Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Graham Brady is right

Like most people on the centre-left, I have grown up with the idea that Grammar Schools are elitist and socially divisive. But the ongoing row in the Tory Party over the issue has forced me to take a fresh look at this, and in particular to ask myself what a "progressive" position on academic selection would look like in today's world.

Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that Graham Brady is right when he argues that selection by academic ability is a greater engine of social mobility than selection by house prices.

Near to where I live in Derbyshire, there is a former Grammar School which nevertheless retains many of the facets of one, which is regarded for miles around as the school to get your children into.

As a result, house prices in that village and the surrounding area are a good 20-30pc higher than in those areas which lie slightly outside the catchment area, meaning that only better-off families can in fact afford to send their kids there.

I don't doubt that there are countless other examples of this kind of effect across the country, a consequence of the exponential growth in house prices since comprehensive education was but a twinkle in Tony Crosland's eye.

By ditching his party's previous policy on creating new grammars, Tory leader David Cameron thinks he is being "modern" and "progressive." In fact he is doing what the Tory Party has historically always done - standing up for the interests of the wealthy elite who can afford homes near the top state schools against those who have to make do with what Alastair Campbell called "bog standard" comprehensives.

In my view, if Gordon Brown wants to lead a genuinely progressive government, as well as outflanking Cameron on an issue of real concern to the hard-working classes, he should take a very close look at what Graham Brady and the other Tory rebels are saying.

How about this for an autumn conference speech soundbite, Gordon? "Read my lips - no selection by house prices or interview under a Labour Government."

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Designed to annoy

The Telegraph is currently running a competition to find the most annoying phrases in the English language. Some great reader comments can be seen here.

My own Top Five are as follows:

1. Going Forward. Management jargon for "in the future." I hear this one approximately twice a day in my current workplace.

2. Winterval. Or in fact any so-called politically correct terminology that takes Christ out of Christmas (eg cards that say "Happy Holidays!")

3. Fresh Turmoil. A phrase that became somewhat over-used by my former profession, usually as a means of keeping a political row story going for another day.

4. With respect. Which, as everyone who has ever had this said to them knows, means with absolutely no respect at all.

5. Next station stop, when used by railway announcers. As opposed, of course, to stops that occur between stations due to leaves on the line etc.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

So who did Blair call a c**t?

When it comes to the inner workings of New Labour, Andrew Rawnsley gets all the best scoops. He knows who it was who called Gordon Brown "psychologically flawed," and now he's discovered, via an early draft of Alastair Campbell's memoirs, that Tony Blair once referred to a "very senior" Labour figure from the 1980s as "a cunt."

As recounted in yesterday's Observer, Blair requested that the expletive be deleted from the final version, lest it damage his reputation too much, though as Rawnsley points out, it is hard to see how Blair is going to come out of any book written by Campbell as anything other than media-obsessed.

But be that as it may, Rawnsley's revelations have now kicked off a new guessing game: who was on the end of the Prime Minister's four-letter outburst? Apparently it was "a very senior Labour figure from the 1980s who has been highly critical of New Labour," which narrows the field considerably.

Who were the senior figures from the 1980s? You could name, in moreorless chronological order, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Peter Shore, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley, John Smith, and Gerald Kaufman. These were the men who, at one time or another, occupied the posts of leader, deputy leader, shadow chancellor or shadow foreign secretary during the course of that decade.

So which one is it? Well, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Kaufman can be ruled out because none of them has ever been "highly critical" of New Labour. Shore can be ruled out because, although twice a leadership candidate, he never really qualified as "very senior."

It follows, therefore, that Blair must have been referring either to Healey, who has been fairly personally critical of him though not of the wider New Labour project, or Hattersley, who has indeed been highly critical of both. My money is on the latter.

As it is, Hattersley is well-used to being on the end of somewhat agricultural language from his senior party colleagues. During the 1976 leadership election, he dropped in on Tony Crosland and asked him whether he would like to hear in detail his reasons for voting for rival candidate Jim Callaghan.

Whereupon Crosland gave the immortal reply: "No. Fuck off."

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The deputy race: what it all means

My latest weekend column focuses on the deputy leadership race and what each of the potential outcomes could signify in terms of the Labour Party's future direction. I argue that while an Alan Johnson win might appear on the surface to be the most electorally advantageous course for the party, a Jon Cruddas victory would open up the prospect of the genuine policy renewal that is vital if New Labour is to re-enthuse the electorate.

Here's an extract:

"So what does it all mean....Well, a Hazel Blears victory would signify that party members, far from wanting a shift away from New Labour, are anxious for Mr Brown not to stray too far from the Blairite faith. On the contrary, a victory for either Mr Cruddas or Mr Hain would indicate a desire for a much more traditional sort of Labour agenda, with concerns about inequality much more to the fore.

If either Mr Benn or Ms Harman wins, it would suggest to me a desire not to rock the boat too much - both stand in the broad mainstream of Labour opinion and both would make natural deputies. Finally a win for Mr Johnson - probably the candidate with the widest public appeal - would suggest that the party is concerned, above all else, about winning the next general election.

Of all the possible outcomes, the one which contains potentially the greatest peril for Mr Brown is a triumph for the backbench outsider, Mr Cruddas. It would be portrayed by the Tories not only as a lurch to the left, but proof that the unions - where the Dagenham MP's support is strongest - still run the Labour Party.

But at the same time, such an outcome would probably provide the greatest opportunity for genuine policy renewal for a party which looks to have run out of ideas. In purely policy terms, if anyone has been setting the agenda in the course of the campaign thus far, it is Mr Cruddas.

Take housing, for instance. For years, this has been a Cinderella issue, neglected by Blair as an issue only of interest to the have-nots whose support he consistently took for granted. New Labour thought that by building thousands of new low-cost homes on brownfield sites, it would widen access to home ownership - but many of these have been snapped up by buy-to-let speculators.

Thanks to Mr Cruddas, the pressing need for a major increase in social housing provision has now leaped to near the top of the agenda for the incoming Brown administration. And whoever emerges as deputy, it is "forgotten" issues such as these which Labour needs to embrace if it is to convince the electorate that it has a fresh and distinctive vision."

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Commonsense prevails in Cardiff

It's a long while since I covered Welsh politics in any detail - I was political editor of the South Wales Echo in the mid-90s - but I remember enough about it to know that the "rainbow coalition" idea between Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Tories was a complete and utter nonsense.

As Rhodri Morgan, now rightfully reinstalled as First Minister points out, there is a natural centre-left or "progressive" majority in Wales and any coalition which failed to reflect that would not have had the support of the Welsh people.

I suppose one can't really blame Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones or Tory leader Nick Bourne for clutching at straws in the way they did, but I thought better of the Lib Dem leader Mike German. In the end he was unable to carry even his own party with him on the rainbow coalition proposal. He should quit.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My Top 10 New Labour Cock-Ups

The knives are out today for Ruth Kelly following the HIPs debacle which is being understandably seen as another example in the long list of New Labour ballsups. Mike Smithson is tipping both Kelly and Patsy Hewitt for the chop in El Gordo's first reshuffle, while Iain Dale has been inspired to launch a poll to find New Labour's most incompetent minister. Only Guido Fawkes of the uber-bloggers has a good word to say about the Blessed Ruth, pointing out (rightly in my view) that Housing Minister Yvette Cooper was much more personally associated with the wretched sellers' packs.

But where, if at all, does it figure in the list of all-time New Labour cock-ups? Well, let's face it, no-one died. Here, for what it's worth is, my Top 10, and with reference to Iain's poll, it follows from this that, without question, the most incompetent New Labour minister is Tony Blair, with Stephen Byers a clear second.

1. Iraq. Hundreds of British soldiers killed in conflict over non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Total absense of pre-planning for aftermath leads to state of civil war. Trust in political process totally collapses after truth about WMD and dodgy intelligence finally emerges. Minister primarily responsible: Tony Blair.

2. Foot and mouth. Millions of healthy animals needlessly slaughtered after Government fails to send in Army soon enough for fear of panicking the country ahead of 2001 general election. Minister responsible: Nick Brown took the rap, but this was Blair's call too.

3 Pension fund raid. PM-elect Brown has valiantly defended this move as a means of targeting resources where they were needed most, but some other way should have been found to do this without entirely wrecking the country's private pensions industry. Minister responsible: Gordon Brown.

4. Jo Moore burying bad news. Besides the death of Dr Kelly (which is covered by the generic cock-up heading of Iraq) this did more than anything else to destroy public trust in New Labour. Minister responsible: Stephen Byers for employing Moore, Blair for initially refusing to allow Byers to sack her.

5. Deportation of foreign prisoners. Proof that the Home Office was indeed "not fit for purpose," it was amazing that such a media-obsessed government didn't spot this disaster waiting to happen. Minister responsible: Charles Clarke, with input from Jack Straw and David Blunkett.

6. Railtrack. The creation of Failtrack will go down as possibly the greatest cock-up of the Major Government. Stephen Byers attempted to put things right, but went about it in totally the wrong way and then tried to evade the truth about it when challenged. Minister responsible: Byers.

7. Health overspends. A government that comes into office pledging to "save the NHS" and pumps more than £20bn of additional spending into the service ends up closing hospitals. Minister responsible: Pat Hewitt has got the blame, but most say the rot set in under John Reid.

8. Millennium Dome. I have been criticised for including this folly in a previous list of New Labour policy failures but seriously, this should have been a celebration of British endeavour on a par with the Festival of Britain or the Great Exhibition. Minister responsible: Peter Mandelson, abetted by Blair.

9. North East regional assembly referendum. You could list any number of devolution-related cock-ups from opposing Ken Livingstone to making Alun Michael Welsh First Minister. But holding a referendum you were bound to lose goes down as the silliest. Minister responsible: John Prescott.

10. The 2003 Reshuffle. This was the one that was supposed to create a Ministry of Justice and abolish the Lord Chancellorship together with the Scottish and Welsh Offices. It was all reversed within hours of being announced. Minister responsible: Tony Blair.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Another fine New Labour mess

As the proud owner of a two-bed cottage that is alas rapidly becoming too small for our growing family, I am personally delighted that Home Information Packs are being delayed until 1 August and will even then only affect the sale of four-bed houses. But what a total fiasco for the Government.

I trust for their sakes that the thousands of people who dumped their homes on the market simultaneously this month in a bid to beat the original June 1 deadline and as a result were forced to take well below the asking price in a buyers' market will not be asking for compensation....

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Fare ye well Kevin

A good friend of mine from Sheffield, Kevin Bolster, is cycling from John O Groats to Lands End in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support starting later this week. He's also started a blog to let us know how he's getting on. Interested to see that one of my very favourite places, Llanthony Priory, is on the itinerary.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Was Brown's coronation a historical inevitability?

Not at all, I argue in my weekly column in today's Newcastle Journal. Here are some extracts.


"The first thing to say about Gordon Brown's unopposed elevation to the leadership of the Labour Party is that it represents a stupendous achievement...political history is full of front-runners who led from the tape only to be overhauled in the final few metres before the line.

I'll be honest, there was a time last month when I briefly thought it might happen to Brown, when all around seemed to be clamouring for a contest and the Chancellor's stock appeared to be falling rapidly.

By the end, Mr Brown's coronation had an air of inevitability about it, all rival contenders having fallen by the wayside, all the passion that has been expended on Labour's tribal feuding seemingly spent.

But actually, there was nothing historically inevitable about this week's events. It could easily all have turned out very differently.

The downfall of David Blunkett, after he lost his head over Kimberley Quinn, will I believe come to be seen as a major turning point in the history of New Labour.

Had he still been in the Cabinet, he would have been the very clear and obvious alternative to Gordon and, with his more compelling personal "back story," may well have been able to beat him.

Darlington MP Alan Milburn's decision to leave the Cabinet in 2003 and again in 2005 also removed a potentially big player from the succession stakes.

Mr Milburn, far more so than South Shields MP David Miliband, was the natural "heir to Blair," and though an intellectual pygmy besides Brown, his looks and charisma could have made him a contender."

Full text is available HERE.

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My vote for Cruddas

I'm not going to make a huge song and dance about it, but I've decided I will be supporting Jon Cruddas for Labour's deputy leadership. There was a time when I might have supported Peter Hain but although I still have a lot of sympathy for some of his ideas on tax I think a fresher face - along with fresher thinking - is required now. Jon is the only candidate in this election who will bring a genuinely new perspective to policy-making and genuinely seek to ensure that the views of mainstream Labour members are heard.

After some initial misgivings, I have come round to the view that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader need not be the same person, and that if Jon does win, Gordon Brown would be quite within his powers to appoint someone else to the DPM post.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Deputy Leadership Revisited

The last time I conducted a POLL on Labour's deputy leadership, it produced the following result from blog readers.

Jon Cruddas 35%
Hilary Benn 28%
Alan Johnson 7%
Peter Hain 5%
Harriet Harman 4%
Hazel Blears 3%
Jack Straw 3%
None of the above 15%

Now that the contest is live, I'm running the poll again HERE, minus Straw who is no longer a candidate and without the None of the above option. It will be interesting to see whether opinion has shifted over the last couple of months.

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David Bamber RIP

I can't claim to have been a friend of Dave's, but we worked together in the regional lobby for a couple of years in the 1990s and I was shocked to read this via Tom Watson. I share Tom's assessment of his rapier-like wit and quick mind.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The right man wins

It's a pity, in a way, that there wasn't a contest. Had either the hard left or the uber-Blairite right succeeded in launching a challenge to Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party, they would have been rightly humiliated and Gordon's mandate for taking the party in a fresh, post-Blairite direction would have been strengthened.

But no matter, the important thing is that Gordon Brown will become Prime Minister on June 27, 2007 and for once in politics, the right man has finished first.

The speculation will continue about why first David Miliband, then John Reid, then finally Charles Clarke all ruled themselves out of the running, about why John Denham didn't spot the opportunity of a challenge from the sensible left, about why a trail of past would-be contenders from Stephen Byers to David Blunkett to Alan Milburn all fell one by one by the wayside.

But the single biggest reason was because Gordon was, all along, the best candidate - and his opponents knew it.

Over the past few months, there has been a concerted attempt on the right-wing blogosphere to portray Gordon Brown as both sinister and sleazy. This has gone way beyond the normal left-right party politicking, and has demonstrated at times an intensely personal dislike of Brown on the part of the ringleaders.

This has included accusations that Gordon abused his position by allowing a charity set up in memory of his close friend and mentor John Smith to use No 11 Downing Street, and various spurious attempts to link him into the cash-for-honours affair.

Had I joined in this witch-hunt, I have no doubt that my monthly traffic figures would now be soaring towards six figures. As it is, it is pretty clear from my stats that some people of a right-ish persuasion stopped reading my blog because they wanted to read bile about Gordon Brown, and didn't want to hear that he is a genuine guy with deeply-held values. So be it.

It's obvious why the Tory bloggers hate him so. They knew all along that he was the man who will show their leader David Cameron up to be the sub-Blair pretender that he is, and so set out to hobble him below the knees before he had even stood up against Cameron at the Despatch Box.

But if Brown's triumph is a victory against these politically-motivated bloggers, it is also a victory against a mainstream media which seemed determined to provoke a challenge for its own savage amusement.

Improbably led by the Labour-supporting Guardian and its Sunday stablemate the Observer, certain newspapers set out over a number of weeks to create the conditions in which a Cabinet-level challenge became seen as inevitable.

The intention was that, in the days following Blair's resignation announcement, the clamour would reach such a fever-pitch that some opportunist somewhere would be persuaded to dance to the media's tune. Indeed I myself fully expected that this would be the case.

As things turned out, it seems I both under-estimated the good sense of Brown's would-be opponents, and over-estimated the power of my former profession. And for that, I am grateful.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

So who's Gordon supporting, then?

For a long time I have believed that Jon Cruddas might be the secret Gordon Brown candidate in the Labour deputy leadership election, mainly because he doesn't want to be DPM and Gordon doesn't really want one. Analysis of the nominations, however, strongly suggests that Harriet Harman is the favoured one.

Although Brownite blogging MP Tom Watson is indeed supporting Cruddas, the nomination list for Harperson looks like a roll-call of Brown's inner circle.

Key lieutenants of El Gordo plumping for Mrs Dromey include: Douglas Alexander, Nick Brown, Tom Clarke, Yvette Cooper, Alistair Darling, Nigel Griffiths, Geoff Hoon, Kevan Jones, Ed Miliband and Michael Wills.

Watson aside, the only ones among the Chancellor's intimates standing aloof from the Harman campaign are Ed Balls, who plumps for Alan Johnson, John Healey, who goes for Hilary Benn, and Doug Henderson, who is yet to nominate.

Continued May 17. Following on from the above, I supopose that if it is the case that Gordon is backing Harriet the obvious question is why? If he thinks that she is the candidate to help Labour reach the parts of the electorate that he himself can't reach, I fear he is much mistaken.

For once, I agree with Tony Blair in his assessment of Harman's claims to represent the voice of Middle England. "Middle England? Middle Islington maybe."

In fact Harriet Harman is regarded by much of Middle England as a champagne socialist - a breed they despise with far more venom than straightforward cloth-capped lefties like John Prescott. I may not like her boyfriend much, but Fiona Millar is spot-on with this piece on CiF today.

As it is, I don't think the unofficial "endorsement" of the Brownite camp is likely to be helpful to HH. Having been deprived of a contest for the leadership, I think Labour members are slightly in the mood to be counter-suggestible where the deputy leadership is concerned.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It's political balance that matters

With the Labour Deputy Leadership Contest now coming to the boil, there has been much talk over the last 24 hours of who will make the best "partner" for Gordon Brown. The clear view of Alan Johnson is that he would because he comes from a working-class background in London as opposed to Gordon's middle-class Scottish upbringing.

The clear analogy being drawn here is with the Tony Blair-John Prescott partnership, with Prescott himself now publicly backing his fellow Hull MP's bid to succeed him.

But Johnson and Co are missing the point. Blair-Prescott was not the successful partnership that it was on account of the fact that Prezza is "working class." It is because, politically, Prescott represented a different strand of the Labour movement from Blair, enabling the party's traditional supporters to feel as if they had a voice at the top table, even if this wasn't always necessarily the case.

Similarly, Harriet Harman is wrong to stress, as she has done on a number of occasions, the importance of gender-balance in the selection of a leadership team. It's certainly important that women are well-represented in Gordon's Cabinet - and with Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint set for big promotions, they will be - but you don't have to have a female deputy leader to appeal to women voters.

No, it's political balance that counts, which is why I am of the view that neither Harman, nor Johnson, nor Hilary Benn would necessarily be the best candidates on offer. All of them are virtually ideologically indistinguishable from Gordon, and none of them can genuinely claim to have carved out a distinctive policy agenda.

The Labour Party could, if it wanted to, achieve a sort of "balance" by electing the uber-Blairite candidate, Hazel Blears, but that would merely give it a balance between New Labour's own tribal factions, ignoring the large swathe of party members who see themselves as neither New Labour nor Old Labour, just Labour.

If the party is looking for a more meaningful balance between the New Labour "right" and what I call the "sensible left," then the two candidates who would offer the best counterpoint to Gordon are Peter Hain and Jon Cruddas.

Hain looks certain to get on the ballot paper, Cruddas slightly less so, but whichever of them eventually emerges as the standard bearer of the disenfranchised mainstream left in this election is the one who will get my support.

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Red Dawngate

I make no comment on whether this Mail on Sunday story alleging that John Reid attempted to have sex with "Red Dawn" Primarolo during his drinking days was behind his decision not to contest the Labour leadership, other than to say that we've all done silly things while under the influence, and that if the Brown camp have been puttting this sort of stuff about, it's no worse than what the Blair camp was putting round about "gay" Gordon in '94.

But it has left me wondering whether MoS muck-raker story-getter extraordinaire Simon Walters might have further instalments in store on why neither Alan Milburn nor Charlie No Trousers Clarke stood for the leadership either, despite confident predictions in the latter case that a challenge would indeed be launched.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Blair - a preliminary verdict

Some of you thought I was being a bit flippant, or even peevish, in my rather light-hearted run-through of Tony Blair's "achievements" the other day. Well, a rather more considered asssessment appears in my column in today's Newcastle Journal and I reproduce it in full here.


And so, the deed is finally done. Tony Blair has announced his resignation as Labour leader and on June 27, when he ceases to be Prime Minister, an era in British politics will draw to a close.

As I wrote last week, it's come about four years too late, but let's not quibble about the minor details - the important thing for the Labour Party and the country is that he's going.

"I've been prime minister of this country for just over 10 years. I think that's long enough for me, but more especially for the country," he told his constituents at Trimdon Labour Club in County Durham.

And in what might have been a moment of self-knowledge he added: "Sometimes, the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down."

Earlier this year, Mr Blair told the BBC that he would not "beg for his character in front of anyone." Well, it sounded very much to me like he was begging for it on Thursday.

The gist of his farewell message to the nation seemed to be that, even though he might have got some things wrong, he wanted us to believe that he always acted out of the best of motives.

It wasn't one of his greatest efforts, to tell the truth. But it did, however, have the merit of humility, of acknowledging that his premiership had fallen short of expectations.

"The visions are painted in the colours of the rainbow and the reality is sketched in the duller tones of black and white and grey," he said. It's as good a comment on the Blair years as any.

The sense of disappointment, of lost hopes and unfulfilled promise that has accompanied the Blair era is felt by different people in different ways.

For many, it will be the extent to which he allowed his mission to reform the public services to become diverted by the "war on terror," culminating in the terrible morass of Iraq.

For others, it will be his failure to grasp the historic opportunity of his 1997 landslide to fashion a political realignment on the centre-left, or a new relationship with Europe.

For me, it will always be his failure, as the first Labour Prime Minister in 18 years, to heal the social and economic divisions of Thatcherism, and to have presided instead over an increase in inequality.

So what will be Mr Blair's lasting legacy? Well, the case against him is well known, and has been articulated in a fair amount of detail in this column down the years.

In a nutshell, it can be summed up in two words, Iraq and spin - two words that, taken together, have deepened the loss of public trust in politics that has occurred over the past decade.

But what of the case for him? Well, this rests primarily in my view on the extent to which he succeeded in bringing about what has been termed "social justice by stealth."

Mr Blair's admirers argue that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, he was actually responsible for a huge redistribution of wealth to the less well-off that has made a significant and lasting impact on society.

Now admittedly, there is something in this. Much higher benefits allied to new tax credits to the low paid mean around 600,000 fewer children are now below what the EU defines as the "poverty line."

But the very fact that Mr Blair felt unable to boast about this considerable achievement for fear of alienating Middle England demonstrates that he did not, in the end, alter the political consensus.

In any case, the argument that the Blair government was responsible for making a major dent in poverty also depends on whether you define poverty in absolute or relative terms.

Under the former definition, it is undeniably true that most people are much better off under New Labour. But at the same time, it is also undeniably the case that the gap between rich and poor was widened.

Nowhere, of course, is this dichotomy more pronounced than in the North-East. It would be churlish to deny that the region has experienced a major growth in prosperity over recent years.

But with other regions forging ahead at an even faster rate, the economic divide between North and South has widened on most measures during the Blair decade.

His government has been, at best, disinclined to address the North-South gap and, at worst it has actively pursued policies that have exacerbated it, such as the huge transport infrastructure investment in London and the South-East.

And his attempts at institutional reform in the region were a disaster, with the North-East Assembly referendum going down as one of the great debacles of his premiership.

So what next? Well, a curiosity of the week's political events was that Mr Blair did not even manage to stage the most sensational resignation. That distinction belonged to John Reid.

Was the Home Secretary's decision not to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership simply an acknowledgement that he is unbeatable? Well, probably.

Mr Blair's generous endorsement of the Chancellor's bid to succeed him yesterday masks the fact that, for months, the Blairites have tried in vain to find an alternative contender.

Ultimately they were defeated by two things - the arithmetic of Labour's electoral college, and South Shields MP David Miliband's reluctance to be their standard-bearer.

So in the end, Mr Blair was telling the truth in his conference speech last autumn when he said he wanted to "heal" the party's wounds to build a platform for election victory.

He deserves credit for that, and for saving Labour, at the last, from a civil war that would certainly have lost it that election.

As the Prime Minister told us on Thursday: "Believe one thing, if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country."

For once, in staging the orderly transition that has been so long awaited, he has.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Howard nails the real culprit

Probably only political obsessives managed to stick with yesterday's extended edition of Newsnight to the bitter end, but for those that did, there was a real treat in store.

Jeremy Paxman was chairing a studio discussion featuring Howard, Polly Toynbee, Charles Kennedy, Alan Milburn, David Hare and Alastair Campbell. Towards the end, the talk turned to Tony Blair's style of government and the impact of spin and sleaze.

Howard recalled that in the days when the young Tony Blair used to shadow him at Employment and the Home Office, he found him at all times to be absolutely straight and honest.

Then, looking across at Campbell, he declared: "I believe the man sitting there is who's responsible for what changed." Campbell had no response to it other than to accuse Howard of being a sore loser.

Howard's right, of course. Blair must bear the final responsibility as the man who employed him, but it was Campbell whose bullying of journalists and civil servants in the cause of news management did more than anything else to demean our political culture during the Blair years.

And of course, it was Campbell who wanted to get Dr David Kelly's name out in the open in order to "fuck Gilligan," part of the chain of events that ultimately destroyed the public's trust in Mr Blair.

The Guardian's Will Woodward has written a piece in today's Blair Resignation Supplement (not online as far as I can see) the gist of which is that Tony Blair would not have been the same force without Alastair Campbell.

Will is a nice guy who has already gone far in the Lobby and will go further, but he's wrong on this one. Without the baleful influence of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair might have been a great Prime Minister.

Update: The Newsnight clip is now on YouTube, courtesy of Chicken Yoghurt.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

An underwhelming exit

Like most people of my age, I clearly remember where I was when Margaret Thatcher went. Actually the answer was on a train between Derby and London on my way to a job interview. A woman got on at Leicester shortly after 9.30am and told the carriage "she's gone." I could hardly conceal my glee and managed to get into a row with someone on the seat opposite who clearly thought it was the worst disaster to hit the country since Dunkirk.

Will I remember in 17 years' time where I was when Tony Blair announced his resignation today? I doubt it.

Like Iain Dale I don't think this was one of Tony's best efforts. It seemed to me as if the Great Communicator had said all he really needed to say in his party conference valedictory address last autumn and was flailing around vainly in search of a new line.

In the end, the best he could come up with was "I did what I thought was right for our country." Which, I suppose, has the merit of humility if not that of startling originality.

In common with some other bloggers, I do eventually plan to have a celebratory beer to mark Blair's departure, and to drink a toast to the memory of Dr David Kelly who was driven to take his life by the activities of this wretched regime and for whom today's events represent some sort of delayed justice.

However since Blair is still in No 10, I suppose this small commemoration should wait until 27 June - the day the Blair era will finally come to an end.

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Those Blair achievements in full

By way of a farewell tribute to a great Prime Minister, here's a quick reminder of Tony Blair's legacy to the nation.

1. Northern Ireland peace process. It was John Major who started that.

2. Scottish and Welsh devolution. That was John Smith's idea, and Blair implemented it only with extreme reluctance.

3. The minimum wage. That was Keir Hardie's, and Blair fought it tooth and nail.

4. Low unemployment, low interest rates, low inflation. That will be thanks to Gordon Brown, then.

5. Three Labour election victories. The first one a donkey could have won. The third would have been a bigger victory without him.

6. Restoration of London-wide government. Better not let that dangerous Ken Livingstone anywhere near it though.

7. Tackling inequality. Except that he didn't - it got wider.

8. Saving the NHS. Except that he didn't - scores of health trusts ended up in the red.

9. "Education, education, education." Was that really once what New Labour was supposed to be about?

10. Spin, Iraq, cash for honours, politicisation of the civil service, sofa-style government, "Cool Brittania," the Millennium Dome, the "Third Way," and spending his last two years in office obsessing about what he would be remembered for.

Cruel? Maybe. But someone has to balance out all this absurd memorialising that's going on.

May 11 update: This post seems to have polarised opinion in the blogosphere somewhat. Justin from Chicken Yogurt liked it, which is a big compliment in itself, but Paulie from Never Trust a Hippy was rather less impressed.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

And here's what I do in my spare time...

Actually, not. Blogging is what I do in my spare time. But for the past six months or so, getting Lasting Tribute up and running has been my main job. The site, which contains a searchable database of 500,000 death notices and a selection of tributes to famous people, went live earlier today at 16.36. It's very much a work in progress at the moment and numerous exciting future developments are planned.

Much to the amazement of my work colleagues, I managed to sneak a few tributes to dead politicians onto the site, and these can be found HERE.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

My two penn'orth on Gordon's first Cabinet

As Ben Brogan so rightly says, the potential for egg-on-face with this is huge, but since everyone else is at it - well, Iain Dale anyway - here's my current take on where things stand in the Gordon's Government stakes following John Reid's surprise exit.

Prime Minister: Gordon Brown
Deputy Prime Minister: Alan Johnson
Foreign Secretary: David Miliband
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Jack Straw
Home Secretary (Minister for Homeland Security): Alistair Darling
Lord Chancellor (Minister of Justice): Hilary Benn
Leader of the House of Commons: Geoff Hoon
Nations and Regions Secretary: Peter Hain
Environment and Energy Secretary: Yvette Cooper
Defence Secretary: Douglas Alexander
Education Secretary: Hazel Blears
Health Secretary: Caroline Flint
Trade and Industry Secretary: Ed Balls
Transport Secretary: Stephen Timms
Work and Pensions Secretary: Ruth Kelly
Culture Secretary: James Purnell
International Development Secretary: John Denham
Local Government and Communities Secretary: Jacqui Smith
Minister for the Cabinet Office (Social Exclusion): Andy Burnham
Leader of the House of Lords: Lord Falconer
Party Chairman: Jon Cruddas
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Ed Miliband
Chief Whip: Nick Brown

The following will be leaving the Government:

Tony Blair
John Prescott
John Reid
Margaret Beckett
Patricia Hewitt
Des Browne
John Hutton
Tessa Jowell
Hilary Armstrong
Baroness Amos

The big thing I'm unsure about is Deputy PM. I'm not sure Brown wants one, but if Alan Johnson wins the deputy leadership as expected, I think he'll be obliged to have one. This is why I've said all along that Jon Cruddas, who doesn't want the title, is really Gordon's candidate.

I've earmarked a new job for Peter Hain which effectively amounts to overlord of devolved administrations. This is essentially a beefed-up version of his current role as Welsh and Northern Ireland Secretary, taking in also what is now the very thorny issue of relations with the Scottish Parliament.

I thought long and hard about Margaret Beckett, the great survivior of Labour politics. I think Brown will reluctantly ask her to step aside for now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see her back as Leader of the Lords after a General Election.

Finally, I think this is a work in progress as much in Gordon's mind as in everyone else's, and the nature of politics being what it is, the situation will almost certainly change between now and the end of July - so expect to see the odd update from time to time.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Reid begs the questions

Last September, in a rousing speech to Labour's conference that had him spoken of as a potential Prime Minister, John Reid said he intended to "play his full part" in helping Labour renew itself in government following Tony Blair's departure. It was a speech that was open to several different interpretations at the time and seems even more so now that Reid has revealed that the only part he will in fact play will be as a backbench MP.

So what's going on? As ever with Reid, there are quite a few theories, and they can be summarised thus.

1. He is genuine. He is coming up to 60, wants to take a break from government, and wants Gordon Brown to have the freedom to bring in his own people as he said yesterday.

Probability rating: 2/10. Reid is a politician to his fingertips, and it just doesn't square with what he said last autumn.

2. With the forthcoming break-up of the Home Office, Reid's role is about to diminish and Gordon was unable to offer him anything bigger by way of compensation. There is some speculation that he might have asked for a combined Defence and Homeland Security brief

Probability rating: 6/10. Gordon would have been happy to keep Reid in Cabinet in one of the two Home Office briefs, but not in a beefed-up role.

3. He has been forced out by some impending tabloid scandal. This is the theory currently running on Iain Dale.

Probability rating: 4/10. Reid has a fairly colourful past but it's unclear to me whny him resigning would make a tabloid newspaper any less likely to print something.

4. He is staging a canny tactical retreat to distance himself from what he sees as the impending disaster of the Brown premiership so that he can live to fight another day after the next election.

Probability rating: 7/10. There is no love lost between Reid and Brown and his decision not to serve could be likened to Iain Macleod's under Douglas-Home in 1963.

My conclusion, then, is that this is an act of deep disloyalty on the part of Reid which will weaken Brown and weaken Labour in the run-up to the next election.

If he ever does attempt a comeback, the Labour Party should remember that.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Ming must go, and Salmond must be stopped

No, I' ve not been ignoring the local elections. But as it happens, this year was the first time since 1989 that I didn't have to cover them live for either a newspaper or a website, so rather than join the live-blogging bandwagon I thought I'd take a step back from it all for once!

I also had a column to write on it yesterday, and since (unlike this blog) that earns me good money, it had first call on my priorities!

Two days on, though, and it seems the dust is now settling a bit, to the point where more considered judgements can be made. The two main conclusions I would draw from the local, Scottish and Welsh elections are summed up in the title of this post.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond seems likely to be Scotland's First Minister. He shouldn't be. Ming Campbell seems likely to continue as Liberal Democrat leader. He shouldn't either.

To take Salmond first, he is no doubt entitled to claim some sort of victory from the fact that the SNP has emerged as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament, and as such he is entitled to have first crack at forming an adminstration.

What he is not entitled to claim is that there is a separatist majority either in the Parliament or in the Scottish electorate.

Salmond's commitment to staging and winning a win a referendum on Scottish independence by 2010 is a policy so dangerous and so utterly wrong-headed both for Scotland and for Britain as a whole that he must be prevented from ever being in a position to carry it out.

Whatever their differences on other matters, the future of the UK is an issue of such importance that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems should now agree to form a Grand Coalition that reflects the unionist viewpoint of the majority of the Scottish people.

To his credit, Sir Menzies Campbell has appeared to rule out any sort of deal between his party and Salmond's unless the referendum pledge is dropped.

Sadly, it is clear from the Lib Dems' dismal performance in the South of England that Ming is the wrong man to counter the Tory revival that is occurring under David Cameron.

I said when Ming became leader that I thought he was the wrong choice but I was prepared to see how he performed in the job before casting judgement. The overwhelming evidence is that he isn't cutting the mustard.

If it's too soon for a return to Charles Kennedy - in top form again on Thursday's Question Time - then it's time Chris Huhne was given the chance to see what he can do.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

He wouldn't, would he?

Tony Blair to stand down as MP as well as PM next week? Not so say Tom Kelly and John Burton.

But if it is true, well, wouldn't that be the final kick in the teeth for the poor bloody voters of Sedgefield who have provided the vehicle for his parliamentary ambitions for the past 24 years?

Blair has always denied that he was a carpetbagger, that he alighted on the old mining seat as a convenient means of getting into Parliament and then spent as little time there as possible.

On the contrary, he has always stressed his County Durham background and his commitment to the North-East of England, although he hasn't always been able to translate that commitment into policy assistance for the region.

The least Blair now owes the people of Sedgefield who re-elected him in 2005 is to see out his term as their constituency MP.

I may be crediting the guy with far too much in the way of decency, but I just can't believe he would reward their steadfast loyalty to him by leaving them in the lurch in this way.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Major tells it like it is

As is probably obvious from the last but one post, I always had a sneaking admiration for Sir John Major, and certainly nothing became him in the office of Prime Minister like the leaving of it ten years ago today. He has been as good as his word too - unlike his own predecessor he has resisted the temptation to meddle and has genuinely "left the stage."

That said, he has never been afraid to express his view that New Labour has demeaned politics far beneath the level achieved by his own administration and that, in this respect, his treatment at the hands of the spin machine in the run up to May 1997 constituted a fairly major personal injustice.

Sir John's views on spin are worth listening to because he correctly identifies this as the defining characteristic of the Blair government - and the main reason why the hope and expectation that marked that bright morning a decade ago has turned to cynicism and loss of trust.

His article in today's Times is pretty much on the money, and I will quote part of it here - my italics.

"I view politics now through the eyes of an outsider. And much of what I see is uncomfortable. Political promises ring hollow. The political parties seem isolated and remote. In the last two general elections the turnout dropped from a healthy 80 per cent to a modest 60 per cent. Public disaffection is widespread.

"All parties bear some blame but the culpability of the present Government is clear. When Labour came to power, they brought with them all the black arts of sharp practice and spin that they had perfected in opposition. One of the most dismal legacies of the new Labour mission has been to turn government into a marketing exercise. The electorate now know they were sold a pup.

"I am not naive about politics. Spin – putting a gloss on events – is as old as politics itself...but it’s gone too far. Spin today is often downright deceit. For all its faults, old Labour had a soul; new Labour only has sound-bites and apparatchiks, careless of constitutional proprieties, who will use any unscrupulous trick to benefit the Government.

"This downward spiral began when Labour trashed the Government Information Service and politicised news management. Until then, no one doubted the No 10 spokesman. Now, if No 10 tells you Friday follows Thursday, wise men check the calendar. The consequence of this sophistry is profound and damaging. If, tomorrow, this Government told Parliament that our nation was under threat and we must go to war, would Parliament or the public rally behind it without independent corroboration? I think not – and that is unprecedented."
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The Gould decade?

Comment is Free today features a somewhat preposterous counterfactual by Neil Clark speculating on what sort of country we would now be living in if Tony Benn rather than Blair had just chalked up 10 years in power.

I have already posted a comment to this effect HERE but it seems to me that a much more plausible alternative history would have Bryan Gould celebrating a decade as Labour premier - for the simple reason that unlike Benn Gould could actually have become Labour leader in the 90s.

In 1992, he was offered a deal by John Smith under which Smith promised to support him for the deputy leadership if he stood aside from the leadership race and allowed Smith a coronation. Had Gould agreed to this, he would have become deputy leader and thus acting leader when Smith died.

Blair or Brown would still have challenged him for the leadership, but there is just a chance that Gould might have been able to put together enough of a coalition to hold onto the job. Had he done so, he and not Blair would have become Prime Minister on May 2, 1997.

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Were you there?

Well, I was, but with the hacks on the other side of the street rather than the cheering crowds pictured here.

It was possibly the craziest day of my entire working life. I had gone up to Newcastle the day before to cover the election for my paper, The Journal, and worked through the night with colleagues to produce our election special edition. At 6am I got on the London train, arriving back in my office in the Press Gallery at 9.30am. Then it was off to Downing Street to hear John Major's graceful exit. At that stage I reckoned I would be at work at least another 8-9 hours, so I envied him being able to go off and watch cricket on such a beautiful day.

Eventually the new Prime Minister arrived in triumph, having kissed hands at the Palace minutes earlier. "I should tell you that earlier this morning, I was invited by Her Majesty the Queen to form a government," he informed us in a slightly self-deprecating way, before going on to make his much-parodied statement about governing as old Tories New Labour. He also paid a generous tribute to Major, triggering a minor outbreak of booing among the more graceless (and less choreographed) elements of the cheering crowd.

By mid-afternoon, the details of the first Cabinet appointments were emerging and by 5am we were back at No 10 for the new government's first Lobby briefing. Alastair Campbell strode in to the basement room to general cheering from the hacks, who still, at that stage, regarded him as one of them. Asked how the new Prime Minister felt, he replied: "He realises that he has been given a remarkable opportunity to unite the country." It was a phrase that has always stuck in my mind.

I finally arrived back at my flat in Islington that night at 8pm, having had no sleep for 36 hours except for a few snatched moments on the train. It had been hugely satisfying, if rather exhausting, to have watched history unfolding at such close quarters, though not an experience I necessarily wanted to repeat. But of course, four years later, in June 2001, I did!

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

An empty anniversary

Actually, the real anniversary is tomorrow. Blair did not become Prime Minister until May 2, 1997, the day on which he was invited by the Queen to form a government, but predictably, most newspapers are treating today as marking Blair's 10 years.

I'll give my considered thoughts on what his premiership will be remembered for after he announces his resignation next week, but in the meantime, what significance should we attach to the fact that Blair has now emulated Walpole, North, Pitt, Liverpool and Thatcher by serving a continuous decade in power?

Well, the answer to that is not a lot, in my view. As that list demonstrates, it's a milestone that neither necessarily reflects greatness, nor necessarily confers it.

The truth is that Blair should not have remained Prime Minister this long, either for the good of the country, the good of the Labour Party, or for the good of his own historical reputation. That he has finally chalked up ten years is more a tribute to his tenacity and to the paucity of alternatives than to any real and lasting sense of political achievement.

As I have written before, Blair should in all conscience have gone in 2003, after the David Kelly scandal. The fact that no-one in the government was prepared to take the rap for this tragic episode has always seemed to me an appalling dereliction of responsibility.

Whether or not it was Alastair Campbell himself, it is quite clear that someone in the government spin machine took the decision to release Dr Kelly's name, and under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, it was Mr Blair who should have been ultimately held accountable.

As the late Hugo Young wrote at the time, the suicide of Dr Kelly was no random act of chance. It was an illustration of "the dynamic that is unleashed when the Prime Minister's sainted reputation becomes the core value his country has to defend."

Blair could even have made it a resignation on a point of honour, like Lord Carrington's over the Falklands invasion in 1982. He could have said "I was not responsible for this, and I deplore the chain of events that led to it, but the buck stops with me."

Of course, Blair survived, but nothing was ever quite the same again. Early in 2004, he seems to have experienced a momentary realisation that the catastrophic loss of trust that had occurred as a result of the war and its aftermath could not be regained under his leadership.

He could have gone then, handed over to Gordon Brown while the latter's reputation was still sky-high, ensuring Labour another three-figure majority in 2005 over Michael Howard's right-wing Tory rabble.

Instead, Blair hugely outstayed his welcome, and the results of that will be plain for all to see in Thursday night's local elections when Labour's support slumps to near the levels the party enjoyed when he first entered Parliament at the "suicide note" election of 1983.

Less than a year ago, a leaked Downing Street memo laughably suggested that Blair should "go with the crowds wanting more." He's actually going when the crowds can't wait to see the back of him. And he has only himself to blame.

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An unanswerable case

Firstly, many congratulations to Rachel North on her marriage on Saturday.

With the conclusion of the trial into the foiled terror plot, the story can now be told about what Rachel was on about in this post as referenced on this blog HERE.

In the light of what we now know - that the security services knew that two of the London bombers were part of that terror network and failed to stop them - I find it inconceivable that the Government can continue in its boneheaded refusal of a full public inquiry into 7/7.

Maybe they are just waiting for Gordon to announce it.

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