Sunday, 28 November 2010

Project Re-launch.

Speaking at his party’s national policy forum in Gillingham this weekend Ed Milliband said that it was time for Labour to ‘take back the term Big Society’ from the Conservatives and to become again the ‘people’s party.’

His comments came at the launch of a major review of party policy headed by former Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne that in many respects mirrors David Cameron’s mostly successful attempt to ‘detoxify’ the image of the Tories. The review will cover the party’s stance of troublesome issues such as tax, immigration and welfare and will see shadow ministers leading policy discussions with party members.

Speaking to assembled delegates Mr Milliband said the party needed to be ‘reconnected to the hopes and aspirations of the people of Britain’ and had to prove that the policy review was a genuinely open minded exercise not one run by ‘a bunch of experts gathered in a room in London’ and determined to prove their own opinions correct.

He also admitted that in government Labour had ‘got some things wrong’; try almost everything wrong from 2005 onwards Ed, and that the party had been guilty of ‘losing its way.’ Most tellingly of all he admitted that they had too often seen problems in communities and thought the answer was ‘a programme or a policy,’ sometimes the policy was right; often it wasn’t and Labour was equally often too insular to notice until it was too late.

There were more admissions from shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who will chair the policy review, the party had, he said, to be ‘a changed Labour party for the next general election’, the public had grown tired of and cynical about the New Labour project and as a result the party had ‘got a hammering’ in May and needed to learn the lessons of that experience.

All this mea culpa stuff is very nice and cathartic in its way, but it needs more than well meaning navel gazing to turn around a party that doesn’t know what its for or who it represents. The policy review and the party as a whole will stand or fall on whether or not it can turn talk into action.

It will also stand or fall on what sort of figure Ed Milliband cuts as an opposition leader, perhaps the most thankless job in British politics. Every day is a struggle not to trip on one banana thrown in your path by the media or the government, so far, I’m afraid Red Ed’s report card would read ‘could do better.’

He appears awkward and earnest in public, making him a poor foil for Citizen Dave with his easy charm and has allowed the media to drag him into silly controversies about whether he plans to marry his long term partner or whether or not he has been recorded as the father on the birth certificate of his oldest child. When he comes into contact with ‘ordinary’ voters Milliband looks uncomfortable as evidenced by his bemused response to TESCO workers this week who told him they didn’t think the welfare system gave people an incentive to work.

There is also the small problem of having a shadow cabinet that seems to be pulling in two directions at once. For example shadow chancellor Alan Johnson wants to loosen the party’s ties with the unions, his leader knows only too well that he owes his position to the unions and that without their cash the party would be bankrupt.

The good news though is that despite a shaky start Ed Milliband is starting to sound like his own man at last. He cut several large donors out of the honours list and has admitted publicly that his in ‘unashamed’ about being a socialist; thank heavens for that for far too long socialism has been a naughty word in a party that would have no reason to exist without it.

Taking socialism out of mothballs and putting it at the centre of party policy might just be the saving of the Labour Party, however much their leader talks about replacing GDP with a ‘happiness index’ as a measure of national progress the spending cuts will drag the Tories and their Lib Dem accomplices to the right; that movement needs to be counterbalanced by an opposition that leans to the left, clinging to the middle ground is no longer an option.

Labour has, though, to pick the right kind of socialism, the insular, sectarian and often silly incarnation practiced by the so called ‘loony left’ is a non starter because it frightens voters because its adherents seem to rejoice in not connecting with the public mood. Ed Milliband needs to go out and talk to party members and public alike about a form of socialism that is based on the fairness deeply engrained in the British character that doesn’t hold back personal ambition only requires it to be tempered with a responsibility towards the society we all share.

It won’t be easy, the media will pillory him as being out of touch because they, as all cynics do, instinctively fear anyone with a ‘vision’; his political opponents will try to shout him down, he must ignore all this and keep on talking about what he believes is right.

If Ed Milliband really wants to make Labour the ‘people’s party’ again and to be ‘back on people’s side, back in power making the fairer, the more equal, the more just country we believe in,’ as he claimed in his speech at Gillingham he has no other choice.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Never had it so good; are you sure about that?

Here’s a little quiz for you, who said that people in Britain have never had it so good? If your answer was Harold Macmillan you’d be wrong, it was Lord Young, David Cameron’s enterprise advisor and it cost him his job this week.

What the no so noble lord said, over lunch whilst being secretly recorded by the sneaky journalists from the Daily Telegraph, was that ‘the vast majority of people in the country today, they have never had it so good ever since this recession, this so called recession, started.’

Then, just to add a insensitive cherry on top of an already pretty nasty cake he went on to say that the 100,000 public sector jobs set to be lost in each of the next four years thanks to the spending cuts were ‘within the margin of error;’ well that’s ok then, no need to worry our fluffy little heads about vanishing services then; what a relief.

Lord Young (78) is a former businessman turned life peer who served in the Thatcher government of the 1980’s and seems to have kept much of its attitudes ever since. He might have been praised by David Cameron for writing a report that advanced the claim that most health and safety legislation was nonsense, always a theme guaranteed to play well with the Tory grassroots, but he seems to have failed realize that the only sort of conservative who gets ahead these days is a compassionate one.

Within hours of his comments being made public lord Young was castigated by labour leader Ed Milliband for being insensitive and out of touch with the public mood. The job of the government in these austere times was he said to ‘demonstrate they do understand the consequences of the decisions they are making and the way people are struggling every day in our economy.’ Lord Young’s comments were, he said, indicative of ‘a government that doesn’t understand’ the day to day lives of voters.

Ever quick off the mark David Cameron told the press that from now on Lord Young would be doing ‘a bit less speaking’ for the government, making it plain that like a football manager who has been given the full backing of the board he would soon be on his way out of the door, which he duly was, pausing only to mumble something about his comments being ‘insensitive and inaccurate’ on his way back to the comfortable obscurity of life in the lords.

It was all too late though, the awkward truth that almost everyone has been trying to ignore was out in the open. Not that the Eton and Oxbridge educated types around the cabinet table were, in most cases, born to privilege, but that they don’t have much interest in the lives of the majority of people who weren’t.

David Cameron, George Osborne et al may be more circumspect about how they express it but they are still in thrall to the, as a spokesperson for UNITE described it this week, the ‘Thatcherite claptrap’ spouted by Lord Young. When the more unreconstructed Tory backbenchers cheered as George Osborne announced swingeing welfare cute their hard little hearts sang along like a chorus welcoming a particularly bleak new dawn; its just they knew how to do it without moving their lips.

Interest rates fixed at 0.5% do mean that a sizeable number of people have paid less on their mortgages in recent years, but that good news is blanked out by the fear of not having a job this time next month. There is also the small matter of the countless small businesses, people for whom Lord Young had been hired to speak, that have gone to the wall because the banks can’t, or won’t, lend them the money they need to survive.

None of those people feel that they have never had it so good, for them the bad times just keep on rolling. In fact the only people who can look to the future without fear are the lucky few living within the Westminster bubble, and when those same people tell us that we are ‘all in it together’ their words ring insultingly hollow.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A comeback for the student radicals

It must seem like pretty small beer in a week when Aung San Suu Kyi finally walked free after twenty years under house arrest, but the opposition to higher tuition fees is showing signs of turning into the sort of student movement not seen in Britain since the sixties. Some people, buoyed up perhaps by utopian memories of the ‘summer of love’ see this as something to be welcomed, I’m not so sure.

One Wednesday the number of people who took to the streets of London to march in protest against the cuts took both the police and the National Union of Students (NUS) by surprise, the prediction was for 5000, on the day 50,000 turned up armed with placards. That might have been good news for the NUS had a small minority not grabbed the headlines by invading the headquarters of the Conservative Party located in Milbank Tower.

The ‘radicals’ behind this then gave their more reasonable fellow campaigners a further headache by attacking any criticism of the incident as ‘unrepresentative’ of their movement. They went on to say, in a statement given to the press and not endorsed by the NUS that they were willing to ‘fight to win’ and if that meant more broken windows and scuffles with the police so be it.

During the week students at Manchester University occupied a building on campus in protest at rising tuition fees and cuts to higher education funding and the science and technology fair at Cambridge was interrupted by angry protestors.

The official NUS position was to say that the rioting outside Milbank Tower was ‘shameful, disgraceful and counter productive’ and in doing so they were quite correct and almost certain to be ignored. A media keen to make its audience’s flesh crawl concentrated instead on the, again unofficial, statement made by lecturers at Goldsmith’s College praising the ‘magnificent anti-cuts demo’ and saying that the real violence being done was the ‘destructive impact of the cuts and privatization that will follow if tuition fees are increased.’

The authorities at Goldsmith’s distanced themselves from the comments saying they ‘in no way reflected’ the official view taken by the college. It was though too little said way too late, the media machine has started to spin and will only end its cycle when the overreaction is complete.

There is no question that if tuition fees rise in line with government’s plans the thought of being in debt for decades will put many people from less affluent backgrounds from going to university, in the process depriving our country of much needed engineers, doctors and other professionals. In a world where the balance of economic and political power is shifting eastwards turning the university system into a playground for Sebastian Flyte and his chums is the last thing we need to do.

The thing is though direct action of the sort that took place on Wednesday only makes that outcome all the more likely. Protest has its place in a democracy, but it has to be peaceful and backed by a set of coherent alternative policies.

That, alas, is something the campaign against higher tuition fees conspicuously lacks. They’re long on outrage, as is the Labour Party which, in the shape of Harriet Harman standing in for Ed Milliband at PMQ’s this week, sought to pin Nick Clegg to the wall over his pre election opposition to putting fees up; but they constantly duck the difficult questions.

If raising tuition fees is wrong should taxes be put up instead? It’s a legitimate position, to invest in tomorrow you have to go without today, but a tough one to sell to the public. Maybe tuition fees are the lesser evil and more should be done to encourage companies and wealthy individuals to set up bursaries to help the less fortunate pay for their education?

I don’t have the answer to the questions asked above, but I do know how we might go about finding it and its got nothing to do with throwing rocks at police officers. It involves reasoned argument and a willingness to make compromises for the greater good; the nuts and bolts of effective democracy.

That will, undoubtedly, seem rather timid to the student radicals high on adrenaline and self righteousness, but without policies tested by reason the student movement, if that is what we saw born on Wednesday, will grind to a halt.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Dick Dastardly flies again.

Nigel Farage, one of the most colourful men in British politics has been re-elected as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Farage beat fellow MEP David Campbell Bannerman, ex boxer Winston McKenzie and the economist Tim Congdon with 60% of the vote and replaces Lord Pearson who resigned after less than a year in office.

Ever one for the snappy line Mr Farage told the press on Friday, the day the result was announced, ‘I note with delight that today is November 5th, a symbolic day of an attempt to overthrow the political class, although I promise our methods will be peaceful.’

Farage previously led UKIP for three years during which time the party shocked its larger rivals by coming a respectable third in the elections to the European Parliament and stood down to challenge commons speaker John Bercow in the general election. He failed in that particular endeavour, but a Dick Dastardly style plane crash on Election Day gained him both headlines and much public sympathy.

Lord Pearson, the outgoing leader who despite his self described image as ‘the toff who didn’t bother to read his own manifesto’ added a respectable 3% to the party’s share of the vote said that the UKIP crown had ‘returned to its rightful owner’, before adding ‘What sort of crown it is I leave up to you.’

Before we go any further I had better make it clear that I am in no way a supporter of UKIP. Their policies, such as they are, seem to be an uncomfortable blend of thinly disguised prejudice and the sort of things red faced men moan about in golf club bars. That said it is hard not to warm to a man like Nigel Farage.

In an age when vanilla is always the political flavour of the month he is that rarest of things a genuine eccentric. In a week when it was revealed that David Cameron has put his publicity photographer on the public payroll, along with his stylist and his PR guru, this matters more than ever.

Let’s compare the two men; Cameron is an old school aristocrat who pretends to be a metropolitan liberal, a man of the people or a disciple of the Iron Lady depending on the day of the week. It’s an act he pulls off with consummate skill, but, at the end of the day it is still just that; an act. What he thinks or feels on a personal level is a mystery, to him as much as us I imagine after five years of frantic posturing for the cameras.

Nigel Farage, by contrast, is, or seems to be anyway, a genuine rebel. A man who says what he thinks and worries about who it might offend afterwards, consider, for example, the comments he made about EU President, the unrecognizable Herman Von Rumpoy, saying that he looked like a ‘low grade bank clerk’ and has all the charisma of ‘a damp rag.’ That isn’t the sort of thing politicians usually say, but it is the sort of thing the people they’re having an ever harder time persuading to go out and vote for them often think.

It is a truth so obvious to have become a cliché to say that all political careers end in failure sooner or later, but it is still possible to speculate just what form that failure will take.

For David Cameron it will probably come about when the public fall out of love with the image his ‘brand team’ are carefully constructing for him. Then, like Tony Blair, he’ll probably spend the twilight of his career making lucrative, though utterly inconsequential, speeches to the trade organisation for people who make toilet rolls.

We will know Nigel Farage has reached this unhappy point when, like Tony Benn, he becomes a sort of living history exhibit to be politely ignored by an establishment to which he is no longer a threat. Along the way though he might just give said establishment a more than a few shocks and scares by doing in his own eccentric way something they find increasingly difficult; communication with a public that more and more wishes its politicians would shut up and go away.