Saturday, September 27, 2014

The man is obscuring the message

My take on a less than satisfactory week for Labour's Ed Miliband.  From today's Journal.

While on a personal level I was relieved at the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, there can be no doubt what the more interesting result from a journalistic point of view would have been.

The counterfactual question ‘What would have happened if the Scots had voted Yes?’ will, I suspect, become as moot a debating point in years to come as ‘What would have happened if JFK had lived?’ or ‘What would have happened if Thatcher had lost the Falklands?’

My guess, for what it’s worth is that David Cameron would by now be an ex-Prime Minister, his status as the man who lost the Union having finally provided his backbenchers with the longed-for excuse to send him packing.

His replacement at No 10 would have been William Hague, one of the few Tories to command respect across the spectrum and a convenient stopgap for those seeking to block the claims of Chancellor George Osborne while keeping the seat warm for Boris Johnson.

And Ed Miliband?  Well, I suspect he might soon have been on his way too.  After all, had the Scottish vote gone the other way, it would have been primarily down to his failure to connect with Labour’s traditional supporters north of the border.

It took an eleventh-hour intervention by Gordon Brown to deliver Labour’s voters into the no camp, though the former Prime Minister remains such an unperson in senior party circles that Mr Miliband did not even see fit to thank him in his conference speech this week.

But of course the Scots voted no, and both Mr Cameron and his Labour opposite number lived to fight another day, albeit with their reputations badly scarred.

And with the general election now less than eight months away, it is clear that both men face an uphill battle to convince the public of their Prime Ministerial credentials.

Mr Cameron, of course, has the advantage in this regard in that he is already doing the job, but he seems to be held in growing contempt by an increasing number of otherwise natural Tory voters.

His casual failure this week to observe the first rule of Prime Ministerial conduct – that you don’t drag the Monarch into politics – was seen by some as indicative not just of a lack of gravitas, but a lack of basic intelligence.

As for poor Mr Miliband, everyone I speak to who is unconnected with politics seems to regard him as quite simply the dullest man in Britain.

His keynote conference speech this week was perhaps his last big chance before the election to shift that perception – but sadly for him, it appears to have further cemented it in the public mind.

Perhaps he wasn’t actually trying.   Mr Miliband is smart enough to realise that the he is never going to win on the personality stakes and, rather than attempt to sell himself to the electorate in Tuesday’s speech, he set about trying to sell an idea.

This, encapsulated in a single word, was the idea of togetherness – a refinement of his ‘One Nation’ pitch of two years ago which aimed to build on the success of the ‘Better Together’ campaign in Scotland.

Of itself, it’s a strong message, if one that – like his £2.5bn pledge on funding the NHS - seems aimed more at shoring up Labour’s core vote than reaching out to those of a more rightward-leaning disposition.

But it all got rather lost in Mr Miliband’s torpid manner of delivery, while his failure to mention Labour’s plans for tackling the deficit handed further plentiful ammunition to his opponents.

If renewed faith in the concept of ‘togetherness’ was one upshot of the referendum, another was of course the revival of interest in English devolution.

Mr Cameron’s plans for an English parliament within a parliament met with a predictably dusty response this week from North-East MPs and council leaders this week who realise it will do nothing to devolve power and funding to the Northern regions.

The Labour leader, by contrast, spoke of the need for a wholesale decentralisation of power throughout the country in what in may yet become a major theme of his party’s election campaign.

In this, too, Mr Miliband’s instincts are entirely correct.   But sadly for Labour, the man is currently obscuring the message.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The English Question: Let battle commence

Today's Journal column on the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote.

AND so….as one of the big arguments in British politics is settled – perhaps for a generation or more – another, potentially even more fractious one begins.

Scotland may have voted no to independence on Thursday by what, in the end, was a bigger-than-expected margin, but the debate over what to do about the ‘English Question’ is only just getting going.

David Cameron will no doubt have been mightily relieved as he appeared on the steps of 10 Downing Street shortly after 7am yesterday to express his delight at the Scots’ decision to stay.

Had the vote gone the other way, the Prime Minister could just as easily have been announcing his resignation, such were the catalogue of tactical blunders which almost led to the break-up of the 307-year-old Union.

But it was not what Mr Cameron said about Scotland yesterday morning than what he said about England that was chiefly of interest in this part of the world - or, more precisely, what he didn’t say.

The morning after the referendum, in an impressive show of unity, The Journal joined together with its traditional rival on the news-stands to demand increased powers and funding for the North of England

Significantly, those now making the case for this also include the Tory MP for Hexham, Guy Opperman, who said on Wednesday that the region must be “first in line” for devolution following the Scottish vote.

But it is far from clear from Mr Cameron’s comments yesterday whether, at this stage, the option of additional powers for England’s cities and regions is even on his radar.

For all his talk of wide-ranging constitutional change, Mr Cameron appears instead to favour a rather minimalist answer to the English Question, namely ‘English votes for English laws.’

This idea, which would essentially bar Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters at Westminster, was part of the last Tory election manifesto but vetoed by the Lib Dems from inclusion in the Coalition Agreement.

But while this may be the solution favoured by most Tory MPs, it is unlikely to find favour with the Labour Party and will emphatically not address the “democratic deficit” within the English regions.

Indeed, without some corresponding measure of regional devolution, it would leave the North even more at the mercy of domination by London than has hitherto been the case.

The other big point at issue in the fallout from Thursday’s vote will be the future of the Barnett Formula, which still hands Scotland an extra £1,623 in public spending per head than the UK average.

The three main party leaders’ absurd last-minute pledge to continue it in perpetuity will surely - and rightly – be blocked by English backbench MPs.

The formula – as its creator Lord Barnett has long realised – has been out of sync with relative need for many years and is long overdue for abolition.

In any case, a genuine ‘devo max’ settlement for the Scots, with full control over levels of income tax, would surely render the formula unnecessary in the longer run.

But while this vexed issue will doubtless fill many more columns before it has run its course, it would be wrong to conclude this one without some mention of Gordon Brown.

If Mr Cameron, through his initial complacency and inattention to vital details such as the wording of the question, came close to the being the man who lost the union, then his predecessor at No 10 was the one who saved it.

In the closing days of the campaign, the former Prime Minister managed to do what nobody else had managed up to that point – to make a compelling emotional case for Scots to stick with the UK together.

By appealing to traditional Labour values of solidarity and sharing, he managed to stem the haemorrhaging of support to the Yes campaign that had briefly threatened to become an avalanche.

As others have pointed out, it is time for some historical reappraisal of Mr Brown, who as ITN’s Tom Bradby said yesterday, can now credibly claim to have saved both the financial system and the Union.

Tories may deride him as a “failed Prime Minister,” but he was not, he was merely an electorally unsuccessfully one.

It was his great misfortune to get the job in an era where presentational skills had become increasingly important, and sandwiched between two showmen like Tony Blair and Mr Cameron, those were skills he self-evidently lacked.

One thing he has never lacked, though, was passion.  And he certainly put it to very good use in the cause of keeping our country together.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The man who saved the union....and the one who nearly lost it

"Gordon Brown emerged as the only genuine statesman in this whole sorry business. He embodies the very qualities that makes the rest of the world admire the Scots: integrity, decency and an unshakeable belief in the ability of public service to bring about a better society,"

Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror.
"I think history is going to be pretty kind to Gordon Brown, a man who can credibly claim to have saved the financial system and the Union."

ITN political editor Tom Bradby on Twitter

"Even when rumours began flying that it might be a firmer no, you could still find Tory MPs wholly unable to forgive a leader who many feel did too little for too long, before panicking and doing too much too late.

"Cameron has resembled nothing so much as the husband who only remembers his wife’s birthday with minutes to spare, and then chucks a bucketload of cash at the problem while praying she never sees the credit card bill."

Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Barnett calls for his formula to be scrapped (again)

Poor old Joel Barnett.  He would no doubt like to be remembered for being an effective Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Callaghan government and for being, along with his old boss Denis Healey, one of two surviving nonagenarians who served in that administration.

Instead his name is forever linked to the wretched funding formula which he devised in 1978 as a short-term fix and which, 36 years later, still ensures average public spending per head in Scotland is some £1,600 more than in England and Wales.

Barnett has long been embarrassed by his formula and first called for it to be scrapped when appearing before the Treasury Select Committee in 1998.

In 2004, he went further, calling for his name to be taken off it.   This was reported at the time by myself and my then Journal colleague David Higgerson and our story can still be found at an online archive.

Now he has repeated his call in the wake of the absurd pledge by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to guarantee the formula's survival in perpetuity in the event of a no vote to independence in tomorrow's referendum.

He told The Telegraph: "It is unfair and should be stopped, it is a mistake. This way is terrible and can never be sustainable, it is a national embarrassment and personally embarrassing to me as well."

Lord Barnett is now 90.   Is it too much to hope that he may yet live to see his wish fulfilled?