Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: House of Commons

Ad Hominem, Mr Corbyn

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday August 4 2015.

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I had vowed that I would take a break from writing Colman’s Column until the Sri Lankan parliamentary election was over. However, I have been drawn into discussions about another election, the election of a new leader of the UK Labour Party. The discussions brought out a few issues about the nature of political debate and critical thinking in general, which also have relevance to the Sri Lankan polity. It reminds me of the depressing nature of the responses to Rajiva Wijesinha’s contributions to the Sri Lankan debate; hardly anyone provides a cogent argument against Professor Wijesinha’s points, preferring instead personal insults that would seem immature in a kindergarten.

Jeremy-Corbyn_3365555b

Surprisingly, the leading contender for the Labour Party leadership as I write is Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing MP for Islington in north London. Although an MP since 1983, Corbyn has previously shown no discernable interest in power or leadership, preferring to espouse human rights causes. He has been a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Amnesty International, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition. He has been writing a weekly column for the Communist Morning Star since 1983.

I have been a life-long Labour Party supporter. I have never voted Conservative and can envisage no circumstances (a huge bribe or severe torture might be inducements) in which I would ever do so. My sympathies lie with the left of the Labour Party and I would  be a natural Corbyn supporter. I sympathised with the views expressed by novelist Will Self in a recent TV interview when he said many young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn because he offered real socialist alternatives to the tired old middle of the road tactics.

Nevertheless, I have a big problem with Corbyn. It is the history of Islington Council and child abuse. John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, wrote an open letter to Corbyn about this and said that Corbyn’s behaviour in relation to the Islington care homes scandal made him unfit to be leader of the Labour Party.

From 1994 to 1997, I was a ministerial advisor on child protection for the Department of Health. I have seen the files. I know what was going on. There were serious and credible allegations that some care homes for children in Islington operated as brothels, with small children hired out for sexual abuse.   Islington Council doggedly tried to obstruct the investigation. The main culprit was Margaret Hodge (former minister for children – the irony!) who now chairs the Parliamentary Accounts Committee but was then leader of Islington Council. She was strongly supported in her obstructionism by Jeremy Corbyn.

The reaction from Corbyn’s supporters to Mann’s charges was disappointing and depressing. Someone whose intelligence, knowledge and compassion I deeply respect asked if “the author” had written a similar open letter to Harriet Harmon and Patricia Hewitt. Both were former leaders of the National Council for Civil Liberties who both became Labour ministers. The NCCL earned criticism during the Islington scandal for seeming to be sympathetic to the Paedophile Information Exchange, an organisation campaigning on behalf of child molesters.  This is what rhetoricians call the tu quoque move; in Northern Ireland they call it “what-aboutery”. The technique involves avoiding dealing with a specific charge by shifting attention to another alleged crime.

Others sought to smear John Mann by saying he was smearing Corbyn. They accused Mann of digging up ancient history to undermine Corbyn’s campaign. One cried in horror that Mann was trying to influence the vote – surely trying to influence the vote is legitimate in a democracy?

As recently as November 2014, Corbyn in effect lied to the House of Commons. He implied that, although there had been instances of sexual abuse of children in Islington, the council had investigated and done their best to put things right. In fact, he knows fine well that Islington Council fought tooth and nail to avoid an investigation. When a report was prepared, they blocked its publication for 20 years. Does the Labour Party want a leader that lies to the House of Commons? What is worse is the foolishness of trying to cover this up. It has been all over the internet for many years.

A Channel 4 report claimed that senior Labour politicians knew what was going on in Islington as early as 1988. Liz Davies, a social worker, became alarmed at the number of children coming to her with stories of abuse. Every morning there was queue of children outside her office. They told of sinister adults preying on children who were lured into private houses or abused in care homes. Davies’s colleague, David Cofie, reported his concerns direct to Hodge. Davies asked for more resources to tackle the problem, but Hodge turned the request down. Davies and Cofie continued their investigations and wrote 15 separate reports. Their warnings still went unheeded, even as they uncovered appallingly serious allegations.

It was Hodge’s successor as council leader, Derek Sawyer, who commissioned the White Report. Ian White was Director of Social Services for Oxfordshire. His report was a damning one and blamed the failures of Islington social services on extreme left wing culture fostered by Hodge and Corbyn. More than 30 care workers were involved in abuse. All but one went on to work with children elsewhere.

The White Report  was completed in 1995 and received a good deal of attention in the media at the time. However, the text was not published until 2014, in heavily redacted form.  Islington Council has been covering up for over 20 years. They shredded every incriminating file, sacked whistleblowers, slandered victims. One of the victims, Demetrious Panton, was sexually  abused from 1978 and his allegations were ignored for ten years. Margaret Hodge said he was mentally ill. He is now 46, a PhD in philosophy and a successful lawyer and, ironically, an advisor to the Labour Party. Hodge eventually apologised for what she had said.

Despite what he told the House in November 2014, Corbyn was deeply complicit in the cover-up. The heroes were the investigative journalists of the London Evening Standard who provided much solid evidence to the Department of Health, which enabled us to force Islington to take action.

At the time I am writing  this article, Corbyn has not responded personally to Mann’s specific charges. An anonymous spokesman issued an official statement: “This is a new low in the leadership election. Jeremy Corbyn has a long record of standing up for his constituents.” It is noteworthy that the statement makes absolutely no attempt to address Mann’s very specific points.

Corbyn promised social workers that he would pass their concerns on to the Secretary of State for Health. There is no indication that he did so. Rather than supporting fellow MP Geoffrey Dickens in his campaign to have the scandal investigated, Corbyn complained to the Speaker about Dickens visiting Islington. On February 17 1986, Corbyn called Dickens “irresponsible” in the House and asked him to unreservedly withdraw his allegations about child brothels in Islington and to make a public apology.

Home Secretary Theresa May has been trying to establish a wide-ranging inquiry into historic child sexual abuse. Two chairpersons have been forced to resign, one because her brother was  a former  minister implicated in cover-ups, another because she was a friend of Leon Brittan, one of the senior politicians under suspicion. The Statutory Inquiry opened on 9 July 2015, chaired by Dame Lowell Goddard QC, a New Zealand High Court judge who had no ties to the UK bodies and persons likely to be investigated.

Mann concludes his open letter to Corbyn: “Your carefully worded excusing of Islington Council in the House of Commons equally demonstrates why it is inappropriate for you to attempt to lead the Labour Party at the critical time of the Goddard Enquiry, as child abuse is the issue that will haunt this Parliament.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

UK Parliamentary Election 2015

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday 12 May 2015

 

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Neil Kinnock in 1983: “I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to be old.”

 

What if the UK had PR?

It used to be received wisdom that a proportional representation system for parliamentary elections led inevitably to coalition government. The first past the post system in the UK for a long time meant that either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party governed because of having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

In the 2015 election, the Conservative Party won a clear majority. Under a proportional representation system they would have had 90 fewer seats would have been forced into another coalition.

UKIP

 

Under PR, UKIP (the United  Kingdom Independence Party) would have been the third largest party in parliament. The Lib-Dems with their caring philosophy failed to soften their coalition partner’s policies. There is evidence that the Conservatives moved rightward  because of a perception that  UKIP’s xenophobic policies on immigration were popular. What kind of policies would emerge if the two parties were in government together? There is already the promise of stricter immigration rules, more cuts and a referendum on leaving the EU.

Coalition in 2010

In the 2010 UK general election, no single party achieved the seats required for an overall majority. A total of 326  seats  are needed for  an absolute majority, but because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats and the Speaker’s team does not normally vote, the real number has been 323. The Conservatives had most seats and votes in 2010 but were 20 seats short of the magic number. A coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was established.

During the 2010 election campaign, Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg was widely seen as a strong performer and his party achieved its largest popular vote since its foundation. Nevertheless, the nature of the electoral system meant they suffered a loss of five seats.

PR Voted Down

The Lib-Dems and their ancestor Liberal Party long fought for proportional representation in order to win seats in parliament that would more fairly match their votes. A referendum on proportional representation was a key feature of the coalition agreement. The 2011 referendum result was Yes 32.1% and No 67.9%.on a 41% turnout. Former Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown told the Guardian there been a “breach of faith”. He accused David Cameron of failing to disassociate himself from personal attacks by the No campaign on Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg.

Poisoned Chalice

The coalition has contributed to the downfall of the Lib-Dem party and its leader. After the 2015 general election, Clegg was one of three party leaders to resign. Although the Lib-Dems in 2010 presented themselves as being to the left of New Labour, they could not sustain that illusion while being complicit in austerity measures that hurt the poor while allowing the rich to prosper. The Conservatives claimed credit for what economic recovery there was and diverted any blame to the Lib-Dems.

Old-fashioned liberals might have hoped that with a long-delayed place in government the party might have restored Beveridge’s ideals in health and social welfare. The ideology of Ian Duncan Smith prevailed. The Liberal Democrats failed to make themselves heard in the row over tax avoidance, despite having pushed consistently to tighten the lax rules that Labour left behind. They were not able to defend the weak, the vulnerable and minorities, or to stop the privatisation of the health service. In his resignation speech, Clegg said “fear and grievance” had won, while Liberalism had lost.

Another Strange Death of the Liberal Party

Lib-Dem ministers came across as ditherers. This undermined the will-to-live of constituency organisers who had once been notable for their enthusiasm. In 2010, Lib-Dems won 57 seats; in 2015, this fell dramatically to eight. Under a PR system, they would have got 51. They lost their deposit in seven constituencies. Several prominent figures lost their seats – ex-ministers Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Norman Baker, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander (beaten by the youngest MP since the 17th century – a 20-year old student) , David Laws,  Simon Hughes (who had served his constituency for 30 years and won 50% of the vote in 2010) and former leader Charles Kennedy.

 

High Profile Losers

 

Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. For Labour, Gordon Brown’s hatchet man Ed Balls lost (by one percentage point) to a conservative in Morley and Outwood. UKIP leader Nigel Farage failed to win the seat at Thanet South (although UKIP won control of the local council). UKIP retained one seat; former Conservative Douglas Carswell was re-elected to represent Clacton but with a greatly reduced majority.  The Tory candidate at Rochester and Strood soundly beat another Tory defector to UKIP, Mark Reckless. The UKIP leader had increased his party’s share of the vote in Thanet South by 27%, and nationally UKIP’s vote share was up by ten percentage points to a total of 3.9 million. The Electoral Reform Society has modelled what would have happened under a proportional voting system that makes use of the D’Hondt method of converting votes to seats. UKIP would have been a force to be reckoned with in the Commons with 83 seats.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett lost to Labour in Holborn St Pancras but Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010 giving the Greens one seat in the new parliament. Under PR, they would have got 24 seats.

Whither Scotland?

After the referendum on Scottish independence, I warned a smug unionist against crass triumphalism. I said that, although the vote for Scotland to stay in the UK was decisive, the fact that over 40% of Scots wanted to leave the Union should give pause for thought. The SNP might have lost the referendum vote but they convincingly won the general election vote, gaining 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Under a PR system, this would have been reduced to 31. Gordon Brown’s once-safe Labour seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath fell to the SNP. The pro-Union Conservative party now has one seat in Scotland and the pro-Union Labour party has just one. The Lib-Dems also retained  one seat. The referendum was about a positive Scottish identity, rejection of the austerity that Labour had supported. The general election has confirmed a separatist move to the left in Scotland. The referendum did not seal the future of the Union. Resentment from Scotland at a Westminster government dominated by English Tories can only grow, as will English resentment at any preferential treatment given to keep Scotland in the Union.

Social Justice in the Future?



Cameron’s choice of personnel for the  new all-Conservative cabinet makes it clear the way the next five years will go and I am glad I have emigrated. Iain Duncan Smith has been re-appointed to achieve to find a further £12 billion in welfare “savings” and the Lib-Dems will not be there to stop him. While I am fully aware of the deficiencies of the Labour Party, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I could vote for a Conservative candidate. There is much despair among my friends in the UK. They fear for the future of the welfare state and the forcing of poor people, the precariat, into poorly paid jobs with little security. Under the coalition, food banks increased from 56 to 445. More will be needed. Public services will continue to be handed over to incompetent and irresponsible private firms like G4S. The NHS will continue to be auctioned off to private for-profit companies.

Even former Tory prime minister John Major said: “We need to acknowledge the fact we have a pretty substantial underclass and there are parts of our country where we have people who have not worked for two generations and whose children do not expect to work. How can it be that in a nation that is the fifth richest nation in the world, that in the United Kingdom we have four of the poorest areas in Europe?”

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