Sunday, 30 March 2014

Labour must find the courage to be distinctive again or face extinction.

Last week the veteran Labour MP John Mann warned his party not to be ‘too clever’ and urged leader Ed Milliband to be ‘much clearer’ in setting out their policies.

Speaking on the BBC’s Pinaar’s Politics radio programme he said Labour needed to be ‘bolder’ and more ‘unambiguous’ in its communication with voters. The comments came on the back of polls for the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times showed the gap between Labour and the Tories had shrunk to a single percentage point.

Mr Mann said it would be ‘naïve’ to think the polls represented anything other than a ‘warning shot’ over Labour’s bows, he added that the party needed to be ‘much clearer and simpler in putting across what our alternative is and what we stand for.’

Asked about the disappointing poll results on the BBBC’s Andrew Marr Show Chuka Umunna, tipped by some as a future party leader, said ‘frankly we obsess over polls, we wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we didn’t. What matters is how people vote.’

He added that since the last election Labour had gained ‘thousands of members’ and that ‘people are seriously talking about us not winning;’ maybe the people you meet at dinner parties are Mr Umunna, the people I meet at the bus stop aren’t; so there might be just a touch of complacency there.

Over the past week things haven’t got much better, several left leaning think tanks including the Fabian Society, Policy Network and Progress co-signed a letter to the Guardian expressing their concerns about Ed Milliband’s leadership. To cap it all the man himself then got bashed out of the park by Citizen Dave at PMQ’s.

This all made me think of something that happened at the 2007 Labour conference, then an eager constituency delegate I pitched up at an evening event to hear an unknown junior minister speak. To say my expectations weren’t high is an understatement, such things are usually dowdy affairs distinguished only by the quality of the buffet and the likelihood of getting a free drink.

It turned out to be a truly remarkable evening, the speaker was funny, self- deprecating and by the decaffeinated standards of contemporary British politics he was even moderately charismatic. Saying he come over as a prime minister in waiting is going it a bit, but to have had such a jaded audience eating out of his hand, which he did, takes some doing.

His name, if you hadn’t guessed, was Ed Milliband; which prompts the question what on earth went wrong between then and now?

Since winning the party leadership in 2010 Ed Milliband’s performance has been at best poor and all too often disastrous. He has been presented with a series of open goals and missed every one, his public persona is leaden and awkward and the party’s policies are a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

Occasionally, like when he pledged that a Labour government would cap the amount the big six energy companies can charge their customers, there is a glimmer of hope, but time and again he has allowed the initiative to slip away from him like a bar of soap in the bath. As a result faith groups and the Greens have made much of the running on social justice and UKIP are fast building a bedrock of support amongst disaffected working class voters.

Labour, by contrast, seem becalmed, bobbing about miles from land firing off flares in all directions but signally failing to give any clear signal to the voters on the shore. A little over a year out from the next election and with no clear picture of what would make a Britain governed by Labour different the only person to blame is Ed Milliband.

Under his leadership the party has consistently failed to show the courage necessary to bring forward distinctive new policies. Instead they show every sign of going to the country next year with a manifesto that occupies the place on the middle ground usually taken by road kill.

Ed Milliband and his advisers have failed to notice that a seismic change has taken place in British politics, the old tribal loyalties are crumbling away. What will take their place isn’t clear yet, but for all their ‘stick in the mud’ image the Tories seem to grasp this if only as yet at a subconscious level, largely because wealth seldom struggles to find a voice.

Labour need to rediscover the ability to be brave and original in their policies, people are tired of the same over-rehearsed clichés being trotted out by politicians so similar you can only tell their party affiliation by the colour tie they wear. Voters are crying out for a radical alternative that will shake up the moth eaten status quo.

The bad news for Labour is that they aren’t going to win the next election; the good news is that nobody else is either, not by an outright majority anyway. For the foreseeable future coalition looks like being the order of the day, in which case the parties involved will need to have a clear idea of what they stand for and who they represent.

At the moment Labour appear to have neither, if they can’t find a genuine sense of purpose and, as John Mann said, a clear way of articulating it to a jaded electorate they may no longer have a reason to exist.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Dick Dastardly gets serious as Citizen Dave starts to lose his grip.

Nigel Farage, aka Dick Dastardly, announced this week that he had got rid of ‘old UKIP’ and remodelled the party to take advantage of a huge opportunity to take voted from disgruntled Labour supporters.

The new model party would be, he said, ‘a lot more professional, a lot more smiley, a lot less angry and its going places.’ He also said that he would consider himself to have ‘failed’ if his party didn’t win seats at Westminster in 2015 and a Labour government took office without committing to hold a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union.

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme Farage said that he didn’t go into politics seeking a ‘career’, but because he thought ‘this European entanglement isn’t right for the UK’ and that a ‘lot of people have woken up to the idea that we’ve lost control of our borders’ and that ‘now is the moment for UKIP to achieve what it set out to do and I think we’re going to do it.’

Meaning, of course, that the time has come for Farage to be propelled to world domination on the back of the discontent of Middle England (insert evil laughter here); sorry came over all old UKIP there.

Is the world ready for a serious, grown up UKIP, aren’t they risking losing their unique selling point by becoming like the other parties?

It was clear that after having a UKIP councillor declare the recent floods were god’s punishment for gay marriage being made legal and the sub-racist ramblings of Godfrey Bloom something had to change. Farage, like most politicians who cut a dash has a touch of vaudeville in his soul; but even he doesn’t want to lead a circus.

Although much of what he believes is rather muddle headed Nigel Farage is clearly a man with a political mission, he is also shrewd enough to know that the window of opportunity is narrow. If UKIP wants to be more than a repository for the angst of Middle England the party was always going to have to change.

The trick is for it to become more measured and professional without becoming too much like the other parties. Like them or not, and I don’t much, UKIP do at the moment speak for the growing constituency of people who feel ignored or taken for granted by the mainstream parties.

Their solution, a retreat into some fantasy version of Britain before it was contaminated by contact with Europe is bordering on the delusional, but it seems to resonate with the public in the way the offerings of Labour et al just don’t. If the three main parties could connect with the concerns of ordinary voters there would be no need for UKIP to exist.

They can’t and, seemingly, are unable to recognise either the scale of their failure or the extent of public exasperation. It is no surprise that a party like UKIP has arrived to fill the resulting vacuum and that they now want to raise their game, even if they probably won’t overturn the political system in 2015.

Baroness Warsi has joined the growing chorus of Tories criticising David Cameron for surrounding himself with fellow old Etonians.

Appearing on ITV’s The Agenda programme Warsi, a senior Foreign Office minister held up a mock headline reading: ‘No10 Takes Eton Mess Off The Menu’ saying she was trying to make a ‘serious point’ about faltering social mobility. She defended the comments made last week by Michael Gove saying he was ‘making a serious that it can’t be right that the seven percent who go to independent schools end up at the top tables, not just of politics, but banking and every other profession.’

The Prime Minister, said a Downing Street spokesman, had ‘spoken about the importance of social mobility’ on a number of occasions and that it was ‘absolutely at the heart of government education reforms.’

Having one senior member of the cabinet attack the ‘Eton connection’ at the heart of one’s government is unfortunate; when two do so in the space of a week it looks like carelessness.

The issue of where David Cameron went to school is immaterial, I don’t hold his good fortune against him, but the fact that his ministers feel obliged to comment on it shows a weakening of his authority. A leader on top of his game wouldn’t have made the mistakes when it comes to understanding how ordinary Britons live that have prompted the first stirrings of dissent in the Tory camp.

The issue isn’t where he went to school, but how far out of touch with everyday life he has allowed his government to become. Cruel though the consequences were the Thatcher revolution of the eighties was based in an, admittedly skewed, version of the aspirations of ordinary voters. Under David Cameron the Tories seem intent of dragging Britain back to the days when a lucky elite did very nicely and everyone else had to accept the crumbs from their table and be jolly grateful.

The Prime Minister has little to fear from either Michael Gove or Baroness Warsi, they are minor players on the political stage and lack the support to be realistic leadership contenders. That they have spoken up and not been despatched to outer darkness for doing so may though draw out one of the party’s bigger beasts, particularly if a majority doesn’t materialise after the next election.

The pound in your pocket is about to change.

This week George Osborne delivered a budget aimed at supporting the nation’s ‘makers, doers and savers.’ I am no economist and so will leave the detailed comment to the high domed types and make a few general comments instead.

Rising the limit for how much money people can put into ISA’s to fifteen thousand pounds is good for savers, at least it is for those savers who have the money to spare. The trouble is as the cost of living continues to rise most people haven’t got anything to put aside.

Rather more worrying are plans to change the rules for pensions to allow people to cash in their savings instead of purchasing an annuity. The change is being sold to voters wrapped in brave talk about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’; but this fails to disguise some serious risks.

The prospect of billions of pounds saved by people with little financial knowledge being up for grabs will be like blood in the water for the sharks of the financial world. Huge profits will be made from selling people unsuitable products, great harm will be caused as a result and there will then be another unseemly bun fight over compensation rather as there has following the PPI scandal.

Never mind we are going to get a new twelve sided pound coin, the fact the change will do little to deter counterfeiters and will involve thousands of coin operated machines having to be modified hasn’t occurred to the brilliant minds running the Treasury. Somehow this seems to be an apt metaphor for a government that puts flashy gimmicks ahead of doing good.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Labour find a policy, Gove sees too many Etonians in the cabinet and two political legends leave the stage.

Spring must be hear at last, the birds are singing a few hardy daffodils are poking their heads up from the soil and the Labour Party’s manifesto promises for the 2015 election are emerging blinking into the sunlight.

On Monday Ed Milliband pledges that a future Labour government would put in place a ‘jobs guarantee’ scheme giving workless 18 to 24 year olds a taxpayer funded job lasting for six months. Anyone turning down such a job would lose their benefits, so there’s a hint of the IDS style stick to go with the progressive carrot.

The £5.5billion initiative would be paid for, drum roll please, through imposing a tax on banker’s bonuses.

Speaking at a building site in South London Red Ed told the press there were 56,000 young people out of work, double the figure out of work in 2010, the government were, he said, ‘not taking action to help our young people and a future Labour government will.’

In response the government have accused Labour of committing to spending the same money, that tax on banker’s bonuses redistribution fans, on more than one project. As an example they cited Labour plans to build 25,000 affordable homes and hinted darkly at extra borrowing to come.

Any hint of the policies under which they intend to fight the next election from a Labour Party that often seems so woolly on such matters it needs the attentions of a sheep shearer is more than welcome. It’s just a shame the plan itself seems to be a bit of a dud.

For a start even though saying it leaves a taste in my mouth rather like that of a castor oil favoured milkshake the Tories might be onto something when they accuse Labour of spending the same money twice. It might have been more convincing had they, for example, said they’d scrap Trident and use the money saved to get young people into work; but that would have scared middle England and so they’ve fallen back on the old New Labour trick of promising the same money to several different projects.

Even more worrying is the fact that a job lasting six months might be welcome to someone who is out of work, but there is no guarantee of it leading to something more permanent. There is also a real risk of unscrupulous employers using the scheme as a pool of cheap labour, rather as happened with YTS back in the eighties.

Yet again Red Ed’s Labour are making all the right noises, but they aren’t doing so with sufficient robustness or originality to make a difference.

Bob Crow the combative leader of the RMT union died suddenly this week at the age of 52.

Large, loud and redder than Red October Crow was the marmite union boss. To his enemies he was a throwback to the era of union militancy; to his supporters he was a tireless fighter for the cause of working people.

Whether they thought he was a big beast or just a dinosaur few people in politics underestimated Bob Crow, and with good reason too, for all his bombast he was a shrewd and effective political operator. Under his leadership membership of the RMT grew and he won a number of significant victories on pay and conditions.

At a time when unions leaders, with the honourable exceptions of Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskie, increasingly look and sound like the executives with whom they negotiate Bob Crow seemed to understand something very important, politics without passion is just management; he was unfailingly passionate about his cause.

Tragic though it is the curtailing of his career at this early point has at least saved Bob Crow from the fate visited on so many other left wind firebrands; that of being one day viewed with smiling indulgence by the establishment in the side of which they used to be such a thorn.

Ed Milliband says that if elected a Labour government won’t hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Not unless further transfer of national powers to Brussels is requested anyway, for once I think he’s made the right call.

Certain tabloid newspapers push relentlessly the line that the British public demands a referendum on our continued membership of the EU, were one to be held though most people wouldn’t bother to vote. Europe just isn’t a sexy issue for most voters, a fact that will be demonstrated at the forthcoming European elections which will see people staying away from the polling stations in droves.

Anyway a referendum on membership of the EU would be a pointless exercise, as with the one on AV it would rapidly descend into a shambles of squabbling and point scoring. Political obsessives might be thrilled by the prospect, the vast mass of ordinary Britons would be bored rigid by it.

Red Ed has made his fair share of missteps since becoming party leader, but this time round he’s made the right call. It is far more important to build a fair and secure society than to pick at the scab covering the argument over whether we should be in or out of Europe. Having the Tories rip themselves to bits over it might be handy though.

Labour legend Tony Benn died on Friday aged 88.

In a long career Tony Benn travelled from being touted as a potential future prime minister to being one of the elder statesmen of the Labour movement calling at all stations in between.

For a time in the seventies and early eighties he was alternately idolised and demonised as either a standard bearer for socialism or a dangerous radical determined to drag Britain behind the iron curtain. However extreme the responses to him may have been he remained faultlessly polite and charming, something that disarmed many of his critics leading them to respect the tenacity with which he stuck to his position even if they could never agree with him.

By the end of his life Tony Benn had become a sort of living history exhibit, a conviction politician in a cynical age trundled out to entertain the crowd at Glastonbury’s ‘Left Field’ amongst other unlikely places. That, maybe, diminished his stature a little, at his passing though it should be remembered that his was a long and productive life lived to the end in the firm belief that democracy is the most revolutionary idea of all.

Bless, sweet little Michael Gove has pattered up to a friendly journalist to say there is a ‘ridiculous number of old Etonians’ in the cabinet. See the penny spinning in the air, watch it drop; didn’t that take just forever.