On Labour and immigration

This article appeared in the London Evening Standard

Labour is wrong to scapegoat immigrants

8 June 2010

One of the best things about the new politics is that it is less and less reserved for white Anglo-Saxons.

David Cameron copies President Sarkozy and puts a Muslim woman, Sayeeda Warsi, in his Cabinet. Nick Clegg has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife. Labour's new intake is full of able Muslim women MPs from London, Birmingham and Bolton. In west London, with its big Polish community, Labour did well in Hammersmith and Ealing. Overall, Labour scored in post-modern multi-cultural cities where foreigners are seen as a source of energy, not a threat.

Yet for some wannabe Labour leaders, it's the immigrants who are to blame for losing the election. It's nice, convenient — and utterly wrong.

No one ever stopped a white Briton from working as a bus conductor or a white English woman from becoming a nurse. No one has ever prevented white Britons from being construction workers but somehow, over more than a century, we have imported millions of Irishmen to do this work.

Even today the biggest group of EU non-British workers on the London Olympics site are Irish. And yes, among them will be some who work the benefits system and repatriate their benefits to Ireland.

Should we re-open EU treaties to deal with this abuse? I wish any minister luck in Dublin as he explains to the Irish why European rules on free movement of people need to be revised. The French have long complained about the 500,000 Brits living in France fiddling benefits for children back home. And let's hope no Spanish politician starts to beat up on the 900,000 Brits living in Spain of whom, at last count, about 90 had learned any Spanish.

Britain has always known how to reduce the number of non-Brits coming to work in Britain. It is called mass unemployment. The Tories are right to say there were fewer Europeans coming to work in Britain when they were last in power. The reason was four million unemployed at the height of Thatcherism. Instead, we had the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet generation of British workers who headed off to booming Germany to undercut German unions by working for lower wages on their building sites.

The Polish workers who came to Britain after 2004 did so because Gordon Brown, advised by Ed Balls, had shaped Europe's most dynamic economy. Britain created more new companies and needed more new labour than every other EU member state between 1997 and 2007.

Already there are more East Europeans leaving than coming to Britain as the recession bites and as the sharply devalued pound means wages are worth 30 per cent less when sent home as zlotys or crowns.

Meanwhile, the private rented sector has enjoyed a boom, as has the Catholic Church, whose churches fill up with believers. Fruit that otherwise would rot in East Anglia has been picked so that British strawberries are on sale at Tesco. Our cars are hand-washed for a fiver and our Caffè Neros are open 18 hours a day.

Powellism-lite is dead-end politics. Britain and Labour are internationalist or we shrivel to irrelevance. The Tory cap on skilled workers from outside the EU is pure protectionism. Labour should think long and hard before indulging in anti-immigrant populism.

Georgia's elections: the birth of a young European democracy

This comment appeared on the Open Democracy website

Georgia's Promising Elections

9 June 2010

The recent local elections in Georgia were deemed “free and fair”, but the opposition remains fragmented. Parliament is the proper forum for moving towards mature democracy, says Denis MacShane, but the world should not forget Georgia and its troubled relationship with its northern neighbour, Russia.

When I turned to the BBC’s World news website on 30 May, expecting to see how the local elections in Georgia were progressing, it was with some trepidation.

Tbilisi held its first ever direct elections to the post of Mayor of Tbilisi – one of President Saakashvili’s key democratic reforms – as well as regular local municipal polls.

It was the first test of national support for the much-criticised Saakashvili since the war of August 2008; but, more importantly, it was a test for democracy in an ex-Soviet state, which is rightly looking to be a Western democracy.

There was nothing on the website, it was not news – at least not in the UK. In a way it was a good thing that the Tbilisi elections did not make news: it was a sign that things were running smoothly and without scandal. But I also believe it is a shame, because these albeit local elections have much bigger significance for emerging democracies in Europe and around the world.

Good news is often “not news”. Even the pro-Moscow Russia Today could not find a derogatory word to say about the Tbilisi poll.

On Monday a report by the OSCE democracy watchdog mission reported that Georgia had made “evident progress” in this year’s elections. As Dame Audrey Glover, the head of the mission, said: “These elections were marked by clear improvements and efforts by the authorities to address problems occurring during the process”. And the EU parliamentary delegation said the vote represented a “real step toward the democratic development of the country”.

The opposition parties in Georgia did not dispute the veracity of the vote and, yes, there were some minor “shortcomings” and allegations in one or two electoral districts. What election around the world doesn’t have them?

The key thing was that Europe declared the Georgia elections “free and fair” and that progress had been made.

The important point is that Saakashvili has clearly listened and learned from the criticisms of previous elections since he came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003.

Over the past year, Tbilisi has instigated a serious democratic and electoral reform process, including modernising the electoral code, increasing state funding for opposition parties, appointing an inter-agency task force on free and fair elections, engaging and recruiting more election observers, holding the first ever TV debate (as the UK has only just done) and setting up a parliamentary channel based on C-Span and BBC Parliament.

In all these reforms the government has involved the opposition parties and NGOs by inviting them in for consultation; but also appointing opposition figures to key bodies involved in the reform process.

People have been trying to claim that the “colour revolutions” of the ex Soviet Union are dead, just because in Ukraine five years after the Orange Revolution its hero President Viktor Yushchenko was ousted for the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych.

In the elections on Sunday 30 May the governing party of Saakashvili scored a resounding victory with 55% of the vote for mayoral candidate Gigi Ugulava.  Leading opposition candidate Irakli Alasania gained 20%.

Saakashvili cannot seek a third term under the constitution, so will not be contesting the next presidential elections due in 2013; but his National Movement party, which led the Rose Revolution, is still clearly by far the most popular cause in Georgia seven years later and in spite of some domestic criticism of his handling of the 2008 war.

But, while the Rose Revolution is obviously alive and well in Georgia, this is not a time for triumphalism in Tbilisi. One cause for concern from the recent elections is the lack of a strong and focused opposition in the country. Saakashvili has done a lot to ensure a level playing-field, but one thing he cannot do is make the fragmented opposition more popular. That must come through people like Alasania – the most credible candidate to the West – continuing to talk about policy, not personalities. He made some welcome suggestions to reform health care during the mayoral campaign and was magnanimous in defeat, declaring the elections “valid”, adding: “Tbilisi has made its choice”.

Last year’s street demonstrations in the capital, calling for the resignation of the president, failed. Then there were no other policies amongst the nine or so divided opposition parties. That is thankfully starting to change.

Georgia has always had a tradition of going to the street to get political change – that worked once under previous oppressive conditions – but now the opposition must focus on making their case in parliament, not on the streets. Some of the opposition politicians who have refused to take their seats in the parliament are starting to realise this. And that is welcome.

Parliament is the appropriate and most effective, grown-up forum for change in a mature democracy. Britain's new prime minister, David Cameron, and US vice president Joe Biden bravely flew to Georgia in August 2008 to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Georgian people as Russia launched its land, sea and air assault on this tiny nation. Moscow now feels it has won back Ukraine and it slowly regaining influence and control of the energy-rich Stans. Russia wants to close down the OSCE as a forum for democracy, human rights and election monitoring. Georgia's sturdy independence and progress towards European democratic norms remains an obstacle to Russia once again becoming master over the former nations of Soviet and Tsarist imperialism.

This election is a reminder that London, Washington and Brussels should not forget Georgia, even while all the reset buttons are pressed in the hope that the Kremlin is ready to lessen its zero-sum approach to foreign policy.

Call to end the war in Afghanistan and take the British troops home

This article was published in the Observer

Our soldiers have shed enough blood: it is time to come home from Helmand

30 May 2010
The strategy of sending patrols out to be shot at by the Taliban is needlessly
costing the lives of British troops

It is time to stop the blood sacrifice of our young soldiers in Afghanistan. In June 2003, Tony Blair initiated the grim ritual of reading out the names of the fallen at the start of each prime minister's questions. David Cameron's first words as PM at the Dispatch Box after the Queen's Speech were an incantation to the new victims of a war that is as unwinnable as it is unwanted by the people of both Britain and Afghanistan.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev described Afghanistan as a "bleeding wound". Last week, US general Stanley McChrystal called it a "bleeding ulcer". Britain has no general, no "master of strategy" as the inscription on Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke's statue outside the Ministry of Defence puts it, with the 21st-century vision to stop the blood-letting as officers and men are sent as IED fodder. War is too important to be left to generals. Unfortunately ministers past and present have flinched from thinking strategically. If the object is to stop Afghanistan from again becoming a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks, there are alternatives to sending out men on foot patrols to be blown up by hidden bombs or shot by snipers who fade back into the hills.

The new defence secretary is now known as "13th-Century Fox" after his colonial, quasi-racist rant about Afghanistan as a 13th-century nation. President Karzai is an obsessive reader of British and American papers. Liam Fox's patronising contempt has done serious damage to Britain's influence in Kabul. Instead of apologising gracefully, Fox blustered and tried to explain away his gaffe. But he did hint at a truth when he suggested that Britain should look to reducing its military profile in Afghanistan. Unfortunately this outbreak of wisdom was slapped down by the foreign secretary, William Hague.

In Canada, the Conservative government has confirmed its troops will leave next year. There is new thinking in the Netherlands, one of Britain's key Nato allies, where the government collapsed over Afghanistan. Nato has new duties to guard its Baltic flanks and ensure that the melting Arctic becomes a sea of trade and peace. It no longer needs to define its existence by occupying Afghanistan.

There is fresh thinking among Tory MPs. In the Commons last week, Patrick Mercer MP, a former commanding officer of an infantry regiment, made the point that Britain's terrorists were bred and trained in Yorkshire, not Afghanistan. Another Tory MP, the former shadow defence minister Julian Lewis, said Britain should create sovereign strategic bases in Afghanistan to support the government and ensure al-Qaida does not return, but stop the pointless patrols that are target practice for the Taliban.

Every six months, a new commander is sent from London to head the fighting soldiers in Afghanistan. These brigadiers rotate, so that, instead of fighting one six-year war, we have fought 12 six-month wars, so that future red tabs can punch their tickets. The can-do, will-do power-point style of the British army impresses politicians, and every visiting minister and journalist is in awe of these tough, sun-burnt, dedicated professionals. It is hard to say that they and their generals are wrong, but the time has come to put parliament and elected ministers in charge. The pro-war tabloids say they are backing our boys. They are not: they are backing the generals. Officers and men ready to criticise the campaign have no voice.

Diplomats and development aid should be redirected to Pakistan and India, as well as to China and Iran, to remove the widespread feeling among Muslim communities that this is Kipling's west again seeking to control the lives of people whose customs and needs they do not understand. The burning issue of Kashmir, where 70,000 Muslims have been killed since the Indian army took over full control of the disputed region 20 years ago, needs to be put on the international agenda. The White House is clearly looking for an exit strategy. Britain also needs to begin PMQs without a roll-call of the dead and maimed. We have done our duty. It is time to come home.

Appeal to invite Kosovo to the Council of Europe

News Release

1 June 2010

Former Europe Minister Denis MacShane MP has urged the Council of Europe to invite Kosovan parliamentarians to take part in Council of Europe meetings.
Speaking at the Political Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe in Paris (1 June) MacShane said members of Kosovo's parliament, including Serbs, should be invited to Strasbourg to see how fellow European parliamentarians discussed and decided contentious issues.

"69 members of the United Nations have now recognised Kosovo including all the world's major democracies and 33 Council of Europe members have recognised Kosovo," MacShane told Council of Europe members.
"The Council of Europe invites non-member states to take part in some of its discussions and allows non-state political actors access and speaking rights in some of its work. It is logical to extend the same invitation to our friends in Kosovo and I hope the Council of Europe can make arrangements to increase cooperation and contacts with Kosovo's elected politicians," MacShane added.