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Showing posts from 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 Mast…

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 ele…

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…

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 d…

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…

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 coll…

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 o…

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-goo…

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 p…

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 hospit…

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 Benne…

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 be…

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…

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 thei…

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 ant…

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, Gordo…

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

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 spe…

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…