Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review of the Political Year 2010

When future historians come to assess the political events of 2010, two big counterfactual questions are likely to loom large in their minds.

They are: what if Labour had ditched Gordon Brown before the General Election, and what if the Liberal Democrats had refused to go into coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives?

The second question is probably the easier one to answer. Mr Cameron would have formed a minority government, David and not Ed Miliband would have become Labour leader, and both would now be gearing up for a fresh election in the spring.

But the more tantalising question is whether Mr Cameron might never have become Prime Minister at all had Labour gone into the election under a more popular leader.

The political year 2010 began with Mr Brown's survival once again hanging in the balance.

Former Labour ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt attempted to get MPs to demand a leadership contest, but rightly or wrongly, the consensus in the party was that by then it was too late to change horses.

As it was, the election turned into a slow-motion car crash for Labour, dominated by televised debates in which Mr Brown was predictably outshone by his two younger, more charismatic opponents.

Then, in the final week of the campaign, came 'Duffygate' - the kind of incident which could have happened to any of them, but which seemed somehow fated to happen to the luckless Mr Brown.

In terms of issues, the campaign centred mainly on the question of how to deal with the country's biggest budget deficit since the 1930s.

Here Labour was on an equally sticky wicket, with voters clearly concluding that the party was 'in denial' about the extent of the problem and crediting the Tories for being at least partially honest about the scale of the forthcoming cuts.

For all that, though, the public remained largely unconvinced by Mr Cameron and his team, and the eventual result saw the Tories falling some 20 seats short of outright victory.

Days of frantic bargaining followed, but with the parliamentary maths in favour of a Lib-Lab deal failing to stack up, it was always likely that a Lib-Con coalition would be the outcome.

Faced with the task of finding a successor to Mr Brown, Labour managed to saddle itself with the lesser-known of the Miliband brothers, courtesy of a crazy electoral system which gave the unions the decisive say.

For David Miliband, brother Ed's leadership election victory came as a bitter blow and the South Shields MP stood down from his party's frontbench.

Then, in one of his first acts as leader, Ed sacked former Minister for the North-East Nick Brown from his Shadow Cabinet team, leaving the region somewhat leaderless in Whitehall.

Indeed, with the new coalition busily taking the axe to every regional institution in sight, the North-East seemed in danger of losing its political voice altogether.

Initial excitement about the coalition soon faded. The 'new politics' spoken of by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in the TV debates soon regressed into the old politics of broken election promises.

Chancellor George Osborne had expected that the £80bn programme of cuts unveiled in his October comprehensive spending review would swiftly make him the most unpopular man in Britain.

Instead, it was Mr Clegg who became the government's fall-guy, completing his journey from hero to zero by backing the rise in tuition fees against which he had so vehemently campaigned in April and May.

The Lib Dems' decision to trade principle for power has clearly come at a huge political cost. The key question for 2011 is whether the coalition as a whole can survive it.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anarchy in the UK? This is not the country Cameron wants to lead

It is a moot point whether Thursday's protests over the government's decision to raise universities tuition fees to £9,000 amounted to the worst civil disturbances since the poll tax riots of 1990.

One should not forget that the fuel protests of autumn 2000 came close to bringing the country to a standstill - but they were by and large peaceful.

Measured purely in terms of street violence, this week's demonstrations almost certainly constituted the biggest outpouring of public anger seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

Should that be a warning sign to David Cameron and his coalition? Undoubtedly so.

The bare facts of the matter are that the government won the Commons vote on lifting the cap on fees by a majority of 21, down from its usual majority of 83.

While 28 Liberal Democrat MPs voted in support of the move, 21 defied the party leadership, including former leaders Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell and a possible future leader, Tim Farron.

Meanwhile six Tory MPs also voted against the measure, including the former leadership contender David Davis who, like Mr Farron, appears to be positioning himself for the coalition's eventual collapse.

But while the government won the vote, the question is whether in doing so it lost the argument, as well control of the streets.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the demonstrators have over-reached themselves, and that the ugliness of some of Thursday's scenes will turn the wider public against the students' cause.

In the short-term, it will have focused attention less on the fees issue than the question of whether security arrangements for the demo were even half way adequate.

But the debate over tuition fees is far from over. The House of Lords will certainly have a say on the matter, and there will have to be further legislation over the level and speed at which the fees are paid back.

That in turn is bound to lead to further rebellions which, if successful, could ultimately force the government to unpick the entire scheme.

So where does it leave the coalition? Well, firstly, what about the Lib Dems.

Their hope was that by getting the fees vote out of the way early on, it would enable them to move the political agenda onto other areas in which they are on firmer ground, such as political reform.

I wonder, however, whether memories will fade that easily, and whether we have not witnessed a seminal moment in terms of public perceptions of the third party.

It could well be that this will go down as the point at which the public stopped seeing the Lib Dems as a party of principle and started to see them as their opponents have always seem them – a bunch of opportunists who would break any promise for a taste of power.

Secondly, where do this week's events leave Mr Cameron? Despite his own protestations last week that he would "rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown," he is not the Iron Lady.

His style is consensual rather than confrontational. Unlike his illustrious predecessor, he has no wish to see his premiership consumed by battles against the 'enemy within.'

Within weeks of those poll tax riots in the autumn of 1990, the Prime Minister had gone, albeit over a combination of that and other issues.

That is not going to happen to Mr Cameron just yet. But in his desire to lead a broadly united country, he won't want to see too many more weeks like this one.

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Saturday, December 04, 2010

Labour don't do assassinations, but if they did....

When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader on the opening day of the party's conference in Manchester in September, a leading Tory blogger delivered a withering verdict on the result.

"They’ve missed out Hague and gone straight to IDS," said Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes blog which, while not exactly impartial in its coverage of the political scene, is not without influence at Westminster.

Staines was, so far as I am aware, the first political pundit to make the comparison between 'Red Ed' and the failed Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, but he certainly hasn't proved to be the last.

"It may be too early to start talking about Ed Miliband not making it to the next election as Labour leader, but many more performances at PMQs as poor as he put on today and it won’t be long before he’s in IDS territory," said another this week.

Wednesday's Prime Minister's questions should have been a breeze for Mr Miliband with the continuing three-way split in the Liberal Democrats over whether to vote for tuition fees, vote against them or abstain.

On top of that, he had the leaked critique by Bank of England governor Mervyn King describing Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne as "out of their depth."

Yet Mr Miliband chose instead to base his attack on another leaked document in which William Hague had described himself, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne as 'Thatcher's children.'

"I would rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown," the Prime Minister responded, ramming home the open goal to hoots of laughter from the government benches.

For Mr Miliband to attack the coalition for its Thatcherite tendencies was politically inept on so many levels it is hard to know where to start.

To begin with, Mrs Thatcher would not even have contemplated some of the things the coalition is doing, particularly in the area of welfare, so the comparison breaks down at the first hurdle.

But the real problem with referencing Margaret Thatcher in contemporary political debate is the wildly differing reactions she still elicits, even 20 years on from her downfall.

Labour's core voters may still regard her as the devil incarnate - but to many of the swing voters the party needs to win back, she was, and remains, a heroine.

Inevitably, the mounting discontent over Ed's slow start has led to continuing speculation that South Shields MP David Miliband might yet get a second shot at the leadership.

For my part, I can't see it. David may have deserved to get the job in September, but his brother's performance since then is in danger of trashing the entire Miliband brand.

It is simply inconceivable to my mind that, charged with finding another new leader at this stage, the party would replace a failed Miliband with….another Miliband.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper, who should have stood for the job this time round, is surely in pole position to take over should the opportunity arise.

What will probably save Ed Miliband is that Labour doesn't really do leadership assassinations. They knew Michael Foot was going to lose badly in 1983, yet passed up the chance to put Denis Healey into the job instead.

They probably knew Gordon Brown was going to lose in 2010, but again, they failed to move decisively against him.

The big difference, though, between those two leaders and the current one is that while they, at least to begin with, could claim the support of their own MPs, Mr Miliband was foisted on his by the wider party.

And, of course, there was another recent party leader who found himself in exactly that position. His initials were IDS.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ed Miliband needs to reform his party first

With his leadership of the Labour Party still barely two months old, it did not take long for talk of plots against Ed Miliband to start crawling out of the Westminster woodwork.

One national daily informed us that David Miliband was standing ready to take over should his younger brother prove a flop in the job he so narrowly beat him to in September.

I doubt very much whether David had anything to do with this 'story.' Indeed, many more stories like it and the South Shields MP will probably have to quit politics altogether, rather than risk becoming a focus for discontent over his brother's leadership.

No, I suspect this story arose, as these things tend to do at Westminster, from a Labour MP speculating idly to a journalist about what might happen if Ed Miliband were to fall under a bus.

But the story was not completely without significance. It demonstrated that some Labour MPs remain far from convinced by Ed, and that the new leader still has a big job on his hands to unite his party.

In that respect, his return from paternity leave at the start of this week came not a moment too soon.

Mr Miliband's announcement on his first day back of wholesale review of Labour policies is a wise move as far as it goes.

Barring an irretrievable bust-up if next May's referendum on the voting system goes against the Lib Dems, the coalition is likely to be in power for five years, and there is thus plenty of time for Labour to reinvent itself.

Furthermore, it is a tactic that has worked successfully for the last two Leaders of the Opposition who have managed to be promoted out of that job into Number Ten – Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Both men used policy reviews as a means of detoxifying their parties in the eyes of voters, Mr Blair from its tax-and-spend image, Mr Cameron from its 'nasty party' tag.

But it doesn't always work. Neil Kinnock launched a similarly wide-ranging review in the 1980s called 'Meet the Challenge, Make the Change', but failed to convince the electorate that Labour had done.

Likewise William Hague's much-vaunted 'Common Sense Revolution' in 1999 served only to reinforce voter perceptions of the Tories at that time as shrill and extremist.

For me, the fate of those two leaders seems to sum up the real difficulty facing Ed Miliband – whether he has the personality to connect with the British public and project a new and compelling vision of what his party stands for.

This is what ultimately distinguishes the successful opposition leaders from those who ultimately failed to make the transition to government.

Personality aside, his other big problem is whether the party under him can forge a distinctive policy agenda that is neither Old nor New Labour

For all the talk of the "death" of New Labour, and its replacement by True Labour, Real Labour or Next Labour, any departure from it will inevitably be portrayed as 'Red Ed' lurching to the left.

If anything, Mr Miliband needs to try to out-modernise the previous generation of modernisers by being prepared to tackle issues which they ultimately shied away from.

Welfare reform is one obvious example, but so is reform of the party's own archaic structures and its absurd system of electing its leaders.

It would be a brave politician indeed who, having prospered under the electoral college system, would then advocate its replacement by one member, one vote.

But if Mr Miliband is looking for a 'Clause Four Moment' which will force the electorate to sit up and take notice of him, that could well be the best option.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

The quiet man finds his niche at last

For good or ill, most Prime Ministers ultimately tend to remembered for a single defining event or achievement that happened on their watch.

For Clement Attlee, it was the creation of the welfare state. For Anthony Eden, it was Suez. For Ted Heath, entry into Europe. For Jim Callaghan, the winter of discontent. For Tony Blair, Iraq.

It's early days for David Cameron. But what he most wants to avoid – apart from losing the next election - is for his government to be remembered solely for the cuts.

He wants it to go down in the history books for something else entirely – for reforming the welfare state that Attlee created and for mending the society that he claims has subsequently been broken.

It is no mean ambition. Welfare reform has proved to be a 'mission impossible' for successive Prime Ministers – even ones who told their welfare reform minsters to "think the unthinkable."

Mr Blair's failure to bring about meaningful change in this area – despite a 179-seat majority and a favourable economic headwind – has become symbolic of the many missed opportunities and thwarted hopes of his long premiership.

By contrast, Mr Cameron must depend for his parliamentary majority on the Liberal Democrats, while the economic environment could hardly be less conducive to his aim of moving people off welfare and into work.

Yet, perhaps by force of circumstances in the shape of the need to reduce the deficit, his government has embarked on a programme of change which, if successful, would amount to the biggest recasting of the welfare state since its inception.

Perhaps even more improbably, the reform programme is being overseen by Iain Duncan Smith, the quiet man who failed to turn up the volume and seemed destined to go down as no more than a footnote in Tory Party history.

Forced into the political wilderness in 2003, he skilfully reinvented himself as a Beveridge de nos jours, and now, as Work and Pensions Secretary, has the chance to put his radical ideas into practice.

At the heart of the changes announced in his White Paper this week are two relatively straightforward principles.

First, the replacement of the labyrinthine system of work-related state support with a single Universal Credit, and second, the idea that it will always pay better to work than remain on benefits.

So will it succeed where other attempts have failed? Well, in its favour is the fact that there is an unusual degree of political consensus over the central objectives of the changes.
"If the government gets this right we will support them because we accept the underlying principle of simplifying the benefits system and providing real incentives to work," said Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Douglas Alexander.

New Labour leader Ed Miliband has already made clear he will not oppose the coalition for opposition's sake, and this is a wise strategic move on his part.

He realises there is a public consensus not just that the deficit needs to be cut, but that the dependency culture which has become entrenched in some deprived communities needs to be addressed.

But Labour's caveat, of course, is that the crackdown on benefits must go hand-in-hand with pro-growth policies to ensure the jobs are there for people to move into.

This highlights the biggest obstacle to Mr Duncan Smith's proposals – the fact that the government's cutbacks in other areas are likely to lead over the coming year to rising unemployment.

If there are not the jobs to go round, moving people off welfare into work becomes not just politically impossible but practically impossible.

As with much else, the fate of the government's welfare reform gamble depends on whether its greater economic policy gamble succeeds or fails.

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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Clegg will come to regret broken promise on fees

The cry of 'betrayal' is one of the most oft-heard in politics. Labour faced it on numerous issues between 1997 and 2010, not least when it introduced university tuition fees despite a manifesto pledge not to do so.

"We have no plans to introduce university top-up fees, and have legislated to prevent them" actually translated as "We have no plans to introduce them during the 2001-2005 Parliament, but we will legislate to bring them in thereafter."

The subsequent backbench revolt came close to bringing down Tony Blair, whose government only survived when a few MPs switched sides at the last moment on the orders of Gordon Brown.

One potential North-East rebel was told to support the measure with the words: "I'm not asking you, I'm [expletive deleted] telling you" - an interesting illustration of the way the Brownites used to do business.

But Labour's shameless U-turn created a huge political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, which they subsequently sought to exploit to the full in constituencies with large student populations.

Among the seats they targeted in 2005 was Newcastle Central, and it was probably only the personal popularity of the then MP, Jim Cousins, that stopped them winning it.

The Lib Dems were again making the most of the issue during this year's campaign, which they fought on a pledge to abolish the fees in place of a 'graduate tax.'

As one Sheffield student told the BBC's Question Time on Thursday: "Nick Clegg was never out of our student union during the election. Now we can't even get a meeting with him."

The reason for that, of course, is that the Lib Dems are now part of a Tory-led coalition that is set to remove the current £3,000 cap and raise it to a maximum of £9,000.

They point out that the coalition agreement does not commit them to supporting the measure, allowing them to abstain when the proposal comes before the Commons.

But if party leader Mr Clegg saw this is some great concession wrung from his Tory partners at the height of those tense negotiations following the election in May, I suspect he has since been disabused.

In fact the public sees it for what it is – a fig-leaf to enable the Lib Dems to stand aside holding their noses while the Tories introduce a two-tier system of higher education.

The purpose of this column is not to go into the rights and wrongs of how universities should be funded and how that fits into the larger question of how to tackle the deficit.

My own personal views on the matter are inevitably coloured by my own experiences as a student in more benign economic times.

As someone who would certainly not have been able to go to university without the state support that was then on offer, I find it very hard to argue that the next generation should be denied the same benefits.

That said, alongside a 'free' university education, in those days you also used to be able to buy houses in the West End of Newcastle for a few hundred quid. It's a different world now.

No, the main point I am trying to make here is that this is yet one more example of the coalition's inherent instability.

It seems likely that a number of MPs, possibly including the former leaders Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, will rebel rather than abstain on the measure, calling into question Mr Clegg's control over his own party.

As the Lib Dem leader has frequently reminded us, compromise is a necessary part of politics, especially in a hung Parliament scenario, and some political promises are seemingly made to be broken

With hindsight, however, I suspect he will come to see this as one that really should have been kept.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Despite the cuts, it is Labour that has the harder task

In the normal course of political events, any government that announced the largest cutbacks in public spending for more than thirty years would be seen as batting on a particularly sticky wicket.

And it is true that there has been no shortage of criticism of the £81bn cuts programme unveiled by Chancellor George Osborne on Wednesday.

Already, the coalition’s attempts to present the package as ‘fair’ have begun to look somewhat threadbare, with think-tanks such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies claiming it will hit the poorest hardest.

Given that public spending is of necessity higher in the worst-off areas of the country, it seems to me that the IFS is making not so much a contentious political point as a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Yet for all the sound and fury directed at the coalition this week, it is my belief that the spending review – and the wider question of how to tackle the deficit - actually poses a bigger problem for the Labour Party.

Why? Because like it or not, the government has succeeded in creating a consensus that, irrespective of whether or not the cuts are fair, they are certainly necessary.

The general election in May was essentially decided on two issues: whether the public could stand another five years of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, and how fast the deficit should be cut.

It is because Labour lost the argument on not one but both of these issues that it finds itself out of power today.

So on the question of the £18bn cuts to welfare benefits, even allowing for the undoubted human cost, there is actually a broad consensus that this is something that needs to happen.

If the coalition can succeed in reforming the welfare state – something Labour really should have done from a position of strength post-1997 – the political as well as the economic dividends will be huge.

Likewise, there is also a broad consensus that the last government created too many ‘non jobs’ in the public sector that are now having to be shed.

If as the government’s own documents appear to confirm, the cutbacks do lead to 500,000 public sector job losses, many of those not personally affected will see it as a necessary re-balancing of the economy.

It has become almost a cliché over the past week to say that Mr Osborne’s spending review will determine the result of the next election, but it is true nevertheless.

If his great gamble pays off, and the economy recovers before 2015, the coalition will have succeeded in constructing a political narrative that will be well-nigh unbeatable at the polls.

It will be the well-worn cry of Tory governments down the ages - that Labour turned the country in an economic disaster zone, leaving the coalition to clear up the mess.

However good or bad a leader Ed Miliband turns out to be, it is inconceivable in those circumstances that the country would then turn back to Labour after just one term out of office.

Yet for Labour, the alternative scenario in which Mr Osborne’s cutbacks plunge the country into a double-dip recession is almost equally baleful.

Messrs Brown and Balls would then be powerfully vindicated – but at the cost of millions of lost jobs, repossessed homes, failed businesses and shattered lives.

Hence many Labour supporters who might ordinarily hope that the Comprehensive Spending Review proves this government’s undoing will instead be praying that Mr Osborne is proved right.

It may condemn their party to a decade of opposition. But at least they might still have their jobs by the end of it.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Region losing its voice as cuts start to bite

The day after David Miliband stepped aside from the Shadow Cabinet and Nick Brown was axed as Chief Whip, a Newcastle Journal headline posed the question: "Has the North East lost its political voice?"

If that was a pertinent question to ask then in the wake of the departure from frontline politics of two genuine regional heavyweights, it is even more so now.

Since then, we have seen the Parliamentary Labour Party fail to elect any of the four North-East MPs who stood for the Shadow Cabinet while choosing no fewer than seven from Yorkshire and Humberside.

And on Thursday, final confirmation that One North East, the development agency which has presided over a regional economic renaissance, is among the 192 quangos being axed by the coalition government.

The contrast with the regional political scene of a decade ago could not be greater. We regularly saw five or six North-East MPs occupying seats around the Cabinet table – depending on whether Peter Mandelson was in or out at any given time.

Their value has been long debated. Tony Blair admitted in his memoirs that he dared not be seen to favour his home region, and at least one of those Cabinet ministers admitted the same to me.

There was also the now largely dismantled regional political infrastructure – ONE, the regional government office created under John Major, and the regional assembly made up of senior councillors and other representatives.

Later on, under Gordon Brown, the North-East had its own minister in Nick Brown. Now it does not even have a single MP in government, let alone someone dedicated to sticking up for its interests.

In retrospect, it is clear that a more concerted effort should have been made to get behind a single North-East candidate in the Shadow Cabinet elections, probably Helen Goodman as she came closest to being elected.

But as it has turned out, the region is fairly well-represented in the middle ranks of Labour leader Ed Miliband's new team unveiled last weekend.

Ms Goodman joins Kevan Jones, Sharon Hodgson, Roberta Blackman-Woods and new MPs Chi Onwurah and Catherine McKinnell as shadow ministers, while Alan Campbell has been promoted to Deputy Chief Whip.

None of them, as yet, has the parliamentary stature of a Nick Brown or a David Miliband, but at least there is hope there for the future.

But if new leadership is going to come from anywhere, it surely needs to come from within the region itself, and here the picture is much less promising.

The moreorless wholesale disappearance of region-wide political institutions has left a void which the coalition's plans for yet more elected mayors will not begin to address.

One of the arguments made at the time of the regional assembly referendum was that a future Conservative administration would find it harder to get rid of an elected body than a panoply of unelected ones.

In retrospect, this was surely right. After all, the coalition is not abolishing the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, even though those institutions cost many times more than the RDAs.

Hopes continue to linger that the government may yet allow the creation of a region-wide Local Economic Partnership to provide a single regional perspective where necessary.

But Whitehall's signals on this have been mixed to say the least and while Business Secretary Vince Cable may be supportive, it is clear that not all of his colleagues share his viewpoint.

Much of the debate around the governance of the North-East over recent decades has essentially been about the need for a distinctive regional political voice.

It is no exaggeration to say that, in a few short months, the coalition has managed to set back that cause by at least 20 years.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

As the conference season ends, which leader faces the toughest task?

Ever since he burst onto the political scene during the Tory leadership election five years ago, David Cameron has consciously or otherwise modelled himself on Tony Blair.

To begin with, he appeared to invite the comparison, describing himself as the "heir to Blair" at a dinner with a group of newspaper executives in October 2005.

One of the newspaper editors present on that occasion reputedly warned him: "David, I would not repeat that outside this room," and to be fair to Mr Cameron, he took the advice.

But though the Prime Minister is nowadays more keen to play down the comparisons, this week's Conservative Conference in Birmingham showed they have not gone away.

Political blogger and former North-East Labour official Hopi Sen produced a fascinating comparative study of Mr Cameron's conference speech on Wednesday with Mr Blair's first address as Prime Minister in 1997.

For instance, in 1997, Mr Blair said: "When people say sorry, that’s too ambitious, it can’t be done, I say: this is not a sorry country, we are not a sorry people. It can be done."

Fast forward to this year, and Mr Cameron is telling us: "Don’t let the cynics say this is some unachievable, impossible dream that won’t work in the selfish 21st century – tell them people are hungry for it."

And as Hopi points out: "In Blair’s first speech we find a young girl who writes in to say how much she liked going to a summer camp. In Cameron’s a young girl writes in to help pay off the deficit."

But what really unites Messrs Cameron and Blair is not so much their shared rhetorical style or even their presentational skill, but their tendency to want to define themselves in opposition to their own parties.

Mr Blair loved nothing better than to don the Tories' clothes – whether it was being tough on crime, a hawk in international affairs, or even privatising public services when Gordon Brown would let him.

He knew it wound his party up – but that was fine so long as it showed the wider electorate that Labour was no longer hidebound by what he saw as out-of-date ideology.

Now we have Mr Cameron wanting to make 'fairness' the defining characteristic of his government – not a value with which the Tories have always been readily associated.

The Prime Minister knew that the decision to axe child benefit for households with a higher-rate taxpayer would wind-up his own grassroots – but what mattered was whether the wider public saw it as fair.

But did they? It certainly doesn't appear to be very "fair" to families with a single-earner in the higher tax bracket whose partner stays at home – and may well have to be rethought for that reason.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt then broadened the debate by raising the issue of whether the state should subsidise people who have more and more children.

Was it a gaffe - or was he acting as an 'outrider' for Mr Cameron, in the way that Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn sometimes used to do for Mr Blair, saying the things the leader dare not say himself?

Time will tell – but as the post-election conference season draws to a close, how do the three parties and their leaders currently stand?

Labour's Ed Miliband must persuade a sceptical public he is a better leader than his brother would have been. Nick Clegg has to win that referendum on voting reform, or risk the Lib Dems being flattened at the next election.

As for Mr Cameron, he must convince the voters that the most savage spending cuts to be unleashed for decades are somehow "fair."

It is hard to say which of the three of them faces the most difficult task.

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ed should think twice before he buries New Labour

Within hours of Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership election last Saturday, friends of Tony Blair let it be known that the former PM regarded the result as a "disaster."

It was certainly pretty disastrous for Tony Blair. His ill-judged intervention in the contest, suggesting that any departure from New Labour would consign the party to the wilderness, appears to have spectacularly backfired.

Offered the chance to choose a Blairite continuity candidate in David Miliband, the comrades opted instead for someone who has spent most of his career as an adviser to Gordon Brown.

Mr Blair's autobiography may have topped the best-seller charts. But it has lost him any lingering influence he may have had over his old party.

But if this week's conference in Manchester was a disaster for the Blairites, how was it for the party as a whole?

Well, on this point, I'm afraid I find myself in rare agreement with the former Prime Minister.

Had David won, Labour would have been right back in the game. Unlike his younger brother, he is a man who is ready to be Prime Minister now, and his election would instantly have struck fear into the coalition.

Instead - and not for the first time in its history - the party has opted to eschew the easy route back to power in favour of the long, hard road.

To my mind, there are three principal reasons why Ed's victory may ultimately come to be seen as a bad day's work for the party.

The first is nothing to do with the qualities of Ed or David, but with the flawed system that enabled Ed to come out on top despite winning fewer votes from both party members and MPs.

Much has already been written about the dangers of Ed being seen to be in the "pockets" of the union bosses, and like many Labour leaders before him, he will have to work hard to tackle that perception.

To me, the bigger problem is not that the unions got their man, but that the party members didn't, creating an issue of legitimacy that Ed will struggle to address.

Secondly, there is Ed himself. He was right in his speech on Tuesday to try to draw a line under some of the issues which have caused Labour to suffer such a catastrophic loss of trust, and the 'Red Ed' jibes will soon be shown to be ludicrous.

But for all his personal ruthlessness in fighting his elder brother for the party leadership – and in despatching Nick Brown from the job of Chief Whip - he still comes across as rather earnest and well-meaning.

For me, though, the biggest danger for Ed is that, in displaying such ruthlessness in pursuit of the top job, he may have sown the seeds of his own downfall.

It is not just that in order to win the leadership he had to humiliate his elder brother and force him out of frontline politics, but that he also had to trash the entire New Labour brand.

Yes, there were things New Labour got wrong. It did become "fixed in its own certainties" as Ed said on Tuesday. The Blairites became, like Tony Crosland, revisionists who stopped revising.

And as the North-East knows only too well, it clearly failed to balance the interests of its traditional supporters against those of 'aspirational' voters.

But the essential lesson of New Labour – that to win, the party needs to reach out beyond its ideological comfort zone - is one Ed Miliband ignores at his peril.

And I am not alone in wondering whether in declaring New Labour 'dead,' he is not also in danger of writing his own political obituary.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mutually assured destruction

Behind all the brave talk of new generations, it is my fairly considered view that this Labour conference has been little short of a disaster for the party.

The outcome of the leadership election, via a flawed system that appears to have awarded the prize to the less popular, as well as the less experienced brother, has overshadowed the whole week in Manchester.

Had David Miliband won, as once seemed his appointed destiny, then the week would surely have been a breeze.

Labour would have elected an oven-ready Prime Minister who would instantly have struck fear into the coalition. Instead, the party has opted to do it the hard way.

As I have written before, I don't think Ed Miliband's politics are the problem. He was right yesterday to have distanced himself from some of the issues which caused Labour to suffer such a catastrophic loss of trust at the last two elections, and the 'Red Ed' jibs of the right-wing press will soon be shown to be self-evidently ludicrous.

Another of his nicknames, 'Forrest Gump', is perhaps nearer the mark. The trouble with Ed for me is that, for all his personal ruthlessness in fighting his elder brother for the party leadership and humiliating him in the process, he still comes across as rather well-meaning and naive.

To the Blarites, he was neither Red Ed, nor Forrest Gump, but 'The Emissary from the Planet Fuck' - apparently a reference to the fact that he was the only leading Brownite they could speak to without being told to "fuck off."

This too is revealing. Ed Miliband effectively won this contest by being the acceptable face of Brownism - by contrast with Ed Balls who was seen as its unacceptable face.

But the real problem Ed has faced this week is the psychological outworking of his brother's humiliation, culminating in today's announcement that he will not serve under him.

It undoubtedly leaves Ed weakened, and leaves Labour's already depleted top team looking even more bereft of experience, but it is merely the price he is now having to pay for upsetting the natural order of things.

Ed should perhaps have given more thought to this before he entered a contest which he did not really need to enter - that in destroying his brother, he risked ultimately destroying himself.

This self-destruction is not just a matter of whether Ed can look himself in the mirror at 3am in the morning, but whether, in laying bare the divisions within Labour in order to grab the top job, he has ultimately fatally hobbled his own election chances.

It was for all these reasons, and also partly because Ed's victory has left me feeling rather disconnected from Labour, that I posted a picture of Yvette Cooper on this blog last night under the headline "Labour's next Prime Minister."

Okay, so five years is a long time in politics, and Ed will doubtless grow in stature during that time, but in the increasingly presidential nature of our election contests, he doesn't look or sound to me like a man who could beat David Cameron.

So Dave is in for two (fixed) terms, Labour will turn to someone else for 2020, and Yvette - who in my view could have won this time and spared us this whole psychodrama - will surely make Chuka Umunna wait a while longer.

It is surprising in many ways that we have not yet had a second woman Prime Minister. The 30th anniversary of Thatcher's overthrow would seem an appopriate year in which to remedy that.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clegg cannot ignore his social democratic wing

Back in 1999, in his first keynote conference speech, Charles Kennedy insisted that the Liberal Democrats under his leadership would never become a "left-of-Labour party."

Nobody quite took the statement at face value, and neither, I suspect, did Mr Kennedy himself.

Sure enough, over the ensuing two elections, the man then known as 'Chatshow Charlie' succeeded in taking the Lib Dems to their highest-ever parliamentary representation by consistently taking left-of-Labour positions.

In 2001, it was the extra penny on income tax to pay for additional education spending that won over the voters, while in 2005, it was the party's opposition to the Iraq War.

Fast forward eleven years, and current Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is making what at first hearing sound like similar noises about the party's positioning vis-à-vis Labour.

Interviewed before this week's conference in Liverpool, he said: "The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for people who are disaffected by the Labour Party."

The difference between Messrs Kennedy and Clegg, though, is that Clegg means it.

Not only has he gone into coalition with the Tories. He is almost saying 'good riddance' to those left-of-centre voters who have helped keep the party afloat over the past decade as New Labour continued its rightward drift.

He said in his interview: "I'm not denying there is a chunk of people who turned to the Liberal Democrats at the height of Blair's authoritarianism and his fascination with Bush…that was always going to unwind at some point."

True up to a point….but unless he is genuinely relaxed about his party losing more than half its support at the next election, the logic of Mr Clegg's position – if you can call it logic – is very clear.

It is that, between now and 2015, he is going to have to find himself an entirely new set of voters - particularly in the North where the 'disaffected ex-Labour' vote makes up a fair slice of Lib Dem support.

Which in turn begs the question: where on earth are they going to come from?

Before delivering his two-fingered message to his left-of-centre supporters, Mr Clegg would perhaps have done well to consider his party's recent history.

The Liberal Democrats, it should be remembered, are a fairly recent amalgamation of two parties with very different philosophical strands – the Liberals, and the Social Democrats.

The party is therefore itself a coalition of economic liberals such as Mr Clegg who feel naturally comfortable as part of a Tory-led government, and social democrats like Mr Kennedy to whom it is anathema.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why one opinion poll this week showed that more than half of Lib Dem voters regard the coalition as a sell-out, while 40pc said they voted Lib Dem specifically to keep the Tories out.

In his speech on Monday, Mr Clegg made an impassioned plea to his party to "stick with" the coalition, promising it would "change Britain for good."

Well, they'll stick with it as far as the referendum on voting reform next May. But after that, all bets are off are far as I can see.

I'll make another prediction, too. Mr Clegg will not find an army of new Liberal Democrat supporters waiting around for someone to vote for, and he will therefore be forced in the end to try to hang on to his existing ones.

And he won't be able to do that unless he can somehow first find a way of getting his party out of this coalition alive.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Tories can reap the 'peace dividend'

While some political arguments never quite go away, recurring down the years in different forms and different contexts, there are others that are very much of their time.

An example is the issue of trade union power, and specifically whether it could legitimately be exercised to thwart the will of the democratically-elected government of the day.

This issue dominated British politics from the late-1960s to the mid-1980s, and was responsible during that time for bringing down at least one Labour government in Jim Callaghan's and one Conservative one in Ted Heath's.

It was eventually resolved by Margaret Thatcher's defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1985 strike, resulting not just in the marginalisation of the unions but the end of an entire way of life for many mining communities.

Yet to listen to this week's Trades Union Congress in Manchester, you could almost be forgiven for thinking the nation had undergone some kind of collective Life on Mars-type experience.

We learned that the TUC is planning a series of public sector strikes designed to get the government to think again about its spending cuts programme.

There is certainly an argument to be had about whether the cuts are going faster than they need to. There is a related argument about their legitimacy, given the Tories' failure to win an outright majority in May.

But turning the whole debate into a re-run of the 'Who Governs Britain?' controversies of the 1970s hardly seems the best way for the unions to try to win public sympathy for their cause.

Another ancient political argument that seemed to have been settled long ago was the one about Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

This, too, was a battle that raged during the early 1980s, helping to split the Labour Party in 1981 when the pro-nuclear SDP broke away in dismay at its drift towards unilateralism.

The issue was seemingly put to bed when Labour then proceeded to lose three elections in a row before Tony Blair came along and wiped out all semblance of the party's pacifist tendency – and how.

But by a supreme historical irony, that bit of Labour which broke away to defend the nuclear deterrent has ultimately morphed into that bit of the Lib-Con coalition which now wants to ditch it.

Of all the many issues on which the two sides of the coalition disagree, this promises to be one of the most toxic, with many backbench Tories seeing the renewal of Trident as an article of faith.

Delaying the decision until after the next election will undoubtedly save a few bob – but it is also sure to re-open the debate over whether we should have a nuclear deterrent at all.

Yet for Prime Minister David Cameron, there is a rare political opportunity here – so long as he can square his backbenchers.

For if any government is going to radically reshape Britain's defence capability – and reap the potential 'peace dividend' in terms of savings - then this one is probably best-placed to do it.

Labour could never have abandoned Trident - for the simple reason that it would have brought back all those fears that the party could not be trusted with the nation's defences.

But the Tories, who have never had that problem, might just be able to.

By the same token, the Tories will find it much harder to reform the welfare state – something Labour really should have done in its first term when Mr Blair was carrying all before him.

For Mr Cameron, cutting Trident, and maybe finding a less costly form of nuclear deterrence, could prove to be the easy bit.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Balls holds the key

Politics has seen many changes over the past couple of decades - but if there is one thing that has changed out of all recognition, it is the science of opinion polling.

I have been in this game just about long enough to remember the infamous BBC exit poll in 1987 predicting a hung Parliament. Mrs Thatcher's Tories won a 102-seat majority.

By contrast, this year's exit poll - also predicting a hung Parliament - was very nearly spot-on, not just in terms of the overall outcome but also in terms of the number of seats won by each party.

But if most elections are becoming easier to predict, Labour leadership election are surely the exception that proves the rule.

There are two fairly straightforward reasons for this. Firstly, the single transferable voting system, which usually means that contests are decided on voters' second and sometimes even third preferences.

Secondly, the make-up of Labour's electoral college, comprising MPs, trade unions, and party members, which makes it nigh-on impossible to conduct a meaningful opinion poll.

So the widespread expectation that South Shields MP David Miliband will be crowned as Gordon Brown's successor later this month needs to be taken, at the very least, with a small pinch of salt.

While the Shadow Foreign Secretary certainly has the most support among MPs, and probably among party members, no-one quite knows what the union ballots will come up with, or how important those second preferences will prove to be.

If anyone is in any doubt about this, they only have to look at what happened in the party's deputy leadership election in 2007, when Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn were seen as favourites by the pundits.

They completely underestimated the level of support among the grassroots for Harriet Harman and Jon Cruddas, whose second preference votes ultimately won Ms Harman the job.

That said, leadership elections are not the same as deputy leadership elections where you might feel more able to vote for someone you like the sound of, without necessarily worrying about whether they are capable of winning a general election.

There is a good argument for saying that if the same six candidates as contested the deputy leadership in 2007 had been contesting the leadership, Mr Johnson would have won.

The conventional wisdom in this election has been that Ed Miliband is everyone's second favourite candidate, and that if David is not sufficiently far enough ahead on first preferences, he risks being overhauled by his brother in the latter stages.

The key to it, as with the 2007 deputy leadership election, will be what happens to the second preferences of the third-placed candidate.

Following his strong performance in bashing the coalition, and showing real fighting qualities over the course of the campaign, I think this will in all likelihood be Ed Balls.

I am quite sure this is why talk of a 'pact' under which Mr Balls would become David Miliband's Shadow Chancellor has been doing the rounds over the past couple of weeks.

As it is, I am not sure there ever was such a pact or whether it would even be deliverable.

Mr Balls and the elder Miliband do not appear to share the same views about the importance of tackling the deficit vis-à-vis the need for economic growth, and that may make his appointment as Shadow Chancellor somewhat problematical.

Either way, by my reckoning Ed Miliband will probably need to win at least three fifths of Mr Balls' transfers in order to pip his brother to the post.

My hunch is that he won't, and that it will indeed be David wearing the crown a fortnight tomorrow.

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

For PM, it has to be DM

No leadership election occurs in a political vacuum. For good or ill, the current race for the leadership of the Labour Party will invariably be shaped in part by the context in which it is taking place.

Like it or not, it is the Blair-Brown years, and their ultimately shattering denouement in the general election defeat of 6 May, which provide the inescapable backdrop to this contest.

For at least one of the candidates, Ed Balls, that defeat already looks likely to have dealt a terminal blow to his leadership aspirations.

For all his pugnacious qualities - none of the candidates have landed as many blows on the Lib-Con coalition as he has - the party was never going to replace the defeated Gordon Brown with, well, Gordon Brown Mark II.

But if this has been a difficult election in which to be a Brownite - all the candidates have been anxious to distance themselves to a greater or lesser degree from the former Prime Minister - being seen as a Blairite is not much of a recommendation either.

If by publishing his memoirs in the week the leadership ballot papers went out, Tony Blair hoped to influence the contest in favour of his protege David Miliband, it only goes to show how delusional he has become.

Mr Blair's account of his 'Journey' is already a bestseller, but many Labour members will be aghast at his decision to kick Mr Brown when he is down while simultaneously refusing to criticise Prime Minister David Cameron.

Then again, why would he, since he too clearly believes that the coalition is a Blairite continuity administration, doing exactly the things he would have done had he not been thwarted by nasty old Gordon.

So far from boosting the elder Miliband's candidature, the book looks likely to provoke a backlash against Mr Blair which could well harm the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

But in my view, that would be a shame, because, aside from all the factionalism, David Miliband is the best qualified candidate to take Labour back into government.

I have to confess that at the outset of this contest, I was leaning more towards Andy Burnham, which would have been the first time Durham North MP Kevan Jones and I had agreed about anything.

But while Mr Burnham is clearly the candidate most attuned to the needs of the North, his oddly tribal, Old Labour-ish campaign has seemed at odds with the 'new politics' of co-operation and coalition.

Of the other candidates, Ed Balls has already been dealt with, Diane Abbot would clearly take Labour back to irrelevance, while I wonder whether Ed Miliband is really ready for the top job.

I like a lot of what he has had to say about the need for Labour to regain its values before it can think of regaining power, and the 'Red Ed' jibes from the Blairite camp are self-evidently ludicrous.

For me, Ed's problem is not his politics, but the fact that he comes across as rather well-meaning and naive - a nice guy, an original thinker even, but not quite tough enough to be leader - and maybe PM - just yet.

By contrast, the one quality his elder brother possesses above all is that, having already held a major office of state, you can easily imagine him as Prime Minister now.

Mr Blair was at pains in his TV interview with Andrew Marr on Wednesday to stress that the South Shields MP is his own man, and that is one thing he was right about.

As a North-East Blairite, he could easily have got sucked into the silly tribalism that affected some of his former parliamentary colleagues in the region who saw any criticism of their beloved leader as a betrayal, but to his credit he never did.

I have no doubt at all that if he wins, David's first priority will be to unite the party and draw a line under the feuding once and for all.

But will he win? That is the question to which I will turn my attentions in next week's column.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Blairite, Thatcherite - or maybe both?

The milestone of a new government's 100th day in office is one of those political landmarks which is perhaps given undue significance by commentators.

After all, it would be a pretty poor sort of government that failed to reach the target, even one cobbled together from two wildly differing parties in the wake of an inconclusive general election result.

Nevertheless, while the first 100 days of a government's life do not necessarily determine its character, they do provide significant pointers to what sort of administration it is likely to become.

In the case of the Con-Lib coalition, it is reasonably clear that the dominant theme thus far has been what its critics would call the "Tory cuts" agenda rather than "Liberal reform" one.

Lib Dem deputy leader Nick Clegg, minding the shop this week and next during Prime Minister David Cameron's holidays, is understandably keen to disabuse the voters of this notion.

He insisted yesterday that being in government meant the Lib Dems were able to make progress with a "liberal agenda"- but few believe him.

In a different way, Chancellor George Osborne, who by contrast has provided the dominant voice of the coalition thus far, was also at pains to emphasise this week that the government is about more than cuts.

Although his big speech on Tuesday was focused on the continuing need for spending reductions, it was tempered with talk of creating a 'fairer society' in the longer-term.

For what it's worth, my own view on the coalition is that it probably has over-emphasised its determination to cut spending at the expense of its reformist credentials.

What reform proposals there have been, notably on education and the NHS, have been largely about shrinking the size of the state – something that is intimately bound up with the spending cutbacks.

There has been much less talk of political reform besides the announcement of the date of the referendum on the voting system, something which is likely to turn into the hottest of potatoes for the coalition.

What, for instance, has become of the much-vaunted 'Freedom Bill' to abolish hundreds of unnecessary regulations brought in by New Labour? Has the coalition belatedly decided they were necessary after all?

The debate over what sort of government this really is was thrown into relief by the decision of the former Darlington MP Alan Milburn this week to become its 'social mobility tsar.'

It inevitably led to cries of betrayal from some of his more tribal ex-colleagues, Andy Burnham and John Prescott among them.

A more charitable interpretation of his actions, though, would be to see the coalition as a Blairite continuity administration, implementing the public service reforms Mr Milburn himself advocated when in government.

Although he would never use these words, the former health secretary might well echo the sentiment: "I never left New Labour, New Labour left me."

Since Mr Cameron is on record as claiming that he is the true 'Heir to Blair,' I have no doubt that this is how the Prime Minister sees his own administration

Others, though, see it differently. To many on the left, Mr Cameron is not so much an arch-Blairite as an arch-Thatcherite, taking the axe to areas of the state even she would have seen as sacrosanct.

Perhaps, though, he is both. Such is the extent to which these two former Prime Minsters have dominated the politics of the past 30 years that it is hard for the current one to escape their influence.

After just 100 days, it is far too early to give this government an 'ism.' But if I had to, 'Blatcherism' would perhaps be the one I would choose.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some advice for Tony Blair

"So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

Matthew 6, vv2-4

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Why did Milburn do it?

Some possible reasons as to why Alan Milburn (Lab, Darlington 1992-2010) has decided to go and work for David Cameron. Not all of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, and not all of them are necessarily intended as criticisms of the former health secretary.

(i) He genuinely sees Cameron as the 'Heir to Blair' and sees the coalition as a Blairite continuity administration carrying out the same kind of public service reforms which he (ie Milburn) was prevented from pursuing in government by Gordon Brown and his allies. He certainly would not be alone in this view of recent political history. There is evidence that Cameron himself sees it this way.

(ii) He genuinely believes there is a need to tackle the slowdown in social mobility and sees himself as the best person to do this. Though doubtless so does IDS, which should make for some interesting policy discussions.

(iii) He wants to put two fingers up to Brown and Co for sidelining him within the Labour Party and failing to make more use of his ideas on social mobility in the run-up to the last election. If so, this is hardly surprising. I myself advocated on a number of occasions that Gordon should set aside his personal loathing of Milburn and take on board some aspects of the agenda he was putting forward. It could have greatly helped in the task of "renewing" New Labour intellectually that Brown ultimately failed to accomplish.

(iv) He wants to launch a new political party positioned somewhere between the Lib Dems and Labour. Okay, I don’t really believe this, but stranger things have happened and by joining a Tory government, the Lib Dems have left a bit of an opening in the market for a new centre-left grouping, though if he wins the Labour leadership, I would expect David Miliband to move fairly swiftly to plug this.

(v) Ego. Always a consideration where Milburn is concerned. But perhaps, on this occasion, not necessarily a deciding one.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

The coalition will collapse long before any lasting realignment of the right

A FEW weeks back, I wrote about the new government's attempts to construct a new political narrative in which the blame for the forthcoming spending cuts is laid firmly at Labour's door.

Any casual observer of the political scene might be tempted to regard this as the kind of routine knockabout that is only to be expected in our adversarial system.

But make no mistake, the coalition's concerted efforts to rubbish the reputation of Gordon Brown and his government is no mere idle politicking.

It is rather, absolutely crucial to the longer-term survival of David Cameron's Con-Lib administration.

For now, the political honeymoon that the coalition has enjoyed since Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg tied the knot in the Downing Street rose garden in May continues moreorless unabated.

But surely not for long. The cuts will soon be coming thick and fast, and the flak will then be flying equally fast in the government's direction.

Hence the coalition's determination to deflect the coming opprobrium by building as broad a consensus as possible that Labour's mismanagement of the economy is to blame.

This week's "Labour legacy love-in" between Lib Dem Energy secretary Chris Huhne and Tory chairman Baroness Warsi was but the latest phase in the strategy, and we are promised more to come.

As I have also previously noted, the government is in serious danger of over-egging the pudding here.

The voters are no fools, and if the coalition is seen to be protesting too much about the previous government's record, they are all the more likely to smell a rat.

Very little of it washes with me, I'm afraid. The Lib-Cons are choosing to go faster than Labour did in cutting the deficit not because there is no alternative, but because they hold a different economic viewpoint.

Mr Huhne in particular sounded very unconvincing at Wednesday's joint briefing, which is hardly surprising given that before the election, he shared Labour's critique of the Tories' planned austerity measures.

But for me, the really interesting thing about the Huhne-Warsi press conference was not what it says about the past but what it could signify for the future.

Inevitably, it sparked speculation that the coalition partners could agree not to fight eachother at the next election, which Lady Warsi hardly discouraged by failing to give a straight answer to a straight question about it.

Talk of a 'coupon election' - LibCons v the rest – is surely wildly premature, but it wouldn't be the first time that coalitions have led to more lasting political realignments.

Back in the 30s, the 'National Liberals' were ultimately absorbed into the Conservative Party after joining the Tory-dominated national government that ruled the country from 1931 to 1945.

So could this present-day coalition ultimately lead to the formation of a new, centre-right grouping, further marginalising the Tory right and reducing the Lib Dems to a social democratic rump?

You can see why a centrist Conservative like Mr Cameron and a right-leaning Lib Dem like Mr Clegg would be comfortable with such a scenario.

But the problem is that both the Tory right and the Liberal Democrat centre-left have a compelling interest in seeing the coalition collapse long before the two parties get anywhere near that point.

For that reason, it remains my view that, sooner or later, one or other of them will ensure that it does.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

After five years, a new look

I always liked the classic Rounders 3 template, which is why I've stuck with it on this blog for the past five years. But I've wanted a three-column template for some time, and now I've finally found one I like I thought it was time to give the blog a new look. It's not a "relaunch," it doesn't mean blogging is going to return to 2006/7/8 levels (it can't, basically) but I hope readers will like it and find some of the links easier to find. I expect I will add the odd refinement here and there over the next couple of weeks or so.

If anyone would prefer to remember the blog the way it was, an archived version of everything up to March 2009 has been preserved for posterity as part of the British Library's web archive project.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The coalition fractures start to show

Prime Minister David Cameron committed something of an historical gaffe this week when he referred to Britain having been the Americans' "junior partner" in 1940 in the war against Hitler.

Given that the US did not even join the war until 1941, it was not even historically accurate, quite apart from the, probably unintended, slight on our own WW2 heroes.

But while Mr Cameron was busy making friends across the pond, his own 'junior partner' was committing a possibly more serious gaffe in regard to a more recent conflict.

Standing in at PMQs, deputy premier Nick Clegg allowed himself to be goaded by Labour's Jack Straw into declaring the 2003 invasion of Iraq "illegal."

The comment was interesting on both a personal and a political level. It demonstrated that, for all his polished performances in the TV election debates, Mr Clegg hasn't yet quite made the transition from leader of a protest party to statesman.

While many voters will applaud his honesty in speaking from the heart, ministers sometimes have to be more circumspect.

More broadly, the comment also highlighted the fact that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are very different parties, one instinctively pro-establishment, the other instinctively anti.

As we come to what is generally considered to be the end of the political year, the talk at Westminster is inevitably that the coalition is showing its first signs of fracture.

If the truth be told, the tensions were there from the start, but they really only began to come to a head once the scale of George Osborne's Budget cuts became clear.

If there were protests on the Lib Dem side about that, they were then more than matched by the mutterings on the Tory benches following the announcement of the electoral reform referendum to be held next May.

Then, this week, came Mr Clegg's PMQs outburst and a separate row over the Lib Dems' proposed graduate tax to pay for higher education, which the Tories have now turned their backs on.

Still to come in the autumn is a party conference season in which I expect to hear Lib Dem activists sounding-off loudly about the Tories' plans to reform education and the NHS.

With an election theoretically five years off, no-one is currently paying too much attention to opinion polls, but they nevertheless paint an intriguing picture of how the public mood has shifted since 6 May.

Leaderless Labour are up an average five percentage points for the loss of Gordon Brown, which tells its own story of what might have happened had someone else been leading them on election day.

Meanwhile Mr Cameron's Tories are up around eight percentage points at 44pc, while Mr Clegg's Lib Dems have slumped to around 13pc.

The worrying conclusion here for the Lib Dems is that while the public seems to generally approve of what the government is doing, it is currently only benefiting the Tories rather than them.

One of the most prescient questions of the week was posed by the blogger Henry G Manson, writing on the excellent website.

In a neat reworking of the title of an old club anthem from the late 1980s, he asked: "Clegg: How low can he go?"

Henry's point was that there has to come a point beyond which Lib Dem MPs and activists will not allow the party's support to slump before they are finally moved to act.

I suspect that this is a question which will not only help shape the politics of the next 12 months, but one which may ultimately determine the fate of the government.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Peter self-destructs for the final time

Asked once how he would know his transformation of the Labour Party would be complete, Tony Blair famously replied: "When it learns to love Peter Mandelson."

Judged purely on that measure, however, it seems from this week's events that the party which Mr Blair led for 13 years still has a way to go.

There was a point, 18 months or so ago, when it looked as though the former Hartlepool MP had finally managed to win his way into the hearts, as well as the minds, of the party faithful.

But all the goodwill engendered by his return from Brussels to stand at Gordon Brown's side during his government's most difficult days has been dissipated at a stroke by his decision to publish a trashy account of the New Labour years.

In the past, many Labour people who found Lord Mandelson's style of politics distasteful have nevertheless forgiven him on the grounds that he was a loyal party man with Labour literally running through his veins.

But the publication of his book 'The Third Man' this week has surely demolished that defence once and for all.

It has oft been said of Peter Mandelson that he was always better at guiding the fortunes of the party and its leaders than he ever was at managing his own career.

But the lack of judgment that resulted in at least one of his two Cabinet resignations seems to have returned with a vengeance in his apparent eagerness to cash in on the lucrative summer 'beach read' market.

It is not even as if any of the revelations in the wretched book tell us much that we didn't know already.

Much of the focus of attention has inevitably been on whether or not Tony Blair called Gordon Brown "mad, bad and dangerous" and likened him to a "Mafia don."

Well, "mad" is one of those words that gets thrown around a little too loosely these days. It can mean anything from clinical insanity to having a bit of a temper on you.

It is hardly surprising, though, that Labour's opponents in the media have put the worst possible construction on it, with Mr Brown's reputation taking a further battering as a result.

But in my view, the book is far more damaging to Mr Blair's historical reputation than to his successor's.

It confirms what many have long suspected, namely that he did indeed promise Mr Brown in 2003 that he would not fight a third general election, but went back on it.

It is impossible to over-estimate the impact of this on subsequent Labour history. Had Mr Brown been Labour leader up against Michael Howard in 2005, he would have won that election with at least as good a majority as Mr Blair managed.

He would then, in all likelihood, have retired with dignity mid-way through the last Parliament, giving Labour a chance to renew itself in office under a new generation.

As it is, Mr Brown is currently being subjected to all sorts of indignities, with his government's record being trashed by the Con-Lib coalition on an almost daily basis.

But I wonder whether when people realise what the coalition is really doing to our public services – privatising the NHS by the back door being its latest wheeze – they might start to feel some sympathy for the former Prime Minister.

Either way, the Labour Party will doubtless in time come to love Gordon in the way it does all its old leaders – particularly the unsuccessful ones.

One thing it will never now do, though, is to learn to love Peter.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

'Miserable pipsqueak' won't rescue Balls

Ever since the new coalition came into office, the consensus has been that its political honeymoon would last only as long as it took for real cuts in public services to start happening.

While people seem happy for ministers to talk about efficiency savings and even 25pc cuts to government departments, they become rather less so when that starts to impact on local schools, hospitals and police.

So this week's announcement of the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme, aimed at refurbishing every school in England, was one announcement the government needed to get right.

And as we all now know, Education Secretary Michael Gove managed to get it totally and spectacularly wrong, producing at least four different lists of the schools affected each of which contained inaccuracies.

In this region alone, the original announcement led to building work being halted at 46 schools including five in South Tyneside.

However it later emerged that all five of these schools had been mistakenly included on the list and that the work would, after all, be continuing as planned, although other areas were not so lucky.

Those who long to see a bit of passion restored to the political arena will have loved Labour MP Tom Watson's Commons attack on Mr Gove after the minister was forced to make one of several apologies for the blunders.

Former whip Mr Watson concluded his onslaught with the words "You're a miserable pipsqueak of a man, Gove!" – incurring the wrath of Speaker John Bercow who swiftly ordered him to withdraw.

Ultimately, though, it is not the chaotic presentation of this announcement which is the real issue. It is the fact that cuts to school building projects should be happening at all.

Once again, the government has tried to pin the blame on Labour, arguing that the Building Schools for the Future programme was wasteful and bureaucratic.

This would be all very well, had Mr Gove outlined how the new government proposes to refurbish our dilapidated school buildings in a more cost-effective and less bureaucratic fashion.

His failure to do so leads one to assume there is no such plan, and that they will consequently be left to rot.

One consequence of this week's fiasco has been talk of an upturn in the fortunes of Labour leadership contender Ed Balls, who has led the attack on Mr Gove.

The Shadow Education Secretary is currently trailing in, at best, third place behind the Miliband brothers in the race, but with voting not due to happen until the end of August, much could theoretically change before then.

For my part, I don't think it will. While accepting that Mr Gove's hapless performance this week has given Mr Balls a chance to shine, I think the party has by and large made up its mind about him.

Sure, they want to see his combative political skills used to good effect in a senior role - almost certainly Shadow Chancellor – but my hunch is they want someone more emollient as leader.

The longer-term impact of the week's events is likely to be less on Labour and more on public perceptions of the coalition.

Even within the North-East, the scrapping of the rebuilding programme runs the risk of creating a postcode lottery between areas such as Newcastle, where all the projects had already been approved, and Durham, where 14 have had to be cancelled.

It is invariably going to create a huge sense of injustice in those areas unlucky enough to miss the cut-off point and which now face an indefinite wait for new facilities.

And at some point, that sense of injustice is something the coalition will need to address.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

How open is the Labour Party to persuasion?

Cross-posted from Political Betting.

Early on in the Labour leadership battle, Mike [Smithson] drew what I thought was potentially a good analogy between David Cameron’s succesful campaign for the Tory leadership in 2005 and Andy Burnham’s candidature for Labour this time round.

Young Burnham, he surmised, could turn out to be the Cameron of this campaign - a relative unknown coming from behind to win while better-known front-runners faltered.

As it is, Burnham has hardly achieved lift-off. He has fought an oddly Old Labour sort of campaign, of which the last straw - no pun intended, Jack - has been his opposition to the proposed AV referendum which Labour supported in its manifesto.

But that’s not my main point. My question is: is there actually room in this race for any of the candidates to ‘do a Cameron,’ or is the nature of the contest such that the prospect of anyone springing a surprise is already closed-off?

One major difference between this and the Tories’ 2005 race is that the candidates are not being subjected to the pressure-cauldron of a party conference hustings.

When the Tories did this, it enabled them to weed-out a front-runner in David Davis who, whatever his other virtues, was clearly incapable of making a decent platform speech, in favour of someone who wowed his audience by speaking without notes.

Another key difference is the nature of the two parties. As I have pointed out on my own blog, the Tories are historically much more open to making unexpected choices of leader - Margaret Thatcher over Ted Heath in ‘75, William Hague over Ken Clarke in ‘97, Iain Duncan Smith over the same opponent in 2001.

Labour, by contrast, almost always sticks to the front-runner, sometimes because the front-runner is clearly the best candidate (Neil Kinnock in 1983, Tony Blair in 1994) but sometimes out of sentimentality or a resdual belief in ‘Buggins’ Turn.’

My hunch is that most of Labour’s electorate has already made its mind up about this election, and it is now a contest between the brothers. While it is not yet clear which of them will win, it is clear that one of them will.

I’m not sure what current prices are available on Burnham, Ed Balls and Diane Abbott, but whatever they are, my candid advice to PB aficionados would be: ignore them.

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Troubled times for Clegg and Co

After the initial thrill of seeing Liberal bums occupying ministerial seats for the first time since the wartime coalition of the 1940s, the past couple of months have proved something of a reality-check for Britain's third party.

First, there was the loss of their rising star David Laws from the coalition Cabinet after just 16 days following revelations in the Daily Telegraph about his expense claims and his private life.

Then the Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, was forced to do a Robin Cook and swiftly dump his wife for his mistress after their affair was exposed by the News of the World.

Mr Huhne kept his job, although conspiracy theorists would doubtless see a pattern in this double embarrassment for key Liberal Democrats at the hands of Tory-supporting newspapers.

But of course, the unease currently being felt across Nick Clegg's party is not just about the personal difficulties of individual Lib Dem ministers. It goes much deeper than that.

The first two months of the coalition have been dominated by the Tory 'cuts' agenda, with Chancellor George Osborne emerging as the dominant figure in the government much as Gordon Brown did under Tony Blair.

For the Lib Dems, it has meant the humiliation of being forced to eat their pre-election words, when they warned that cutting too deep, too fast could cause another recession.

More and more grassroots Lib Dems, and even some of the party's more left-leaning MPs, have started to ask the question: What's in this for us?

Well, this week came the answer – news that a referendum on changing the voting system from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote is to be held next year, probably on 5 May.

For Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg, who will formally announce the move next week, it represents perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve the Lib Dem Holy Grail of electoral reform.

There are strong practical arguments for having the vote this early on in the Parliament, in that if it were held any later there would be little chance of getting any changes through in time for the next election.

Against that, though, is the obvious danger that it could shorten the coalition's life by about four years if the referendum is lost.

Were that to happen, of course, there would be little incentive left for the Lib Dems to remain in the government, and Mr Clegg would come under pressure from his party to obtain a swift divorce.

This might, in turn, provide a perverse incentive for the Conservatives not to campaign too hard against the change to AV, although premier David Cameron has insisted that he will.

The referendum poses a dilemma for Labour, too. The logic of opposition suggests it is in their interests to get a 'no' vote in order to try to bring down the government and force a 2011 election.

But many Labour MPs favour AV, and both Miliband brothers have made clear the party will campaign for a 'yes' vote if they win the leadership.

Whether or not Mr Clegg succeeds in his ambition will depend at least in part on whether the coalition can retain the broad popular support it currently holds.

As the North-East knows all too well, referenda held at a time when the government is unpopular tend to result in resounding 'no' votes.

The biggest danger for the 'yes' campaign is that the public comes to view this as an irrelevance when set against the economic problems facing the country – as many Tory MPs already do.

Not for the first time in recent months, the Lib Dems are finding themselves having to negotiate uncharted – and shark-infested – political waters.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

End of the 'golden generation'

Long-standing readers of this blog - if there are any - will doubtless have noted the distinct lack of blogging on the 2010 World Cup thus far compared with 2006. Partly it's a symptom of changing times. Life was considerably less busy back then - only one child, a house and garden that needed little doing to it, a considerably less demanding role at work than the one I now hold.

But really those are just excuses. The main reason I haven't blogged on the World Cup until now is that England's performances in it were so dire it was moreorless impossible to summon up the requisite degree of enthusiasm.

I don't think I was by any means alone in this. Friends who were happy to come round to our place and drink beer at 8am in the morning for England's early-morning kick-offs during the Japan-South Korea tournament in 2002 seemed oddly resistant to footie-related get-togethers this time round.

Is it that we are eight years older and wiser? Or is it simply that England are just shite?

Each World Cup is, in one sense, an opportunity to relive the experiences of the previous ones. Some football fans of a slightly older vintage than myself still long to repeat the thrill of our 1966 triumph, the more so perhaps as it recedes further and further into the dim and distant past.

But I was too young to remember much about that. For me, it is Italia '90 which continues to cast a shadow over each subsequent tournament, Sir Bobby Robson's men who continue to make each subsequent England team suffer by comparison.

They called this the 'golden generation,' but Capello's motley crew couldn't hold a candle to that lot. Sure, on paper you would rate John Terry a better player than Terry Butcher, Steven Gerrard above David Platt, Wayne Rooney above Peter Beardsley even. But they wouldn't play for Fabio like those boys played for Sir Bobby twenty years' back.

And with such evident lack of passion on the pitch when compared to the England teams of old, how on earth could we fans be expected to work up the same level of excitement as of yore?

The general consensus in the papers this week has been that the 2014 generation of potential World Cup players is considerably less gifted than the present one, although it is surely too early to say whether the likes of Jack Rodwell, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere and Conor Wickham will go the way of Rooney and kick-on to world-class status, or flatter to deceive in the manner of other one-time prodigies such as Theo Walcott and David Bentley.

But it need not necessarily be a handicap. The only truly world-class players in our World Cup-winning side in 1966 were the goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, the captain, Bobby Moore, and midfield fulcrum Bobby Charlton. Were they not national heroes, some of the others would almost have qualified for the description 'journeymen.'

The difference was that Sir Alf moulded them into an effective unit, much as Sir Bobby somewhat serendipitously managed to do with his charges in 1990.

If someone - Martin O'Neill perhaps - can do that four years from now, then perhaps the flame of that unforgettable summer may yet flicker into life again.

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