Saturday, February 23, 2013

Seldon is right: Balls should fall on his sword

At the end of last week’s column, on the back of an opinion poll showing the party 11 points clear of the Tories, I suggested that the next general election in 2015 was beginning to look like it might be Labour’s to lose.

Premature? Well probably. But there seems to be a growing view in political circles – not least on the Tory backbenches - that Labour is on course to become, at worst, the largest single party in another hung Parliament.

At the same time, however, there remains a strong awareness that despite favourable poll ratings and the growing unpopularity of the Coalition, the party still has one huge Achilles Heel: the economic record of the last Labour government.

And the man who, more than any other, personifies this is the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls – Gordon Brown’s chief economic adviser for most of his time at the Treasury and his closest political ally once he got to Number 10.

In my political preview of 2013, published on the last Saturday of 2012, I predicted that Labour leader Ed Miliband might eventually be obliged to resolve this difficulty by relieving Mr Balls of his responsibilities.

So it came as no huge surprise, to me at any rate, to see this view being repeated by no less a figure than Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and the pre-eminent historian of the Blair-Brown years.

“As somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword,” he told Mr Balls in a New Statesman article this week.

“Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand… Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. “

If the Godfather allusion seems unnecessarily brutal, Seldon at least went on to hold out the prospect that Mr Balls could one day return to the front bench as a “redeemed and respected figure.”

He even went so far as to say that he might yet succeed to the party leadership one day, predicting that the public will eventually tire of the trend towards young leaders.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Tories to start leaping to the defence of the man they believe is their greatest electoral asset.

One prominent Conservative blogger praised his “good political brain” and grasp of economics, and suggested that, far from being a drain on Ed Miliband’s leadership, he acts as a useful lightning conductor for him.

The irony of all this is that Mr Balls has, broadly speaking, been proved right in his attack on the government’s economic policy since 2010, namely that it has cut too far, too fast and in so doing snuffed out an incipient recovery.

With growth still sluggish, it is hard to gainsay the central thrust of his argument that the Coalition needs a ‘Plan B’ in order to get the economy moving again.

But whereas people may agree with Mr Balls’ analysis of the problem, this does not mean they necessarily agree with his solutions.

And Mr Balls’ real difficulty is that, rightly or wrongly, many voters assume his much-vaunted Plan B would be no more than a return to the policies that got the country into such a mess in the first place.

One of the most successful and oft-used Tory slogans of all time is the one originally coined by Harold Macmillan’s government at the 1959 election: “Life’s better with the Conservatives – don’t let Labour ruin it.”

It was used again to good effect in the last week of the 1987 campaign after the Tories’ “wobbly Thursday,” and variants such as “Britain is booming – don’t let Labour blow it” have resurfaced from time to time.

So long as Ed Balls remains in the shadow Treasury brief, the Tories won’t need Saatchi and Saatchi to devise their next election slogan for them.

It will be quite straightforward: “Britain is on the way back. Don’t let Labour Balls it up.”

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Was this the week Cameron lost his party?

Whatever else the past seven eventful days in politics will ultimately be remembered for, it’s certainly been a good, maybe even vintage week for political jokes.

“I didn’t feel in the least bit sorry for Chris Huhne - until I heard that Lembit was planning to visit him in jail,” one Lib Dem wag is supposed to have told another.

Then there was the one about the new film they are making about the Tories: Gay Weddings and Dave’s Funeral.

And one enterprising cartoonist even managed to work Richard III in, depicting a battle-scarred Mr Huhne crying: "Three points, three points, my kingdom for three points."

The fact that South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband was pictured asleep on the Tube with his flies undone merely added to the general hilarity.

But all joking aside, this was a week of seriously big political stories which could have equally serious repercussions for David Cameron’s coalition government.

Timing apart, Mr Huhne’s dramatic fall from grace following a 10-year cover up over a driving offence and Tuesday’s Commons vote in favour of same sex marriage are completely unrelated stories.

Yet this week saw them come together in a way that may signal real trouble for the Coalition over the forthcoming weeks.

Mr Huhne’s demise has triggered potentially the most significant by-election of the current Parliament, with the two Coalition partners set to go head to head in what is a genuine Lib Dem-Tory marginal.

And the smouldering anger among grassroots Tories over the gay marriage vote means they are certain to see it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations by giving the Lib Dems a damned good kicking.

I suspect that in an ideal world Mr Cameron would like to have been in a position to give the Lib Dems a clear run in Eastleigh in order to avoid such obvious unpleasantness.

He did, after all, allow Mr Huhne to be replaced as Energy Secretary in Cabinet by another Lib Dem, Ed Davey, so why not allow him to be similarly replaced in Parliament.

The situation is vaguely analogous to what happens in a football match when a player gets injured and play has to stop while he is treated on the pitch.

On such occasions, when play resumes the ball is automatically thrown back to the side originally in possession before the injury occurred.

Yet Mr Cameron is not in a position to make such apparently sporting gestures. His own backbenchers, and his grassroots activists, simply wouldn’t stand for it.

And even if the two parties did manage to reach a non-aggression pact, there would be no guarantee it would stop UKIP snatching the seat.

Mr Huhne’s downfall was, for Mr Cameron at any rate, one of those random occurrences which come under the category what Harold Macmillan famously termed “events, dear boy, events.”

The split in the Tory Party over gay marriage, however, was entirely preventable from his point of view.

Mr Cameron has forged ahead with a piece of legislation that was neither in his party’s manifesto nor in the Coalition agreement in the belief that it would make his party look modern and inclusive.

What it has actually done is reveal it to be bitterly divided from top to bottom – and divided parties, of course, never win elections.

Neither is it ever politically wise for a Prime Minister to put himself in a position where he is dependent on the votes of the opposition parties to get a crucial measure through the Commons.

Since Mr Cameron is fond of drawing such comparisons, it is worth recalling that this nearly happened to Tony Blair in the Iraq War debate in 2003 which saw 139 Labour MPs vote against the invasion.

Although it took another four years before he was eventually forced from office, the knives were out for him from that moment on.

If 18 March 2003 was the day Mr Blair lost his party, will 5 February 2013 go down as the day David Cameron lost his?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Council leaders should pay heed to Kinnock's warning

 Earlier this week I tuned in to an interesting radio discussion about whether, in the era of instant communication via text messaging, email and Twitter, set-piece political speeches still retained any relevance.

The discussion had been precipitated by perhaps the most long-awaited and over-hyped set-piece political speech of recent times – Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned address on Britain’s relationship with Europe.

The consensus was that, while such speeches still had their place, it helped if the politician concerned had something new and original to say – as for instance Margaret Thatcher did in her famous Bruges speech of 1988 when she set her face against a federal Europe.

In that respect, perhaps it was a good thing that Mr Cameron’s proposed speech ended up being postponed, given the expectation among commentators that it would say little to appease his increasingly Eurosceptic backbenchers.

But if Bruges was, for those on the right of politics, the setting for the seminal political speech of modern times, those of a Labour disposition tend to look to another town beginning with B – namely Bournemouth.

For that was where, in 1985, Neil Kinnock delivered the Labour conference address subsequently credited with launching the party on the long road to recovery after the wilderness years of the early 1980s.

The historical significance of the speech was that it marked the start of a fightback by Labour modernisers against a hard left faction which had rendered the party unelectable.

This process of internal renewal would eventually lead to the creation of New Labour and, electorally speaking at any rate, the most successful period in the party’s history.

But in an era in which a Conservative-led government is once again imposing spending cutbacks on Labour-run councils, could Mr Kinnock’s great speech have a new relevance for today?

What he was railing against in Bournemouth was the kind of gesture politics typified, not just by Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council, but by a host of other Labour authorities of the era who used budget cuts as a means of ratcheting up political pressure on the government.

The key sentence in the speech was Mr Kinnock’s warning – delivered in the face of a heckling Derek Hatton – that “you can’t play politics with people’s jobs, or with people’s homes, or with people’s services.”

And more than a quarter of a century on, it’s people’s services that are once again at stake in Newcastle, as the city council decides how to implement what it claims are the £90m worth of savings demanded by the Con-Lib coalition at Westminster.

Council leader Nick Forbes’ decision to target some of the cutbacks at libraries and the arts has caused deep and bitter controversy in the region, but is actually nothing new in the annals of Labour local authorities.

Whether consciously or otherwise, he has taken a leaf out of the book of David Bookbinder, the left-wing firebrand who led Derbyshire County Council at the same time as Mr Hatton was running Liverpool.

Faced with a similar set of cutbacks in the 1980s, Mr Bookbinder decided to take the axe to a series of libraries in Tory-voting middle-class areas as well as scrapping school music tuition.

But just as Derbyshire’s voters saw through his attempts to blame the government for the sorry situation, so Newcastle’s are increasingly beginning to question who is really to blame for the present-day cutbacks.

Save Newcastle Libraries campaigner Lee Hall has made clear his own view on the matter, accusing Councillor Forbes in a speech last week of wanting to “make a name for himself” and wanting “a platform to rail at the Coalition.”

“Instead of trying to protect our libraries, our enormously successful arts organisations, Forbes, for his own political aggrandisement, is trying to cut as much as possible,” he said.

David Bookbinder’s unique brand of showmanship made Derbyshire a great place to be a local government reporter in the 1980s, but ultimately his attempts to play politics with people’s services did Labour no favours in the county.

Perhaps Councillor Forbes, too, should now take heed of Mr Kinnock’s wise words of warning.