Saturday, February 19, 2011

Labour has future of electoral system in its hands

When Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg took the historic gamble of joining the Tory-led coalition government last May, he created for himself an excruciating political conundrum.

By forcing the Conservatives to grant a referendum on reforming the voting system, Mr Clegg opened up the tantalising prospect of turning the Lib Dems from a party of permanent opposition to one of moreorless permanent power.

Yet at the same time, by aligning himself with what was bound to be an unpopular administration, Mr Clegg simultaneously ran the risk of seeing the prize of electoral reform swept away on a tide of anti-government protest votes.

The fact that he then went on to make himself the most hated man in Britain in some quarters by breaking a 'solemn promise' on university tuition fees only served to underline the point.

For make no mistake, Mr Clegg is set to become the central figure in the May referendum that was finally given the go-ahead this week following a last-minute game of parliamentary ping-pong between the Lords and Commons.

At the moment, the 'no' campaign is not talking about him, trying instead to make the argument against the proposed new Alternative Vote system on the grounds of cost and complexity.

But don't be fooled – these are just the opening skirmishes, and before too long, this is going to get personal.

'Don't give Nick Clegg a permanent seat at the Cabinet table' is quite simply the no camp's most potent message in this campaign, and it's one we will be hearing a lot more of in the run up to the 5 May vote.

Perhaps understandably, Mr Clegg has so far been nowhere to be seen in the 'yes' campaign, even going so far as to tell Radio Four's Today programme yesterday that the referendum was "nothing to do with" him.

Instead, in the week that The King's Speech swept the board at the Baftas, the pro-reform camp wheeled out the film's much-decorated stars Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to voice their support.

While Ms Bonham Carter, as the great grand-daughter of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, does at least have some family political tradition to maintain here, one could be forgiven for asking 'who cares?'

But that is not the point. The point is that here are two high-profile personalities supporting electoral reform whose names are not Nick Clegg.

On the Labour side, several prominent ex-ministers have already got involved on the 'no' side, including John Prescott, whose track record in referendum campaigns should probably make opponents of electoral reform somewhat wary.

But what should Labour supporters of AV like party leader Ed Miliband do – stay out of it and let the luvvies do the talking, or seek to provide a measure of leadership themselves?

In a sense, it's a win-win situation for Mr Miliband. If the referendum results in a 'yes' vote, the evidence of recent elections suggests it will benefit his party.

But if the country votes 'no', the coalition will be destabilised, perhaps even to the extent that an early general election could result.

The attitude of the Labour leadership will ultimately be crucial, in that it will almost certainly be Labour voters who decide the outcome of this.

Conservative supporters will by and large vote to keep first past the post, as David Cameron urged yesterday. The Lib Dems will vote en masse for change.

The great temptation will be for Labour supporters to vote tribally against AV in order to give the Coalition a bloody nose, but given a strong enough lead from Mr Miliband, my hunch is that most of them will back the change.

That is, of course, assuming they can overcome their dislike of Nick Clegg.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, February 12, 2011

'Gunboat diplomat' leaves Coalition in a pickle

More than 20 years ago, a young , Conservative council leader gained a measure of notoriety after unexpectedly seizing control of the hitherto safe Labour authority of Bradford.

Storming into office at the May 1988 local elections, he announced a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, slash the workforce by a third, and outsource most council-run services to private operators.

For a while, 'Bradford-style Toryism' became something of a by-word in local government circles, with some like-minded authorities modelling themselves on it, while others cited it as a warning of what happened when Tories took control.

After its brief flirtation with uber-Thatcherism, Bradford soon returned to the Labour fold - but that Tory council leader went on to become probably the most influential politician to emerge from local government since Labour's David Blunkett.

His name was of course Eric Pickles and, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the coalition administration, he is now in ultimate charge not just of Bradford but of every town and city hall in the country.

Among grassroots Tories, Mr Pickles is a hugely popular figure – but it is fair to say those feelings are not always shared by his Liberal Democrat Cabinet colleagues – or by political leaders in the North-East region.

During the early months of the Coalition, he fought a running battle with Business Secretary Vince Cable over whether the North-East should retain a distinctive regional voice – a battle characterised by briefing and counter-briefing on both sides.

It did not help that Prime Minister David Cameron was bored by the stalemate and told the protagonists to sort it out between themselves rather than taking sides.

What sort of regional political institutions will emerge from that process is still unclear. Many hope the proposed local economic partnership covering Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear will be able to take on at least some of the role of axed regional development agency One NorthEast.

But the limitations of the scorched earth approach to all things regional employed by Mr Pickles and others in the Coalition's early days are already becoming clear.

As was revealed in a parliamentary answer this week, Dr Cable's department for Business, Innovation and Skills is having to create new local offices to carry out work previously carried out by the regional government offices.

This provides further proof of what some of us were saying all along: that if the regional tier of governance did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

But if Mr Pickles' pathological hatred of regionalism has caused controversy in the North-East, his attitude to local government spending has caused ripples on a far wider scale.

Newcastle council leader David Faulkner was only one of more than 90 Liberal Democrat councillors who signed a letter to The Times this week protesting at the scale and pace of cuts to their authorities.

Part of their anger stems from Mr Pickles' uncompromising political style, which they described as 'gunboat diplomacy.'

"The secretary of state's role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us," said the letter.

The reference to the Big Society was illuminating, in the context of Labour-run Liverpool's recent refusal to co-operate with Mr Cameron's flagship initiative.

But the wider political significance of the row over local government spending is that it plays into the area of relations between the two governing parties.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg needs to be able to take his party with him if the Coalition is to survive long-term, and on this issue he is clearly some way from succeeding.

And there is only one place that will ultimately leave the government: in a pickle.

free web site hit counter

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Is there such a thing as the Big Society?

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave an interview which for many summed up the 'greed is good,' every-man-for-himself culture of the era over which she presided.

"There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families," she said in an interview with Woman's Own magazine in October 1987.

Although she had merely been talking about the need for people to stand on their own two feet rather than relying on the state for handouts, the comment swiftly gained a life of its own.

And while it initially captured the late-80s zeitgeist, in time it came to be seen as part and parcel of the "nasty party" image that the Tories fought to shake off during their wilderness years.

At one level, the 'Big Society' was to David Cameron what 'New Labour' was to Tony Blair – a marketing slogan whose main purpose was to detoxify a brand that had become tarnished.

Its aim was to demonstrate that not only did the Tories now believe in society after all, they actually had a vision for the kind of society they wanted to create.

But whereas New Labour had a genuine philosophical basis - the embracing of the Thatcherite economic consensus and the abandonment of 'tax-and-spend' - the Big Society has always been much harder to pin down.

Tory candidates reported it had caused bemusement on the doorsteps during last year's election campaign, a state of affairs not helped by the fact that many of the candidates were similarly bemused themselves.

In government, the more urgent question has become less about what the Big Society is, and more about whether it is compatible with the kind of policies the Coalition is pursuing.

Liverpool City Council thinks not. It pulled out of a Big Society pilot project this week on the grounds that it is not deliverable in the context of £91m budget cuts and 1,500 job losses.

Although the Labour-run authority was swiftly accused of gesture politics, it is self-evident that it is hard to sustain local community activities and initiatives if the funding that underpins them disappears.

The closure of large numbers of Citizens' Advice Bureaux as a result of town hall cutbacks is surely a case in point here.

The wider problem with the 'Big Society, though, is not so much whether it is compatible with reductions in public expenditure as to whether it is compatible with free market economics at all.

Will our forests, for instance, end up in the hands of cuddly 'Big Society-ish' institutions like the Woodland Trust or other local community groups, or will they all simply be sold to the highest bidder?

Will local people really be able to club together to buy and run their failing village pub when the brewery is being offered ten times as much by a developer who wants to knock it down and build ten flats on the site?

It is for these sorts of reasons why people would not necessarily regard the Big Society and the Tory Party as the most natural of bedfellows.

Mr Cameron may be a skilled PR man, but to regard the Big Society as no more than a piece of spin is probably to do him a disservice.

He passionately believes in it, even if he sometimes struggles to articulate it in a way that the voters can relate to, and would probably like his government to be remembered for it above all else.

The great historical irony about the Big Society is that at the time Margaret Thatcher came out with her infamous quote, there was actually much more of one than exists today.

It will take much more than words if Mr Cameron is somehow to recreate it.

free web site hit counter