Saturday, September 24, 2011

At some point, Clegg will have to start thinking about the next election, not the last

If one sign of a good politician is the ability to learn from the greats that have gone before you, then Nick Clegg certainly hit the mark in at least one respect this week.

“You don't play politics at a time of national crisis, you don't play politics with the economy, and you never, ever, play politics with people's jobs," the Liberal Democrat leader told his party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday.

Westminster watchers of a certain age were instantly transported back more than a quarter of a century to Bournemouth, 1985, when Neil Kinnock tore into the grotesque chaos of Militant-run Liverpool.

“I’ll tell you – and you’ll listen!” he told the delegates as left-wing MP Eric Heffer stormed out of the conference hall. “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs, and with people’s homes, and with people’s services.”

But words aside, was there any parallel between Kinnock’s great oratorical tour-de-force and the Deputy Prime Minister’s rather more pedestrian
efforts of this week?

Well, up to a point. Kinnock’s words were of course solely directed at his own party, and so, to an extent, were Mr Clegg’s.

Coming as they did at the end of a lengthy defence of his party’s decision to join the Coalition, the words seemed primarily a rebuke to those Lib Dems who would rather they had sat on the sidelines.

That might have been better ‘politics,’ in that the Lib Dems would not now be languishing at 15pc in the opinion polls – but the whole thrust of Mr Clegg’s argument was that the national interest required him to set such considerations aside.

Currently, people views on whether the Lib Dems were right to join a Conservative-led Coalition will depend by and large on whether or not they agree with the Conservatives’ economic prescriptions.

In the North-East and other regions where the fragile recovery of 2010 appears to have been choked-off by the government’s public spending cuts, it is hardly surprising that many one-time Lib Dem voters think they were wrong.

But ultimately the question of whether Mr Clegg was right or wrong will be left to the judgement of history.

If Chancellor George Osborne’s great economic gamble ultimately succeeds and the economy returns to strong growth before 2015, it will look like a good call – but if not, he will be seen to have sold his birthright for no more than a mess of potage.

Thankfully, there are at some Liberal Democrats at least who already seem to be making plans for the latter eventuality.

In a widely-reported speech at the start of the conference, party president Tim Farron made it clear that the ‘marriage’ with the Conservatives, while currently good-natured, would inevitably have to end in divorce.

In one sense this was no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious from Mr Farron, who is widely expected to succeed Mr Clegg as Lib Dem leader.

Even if Mr Osborne manages to preside over an economic miracle, the Lib Dems cannot go into the next election hanging on to the Conservatives’ shirt-tails. Rather they will need, between now and then, to re-establish their identity as an independent party.

One of the fundamental rules of politics is that when you go into an election, you at least have to make a pretence of fighting to win.
People simply will not vote for a party that sees holding the balance of power within a hung Parliament as its explicit objective.

One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the Conservatives won’t be going into the next election with the objective of another Coalition – explicitly or implicitly.

Many on the right of the party still blame David Cameron for failing to achieve an outright majority in May 2010 when faced by an exhausted, hapless Labour government. They will simply not permit him to aim for anything less next time.

How Mr Clegg ultimately handles this dynamic will, I suspect, determine whether it is he or Mr Farron who leads the Lib Dems into that election.

It is entirely possible that he may go down as one of those politicians – Ramsay Macdonald being another example – whose names become a byword for betrayal within their own parties.

This year’s conference was all about reassuring the doubters in his party that he did the right thing in May 2010.

The next one, however, will need to be much more about what he is going to do come May 2015..

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Could boundary review put regional governance back on agenda?

Over the course of the long debate about North-East regional governance, one of the most oft-heard arguments was that the region lacked the clout to make its voice heard at Westminster.

Well, if that was true then, when the region sent 30 MPs to the Commons, it will be even more the case after the next election when its representation will fall to just 26.

This week’s review of the Parliamentary boundaries will leave no part of the region untouched, with every single one of its current 29 constituencies affected.

Some constituency names – Blaydon, Wansbeck, Stockton South – will disappear from the electoral map altogether. Others will be variously merged, dismembered or renamed.

In sub-regional terms, the impact of the Boundary Commission’s proposed changes will be fairly evenly spread.

Northumberland and Teesside will each suffer a net loss of half a seat, while Durham and South Tyne and Wear will each suffer a net loss of one.

Faced with the choice of having constituencies that crossed county boundaries, or ones that crossed the River Tyne, the commissioners somewhat bizarrely opted for the former.

The result is a series of new seats – for example Newcastle North and Cramlington – where the traditional divide between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas will be breached.

In terms of the impact on individual careers, one odd, but surely unintended consequence of the proposals is that two of the region’s ‘awkward squad’ – Wansbeck’s Ian Lavery and Blaydon’s Dave Anderson – are among those most at risk.

And those MPs which survive are likely to find themselves standing for re-election in constituencies which are almost unrecognisable from their existing ones.

Much of Nick Brown’s Newcastle East constituency, for instance, will go into the newly-created seat of Newcastle South.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Brown, who will be a month short of his 65th birthday by the time of the next election, will see that as an appropriate moment to call time on his long and distinguished career.

So much for individuals – what of the impact on the electoral politics of the region?

Well, for all the widespread assumption nationally that the changes are designed to clobber the Labour Party, this seems unlikely to be the case here.

The Liberal Democrats have been Labour’s main challengers in many of the region’s inner-city seats, but given their collapse in support in the North of England generally, Labour have little to fear in this regard.

While Hexham can be expected to remain solidly Conservative, and Berwick and Morpeth is likely to remain Lib Dem at least as long as Sir Alan Beith is its MP, the proposed changes appear to create few obvious opportunities for the Tories and Lib Dems elsewhere.

The biggest impact of the changes is likely to be on the influence of the region as a whole.

In terms of Parliamentary representation, it already lacked the critical mass to do much to influence the overall direction of government policy, as was seen during the Blair years when the region was effectively taken for granted.

This gradual loss of influence coincides with another broader trend, namely the increasing divergence between domestic policy in England and in other parts of the UK.

Post-devolution, Scotland and Wales had already begun to develop policies on health and education that are well to the left of the UK’s as a whole, and the Coalition’s public services reforms in England are further widening the gap.

The end result of all this may well see the North-East increasingly out of sympathy with the political consensus within England, yet unable to do much about it.

With its predominantly left-of-centre political culture, the region might start to look longingly in the direction of Scotland and Wales and the devolved powers which they enjoy.

It was widely assumed that the resounding no vote in the November 2004 regional government referendum had settled this question for a generation, perhaps even for eternity.

Seven years on, the day when it starts to creep back onto the agenda may not now be too far-off

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

The glorious failure of Tony Blair

Over the course of the years in which I reported on political conferences for The Journal, I listened to a fair few party leader’s speeches, some of them good, some of them almost embarrassingly bad.

Of the latter category, the one that most stands out is Iain Duncan Smith’s “The Quiet Man is turning up the volume” fiasco from 2003, closely followed by John Major’s solemn 1995 pledge to increase the number of pee-ing stops on Britain’s motorways.

But the one truly great conference address of those years was the one delivered by Tony Blair on the afternoon of Tuesday 2 October 2001, a little over three weeks after the 9/11 attacks had thrown the world into a state of turmoil.

Both as a piece of oratory, and as a superbly-judged response to the political demands of the moment, it is up there with all-time conference classics such as Neil Kinnock’s scourging of Militant in 1985 and Margaret Thatcher’s “Lady’s not for turning” from four years’ earlier.

"This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us,” the then Prime Minister told the Brighton gathering.

"Today, humankind has the science and technology to destroy itself or to provide prosperity to all. Yet science can't make that choice for us. Only the moral power of a world acting as a community can.

"By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we can alone.

"For those people who lost their lives on September 11 and those that mourn them; now is the time for the strength to build that community. Let that be their memorial."

But even though, ten years on, it is impossible not to admire Mr Blair’s passion and idealism, it is also impossible to escape the conclusion that his stated mission to "re-order the world around us" in the wake of the attacks proved to be a glorious failure.

More than that, it begs the question whether, in his subsequent foreign policy decisions – most notably the invasion of Iraq - Mr Blair himself contributed to that failure.

The former Prime Minister was right in his analysis that 9/11 was an opportunity to build a better, right to seek to articulate the hope that, out of this monstrous evil, some good could somehow emerge.

No, what was wrong was not the initial idea, but the subsequent execution of it by Mr Blair and other world leaders over the ensuing decade, which has, if anything, served to deepen rather than heal the world’s divisions.

Within that bigger picture thrown up by the shaken kaleidoscope of 9/11, there were a whole series of little pictures.

It was, for instance, the beginning of the end for Stephen Byers, the former North Tyneside MP who until then had been spoken of as a future Labour leader and Prime Minister.

His career never recovered from the revelation that his press officer, Jo Moore, had spent the afternoon of 9/11 telling colleagues it was now “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”

And if 9/11 marked the beginning of the end for Mr Byers, it also marked the beginning of the end for his erstwhile leader, as the Blair premiership was blown irretrievably off course by the ensuing global ramifications.

Most fundamentally of all – and ironically in the light of Mr Blair’s soaring vision of a new world order - 9/11 was the moment when politics ceased to be about selling people dreams of a better future and became more about protecting people from nightmares.

Until the economy returned to centre stage in 2008, the political agenda for much of the ensuing decade became dominated by security issues - a trend which only accelerated when Britain experienced its own ‘9/11’ on 7 July 2005.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, it seemed barely imaginable to most of us that such a thing could happen, least of all on American soil.

But such has been its impact that, ten years on, it is now almost impossible to imagine a world in which it had not taken place.

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