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 K√∂nigswinter 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.