Wednesday, December 13, 2006

They will get him for this

This is Sir Jeremy Beecham, former chairman of Labour's National Executive Committee and hitherto one of Tony Blair's most loyal supporters in the party hierarchy. I once had a conversation with him in which I invited him to speak frankly about the Prime Minister, on an off-the-record basis. He replied: "I don't do off-the-record, Paul, I'm a member of the NEC for God's sake."

Well, now Sir Jeremy's loyalty has finally been provoked beyond endurance by the news that Mr Blair plans, as his parting gift to the party, to use the cash for honours affair as a pretext to sever its links with the unions.

On one level, it's a truly breathtaking manoeuvre, an attempt to turn a hugely damaging political scandal to his own advantage by doing something he has dreamed of for years. On another level, though, it's political suicide.

Earlier today, Mike Smithson posed the question on Political Betting whether Blair's union funding plans were a step too far. If he seriously hopes to remain in office until next summer, they are.

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GuardianReader said...

I'm not surprised that Beecham is up in arms. These proposals would wreck the Labour Party's constitution. Union donations are actually the affiliation fees of millions of union members. The unions are federal members of Labour.

The Hayden Phillips interim review already pointed out that a cap on donations would disproportionately affect the Labour Party more than any other party. Surely a cap on spending would mean that it wouldn't matter how much each party received, if they could only spend a fraction of it?

Cameron's view is that a cap on spending favours incumbent MPs who can communicate with the voters via their elected position. This fails to point out the millions spent by Lord Ashcroft well before the 2005 election in Labour marginal constituencies. Although a £100,000 spend in Derby North resulted in a bare 80 odd vote increase in the Tory vote (about a grand a vote), in other high spending constituencies Labour MPs were ousted by Tories with more money.

A cap on donations gives the Tories a financial advantage that Labour can never make up, and wrecks the Labour Party into the process. A cap on spending stops the electoral arms race (and the awful billboard adverts that serve only to irritate the public), and creates a more level playing field.

If Tony Blair wishes to sever the union-party link, he will regret it. Currently it is this money that is paying the parties' bills.

Gregg said...

On another level, though, it's political suicide.

But Blair's political career is already over. He's the Parliamentary equivalent of a zombie at the moment, only clinging-on to power because not quite enough Labour MPs were convinced that his staying was worse than his going by last July (something that had changed by September, hence his announcement that he'd be gone within 12 months). He can't pass any of the legislation he really wants to pass, at least not without risking bringing his premiership to an immediate end.

Even if he's harbouring some secret hope of one day returning to power in the wake of a disastrous successor (which both Heath and Wilson apparently hoped they might do), he's never going to achieve that within the Labour Party and could only hope to come back as the head of some ungodly coalition. This move gives him a legacy, even at the cost of ending his premiership a few months early; it allows him to finally achieve one of his biggest ambitions (evidenced by his stated belief that the creation of the Labour Representation Committee as a distinct entity in opposition to the Liberal Party, was an historic mistake) - the death of the Labour Party.

Blair has nothing to lose by severing the union link, and doing so will secure his vision of a political system dominated by patricians (and, seriously, what else are PFI, City Academies and Foundation Hospitals about, if not that?) and guided by a moderated Thatcherism.

RedEye said...

Not just Heath and Wilson, but also Macmillan. There's even an argument that his choice of Lord Home was (apart from enmity towards Rab Butler) guided by the hope of a comeback.

Paul Linford said...

There's something in that theory as far as Macmillan and Heath were concerned. Home was indeed widely seen as a caretaker and the Tory Reform Group was originally set up in 1975 with the express aim of ousting Thatcher and returning Heath to power. But you're wrong about Wilson, he never had the slightest intention of staging a comeback and would have gone much earlier had he won the 1970 election. He knew his powers were failing and he had become genuinely depressed by government's inability to solve Britain's deep-seated economic problems at the time.

For what it's worth, my view is that Blair too intends to leave the stage completely. Apart from anything else, he's planning to leave the Commons which would make a comeback as head of some Grand Coalition logistically difficult to say the least.

In addition, all his public utterances would suggest that he thinks that once you've been Prime Minister, there's nothing left to do in British politics. I think he's wrong about this, as it happens, and Lord Home, who went on to serve as Foreign Secretary, is a good illustration. But it's what he genuinely thinks.

Party member said...

Blair will NEVER achieve the death of the union link.The fact he even thought he could shows just how far down the delusional road he is........