Saturday, April 16, 2011

When two tribes go to war....

At the beginning of this year, I wrote that if the Coalition government survived 2011, it would in all likelihood achieve its original objective of serving out a full five-year Parliamentary term.

What I was trying to say was not so much that it will all be plain sailing from 1 January 2012 onwards, but that if there was a point of maximum danger for the Cameron-Clegg government, it will come this year rather than any other.

The past few weeks seem to have proved the point, as tensions have erupted between the Coalition partners over a series of issues ranging from the NHS to immigration.

A year on from the opening TV debate between the party leaders which shaped the 2010 election campaign, serious commentators have started to pose the question whether another election might not be so very far off.

Last week I focused on the health reforms, and the ongoing Lib Dem-inspired backlash against health secretary Andrew Lansley's plan to hand control of the NHS budget to GPs.

Although they refrained from saying as much, the Lib Dems will doubtless have been privately rubbing their hands with glee at Mr Lansley's humiliation at the hands of Royal College of Nursing conference on Wednesday.

The yellows showed no such restraint however when Chancellor George Osborne suddenly enlivened what has thus far been a sleep-inducing campaign on whether to change the voting system.

Mr Osborne criticised the role of the Electoral Reform Society in simultaneously receiving taxpayers' money to run some of the referendum ballots and helping to fund the Yes campaign, saying: "That stinks frankly."

The comments earned the Chancellor a rebuke from his own Lib Dem deputy, chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander, who accused his departmental boss of "pretty desperate scaremongering."

It showed that, although the two sides have agreed to disagree on the subject of voting reform, it is very hard to have a civilised disagreement when the whole future of how we conduct our politics is at stake.

Predictably, however, the week's biggest Cob-Lib bust-up arose over Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to make a speech highlighting the impact of immigration on local communities.

Lib Dem Cabinet colleague Vince Cable said his words were "very unwise" and that the PM risked inflaming extremism.

Partly this was down to the timing of the speech, three weeks before some local elections in which the British National Party will once more attempt to make inroads.

But it also exposed real disagreements over the issue at the heart of the Coalition, with business secretary Dr Cable consistently arguing that putting a cap on immigration will limit firms' abilities to recruit key workers.

The Lib Dems have pointed out that Mr Cameron's wish to take net migration back to the levels of tens of thousands a year rather than hundreds of thousands is Conservative, as opposed to government policy.

The Coalition Agreement speaks merely of an "annual limit" on people coming to the UK from outside the European Union for economic reasons, making no reference to specific numbers.

One of the commentators who openly speculated this week that the Coalition might not see out its five-year term was the constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor.

He pointed out that while the leaderships of both parties will almost certainly want to hug together until the end, the fate of coalitions is determined by restless, committed party members whom leaders cannot always control.

Mr Bogdanor is right to point out that it is the wildly differing nature of the two parties' memberships that gives the Coalition its inherent instability, while the good relations between their respective leaderships have hitherto been its biggest strength.

If this week's events are anything to go by, however, that may not always be the case.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

A listening government - or a government in retreat?

Of all the changes introduced by the Coalition government since it took office last May, it is fair to say that its proposed reforms to the National Health Service have been the most politically controversial.

What about the cuts, I hear you say? Haven't they caused much more widespread public anger and made a much deeper impact on local communities?

Well, yes. But there was a broad political consensus dating back to well before the general election that spending cutbacks needed to be made – the only real disagreement being about the extent of them.

More importantly, the Coalition had a mandate for them. Labour lost the election primarily because, rightly or wrongly, the party was seen to be in denial about the size of the deficit and the remedial action needed to address it.

By contrast, the NHS reforms were not even spelled out in the Coalition Agreement, which infamously promised that there would be "no more top down reorganisation of the NHS."

Indeed, the agreement implicitly accepted that Primary Care Trusts would remain, promising a stronger voice for patients locally through directly elected individuals on the boards of their local PCT."

However when the legislation was published, it turned out that health secretary Andrew Lansley was proposing the abolition of PCTs and the transfer of their entire commissioning role to GPs.

Much of the anger felt by Liberal Democrats over the reforms can be traced back to this piece of perceived duplicity on Mr Lansley's part.

There is said to be anger in Number 10 at the way Mr Lansley has handled the reforms – but to my mind the fault lies more with Downing Street for not paying sufficient attention to their likely political impact.

As with the Forestry Commission sell-off debacle, No 10 seems to have been so focused on deficit reduction in the government's early days that it took its eye off the ball in other, seemingly less contentious areas.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg must bear some of the blame too, for not realising the strength of feeling in his own grassroots against the proposals.

It is only since his party's Spring conference delivered a huge thumbs-down to the reforms that Mr Clegg has started to argue for changes to the legislation.

So it was no great surprise that, this week, the government was forced to announce it was taking a raincheck on the implementation of the reforms while it conducted a further "listening exercise" with the public and health professionals.

It amounted to an admission that the reforms had been introduced without the necessary buy-in from either the public or, more importantly, those people who will be charged with making them work.

Should we see it as the prelude to a dramatic U-turn? Or is it simply a belated effort by Prime Minister and ex-PR man David Cameron to 'sell' the proposed changes?

Time will tell….but Mr Cameron's apparent openness to changes in the legislation suggests this is more than mere window-dressing.

The backbench health committee of MPs, for instance, wants to see the new fund-holding commissioning bodies drawn from a much wider membership, including councillors and hospital doctors.

Although this is more in tune with the spirit of what was in the original Coalition agreement, any weakening of the central proposal to hand power to GPs will be seen as a major political reverse for Mr Cameron.

The political commentator Benedict Brogan said of this week's events: "The underlying impression was one of an administration in retreat, forced to trim on policy because it got the politics wrong."

Mr Cameron is finding that the line between being a "listening government" and a "weak government" is sometimes a very fine one.

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Saturday, April 02, 2011

Is Ed Miliband the man to inject some passion back into our politics?

One of the most frequent criticisms made of politicians these days is that they spend too much time agreeing with eachother.

For many, politics has become too risk-averse, a game fought over a narrow strip of ideological terrain in which the most important rule is to avoid saying or doing anything that might offend the fabled 'floating voter.'

In truth, it's an analysis that is only half-right. If you're lucky enough to be in government, or if the tide of public opinion is shifting in your direction, there is still a fair degree of scope for radical thought.

But that's not, by and large, true for opposition politicians. Here, the watchword is "don't frighten the horses," and oppositions which have tried to challenge the political consensus, such as Labour in 1983 and the Tories in 2001, have tended to come unstuck.

So in one sense, it was refreshing to see Labour leader Ed – or is it Edward? - Miliband address last weekend's protest rally in central London against the Coalition's spending cuts.

It was absolutely inevitable that he would be crucified in the right-wing press for doing so, particularly once the protests got hijacked by criminal elements which were nothing to do with either the Labour Party or the organisers.

Some in his own party even joined in, with disgruntled Blairites muttering that "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never went on protest rallies."

If this comparison was somehow supposed to diminish Ed Miliband in the eyes of the voters, I suspect that it will actually have had the opposite effect.

Like many in the upper reaches of the Labour Party, Mr Miliband has in the past come across as something of a machine politician – a man whose career progressed seamlessly from university to researcher to special adviser to MP to Cabinet minister and finally to the party leadership without the intervention of anything resembling real life.

So the fact that he sounded, for the first time last weekend, like a leader of genuine passion and conviction is, for me, a point in his favour.

Sure, it's a gamble, particularly if the passions and convictions he is articulating turn out not to be shared by a majority of voters.

But there is just a chance that the country, bored by years of 'Blatcherite' policy clones fighting over the 'centre ground,' could warm to a leader who seems prepared to inject some genuine political idealism into our national life.

Two substantive charges have been made against Mr Miliband over his Hyde Park speech last Saturday.

The first was that he claimed to be speaking for the 'mainstream' when he wasn't – but David Cameron and George Osborne are perhaps a little too eager to dismiss people's concerns about the cuts – and the possibility that the Labour leader might be genuinely reflecting them.

The second, more serious charge is that Mr Miliband told us "there is an alternative" without actually saying what it is.

But this, too, is slightly disingenuous. As I wrote last week, Labour has fairly consistently said throughout the last election and beyond that it would aim to halve the deficit in four years – a difference of about £40bn in spending terms from what the Coalition is doing.

What the Tories really mean by the latter criticism is that Mr Miliband should tell us which cuts he agrees with rather than allowing voters to be given the impression he opposes all of them.

Here they are on slightly stronger ground. Although Mr Miliband specifically denies he is against all the cuts, he can be seen to be guilty of trying to have it both ways in this regard.

Sooner rather than later, the Labour leader will have to answer this point if he is to become a genuinely credible contender for power at the next general election.

But for now, the fact that he is starting to discover his own distinctive voice will surely stand him in good stead.

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