Saturday, May 09, 2015

Opposition parties pay bitter price for 2010 mistakes

Labour hobbled itself in Thursday's election by choosing the wrong brother as leader in 2010, while the Liberal Democrats lost their political identity by joining the coalition. Here's my election round-up which will appear in today's edition of The Journal.

SO we all got it wrong.  All the speculation about hung Parliaments, deals with the Scottish National Party, questions of what would constitute a ‘legitimate’ minority government – in the end, it all proved to be so much hot air.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not the only political institutions that will need to take a long, hard look at themselves after the biggest general election upset since 1992.   So will the opinion polling industry.

Its continued insistence that the two main parties were running neck and neck, and that we were duly headed for a hung Parliament, ended up framing the main debate around which the campaign revolved in its latter stages.

Had the polls showed the Tories with a six-point lead, the debate would not have been about whether Ed Miliband would do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon, but about whether the NHS would survive another five years of David Cameron.

There were many reasons why, to my mind, the Conservatives did not deserve to be re-elected, not least the divisive way in which they fought the campaign.

By relying on fear of the Scottish Nationalists to deliver victory in England and thereby setting the two nations against eachother, Mr Cameron has brought the union he professes to love to near-breaking point.

Preventing this now deeply divided country from flying apart is going to require a markedly different and more inclusive style of politics in Mr Cameron’s second term, in which devolution and possibly also electoral reform will be key.

Thankfully the Prime Minister appears to recognise this, although one is perhaps entitled to a certain degree of scepticism over his sudden rediscovery of “One Nation Conservatism” yesterday morning.

But what of the opposition parties?  Well, it is fair to say that both suffered more from mistakes made not during this election campaign but in the aftermath of the last one.

Make no mistake, this was an eminently winnable election for Labour, but it would have been a great deal more winnable had the party chosen the former South Shields MP David Miliband as its leader in 2010 ahead of his younger brother.

That said, Ed fought a much better campaign than many anticipated and stood up well in the face of some disgraceful and frankly juvenile attacks by certain sections of the national media.

What may have swung the undecideds against him in the end was his apparent state of denial about the last Labour government’s spending record, while I shouldn’t think the tombstone helped much either.

Of course - Stockton South aside - Labour continued to perform well in the North East on Thursday, and the party also had a reasonably good night in London.

It was the East and West Midlands that proved particularly allergic to Mr Miliband’s party, and it is here that whoever emerges from the forthcoming leadership contest will need to concentrate their energies with 2020 in mind.

Mr Miliband has facilitated that contest by swiftly falling on his sword, and with deputy leader Harriet Harman also set to stand down, the party will now be able to choose a new team to take it forward.

After such a shattering defeat there will doubtless be calls for a completely fresh start, and new names such as Liz Kendall, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy will come into the frame alongside some of the more usual suspects.

As for the Liberal Democrats, well, the Tories’ cannibalisation of their erstwhile coalition partners seems to prove once and for all that Nick Clegg made a catastrophic misjudgement in taking them into government in 2010 – as some of us warned him at the time.

He has also been rightly punished by the electorate for what many saw as an appalling breach of trust over university tuition fees.

The upshot is that a party which achieved a fifth of the national vote under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has not just lost nearly all its MPs, more seriously it has lost its identity.

The laws of political dynamics will ensure Labour eventually bounces back from this defeat, just as it did in 1964 and 1997.  For the Lib Dems, though, the future is much more uncertain.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Five reasons why I'm backing a Lab/Lib coalition

Yesterday I outlined why I don't think the current Tory-Lib Dem coalition deserves to be re-elected.  Here's why I hope a Lab-Lib coalition will emerge in its place.

1.  Labour has fought the most positive campaign. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I still believe that politics should be about sharing a vision of a better world rather than promising to protect us from nightmares - the politics of hope versus the politics of fear. While the Tories have relied on negative campaigning and the tired old tactic of better-the-devil-you-know, Labour has set out a positive case for change, outlining how they would change this country for the better. Even if you don't agree with all the details, this is the right way to do politics and it deserves to succeed.

2.  Ed Miliband has exceeded expectations and has demonstrated that he is ready to be Prime Minister. Despite being subjected to the most disgraceful and frankly juvenile abuse from certain elements of the national press, the Labour leader has held up well under pressure.  As someone said on Twitter today: "I’m sure Cameron eats a bacon sandwich really well. But he’s overseen a million people visiting food banks. I know which matters more."  Ed M may never have that easy rapport with the public that Tony Blair had in his pomp, but in a contest with Cameron he wins hands down, simply because he is more in touch with the lives of ordinary voters.

3.  Labour is the only major party committed to repealing the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. I've heard it argued by health service professionals that the horse has already bolted on this, and that the unleashing of private sector forces into the NHS cannot now be undone.  Well, maybe, but it can be contained.  The Health and Social Care Act - that massive, top-down reorganisation the Tories promised us would never happpen - was a deceitful piece of legislation that set out a route-map towards a system of privatised health care that few people actually want.  It needs to go so we can rebuild our NHS according to the principles on which it was founded.

4.  Contrary to the received wisdom, Labour's policies are actually more business-friendly than those of the Tories. People who do not realise this are faling to see the elephant in the room, namely David Cameron's commitment to an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017.  The uncertainty created by this will wreck the so-called 'recovery' and prolong the economic pain for those households, businesses and regions who have yet to see its benefits.  On the question of the deficit, there is very little to choose between the two big parties and, since 2010, Labour has moved significantly in the direction of greater fiscal responsibility.

5.  In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband would lead a social democratic rather than a socialist government.  Nick Clegg has been absolutely right in this campaign to position the Lib Dems as a moderating influence on left and right, maintaining his equidistance between the two big parties and appealing to the centre ground which is where British politics should continue to be anchored.  Many see Clegg as a Tory collaborator but to be fair, he has made it clear he will talk first to whichever party has the most seats.  For the other reasons set out above, I hope - and pray - that this will be Labour.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Five reasons why the Tories do not deserve to be re-elected

Despite having a very good local constituency MP in Pauline Latham, here's why I won't be voting for her party on Thursday.

1.  The Tories have fought a negative and uninspiring campaign characterised mainly by telling lies about Labour's tax plans, lies about Labour's 'relationship' with the Scottish National Party, and a complete lack of candour about their own plans to slash welfare benefits in the next Parliament. Apart from a brief period around their manifesto launch, when David Cameron brought his 'sunshine' agenda back out of cold storage, the party's campaign has focused almost exclusively on spreading fear rather than hope. Such an approach is unworthy of a major political party and does not deserve to succeed.

2.  David Cameron has failed to engage with the public at any level, turning the campaign into a series of carefully-managed photo-ops rather than the conversation with the voters it should have been. His disdainful treatment of the regional press - for instance keeping local journalists in a room while he toured a factory - has been well-documented on HoldtheFrontPage, but is symptomatic of a wider reluctance to engage, of which the scrapping of the morning press conferences and his refusal to debate Ed Miliband head to head are also part and parcel.  The British public deserve better than a Prime Minister who is seemingly afraid of the voters, afraid of legitimate questioning by the media and afraid of what an opponent he has repeatedly sought to denigrate as not up to the job might do him in a one-on-one encounter.

3.  The Tories cannot be trusted with the National Health Service. Having pledged not to introduce a top-down reorganisation of the NHS at the last election, they then passed the Health and Social Care Act 2012.  This provides a route-map towards a nightmarish future in which the NHS ceases to exist as an organisational entity, with health care commissioned by GPs from a panoply of mainly private providers.  Once the profit-motive becomes embedded in our health service, it will be impossible to maintain it as free at the point of delivery.  Private providers have shareholders to please and profit margins to meet, and this will inevitably get passed on to patients.

4.  George Osborne's management of the economy has led to an uneven recovery which has widened the divide between the haves and the have nots and kept wage levels depressed while the cost of living has increased. The economic statictics may tell a positive story for the Conservatives, but the experiences of people at the sharp end tell another and small business people, public sector workers and anyone living north of Watford Gap have seen very little evidence of recovery at all. For all the Chancellor's talk about creating a 'Northern Powerhouse,' the economic divide between the North and South of the UK has grown over the past five years, with potentially baleful repercussions for the unity of the British state.

5.  The Tories' reckless promise of an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017 will create two years of uncertainty in the business community which will further paralyse already sluggish economic growth in the UK.  The Europe question was decisively settled by a previous generation in 1975 and millions of British jobs and livelihoods now depend on EU membership.  The issue does not need to be reopened now just so Mr Cameron can appease his recalcitrant backbenchers or seek to win back a disaffected, xenophobic minority who have temporarily deserted his party for Nigel Farage and UKIP

Tomorrow, I give my five reasons why I'm backing a Labour/Lib Dem coalition as the best election outcome.