Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blair's last mission - to save Labour from the 'sons of Brown'

At first sight, former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn's criticisms of the Conservative-led Coalition's revamped health reforms this week might have seemed like routine political knockabout.

"The biggest car crash in the history of the NHS" was the former Darlington MP's withering verdict after Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg performed their screeching U-turn.

But closer inspection of Mr Milburn's argument reveals a rather more subtle agenda than simply Coalition-bashing.

For as well as highlighting the government's ongoing difficulties over the health changes, his comments also illuminate the continuing deep divisions within the Labour Party over its attitude to public service reform.

"David Cameron's retreat has taken his party to a far less reformist and more protectionist position than that adopted by Tony Blair and even that of Gordon Brown," Mr Milburn wrote in a newspaper article on Thursday.

"The temptation, of course, is for Labour to retreat to the comfort-zone of public sector producer-interest would be unwise in my view for Labour to concede rather than contest the reform territory."

This was, of course, an implicit criticism of Labour leader Ed Miliband for having allowed Mr Cameron to seize the reform mantle and supplant Labour as the "changemakers" of British politics.

And coinciding as it did with a renewed bout of internal Labour feuding , the timing of Mr Milburn's comments looked far from accidental.

First, there was the leak of documents purporting to implicate both Mr Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in a "plot" to overthrow Tony Blair soon after his third election victory in 2005.

Then the 'victory speech' that was to have been delivered by South Shields MP David Miliband had he not unexpectedly lost to his younger brother in last year's leadership contest mysteriously came to light.

If that wasn't enough, Mr Blair himself then plunged back into the fray, looking every bit the once-and-future-king as he broke a self-imposed four-year silence on domestic political issues in an interview with The Sun.

By showering praise on the Coalition for its education and health reforms, claiming they had carried on where he left off, he too called into question 'Red Ed's strategy.

"New Labour was the concept of a modern Labour Party in the middle ground with a set of attitudes orientated towards the future – and I believe if we had carried on doing that we would have won the last election," he said.

Asked whether Mr Miliband was right to say the New Labour era was over, he said: "It can't possibly be over, because it isn't time-related.

"It is about the Labour Party constantly being at the cutting edge, being a modernising party – always being full of creative ideas and isn’t pinned in its ideological past.

"That is always the choice for the Labour Party. It is the choice for progressive parties."

Knowing from past experience how these guys tend to operate, it is impossible to believe that this sudden spate of activity by the former Prime Minister and his allies was not in some way co-ordinated.

So what is Mr Blair up to? Is he simply trying to flog a few more copies of his book – or does he have a higher purpose in mind?

Could it be that the architect of New Labour is embarking on one last great battle to rescue the party he dominated for 13 years from the clutches of the "sons of Brown?"

The Blairites are back – and Ed Miliband had better watch his.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Archbishop was simply doing his job

Over the course of the last couple of centuries, the Church of England has frequently if rather inaccurately been caricatured as "the Conservative Party at prayer."

If it was ever true, it certainly ceased to be so in the 1980s, when the church's trenchant critique of Margaret Thatcher's policies led to it being dubbed "Marxist" by Norman Tebbit – although perhaps the "SDP at prayer" would have been nearer the mark.

Thirty years on, the church again finds itself again in conflict with a Conservative-led administration, and for much the same sorts of reasons.

Just as Archbishop Robert Runcie in the 1980s took the Iron Lady to task over her government's apparent lack of concern for the poor and for social cohesion, so his present-day successor Rowan Williams is motivated chiefly by the impact of the government's reforms on the worst-off.

It would be tempting to think he had planned his attack to cause maximum discomfort for David Cameron in a week which has seen the Prime Minister forced to defend his handling of health and justice reforms.

Not so. The New Statesman article in which Dr Williams launched his salvo had been long planned, as the archbishop was actually guest-editing the publication.

In one sense, Dr Williams was simply doing his job. What on earth is a national church for, if not to occasionally offer a faith-based perspective on the politics of the day?

But of course his is not the only interpretation of how Christian teaching should impact on present-day political debates, as Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols reminded us when he praised the "genuine moral agenda" driving the Coalition's reforms.

Dr Williams' intervention may even have helped Mr Cameron this week by diverting attention from his internal difficulties over health and sentencing.

A fortnight ago, in this column, I posed the question whether the government's health reforms, and the career of health secretary Andrew Lansley, were now effectively dead in the water.

The answer on both counts would appear to be yes, with even the Health and Social Care Bill's central proposal for GP consortia to commission local health care now in danger of being watered-down.

And Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was forced to tear up his plan to give sentencing discounts to rapists and other offenders in return for early guilty pleas as Mr Cameron made a belated move in the direction of Prime Ministerial government.

Ordinarily this would all have presented a gift-horse to Labour, but the party is beset by internal difficulties of its own.

Party leader Ed Miliband was generally held to have had the worst of this week's Commons exchanges with Mr Cameron and the muttering over his leadership is increasing in volume.

The revelations about Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls' involvement in a "plot" to oust Tony Blair from power in 2005 will hardly help matters.

Having read some of the leaked documents myself yesterday, I would say a more accurate description of what was going on was a bid to rebrand Gordon Brown rather than oust Mr Blair, but the damage has been done.

Ultimately it is not up to archbishops to assemble a coherent critique of government policies. It is the opposition's job to do that.

And until Mr Miliband and Co can step up to the mark in that regard, Mr Cameron can continue to sleep easily in his bed at night.

That said, Dr Williams' claim that radical policies are being introduced "for which no–one voted" is a very hard one to answer – even if those self-same policies are now being trimmed.

The question of legitimacy that has dogged this Coalition from the start is not, I suspect, one that is going to go away in a hurry.

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Does Ed need David back like a hole in the head?

With Labour leading in the opinion polls and the relationship between the Coalition partners growing increasingly fractious, it would be easy to make the assumption that these are good days for Ed Miliband.

And doubtless on a personal level they are, what with him having finally tied the knot with long-standing partner Justine at a ceremony in Nottinghamshire last week.

But as he returns from his short honeymoon this weekend, I suspect that Ed himself will be feeling rather less complacent about his party's prospects.

Any serious analysis of Labour's performance in last month's local and devolved elections suggests it is currently a long way away from being in a position to win power again.

Sure, the party did well in its Northern heartlands, recapturing big city councils like Newcastle after the Lib Dem interregnum – but it made few inroads in the Southern marginals it needs to win back from the Tories.

And as for Scotland and the party's defeat to Alex Salmond's resurgent SNP….well, the less said the better.

One idea increasingly doing the rounds at present is that what Ed really needs, apart from the operation on his adenoids that is due later this summer, is his brother David back on the front bench.

But while the return of the South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary would certainly make the Shadow Cabinet look more like a government-in-waiting, I wonder if it might ultimately cause more problems than it would solve.

The biggest and most obvious danger would be that David's return in a senior role would invite comparisons between he and his younger brother which would be less-than-flattering to the latter.

Ed Miliband is already being outshone by his namesake Ed Balls, who has taken to the job of opposition like the proverbial duck to water.

But the Shadow Chancellor and Coalition-basher-in-chief is not even popular within his own party, let alone with the wider public, and as such represents no real threat to his leader.

The elder Miliband is a different matter. Not only did a significant number of Shadow Cabinet members support him for the top job, a majority of Labour members did too.

If history is any guide, neither of the Miliband brothers will be the one to lead Labour back to the promised land.

Whenever the party has lost power after a long period in government, it has usually taken several goes before alighting on a leader capable of persuading the electorate to entrust it with power again.

After the fall of the Attlee government in 1951, it took the party 12 years before it found such a leader in Harold Wilson. And after 1979, it had a 15-year wait before Tony Blair came along.

Some think Labour's next Prime Minister is likely to come from the 2010 intake - with Stella Creasy and Chuka Umunna the names most frequently mentioned - although for my part I wouldn't write off class of '97 alumnus Yvette Cooper just yet.

Either way, if David Miliband isn't going to come back onto the front bench, it calls into question why he is still in the House of Commons at all.

For all his genuinely heartfelt commitment to the people of South Shields, he is a big politician who demands a big stage for his next political role.

The trouble is that, whether David likes it or not, there are still a lot of people around who would dearly like his next role to be that of leader of the Labour Party in his brother's stead.

And so long as that remains the case, the odds must be on him staying where he is.

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