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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