Saturday, 22 May 2010

Six candidates in search of a message.

For a while there it looked like the main qualification for entering the race to be the next leader of the Labour Party was membership of the Milliband family. The field has expanded over the week, but I’m still far from sure that any of the candidates have much to say worth listening to.

Jostling for the top job, the result of the race will be announced at the party conference in September, are Ed and David Milliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham.

Good egg though he is John McDonnell is really only in the race as a token gesture towards the shrinking left wind of the party and the presence of Diane Abbott means he might not even get the backing of thirty three MP’s necessary to get onto the ballot paper in the first place. As for Diane Abbott, she spent Labour’s thirteen years in government building a career in the media rather than as even a junior minister, a cynic might think there is a hint of vanity in her standing for the party leadership at this late stage, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Out of the four front runners Ed Balls has the least chance of success, as Gordon Brown’s strong arm man since 2007 he has made a legion of enemies and his abrasive manner is unlikely to appeal to party members.

David Milliband, named as the favourite by the media, looks likely to fall in the first few furlongs, in a leadership contest it is seldom the front runner when the gun goes off who gets to break the tape at the finishing line. There is also the small matter of Milliband senior’s accident prone approach to dealing with the media, think of that photo of him gurning madly as he clutched a banana at the 2008 party conference and you get a good idea of the fun the press would have with the poor man were he to win the leadership.

The race will probably come down to a straight contest between Ed Milliband and Andy Burnham with Burnham emerging victorious due to being photogenic and having the least baggage; that though might be just the beginning of his problems.

It is all very well for Alan Johnson to advise his party against ‘spending months examining our navels’, but a period of introspection is unavoidable id Labour are ever to form another government. Put simply the party must rediscover the values it jettisoned under Tony Blair and also who it aims to represent.

So far all the candidates in with a realistic chance of taking the prize have talked bravely about reconnecting with the grassroots membership, reaching out to the core vote who have felt taken for granted in recent years and damned decisions such as entering the Iraq war. It is, as the advert used to say, good to talk; but it is even better to match words with actions.

Whoever wins the race to be the next leader of the Labour Party will be judged not by his critique of the decisions made by his predecessors but by those he makes himself.

And another thing:

With the World Cup less than a month away and the London Olympics coming in 2012 the issue of when, if at all, we should fly our nation’s flag is a hot topic once again.

One contributor to a debate on the subject on Radio Five Live this week asserted that flying the flag was the sole preserve of ‘shaven headed white van men.’

This view has always struck me as rather odd, at a time when the balance of power is shifting fostering a positive sense of what it means to be British, or any other nationality for that matter, seems to be a sensible defence against extremism.

On the subject of the London Olympics we were introduced this week to Mandeville and Wenlock, the two one eyed mascots named after the towns where Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic movements began.

The best one can say about them is that they are better than the graffiti inspired log for the games unveiled to much public disgust in 2007; that said they lack the warmth and genuine, as opposed to designed in by a committee, quirkiness necessary to really connect with the public.

Take a letter; then again don’t, according to a survey carried out for the charity World Vision one in ten British children have never written a letter.

So what you might say, isn’t this the age of email and Twitter; haven’t we left such fussy and old fashioned things far behind. If so more fool us because from the collected letters of the great and the good to Granny’s faded love letters stored in the attic the letter provides a unique insight into the thoughts, hopes and everyday lives of people from every class, race and political persuasion.

If the letter really is dead our culture will be much the poorer as a result and we risk being incomprehensible to the generations that come after us.

Friday, 14 May 2010

All change as Britain heads for uncharted waters.

After thirteen hectic years the New Labour project came to an end on Tuesday when Gordon Brown bowed to the inevitable and, having failed to form a working partnership with the Liberal Democrats, tendered his resignation ushering in Britain’s first coalition government since the war.

Speaking about the job that at times seemed almost to have broken him he said: ‘only those who have held the office of prime minister can understand the full weight of its responsibilities and its great capacity for good,’ he went on to say that despite facing many ‘challenges’ he had tried to do his best ‘for the interests of Britain, its values and its people.’

New Labour had, Mr Brown said, left behind it a country that was ‘more democratic, more prosperous and more just; a truly greater Britain.’

Gordon Brown’s exit showed much of the dignity that was sadly lacking during his three year tenure as prime minister. As a leader he will be remembered for one truly ‘great’ moment, when he led the world in facing up to the financial crisis of autumn 2008 and a long list of, often self imposed, disasters beginning with the election that never was back in 2007 and ending with the comments about Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy that destroyed his chances of winning the one he couldn’t duck.

As a man Gordon Brown will be remembered for his intellect and his doggedness in the face of personal tragedy, he will also be remembered as a scowling political schemer with a volatile temper and a poor understanding of the people he led. A gifted man brought down in the end as much by the flaws contained within his character as the events that characterised his term of office.

Accepting the task of leading a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats new prime minister David Cameron pledged to ‘help build a more responsible society’ and to support ‘the frail, the elderly, the poorest in out country.’

He also recognised the scale of the economic and social challenged Britain faces in the coming years saying the country would have to ‘face up to out big challenges, to confront our problems, take difficult decisions, so that together we can reach better times.’

The question now is whether the new government will be led by ‘Dave’ the husky cuddling darling of the metropolitan elite or ‘David’ the steely old style, meaning pre Thatcherite, Tory he has portrayed himself as in recent years. Perhaps his best chance of success lies in the combination of the two that emerged so engagingly on the campaign trail, a man capable of understanding the social problems crated by the Conservative governments of the eighties but unafraid of making a case for people working with the state to solve their problems as opposed to sitting back and waiting to be rescued.

Whatever facet of his political character emerges as dominant it is clear that David Cameron will have to be a prime minister like no other Britain has ever known. His first press conference with new deputy Nick Clegg at his side was an amicable affair, the tightrope of leading a government that depends on achieving a consensus between partners rather than using its majority to drive through legislation will be a monumental challenge.

Great challenges though bring with them great opportunities, if the new politics of partnership can be made to work, however unlikely the partners themselves might be this really could be the beginning of a more democratic and progressive settlement. Although it may not seem like it now that might, in time, give hope and opportunity to whatever comes to replace a beaten and discredited Labour Party.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

And the winner is….

The election is over bar the waiting, quite a lot of waiting since the consensus opinion is that we won’t have a government until Monday at the earliest. This hiatus between the closing of the polls and the start of whatever comes next is a good time to make a few final observations about the election just gone.

Thanks to the televised debates between the leaders of the three main parties, an unlikely ratings success as it turned out, we now know who Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is. In fact for a while it seemed like a large section of the public really did agree with Nick. As it turned out both Clegg and his party peaked too soon and the orange surge failed to translate into either votes or seats, that said the Lib Dems could still play kingmaker in the negotiations to form a coalition and will be able to demand more serious treatment from the media in future.

As expected Gordon Brown imploded on the campaign trail, the Labour Party campaign was a lumbering mess and the Bigotgate scandal robbed Brown of much of his personal authority. It is ironic that he made the only halfway decent speech of the election to an audience of community activists gathered in Methodist Central Hall at the start of last week, his passion may well have been genuine but few people listening would have been able to believe that his moral compass isn’t irretrievably broken.

If there is an award for running the most energetic campaign is should probably go to Conservative leader David Cameron, for four weeks he seemed to be just about everywhere. This could have led to a bad case of over exposure, in fact it saw him emerge from the dust of the campaign as that most rare of things a fully functioning human being who also happens to be a full time politician. If, as seems likely, he ends up leading a government obliged to start taking unpopular decisions from day one that may prove to be a valuable asset.

Election Day threw up some surprises, some of which were comic while others left this observer fearful for the safety of our democracy.

Former UKIP leader and full time scourge of the EU Nigel Farage emerged from a Dick Dastardly style plane crash to do battle with commons speaker John Bercow. Sadly he lost that particular dogfight but has cemented his place as a ‘character’, the next logical step for Mr Farage is surely canonization as a fully fledged national treasure.

There was much less to laugh about in the exclusion of thousands of people who turned up to vote in the hour before the polls closed at ten o’clock. Yes many of the people involved probably could have voted earlier in the day but the inability of the Polling Clerks at the stations where the problem occurred should have been more organised. Voting is a fundamental right and it should not be denied to people due to incompetence on the part of public officials.

The result, as the polls had for once been accurate in predicting, was the first hung parliament in the UK since 1974. Since the early hours of Friday morning our democratic system has taken on a distinct similarity to the sort of ‘photo-romance’ that used to appear in Jackie and other teen magazines. Should Nick give his heart, or his fifty seven seats in the commons anyway, to sporty Dave or brooding Gordon; decisions, decisions, what is a party leader to do?

By this time next week a decision will have been reached, in all probability David Cameron will be head of a government about to set sail into economic waters stormy enough to make the shocks and scares of an election seem like child’s play. There are interesting and probably dangerous times ahead.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Gordon Brown experiences his ‘horseshoe nail’ moment.

Politics, particularly during an election season, can be a strange business, one where great changes of fortune are heralded by seemingly minor events. As the nursery rhyme has it, the most historic of battles are often lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This week saw one such event and the almost certain ending of any hope that Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister this time next week.

It took the shape of an, as he thought, private comment about Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy, who Brown had met on the campaign trail and described to his aides as a ‘bigoted woman’ because she had the temerity to mention the unmentionable subject of immigration. In a piece of the bad luck that has dogged his tenure in Downing Street from day one our soon to be ex premier still had his microphone on and the whole sorry exchange was recorded and then played back to him live on national radio.

To his credit Brown looked horrified when his words were played back to him and made a personal apology; it was, though, too little done far too late. An ugly truth about his character and that of the party he leads had been brought out into the open.

Behind the carefully constructed PR and the pose of being a pretty straight bunch of guys; the brave talk about having a ‘moral compass’ and wanting to reach out to ordinary voters New Labour is a seething mass of paranoia totally divorced from the experiences and concerns of their core voters, or of anyone else living outside the Westminster bubble. At some level everyone who voted for them knew this, and I include myself in this group, but so long as we acknowledge it things could go on as they always had. Now we have seen their true colours they can no longer claim out vote and nothing will ever be the same again.

Bigotgate, as the incident was quickly dubbed by the media, wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Labour Party this week; just the most graphically damaging.

In a moment of pure slapstick the party’s charmless schools secretary Ed Balls was snubbed by Peppa Pig, a cartoon character much admired by the under fives m’lud, who refused to appear alongside him at the launch of the party’s children’s policy.

On a more serious note two broadsheet newspapers withdrew their support form Labour, it isn’t, perhaps, such a surprise that the Times prefers the Tories, but the news that the Guardian is backing the Liberal Democrats because they share its stance on electoral reform is, in terms of condemnation, roughly equivalent to the Tablet dropping the Vatican in favour of Lambeth Palace.

This is how the New Labour project that began with such high hopes in 1997 ends, not with a bang or a whimper; just endless bitter recriminations. That and a deep sense of betrayal felt by people all over the country for whom socialism is more than just an ideological pose, even if they don’t use the word it is the code by which they live their lives, they are the people New Labour let down by taking their support for granted.

Gordon Brown, like any senior politician, must have considered what his place in history might be, this week he found out. He will be listed alongside Lloyd George, not in the sense of being a ‘great’ prime minister, but in the sense of being a venal man who led his party into political irrelevance. It is a verdict the events of this week show he richly deserves.