Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The next general election may be closer than we think

A nuclear bunker in south-west London housing ConDem Minister Vince Cable's constituency surgery. Picture: Sea Change staffer

Back in 2001, when I stood for parliament against the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey in Kingston & Surbiton, we were debating his party’s nonsensical, uncosted manifesto pledges. Believing they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever forming a government, the Lib Dems felt able to promise pretty much anything they wanted to the electorate. Naturally, I was well briefed by the Labour Party on the financial burden the policies would impose on the hard-pressed British taxpayer and the spurious calculations that lay behind them, so had a lot of good ammunition up my sleeve.
One of Ed’s first lines of defence was his academic credentials and he reminded the audience that he had a Master’s degree in economics. In one of my slightly sharper contributions to political discourse in south-west London, I observed that it was amazing how people could hold a Master’s degree in economics, yet seemingly still not be able to add up.

Ed Davey comes to mind when I observe the current plight of his government colleague, Dr Vince Cable. The former chief economist for Shell, who is MP for the neighbouring constituency of Twickenham, is an exceptionally intelligent man too. But for all his book learning and commercial experience, he is left this week looking like the court jester. Not only has he foolishly shared his intimate thoughts with unknown visitors to his constituency surgery, but he has demonstrated a naive belief in his own ability to bring down the government. In reality, Cable’s ‘nuclear’ option is no Hiroshima. It’s a firecracker that he doesn’t even know how to light.

The decision by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to keep Cable in the Cabinet is used by some to demonstrate just how important the cerebral Lib Dem sexagenarian is to the Coalition. I would argue it shows their weakness and indecision rather than Cable’s strength. They could happily have dumped him, because the guy is a spent force. Can he really act as a rallying point for disaffected Lib Dems? Not any more. He is someone whose credibility has been shot to pieces over the past six months. No one knows what he stands for and no one much cares. He has undergone a remarkable transformation from Moses to Mr Bean.

Cameron and Clegg may still fear a Lib Dem backlash, but the real threat to the Coalition is actually from the smouldering anger of backbench Tories. They can’t abide the way that their leader plays nicey-nicey with the Liberals. Had a Tory made the same mistakes as Cable, they argue, he’d be out on his ear. They’re also horrified by the lukewarm support that Cameron is giving to the Tory campaign in Oldham, where a byelection is being fought following the ruling against former Labour Minister Phil Woolas. It’s almost as if Cameron would prefer the Lib Dem to beat Labour in what was previously a fairly close three-way marginal.

I have long argued that the Coalition is much less stable than many commentators would lead you to believe. The people who need the Coalition are its leaders. It is not wanted by the majority of Tory MPs or party activists or, for that matter, by their counterparts in the Lib Dems. I don’t accept that this is a similar situation to the one encountered by Tony Blair in 1997 – a populist leader facing down his internal party critics. The former Labour leader had effectively killed off meaningful opposition in his party before he assumed office. Indeed, the process had started much earlier, back in the 1980s, with Neil Kinnock. There has been no such groundwork in the other two parties, because no one anticipated the extent of horse-trading and compromise that the mathematics of the 2010 election threw up.

There is, I feel, a 50/50 chance of a general election taking place in 2011. The Coalition is on very rocky ground and a few more unfortunate events could create a seismic shift in the political plates that underpin the government. Cameron is nothing without Clegg. And the excruciating Clegg is less than nothing without Cameron. The Lib Dems would, of course, be the main losers in any sudden upheaval. Their best hope by far is to stay the course, change the electoral system and agree some kind of informal pact with the Tories in 2015. But the tide of history has a habit of scuppering the best-laid plans.

Ed Miliband was a poor choice as Labour leader. Had his brother assumed this role – as was the wish of the majority of party members – I think the ConDems would be on the ropes already. Instead, they’re back in their corner, nursing wounds but hoping to triumph on points over the full 12 rounds. Ed will have opportunities in 2011 to deliver a knock-out blow. Whether he’s up to the task remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It isn't a vote about student fees. It's a vote about democracy.

I don’t have a particularly strong point of view on how a student's time at university should be funded. The whole business is very expensive and there’s a legitimate debate about how much of the cost should be shouldered by the taxpayer and how much by the graduate. Maybe there’s no ideal answer. I do, however, have a strong point of view about self-serving, hypocritical politicians who say one thing to get elected and then do the reverse when they’re in office.

The unctuous Nick Clegg – and unctuous is one of the nicer words I can muster to describe the Lib Dem leader – isn’t just leading his party members into a cul de sac. He’s threatening them with oblivion. One reaction to this debacle might be simply to shrug one’s shoulders and take pleasure in the two-faced Tory lookalikes getting their comeuppance. The problem is that their behaviour doesn’t only damage liberal democracy. It damages democracy as a whole.

What might voters be entitled to conclude from the last general election? I think it would be entirely reasonable for them to believe that their votes count for nothing. They were told in a large number of constituencies that the Lib Dems were the only party capable of stopping the Tories. They thought, in the event of a hung parliament, that Clegg & Co would act as a bulwark against extremism and ideology. They hoped, after his contribution in the televised public debates, that he offered a fresh kind of politics that people could believe in. To say that they were deceived doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the breathtaking sell-out that has taken place. Listening to Vince Cable claiming the concocted coalition ‘agreement’ takes precedent over the manifesto commitments that he and his mates put before the electorate is really frightening. People voted for your manifesto, Vince. They didn’t vote on some worthless document cobbled together subsequently out of political expediency.

Former Labour Minister Phil Woolas was stripped of his parliamentary seat for supposedly telling lies about his Lib Dem constituency opponent. I don’t have a problem with this, although admit to being somewhat disappointed, as I first saw Woolas in action as President of NUS 25 years ago and have always been impressed by his intellect and communication skills. The important point is that a much, much bigger lie was told by the Liberal Democrats in the national election than anything that appeared in Woolas’ local publicity. Their big lie poisons a democratic system which had already been battered through the shameful revelations over MPs’ expenses.

In the circumstances, there’s only one thing to be thankful for. The lie is out in the open. We see the Liberal Democrats standing trial in the court of public opinion, indicted on multiple charges of political deception. Although it’s thoroughly depressing to watch, justice will eventually be done. But we should never become complacent or indulgent or just shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that politicians will always behave this way. Such a conclusion is not only profoundly dangerous for democracy, but also undermines the work of those rare politicians who genuinely do some good.

At the moment, we’re all aware of exactly what the Lib Dems are up to, but sometimes the lie is not out in the open. Politicians tell us one thing and then do another without our knowing. It therefore becomes difficult to hold them to account. That’s why the Wikileaks revelations are doing us all such a great service. We only know about the deceit and duplicity because communications which were supposed to be private have been made public. It’s caused a hell of a hullabaloo, hasn’t it?

A good parallel is the man who has multiple affairs and doesn’t want his wife to find the text messages sent from his lovers. When she does uncover them, an uncomfortable truth is revealed. There may be shock and anger and all kinds of protestations. The wife shouldn’t have been snooping. Her hubby has a right to privacy. He didn’t really mean what he said in those messages to his girlfriends. And if she lets the revelations change their relationship, it will destroy everything. What about the kids, the house, the future?

But the man is a liar and he has been caught. And five years down the line, the woman will be grateful that the truth came out and that she was able to step away from deceit and into a more trusting relationship with someone else perhaps.

One of Tony Blair’s great achievements – although ironically, it’s one that he regrets – was the Freedom of Information Act. You can see the legislation as a sanitised, watered down, version of WikiLeaks, which forces local authorities and central government bodies to reveal what they’re doing in private. We pay these people’s bills, after all, and we damn well have a right to know what they get up to. Anyone, though, who’s made FOI requests in the UK will realise just what obstacles can be put in their way. I spent a whole year getting information from a government agency that demonstrated it was easier to pass a driving exam in some test centres than others. I’ve been fobbed off with letters from other government departments quoting all kinds of loopholes and restrictions. There’s a lot of stonewalling and prevarication, so I have nothing but admiration for journalists persistent enough to uncover good stories.

We have finally created a world in which politicians can be properly exposed if we work hard enough. If citizens request information or insiders leak it, then it can be circulating around the web in the blink of an eye. What we lack are the real mechanisms to dismiss or punish those responsible for hypocrisy and wrongdoing. One of the best possible remedies we could introduce is known as ‘voter recall’ – a system that allows constituents to petition for a fresh election when they believe their elected representative has broken a promise or behave inappropriately. It’s a system championed by the Lib Dems. Or at least it was. When students suggested its introduction could lead to the recall of turncoat Liberal MPs, Nick Clegg was quick to write and tell them they’d got the wrong end of the stick. Where exactly was this man when a sense of shame was being handed out?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Good news travels fast. But it doesn't always take up residence.

According to the latest news reports, Thatcherism isn’t dead. It’s propped up somewhere in a London hospital bed, while a crash team – consisting of Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Cable – is desperately trying to revive the patient. Glancing at the medical records, we can see an admission date of 1990, coinciding with what was presumed to be a fatal injury in the poll tax riots. Comatose for two decades, the zombie is about to get up and walk again. Call Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

Ok, maybe I’m a little cynical, but it does seem to me that we’re on the brink of another right-wing ideological experiment and the deficit problem is just handy cover for the dismantling of the welfare state.

Back at the end of the 1970s, George Bush Senior famously accused Ronald Reagan of pursuing ‘voodoo’ economics. There’s a fair bit of hooey about the current ConDem administration too. They have a near mystical belief in the ability of the private sector to generate jobs to replace those that will soon be lost in the public-sector cuts programme. Buoyed by impressive growth figures in the last two quarters, they argue that the economy can soak up the carnage that’s about to be unleashed. I wouldn’t be so sure.

In order to replace the number of jobs that will be lost in the public sector and the associated private-sector jobs dependent on government finance, we’d need to be creating employment opportunities faster than they were created in the last boom. After yesterday’s GDP numbers, the Coalition cheerleaders might feel they have a credible case. The equivalent of 2% growth over a half-year period is staggeringly good given the position the UK economy was recently in. But look a little closer. There is a mini construction boom in progress, which is artificially inflating the figures. As The Guardian’s economic correspondent Philip Inman has pointed out, this seems a tad odd. We know there aren’t any houses being built and there’s not a lot of commercial work either. So what exactly are these builders doing? It turns out, they’re working on big infrastructure projects that were signed off at the tail end of the last government or rushed through since the election in advance of the looming cuts.

So how big a cushion do we really have ahead of the cuts? It’s very difficult to say. We should be in no doubt, however, that the effect of attacking the public sector will be detrimental to the economy as a whole. Private sector businesses don’t create wealth and employment out of thin air. They rely on customers having money to spend and the confidence to spend it.

I saw an interesting report on the BBC yesterday about a commercial linen cleaner – in London, I think – which had recently been forced to put its workers on shorter hours. The reason? Business from restaurants, which send their table cloths and napkins to be laundered, was down 10%. The threat of austerity was causing diners to tighten their belts.

The laundry workers, who’ve seen their hours reduced, will have less money to spend and will perhaps decide to cut their shopping bills in the supermarket and give up on that dream of a cheap holiday next summer. That’s what the economy is like. Interconnected, with complex feedback loops. Who knows? Maybe these same workers treat themselves to a meal out every few months? And perhaps now they’ll decide to stay at home instead. So that’s one less tablecloth to clean.

My hunch is that people like Clegg and Cable must realise what a huge gamble is currently being played out. The Deputy Prime Minister said on Desert Island Discs recently that he had been searching his conscience. I’m not sure this is a search that would necessarily require sniffer dogs and helicopters. He is an opportunist of the first order, who has sold out every principle he might have had for the chance to serve at a senior level in government.

The Business Secretary, meanwhile, makes dramatic speeches attacking the excesses of capitalism while serving in a government which is about to exacerbate them. He has signed up to the Pig Society, where bankers happily collect their gargantuan bonuses once again, while poor people in inner London are shipped off to Hastings because they can no longer afford to pay their rent. In his late 60s now, Cable probably recognises this as his last opportunity to take on a frontline political role. In many ways though, he cuts the most pathetic figure. To see a man with such a good brain supporting the economic and social programme of Cameron and Osborne is frankly embarrassing. In the world of the Coalition though, black is white and white is black. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

Predictions, then. Reasonably strong economic growth providing a little bit of a cushion for the ConDems in the short term. Storm clouds gathering fast. The economy to tank during 2011 as unemployment starts to rise, the VAT increase takes effect, consumers stop spending and house prices slide again. Greater numbers of benefit claimants on the books and reduced tax revenues will make it increasingly difficult for Osborne to meet his own deficit reduction targets.

If it does turn out this way, Ed Miliband will be under a lot of pressure to demonstrate that he can plot an alternative route for the UK. Let's hope he's up to the challenge.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Was Brown v Blair really a soap opera? It just doesn't wash.

The body language between Ed and David Miliband is very telling. David, narrowly defeated in the Labour leadership election, looks like a man who’s had a burden removed from his shoulders. Ed, on the other hand, seems to be as jittery as a fish on a hook. I’m sure things will calm down as the victorious brother gets into his stride and grows in confidence.

It’s important to realise that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Ed or his politics. I went along to a London hustings meeting in the summer and he was clearly the next best option after David. He’s a personable, competent politician and of course nothing like the dangerous Marxist he’s painted by the hysterical press pack. If Ed replaced David Cameron and managed to see off the Tory Prime Minister’s Liberal lapdog, Nick Clegg, I would be the first to cheer. I just have my doubts that it’s ever going to happen.

The long-running Blair v Brown saga is often presented as a tragic clash of personalities. Actually, it was about differences in policy and emphasis. Blair was always more laissez-faire in his approach to the economy than Brown and more pro-European. He also understood the British public better than his long-standing rival and intuitively grasped voters’ attitudes to key issues such as taxation. Blair, in fact, had a superb political instinct. He won three general elections and then quit just as something rather nasty was about to hit the fan. Brown was always vain enough to believe he’d make a great Prime Minister but always too indecisive to stick the knife into Blair’s back. The net result was that he took over at the worst of all possible times and made a pig’s ear of his period in Downing Street.

History will conclude that Brown was a decent enough man and clearly very bright, but lacked political judgement. Blair, on the other hand, will be remembered as a charmer and a sweet-talker. Many people imagined him to be insincere and superficial. But he managed to get important things right, time and time again.

Ed Miliband supported Brown. David Miliband was closely associated with Blair. This tells me all I need to know about the judgement and politics of the two brothers who contested the leadership and it gives me a powerful clue as to the likely direction that Ed will take the Labour Party. He is not someone who is going to rock the boat too much or do anything very radical. I doubt he is even going to make as many strides for Labour as one of his most vocal supporters, Neil Kinnock. For all his faults, Kinnock had the guts and determination to stand up to extremism in the 1980s Labour Party and helped pave the way for New Labour. I’m not really sure that Ed will pave the way to anything very fundamental. He is a ‘steady as she goes’ leader in the image of John Smith who briefly led the party between Kinnock and Blair.

Universal benefits? According to Ed’s interview on the Andrew Marr show, they’re not up for grabs, even though most ordinary voters think it crazy that rich people receive child benefit or help with their heating in old age. Reform of the Labour electoral college which allowed Ed’s union backers to bring him victory? It’s not going to happen. And on the defining issue of the deficit and how Labour positions itself in relation to the ConDem cuts programme, I have a strong suspicion that Ed will try to be all things to all people. He says that he won’t oppose every cut, but he seems to want to distance himself from Alistair Darling’s formulation that the debt must be cut in half within four years.

It’s Labour’s approach to the cuts that will determine whether it’s seen as a credible party of government again. The centre-left is absolutely right to say that Cameron and Clegg are pushing forward too far and too fast with a retrenchment in public services, which will have severe social consequences and a potentially disastrous economic impact too at a time of fragile recovery. It is simply not plausible, however, for the new Labour leader and his backers to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that we can ignore the deficit. People didn’t vote for a right-wing government because they felt that Labour wasn’t left-wing enough. They will only trust Labour in its criticism of the ConDems if they feel there’s a coherent alternative plan for getting the UK out of its undoubted economic mess.

I’m prepared to give Ed the benefit of the doubt. He may yet prove me wrong and I’ll be delighted if he does. But a Labour victory at the next general election will not be built out of the conservatism and reticence that dominated Gordon Brown’s term in office. It will be cultivated by the bravery and difficult decision-making associated with Tony Blair.

Monday, 20 September 2010

An open letter to Liberal Democrat conference delegates

Dear Lib Dem Delegate

When Nick Clegg addresses your conference in Liverpool this afternoon, he’ll be doing his best to convince you that his coalition with the Conservatives is in the best interest of your party and the country. I fully understand why you want to believe him and why, indeed, you need to believe him. I’m also fairly certain that you have grave misgivings – even those of you who supported the birth of the ConDem administration a few months ago. So let’s nail some of Mr Clegg’s specious arguments from the outset.

“We had no alternative...”

This is probably the biggest of the whoppers you’re being told. While it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the Lib Dems shouldn’t have propped up Gordon Brown – a mathematically problematic coalition anyway – there was always a third option. Clegg could have allowed the Tories to form a minority administration and only offered support for their programme on a case-by-case basis. The argument in favour of ‘strong government’ and the desperate need to cobble something together over a few sleepless nights is thoroughly anti-democratic. Australia recently spent weeks agonising over its future government. The Netherlands likewise.

“We are influencing the programme of the coalition...”

Yes, in much the same way that a dummy influences the pronouncements of his ventriloquist. The programme of the coalition is more right wing, ideologically libertarian and damaging than even that of Margaret Thatcher. It’s not merely the scale of the cuts programme. Look at initiatives like Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’, for example. These are designed to change the social and economic structure of the UK fundamentally.

“We will achieve electoral reform...”

If everything goes very well – which seems improbable – the United Kingdom may introduce AV, a system which most Lib Dems have long criticised as being unproportional. And where will you be if even this modest step forward is rejected by the electorate?

“We retain our distinctive identity...”

You’ve probably noticed the insipid blue that bedecks your conference stage. This is a ConDem conference rather than a Lib Dem one. Clegg will promise that you will fight as an independent party at the next election. But on what basis? In numerous constituencies, you only ever get elected because you explain to Labour voters that you are the anti-Tory party. What do you intend to tell the electorates of Eastbourne, Twickenham and Wells next time around?

“We could still form a coalition with Labour...”

I’m afraid you’ve blown that one. When people see you acting entirely without principle, it takes a generation to regain their trust.

A few months into the coalition government and Vince Cable has already said he is at the ‘limit of collective responsibility’ over immigration policy. Your Tory partners are fuming over the possibility of a delay over the commissioning of a Trident replacement. The next period will see disputes and heartaches galore as policy clashes continue and the cuts programme gets under way in earnest.

This coalition is a pack of cards and even a moderate breeze could consign it to history. It’s a thought worth considering when you listen to Nick later today.

Best wishes

Phil Woodford

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Pack of cards, sand dunes and the chances of another election

Over the past month, we’ve been getting more and more hints as to just how fragile and precarious the ConDem coalition actually is. The public story is that the shotgun wedding will stand the test of time, but the reality is that a quickie divorce may be on the agenda sooner than most people think. When you build a pack of cards on top of a sand dune, after all, the slightest of chill autumnal winds presages disaster.

Vince Cable has been identified by the press as a weak link in the government, particularly following his public denunciation of the ConDem anti-business immigration policies. Speaking at the Königswinter 60th anniversary conference, the Business Secretary claimed to be at the ‘limit of collective responsibility’ over a cap on new migrants which he described as ‘doing great damage’.

Poor old Vince, eh? Only a few months in bed with his Tory mates and he’s already been pushed to the limit. I suspect the Twickenham MP suffers more cognitive dissonance than most of his colleagues, as he’s actually bright enough to realise that the coalition’s policies are likely to destroy, over the next year to eighteen months, the fragile economic recovery that has so far been achieved. If he and Charlie Kennedy jumped ship, it would certainly rattle Clegg and Cameron and create a ripple effect in the Lib Dem grassroots. I’m not sure, however, that it would be a killer blow. Dr Cable’s credibility is shot to pieces and he would end up being distrusted by both the ConDem apologists and their opponents.

My hunch is that the real threat to the coalition comes from the Tory backbenches. Many Conservative MPs never liked the idea of shacking up with the Liberals in the first place and have been biting their tongues. Some, however, have started biting back instead.

Take Dr Julian Lewis, for instance. The MP for New Forest East, who led an anti-CND pressure group in the 1980s called The Coalition for Peace Through Security, was outraged to hear this week that the ConDems were considering delaying a decision on the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

In an angry speech in the House of Commons, Lewis claimed that such a move would ‘be a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party gave to the electorate and a betrayal of the commitment the Conservative party leader gave to Conservative MPs when seeking their support, which we gave, to the formation of the coalition’. In other words, he feels he’s been stitched up. He never liked the idea of the coalition, but felt that if the Lib Dems were locked into a right-wing policy agenda, then it might be possible to grin and bear it. Now, everything’s starting to unravel. Lewis made clear that no Tory MPs who shared his views were going to perform ‘back-somersaults’ on Trident. He even said he’d be ‘amazed’ if Defence Secretary Liam Fox stayed in post were a decision to be taken to postpone a commitment to the Trident replacement.

We begin to see the fault lines open up, don’t we? Immigration and defence were always two areas where it was difficult to see any common ground between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. But there are many other problematic policy issues. Crime, for example. Europe. Next year’s referendum on a new voting system. And that’s before we even start to think about the draconian cuts being imposed on public services.

All of this tension creates a great opportunity for the next Labour leader. If the Party does the sensible thing and elects David Miliband (and my feeling is that he will just sneak through, despite the strong challenge of his younger brother), then it’s time to go for the jugular. Labour is now virtually level-pegging with the Tories in the polls and should be prepared to go on the attack. The alternative, cautious approach would be to chip away at the ConDem government and wait for the full effect of the cuts to become evident to the electorate between now and 2015. Such a strategy, however, would be a disgraceful abdication of political responsibility and a betrayal of the ordinary working families who are going to be hit so hard by the decimation of public services.

There is actually an opportunity to divide and humiliate the coalition so badly that it falls apart over the next year, forcing another election. At this point, rather than people voting on the vague, hypothetical cuts programmes that dominated the debates earlier this year, they would have the opportunity to weigh up real facts and figures. If the electorate opted for the Tory austerity measures having seen the reality of what they meant, so be it. It would give a democratic mandate for the cuts programme which simply doesn’t exist at the moment. But I have no doubt it’s an election that Labour would, in fact, have every chance of winning.

One thing’s for certain. The Lib Dems would be scared witless by another election. They have slumped in the polls, with 40% of the people who voted for them in this year’s general election now telling researchers they regret their decision. Only a freak result would allow the Liberals to retain the balance of power that they hold right now.

We have become rather used to Nick Clegg through his ‘holding the fort’ for David Cameron while the Prime Minister holidayed, became a father and suffered a bereavement. Clegg’s a man who could, however, fade into obscurity just as quickly as he achieved his undeserved, overnight promotion.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Time for Red Ken to head into the sunset

Voice for 2012: Oona best represents modern Londoners

Pin there, done that: Livingstone's campaign is a throwback to the 1980s

Ken Livingstone may have lost his grip on power, but he hasn’t lost his chutzpah. The former London mayor was full of chirpy bluster a week ago in Southall, west London, when I popped over to listen to him debate with his rival for the current Labour nomination, Oona King.

The contrast between two candidates couldn’t be more striking. Oona is chic, whereas Ken is pure cheek. She talks passionately about the threat posed by gang warfare which currently divides kids in her East London neighbourhood, while he waxes nostalgically about his working-class childhood in post-war council housing.

It’s clear that Livingstone has been cryogenically preserved and then defrosted. The only question is when exactly the wily old geezer was put in the freezer. The mid-1980s would be a fair bet, which is when I remember him on a stage in Jubilee Gardens on the south bank of the Thames, leading a crowd of well-meaning liberals and lefties (including myself) in a rendition of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’. His continual references to Margaret Thatcher suggest that he has never really left this era behind. The GLC supremo has the political equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers constant flashbacks to the days of riots and ratecapping. I place him in my mind alongside Paul Hardcastle in n-n-n-n-n-n-nineteen eighty five.

The reason the Labour Party should embrace Oona King is not because she happens to know more about policy than Ken (he could bore for Brixton on most topics), or even that she necessarily has better policies than him (although I suspect, on balance, she probably does). King’s claim to the mayoral candidacy comes from the fact that she represents the future, whereas Ken represents the past.

Much has been made of King’s ethnicity (her Jewish mother and African-American father somehow make her very symbolic of the cosmopolitan spirit of the capital), but I would argue that she is more typical of the modern Londoner in almost every way. She understands, for instance, the importance of social networks and that fact that a whole generation of younger London workers have grown up in the age of the Internet and multimedia. Ken may be a master of old-school propaganda, but I struggle to imagine him updating his Facebook status. And if he did, it would probably be to express an opinion about the relaxation of planning policy or the size of Boris Johnson’s budgetary precept.

And then there’s the question of the sands of time. Oona is a child of the late sixties, while Ken was born at the end of the Second World War. I don’t think for one moment it’s ageist to suggest that there should come a time when one political generation hands over to another. To put things into perspective, Oona – very much like me – was an enthusiastic teenage cheerleader for Ken when he ran County Hall in first half of the1980s. Imagine taking a time machine back to that era and telling this politically ambitious young woman that in 2012 – over a quarter of a century later – her hero would still be refusing to step aside and let her generation take over the reins. When the GLC championed free travel for pensioners back in the Thatcher years, I don’t believe many people imagined Ken would be using his own OAP pass to travel down to City Hall.

The Labour Party has two critical choices to make right now. The London mayoral battle is being fought in tandem with the election for the Party leadership. Although it’s by no means certain, David Miliband still has perhaps the best chance of taking over at the top. If that is indeed the result, Labour will have made a politically astute and mature decision, as the cerebral former Foreign Secretary is clearly head and shoulders above the other contenders. Wouldn’t it be a terrible shame if while looking to the future nationally, the Party turned back to the past in the key political battleground of London?

David and his brother Ed make much of their comprehensive education a trendy north London school within shouting distance of their Primrose Hill homes. Coincidentally, another pupil walking through those gates at Haverstock was one Oona King. My feeling is that she deserves to be in the same set has her former classmates.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

What's the big thinking behind The Big Society?

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” David Cameron, Liverpool, 19th July 2010.

Well, I call it the biggest steaming pile of political horse manure ever to be dumped on the British people since John Major launched his ‘back to basics’ campaign in the early 1990s. If the ‘Big Society’ were genuinely an important departure in social policy and political culture, the speech would provide some kind of coherent intellectual backdrop, right? If this new initiative were about to be piloted in a number of local authorities around the UK, there would surely be plenty of detail to grapple with?

Let’s take a look at what Cameron actually said about his Big Society.

“It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders.”

We can take the first idea as a reference to Michael Gove’s madcap scheme to let do-gooders and wackos set up so-called ‘free schools’. Some of these schools may indeed turn out to be ‘great’. Others, I imagine will turn out to be bloody awful. Remember, in theory, anyone is allowed to set one up. They don’t need any experience of education and are not obliged to teach a curriculum that most people would recognise as being mainstream. As parents, we’ll probably have no meaningful way of judging the performance of one school over another any more. It will be like comparing Conservative blueberrries with Lib Dem oranges.

As for the second and third ideas about businesses and charities, I don’t see anything here that doesn’t already exist. I used to sit on the board of a charity that has been helping for years to rehabilitate offenders in conjunction with other partners in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Businesses have been actively involved in getting people back into the workforce for some time too. There have even been documentaries on the telly about it.

So far, so meaningless.

Next comes a marvellous piece of political doublespeak from Cameron:

“For years, there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster. But this just doesn’t work. We’ve got the biggest budget deficit in the G20.”

Err, excuse me? Do we really have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because of too much government? No. We have the biggest budget deficit in the G20 because governments – Tory and Labour alike – were too pathetic in their regulation of the banking system. This led to a massive state-funded bailout of the financial institutions in the wake of the financial crisis. We are paying now for the inadequacies of the state, rather than experiencing the consequences of its excessive interference.

These excerpts of Cameron’s speech pretty much sum up the standard of intellectual debate which underlie his grand vision. I can’t see anything here that an averagely bright GCSE sociology student couldn’t pick apart in the period after double maths.

Happy that he’s covered all bases at a theoretical level, Cameron then moves on to discuss the practicalities. He admits there is ‘no one lever’ that we can pull to create The Big Society and suggests ‘three strands’ of activity. The first one is ‘social action’.

“The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action.”

The idea of people giving time and money on a voluntary basis is not new. It’s called charity. My feeling is that the only people rallying to this particular cause will be the ones who already do. And unless government fosters and supports the culture of voluntarism with cash, we have absolutely nothing that doesn’t already exist. My wife works for a charity which receives money from a council to deliver a vital service to the public at a local level. Almost certainly, there will be less money for these organisations to play with in the future rather than more.

The second strand of the Big Society is ‘public service reform’. Getting rid of centralised bureaucracy, giving professionals more freedom, letting charities run public services. I’ve heard it all a million times before. It will either turn out to be bluster or it will descend into anarchy. (We’ve already had a taste of this agenda with the proposed abolition of Primary Care Trusts and the handing of power to professional GPs. Because family doctors can’t manage budgets while also telling people to drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol, they’ll end up forming consortia to run and commission services. In effect, they’ll recreate the PCTs but in a confused and incoherent form.)

It’s on his third strand – ‘community empowerment’ - that Cameron really gets into his stride. He manages one sentence. He tells us that we need communities with ‘oomph’. It’s a word that starts with two round zeros and manages to convey a third, which I guess sits between the Eton-educated Prime Minister’s ears.

From then on, the speech deteriorates into an incoherent ramble which involves Grange Hill’s Phil Redmond, people running their own bus routes and taking over local pubs. Given that pubs are in private ownership anyway, they hardly represent the big government that Cameron and his Lib Dem cronies seemingly despise. But then nothing really has to make sense when you’re making things up as you go along. As Cameron himself concludes:

“It’s about pushing power down and seeing what happens. It’s about unearthing the problems as they come up on the ground and seeing how we can get round them. It’s about holding our hands up saying we haven’t got all the answers – let’s work them out, together.”

In boom times, it would be comical. In our world of austerity, God only knows where it’s all going to lead.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Lib Dems have made their bed and they'll have to die in it.

If you’d asked me a month ago how long the ConDem coalition would survive in government, I’d reluctantly have conceded maybe two or three years. Both David Cameron and his partner in crime – the puffed-up popinjay Nick Clegg – have invested all their personal credibility in this bizarre political project. They therefore can’t afford for it to fail and will both do their upmost to ensure its survival. The problem is that the government’s pronouncements are becoming more extraordinary by the day and the contradictions inherent within the coalition are causing strains even in this honeymoon period. My hunch, therefore, is that it will end in tears rather sooner than I’d first imagined. A quickie divorce after a year or eighteen months perhaps.

The issue of criminal justice creates one of their biggest pickles. Ken Clarke, that ‘wet’ Europhile relic from a bygone era, has found himself in charge of prisons and he seems to have decided unilaterally that the slammer doesn’t work. This will please his Lib Dem coalition partners no end, as they have form as long as your arm when it comes to making the penal system less frightening to its prospective customers. Out in the Tory heartland, however, loyal supporters are fuming. They already think that a spell of bird is like taking a trip to Butlins. Now, the Redcoats are escorting their happy campers back home. The Daily Mail, which serves as a Delphic oracle to the Conservatives’ aged membership in the shires, actually resorted to asking the former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw to lambast the Clarke for his muddled thinking. Now, that’s what we might call a serious turn up for the books.

In itself, letting some criminals out of the Scrubs slightly earlier wouldn’t lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. But Theresa May, the current Home Secretary, was very recently announcing drastic cuts to police budgets, so anyone who comes out of prison and wants to reoffend will just love the new-look ConDem Britain.

Immigration is another tricky area. Nick Clegg went into the presidential election debates advocating an amnesty for people who were in the country illegally. This intellectually plausible but politically suicidal policy was probably one of the big reasons that his vote dipped significantly in the final stages of the campaign. Now the plan has been dumped in favour of the Tories’ politically plausible but intellectually nonsensical policy of ‘caps’ on the number of immigrants from outside the EU.

The business community within the Tory Party is twitchy as it knows that free movement of labour is essential in a modern capitalist society. We rely on semi-skilled people to do the jobs that British folk are unwilling to do and we depend on highly skilled specialists to maintain our world standards in a number of fields. Out in the constituencies, however, many Tory MPs need to take a tough stance on immigration to assuage public opinion. It’s an impossible balancing act for the Tories at the best of times, but as part of a coalition, it’s doubly problematic.

Things are made all the more ridiculous by the fact that a large proportion of immigration is completely unstoppable because it comes from within the European Union. Short of tearing up the European treaties we’ve signed – or waiting for the complete implosion of the community – we’ll be accepting visitors for ever more. I expect there a quite a few people thinking of heading here from Greece, for instance, right now.

So crime is a muddle and migration is a real headache. It’s time to throw another grenade into the coalition camp – one that’s labelled electoral reform. A referendum next year will see David Cameron in direct confrontation with his Lib Dem buddies as he argues against any change to the current system. The alternative vote, a pretty innocuous and not particularly proportional way of electing MPs, is too radical for the Tory champion of the ‘Big Society’. Unfortunately, it’s not radical enough for thousands of Lib Dem activists, who believe in a geek’s system called Single Transferable Vote, which involves constituencies with multiple MPs and requires the use of equations during the count. These Lib Dems will realise exactly what a hollow concession they have been handed by the Conservatives when their Coalition buddies join forces with reactionary elements of the Labour Party to oppose any change. If you were a pro-reform Lib Dem, why would you even bother to lift a finger in a campaign for a half-baked solution, when it looks extremely likely the cards are stacked against you?

All of this is seems very bad for Nick and Dave. But we haven’t even addressed the central question facing us all: the deficit and the proposed ConDem cuts. Up until now, the Lib Dem lapdogs have quite happily done a lot of the Conservatives’ dirty work for them. They are certainly in the whole sorry mess up to their necks. So when their Tory masters start demanding plans for 40% cuts from various government departments – a policy described by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s Chief Economist as an ‘armageddon scenario’ – they can no more extract themselves from the madness than a dummy can remove itself from the hand of its ventriloquist.

Many Lib Dem MPs are sick to their stomachs, but they have made their political bed and they will have to lie in it. Eventually, we can be sure that they will die in it too. Over the course of the next six months the full scale of the cuts will become apparent and the popularity of the ConDem government partners will start to slide. As the cuts actually begin to bite, people start to lose their jobs and the faltering economy begins to splutter to a halt once again, there will be a full-blown panic. Cameron and Osborne will no doubt cling to the dubious figures of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which apparently believes that the private sector will create more jobs over the next few years of austerity than it did in the last boom. This economic gobbledegook will soon be exposed for what it is and there won’t be many places to hide. Open splits will emerge within the Lib Dems and even some stalwarts of the Tory heartlands may decide that they have their doubts. Particularly if their pensions and benefits are eroded and their businesses choked by the recessionary impact of the cuts.

The senior economics commentator of The Observer, William Keegan, has described the policies being pursued by the Tories as “Margaret Thatcher’s Economic Experiment Part Two”. He is absolutely right. But as Karl Marx famously observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the great events of history do have a habit of occurring twice. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

That disused off licence in the parade? I'm turning it into a hospital.

One of things I’ve always observed about evangelists for the free market is that few of them like to take their case to its logical conclusion. If they did, they would see their arguments quickly collapse under the weight of their own incoherence. Think of a robot in a cheap sci-fi movie overwhelmed with conflicting data and starting to smoke.

Let’s take the Con-Dem plans announced last week for the creation of ‘free schools’, for instance. The principle of the scheme – modelled on similar ideas in the USA and Scandinavia – is to allow pretty much anyone to set up an educational establishment. Ideologically, the premise is that the state should no longer have a monopoly on schooling or curriculum and that unpopular schools should be allowed to go to the wall.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities of whether all this can be made to work on the ground, but I do have a question. If anyone can run a school, why can’t they run a hospital?

Before you laugh and tell me that hospitals are completely different, it’s worth remembering that the Con-Dems don’t actually make it a requirement for people running ‘free’ schools to have any knowledge of education. It’s accepted that they can be a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders who buy in expertise from teaching staff and educational administrators. In fact, I don’t see any fundamental obstacle to a group of functionally illiterate yokels setting up a school that teaches barn dancing, provided they employ someone who can fill in a form for them.

So surely I can run a hospital? I may not be medically qualified myself , but I know people who are. There’s a disused warehouse a couple of miles away that would make an excellent outpatients’ clinic. I won’t follow any nationally agreed guidelines on how to treat people, but if someone wants to roll up, that’s their choice, isn’t it?

Let’s take things a stage further. What if I lived in an area where there was dissatisfaction with the standard of policing? Why should the state have a stifling level of control over the justice system? I could get together with a group of concerned residents and establish my own security force. If neighbours wanted to withhold the portion of their taxes that went to the local police authority, they could donate it to me instead. I’d give them a card – a little like membership of the AA or RAC – that would allow them to call me any time they liked.

Of course, I’m being a bit mischievous with all this. But truly free markets are an absurdity and people who advocate them are rarely guided by any coherent principles. If they were true to their intellectual logic, they would propose opening up the markets for prostitution, drugs and firearms. (In the loony days of Margaret Thatcher, there were a few libertarian splinter groups – the Federation of Conservative Students, for example – which did indeed advocate some of these positions, but they had to be disowned. Even the Iron Lady realised that pure market ideology would produce unacceptable social consequences.)

The reason we gradually established and entrenched state education in the UK is because ‘free’ schools founded by philanthropists, religious zealots and busy-bodies were hopelessly inadequate. Prior to the 1870 Education Act, large areas of the country simply didn’t have any proper educational provision at all. Those parliamentarians who didn’t much care for the moral arguments in favour of educating the working classes were persuaded by the functional economic need: Britain’s manufacturing base needed more people who could read, write and add up.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was huge opposition to the establishment of a national police force because it was thought to be a tyrannical instrument of state oppression. The kind of thing that Johnny Foreigner would do. It was only when the inadequacies of the old night watchmen began to be exposed – and crime started to rise in growing cities – that people turned to the state. Even then, Sir Robert Peel’s first police force was seen as a trial or experiment at the time it was launched.

In almost every area of life, people turn to government when the going gets tough and they discover that we can achieve more collectively than we can as individuals. You don’t have to be a red-blooded socialist to buy into this way of thinking. Just someone with half a brain in your head.

And talking of people with half a brain in their head, how exactly have Nick Clegg and his sidekicks like Danny Alexander got swept up so quickly with all the Tory free-market nonsense? Have they had a Paulian conversion? Absolutely not. They’ve always been on the economic right, but were previously constrained by the grassroots of the Liberal Democrats and the need to win elections. As I’ve noted before, the only way they could triumph in many constituencies was by claiming to be the anti-Tory party and soaking up the votes of Labour supporters, who were informed their party couldn’t win. Now, the Lib Dem argument is exposed as a hollow sham and its advocates as a bunch of self-serving hypocrites.

It’s very clear that the political cover provided by the Lib Dems is absolutely essential to Cameron and Osborne. In many ways, the coalition government is allowed to get away with deeper cuts because it is seen as being more representative of public opinion. But people who voted Lib Dem didn’t support Clegg so that free school milk budgets could be transferred to ‘free school’ milkers who are looking for state money to pursue their own vainglorious ends.

It will, of course, all end in tears – probably during the course of a second recession created by the savage public service cuts. Eventually, a proportion of the Lib Dem parliamentarians will realise they have been used to do the Tories’ dirty work and received precious little in return. The game will be up. But how much damage will have been done in the meantime?

Monday, 7 June 2010

They won't feel our pain. Not for a while, anyway...

When David Cameron said in his set-piece speech yesterday that everyone is going to share the pain, he was talking through his old Etonian top hat. Some people will hardly notice the impact of the proposed cuts, whereas others will potentially have their lives turned upside down.

As the Prime Minister spoke, another story was hitting the 'weird' and 'offbeat' sections of the leading national newspapers. Three rundown garages in the celebrity enclave of Primrose Hill, north London, are being offered for sale at the staggering price of £1.25m. It's amazing what people will pay to buy a scrap of land next door to Gwyneth Paltrow and Jamie Oliver, isn't it? Having spent a couple of years on the Hill myself during the mid-90s (in a poorly converted flat on Ainger Road with a permanently broken boiler), I can vouch for the area's salubrious character. I really did sit in a beautiful laundrette with David Miliband and pop across the road to a café where Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller were in earnest conversation. Even so, the estate agents flogging the grotty lock-ups are chancers and anyone prepared to pay the asking price should be knocking on the door of the nearest analyst. Who would probably be a couple of doors down.

My point is that most residents of Primrose Hill will be immune from the effects of the government's cuts. But if you take a walk through the high street and over the bridge towards Chalk Farm and Camden Town, it would be a very different story.

Are the Cabinet members really in the same boat as us? Like hell they are. They took a symbolic pay cut at their first meeting, but a clear majority of the Con-Dem con artists who've taken their place at the table don't even rely on their ministerial salaries. They are millionaires. According to The Sunday Times last month, Dave Cameron's estimated £3.4m fortune is small fry compared to the amounts owned by some colleagues. The paper reveals that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has a mansion with a tennis court and swimming pool in Surrey, but still likes to keep a £2m pied-a-terre in Chelsea. If the 8.04 to London Waterloo gets cancelled in the forthcoming budget butchery, I suspect he's not going to be unduly concerned.

If this all sounds pretty grim (and it certainly will to those of you who voted Labour or perhaps who voted Lib Dem in the naive belief that you were keeping out the Tories), there is a silver lining. It's possible that the rich could suffer simply through the sheer stupidity of the Con-Dem cuts regime. Look at it this way. The sensible approach to tackling the financial black hole is to encourage economic growth and see a positive return from the enforced investment we made in the British banking system. This is perfectly feasible and the kind of strategy that the former Chancellor Alistair Darling was pursuing. Of course, there will have to be significant cuts in public spending too, but the current government's over-zealous approach to the deficit threatens the very growth that will ultimately rescue us.

As the cuts bite, the public sector will start to choke off private sector businesses that rely on government contracts. Jobs will be lost on both sides of the divide. Unemployment will start rising again and people who are out of work don't pay taxes. Worse still, they need benefits. And almost certainly they won't be frequenting the local shops, restaurants and leisure facilities they used to patronise. Holidays will be cancelled and large purchases postponed. We then get the secondary squeeze on all the service industries that rely on consumer spending. Net result: another recessionary wave, which wipes a whole load of value off share prices and the smile off the faces of those who thought they would shelter from the storm in their garages in Primrose Hill.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The fastest rebrand in history

‘The Coalition’, as the Con-Dem leadership now proudly calls itself, has got busy. Nick and Dave have produced a logo of sorts and a new corporate colour – a rather insipid green – which adorned the policy document they released yesterday. I guess this is what children get when they mix pale blue with orange on the painting table.

The Oxbridge identikits didn’t bother employing a big branding consultancy for their change of identity, because they didn’t really want to tell anyone else it was happening. They believe in delivering all their proposals as a fait accompli. After all, a lot of their pronouncements don’t stand a moment’s scrutiny. The shortest of breathing spaces and the party activists on one side or the other will gather troops in revolt against the leaders of this ludicrous coup d’état. So, like magicians, Nick and Dave swirl the cups around on the table hoping that no one can spot their sleight of hand. And hey presto! Another empty policy initiative is unveiled.

The best example of Cameron’s style to date has come in his confrontation with Tory backbenchers over the role of the 1922 Committee. This archaic body has traditionally served as a ‘safety valve’, allowing ordinary MPs to express their concerns over policy to the Tory leadership. I stood against one of its former Chairmen – Sir Archie Hamilton – in Epsom & Ewell back in 1997. While the Committee has never been renowned for its perspicacity in matters political, it has legitimately claimed to be independent of the executive and to provide some kind of impartial commentary on the government of the day. This thought clearly troubled our new Prime Minister so much that he has insisted on his frontbench team being able to join the club. 118 Conservative MPs rebelled against his suggestion, as they felt that it completely undermined the whole raison d’être of the 1922. What’s more, they’re already fed up with Cameron’s high-handed style and touchy-feely policies. If only a fraction of this number rebel on substantive political issues, the Coalition will become extremely vulnerable.

It would be churlish to suggest that nothing good can possibly come out of the new government. If some of the more ambitious plans for House of Lords reform and the electoral system see the light of day, then I would be the first to applaud. I suspect, however, that the crowning glory of Nick Clegg’s political career is more likely to be the abolition of Home Information Packs. Far from ushering in the biggest political reforms since 1832, he will end up giving estate agents the biggest fillip since Sarah Beany first climbed her property ladder.

Clegg is a lightweight figure, promoted by circumstance way beyond his comfort zone. Many Conservatives realise this and are privately horrified at the amount of time he’s getting on TV and the prominence he seems to have in the new government. With fewer than 60 MPs – and from an election platform which promised amnesties for illegal immigrants and a nicey-nicey relationship with Europe – Clegg seems to be calling an awful lot of the shots. The feeling among Tory activists and MPs will undoubtedly be that Cameron has given his Lib Dem admirer more than was actually necessary. Is this because the Conservative Prime Minister is naïve and trusting? Or because he has a secret agenda to jettison the Tory right and its hardline agenda? Either way, it doesn’t look good.

What about the Lib Dems meanwhile? Why haven’t we seen more of a rebellion among their own grassroots? My feeling is that while the Tory oppositionalists will stay and fight, becoming a thorn in Cameron’s side for months and years ahead, the Lib Dem objectors will simply leave the party and head for Labour or the Greens. Or maybe they’ll pack up their troubles in their old kit bag and spend more time down on their allotment. Clegg’s party is dumbstruck by events that have taken old lefties such as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable over to the arch-enemy that they had fought in countless constituencies around the UK. For the moment, the endorsement of these influential figures gives Clegg some kind of figleaf. But it’s a figleaf that we know has been removed at least 30 times before and will eventually disappear again. At which point one of the Coalition Emperors will have no clothes.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Democracy is being poisoned and we may have to wait for the antidote

The latest polling shows that Nick Clegg and David Cameron are enjoying a honeymoon period. There’s been a lot of commentary about their excruciating ‘civil partnership’ ceremony which took place earlier in the week. In reality, the analogy is grossly insulting to any couple in a genuine, long-term relationship, as it’s clear that Nick and Dave picked each other up casually on the rebound. It’s not so much a marriage. More a status change on Facebook from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’. I have no doubt whatsoever that the coalition will end with an extremely messy divorce. The question is not if it will fall apart, but when.

Dave and Nick (described lovingly as Dick in one of the Sunday papers) are conducting their love affair in the centre ground of British politics and have much in common with one another – not least their elitist background, which includes leading public schools and Oxbridge. It’s actually not surprising that they are able to deal with one another, as they are both in their social comfort zone and neither has any clear ideological standpoint. Each is a pragmatic opportunist. The problem is that their respective parties are filled with people for whom pragmatism is anathema. These are the tree-hugging, pavement-pounding, anti-nuclear lefties of the Liberal Democrat Party and the authoritarian right-wingers in the Conservative Party who are bemused by their leader’s conversion to gay rights, ecology and hoodie-hugging. If you put these factions in a room together, there would be a blood bath, but their parties are now joined at the hip as they parade around the Westminster tearooms.

Some commentators have suggested that Blair dragged Labour into the centre and faced down opposition from his unreconstructed left wing. Surely, they argue, Cameron and Clegg are merely doing the same kind of thing? This superficially plausible argument ignores two points. The first is that the left of the Labour Party had already been fatally weakened by Kinnock and Blair in opposition before the party took power. The left-wing of the Lib Dems and the right-wing of the Tories are very much alive and capable of giving their leaders a kicking. The second point is that we are no longer dealing with one power axis, but two. We have twice the opportunity for division and revolt.

Vince Cable – the Con-Dem Business Secretary – is a decent enough guy. He’s my constituency MP and has helped me out on a couple of occasions. I was very struck by his ability to grasp the detail of some messy and complex problems I talked through with him. You could see how he became the chief economist at oil giant, Shell. There’s a big brain in there.

According to news reports, Vince was desperate to do a deal with Labour rather than the Tories and was on the phone to Gordon Brown in the days before the shameful agreement with Cameron. How far do Vince’s ‘progressive’ principles extend, however? Not far enough that he is prepared to draw a line in the sand. Not far enough to stand up to the vacuous nonsense spouted by his leader about ‘stable government’. No, the prospect of ministerial office was on offer and Cable took it, recognising no doubt that at 67, he was drinking in the last-chance parliamentary saloon. The price he pays is having to swallow hook, line and sinker any rubbish spouted by Chancellor George Osborne, to whom the cerebral Cable must now defer. With the trappings of power comes the humiliation of having to agreeing to the younger man’s claptrap. It can only last so long.

By bringing in the left-leaning intellectual Will Hutton to look at public sector pay and the maverick Labour MP Frank Field to tackle ‘poverty’ (ie slash welfare), Cameron’s big tent is starting to bulge with the biggest bunch of misfits, has-beens, losers and no-hopers that the British political establishment has ever managed to cram onto a campsite.

The huge lie at the heart of the Con-Dem government is that it represents some new kind of politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the ultimate example of a ruling elite coming together to appoint friends and close political neighbours in a stitch-up that ignores the will of the voters entirely. Liberal Democrats around the country stole the support of Labour electors by promising that they were an anti-Tory party. Vince Cable has exploited this tactic endlessly in his south-west London constituency which he’s held since 1997. In the neighbouring seat of Kingston & Surbiton, Ed Davey squeezed my vote relentlessly in 2001 with the same argument. Today, the tactical voting bandwagon is exposed as a fraud. Far from being the anti-Tory party, the Lib Dems are revealed as being pro-Tory. If this information had been known prior to the 2010 election, how do you think it might have affected the way that people would vote?

The Liberal Democrats are shown to be shameless hypocrites and opportunists and they, in my opinion, will be the biggest long-term losers from this election. They claim to represent a new politics, but now believe in forming coalitions with opponents they denounced in the election. They rightly criticise our current voting system, which renders many people’s votes meaningless. But they have used it to do a deal which renders everyone’s votes meaningless.

The end result is completely poisonous for British politics and will almost certainly lead to greater disaffection – particularly among younger people who hope for change. The new way of doing things turns out to be the same old way of doing things. And I, for one, haven’t felt this politically motivated in 20 years.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Two-timing Clegg is out of his depth

Nick Clegg, when probed by Piers Morgan, went on record as saying that he'd jumped into bed with 'no more than' 30 women over the years. No doubt a greater number were interested, but the Liberal Democrat leader played hard to get.

I'm sure that Cleggy would never have had more than one girl on the go at once. And if I'm right, that will have left him woefully unprepared for the world of bluff and double bluff that he's entered after the general election.

There seems little doubt that the so-called 'Con-Dem' talks were genuinely proceeding pretty well until yesterday morning. The Lib Dem leadership has few principles and would gladly jettison its remaining ones for a sniff of government. The problem is that many of the party's backbench MPs and activists live in the naive expectation that Clegg will use this historic moment as an opportunity to screw meaningful concessions from the Tories on electoral reform. These people will have forty fits if their party is sold down the river.

Just as vocal will be the Tory MPs and activists who can't quite understand why Mr Cameron is spending so much time courting their former arch-enemies. They are already suspicious that the smooth-talking Notting Hill set is full of closet lefties and now their worst nightmares seem to be coming true.

It's a crazy and confusing world and no one knows where anyone stands any more. George Orwell's 1984 comes to mind. Is Oceania at war with Eurasia or Eastasia today? Unsurprisingly, in this febrile climate, there's a fair amount of mutual suspicion. And a lot of pressure on the respective leaders. Clegg has been told privately by his supporters to keep his options open and not rule out the possibility of a deal with Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the timing of his intervention yesterday. By announcing his resignation, but being vague about the timing, he leaves every potential option on the table. A government led by him until the autumn. A government led by someone else perhaps. Either way, immediate legislation for a pretty poor electoral system called AV, with no referendum required. And a later referendum on a proportional system favoured by the Lib Dems.

I think the markets will now become genuinely twitchy. Clegg doesn't know which side his bread is buttered on and he's beginning to look like an indecisive wimp. The Lib Dem leader isn't great at gravitas and his nerves are beginning to show.

The most likely option, in my opinion, is still a minority Tory government trying to face down the numerically superior opposition in parliament. This is the strategy favoured by Norman Tebbit. Thankfully, it's also the one that will do Labour the most favours in the longer term.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The best options for Labour

Sometimes in politics, the worst option in the short term proves to be the best in the long run. Gordon Brown is an intelligent man and he must be pondering this point right now.

Let's say that David Cameron and Nick Clegg fail to reach an agreement. The main obstacles will be opposition from within their respective parties, rather than any lack of pragmatism on the part of the leaders. It's possible something temporary may be cobbled together, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Gordon Brown's offer to Clegg is still on the table. An immediate referendum on PR in exchange for support in Parliament. Sounds good in theory and it could lead to the 'progressive' anti-Tory coalition that many on the centre-left have championed for generations. But there is a fundamental problem which goes way beyond the inadequate arithmetic of the Lib-Lab deal in Parliament.

An attempt by the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in power is not an option, because there is just as much an anti-Brown sentiment in the country as there is an anti-Tory one. If he were to cling on at Downing Street in the short-term it would do unimaginable damage to Labour over the coming years. He has to accept defeat gracefully and allow party members to elect a new leader, such as David Miliband.

Miliband - or whoever replaces Brown - cannot become Prime Minister immediately, because such an outcome would be utterly unacceptable to the general public. We thought we were choosing between three presidential candidates who paraded before us on the television. To be lumbered with someone, however able, who wasn't on offer previously would confirm everyone's worst suspicions about the political process. What's more, it would undermine the case for electoral reform that the new Lib-Lab coalition would presumably be making to the country. People would say that if the horse-trading under first-past-the-post produced such a perverse outcome, wouldn't the deals under PR prove far worse?

This leaves only one favourable option for the Labour Party. Allow the Tories to form a minority government and watch as they stumble from crisis to crisis. George Osborne will, of course, be hopelessly out of his depth. Cameron will be left cosying up to the DUP in Northern Ireland and forming ragtag and bobtail coalitions on an ad hoc basis to get his legislation through. We could be pretty sure that the more extreme elements of the Conservative manifesto would remain unimplemented.

Meanwhile, Labour would elect a new leader in an open contest. And this person would lay the ground for a victory in the next general election - almost certainly within the next six to eighteen months.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The cold light of day

After some sleep, a beef sandwich and some coffee, I'm now turning my mind back to the general election.

Looking at the coverage on the BBC this morning, I think it's very clear that the door is open to a Conservative-Lib Dem agreement of some sort. Clegg is not prepared to prop up Gordon Brown, recognising that Labour has been rejected and that such an arrangement would be unacceptable to the public. This may be bloody-mindedness on Clegg's part, as Brown is far more likely to give him the kind of concessions he wants, but the Lib Dem leader probably knows that he can't keep the dour Scotsman in power. And it's very difficult to tell the public that a new Labour leader - David Milliband, perhaps - has emerged in a puff of smoke. The cerebral Foreign Secretary didn't take part in the three-way presidential debates.

There are two major obstacles to the Conservative-Lib Dem scenario and neither of them is David Cameron. The first is constitutional. In theory, Gordon Brown should have first crack of the whip when it comes to forming a government. (In reality, I think it's constitution constischmution. The Labour PM can have the right to form a government in theory, but it remains academic if there are no options on the table.)

The second obstacle is more fundamental though. Many senior Conservatives were frustrated with Cameron's campaign and never bought into his soft soap politics. Their knives are out. What's more, many of them are fundamentally opposed to any form of proportional representation.

Lots of fun and games to come.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Lib Dems may still hold the key

Although it seems as if the Lib Dems haven't done as well as we might expect in this election, they still may play a critical part in deciding whether David Cameron is able to command an overall majority. It seems as if the Tories are achieving some very strong swings against Labour in the north-east of England and London. They are struggling, however, against the Liberal Democrats in the south-west. Every target seat they fail to take from the Liberals needs to be replaced by a Labour seat - perhaps one that they had less expectation of winning originally.

My feeling at this stage in the evening - about 1.45 am - is still that we shall see a small overall Tory majority. But things are complicated.

It ain't over until we see the fat lady

What can we conclude so far? The BBC exit poll points to a hung parliament, but I have a strong hunch the Tories may end up doing better than the instant predictions. The swings against Labour in safe seats in the north-east are very striking - particularly given David Cameron's recent pronouncements about how public money is likely to be drained from this part of the world.

Another early story is the fact that significant numbers of people have been denied the right to vote in Sheffield, Manchester and East London. This situation has led to a public protest in Hackney, with disenfranchised members of the public holding a spontaneous sit-in. Without a doubt, some of the results may be open to legal challenge and this could prove significant if the final number of seats is finely balanced.

We have a long night ahead of us

Friday, 30 April 2010

E-Day minus six

Probably the greatest speech I ever heard was delivered by Tony Blair just after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The party conference was taking place in Brighton that September and we met in a frenzied and anxious climate. Police with sub-machine guns checked delegates in and out of the secure areas and an air exclusion zone was in place over head. Amid the turmoil and shadow of indiscriminate terrorist violence, Blair was lucid, inspirational and visionary. His eloquence stood in stark contrast to the bumbling incoherence of his counterpart across the Atlantic, George W Bush.

A lady sitting alongside me in the conference hall was clearly moved by Blair’s oratory. She confided that she wasn’t a fan of the Labour leader and often disagreed with him politically. But when he spoke, she always found herself pulled at an emotional level. Against her better judgement, she ended up applauding.

This ability to inspire and galvanise others has nothing whatever to do with the speaker's political persuasion or the nature of their policies. It is a magic that can be used in a thoroughly manipulative and sinister way by a dictator or demagogue. Equally, it can motivate large numbers of people to do a great deal of good or accept the necessity of change.

Barack Obama has this magic, for instance. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had it too, by the bucketload. In the UK, Blair and Thatcher are the obvious examples. Politicians with a charisma and presence that transcends the political divide and reaches out to unexpected audiences.

Gordon Brown doesn’t have the magic. He never has. His appeal, in fact, has never extended beyond his natural political constituency. While he could quite happily survive as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ under Blair, he has been grievously exposed since the former premier disappeared to pursue his career as speechmaker, academic and Middle Eastern peace envoy.

His weaknesses are well documented, of course. The notorious temper. The willingness to blame others for disappointments or problems. It’s only now, however, that we can see why Blair was so desperate to cling on to power for as long as he did. During the election campaign, Brown has revealed a desperate insecurity, most notably in the so-called ‘Bigotgate’ incident, in which he said nasty things about pensioner behind her back. Having handled his initial encounter with the old lady perfectly well, he then became a bundle of nerves in his waiting car. The conversation had been a ‘disaster’ and would no doubt be used by the media to undermine his campaign.

Thoroughly shaken up and humiliated by his return visit to home of the voter at the centre of the row, my guess is that he spent the next 24 hours churning over the events in his mind. When he appeared in the final of the televised debates, we saw a man who seemed to be at the end of his tether and certainly at the end of his tenure. Someone who needed a lie-down and a break from politics. Cameron scored points when he described Brown as looking desperate. The tragedy for the UK is that Brown’s message about the risks posed by the Tory leader and his would-be Chancellor George Osborne are entirely correct. The fragile recovery is indeed likely to be jeopardised by their proposed policies. No one, however, is listening. Brown is the wrong man to deliver the message. He also seems to be jinxed. This morning, while he was making an open-air speech, a car crashed nearby, temporarily distracting the attention of journalists, police officers and passers-by. The metaphorical significance wasn’t lost on the press pack.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party missed some truly golden opportunities to unseat Brown – the most obvious being the aftermath of last year’s dismal Euro elections. The party and its leader made their political bed together and they are tucked in as tight as a pair of doomed lovers under the swaddling blanket of a Blackpool B&B.

So where do we go from here? Cameron doesn’t have the magic either. If he did, he’d be 10 or 15 points ahead of Brown. The reality is that the public hasn’t bought into the new-look Conservative Party or its old Etonian mouthpiece. Nick Clegg has taken as much advantage of this fact as his sprinkling of talent and the current electoral system allow. All of which leaves us in a very extraordinary position with less than a week to go until the big day.

My calculation is that Brown’s microphone moment tipped the balance just slightly towards Cameron. It’s not that Labour voters will jump ship to the Tories, but a few will be less inclined to turn out in some of the key marginal seats. We also know that Conservative support tends to be underestimated in polls because people are embarrassed to admit that they’re voting for the party. We can therefore assume that Cameron is perhaps good for another couple of per cent on top of his headline poll figures.

It’s difficult to make any firm prediction, but here’s my hunch. Cameron will get a very small overall majority. I think he will gain slightly in the final polls as we countdown towards next Thursday and squeeze out an extra, hidden vote on the day itself. The mathematical calculations are difficult for him, the system weighted against the Tories and the challenge pretty daunting. I do, however, think we ought to be looking beyond the hung parliament scenario towards another possibility: a Conservative government without much authority or mandate, struggling to win every vote in the House of Commons and dreading every potential by-election. Think John Major in the final death throes of his disastrous government. Or Harold Wilson back in the mid-1970s.

I doubt Cameron has any real game plan for this situation. But then he probably doesn’t have much of a game plan for any situation. His supporters will settle for him making it to 10 Downing Street. With a fearsome austerity package on the horizon, the Eurozone potentially imploding and another financial crisis looming, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Who'd want to be a bookie?

My prediction for the forthcoming general election in the UK is that pretty much anything can happen at this stage. It’s probably worth taking a punt at Ladbrokes on some particularly far-fetched scenario. Having been involved at some level in all the campaigns between 1983 and 2001 – twice as a parliamentary candidate – I can honestly say this one has all the predictability of that ash-blowing volcano in the south of Iceland.

Although I personally hope for the return of a majority Labour government, I think we can safely say this is the one thing that’s not going to happen. Labour had a couple of clear opportunities to dump Gordon Brown, but failed to take them. This will prove to be a historic error of judgement. I fear the very best Labour can hope for at this stage is to end up as the largest party in a hung parliament. Even then, it may be that this status will be bestowed upon them through a bankrupt electoral system which theoretically allows a party which comes third in the popular vote to form a government.

Imagine the scenario suggested by some recent polls of Labour receiving a vote of around 28% and the Lib Dems running the Tories neck-and-neck in the low thirties. Because of the concentration of Labour votes, Brown could end up with more MPs than David Cameron and a great many more than Nick Clegg. The more I ponder it, the more I believe that this is exactly the result the country needs.

Think about it. Cameron – a well-meaning toff, peddling a pretty vacuous ideology – would be put firmly in his place. The Tories, having believed the election was there for the taking, would probably turn in on themselves. The right-wingers, who have been biting their tongues while their leader does the washing up with Ecover and fumbles through interviews on gay rights, will have their day. They’ll say the Notting Hill set around Cameron and Osborne pursued an experiment which ultimately ended in failure.

The Lib Dems would be buoyed by a spectacular performance and be an extremely strong bargaining position, no matter how many seats they’d won. The promise of a breakthrough, which David Steel and David Owen never managed to deliver, would have come out of the blue through a cult of personality fostered by our first-ever TV debates.

Labour would quickly say goodbye to Brown. He wouldn’t go gracefully, of course, if he’d won the largest number of seats in parliament, but his position would be completely untenable. Although it’s possible that the party might make the wrong choice of a replacement (Harriet Harman is popular with trade unionists and constituency activists), they would also have an opportunity to start afresh with David Miliband.

And the one thing that no party would be able to resist at this stage would be some kind of meaningful electoral reform. If a truly perverse result emerged, the public would suddenly take an interest in a subject that has previously been an arcane conversational topic at Hampstead dinner parties. Particularly following the expenses scandal, no one would accept the idea of Labour forming a government having come third.

One of the things that’s often forgotten in the discussion about a hung parliament is that the Lib Dems aren’t the only players. Remember how Ulster Unionists helped to keep John Major’s pathetic excuse for a government clinging on to power in the 1990s? I suspect the DUP might exert some influence again during a particularly volatile period in which dissident Republican groups have resumed a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland.

And perhaps it could go down to the wire? What if a Green MP is elected in Brighton? Not beyond the realms of possibility. Or how about Thirsk and Malton? This newly-created seat will hold its poll on 27th May following the recent death of the UKIP candidate John Boakes. It’s notionally a safe Tory constituency, but in a finely balanced parliament, maybe it will be fought as a highly significant by-election.

Truly now, anything’s possible. Peter Kellner – a pretty sober polling pundit –recently put the odds on a Nick Clegg premiership at about 10-1. Unlikely, to be sure. But, as he pointed out, people have scooped prizes from longer odds at the racecourse.

Phil Woodford was Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Epsom & Ewell in 1997 and Kingston & Surbiton in 2001.