Sunday, 29 September 2013

Ed Milliband’s big gamble with energy prices and populism

At the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week leader Ed Milliband had to come up with something that would generate a big headline and silence the persistent questions about his leadership abilities. He managed the former, but seems to have pushed the latter under the rug; for now.

In his set piece speech on Tuesday Ed Milliand announced that a Labour government would freeze gas and electric prices for domestic and industrial users for twenty months, he also pledged to split up the big energy companies and subject them to tougher regulation.

This was the big headline in a speech he used to set out how ‘Britain can do better’ under a Labour government. He promised action on what he called the ‘cost of living crisis’. In an attack on the government’s handling of the economy he said, ‘David Cameron talks about a global race. But what he thinks is the only way Britain can win is for you to lose.’

This, he said, had translated into ‘the lowest wages, the worst terms and conditions and the fewest rights at work; a race to the bottom,’ adding that ‘the only way we can win is in a race to the top.’

This was an upbeat and, considering the torrid time not so red Ed has had over the summer, surprisingly confident speech. He looked relaxed and peppered his text with promises to defend the NHS and scrap the ‘bedroom tax’, there were also a number of pointed references to the coalition’s approach to basic economic fairness, the most quoted of which was ‘they used to say a rising tide lifts all boats. Now the rising tide just lifts the yachts.’

All good knock about stuff; but once it had passed his lips the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was that plan to freeze energy prices.

The press, well the right wing press which is pretty much all of it these days, wasn’t madly keen on the idea. To the Daily Mail it was an exercise in ‘schoolboy Marxism’, the Sun howled ‘Red Ed knocks £2billion off shares’; the prospect of our boy Ed being invited round to have a ride on Rupert Murdoch’s horse any time soon seems fairly remote.

Perhaps more worryingly for him Lord Mandelson, the chief architect of the New Labour project decided to throw a few stones at his party leader. He said the plan risked creating a situation where ‘perceptions of the Labour Party are in danger of being dragged backwards’. Yikes if Labour’s own Lord Voldemort thinks it’s a bad idea the little man who is, nominally, running the party ought to be shivering in his shoes and thinking about changing his mind pronto.

To his credit Ed Milliband was unrepentant saying it was his job to ‘stand up for the public interest’ and comparing the opposition from the energy companies to the behaviour of the banks who ‘used to threaten and conjure up scare stories’ whenever they couldn’t get their own way.

The public certainly seem to have responded positively to the policy, a YouGov poll gives Labour a nine point lead over the Tories and Ed Milliband’s personal approval rating has risen from 21% to 26%. It’s all good then, the energy companies aren’t well loved and bashing them is a sure fire way to make friends; what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot unfortunately, for a start by announcing such a radical policy so far in advance of the next election there is a risk he has robbed it of much of its potency. However popular freezing energy prices and breaking up the big energy companies may be now there is no guarantee the public will still be talking about it in 2015.

There is also the small matter of governments seldom making a good job of trying to control prices. In fact the mere suggestion that a prospective Labour one would give it a go might be all the prompting the energy companies need to hike prices as much as they can and cut investment to the bone all in the name of protecting the interests of their shareholders.

As for breaking up the big energy companies that will make little difference if they continue to operate in the same rapacious way. A more radical, perhaps too radical for Labour, plan would be to force them to become co-operatives owned by their customers rather than city shareholders and obliged to operate to high ethical standards including making a genuine commitment to moving towards renewable energy.

The populism of which this policy reeks may well prove to be illusory, Red Ed is riding high now but consider the case of Nick Clegg, for a short while back in 2010 he was the most popular politician ever, based solely on the fact that he could stand upright and speak at the same time. Fast forward a few months and a mixture of the compromises that are an inevitable part of being in government and his own poor judgement had made him less popular than typhoid, the same thing could happen to Ed Milliband.

Once the glow of public popularity has faded the old questions about Ed Milliband’s leadership abilities and his party’s lack of policies will still be there. As will the feeling that nothing he has said this week has provided an answer.

Monday, 23 September 2013

An evening at the budget cabaret

When I arrived at the King’s Hall last Thursday night they had set things out to look like an old style nightclub with lots of round tables arranged in front of a low stage. This, the mutinous thought immediately struck me, was going to be public consultations presented as a cabaret act.

The King’s Hall is the traditional location for election counts and there is no doubt that much of the ruling Labour group’s hopes for survival in 2015 depend on how well they manage making the £100 million in savings demanded by government cuts.

Going into this budget they have given themselves some pretty hefty handicaps. A bitter row earlier in the year over relocating the Civic Centre from Stoke to the new Central Business District (CBD) stirred up public resentment. The day before the consultation the local press ran a front page story suggesting the council now intends to retain a ‘presence’ in Stoke, fuelling rumours that the whole CBD project is about to fall through. Then on the day of the consultation they ran another story claiming more than £7million had been set aside to equip the new Civic Centre on top of the original £41million building cost.

The aim of the consultation was to establish public priorities before the process of making ‘savings’, cuts to you and me, begins. A glossy document on each table said the council wants the public to ‘tell us what is important to you and give us your views on how we meet this challenge’, a noble aspiration; but one previous experience of such exercises suggests may not be met.

The crowd around me seemed to be made up of council suits bussed in to make up the numbers with a smattering of community activists. Each table had a ‘facilitator’, an ugly word much loved by local government and often applied to someone with the job of steering debate away from anything remotely contentious.

Actually the one on our table was helpfulness personified; she managed the discussion with polite authority making sure everyone got an opportunity to speak. The suspicion remains though that the line between facilitating and managing a debate is one that gets crossed too often for comfort.

The opening speech by council leader Mohamed Pervez was introduced by the Assistant Chief Executive of the council, a man with a presentation style reminiscent of the headmaster of a minor public school addressing the parents on speech day. He didn’t do himself many favours later in the evening when he responded to a question from the floor about why there aren’t more good restaurants in the city by murmuring , ‘I quite agree’. The trials of public service; imagine having to work in a place where the restaurants have such limited wine lists.

The most significant fact about the speech Mr Pervez gave on Thursday night was that it contained no significant facts, none his audience weren’t already familiar with anyway.

He ran through the familiar details of how Stoke has been hit hardest by government ‘austerity’ measures and the steps being taken under the Mandate for Change to bring in private sector investment to offset the worst hardships imposed by the cuts. The delivery was so practiced that any trace of passion or commitment seemed to have been ground out by constant repetition.

This presented a problem when he tried to deliver a sort of ‘vision thing’ near to the end. It is hard to fire an audience up with the belief that this is the time to act in order to create a better and more prosperous future if you are speaking in the tones of an automated checkout.

I was left not for the first time with the impression that Mr Pervez leads an administration that knows how to describe the city’s problems but is all at sea when it comes to presenting original solutions.

When Mr Pervez left the stage to a polite ripple of applause with a backwash of indifference the real business of the evening began. It turned out to be a sort of monopoly game where people at each table were asked to place pretend pounds to a value of £25million on the areas where they thought savings could be made.

The message was a simple one, choosing where to make savings is complicated, a fair point, but also a rather obvious one familiar to anyone who has ever balanced a household budget. Rather more interesting was the discussion between the people on my table, from which the consensus emerged that there was a lack of basic efficiency on the part of the council when it comes to securing value for money and commissioning major projects.

Needless to say there was no way to record those responses as part of the exercise at hand. Seeking the views of the public and listening when what they say isn’t necessarily what you want to hear are clearly two different things.

The evening ended with a question and answer session, not something Mr Pervez handles at all comfortably. He tends to give answers that are too long and lose the thread of what he is saying along with the attention of his audience.

Amongst the questions he flapped at like an ineffectual batsman were ones about investment in town centres other than Hanley, the future of the Abbots House care home and the use of council cash reserves to meet some of the savings required. I doubt if most of the people who asked questions were left with the feeling they had been given a meaningful answer.

On they way out we were all handed another glossy leaflet giving details of how well the council is doing to achieve its Mandate for Change targets. The event had been billed as ‘My City, My Say’, the impression I was left with though wasn’t one of having been given a participant in a process that gave me a genuine say, rather it was of helping to tick a box confirming decisions that have already been made.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

From Numpty Nick to the great survivor- what a difference a year makes.

Friends, Romans, malcontents, I come not to bury Nick Clegg but to praise him, well to tip my hat to his remarkable survival skills anyway. The Liberal Democrats held their conference in Glasgow this week and both party and leader emerged from it looking less fragile than anyone would have thought.

In his keynote speech on Wednesday Nick Clegg said that only the presence of the Lib Dems in government had prevented the UK from ‘swinging to the right.’ They had fought the good fight and prevented their coalition partners from imposing a right wing agenda, although the austerity they have supported so enthusiastically since 2010 does seem a teensy bit right of centre; but conference season is no time for cynics.

It had, he said, been an ‘endless battle’ and that ‘sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say no.’ He then helpfully ticked off a few of the things his party had said no to ‘inheritance tax cuts for millionaires- no. Bringing back O Levels, no. Profit making in schools, no. Firing workers at will, no…’

The list went on and on, probably for a little too long. The majority of the policies he sought to claim credit for having saved the nation from didn’t have the legs to make it beyond the confines of a boozy ministerial lunch. By contrast some of the ones his party has been content to let through the net, the bedroom tax, savage welfare reforms and those university tuition fee hikes that ruined his reputation in the first place have had disastrous consequences.

Mr Clegg also touched on the negative impact the unpopularity he has experienced since entering government had on his family saying there were times when he thanked his ‘lucky stars’ that his children were too young to understand what the papers were saying about him. Yes Nick it’ll be a nice surprise for them when they’re older. What did you do during the recession Daddy? I was the most unpopular man in the country.

It had though, he asserted, all been worth it, ‘every insult we’ve had to endure since we entered government, every snipe, every bad headline. That was all worth it because we are turning Britain around.’ Quite a tough sell to the hundreds of Liberal Democrat councillors who have lost their seats in recent local elections I’d imagine.

Then it was on to the ‘vision thing or his best attempt at one. After all they’d been through; he said the ‘absolute worst thing to do would be to give the keys of number ten to a single party; Labour or the Conservatives.’

He asked his audience to imagine the leader’s debates in the 2015 election campaign during which ‘David Cameron will say to Ed Milliband: you’re irresponsible, you are going to drive the economy to ruin. Ed Milliband will say to David Cameron: you can’t be trusted to help everyone, your party only cares about the rich.’

Then came the killer line, the one part of the speech he must have stayed up all night practicing ‘For once I’ll agree with them both. Because they’re both right; left to their own devices they’d both get it wrong.’

There it is folks, the big idea; the Liberal Democrats would like to see another coalition government because they’d like a shot at messing things up too. They’ll probably get their wish, hence the thinly veiled hints that they would be happy to snuggle up to Labour if they rather than the Tories come up with the goods in 2015.

Circumstances meant that I had to listen to Nick Clegg’s speech on the radio, which gave me ample opportunity to wonder at the weirdness of his tone of voice. He seemed to be using a strange semi-whisper reminiscent of a primary school teacher assuring his charges that although the cod liver oil of being in government tastes horrid it really is doing them good.

That said this was probably his best speech and his most successful conference since the heady days following the first leader’s debate during the 2010 election when he was, briefly, the most popular politician since Churchill. He managed to get several key votes on economic and defence policy to go his way and the pre-conference call from ex-minister Sarah Tether for him to resign and Vince Cable’s annual Old Testament prophet routine were distractions where previously they might have been disasters.

The laws of political evolution suggest that the Liberal Democrats should be joining the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon on the extinct list and yet conference season has seen them present the image of a party that is surprisingly united and focussed. Gone is the fluffy party of old that prattled earnestly away on the fringes of British politics, in its place is tougher, more pragmatic organisation. They know they may never wear the crown, but realise the power to be wielded in helping make someone else king.

It may all, of course, be a false dawn, there are lots of things that could go wrong between now and the next election, but for now things are going well. As they head for Brighton this week it is Labour who have it all to prove, and after a summer of missed opportunities and self inflicted wounds their prospects don’t look good.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The dark side of Michael Gove, another bad week for Ed Milliband and RIP Mr After 8.

Despite the fact that the spoken word is the main tool of their trade politicians say some of the stupidest things. Take Education Secretary Michael Gove, who this week put his foot squarely in his mouth when he said that families turn to food banks due to a ‘failure to manage their finances’; or being poor as we humans call it.

Speaking in the commons he said he had recently visited a food bank in his constituency and that whilst he appreciated ‘there are families who face considerable pressures’ the situation they find themselves in is ‘often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances.’ Yes Michael you’re quite right, it is all the fault of the poor, they just aren’t trying; unlike you who’d try the patience of a saint.

Citizen’s Advice Bureau chief executive Gillian Guy called Mr Gove’s comments ‘appalling’, adding that people are often ‘ashamed they have had to turn to food banks’. Quite so, nobody would consider queuing up for food aid in an advanced industrial nation a lifestyle option to which they aspire.

Anyway Michael Gove is the last person to be handing out financial advice, a couple of years ago he had to repay £7000 in wrongly claimed expenses. The old line about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones springs to mind.

Michael Gove has always been a high profile politician, always on hand to feed the media with quotes, as is often the way with such people he has come to believe his own publicity, to think that he is a ‘national treasure’ and so doesn’t have to bother with the niceties observed by littler men. It is sad when this happens to any politician; that is has happened to this one is downright tragic.

Despite the relentless self promotion and the endless gimmicks Michael Gove, as the adopted son of working class parents who has even had a real(ish) job, brings much needed balance to a cabinet stuffed with Oxbridge educated ninnies. Now he seems to have been infected with the sense of entitlement and cosseted ignorance of the shocks and scares of life as lived by ‘ordinary’ people rising above the Cameron government like the stench over a rubbish tip.

He shouldn’t get too comfortable; he isn’t and never can be part of the inner circle. His cabinet colleagues no doubt consider him to be a ‘jolly useful little man’, but not the sort of person they’d invite round for cocktails at Christmas. When they get tired of him he’ll be dropped back into obscurity without a second thought.

Sara Vine, Michael Gove’s wife and a newbie columnist for the Daily Mail wrote this week that it had ‘been hell’ having her husband under her feet all Summer. If he goes on saying things like this she could have him there all year round.

Things are looking bad for not so Red Ed; his personal poll ratings have dipped to an all time low, putting him on a level equivalent to that reached by Tory disasters William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

The poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori saw 60% of the people questioned said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the leader of the opposition. He didn’t make things any better for himself with his speech to the TUC conference on Tuesday.

What had been billed as a ‘high noon’ moment turned out to be the dampest of damp squibs. It wasn’t just that he bottled it; he did so in such a dreary fashion, even the enraged brother of the trades unions couldn’t be bothered to boo him.

As he joins them in the annals of political irrelevance Mr Ed can at least take comfort in the fact that both William Hague and IDS reinvented themselves sufficiently to enjoy ministerial careers following their disastrous tenure as party leader. There is every chance that he could do the same, but it really is time he went.

Brian Sollit, the man who invented the After 8 mint has died at the age of 74. Back in the day Abigail’s and anyone else’s party wasn’t complete without a box of mints in fussy individual wrappers on the table.

They are a chocolate coated relic of a time when every office drone was an ‘executive’ in waiting, machines were going to free us from labour and everyone would have a slice of the good life as they went down the slide into everlasting pleasure. It was all an illusion, it is so sad that we will probably never know such innocent optimism again.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

GMB withdrawing its support really could be the end of the road for the Labour Party.

GMB, on of the UK’s largest trades unions announced this week that it will cut its funding to the Labour Party from £1.2million to just £150,000. A move prompted by leader Ed Milliband’s failure to understand the relationship between his party and the unions.

A spokesperson for GMB told the leadership had ‘expressed considerable regret about the apparent lack of understanding of the impact the proposals mooted by Ed Milliband will have on the collective nature of trades union engagement with the Labour Party.’

Earlier this year in response to the ‘scandal’ surrounding the involvement of UNITE in the selection of a candidate to fight the Falkirk by-election Ed Milliband put forward proposals to change the way the Labour Party is funded, under which union members will have to ‘opt in’ to supporting the party rather than have a portion of their membership fee paid as a political levy.

The spokesperson for GMB went on to say that the union leadership saw it as a ‘source of great regret to the union that the party that had been formed to represent the interests of working people intends to end the collective engagement of trades unions in the party they helped to form.’

GMB have also announced they will cut their wider political fund and the donations the union makes to individual constituency parties.

Tom Watson, formerly Labour’s campaign director, warned in a blog post this week that this could be ‘the beginning of the end’ for the link between the Labour Party and the unions. He went on to say that if so it would be ‘a very serious development that threatens a pillar of our democracy that has endured for over a hundred years.’

In an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue shadow Treasury Minister Rachel Reeves told the BBC that reducing the amount it gives to Labour was ‘ a decision for the GMB’ and that ‘most of the money that the Labour Party receives comes from ordinary donations.’

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, also speaking to the BBC, said ‘I hope this is not a piece of petty retribution. I would hope the GMB are above that.’

Other unions are also thought to be reconsidering their relationship with the Labour Party in light of Mr Milliband’s reform plans, earlier this year Len McCluskie of UNITE warned that if his union were to withdraw its funding it could ‘bankrupt’ the party.

It would be easy to see this as just another part of the traditional build up to conference season, a ‘crisis’ involving the Labour Party seems to be as integral to this as overweight character actors in drag is to the Panto season. Other unions have taken their funding ball home, the RMT did so a few years ago, and the sky didn’t fall down, this time though Tom Watson might be right and the marriage of convenience between Labour and the unions could be about to end in an acrimonious divorce.

To be honest it was never a very happy marriage to start with, the era when union barons were invited round to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches by Labour prime ministers was very short. For most of their shared history it was a relationship marked by resentment on the part of the unions that the party their members were funding was so unresponsive to their concerns and frustration on the part of the Labour Party that the union barons seemed unable to grasp the difficult balancing act between priorities and pragmatism inherent to parliamentary politics.

As in any divorce their will be winners and losers. The unions, if they were to withdraw their funding from the Labour Party, could regain a little of their lost significance as other parties turn to them for funding. Labour though could lose big time, the party’s coffers are empty and much of its grassroots organisation is moribund; a slow decline might be about to turn into a tailspin into doom.

Even if the other unions don’t withdraw their funding the GMB have knocked another nail into the political coffin of Ed Milliband, when he addresses the TUC conference in Bournemouth this week their comrades might well hammer in the rest.

Faced with a ‘scandal’ over selecting a candidate for the Falkirk by-election, which, incidentally, turned out not to be a scandal after all since an internal party inquiry found no rules had been breeched, he acted too quickly. He listened to the siren voices of the Blairites who told him that this crisis was an opportunity to dump the unions for good and move into a bright future where compliant ‘supporters’ hand over money to the party and don’t trouble their fluffy little heads with things like policy.

That won’t happen, ours is an age when everyone has an opinion and the means by which to broadcast it to the world. Any political party that thinks its members are just going to hand over their money and politely ask where they should post the bundle of leaflets they’ve been given in return is living in the past.

If he has provoked the unions into withdrawing their financial backing Ed Milliband will have brought his party to ruin; he might also have sown the seeds of its revival. The Labour Party badly needs to dump the marketing and cynical triangulation that characterised the Blair and Brown years and get back to being a ground up party that speaks for the people who are being ground down by austerity.

If the Labour Party is going to have a long term future it needs a new and more resolute leader with the guts to talk honestly about its core values.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

We should be trying to make young people want to vote- not just making them vote.

Young people should be compelled to vote in the first election where they are eligible to do so according to a report written by think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research. The proposal would see a small fine levied against young people who did not vote and the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option to the ballot.

At the 2013 local elections 32% of sixteen to eighteen year olds voted, compared to 78% of the over sixty fives. Young people have, according to the IPPR report been hit hardest by the spending cuts over recent years and so are more likely to feel alienated from politics.

Guy Lodge, an associate director of the IPPR told the BBC this week the unequal turnout at recent elections had given ‘older and more affluent voters a disproportionate influence at the ballot box.’ He went on to say that people who didn’t start voting at eighteen were ‘more likely not to get into the habit of doing so’, potentially trapping them in a ‘vicious cycle of disaffection and under representation.’

Also speaking to the BBC Sarah Birch or Glasgow University, a co-author of the IPPR report, said there are many things young people are required to do and ‘adding just one more small task to this list would not represent an undue burden, and it could well help to reinvigorate democracy.’ If nothing else, she added, it would ‘make politicians target first time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for greater political power.’

The government are about as capable of resisting a gimmick as a five year old is of resisting chocolate, the Labour Party is said to favour the proposal along with reducing the voting age to sixteen. This is an idea that has legs; and that is really rather unfortunate.

As someone who believes casting your vote is a vital part of being an adult I should back this proposal, but I don’t. The trouble is that for all the good intentions behind it making young people vote by law is unworkable and dangerous.

Telling youngsters, or anyone else for that matter, that they have to vote is only a small step away from telling them who to vote for. There is also the small matter of the sum raised from fining kids who can’t get it together to vote being less than the cost of collecting it and leaving the youngsters in question with a needless criminal record; just what they need when getting that vital first job is harder than ever.

If we are serious about instilling the habits of democracy in our young people and we should be, then we have to start way before it is time to step up to the ballot box. What we need is a thorough, engaging and impartial system of citizenship education in schools.

To date no government has managed to deliver this, although at some stage most have promised to do so. At best kids are exposed to a lot of well meaning waffle, not that Michael Gove has committed schools to trying to deliver an education fit for the twenty first century using methods that were old hat in the nineteenth even this is likely to go to the board.

A cynic would say this is because the political class don’t want an informed electorate asking awkward questions, I’m more inclined to blame it on good old fashioned British institutional inertia. Why go through all the fuss and upheaval of changing the system when we can jog along as we’ve always done?

The simple answer is because our democracy is under threat of dying of indifference. We need young people , and those of us tottering towards middle age too, to feel that voting matters, that despite what the bar-room cynics say they let you do it precisely because it changes things.

To do so we need to teach our children about democracy from nursery school onwards. Not just the mechanics of the parliamentary system but the simple but vital message that they can take part in the process too, perhaps then we will eventually get a House of Commons that is less white, male and Oxbridge educated; and a whole lot more responsive to the people it represents.

About the only good idea in these current proposals it the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot. Although I prefer the wording used on ballot papers in New Zealand, which says with admirable Kiwi directness ‘I have no confidence in the above candidates’, it expresses perfectly how I feel about political establishment that is quick to embrace cheap gimmicks whilst dodging real change.