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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