Saturday, January 28, 2012

On this issue, it's the bishops who are out of touch

Religion and politics have always been a potentially lethal combination. It is way too simplistic to say they don’t mix. Actually the problems usually arise from the fact that they tend to mix only too well.

The question is not so much whether they do mix, but whether they should mix, such is the potential for rival politicians to extract wildly differing interpretations from the same religious texts.

The most infamous blurring of the lines between the two that has occurred in recent years was when Tony Blair declared that he would “answer to his maker” for joining the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Looking back, I don’t think he was really saying that God told him to go to war. But what the statement did reveal was that Mr Blair saw a clear moral justification for the decision that derived, at least in part, from his purported Christian values.

In theological terms, the former Prime Minister could point to some fairly heavyweight support for his espousal of the so-called ‘Just War’ theory, however politically inept it was to have expressed it as he did.

No less of an authority than the 39 Articles of the Church of England state: “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.”

But just as Christian pacifists have always taken issue with this point of view, so too has the question of state welfare versus individual charity been another long-running bone of contention among believers.

And it is this issue that pitched religion back into the spotlight this week, as a group of Church of England bishops attempted to scupper the government’s plans for a £26,000 cap on benefit payments.

The days when the C of E was ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’ are thankfully long gone, although it would probably still be fair to call it the SDP at prayer were it not for the fact that the SDP is also long gone.

So it’s not particularly surprising to see them endorsing what is essentially a social democratic position on welfare, highlighting the ‘bias to the poor’ that is found throughout Scripture and in particular in Jesus’ ministry.

But not all agree. For former archbishop Lord Carey, among others, the country’s £1trillion deficit, and the fecklessness and irresponsibility which he claims the benefits culture rewards, constitute far greater moral evils.

"The sheer scale of our public debt is the greatest moral scandal facing Britain today. If we can't get the deficit under control and begin paying back this debt, we will be mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren,” he wrote.

The theological arguments will go on – but what about the politics? Well, for my part, I reckon the Coalition has got this about right.

While I am normally quite content to see bishops and other faith leaders attempting to bring a moral perspective to bear on policy-making, on this issue they appear to have seriously misjudged the mood of public opinion.

Establishing a benefits cap at what is around the level of the current average wage will hardly be seen as unfair by the great majority of the population, although admittedly it will hit people disproportionately in London where housing costs are higher.

Even that, though, makes a fairly pleasant change from the disproportionate hit that the North-East and its neighbouring regions have had to sustain as the result of other public sector spending cutbacks.

The bigger political picture here is that, in proposing the benefit cap, the government is seeking not only to tackle the deficit, but also to appeal to a group of voters who are becoming seen by both main parties as the key to electoral success over the next few years.

Gordon Brown used to call them ‘hard working families’ – but they have now become known as the ‘squeezed middle,’ people who are working as hard as ever but whose real incomes have declined significantly over the course of the economic downturn.

The bishops and others will worry – quite rightly – of the risk to social cohesion in focusing attention on relatively middle-class voters at the expense of those at the bottom of the income scale.

But even they might have to concede that continuing to condemn such people to welfare dependency is the surest way to create a permanent underclass.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Too late for Ed to change the public's minds

So was it a political masterstroke as some pundits argued, or was it the beginning of the end of his leadership of the Labour Party – as two of the union barons who originally backed him for the job have claimed?

Opinions were certainly divided this week about Ed Miliband’s decision to come out in support of the coalition government’s pay freeze.

For Len McCluskey of Unite and Paul Kenny of the GMB, the move marked the end of Mr Miliband’s “bold attempt to move on from Blairism” and would lead to “certain electoral defeat.”

Others, though, saw the decision to accept the cutbacks – and take on the public sector unions in the process - as a vital first step towards restoring the economic credibility so crucial to Labour’s prospects.

Mr Miliband was of course following what is a well-worn strategy for Labour leaders – seeking to gain traction with the electorate by attacking their own side.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not started by Neil Kinnock at Bournemouth in 1985, but by Jim Callaghan almost a decade earlier in a speech to the Labour conference which later became paraphrased as “The Party’s Over.”

“We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists,” he told the comrades, burying decades of Keynesian economics and inadvertently paving the way for the Thatcherite consensus.

Mr Kinnock took it a stage further with his attack on the grotesque chaos of Militant-run Liverpool, before the tactic was perfected by Tony Blair, who seemed at times to want to define his entire leadership in opposition to his own party.

As Mr McCluskey was not slow to point out, Mr Miliband had initially attempted a very different approach following his surprise elevation to the job in the autumn of 2010.

His own conference address last autumn, which I described at the time as one of the bravest and most ambitious political speeches of modern times, represented no less than an attempt to refashion the political consensus on his own terms.

Fans of Yes, Minister will of course recall that, in civil service speak, ‘brave’ means ‘potentially littered with banana-skins,’ while ‘ambitious’ means ‘foolhardy,’ and so, alas, it has proved.

The largely negative response to that speech and Mr Miliband’s subsequent inexorable slide in the opinion polls seems to have persuaded him that a new approach is now needed, with the public sector pay announcement constituting at least a partial recognition that the argument over spending cuts has been lost.

But will it succeed in restoring his political fortunes? Well, on this score, it is perhaps instructive to look back at how those previous Labour leaders fared when they decided to take on their own parties.

Jim Callaghan, as conservative a leader as Labour has ever had in some respects, was simply not believable as a party reformer because of his previous track record in blocking Harold Wilson’s attempts to curb union power in the 1960s.

Likewise Neil Kinnock, who before dazzling us all at Bournemouth in 1985 had spent most of his leadership prevaricating over whether to support or condemn Arthur Scargill’s conduct of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

And so despite its near-mythical status among politics-watchers, the Bournemouth speech had less impact on Kinnock’s popularity with the wider electorate, as was shown when he was soundly defeated by Margaret Thatcher in the general election 18 months later.

Tony Blair, however, was different. Within months of becoming leader, he had made his direction of travel clear, venturing where all his immediate predecessors had feared to tread by abolishing Clause Four of the party’s constitution.

The public was convinced from the start that he was a new kind of Labour leader, and unlike Kinnock and Callaghan, they duly rewarded him at the ballot box.

It is often said of political leaders that what they do in their first 100 days defines them thereafter, that it is in this period that the public makes up its mind about them.

For good or ill, I think the public has made up its mind about Ed Miliband. And decided he is not going to be their Prime Minister.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Scottish independence won't be the end of the devolution 'process'

Back in 1998, a now almost-forgotten former Labour cabinet minister coined the phrase: "Devolution is a process, not an event."

They were in fact the words of Ron Davies, the architect of the Welsh Assembly who is now primarily remembered for his 'moment of madness' on Clapham Common and subsequent 'badger-watching' escapades near the M4.

But as the repercussions of New Labour's devolution reforms of the late 1990s continue to reverberate around the body politic, it is clearer than ever that Mr Davies was spot-on in his analysis.

Just as the former Cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell predicted in his series of 'exit interviews' before retiring last month, the future of the Union has suddenly become one of the hottest of political hot potatoes.

The extent of the Prime Minister's gamble in seeking to strong-arm the Scottish government into holding a straight yes-no vote on independence within the next 18 months should not be underestimated.

A less risky strategy would surely have been for the Westminster government to carry on doing what it has been doing to the Scots for the past 30 years, namely try to buy them off.

The carrot on this occasion would not have been money in the form of the highly-advantageous Barnett Formula of public spending, but rather the promise of more powers – or “devo max” as it is termed.

By handing significant financial autonomy and accountability to the Scottish government while allowing it to remain in the UK, the government would surely have satisfied all but a minority of pro-independence diehards.

But Mr Cameron appears to have eschewed that option in what appears to be an all-out bid to destroy the Scottish Nationalist First Minister Alex Salmond and kill the idea of independence stone dead for a generation or more.

His attempt to set the timetable for the referendum as well as fixing the question is designed to pitchfork the Scots into an early vote in the hope that they will reject independence.

But will it actually have the opposite effect? Will the Scots simply see it as yet more unwanted meddling in their affairs by a distant English premier whose party enjoys so little support north of the border it nearly decided to change its name?

If so, then Mr Cameron is going to look remarkably stupid before this game of political chess is played out. So stupid, in fact, that it could be he, rather than Mr Salmond, who finds himself out of a job.

The future constitutional position of Scotland may seem like a rather arid subject to those of us south of the border, but for the North-East, it could have some rather interesting political repercussions to say the least.

For starters, an independent Scotland would be more likely to compete aggressively against the Northern English regions for inward investment – an issue that has reared its head from time to time even within the existing Union.

The wider implications, though, would be in the change in political balance within England and the impact that this would have on traditionally Labour-supporting areas.

The secession of the Scots would mortally Labour south of the border, ending any prospect of it holding power alone at Westminster again and permanently shifting the centre of political gravity to the right.

The Labour-supporting regions of the North - whose political cultures in fact have more in common with the Scots than with the Southern English – may well then find themselves even more marginalised by the Westminster Parliament.

This, in turn, might well lead to a revival of interest in the idea of devolution within England, perhaps within a pan-Northern context this time round rather than individual assemblies for the North-East, North-West and Yorkshire.

My guess is that if Mr Cameron’s gamble does backfire, and the Scots ultimately vote for independence, it won’t be too many years before we see calls for some sort of 'Council of the North' encompassing all three regions.

Fanciful? Well, maybe. But devolution is, after all, a process, not an event.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Time for Labour to turn to its own 'Iron Lady?'

And so the new political year begins moreorless exactly where the old one left off…with Labour leader Ed Miliband’s long-term survival prospects once more being called into question.

The run-up to Christmas saw growing unease in Labour ranks over Mr Miliband’s failure to make more headway against David Cameron’s Coalition government, in what seemed like the beginnings of a whispering campaign.

Now that the season of goodwill is over, however, the muttering has broken out into the open, with Labour peer and former adviser Lord Glasman claiming that this week that the Labour leader has "no strategy and little energy."

And yesterday’s warning by Shadow Defence Secretary and leading Blairite Jim Murphy that Labour must have “genuine credibility” on spending cuts is being seen as another shot across Mr Miliband’s bows.

Lord Glasman’s comments were significant not so much in themselves as for the fact that they played into what is fast developing into an over-arching narrative about Mr Miliband’s leadership.

Perhaps his most telling point was on the economy, on which he said: “We have not won, and show no signs of winning, the economic argument…we have not articulated a constructive alternative capable of recognising our weaknesses in government and taking the argument to the coalition.”

He added: “Old faces from the Brown era still dominate the shadow cabinet and they seem to be stuck in defending Labour's record in all the wrong ways."

That was a clear reference to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, whose presence in that post is viewed by some as an insuperable obstacle to Labour’s attempts to regain economic credibility.

The ‘credibility’ question was also clearly uppermost in Mr Murphy’s mind as he spoke out the spending cuts issue in a national newspaper article yesterday.

Mr Murphy, who ran South Shields MP David Miliband’s leadership campaign, was ostensibly talking about defence, but the wider message was clear – that Labour needs to stop opposing every government spending cut for the sake of it.

Mr Miliband’s difficulties were compounded yesterday by a leaked memo from his press secretary Tom Baldwin claiming, somewhat absurdly, that he had led Labour to “probably the best recovery of any opposition party in history.”

And he caused himself further embarrassment by referring to the late Bob Holness as the host of ‘Blackbusters’ in a Twitter post as ill-advised as some of Gordon Brown’s YouTube appearances.

So having spent the last year trying to shed the hated ‘Red Ed’ tag, could this be the year when Mr Miliband becomes ‘Dead Ed?’

Well, it is interesting on this score is to see what some of the leading Blairite commentators are saying.

Although a lot of people in the party still believe the wrong Miliband was chosen as leader, there appears to be no great clamour for David to ride to the party’s rescue.

Instead, some of his former supporters seem to be latching onto the Brownite Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper as Mr Miliband’s most likely replacement.

Take this, for instance, from The Independent’s John Rentoul, perhaps the most influential Blairite in the ranks of the commentariat.

He wrote: “Yvette Cooper could have won in 2010, had she not said that the time was not right for her and supported her husband, Ed Balls, instead. If she is clever, the Brownites and Blairites could unite behind her. “

Or this from Dan Hodges, a former Blairite insider and special adviser who now blogs for the Daily Telegraph.

He quoted a Shadow Cabinet source as saying: “Yvette’s the next leader of the party. The only question is whether it’s before the election or after.”

For my part, there is no doubt in my mind that Yvette Cooper is the potential Labour leader which the Coalition fears most.

Mr Cameron already has a ‘problem’ with women voters – some would say with women in general – and he could not get away with patronising the redoubtable Ms Cooper in the way he has tried to do with other female MPs.

The long-awaited release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic yesterday may well focus attention on why the Labour Party has so far failed to find its own ‘Iron Lady.’

Could this be the year they finally put that right?

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

If you want to see the future of politics, just listen to 'God'

Following on from last week's Review of 2011, here's my look ahead to the political year 2012.

Predicting the future is always a risky business, but anyone looking for some pointers as to the direction which British politics might take over the next few years could do worse than listen to ‘God.’

Of course, by that I don’t mean him upstairs – though doubtless he might also have something to say about it - but the man who is universally known by that nickname in Westminster circles – the outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell.

Sir Gus officially retired yesterday as Britain’s most senior civil servant, but not before breaking the habit of a lifetime and firing off a few opinions of his own in a series of exit interviews with assorted media outlets.

In them he warned, among other things, that the greatest challenge facing Britain over the coming years would not be the state of the economy or even its future place in the European Union, but simply holding the United Kingdom together.

Sir Gus’s comments served as a necessary corrective to the fact that the implications of Scottish and Welsh devolution for the rest of the UK have sometimes been overlooked.

In last week’s column reviewing the political year 2011, I noted that the referendum on reform of the voting system held in May last year did not, in the end, prove to be the political game-changer that some of us thought it might be.

But there was something else that happened on the same day which may well prove to be of much greater significance in the longer-term – the outright victory of Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalists in the elections to the Scottish Parliament.

We have already seen how Mr Salmond is prepared to use such issues as the Eurozone crisis to press the case for Scottish independence, and we can expect much more of this in the coming year.

On the future of the Coalition, however, Sir Gus was less outspoken, saying that he expected it to run its course until a general election in 2015.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that he should take such a view, in that he played a pivotal role in bringing the Coalition together in the first place, and thus has an emotional stake in its long-term survival.

But ultimately, the Coalition will survive only as long as it is in the Conservatives’ interests for it to survive – and it is here that the underlying political dynamics may well be shifting.

With his party enjoying an unexpected mid-term lead in the opinion polls, might Prime Minister David Cameron be tempted over the next 12 months to try to convert that into the outright Commons majority that eluded him in May 2010?

We shall see. But Mr Cameron is perhaps fortunate in that the issue most likely to bring about a split between the Coalition partners is one on which his party enjoys far greater public support than the Liberal Democrats, namely Europe.

As John Redwood pointed out earlier this month, an election over the UK’s future relationship with the EU would be a very easy one for the Tories to win, and Mr Cameron would not be human if he did not at least toy with the idea of engineering one.

But if that Tory opinion poll lead is raising questions about the future of the Coalition, it is raising even more urgent ones about the future of Labour leader Ed Miliband.

His survival in the role must now be open to real doubt and is surely set to be one of the big running political stories of 2012.

History, at least, would suggest that Mr Miliband has little to worry about. The Labour Party does not do assassinations, and invariably allows its leaders the chance to fight at least one election even if they are patently not up to the task.

Against that, both Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot were at least able to demonstrate mid-term opinion poll leads over Margaret Thatcher, even if they went on to crushing defeats.

Mr Miliband has gained an unlikely ally in the Tory columnist Peter Oborne, who this week praised his attempts to move away from what he called the “manipulation and cynicism of the modernising era. “

But while 2012 may well see a growing appetite for a more value-based style of politics, it is far from clear that the public sees Mr Miliband as the man to deliver it.

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