Sunday, 25 August 2013

Time to find an exit strategy for Ed Milliband

You know your fortunes have reached their nadir when notorious mangler of the English language John Prescott criticises your communication skills. Labour leader Ed Milliband reached that point this week and it should give him cause to consider his position.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror a week ago John Prescott accused the Labour Party of ‘massively failing’ to get their message across, then went on to urge not so Red Ed to come over all Fergie and give poorly performing members of his shadow cabinet ‘ the hairdryer treatment and then kick em out.’

In a more, for him anyway, forensic tone he wrote that ‘radical change is now required to shape up the policy of organisation and delivery alongside a clear set of policies and principles so people know what we stand for.’ Just because you are stating the obvious doesn’t mean you aren’t also telling the truth.

The polls haven’t been helpful either, on conducted by ComRes for the Sunday Mirror showed just 22% of the people questioned though Ed Milliband was a good leader of the Labour Party, a fall from 31% in May.

Just to add insult to injury Mr Milliband then got a biffing from Maurice, now Lord, Glasman his former policy guru. Writing in the Mail on Sunday Lord Glasman said that as leader he had ‘not followed his instincts’ and attacked ‘predator capitalists.’ He went on to say that ‘at the very time when Labour should be showing the way ahead, it gives every impression of not knowing which way to turn.’

The only glimmer of light in this tunnel of bad luck was an interview given to the Observer by shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint in which she defended her embattled leader saying that ‘individual popularity poll ratings are always given prominence, but the truth is that, when it comes to the election that’s not always a significant factor. Elaborating on this theme she suggested readers ‘think back to Labour leaders in the past who were popular but couldn’t win election. Mrs Thatcher was unpopular but won elections. Sometimes these things are overplayed.’

These are touchingly loyal things to have said, but I would be surprised if politically savvy Caroline Flint actually believed a word of it.

It would be easy to point out that during his long tenure as Deputy Prime Minister to Tony Blair John Prescott brought about neither radical change nor the creation of distinctive policies. You could also comment on the singular ingratitude of Lord Glasman biting the hand that lifted him from academic obscurity and then pushing his plate forward for seconds.

Even Caroline Flint’s demonstration of loyalty could be twisted round to be portrayed as an instance of an ambitious politician pretending that the very last thing she wants is the top job; perish the thought.

Anyway there is little point in criticising Ed Milliband now because Labour isn’t a party that dumps its dud leaders; it lets them trundle over the precipice of disaster under their own steam. If that’s the case then it’s high time they started doing do, because if it is to have any relevance at all the Labour Party is going to have to get tough and quickly too.

Not in the way they have tried to so far by binding themselves to Tory austerity policies, but by being willing to say and stand for things that will make them unpopular in the short term, like challenging the idea that endless growth is either desirable or achievable, but may prove to be right in the longer one. Dumping a dud leader who could never decide whether he was on the left, the right or doing the hokey kokey somewhere in the middle would be a good place to start.

The question isn’t really if the deed should be done; just how and when to do it.

The optimum time would be between the end of the party conference season and Christmas, allowing time for a, mercifully, short leadership race and giving the new incumbent a full year to make an impression.

This would allow Ed Milliband to make a final stirring speech, think Iain Duncan Smith telling the Tories not to underestimate the determination of a quiet man, followed by a quietly dignified resignation early in the new parliamentary session; a tactic that would allow him to exit to a round of applause and leave the door open to a possible ministerial career in a future Labour government.

For all his faults as a party leader Ed Milliband is a highly competent politician; just not leadership material. The common characteristic of people who climb to the top in politics is having a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for, something he has signally failed to project.

When you look at Ed Milliband you get the impression that his life has been just that little bit too comfortable to have forged strong political passions, in their place is a sort of well meaning liberal drone. He has tried his best and been found wanting, there is no shame in that; but the Labour Party and Britain deserve better.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Its true all the people who think they run the country really are driving taxis.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg recently spent an afternoon disguised as an Oslo taxi driver. He drove passengers around the streets engaging them in conversation about current affairs and kept his real identity secret unless recognised.

Speaking to the media afterwards he said ‘It is important for me to hear what people really think’, adding that ‘if there is one place people really say what they think it’s in the taxi.’

Ok so it was a stunt, and a pretty shameless one too, but it is also a rather good idea. If you’ve got the right sort of mind, and I have, the thought of Citizen Dave behind the wheel of a black cab brims with comic possibilities.

Wherever you asked him to take you he’s cart you off to somewhere else and then tell you this was where you wanted to go all along; you just didn’t know it.

Actually the other party leaders ought to have a turn too. Nick Clegg could bore his passengers rigid by saying endlessly that he was sorry, really, really sorry for making such a sorry job of being Deputy Prime Minister. Sorry.

Not so Red Ed on the other hand could drive his fares round and round the streets of London in no particular direction until he either runs out of petrol or falls into a ditch; which is pretty much what he’s been doing to the Labour Party since he took over as leader.

Shadow Immigration minister Chris Bryant made a speech this week naming and shaming TESCO, Next and other big companies for favouring ‘cheap’ labour from Eastern Europe over British workers. It was supposed to switch the agenda away from the party’s internal squabbles and put the government under pressure on the economy, it didn’t work; in fact he ended up wiping, metaphorical, egg off his face.

The speech was an assemblage of poorly checked facts, Mr Bryant put the TESCO warehouse where the majority of the staff are from outside the UK in the wrong county; he got the number of foreign workers employed there wrong too. As a result he ended up touring the media giving a display of high speed back pedalling that would get a Tour de France winner drug tested. Oops!

Even if it hadn’t been a poorly researched shambles Chris Bryant would have been better advised not to have given the speech at all. Not due to the fear of being accused of ‘racism’, but because in the age of globalisation trying to control the flow of labour across national borders is a bit like going down to the beach and telling the tide not to come in.

Giving local people the first crack at vacancies is an aspiration that can only be fulfilled if they are able to compete with incomers. Something that is unlikely to happen as the government’s austerity drive wrecks the welfare system in the name of reform and Michael Gove replaces vocational courses with Latin prep and hymn singing.

Unfortunately for Labour they have given their tacit support to the spending cuts and so much of what they say on any subject is just noise.

Labour leader Ed Milliband also had egg on his face this week; the real sort. During a visit to South London last week he was pelted with an egg by a passer by, to his credit Red Ed handled the incident quite well, meaning he stood there looking a bit sheepish, something he’s had plenty of practice at.

The man who threw the egg later told police he wasn’t protesting about the Labour leader in particular, he was just fed up of politicians in general. That says it all about Not So Red Ed, three years in the job and even when it comes to provoking violent dislike he fails to stand out.

The number of students gaining top A Level grades has fallen slightly for the second year in a row, am I so very paranoid for thinking this is part of a government plan?

When the news broke I can imagine Citizen Dave and his cabal down in their secret bunker, the cupboard under the stairs at Downing Street to you and I, cackling like a convention of Bond villains.

The plan is working perfectly, if results continue to decline within a decade the middle class will be so dim they’ll believe anything we say and thanks to the welfare reforms the poor will be too busy dodging the workhouse to vote at all. It’s a result chaps!

Here comes a future so scary it ought to be X-rated.

We’re all in it together; austerity is working. You love Citizen Dave and only Citizen Dave.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Blame Not So Red Ed for Labour’s Slump in the Polls.

This could be a nervous summer break for Labour leader Ed Milliband. A poll of polls combining results from ComRes, ICM, Ipsos-Mori and YouGov shows that his party’s lead has slumped from eleven to five points.

An average of the polls puts Labour on 38%, the Tories on 33% and the Lib Dems on 11%. The sharp fall in support for Labour has been attributed to a perceived improvement in the economy and the collapse of support for UKIP; only 13% of disgruntled Tories now say they will vote for Nigel Farage’s band of eccentrics.

This is the closest the two main parties have been since just before the ‘onmishambles’ budget of 2012 when Boy George nearly came a cropper with his hastily scrapped ‘pastie tax.’

Geraint Davies, the latest Labour MP to publicly criticise the party leadership said the poor showing in the polls was linked to Labour’s failure to rebut Tory attempts to lay the blame for the recession at their door. Speaking to he said this made the party ‘look like a shamefaced schoolboy admitting responsibility by omission.’

Ouch! Not quite below the belt, but given his uncanny resemblance to a latter day Jimmy Clithero its close enough to make Red Ed’s eyes water.

Not too long ago Lord Sainsbury, one of New Labour’s paymasters, laid into Ed Milliband for possessing only ‘average’ leadership skills. The fact he had a book to promote at the time and may just feel that he’s still big its politics that has gotten small aside the noble lord might just have had a point.

Particularly when he said that the ‘one nation’ banner Labour was waving at the time was an insufficiently robust platform from which to win an election; then went on to add that ‘you have to be more than a slogan and more than a label to get people to vote for you.’

That a small lift in the economic gloom should coincide with a corresponding dip in the popularity of the opposition is no surprise, in this country we have an almost superstitious attachment to the status quo. It needn’t anyway be a disaster, there is little chance, however dearly they want to, of the government being able to kick start an eighties style consumer boom on the back of a fragile but positive economic performance.

The credit isn’t there these days and new Bank of England boss Mark Carney is too smart and independent minded to play to role of stooge to the Conservative Party. He has already shown his mettle by telling the banks they risk becoming ‘socially useless’ unless they do more to invest in the real economy.

A dip in the polls needn’t be a disaster; but for Labour it is one anyway because it highlights a deeper malaise within the party.

It would be easy at this point to blame the party’s problems on the malign influence of Tony Blair, as easy in fact as someone writing during Labour’s last sojourn in the wilderness blaming all the party’s ills on Mrs Thatcher. There is no doubt that Labour was hollowed out from within during the Blair years, but an overused explanation quickly becomes just an excuse, the fault for the current crop of problems rests squarely with Ed Milliband.

Almost three years into to job of Labour leader and he has yet to stamp an image of himself on either the party membership or the wider public. To date he has presented himself, amongst other things as a trades union man, a Blair style charismatic and a booster for policies such as predistribution that are so convoluted even Gordon Brown would have rejected them during the fingernail gnawing nadir of his premiership.

All these incarnations have proved to be false and in some cases made him look positively ludicrous. On other occasions, such as during the scandal surrounding the alleged fixing of the selection for the Falkirk by-election, Mr Milliband has shown himself to be weak and prone to panic; hardly qualities you look for in a prime minister.

Back in 2010 when the prospective leadership candidates were on their interminable tour of the country I suggested the Labour Party might do better to appoint a safe pair of hands, someone like Alan Johnson or Jack Straw, to lead it through its first term in opposition giving a younger and untainted leader time to emerge. That still seems to me to be a better course of action than promoting, largely because his chief qualification was not being his brother, a man without the aptitude to be a party leader to the post with the certainty he will fail.

The chances of Labour regaining office at the first attempt were always slight and now look non-existent. Their cause would hardly be harmed by changing leader now in favour of someone who could steady the ship and minimise the defeat they suffer in 2015.

Ed Milliband has, I don’t doubt, done his best, but as Lord Sainsbury said you need more than slogans and labels to win an election. Tragically under not so Red Ed the Labour Party has failed to come up with even a workable slogan and the only label sticking to them is the one they are desperate to lose.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Even for the silly season a fifteen minute ‘grace period’ for parking on the high street is a barmy idea.

The politicians have skipped town until the party conferences get under way and so the silly season is upon us again. This year the honour of getting things started fell to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, his contribution didn’t disappoint.

On Monday he announced to a breathless world that the government were considering giving motorists a fifteen minute ‘grace period’ so they can park on double yellow lines without fear of getting a ticket in order to nip into the paper shop say. This is all a cunning wheeze to revive Britain’s flagging high streets, it won’t work of course, but on the upside at least it doesn’t involve irritating ‘retail guru’ Mary Portas.

A source close to Mr Pickles, not all that close you’d imagine since he’s a portly chap, told the Daily Telegraph that if people are ‘worries about paying a fortune in parking fines it will make them more likely to shop online or go to out of town shopping centres’ and added that ‘for too long parking has been seen as a revenue raiser. It is time to end that.

Hurray for brave Mr Pickles the heroic slayer of traffic wardens; oh no, hang on a minute here comes nasty transport minister Norman Baker to rain on the parade. He and his Liberal Democrat colleagues think the plan is ‘unworkable’ and even if that isn’t the case it is wrong for central government to interfere with the parking policies of local councils; so there.

The Local Government Association (LGA) and the AA aren’t too pleased either. Peter Box, LGA economy and transport lead, told the BBC that relaxing parking restrictions risked ‘jeopardising the safety of pedestrians’ and the AA slammed the plan as showing ‘confused thinking on the part of the government and called for a review of where double yellow lines are sited instead of some minor fiddling with restrictions.

To which all I can say is ‘calm down dears’ this is just a throwaway press release not a serious policy proposal, it will probably have a lifespan shorter than that of a soap bubble. Councils that impose parking regulations with a Taliban style literalism are an easy Aunt Sally for politicians to biff; doing so though will do little or nothing to save the nation’s high streets from decline.

Doing that requires tackling problems such as the short sighted greed of councils and landlords who drive businesses away by charging extortionate levels rent and business taxes. There is also the small matter of local and national and national government suffering from a total lack of ambition when it comes to public transport, a bus service that was reliable, affordable and a pleasure to use would entice people out of their cars and back into town.

Unfortunately that requires a level of cooperation and joined up thinking of which our current crop of politicians are seemingly incapable. Instead they prefer to engage in the politics of the lowest common denominator, finding an issue they can use to generate a few cheap headlines then moving on without providing a workable solution to the problem they have identified.

Vicky Pryce the former wife of disgraced ex minister Chris Huhne is to have her CBE taken away because she is deemed to have brought the honour into disrepute. Her former partner in crime is having a tough time of it too, the reports are unconfirmed but apparently the fellows cut him quite dead at the last meeting of the Desperate Dan Pie Eaters Club (Westminster Branch).

That rumbling sound you can hear far in the distance is the hypocrisy mill going into overdrive. As I predicted the Westminster establishment hasn’t turned against this hapless pair because of what they did so much as because they got caught doing it.

The House of Lords is stuffed to the rafters with peers who fiddled their expenses, some of whom also went to jail, this hasn’t prevented them from retaining their membership of the most exclusive club in the land. Fred the Shred may have had his snatched back but less high profile city fraudsters have been allowed to keep their knighthoods.

If you scratch the right backs doing wrong, even doing time behind bars as a result, need be no hindrance to riding the gravy train. Clearly Pryce and Huhne were as inept at this as they were at breaking the law.

On the subject of the ‘other place’ thirty new life peers were created this week, a few, such as Doreen Lawrence, will bring new voices and perspectives to public life; most though are just political hacks collecting their payoff for a lifetime of not rocking the boat.

The Lords is now too large to do its job properly and too unrepresentative to hold the confidence of the public; it is an institution ripe for reform. Real reform too, not just dumping the last few hereditary peers, the sort that would involve electing its members by PR and making sure they were properly representative of the diverse communities making up modern Britain.

What a shame this has been put on the back burner for a generation or more thanks to the bungling antics of Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

And finally, the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us this week stunning pictures of galaxy NGC524, known as ‘the spiral of doom’ to its friends and family.

This stunning wheel of gas located some ninety million miles from Earth is entering, so the boffins say, the intermediate stage of its existence, most of its fuel having been expended. However beautiful the result looks from afar its best days are behind it and soon all that will remain will be a few red stars glimmering faintly in an inky void.

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds a bit like the Labour Party under the command of not so Red Ed?