Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Milburn? Bring it on

So Alan Milburn and Charlie No Trousers Clarke managed to persuade just 13 Labour MPs - one of whom was fervent Brownite Nick "Newcastle" Brown - to attend the launch of their new website designed to fuck-up Gordon's chances of becoming Prime Minister stimulate a lively policy debate about the party's future direction.

It's not looking good for those 44 MPs' signatures, is it, Alan?

All the speculation of course is that this is just an attempt to flush out a Cabinet-level challenger, although the Guardian's talk this morning of "10 Cabinet ministers" being prepared to back David Miliband is surely just wishful thinking on their part.

Personally, I think it would be much more entertaining, as well as more honest, if Milburn just came clean and admitted he wants to stand himself. What tales might emerge.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

....and here are the ones who will get my backing

Yesterday I penned a semi-light-hearted post about the candidates I would not be supporting in Labour's deputy leadership election - Alan Johnson because he is the clear choice of Rupert Murdoch, and Hazel Blears because as the leading Tory bloggers have correctly identified, she really would be the Conservative Party's dream come true.

Actually, I have some slightly more serious reasons for my choice, so in a bid to please all those who want to see more in-depth political analysis on this blog, I thought that today I would go into a bit more detail about who will or won't be getting my backing, and why.

The starting point, for me, is to ask the question what a deputy leader is for. To my mind, it's not necessarily to provide a Deputy Prime Minister. Whether or not Gordon Brown or whoever succeeds Tony Blair decides to have one of those is largely a matter for them, and in any case the deputy leader of the party might not necessarily be the best candidate.

I think the role of the deputy leader is to complement (though not necessarily compliment!) the leader - by providing a counterpoint in style and in some cases substance, and aiming to reach the parts of the party and country that the leader doesn't necessarily reach. This is what John Prescott managed to do very successfully until he started behaving like a man who had allowed power to go to his underpants head.

So who best provides that balance? Well, Hazel Blears would certainly provide a counterpoint to Gordon Brown in some respects, in that she is English, female, Blairite, and a relatively fresh face. But in the current climate, the ideological balance needs to be the other way - towards the large swathes of traditional Labour supporters who have felt alienated and disenfranchised by the New Labour project, not to those who want to be even more New Labour than Blair.

What about Hilary Benn, who is claimed by his supporters to be more on the centre-left of the party? I think his strengths lie in being a first-class departmental minister rather than a political force in his own right. Douglas Hurd is perhaps the closest analogy I can think of, and like Hurd, I think he would make an excellent Foreign Secretary.

Alan Johnson is a more difficult one. I think he is a very likeable chap who could well prove a big hit with the voters, but the main reason I wouldn't support him is that I think he is a natural leader rather than a natural deputy. The Blair-Brown relationship would be reinvented by the press as Brown-Johnson, with the No 2 waiting impatiently for the boss's career to implode so he could take over. That is the last thing the Labour Party needs right now.

Finally, there is Harriet Harman. I think she does reach some of the parts Gordon doesn't reach, in terms of women voters and southern England, and to that extent would be an asset for the party. What turns me against her though is her very mediocre record as a minister, and the fact that she has nothing very new to say about the role of the deputy leader beyond the fact that it shouldn't have a penis.

Which leaves me with a shortlist of two in Peter Hain and Jon Cruddas. Both of these candidates have, in their different ways, advocated a fresh direction for the party and the Government, and I would be happy to see either of them win.

I like a lot of what Hain has had to say recently about the need to tackle the growing wealth divide in this country, and although I happen to think he has been rather opportunistic in the way he has said it, and that he should have resigned over Iraq, I won't hold that against him, as it's the future of the party that matters now, not the past.

Cruddas has been a breath of fresh air in the contest and represents perhaps the best hope of reconnecting the party with its grassroots. I think as the contest goes on he needs to say slightly less about party organisation though and more about the policy perspective that he would bring to bear.

I don't, at this stage, see the point in declaring between the two of them, although I will do this nearer the time. Suffice to say I think both of them would perform the Prescott role of providing a balance to Brown and keeping Labour's big tent together - hopefully in a slightly classier way.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Who not to support for the Deputy Leadership

Last week, Alan Johnson's chances of Labour's deputy leadership took a distinct nosedive when it emerged that he has the backing of The Scum. Not to be outdone, Hazel Blears has now entered the race as the Tory bloggers' candidate.

I can already think of three reasons why good Labour people may not want to give the red-haired one their vote. They are Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, and PragueTory.

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Why Alistair Darling won't be Chancellor

A few weeks' back, I made the following prediction on this blog about Alistair Darling's chances of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Gordon Brown Government.

"I am going to come out against him....not because I think Gordon wouldn't want him as Chancellor, but because I don't think he can have him. At a time when the Tories are seeking to make a general election issue of Brown's Scottishness, he simply cannot afford to have the two most important jobs in British politics occupied by politicians from north of the border - particularly if he also keeps John Reid at the Home Office."

So I was interested to see Peter Preston making a virtually identical point in a piece in The Guardian this morning.

"Darling lies obviously top of the list. Indeed, speculation gives nobody else much of a look-in. Except that, the moment you forget received wisdom and begin notional cabinet building instead, the Darling succession makes absolutely no sense. John Reid says he's fit for continuing purpose at Brown's Home Office. Des Browne is a new, safe pair of hands at defence. Douglas Alexander seems a devout, talented disciple. But if they are all kept in place (and Reid hints that his job is safe with the new boss), how many very senior Scots can a Scottish PM afford? Another kilt doesn't work on any analysis - especially if you have to win a general election in England."

Preston goes with David Miliband for Chancellor, as I did for quite a long time before veering slightly towards Jack Straw a few weeks' back. The truth, though, is that it's far too early to arrived at settled predictions, with the situation apparently changing by the day.

I suspect that who ends up doing what jobs will be a matter of last minute negotiation, and that this will be inextricably linked to the issue of whether there is actually a serious leadership challenge.

This is surely particularly true in the case of David Miliband. If he succumbs to the entreaties of the Blairite media to stand against Gordon and does well, he will surely be entitled to demand either the Foreign Office or the Treasury. If he is humiliated, he might struggle even to hold onto his current job of Environment Secretary.

Meanwhile, Mike Smithson today reveals he has had a £6 bet on John Denham at 320/1 on the back of this post last Thursday on why Denham should challenge Brown for the leadership. He can buy me a pint out of his £1,920 winnings if JD scoops the big prize.

Update: Irwin Stelzer - who acts as the middle-man between Rupert Murdoch and New Labour - comes out in favour of Ed Balls in this piece in today's Guardian. James Higham has a mischievous explanation.

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More on road pricing

The ongoing debate on road pricing provides the main subject matter for my latest Week in Politics Podcast which is now live. A text version can be found on the Derby Evening Telegraph'sthis is Derbyshire site, HERE.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Tony Crosland

At the end of the week which marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Tony Crosland at the tragically young age of 58, there is just time for me to pay a short tribute to one of my political heroes and to plug Giles Radice's wonderful book Friends and Rivals, one of my favourite political reads of recent years.

Crosland was Foreign Secretary and at the height of his powers in February 1977 when he was struck down by a brain haemorrhage. Had he lived, it is quite possible that he rather than Michael Foot would have succeeded Jim Callaghan as Labour leader in 1980, and succeeded in preventing the SDP breakaway which wrecked the party's electoral prospects for a decade.

Radice's book is a masterful exploration of the personal rivalry between Crosland and his two close allies, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins, and how their failure to make common cause as the modernisers of their day ultimately led to Labour's wilderness years.

Happily, the review I wrote for the Newcastle Journal at the time of publication in 2002 is still available on the paper's website, and it can be found HERE.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Forget Meacher and McDonnell - the only credible left challenger is John Denham

So the worst-kept secret in politics is out. Michael Meacher is to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership, claiming only he can unite the left." The reaction from the John McDonnell camp was suitably pithy. "We have been expecting Michael's announcement for over nine months. It doesn't change things."

Indeed it doesn't. Both men are completely unelectable either as Labour leader or as Prime Ministers and will be trounced by Brown if they ever get on the ballot paper - McDonnell because he is an unreconstructed throwback to the days of the Loony Left, Meacher because he is an ageing Faust who compromised every political ideal he ever held in his long and ultimately fruitless attempts to hang onto ministerial office.

That the election could throw up two such unpromising candidates is symptomatic of the plight of the left at this time. McDonnell seems a perfecly amiable chap, and can at least point to a principled voting record. But Meacher has zero credibility with the left as a result of his decision not to resign over the Iraq War - a decision he now says he bitterly regrets.

If left-leaning MPs are looking for a credible candidate to stand against Brown, as opposed to a token standard-bearer who will simply make Gordon look good, they should look no further than the one man in their midst who did resign over the war - John Denham.

Unlike Meacher or McDonnell, Denham is a sensible leftie who in most respects holds perfectly mainstream Labour Party views, notably on the importance of tackling inequality. He also, of course, has relevant recent high-level ministerial experience as a minister in the Home Office.

John Denham is a man of high principle who in my opinion would make an admirable Prime Minister. Unfortunately he seems to have no intention of standing. Unless he can be persuaded to do so, the left should stop wasting its time - and the Labour Party's money - and get behind Gordon.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

That petition, and some other ways to cut congestion

The last time I posted anything on road pricing, I was urged to "get a grip" by esteemed blogger Tim Worstall who reckoned I was paying insufficient attention to the "polluter pays" principle. Fair cop, guv, but what I was really seeking to point out was merely that the Government had paid the public transport network insufficient attention during its 10 years in power.

I didn't, in fact, sign the Downing Street petition against road pricing which has caused all the kerfuffle, for the simple reason that I think it could be part of the solution to the congestion in some large cities. But I don't support a national road pricing scheme for much the same reason I don't support ID cards - it could only work with the imposition of "spy in the cab" technology which would give the Government even more knowledge about, and therefore power over, our movements.

There are to my mind much more practical and far less politically problematic ways to cut congestion, and I will name two here. First, by radically improving school bus transport to remove the need for "school runs." When I were a lad, we all either got the bus to school or walked. If your parents gave you a lift you were a poof, which in those days was a general term of abuse directed towards the pampered or effete as opposed to the homophobic bullying it would be viewed as today.

The second is by encouraging a major growth in working from home. This is, of course, supposed to be how we are all going to work in future, but as a matter of fact, a lot of companies don't encourage it, mainly due to worries about people's laptops being invaded by computer viruses which they then bring with them into the office. Maybe a few tax breaks here and there might force them to reconsider.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Will this send them all crazy?

Gordon Brown must surely by now be resigned to the fact that the good old, "Labour-supporting" Guardian clearly doesn't want him to succeed Blair.

But even against that backdrop, today's Guardian/ICM poll showing David Cameron 13 points ahead of him in a General Election will no doubt make extremely grim reading for the Chancellor, especially when coupled with the Blairites' ongoing attempts to propel David Miliband into the race.

When politicians fear that their seats are under threat, a sort of collective madness is apt to descend on them, as it did in the case of the Tory Party in 1990. Much more of this, and we could soon be seeing Labour MPs running round like headless chickens.

I shouldn't wonder that Brown might himself conclude that the long wait has gone on long enough, and make a further attempt to send Mr Tony on his way before things can get any worse....

Update: David Miliband has added a number of prominent bloggers to his blogroll. I suppose that given the content of recent posts I should not be too surprised that I am not among them.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Miliband Question

The past week or so has seen a huge escalation in the Blairite campaign to persuade David Miliband to contest the Labour leadership against Gordon Brown, irrespective of his earlier denials of interest. This reached a culmination on Saturday with the publication of this piece by the uber-Blairite commentator Martin Kettle, which, for sheer partisanship and mischief-making, ranks as quite possibly the most disingenuous piece of political commentary I have read in recent years.

My own thoughts on the wisdom or likelihood of a Miliband candidature were published in my Saturday columns in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph and can also now be heard HERE as a podcast.

I continue to hold to the view that while Miliband does not want to enter the contest, recognising that to do so would split the Labour Party and potentially destroy both him and Brown, there may be circumstances in which he is ultimately obliged to.

I venture that it is a slightly more balanced and objective assessment than Mr Kettle's, and, accordingly, I am breaking my usual custom and reproducing it here in full.


TWO weeks ago in this column I looked at how the debate was shaping up over the future make-up of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet if and when he finally makes it Number 10 later this year.

Putting my neck on the block somewhat, I predicted that South Shields MP David Miliband may well scoop the plum job of becoming Brown’s first Chancellor.

I should probably have known better. A week is a long time in politics as we all know, and in the space of a fortnight the speculation about Mr Miliband’s future has reached a new fever pitch.

In short, it is now anyone’s guess where he might now end up – with some even suggesting he might yet pip Gordon to the top job itself.

Of course, Mr Miliband’s public position on this is well-known, and in fairness to him has remained consistent throughout the long months of uncertainty over Labour’s future.

“I am not a runner nor a rider for any of the jobs that are being speculated about,” he said last autumn, and he has subsequently given Mr Brown his explicit backing.

Yet those protestations of loyalty seem to have been at least partially undone by his unfortunate gaffe on last week’s BBC Question Time.

“I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months or a year’s time, people will be saying ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that Tony Blair back because we can’t stand that Gordon Brown’,” he said.

Now it is fairly clear to me that this was merely an attempt to make a general point about the nature of politics that just came out wrong.

What Mr Miliband almost certainly meant to say was that people always criticise the incumbent Prime Minister, whoever they are, and that this is no particular reflection on them.

But Mr Blair’s allies seem to have treated it as the green light to reopen the debate over whether Mr Brown should be challenged, and try to push Mr Miliband towards the starting blocks.

A report last Saturday stated that “senior Blairites” continued to hold out hopes of Mr Miliband changing his mind, and that some have pressed him to do so.

Well, it was only a matter of time before one of those “senior Blairites” stuck their head above the parapet, and sure enough this week saw former welfare minister Frank Field step into the breach.

He said on Wednesday: “The question [is] who by their very presence shouts at the electorate that New Labour has already moved on to the next stage of its life. Step forward, David Miliband.”

Some of this has to be taken as the outworking of old grudges from a man who blames the Chancellor for blocking his welfare reform plans in 1997-98 and his subsequent sacking.

But even by raising the issue, Mr Field is helping to create a climate in which a challenge to Mr Brown becomes seen as not only possible but probable.

So what will Mr Miliband do about it? Well, all the evidence continues to suggest that his protestations are genuine, and that he remains an extremely reluctant challenger for the leadership.

According to last Saturday’s report, he is exasperated that people will not take his denials at face value, telling one friend: “Do I have to chop off an arm to prove it?”

He is in any case smart enough to realise that he is being offered little chance of victory, and that the internal party arithmetic works almost inexorably in Mr Brown’s favour.

Mr Miliband knows he will have a much better chance of the leadership next time round, having made it to the upper reaches of the Cabinet a good five years before most of his contemporaries.

Furthermore, friends of the Environment Secretary say he concluded some time ago that a contest between him and Mr Brown would split the Labour Party and destroy them both.

It is hard to dispute that analysis. To mount a plausible challenge to Mr Brown, Mr Miliband would have to portray the Chancellor as “Old Labour,” or at least as insufficiently “New” Labour.

Even if Mr Brown still won, his standing in the eyes of the electorate will have been permanently damaged.

It would, quite simply, play straight into the hands of David Cameron, and open the way to a Conservative victory in 2009/10 which might put Mr Miliband in opposition for a decade.

And yet, and yet…there could still come a point at which Mr Miliband’s hand may eventually be forced, and he is obliged to throw his hat into the ring after all.

What we are really seeing here is the natural outworking of the principle that politics abhors a vacuum, and that when such a vacuum is created, sooner or later someone has to step forward and fill it.

David Miliband’s problem is that he is overwhelmingly seen as the most likely person to be able to mount a successful challenge to Mr Brown.

It therefore follows that if the mood in the party reaches a point where such a challenge is seen to be desirable or even necessary, it will be hard for Mr Miliband to duck out of it.

Perhaps the most recent example of a politician who found himself in a similar position was Michael Portillo in 1995.

In the end, he did duck out of challenging John Major at a time when he looked eminently beatable – and thereafter never shed the reputation for lacking the killer instinct.

To put it another way, it can sometimes be the way in politics that challenging for a job and losing is actually less damaging than not challenging for it at all.

Mr Miliband will be fervently hoping it doesn’t come to that. But the truth is, it just might.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The Deputy Leadership: How the bloggers are lining up

Following on from yesterday's post about Hilary Benn, today's Times reports that Hazel Blears is to declare after all and she has already won the backing of Labour blogger Luke Akehurst.

I have still not yet decided where my own support is going - it's between Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, and Harriet Harman - but I thought it would be good to have a recap on how the most prominent Labour and left-of-centre bloggers are currently lining up in the race to replace John Prescott.

Jon Cruddas remains overwhelmingly the "bloggers' choice," gaining the backing of such diverse figures as Bob Piper and Kerron Cross, but Hilary Benn also seems to have significant support, once again bearing out my anecdotal hunch that these two remain well ahead of the field in terms of grassroots support.

If there are any other lefty bloggers who have come out in support of particular candidates - or if I have got anyone on this list wrong - please let me know in the comments or via email.

Hilary Benn

Paul Burgin
Mike Ion

Hazel Blears

Luke Akehurst

Jon Cruddas

Bob Piper
Kerron Cross
Will Parbury
Antonia Bance
The Daily
Newer Labour

Peter Hain


Alan Johnson

Stuart Bruce

I couldn't find any blogger who has come out in favour of Harriet Harman. When I first posted this I had thought Recess Monkey was planning to back her but I have since been corrected on this point (see comments.)

Sitting on the fence, but leaning towards either Benn, Blears or Johnson, is British Spin, while Tom Watson appears to be flirting with either Johnson or Cruddas.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Has Hilary Peaked Too Soon?

When Hilary Benn first entered the race for Labour's deputy leadership, there was near-universal agreement among the pundits that he had immediately become the man to beat, such is the breadth of his appeal in the party. Although essentially a man of the "soft left" by background, the International Development Secretary was also expected to garner support from Blairites impressed by his modernising credentials as well as old-style lefties with a sentimental attachment to the Benn name.

His popularity among ordinary party members seemed to be borne out by (admittedly totally unscientific) online polls such as the one carried out on this blog and another currently running on the Political Penguin blog, both of which show Benn and Jon Cruddas as the clear frontrunners.

But if those polls are in any way representative, there would appear to be a clear discontinuity between the views of Labour MPs and the views of the party's grassroots members on the deputy leadership issue. According to this story in yesterday's Times, it is Alan Johnson who is making the running in the PLP, with Benn struggling even to get his name on the ballot paper.

I've no reason to doubt the truth of this, but what it highlights are the complexities of trying to predict an election involving an electoral college made up of three very distinct parts, particularly where one of those constituent parts (the MPs) has the ability to kill a challenge.

The general consensus about Benn seems to be that if he does get on the ballot paper, he will do well, and could still win. But if he doesn't, and Peter Hain does, the Northern Ireland Secretary could well end up hoovering up the soft-left votes that might otherwise have gone to Benn.

Others have made the point that if the May elections go spectacularly badly for Labour, it will further strengthen the hand of Cruddas, the anti-establishment candidate who has alreayd won significant union and grassroots backing.

This also has an impact on the ongoing speculation about the shape of Gordon's Cabinet. Benn says he's not interested in being "Deputy Prime Minister" but if he wins it would be hard for Brown to deny him the Foreign Office. Both Hain and Johnson though seem more keen on the DPM title.

To complicate matters even further, there are rumours that Caroline Flint is also preparing to run. To which I can only say, bring it on, Caroline!

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Pot. Kettle. Black

It's not often I defend David Cameron's Tories, but this comment from Noel Gallagher, songwriter with Beatles Tribute Band Brits Lifetime Achievement Winners Oasis, is up there with Mr Tony himself in the hypocrisy stakes.

"They wait to see what Tony Blair says...and then they move in behind and switch it and change a little bit. It's like a song writer who's eternally ripping off someone else's song and just changing the odd line a little."

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The Brits Ain't What They Used To Be

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by the outcome of this year's Brit Awards, not just because sparkling Lily Allen (pictured) lost out to dreary Amy Whinehouse for Best British Female, but also because that the ceremony failed to live up to its past reputation for cock-ups and general bad behaviour.

Everything seemed terribly polite and well behaved compared to, say, John Prescott having a bucket of water emptied over his head by Chumbawamba*, Jarvis Cocker invading the stage during Michael Jackson's Earth Song, the KLF dumping a dead sheep outside the ceremony (their original plan having been to slice it open on stage), and Lisa Stansfield's rant against the first Gulf War in 1991.

Perhaps my favourite memory, though, was Sporty Spice Melanie Chisholm telling the loathsome Liam Gallagher to "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" from the podium after he criticised the Spice Girls in 1997.

Eat your heart our, Arctic Monkeys and Co. They don't make pop stars like that any more.

*Token Political Reference for those who get annoyed by my occasional descents into "trash blogging."
**Hat Tip: Giles C

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Valentine's...

Chairman of the Lobby Adam Boulton has today struck a blow for serious political journalism by nominating his Top 10 Most Fanciable MPs which for the sake of completeness includes some male Parliamentarians even though Adam himself is robustly heterosexual. It is disappointing that neither Jonathan Calder, Guido Fawkes, or Iain Dale have risen to the challenge to produce their own lists, but here for the record is mine!

1 Yvette Cooper
2 Caroline Flint
3 Julia Goldsworthy
4 Celia Barlow
5 Claire Ward
6 Helen Southworth
7 Justine Greening
8 Alison Seabeck
9 Lynne Featherstone
10 Joan Ryan

Nos 1 & 2 may well figure among my tips to be in Gordon's first Cabinet - but on the grounds of ability, rather than looks, I hasten to add.

  • For a further Valentine's Day treat, click HERE for "Gweirdo's" take on recent events in the Blogosphere.

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  • Thinking the Unthinkable

    Frank Field used to be one of my favourite MPs, a Christian socialist not afraid to speak his mind. But after his contribution to the Labour leadership debate today I am reminded of Clem Attlee's memorable retort to Harold Laski: "A period of silence from you would now be welcome."

    Writing in today's Guardian, Field argues that it is time for Labour to skip a generation to David Miliband, arguing that Gordon Brown's position as leader-in-waiting arises merely from a misguided sense of indebtedness to him for not splitting the party last time round rather than any assessment of his ability.

    As that astute observer David Herdson has pointed out on Political Betting, Field's article comes over more as a justification for not electing Brown than an argument for electing the Boy David.

    Coming in the wake of last Thursday's astonishing gaffe on Question Time last Thursday - which will be used mercilessly against Gordon by the Tories - it also displays the impeccable timing of the consummate political operator - not.

    Field urges us to draw from the "lessons" of history, in which natural heirs apparent who take over have ended up making a botch of things (Chamberlain, Eden) while unexpected dark horses who overtook the favourite have gone on to electoral success (Baldwin, Major.)

    I would simply urge Field to look at three more recent and pertitent examples of where a decision to pass over the natural successor has badly backfired on the party concerned: Foot over Healey in 1980, Hague over Clarke in 1997, IDS over Portillo and Clarke in 2001.

    The sad truth about Frank Field is that he is an embittered man who blames Brown for the failure of his welfare reform green paper in 1998 when he was challenged to "think the unthinkable," and for his subsequent sacking from the Government.

    I hate to speak ill of a fellow Christian, but this article ought to ensure that the process of estrangement from the Labour Party, which has been going on ever since that abrupt dismissal, is now complete.

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    Monday, February 12, 2007

    Blog Wars and Think Tanks

    I have said little on the so-called Blog Wars between Tim and Guido since my original post on the matter last month in which I predicted, correctly as it has turned out, that the debate would eventually polarise on political lines. Iain Dale has today called for an end to it, but that seems a forlorn hope at present.

    As I said at the outset, I'm sitting on the fence on this one, and none of what follows should be construed as taking sides, but I have thought for some time that there is one aspect of this "war" that is deeply misguided, and about which I ought to speak out. This is the apparent attempt to smear Gordon Brown over his links with the Smith Institute, and the resulting revenge attacks on certain Tory bloggers over their links with the Policy Exchange.

    The Smith Institute was set up in memory of the late John Smith. Believe it or not, Gordon Brown was very close to John Smith as a politician and still holds very similar ideas to him on a range of issues. Is it therefore a very great surprise that Brown and the Smith Institute have a close relationship? No, any more than it is a surprise that a would-be Conservative MP such as Iain Dale or a would-be Tory Mayor of London such as Nick Boles should be a trustees of a right-wing think tank, the Policy Exchange.

    My point is that political think-tanks are a part of the political process, and have been at least since the days of Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. Some of these think-tanks are close to individual politicians. As I said about David Cameron's schoolboy toking earlier today, big fucking deal.

    Feb 14 update: That's enough blog wars - Ed. Comments on this thread will remain open, but the main debate is continuing elsewhere and I think I've said what I have to say on the matter for the time being.

    I do have some sympathy with Tim Ireland's view that the blogosphere is a community in which people owe eachother some sort of obligation of good behaviour - as a socialist I would make the same argument about society generally - but I also accept that individual bloggers like Guido have a perfect right to run their blogs in the way they choose, and that there is no sense trying to enforce a "code of etiquette" without more widespread consent for that. End of communication.

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    The Big Idea

    Transport secretary Douglas Alexander - and, presumably, Gordon Brown - wants to have a debate about using road charging to reduce congestion by 25pc despite a 1m-signature petition against the idea.

    Well, it may or may not surprise Mr Alexander to learn that someone has already thought of a Big Idea for reducing the number of motorists off the road. It's called public transport.

    It strikes me that there is potential for some very interesting political cross-dressing on this one if David Cameron wants to defend the cost of motoring as free at the point of delivery while at the same time underlining his environmental credentials by ploughing the proceeds of green taxes into trains and buses.

    Could the Tories, the party of Dr Beeching and rail privatisation, really become the party of public transport? Stranger things have happened.

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    Blair's nemesis

    Lords reform - and how Tony Blair's failure to address it seriously in his first term has now come back and bitten him on the bum - is the subject of my latest podcast which can be heard
    HERE or alternatively read HERE.

    "There is surely a bitter irony in the fact that had Mr Blair done the sensible, democratic thing and brought in a fully-elected Second Chamber back in 1997, the whole cash-for-peerages affair would never have happened, but in his lack of radicalism and loss of nerve lay his nemesis. It is as good a summary of the Blair years as any."

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    Is that all Dave? Why Cameron should have come clean

    So the big secret's out at last. David Cameron enjoyed a few spliffs while a schoolboy at Eton, and went on to enjoy a few more while a student at Oxford. Well big fucking deal.

    The response of the media and political opponents alike has been predictably underwhelming, although admittedly it's hard for Home Secretary John Reid to make too much of an issue of it

    For me, it all begs the question why Cameron didn't come clean about this much earlier, instead of allowing the view to take root that he must be trying to cover up a much more serious drug problem. At one point, practically the entire journalistic profession thought Cameron's family trust fund had disappeared up his nose.

    Really, it's a bit like a man suspected of marital infedility refusing to answer questions about his sex life when all he has actually done is pull himself off in the shower.

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    Friday, February 09, 2007

    Giles Radice knew the score

    Giles Radice was the kindest and most courteous of the North-East MPs I regularly dealt with in my old job as Political Editor of the Newcastle Journal. After I left the Lobby he stayed in touch for a while and sent me a copy of his Diaries which were published towards the end of 2004. Thumbing through them earlier this evening, I came across this remarkable paragraph, written on General Election Day 2001.

    "Lisanne and I work in Newark for Fiona Jones. It is an uphill task, because despite being a sitting Labour MP, Fiona is the victim of a horrendous whispering campaign. Sad to say, she has been a lame duck MP, ever since she was wrongly convicted of "fiddling" her election expenses. Although she was immediately and totally exonerated on appeal, the mud stuck and the Tories have been conducting a vicious doorstep attack on her personal character. We meet hostility to her as we knock up, including schoolboys who say she is "corrupt." Poor Fiona!"

    This needs little further comment from me, as it already says so much: about Giles Radice and his dedication to the Labour Party; about the awfulness of Fiona Jones' plight; but also about the Labour Party's desertion of her, that she was left to try to get the vote out on election day with the help, not of the party's "stars," but of only a veteran backbencher on his way, that very day, into retirement.

    Poor Fiona, indeed....

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    Has Miliband blown it?

    As regular readers of this blog will know I have long tipped Environment Secretary David Miliband for great things under Gordon Brown, including possibly a 50-50 shot at the Chancellorship. But I can't imagine that the PM-in-waiting will have been too chuffed by the Boy Wonder's remarks on BBC Question Time last night.

    "I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months or a year’s time, people will be saying ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that Blair back because we can’t stand that Gordon Brown’."

    Miliband tried to explain it away by saying he was merely making the point that people always complain about the sitting Prime Minister, but the Brownites will view the comment as, at best, inept and, at worst, indicative of the mindset in the "Blair Bunker."

    I don't think Gordon will forget this, and it may well take him a fairly long time to forgive. I may have to revise my predictions as to the make up of Brown's future Cabinet.

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    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    A real vote-winner, Charlie

    Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, Toby Helm reports that Charlie "No Trousers" Clarke is advocating the abandonment of Labour's historic commitment to providing free education and health care and the introduction of "some level of charging" for public services.

    Fair enough, you might think. Such issues have to be debated after all, and Clarke is a backbencher with complete freedom to speak out. Except that in the very next sentence, Helm goes on to write that Clarke's comments "will be seen as a pitch for the Labour leadership against Gordon Brown."

    I've always rather rated Toby Helm, but what planet was he on when he wrote this? Can anyone, seriously, think of anything less likely to attract votes in a Labour leadership election than arguing that the National Health Service should no longer be free at the point of delivery?

    Answers on a postcard, please....

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    My Top 10 weirdest Google search referrals

    People are always asking me for more Top here, courtesy of MyBlogLog are the 10 strangest Google searches that have led people here in the past three months. Enjoy!

    1. Fiona Jones Jack Straw. Actually, not at all weird, but topical.

    2. Top Kenyan Orators

    3. Cross Dressing 19th Century Doctor

    4. David Cameron Man Boobs

    5. Badger Watching in England

    6. Public Executions in Newcastle

    7. Paul Linford The Guardian

    8. Paul Linford Lib Dem

    9. Well Written Political Commentary

    10. How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink

    Thanks for the last one Stephen R!

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    A lame duck government cannot reform the Lords

    ...but Gordon's Government maybe can.

    It is a savage indictment of the Blair Government's loss of reforming nerve that it has taken them 10 years to come up with a plan for a 50pc elected Second Chamber. But such is its shortage of political capital that even implementing this timid proposal is likely to prove beyond it.

    The next Government, though, will have much more of such capital to expend, and if he becomes Prime Minister, Gordon Brown should make it clear from the start that he intends to go the whole hog and bring in a fuly democratically-elected upper House, and that this will be a Labour manifesto commitment at the next election.

    There is no place in a modern legislature for hereditary peers who owe their titles to some past royal service or liaison. No place for bishops who no longer even believe in the God they purport to worship. No place for appointed party placemen and timeserver ex-MPs. And no place either for so-called "representatives" of ethnic communities who are often those with the loudest voices rather than the broadest level of support.

    There is, I grant you, a case for involving "experts" from the world of science and academia, of which Lord (Robert) Winston is a good example. But there is no reason why any of those people should not be co-opted as non-voting advisers onto Lords Committees scrutinising legislation without actually making them voting members of the upper House.

    But a fully-elected Second Chamber would not only be right in principle, it would also make good politics. By coming out for a 100pc elected Chamber, and making this a manfesto commitment, Brown will accomplish three things.

    First, it will give him the necessary authority, under the Salsibury Convention, to push through a fully-elected Second Chamber after the next election irrespective of the inevitable opposition from the peers themselves. Second, it will prevent David Cameron outflanking him on the left by himself coming out in favour of 100pc election.

    But thirdly, and best of all, it will enable Brown to draw a line under the sleazy Blair years at a stroke by removing the right of future Prime Ministers to abuse the Parliamentary process by awarding peerages to their political cronies in the way Blair has done.

    Indeed, since everyone except John "fucking" Hutton and Charlie "no trousers" Clarke now accept he is going to be the next PM, there is surely nothing to stop Brown coming out and saying all this right away.

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