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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter

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.

free web site hit counter