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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