Sunday, 26 September 2010

Ed has beaten David to win the party leadership; now he must win over the country.

After a race that felt like it would go on forever Ed Milliband has beaten his brother David to take the role of leading the Labour Party.

The result, announced on the eve of the party’s annual conference in Manchester yesterday, saw Ed Milliband win with 50.65% of the votes cast by MP’s, MEP’s, party members and members of affiliated organisations, David Milliband polled 49.35% with Ed Balls coming third.

David Milliband attracted the largest number of votes from MP’s, MEP’s and party members, but backing from the big unions swung things in favour of his brother by a small majority, prompting some sections of the UK press to dub him ‘Red Ed’ and accuse him of being in the pocket of his union backers. A charge the new leader refutes claiming to be very much his ‘own man’ and pledging to unify the party in the name of a ‘new generation’ that had brought to an end the New Labour project.

Just now everything in the tight bubble of the party conference will be sweetness and light, the defeated challengers have rallied behind him and it is safe to predict that his first speech as leader will be hailed as a triumph. The real hard work will begin when parliament sits again in October and the comprehensive spending review stops being an alarming rumour and becomes a painful reality.

It is then and only then that Ed Milliband will discover the problems and opportunities that face him in his new role.

The problems are clear; the small majority with which he won the leadership means that his position will be vulnerable for the foreseeable future. He might not face a challenge from his brother, the bonds of filial love are stronger than the demands of political ambition, but there is no guarantee that his colleagues will have such strong scruples. There is also the small matter of finding a distinctive identity for a party that has spent too long on the sterile centre ground. Neither problem will be overcome quickly or easily.

If the problems that face Ed Milliband seem to loom large, so do the opportunities. Opposition leaders have the opportunity to travel the country meeting party members and ordinary voter, something that the pressures of business and security concerns prevent members of the government from doing easily. He must take full advantage of this, even if it means initially taking a considerable amount of flack from a core vote that feels it has been taken for granted.

On the subject of the budget cuts it is not enough to simply oppose the government; Labour must go beyond protest politics to provide a credible alternative. In doing so he must not be distracted by the siren voices within his party calling for consolidation on the centre ground or the ‘Red Ed’ jibes thrown about by the media. Many of the ideas once attributed to the ‘loony left’, concern for the environment or fair treatment for minority groups for example, have been accepted by the political mainstream; if a strong enough case is made for an economic system that strikes a fairer balance between growth and equality it too could be accepted by the electorate.

Whatever happened once the euphoria of the conference season has dissipated Ed Milliband will need a thick skin and the stomach for a fight that will be long and in all likelihood dirty. The same goes for the ‘new generation’ of Labour politicians for whom he claims to be the standard bearer.

Friday, 24 September 2010

All hail the hollowed out party.

This week’s Liberal Democrat conference was, you’d imagine, the moment leader Nick Clegg’s political career had been building towards from day one.

Taking to the platform in Liverpool on Tuesday as Deputy Prime Minister he said that since May his party had ‘changed British politics for good’ and promised that if the membership held their nerve and stuck out the full term the Liberal Democrats would have ‘changed Britain for good.’

Just look at what they’ve done in just a few short months, as Mr Clegg put it they had already ‘ended the injustice of the richest paying less tax on their investments than the poorest do on their wages’; the forthcoming Freedom Bill promised to ‘roll back a generation of illiberal and intrusive legislation’ and from April next year 900,000 of the lowest earning people will be freed from paying tax.

Joy it was to be a Liberal Democrat on that afternoon, despite being derided and dismissed by snippy op-ed writers the party that ‘had always been the face of change’ had now become the ‘agent of change.’ Being in power might have changed their status but their liberal ‘soul’ was and would forever remain intact.

He also took a swipe at the Labour government, likening their management of the economy to a family earning £26,000 and spending £32,000 whilst having a debt of £40,000 to service. This family, lets call them the Joneses, would have to set itself a new and tougher budget, which is what kindly Uncle Nick is helping us all to do. Along the way he was also recycling some of his favourite lines about losing the job that pays your mortgage or the services you depend on making for hard times, but not so hard at in the 1930’s; so we’re all going to be spared rickets at least.

At times it was hard to remember just who did win the election, the delivery was strikingly confident for the junior partner in a coalition government. When he spoke about Britain in 2015 being a very different country, a place that will be ‘strong, fair, free and full of hope again, a country we can be proud to hand on to our children. That is the prize.’, it was easy to forget that it was Nick Clegg, the man we all agreed with back in May, delivering the speech at all. He sounded like a different man; the man he sounded like was Tony Blair.

Many things about this year’s Liberal Democrat conference seemed like every other such event. Vince Cable had a foot in mouth moment, this time it involved making some sub student politics comments about the evils of capitalism, Lembit Opik made a fool of himself and the delegates gave the party hierarchy a bloody nose by refusing to support ‘free schools.’

Other things were very different though, like the rest of Britain the Liberal Democrats are going to be unrecognisable by 2015, and the changes are starting now. The conference seemed slicker and the media more engaged with what was going on, good news, I’m sure if you’re a long time Lib Dem supporter used to being treated with polite disdain, but there was no hiding the fact that the ‘soul’ Nick Clegg promised the party would never lose is definitely in peril.

The delegates who trooped up onto the platform to denounce the likely consequences of cutting public services too quickly should enjoy their freedom to do so; they won’t have it at the conference after next. It may not be apparent to the delegates making their way home from Liverpool this week end yet, but their party is slowly being hollowed out, turned into something quieter that is easier for the leadership to manage.

That is, perhaps, inevitable, once in government even the most determinedly flower strewing liberal become a little more conservative when given the job of looking after the garden. The trouble is though when a party jettisons too many of its principles it inevitable loses its way and, ultimately, much of its support. As happened to Labour under the man to whom Nick Clegg emerged this week as a rather surprising heir.

Friday, 17 September 2010

What we should REALLY fear this winter.

This week the Trades Union Congress (TUC) held its annual conference in Manchester, for the first time in decades it seemed more like a living breathing political event than a historical curiosity.

In his keynote speech General Secretary Brendan Barber savaged the massive budget cuts planned in the spending review due to be unveiled this autumn saying they ‘will not only decimate the services we rely on but do untold damage to our economic prospects.’

As a result a post cuts Britain would, he said be ‘a darker, brutish; more frightening place.’ Unashamedly apocalyptic stuff that captured the very real fears of union members in the public sector and beyond that jobs and services are about to be slashed to the bone.

RMT leader Bob Crow was, as ever less modulated and more straightforwardly passionate in his call for union members to engage in ‘civil disobedience’ such as strike action timed to disrupt the party conferences and even sit down protests on the motorways. Needless to say the audience lapped it up, for the first time in years the trade union movement had rediscovered its roar.

Concerns were also expressed at their conference by Derek Barnett of the Police Superintendents Association that ‘in an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise.’ He called for police budgets to be protected from the harshest cuts to allow them to respond effectively to any rise in public disorder.

It should come as a surprise to nobody that the media responded to this with varying shades of alarm. All week we were treated to lurid tales of a return to the industrial unrest of the seventies and eighties designed to make our flesh crawl and, from the right field at least, to accept the line that only a return to the policies followed by Mrs Thatcher could save us from disaster.

I’m afraid I don’t buy it and I don’t think anyone else should either. Moral panic may sell papers but it does little or nothing to address the real dangers we face this autumn.

It is based, in part, on a faulty understanding of the way the unions operate in the modern world. Bob Crow’s threats of civil disobedience and something close to a general strike play well to the membership, they put a little fire into bellies and steel into the collective backbone for the fight ahead. That fight though, as Brendan Barber and many other union leaders know only too well will have to be fought using the tactics of the twenty first century not those of the 1970’s.

That means making a reasoned case for protecting growth for the long term over cutting the deficit now and not worrying about the long term consequences for individuals and communities. The trouble is that said case must be made to a government that is signally lacking in reason. A point amply demonstrated by Chancellor George Osborne’s conviction that £4 billion can be cut from the welfare budget without worrying about the consequences because the only people likely to be harmed are those who make a ‘lifestyle choice’ to live on benefits. His language and attitudes alike seem frozen somewhere in 1986.

The awful truth is that as it faces its worst economic crisis since the war Britain is led by a government that seems determined to do to the country’s economy what Godzilla regularly did to the Tokyo skyline at the prompting of an outmoded ideology. This development skilfully combines tragedy with pure farce because the driving force behind it comes from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club rather than the TUC, the RMT and the outer fringes of socialism.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The cuts won’t hurt? Go tell that to the battered North East Mr Clegg.

Just now political autobiographies are all the rage, Tony Blair’s rather turgid tome ‘A Journey’ has raced to the top of the best seller list and provoked at least one riot. If Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg decides to cash in on the trend he might be advised to call his own book ‘Why do I say these things?’

At least he would on the strength of the comments he made this week about the likely impact of the coming budget cuts. He told the BBC that he ‘understood people’s anxieties’ about the prospect of spending cuts of 25% and admitted that ‘tough decisions’ would have to be made, but said that talk of billions of pounds being taken out of the economy overnight were misleading and only added to people’s fears.

The spending review would, he said, be ‘tough’, but was an essential part of a five year plan ‘to put the UK back in the black.’ To which the only response is go tell it to the marines Mr Clegg; better still go tell it to the people living in towns in the North East that are about to be dealt a knockout by the coming cuts.

Research carried out by Experian for the BBC this week revealed that towns in the North East are likely to be least resilient when it comes to coping with the budget cuts, hardest hit will be Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent.

Nick Clegg admitted, big of him don’t you think?, that the research shows there really is such a thing as a north south divide in England, but retreats from the idea that the policies followed by the government of which he is part may well exacerbate existing problems by recycling cheerless bromides about not being able to build a strong economy on ‘shifting sands of debt.’

While it is self evident that public spending will have to contract the speed with which the current government is swinging the axe risks doing more harm that good. As Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesbrough puts it people in his constituency who lose their jobs in the public sector won’t necessarily go into jobs in the private sector; they’ll go on the dole!

You also have to agree with shadow business secretary Pat McFadden when he accuses the government of gambling with ‘growth and jobs.’ The trouble is ‘nice guy Nick’ fails to see the extent of the fear felt by people in areas that have been reeling from one economic blow after another since the 1970’s, in most cases they aren’t living high on the public service hog, they’re just about getting by and lose sleep over the prospect of losing their jobs and homes.

The pact the public entered into, probably unconsciously, by voting for a coalition government in May was based on an understanding that the traditionally Tory imperative to balance the national books would be tempered by a liberal understanding that it must be done with compassion and common sense. Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrats have failed to come through on that promise; to all our cost.

If you need evidence of this look no further than their willingness to countenance Chancellor George Osborne’s planned cut of £4billion from the welfare budget. This has nothing to do with getting people off welfare and into work, as his colleague Iain Duncan Smith awkwardly pointed out ending poverty requires welfare spending to rise in the short term, and everything to do with playing to the more unthinking elements of the Tory grassroots ahead of the party conference.

The new politics Nick Clegg, Vince Cable et al were supposed to represent has started to look very much like business as usual, largely because in the fine tradition of their party the first Liberal Democrats to achieve positions of power in almost a century have let the chance to bring about real change slip through their fingers.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Dear David, Ed, Andy, Ed and Diane- An open letter to the Labour leadership candidates.

Haven’t you all been busy since May, what with the debates, the back peddling from the decisions made under Tony Blair and writing all those emails to potential supporters you can hardly have had a moment to yourselves.

Ok so your ‘people’ wrote the emails, but you all expressed an interest in hearing my views along with gaining my vote. I can’t promise you the latter, not all of you anyway, politics is a game for grown ups with winners and losers; as you’ve discovered over the past few months, but I can spare you a few ideas about what you might do with the job when or if you get it.

The first thing you will have to recognise, and you won’t like it much, is that Labour lost the election because it lost its way as a party its core support for granted for far too long. You might point to the thirty thousand members the party has gained since the election as proof that things are improving, it is nothing of the sort; the membership gains of recent months are dwarfed by the net losses made since 1994.

The good news is that you can start to really turn things around by following a few simple steps, none of which, I admit, will help you to win the next election, but they will, hopefully mean there is a party in existence to fight it and be an effective opposition afterwards.

First of all you should apologise for the multiple mistakes of the Blair/Brown years; issues like Iraq, civil liberties and the slow dismantling of internal party democracy that have alienated so many people who would naturally turn towards the Labour Party. This won’t be easy, no politician likes to admit to being wrong and in the short term the media will give you a hard time, but in the longer term it will detoxify some truly poisonous issues and allow the party to move on.

At every opportunity you should get out of the Westminster bubble and meet real voters and party members. In the nine years for which I was a member of a constituency Labour party we did not receive a single visit from even a junior minister, it was hard not to draw the conclusion that this was because the party largely took our votes for granted. There is also the impression that needs to be corrected that politicians feel awkward around and are out of tune with the feelings of ‘ordinary’ voters. Politics is about people, real ones not tame focus groups, you might not like what the man and woman in the street says to you, but in many cases it will be worth listening to.

Embrace, don’t fight against the Big Society, it might be a Tory invention but the ideas behind it are ones with which the Labour Party should feel an affinity. Yours is a party built on a desire to empower individuals and communities and much of the anger directed towards Labour in recent years has focussed, rightly, on the leadership’s attempts to gather ever more power in towards the centre.

A good way to start this process would be to revive grassroots democracy within the party. Ask any group of former party members what they left and the majority will tell you they were pushed over the edge by the feeling that their concerns relation to policy, often based on an understanding of local conditions unavailable to party mandarins, were being sidelined by a cabal of officials who put advancing their own careers first and everything else second.

I don’t usually make predictions but my guess would be that the winning candidate will be related to one of the losing ones; whoever wins will be taking on a tough job in even tougher times. The only thing they can be certain of is an onslaught of media criticism between now and the next election, at which it looks unlikely they will dislodge a coalition that appears to be stronger than anybody expected.

It is also an important job, for much of its history the Labour Party was the voice of the people who are obliged to live at the mercy of the markets. During the Blair years that voice became muted in the rush to the centre ground, for the good of the people who will be hurt most by the impending cuts the new leader will need to make it heard again. To do so whoever wins the leadership race will need courage and luck, I wish them both; they’ll need it.