and filled with righteous anger. She looked down on Woolas, a careworn and equivocating politician in an ill-fitting suit, and wiped the floor with him.

Her commanding performance was too much. Labour, whose back-benchers had already mutinied, gave in. It decided to do the decent thing and open a Ghurkha settlement office in Nepal. Its staff provide advice to often elderly men on managing the move to Britain, give them National Insurance numbers so that they can find work or claim benefits and help them fill visa application forms. All free of charge.

In the final scene, the victorious Lumley flew to Kathmandu where members of the Ghurkha Army Ex-Servicemen’s Organisation (Gaeso) cheered her until they were hoarse.

As far as the media and the public were concerned, the movie ended there. For Dr Hugh Milroy from the London-based charity Veterans’ Aid, the drama is just beginning. He is a battle-hardened officer, but nothing he has seen has prepared him for the homeless men who are arriving at his door. One Ghurkha, just off the plane, was mentally ill and could not speak English. His possessions consisted of two flea-ridden blankets and an equally lousy jacket with pockets stuffed with dog ends. He didn’t know where he was or what to do; in the end, Milroy and his colleagues had to find the money to send him home.

Milroy fears he will soon be overwhelmed by old soldiers. They have not gone to the resettlement centre for free advice. Instead, they have listened to middlemen, who are anxious to fill their pockets with a currency more valuable than dog ends. “I am deeply concerned,” he told me. “It is clear to us that if people who have never opened a bank account or dealt with our welfare bureaucracy do not go through the MoD resettlement service they will not be prepared for life in a strange land. It is utterly immoral. I’ve nothing against Joanna, but we’re seeing unintended consequences and exploitation.”

In Nepal, rival veterans’ groups are accusing Gaeso of doing the exploiting. No one disputes that it asks each veteran to give £500 for help the British government is offering for nothing, before sending him to see advisers from the UK law firms who have come to Nepal, including advisers from Howe & Co. Its lawyers told me they did not take money from Ghurkhas, but claimed the fees for the 1,500 people they have advised to date from the British taxpayer. Gaeso insists that the payments it asks for before the men talk to Howe & Co are “voluntary, not compulsory”.

£500 may not seem an inflated sum to readers from a rich country. But Nepal is poverty-stricken and still recovering from a civil war between monarchists and Maoists. When Ghurkhas add the cost of the “voluntary contribution” to the £500 they must pay for a British settlement visa and £400 for the airfare, many find they must sell their homes and land.

On Tuesday, the Commons home affairs committee will hear from Tim Heaver, a solicitor, who married the widow of a Ghurkha soldier and has seen middlemen take the money of his wife’s family. “Guys are putting themselves in debt who are little old men,” he said. “They give up everything to get here because they are told they will have the good life and find no work and long delays for benefits.”

A media and public that claimed to care so much about Ghurkhas in 2009 ought to be asking how they are managing in 2010. Relevant questions should include whether the Foreign Office should investigate if smart operators are relieving Ghurkhas of their money, whether charities such as Veterans’ Aid deserve public support and whether we should insist that only ex-servicemen who have received free and frank advice from British officials should come here. (The answer to all of them is “yes”, by the way.)

But the circus has moved on. With the exception of Sue Reid of the Mail, no journalist has shown the smallest interest in what happened to the Ghurkhas next, while Clegg and Cameron have found new distractions to stop the fickle viewers reaching for the remote control. The task of preventing a small outbreak of suffering on British streets has been left to Labour MPs. Backbenchers such as Martin Salter, who led the revolt against the government and is organising the home affairs committee hearings, are co-operating with Woolas and Kevan Jones, the defence minister, who wanted to maintain the status quo. Although they were once on different sides, they can sense trouble coming and believe they have a duty to alleviate it.

We will miss these unfashionable men in ill-fitting suits when we throw them out in May. Assuming we do throw them out, that is.

A Claim Of Patriotism Is The Last Refuge Of A Busted Government

(Jeff Randall) – THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN BOOKMAKER who, when asked how he is, likes to reply: “Sound as a pound, old boy, sound as a pound.”

As Britain’s financial woes mount, one suspects that he will soon need a fresh line in chirpiness because, far from being sound, the pound is looking softer than Mr Whippy in a heat-wave.

Sterling’s exchange rate is, in crude terms, a 24/7 opinion poll of what the markets think about Britain’s economic prospects. As currency traders fret over how honest the Government is being in its pledge to slow the growth of state debt, their enthusiasm for holding pounds is dwindling.

And who can blame them? Britain’s budget deficit, as a percentage of GDP, is the worst in the G20, with total debt expected to go beyond £1 trillion and reach 100 per cent of GDP. Call it redinkonomics. This, in part, explains why Britain must pay much more to borrow than rival economies such as Germany, France and the US.

A lower level for the pound is not all bad news: exporters can sell goods and services more cheaply to overseas buyers, without having to slice into profit margins. There are, however, significant disbenefits attached to a devalued currency: the increased cost of imported materials feeds into prices, which in turn makes more likely the need for higher interest rates.

When the cost of money rises, as it inevitably will, small businesses and homeowners, who are clinging to solvency only because their interest bills have been slashed, will be tipped over the edge. Near-free money is a quick-fix painkiller, not a long-term panacea. The economy’s deep-rooted illness – unaffordable spending, fuelled by excessive debt – has yet to be cured.

During his time in opposition, Gordon Brown delighted in taunting Conservative ministers over the implications of sterling’s decline: weak currency, weak, economy, weak government. He had a point.

Now, however, as show time approaches, the Prime Minister and his team of Subbuteo ministers are trying to suffocate debate on the flaccid pound. Theirs is a shameless attempt to position themselves as the embodiment of national interest, branding as “unpatriotic” those who predict that another dose of Labour’s laxity will lead to sterling’s enfeeblement.

Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is sent out by Number 10 to accuse rivals of “talking down” Britain. It would be easy to dismiss this as cheap-shot politics, but it is more insidious than that. In essence, Mr Brown is claiming that only his policies are aligned to the nation’s prosperity; any alternative is a form of treachery. L’état, c’est moi.

When Ken Clarke argued that Britain could “not afford” five more years of Mr Brown – a reasonable observation in the run-up to a general election – Mr Byrne snapped back: “We know they [the Conservatives] are suffering a loss of confidence, but trying to win it back by undermining confidence in the economy is reckless. It’s desperate politics and about as unpatriotic as it gets.”

This low-rent tactic is how the Government shut down dissent over mass immigration at the time of the last election. Those who dared suggest that the economic case for a huge number of new arrivals was bogus, while the consequences for population growth and social disharmony were serious, were smeared as “racists”. We must not be fooled again.

One man’s patriotism is another man’s treason, which is why David Cameron was unwise to invoke it in his conference speech last weekend. Now that the Tory party’s vice-chairman, Lord Ashcroft, has admitted being a tax avoider on his overseas earnings, the patriotism jibe looks like a nasty boomerang that is curving its way back to Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

That said, for Mr Byrne to demand that Opposition spokesmen should stop warning us about the dangers of flawed government policy is a step in the direction of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It would be an abnegation of responsibility for Mr Clarke or any of his front-bench colleagues to acquiesce.

Even The Guardian, broadly sympathetic to Labour, cannot stomach the argument for gagging shadow ministers lest they “undermine confidence” in the British economy. When the row over sterling’s slide first broke at the back end of 2008, the newspaper’s Mark Tran wrote a thoughtful piece: “Any Opposition worth its salt can hardly be expected to remain silent at a time when the Government is chucking huge sums of money around in an effort to find a way out of the current economic mess. As far as the pound goes, the shadow chancellor is doing nothing more than stating the obvious. In fact, he is behind the curve. There is already a run on the pound.” Precisely so.

Financial markets have little difficulty seeing through the assurances of a discredited administration. Disingenuous promises of solidity backfire, as was pointed out by Robert Johnson, a former chief economist to the US senate banking committee: “In trying to soothe markets, officials often elevate the sense of unease. Investors in uncertain times ask themselves: ‘Why do they feel the need to reassure us? Are they not just drawing attention to how anxious things really are … Is this talk a substitute for concrete action?’ ”

We all know that Mr Byrne wasn’t really talking to the markets’ heavy hitters – nothing he says is of any consequence to them. The true target for his comments were millions of floating voters whom he hopes to turn away from the Conservative option. Thus, it seems, the UK is now burdened with a Government that is viscerally committed to putting itself before the country.

Alistair Darling has pledged to halve the deficit in four years, cutting £90 billion from his annual borrowing requirement.

On paper, that seems like a reasonable shot at restoring Britain’s viability. So why are traders so jittery about another Labour victory? Answer: they do not believe that the current Chancellor would be invited back to Number 11 if Labour were to win.

The City fears – in my view, correctly – that, emboldened by a shock election victory, Mr Brown would ditch Mr Darling (who, much to his boss’s chagrin, is beginning to think for himself) and install Ed Balls as his next-door neighbour. At that point, the pound would go downhill faster than Amy Williams. The difference being: she won gold, whereas we would end up skint.

In the week that Michael Foot passed away, I have flicked through Labour’s 1983 election manifesto, a document that destroyed the party’s credibility. With its five-year national plan and promises of unilateral nuclear disarmament, much of it appears comically dated.

Then I got to the bit about how to pay for public spending: “Like any other expanding industrial enterprise we shall borrow to finance our programme of investment … Of course, once the economy gets much nearer to full employment, some taxes will have to be increased.”

Whether Old Labour or New Labour, some things never change.

Politicians And Voters Are All Colluding In This Financial Deception

(Martin Kettle) – HISTORY may never repeat itself. But it does echo. The combination of Michael Foot’s death and a mini-run on the pound this week stirred memories of a miserable era in British politics. The 1970s were marked by an unresolved economic crisis in which a weak government was trapped between suspicious markets and angry voters and unions. Plenty has changed since those days, but the 2010s look increasingly miserable and embattled too. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the mood of denial in the skirmishes.

We must say what the party leaders still fear to say. This country faces fiscal choices of an enormity unseen in modern times. The public deficit of £175bn is worse than anything most of us have known. As a proportion of GDP, it puts Britain in the Olympic league for developed economy deficits. You have to go back to the Foot-Thatcher era to find anything remotely comparable – maybe even to the Geddes axe, which cut public spending by a quarter in the 1920s. The present crisis may indeed be the fault of the banks, not the taxpayer, and the currency markets may be perverse to tilt at sterling on the prospect of a hung parliament. But a crisis isn’t less of a crisis just because it’s outrageously unfair or illogical. In many ways, the opposite is true.

Right now, moreover, Britain is going through a sort of phoney war that cushions us from the truth. Political realities still seem not so very different from those with which we have grown familiar. Public expenditure is set to rise in real terms this year. Labour plans for it to go on rising next year too. Tougher times may be just round the corner, but the highly fragile nature of the recovery, about which the John Lewis chairman warned this week, means that the fateful corner is still many months distant.

This phoney war begets phoney pre-election politics, which suits both sides. Labour and the Conservatives are deliberately opaque about what they would do afterwards. In both parties, the impulse to honesty battles partisan self-interest and loses. The argument has been conducted in a fog of fatuous euphemisms (investment versus cuts), or over epiphenomena – a law to balance the budget without actually saying how, arguments about whether to start cutting in 2010 or in 2011. The debate clings to comfort zones. All sides talk about efficiency savings rather than face up to service cuts, job losses or pay policies. The return to growth will ease the dilemmas, it is said, but the dilemmas are now and the growth is some way off.

The latest oasis of euphemism in which the parties have pitched camp is frontline services. “Frontline good, back office bad” is the current mantra. But where is the front line without a back office? If you want to see a doctor, you have to ring the receptionist. But if you sack the receptionist you don’t get to see the doctor. All too often “frontline” is simply a fuzzy, feel-good phrase that allows politicians and voters to collude in the deception that everything can be solved by squeezing out the bureaucrats. Gordon Brown made a speech this week insisting that the police must spend most of their time on the beat. But if that happens he will soon be employing more back-office staff to fill the gap, the opposite of a saving.

Things are made worse, not better, by ring-fencing. We will protect the NHS budget, say Labour and the Tories. Quite right, say the voters. But Plato pointed out that what the people want is not necessarily what is good for the state. The NHS is the single largest slice of the public-spending cake – one tax pound in every six goes on health. Ruling the NHS off-limits means deeper cuts everywhere else when the unmentionable time finally comes – except that schools and the police have been designated untouchable too, along with overseas aid. The more you ring-fence the big-ticket items such as health, pensions, benefits and defence, the more you have to axe the smaller ones – fire services, libraries, environmental protection and the arts – at which point everyone suddenly discovers that these services were much more popular than everyone assumed. “Save the local library” becomes tomorrow’s equivalent of the “Save the local post office” of yesteryear.

Politicians need to be straight about the fix we are in. The increasingly respected Alistair Darling could give a lead in his March budget. We have paid out billions to keep the financial sector working, and the financial sector has stopped generating the taxes that kept the public services afloat. It was the peacetime equivalent of a war for survival. Now we all, led by the bankers, have to pay our share of the bill. In private this is widely understood – in public too, as local authorities are increasingly signalling. Nationally, this means higher taxes or spending cuts, probably both. If there is a hung parliament, and the market vultures threaten, it may mean a grand coalition government. No party wants to face any of this, hence the cautious mutual circling in the fog of euphemism. But the less that is said now, the higher the price later, both fiscally and politically. None of this is good for politics or government.

So let us have an election debate about real options, not phoney ones. Let us talk about the relative balance between higher taxes and lower spending – but don’t pretend that the whole answer lies in one rather than the other, or that the higher taxes won’t fall on people of average earnings as well as on wicked bankers. And let us debate the best approach to cutting expenditure. Should we, like Sweden, say that nothing is ring-fenced and cut every budget, the NHS included, by the same amount – 5% or 10% or whatever? There is a rough-and-ready equality of suffering there which might make that approach easier to sell. Or do we, as Canada did, take large strategic decisions to slash some big-ticket budgets – which could mean means-testing some benefits, scrapping the prison-building programme, scaling back the navy and cutting doctors’ salaries.

Either way, let us get serious. In California this winter, Arnold Schwarzenegger floated the possibility of passing a law to reverse the current shares of the state budget that go on prisons and universities. In the 1980s, prisons got 4% and universities 11%. Today the figures are 9.5% and 5.7%. It is hard to think of a more dramatic way of posing the question of whether a society has got its priorities right. OK, the governor has a gimmicky way of posing spending choices. But it is exactly the kind of primary-coloured political argument about priorities that we so badly lack here. And it is the one we desperately need in the coming weeks.

IFE: Not Harmless Democrats

(Andrew Gilligan) – WHEN WE AT CHANNEL 4 set out to make our Dispatches programme on the fundamentalist Islamic Forum of Europe, we could almost have written the complaints in advance. And that, it turns out, is precisely what our new friends in the IFE did.

As early as 22 February, according to emails kindly leaked to us by our IFE snouts, they were circulating sizzling, oven-ready template letters (“I write to express my disgust and disappointment at Channel 4’s wholly inaccurate and defamatory accusations … The documentary is Islamophobic in nature … uses emotive and provocative language … is part of a series of organised, vindictive and orchestrated witch-hunts”) about a programme still nearly a week from air.

Fascinatingly, the IFE’s response since the actual broadcast has been much more muted. Perhaps the unequivocal statement by the local Labour MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, that they have infiltrated his party; or the squirming refusal of the local Labour council leader, Lutfur Rahman, to deny it; or the 110% growth in Labour members in the area in two years, many of them with the same names as people we can link to the IFE – perhaps these have silenced a few of those concerns about “inaccuracy.”

Perhaps our unemotive, factual quotation from original IFE documents has helped still those complaints about “defamation” and “vindictiveness”. Such as, for instance, the transcript of a 2009 recruit training course where the organisation tells its new members: “Our goal is not simply to invite people and give da’wah [call to the faith]. Our goal is to create the True Believer, to then mobilise those believers into an organised force for change who will carry out da’wah, hisbah [enforcement of Islamic law] and jihad [struggle]. This will lead to social change and iqamatud-Deen [an Islamic social, economic and political order].”

Or the leaflet where the IFE tells us that it is dedicated to changing the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed … from ignorance to Islam.” Or the document where the IFE says it “strives for the establishment of a global [my italics] society, the Khilafah … comprised of individuals who live by the principles of … the Shari’ah.” The IFE’s “primary work” to create this state, the document goes on, “is in Europe [my italics] because it is this continent, despite all the furore about its achievements, which has a moral and spiritual vacuum.”

Life in the IFE’s Islamic social and political order would be different from the way it is now. “Protect yourselves from all types of haram [forbidden things] … music, TV, and freemixing with women in that which is not necessary” the IFE recruits are told. “Democracy, if it means at the expense of not implementing the sharia, of course no one agrees with that,” says the IFE’s community affairs coordinator, Azad Ali.

Inayat Bunglawala’s attempt, therefore, to claim in this space yesterday that the IFE are merely regular Muslims seeking “democratic engagement” is hopeless. The IFE’s enmity to democracy comes from their own lips.

I have no objection at all to the IFE engaging in the political process in support of their views – so long as they are honest about them. But I very much object to what they are actually doing: concealing those views to win significant and growing power over their community through democratic, secular parties whose values are diametrically opposed to theirs.

The IFE’s deceit is borne of necessity. For all their claims that any attack on them is an attack on Islam itself, they know that their support among Muslims is small – as shown in our documentary, where Muslim Londoner after Muslim Londoner lined up to express their outrage at the IFE’s presumptuousness as much as at its views. The fact that fully 70% of our interviewees were Muslim should answer any charge that this was an “Islamophobic” programme.

My Muslim friends and I believe in a world that is, in Louis MacNeice‘s fine words, “incorrigibly plural”. We see no reason why we should have to be defined by our faith, unless we want to be. Like the poet, we feel the drunkenness of things being various. The cold Islamic supremacists of the IFE are the enemies not just of democracy, but of multiculturalism and pluralism itself. Their indulgence by the political system is one of the hidden scandals of our time.