Saturday, September 26, 2009

So just what do the Lib Dems stand for?

Nick Clegg scored 10 out of 10 for ambition in Bournemouth, and top marks for avoiding the trap set by David Cameron. But he needs to learn a thing or two about party management. Here's today's Journal column.

And so we come again to the conference season, and not just any old conference season, but the one which will see the race to govern Britain for the next five years effectively begin in earnest.

Most of the country will see it as a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories, but once a year, at their annual conference, the Liberal Democrats get the opportunity to explain why this cosy consensus should be broken up.

Whether Nick Clegg and his party made the most of that opportunity, amid a week of bickering and backbiting in Bournemouth, must be very much open to question.

But one thing you certainly can’t fault is the scope of his ambition. “I want to be Prime Minister because I have spent half my lifetime imagining a better society, and I want to spend the next half making it happen,” he told the gathering on Wednesday.

Lib Dem leaders have been somewhat wary of talking too openly about the prospects of power ever since David Steel’s infamous “go back to you constituencies and prepare for government” speech at his party’s 1981 conference in Llandudno.

The best they’ve been able to hope for since those heady days has been to hold the balance of power, although as yet, it has never actually happened.

But Mr Clegg, to give him his due, was not going to be bounced by Tory leader David Cameron into talking about which of the two main parties he would back in the event of a hung Parliament.

If the Lib Dem conference represents his one chance a year to say what he would do I the unlikely event of him actually becoming Prime Minister, he was going to make sure he took it.

Mr Cameron’s eve-of-conference “love bomb” urging the Lib Dems to team up with the Tories in a grand anti-Labour coalition was an extremely mischievous intervention by the Tory leader on a number of levels.

For one thing, his claim that there is “not a cigarette paper” between the two parties on key issues of policy is about as mendacious and misleading a claim as he has ever made – and that’s saying something.

As the Lib Dems’ chief of staff Danny Alexander swiftly pointed out, while the Tories want to reduce inheritance tax for the richest 1pc of people in the country, the Lib Dems want to take the poorest out of income tax altogether.

And for all Mr Cameron’s supposed “greenery,” his party’s representatives in Europe have allied themselves with a bunch of climate change deniers in the European Parliament.

But Mr Cameron’s suggestion was mischievous on another level too, because he knows perfectly well that there is only one thing the Lib Dems actually could do in the event of a hung Parliament – and that is support the Tories.

This is not just because it would be political suicide for Mr Clegg to be propping up a Labour government that had just lost its majority. It is about simple electoral arithmetic.

Such is the inbuilt bias of the electoral system towards Labour, that so long as Labour achieves the largest share of the vote, it is bound to have an absolute majority in the next House of Commons.

Therefore the only way in which a hung Parliament can actually occur is if the Tories are ahead on share of the vote, but by not quite enough to form a government on their own.

In those circumstances, the Liberal Democrats would really have only course of action consistent with their advocacy of a “fair” voting system – and that would be to support the Tories as the party with the biggest share of the vote.

Mr Cameron knows this, and so does Mr Clegg – which is why he is all the more determined not to admit it. To do so would remove any reason for voting Lib Dem at all

That said, post-Bournemouth, the country is really no clearer on what the reasons for voting Lib Dem actually are.

The arguments over university tuition fees and the proposed imposition of a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £1m have hardly served to clarify the party’s message.

Charles Kennedy’s strategy in his time as Lib Dem leader was to have two or three distinctive policies that would separate his party from the common herd – for instance, abolishing tuition fees.

It was not surprising to see the man who led the Lib Dems to the best performance by a third party since the 1920s bemoaning the loss of some of those policies this week

Mr Clegg may be right that different times demand different solutions – but his problem he has yet to find anything as distinctive to put in their place.

As for his talk of “savage cuts” or “progressive austerity” - yet another abuse of the p-word – this is hardly a very different agenda from that being put forward by the two main parties.

Nor surprisingly, media attention has already shifted towards Labour’s conference in Brighton beginning tomorrow.

Yesterday’s revelations that the mole behind the MPs’ expenses scandal was motivated by the lack of resources for British troops in Afghanistan links two of the three big running political stories of the year.

Meanwhile the third big story – the future of Gordon Brown – will continue to rumble on in the background at Brighton, with the party hoping against hope that their leader will manage to spell out some sort of compelling vision for a Labour fourth term.

If Mr Clegg’s task last week was to explain why he should become Prime Minister, Mr Brown’s even harder one this week will be to explain why on earth he should remain so.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Not left, not right, just a mess....

More Lib Demmery in tomorrow's column.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


For anyone who might be wondering where I stand on the issue that appears to be dividing the blogosphere at the moment, click here.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

The c-word is not enough

Gordon Brown's use of the "c-word" this week was designed to clear the air over spending - but Labour's problems as it approaches the next election go deeper. Here's today's Journal column.

Over the course of the last three general elections, British politics has followed a fairly familiar pattern, with the question of who can best be trusted to run our key public services the main point at issue in each contest.

For almost all of that time, a Labour Party which promised more national resources for services such as education and health after 18 years of Tory tax-cutting and spending restraint has had things by and large all its own way.

By contrast, the Tories found themselves on the wrong side of the political tide – instinctive tax-cutters and reluctant spenders who were simply not trusted to carry out the investment in schools and hospitals which, by then, the public wanted to see.

When the history of the Blair-Brown years comes to be written, this underlying political consensus for greater public spending will be seen as the key factor underpinning Labour’s long political hegemony.

Of course, there were other reasons for Labour’s three successive victories. In 1997, the country was so heartily sick of John Major’s sleaze-ridden Tories that Labour would probably have won irrespective of its spending pledges.

The Tories then compounded their problems in both 2001 and 2005 by going into the election with the wrong leaders in William Hague and Michael Howard, when Ken Clarke would have been a much more voter-friendly choice on both occasions.

And of course, throughout this time they were up against an acknowledged master in Tony Blair who, whatever his shortcomings as a national leader, will go down in history as an election-winner par excellence.

But notwithstanding this, the essential dividing line in British politics between 1997 and 2009 remained one of Labour investment versus Tory “cuts” – although in reality that sometimes just meant the Tories were planning to spend slightly less than Labour.

For Gordon Brown, who as Chancellor oversaw the huge public spending programme, the lesson was clear. The way to win elections was to simply to highlight what local services the Tories would “cut” from Labour’s own programmes.

And who knows, it could have worked for him again, could have secured for Labour that elusive fourth term, were it not for the fact that the whole strategy was blown sky-high by the recession.

The extent of the problem really started to become clear in this year’s Budget which revealed the scale of the debt mountain facing the country in the wake of the government’s reflation measures.

Henceforth, there would be no “investment” as we have come to understand the term. There would, and could only be cuts.

This presented Mr Brown with an obvious difficulty. The Prime Minister is not known for his political agility and once he decides on a certain strategy, his usual approach, like Churchill’s, is to “keep buggering on.”

And so he did, through numerous Prime Minister’s Question Times this summer when the “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” mantra was faithfully trotted out to an increasingly weary public.

It was, unsurprisingly, Peter Mandelson who first cottoned-on to the fact that it just wasn’t working any more, and as I wrote a few weeks back, it was Mandy who began to lay the ground for a different approach, in his Newsnight interview last month.

“I fully accept that in the medium term the fiscal adjustment that we are going to have to make….will be substantial. There will be things that have to be postponed and put off, and there will probably be things that we cannot do at all,” he said at the time.

The upshot of all this repositioning was this week’s speech to the TUC Conference by Mr Brown in which he finally conceded, for the first time, that Labour too will oversee spending cuts if, against all odds, the party still manages to win next year.

To give Gordon his due, he didn’t just whisper the dreaded c-word. In fact he used it four times for good measure.

“We will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes, and cut lower priority budgets,” he told the conference.

Labour’s spinners say the speech was designed to “clear the air and enable Labour’s message to be heard again.” Whether or not it will achieve that end remains very much an open question.

As it is, the dividing lines between the two main parties, at least on the issue of public spending, now seem very blurred.

The argument between Mr Brown and Tory leader David Cameron would appear to revolve around the question of whether the cuts should happen now, as the Tories are advocating , or later, so as not to damage the recovery as Labour is arguing.

But of course, by the time the election actually comes round next spring, this distinction will have all but disappeared, and we will be in a scenario where cutbacks will swiftly follow whoever wins.

Lord Mandelson, with his customary indefatigability, is trying to draw a distinction between a Labour Party that will cut spending reluctantly and a Tory Party that will do it with relish, but it is doubtful how much traction this has with the public.

The real difficulty for Messrs Brown and Mandelson is that the next election is looking increasingly likely to be fought on what is natural Tory territory.

Thanks to the downturn, the consensus in favour of increased investment in public services which has been the foundation of Labour’s success over the past decade has finally started to shift.

What the public now wants and expects is, first and foremost, a government that will get the public finances in some sort of order, even if it means cutting spending programmes.

And if the prevailing public view is that spending has to be reduced, the hard truth for Labour is that the Tories are, by temperament and history, the party best-placed to do it.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

The grim reapers

A warm welcome back to Slob after his extended summer break...

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Lost Albums of Paddy Mac

Something significant has happened to me this week, and I'm pleased to say it's nothing to do with David Cameron or Gordon Brown. After 17 years, one of my all-time favourite bands has released an album, originally written in 1992, that has been at the centre of one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of rock and pop.

I have had many musical passions over the years, Genesis, New Order, John Rutter and Sergey Rachmaninov among them, but no music has ever touched me quite like that of Paddy McAloon, who formed Prefab Sprout with his brother Martin, sometime girlfriend Wendy Smith and drummer Martin Salmon (later replaced by Neil Conti) in the late 1970s.

In the 80s and early 1990s their albums From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback were rarely off my turntable for long, and friends who came to visit me at Number 13 around that time would invariably be forced to listen to them. Some of them even became fans themselves, although I doubt if they've still got the tapes I sent them.

And then, in about 1992, their once-prodigious output of wistful, brilliantly-crafted crafted pop songs came to an abrupt halt. Subsequently, the only new releases were the distinctly sub-standard Andromeda Heights in 1997, followed by the even more lacklustre The Gunman and Other Stories in 2001, while rumours persisted of a stack of unreleased albums languishing under Paddy's bed.

Which is where Let's Change the World With Music has presumably remained until last week, when it was finally released after a 17-year hiatus that has seen it assume legendary status among Sprout fans.

The reasons for the delay remain mysterious. In the sleeve notes to the new album, Paddy draws analogies with the Beach Boys' Smile, which went unreleased for nearly 30 years, and appears to take some of the responsibility for its non-appearance, saying: "Anyway, one day in May '93 we made a poor move."

But even though Paddy seems incredibly reluctant to point the finger at the record company, Sony, it seems likely that this is where the blame really lay, and my guess is that it will have had something to do with the overtly Christian nature of some of the songs - spritual blindness rather than tone deafness if you like.

Paddy's religious inclinations, previously only alluded to in lyrics such as "Don't you know who built Atlantis, and returned it to the sea, don't you know who owns the weather?," become much more in-your-face on Let's Change the World..... For example: "There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the Lord. Why if it's no more than a fable does it strike so deep a chord?"

It was obviously with a mixture of excitement and regret that I listened to the album for the first time this week. Back in the autumn of 1993, when it was originally scheduled to have been released, I was in the process of moving to a new job in Cardiff, and for my first few months down there I lived in a rather poky flat in the student bedsitland of Cathays. A new Sprout album would have brightened up that time no end.

But nevertheless, I feel blessed to have heard this lovely piece of music at long last, and although I don’t think I’ll ever love it quite as much as Langley Park or Jordan - ultimately, the songs you hear in your 20s are the ones that make you cry and the ones that save your life, as Morrissey said - it’s actually a more consistent album than either of those two.

I would certainly rank "Earth: The Story So Far" and "Music is a Princess" among their best-ever tunes, and I hope that the largely positive critical response to the LP - see the reviews in the Guardian, Times, BBC and Amazon - will encourage Paddy to raid his collection of lost albums at least one more time.

He is now in his 50s, partially blind, half-deaf, and with a grey beard of WG Graceian proportions that, together with his large dark glasses, obscures most of his weatherbeaten face, but wreck of a man that he seems on the outside, a musical genius still dwells within, and it seems inconceivable that we have heard the last of him.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

No change in the weather for Labour

I'm finally back from my late-summer break so without further ado here's today's Journal column rounding up the events of the past week and some of those which occurred while I was away.

Sometimes, the end of the summer holidays and the start of the new political season in the autumn can herald a change in the weather – in the political as well as the meteorological sense.

Governments or parties which have been going through a bout of unpopularity often come back rejuvenated, as people forget why they were unpopular in the first place.

But such is the trough of unpopularity in which Gordon Brown’s government has been mired for so long that this was never likely to be one of those kinds of Septembers.

Indeed, with the hugely damaging controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber still continuing to rumble on, Mr Brown’s position has, if anything, worsened over the course of the summer break.

The primary complaint against the Prime Minister’s handling of the issue is not so much whether he did or did not agree to exchange Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi as part of a new trade deal with Libya, although that may very well have been the case.

Rather, it has been his reluctance to speak out about an issue of such fundamental importance, when contrasted with his eagerness to comment on, say, the demise of Jade Goody or the fortunes of the England football team.

Mr Brown’s attempts to palm off all responsibility for the decision onto the SNP-led Scottish government have been exposed for exactly what they were – an abdication of leadership.

His close ally Ed Balls’ declaration on BBC Radio this week that “no-one in the government” had wanted to see al-Megrahi released has only further added to the impression of a government trying to face all ways at once.

Neither has it been a good summer for the government in terms of its handling of the conflict in Afghanistan, with the eight-year political consensus over the war visibly starting to fray.

Ministers have been accused both of failing to provide adequate resources for British troops on the ground, and of conducting a smear campaign against Army chiefs who dared to point this out.

Whoever was behind the negative briefings – and Veterans Minister and Durham North MP Kevan Jones has denied claims that it was him – the perpetrators demonstrated spectacularly poor political judgment.

People are not fundamentally interested in whether the new Army chief’s daughter is a Tory activist, or how much his predecessor claimed on expenses. They want to know whether our boys in Helmand are getting the tools they need to do the job.

The government’s dismal performance over the summer – its ratings only went up when Mr Brown was on holiday – contrasts sharply with that of David Cameron’s Tories in the first week back.

There was nothing particularly sophisticated or even original about Mr Cameron’s speech on Tuesday in which he pledged to cut back on MPs’ perks including subsidised food and booze. Indeed some might even see it as cheap populism.

But what it did show once again is that Mr Cameron remains far more in tune with the public mood over MPs’ expenses than the government has been.

Likewise, his decision to demote Shadow Commons Leader Alan Duncan was a long overdue punishment for a politician who has continually demonstrated that he simply does not ‘get’ what the public are angry about.

Mr Cameron is now riding the wave of the “anti politics” vote that, in former leader Charles Kennedy’s day, was once the preserve of the Liberal Democrats.

As well as ending the gravy-train which entitles MPs to the cheapest beer to be found anywhere in London, his speech this week pledged a cut in their numbers, the abolition of the unelected regional assemblies, and fresh curbs on quango spending.

The amount of money saved – about £120m a year – is but a pinprick compared with the £175bn budget deficit facing the country – but that’s not really the point.

No, what matters is that Mr Cameron is being seen to take a lead in reforming what the public now views as a corrupt political system - something Mr Brown has continually failed to do.

So with the Tories looking increasingly like a government-in-waiting, what, if anything, can Labour do to fight back?

Post-Megrahi, a collective despair appears once more to have gripped the party, with many MPs and activists resigned to election defeat next year, yet seemingly unable to conceive of any course of action which could avert that.

The backbencher Jon Cruddas summed up the party’s predicament in a speech to the think-tank Compass this week in which he argued that the government no longer knows what it stands for.

“There are plenty of initiatives and announcements but no sense of animating purpose, no compelling case for re-election,” he said.

One blogger this week posed the question whether another coup attempt against Mr Brown this autumn was possible in view of the Blairite plotters’ failure to unseat him last May.

Well, against the current backdrop, it doesn’t only seem possible, it seems inevitable.

The stark reality of the situation is that there is currently as much chance of the public giving Mr Brown another five years in Number 10 as Colonel Gadaffi putting Mr al-Megrahi on a one-way flight back to Scotland.

In other words, the summer break has come and gone – and for the Prime Minister, absolutely nothing has changed.

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