Sunday, 27 December 2015

Why the confrontation with Corbyn can't wait

With every passing month, Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the top of the Labour Party is becoming further entrenched. His minders promise a purge of dissenters early in 2016 and they propose ‘consultations’ on policy which will not just be restricted to long-standing members, but will also involve anyone who has paid a few quid and signed up on a whim to support Corbyn’s far-left platform. 

Many of these newbies follow their leader with a religious fervour and are impervious to rational argument. They openly dismiss the concrete polling evidence that shows JC’s elevation to be an unmitigated disaster. I even had a discussion with one fan recently in which he seriously argued I should ignore the polls and look instead at how quickly Corbyn merchandise was selling online.

There are many Labour moderates who caution against precipitous action. Why mount a coup d’├ętat which is more than likely to fail?  Wouldn’t it be better to bide our time and let the Corbynistas see the error of their ways? Perhaps we should wait until defeat in 2020? At that stage, it will be obvious to everybody what a tragic mistake was made in the autumn of 2015.

It’s a beguiling argument, but one that is riddled with holes. 

First of all, untold damage will be done to the Labour Party’s reputation over the next few years if Corbyn remains in charge. We have the forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU, the ongoing debate about how best to take the fight to IS and the whole climate of retrenchment and cuts in the public sector under Cameron and Osborne. Labour needs to have something serious to say on these issues and a leader credible enough to deliver the message.

Second, the defeat when it comes in 2020 will be of catastrophic proportions. I feel its extent is underestimated today, even by those who have no time for Corbyn and his sidekick John McDonnell.  Looking at the current polling data (which is probably artificially boosting Labour numbers), I think it quite likely that the party will fall below the 25% barrier. If that happens, the prospects will already be fairly bleak for 2025, regardless of who takes over the leadership.

Third, the narrative from the Corbyn left will be one of betrayal.  Labour’s failure will not have anything to do with their beloved guru, but will have been the result of the fiendish attacks of the capitalist press and the treacherous behaviour of ‘red Tories’ within the party.  Our Jez was never given a proper chance, they will bleat disingenuously.  

So we can play the waiting game and find that we have enveloped ourselves in blanket of delusion. Every month that Corbyn remains unchallenged is a month in which he remodels the party to support his own interests and consolidate his power base. The danger is that we look back on the early months of 2016 and realise we missed a vital opportunity. Perhaps our only opportunity. 

One interesting option might be for the PLP to elect its own leader, signalling its independence from the grip of the party machine.  The Corbynistas would shriek in outrage, but would have few levers to pull. Although they may still command a majority among the members and pseudo-members, the reality is that the frontline political message of the Labour Party is carried to the media and the public by parliamentarians.

An alternative is a strategy of non-cooperation with the leadership. This means a mass resignation of all moderate forces in the current shadow cabinet and from junior shadow ministerial appointments.  While Corbyn might well be able to pick off individuals such as Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn, he would be seriously challenged to find credible people to fill a whole load of empty seats.

A likely criticism of these suggestions is they lack a real game plan. What is supposed to happen as a result of any action taken by the PLP?  Is Corbyn meant to cave in and call it a day?  It seems highly unlikely.  And even if he did, would he not simply put himself up for re-election again?  While some members will no doubt regret their decision to back him in the summer, the likelihood is that he could once again carry a majority.

I don’t disagree with any of this. If it did come to another leadership election, there would need to be a strong, impressive candidate to take Corbyn on. Someone who attacked his extremist policy positions from the outset and who had the credibility the erstwhile contenders lacked. A figure such as Alan Johnson perhaps. Or Tom Watson, the man who managed to achieve his own mandate as the party’s deputy leader.  But I fully accept that this seems a little pie in the sky.

Ultimately, the challenge must happen anyway, regardless of the prospects of success. Why? Because Labour is a party with a proud history, dating from the very start of the twentieth century. It was created to represent the interests of ordinary working people who wanted a better life, not the ideological agenda of activists. Never has the disconnect between the membership and ordinary Labour voters been so catastrophically large.  So our fight is for the people who rely on the Labour Party rather than the people who comprise its membership.

If the confrontation with Corbyn fails, we walk away. There is a new party and a fresh start. But at least the process of recovery and renaissance can begin. Delay may prove deadly.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Corbyn... the nuclear option

Amid the turmoil in the Labour Party, it seems rather appropriate that this year’s John Lewis Christmas commercial features a confused old man who lives on another planet. If you’ve seen the ad, you’ll know that the gentleman in question is rather out of touch with what’s happening on Earth, although he still hopes to retain some kind of connection with the people who inhabit the place.

On the TV, there’s a happy ending. For Jeremy Corbyn, there most certainly won’t be. The issue is not so much what happens to the MP for Islington North and his sidekick, Chairman Mao. They are destined for political oblivion – perhaps sooner than many people originally imagined. The real question is whether they will manage to destroy the Labour Party in the meantime.

There will undoubtedly be some kind of attempt at a coup in 2016. Some MPs are already opening calling for Corbyn’s resignation just two months after he was elected, so the pressure is only going to become more and more intense. But there’s a big obstacle, as we all know. The Labour electoral system was rightly changed to give members the ultimate say over the leadership.

So, we have a conundrum. MPs can force a contest, but Jeremy will probably win again. Why? Because the membership is hopelessly and catastrophically divorced from the interests, aspirations and political views of the wider electorate. Common sense is off the agenda because of a combination of long-term ‘sleepers’ (left-wingers who kept their heads down during the Blair and Brown era) and an influx of new people who’ve spent the past 10 years slagging the Labour Party off.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a lot of confusion in terms of data and organisation. I ended up unable to vote in the summer, despite having been a member of the party since the 1980s. Some people receive emails requesting their views on Syria and others don’t. I’m not suggesting this division is a reflection of political manipulation. It is, however, a sign that plebiscites and informal surveys have little validity. Are you a three-quid member or a proper member or just someone who signed up to something or other online? Everything is a blur.

While some MPs have been talking to lawyers about the possibility of excluding Jez from any re-run ballot, this would be a perilous route and would rightly lead to accusations that the contest was undemocratic.

Another option is that Corbyn is paid a visit by the men in grey suits. Perhaps the boilersuited men of the trade unions. They have a conversation in which they tell him the game is up. Although they backed him because of his strong stance against austerity and in favour of trade union rights, they could tell him that his sheer incompetence and lack of popularity is proving a disaster for their members.

I do think it’s conceivable there’s a scenario in which Corbyn throws in the towel. But the pressure will have to be relentless and the ultimatum very direct.

But if the Labour Party can’t be rescued from itself, there’s only one other option left. A new party must inevitably be formed.

Of course, there is a reluctance to countenance the idea right now, because our first-past-the-post electoral system argues strongly against it.  In reality though, the schism needn’t necessarily prove catastrophic in the long term. It is arguable that the formation of the SDP in 1981 exposed the lack of support for Michael Foot’s left-wing agenda and led to a reformist era under Neil Kinnock. Ultimately, it paved the way for Labour to become electable once again.

Let’s imagine a situation in which Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of something which is notionally called The Labour Party. A shell of its historic former self, it pursues the 1980s leftist agenda beloved of Corbyn and his friends Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell et al. If left to its own devices, I would see a party of this type perhaps attracting 20% of the popular vote in a general election.

Meanwhile, a mainstream social democratic alternative under the leadership of, say, Chuka Umunna or David Miliband starts to provide a credible and coherent alternative. It speaks up effectively against the ideological agenda of the Tory government, but sounds credible on security, the economy and welfare.

In 2020, I have no doubt that such a split in the Labour Party would lead to a Conservative victory under the current electoral system. But sadly, we have to recognise that a Conservative victory is coming anyway. The question is how the left successfully rebuilds in time for 2025.

The formation of the new party would leave Corbyn vulnerable and ideologically exposed. He’d be left with the name ‘Labour’, but it would now be a label associated only with the Bennite tradition he represents.

It’s difficult to know for certain how events will unfold. But it’s certainly worth getting our telescopes out and looking beyond the next general election.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Perhaps we should give disunity a go?

All the calls for unity after Corbyn’s election victory are completely understandable. It is a truism that divided parties can’t win elections.  The trouble is that united parties with the wrong policies and the wrong leader can’t win elections either.

Unity under Corbyn is a complete charade, particularly within the Parliamentary Labour Party. While the Labour church is notoriously broad, it’s difficult to imagine Presbyterian elders being particularly happy when told the new members of the congregation have chosen to follow the Pope. Pull together, they’re told. We’re all Christians, after all.

Here’s a controversial thought. Might it be that disunity and division are exactly what Labour needs right now?

Let’s cast our minds back to the early 1980s. The left, with its figurehead of Tony Benn, was in the ascendancy in the Labour Party. A conference in January 1981 endorsed the policies of withdrawal from the European Economic Community and unilateral nuclear disarmament. By the end of March, a new party – the SDP – was founded by Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. In 1983, as part of an alliance with the Liberals, they received 25% of the vote - just three points fewer than Labour under the leadership of Michael Foot.

Of course, the first-past-the-post system wasn’t kind to the SDP-Liberal Alliance in terms of seats in Parliament, but they had made their mark. The break from the old model of politics had very clearly demonstrated  the limits of left-wing Labour’s appeal in a system when people had a proper choice. 70% of the electorate opted for political platforms to the right of those advocated by the Party under Foot.

The result of this was the election of Neil Kinnock and a process of modernisation and reform throughout the remainder of the 1980s. It was a long, arduous struggle, as Kinnock had to fight on two fronts. As well as dealing with the new left politics represented by the likes of Corbyn and other Campaign Group MPs, he also had to confront systematic and organised infiltration by Trotskyists.

Kinnock made gradual, incremental change. Although he was never destined to be Prime Minister, the Labour Party owes him a huge debt. While he knew that unity was important, he also realised that there are some important prerequisites for that unity.  What’s more, he understood the compromises that had to be made in order to win the trust of the electorate.

So let’s consider two different scenarios in 2015.

In the first, sullen and resentful Labour MPs sit timidly on the backbenches while Corbyn, the confrontational McDonnell and the completely discredited Burnham pursue an agenda that will lead the Party into electoral oblivion.  Seeing Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda, claim on camera a couple of days ago that he could actually imagine Corbyn winning a general election was one of the most embarrassing pieces of TV I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s amazing how one ludicrously mismanaged election process has managed to rob people of their common sense and sense of irony.

Maybe the centre-ground Labour MPs believe they’ll be able to take pot shots once in a while.  But if they do choose to stick their heads above the parapet at any point, they stand the risk of being deselected by an ever-increasing army of activists and leftists drawn to the Party. (It’s as if the location of a permanent illegal rave has been announced on Facebook. The headbangers will keep on arriving for the next few months, I expect.)

A second scenario is that a handful of brave Parliamentarians forge a new identity and stand up to the Corbynistas. Clearly the core group should include those who have refused to serve in his Shadow Cabinet.  There should be a clear and unequivocal statement of intent: that Labour must remain a party in the political mainstream, committed to Europe, NATO and economic credibility. Now is the time to face down Corbyn and explain that the real Labour Party is rooted in the communities that elect its councillors and MPs, rather than in a self-selected base of leftist activists.

One thing is absolutely certain. The attack on Corbyn must be substantive.  Far too much of the commentary about him so far has been about his unelectability.  While it’s evident that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to see him make it to Downing Street – probably a complete implosion of the Tory Party over Europe and a full-blown economic crisis of the scale of 2008 – we must defeat him intellectually.  As Tony Blair made clear, even if Corbynism were electorally popular, we wouldn’t support it.

Yvette Cooper, to her credit, made an impressive effort at the end of the leadership contest to explain why Corbyn’s economic policies are so misguided.  Quantitative easing is a desperate measure reserved for times of extreme peril, not a policy that can be used when an economy is growing. The costs of renationalising the rail and energy sectors would be crippling, unless we failed to compensate shareholders. And if that happened, the stock market collapse that would follow would put in danger the pensions of the very people Labour tries to represent.

So we must tackle him over the economy, confront him over defence and point out just how out of touch he is with the electorate. What does he really think about EU membership? How is he going to protect us from the terrorist and state threats that menace us around the world?


If we receive no satisfactory response, then the time will have arrived to go our separate ways. In the short-term, Labour will be weakened. But in the long-term, it’s only a vocal challenge from the mainstream left that will pull the Party back once more from the brink.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Seven Corbyn Myths Exploded




As Labour approaches a landmark in its 100-year history with the prospect of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn winning the forthcoming leadership election, it's time to examine and explode some of the myths that have grown up around his campaign. 

MYTH ONE: CORBYN REPRESENTS SOMETHING NEW
To anyone under 30, it must probably seem as if Corbyn is saying something new and radical. After all, his particular brand of leftist rhetoric died a death with Labour’s fourth consecutive election defeat in 1992.  If you’re from the ‘millennial’ generation, it may seem as if Corbyn has emerged from nowhere in puff of smoke, a little like the anti-austerity movement Podemos in Spain. But those of us involved actively in British politics back in the 1980s can confirm that Corbyn was saying all the same things back then. He’s a 45rpm vinyl single, stuck in a groove.  As John Rentoul elegantly put it in a recent article, the Islington North MP has been ‘consistent to a fault in his career’, which is ‘one of the worst things about him’.

MYTH TWO: CORBYN’S BIG RALLIES MEAN HE’S POPULAR
There is a natural constituency in the UK for people who embrace radical politics. Corbyn’s rallies attract young activists, people involved in campaigns and pressure groups, trade unionists and old-school Labour Party ‘sleepers’ who felt excluded in the Blair and Brown era. I wouldn’t be surprised if folk with these kind of overtly left-wing sympathies amount to between 15 and 20% of the total population. It is therefore quite possible to have big, energised rallies that say absolutely nothing about the likelihood of Labour winning a general election. Michael Foot notoriously believed he was doing well in 1983 as minders ushered him from one adoring meeting to another.

MYTH THREE: CORBYN IS PARTICULARLY POPULAR WITH YOUNG PEOPLE
Unsurprisingly, there will always be young people attracted to radical left-wing politics. I can say this with confidence, as I was one of those people who would have given Jeremy Corbyn a hearing myself as a teenager in the middle of the 1980s. Is there some kind of particular upsurge of support right now which represents something new or unusual? When we see young people at his rallies, it’s legitimate and logical to conclude that he does indeed have young supporters. This is rather different from saying that young people as a whole support Corbyn.  If aliens landed in Oxford Street, they might assume that every road in the UK was full of shops and red London buses. But they’d be wrong.

MYTH FOUR: CORBYN HAS ATTRACTED VALUABLE NEW SUPPORTERS TO THE LABOUR PARTY
It seems clear that the large numbers of people signing up to participate in the leadership contest are doing so specifically to vote for Corbyn.  In order to be allowed entry, they have to declare that they are loyal supporters of the Labour Party. Funny, isn’t it, how their loyalty never drove them to make any commitment in the past. Some may well be Tories and Trotskyists, although this is actually not the real issue. More than likely, many of them are people who have spent the past ten years or so badmouthing the Labour Party and denouncing Tony Blair. They are activists, campaigners and former members who wouldn’t have anything to do with Labour in recent years until they saw a chance to sway a critical vote.  The idea of the open primary was actually to attract ordinary members of the public, rather than make ourselves vulnerable to deliberate entryism in favour of specific candidate. The process is completely open to legal challenge.

MYTH FIVE: CORBYN WILL WIN BACK SCOTLAND
Only 4.7% of the UK population voted for the SNP, but the first-past-the-post system has given them a huge landslide in seats north of the border in May. Even if we won back these seats, Labour would still need to win the critical Tory-held marginals in England to form a government. And there is no guarantee whatsoever that Corbyn’s left-wing rhetoric will do the trick anyway. While some SNP voters were undoubtedly swayed by party’s vocal stand against austerity, others were simply expressing their support for nationalism in the wake of the referendum or were protesting against politics as usual. It’s not entirely clear why they would revert to voting Labour because of Corbyn’s election.

MYTH SIX: CORBYN’S ECONOMIC POLICIES ARE COMMON SENSE
There is a legitimate intellectual case against the politics of ‘austerity’ pursued by the Conservative government, which is why many respectable economists are prepared to endorse an end to the programme. But as Yvette Cooper has pointed out, Corbyn’s money-printing ‘quantitative easing’ strategy is certainly not what Keynes would recommend as an economy grew. The costs of renationalisation of the railways and energy companies would be astronomical unless the intention is to offer no compensation to shareholders. And when it comes to industrial policy, Corbyn has proposed the outlandish idea that we might start re-opening coal mines. He is stuck thirty or forty years in the past and would come into immediate conflict with the reality of modern globalised markets.

MYTH SEVEN: CORBYN HAS A FUTURE AS LABOUR LEADER
Although there is much talk of unity and pulling together whatever the result, Labour simply cannot carry on with Corbyn as leader and be a credible party of government. First of all, there might well be a legal challenge to the result. If he survived this, then some MPs talk about giving him a year or two, rather than challenging him straight away. Really? A year in which we debate military action in Syria against ISIS? A year in which the campaign on the EU referendum takes place? A year in which the immigration crisis in Europe comes to a head? Even people who admire Corbyn’s stand against austerity know that he would be incapable of offering any credible leadership in these key areas of European and foreign policy. My prediction is that there will have to be a quick challenge or there will be a schism at least on the scale of the 1981 SDP defections.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The summer Labour lost its marbles

This is officially a summer of madness. It may well be remembered as the period in which the Labour Party buried any chance of even remaining a credible opposition, let alone a future party of government.

After the defeat in May, there was an opportunity for some real soul-searching. Instead, we were plunged straight into a leadership contest. To the delight of many, Chuka Umunna – the highly credible MP for Streatham – announced he would stand. Within three days, however, he’d withdrawn from the race, citing undue levels of media intrusion on his family.

This was the moment the madness first set in. The obvious candidate was gone and we were left with a field few can genuinely claim to find very inspiring.

Andy Burnham, the dapper former Health Secretary, who plays on his Liverpudlian roots rather than his education at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, seems to swing left and right according to the prevailing wind.

His most revealing admission during the campaign came during a speech in Dublin, in which he claimed that the 2015 Labour manifesto was the best of those he’d seen in the four elections he’d contested. Bafflingly crazy. The manifesto which sent Labour to its most disastrous defeat in a generation was better than the ones that had helped Blair to win in 2001 and 2005? You couldn’t make it up.

Yvette Cooper hasn’t committed any serious faux pas, as far as I can tell. But her close personal and political associations with Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown are the very last thing that Labour needs.  Hers is the steady-as-she-goes, one-more-heave, don’t-rock-the-boat campaign. But the boat has already been severely rocked and is taking in alarming quantities of water.

Liz Kendall is the candidate I most admire. She’s asking difficult questions and providing answers that challenge many long-standing shibboleths of the Labour Party. For her bravery, she’s denounced on social media as a ‘Tory’ and seems, unfortunately, to making little headway.

And then there’s Jeremy Corbyn. He’s only in the contest because of another moment of madness. At the very last minute, when the call for candidates was about to close, some Labour MPs chose to ‘lend’ their nominations to the veteran left-winger in the misguided belief that his voice needed to be heard. David Lammy and Sadiq Khan – both of whom claim to be serious candidates for London Mayor – were just two examples of lawmakers who exhibited an incredible naivety.

By this point, acting Labour Leader Harriet Harman had already extended the franchise to pretty much Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Individual union members. The general public. Any Tory who can afford £3 and make a convincing case that they are voting in the best interests of Labour. The result? A dog’s dinner of a contest in which pretty much anything could happen.

Where will the madness lead us? There are two particularly frightening scenarios.

The first – and most likely – is that Andy Burnham wins, but that Jeremy Corbyn runs him a close second. Burnham will then be under immediate pressure from the left, while the Tories will be in their element. They will relentlessly use Corbyn’s level of support as a stick with which to beat the Labour Party. ‘While you claim to be moderate,’ they will say, ‘just look at how the votes piled up for an old-style 80s socialist.’

The second possibility is one which even a few weeks ago no one took remotely seriously. What if Corbyn actually won? What if Britain’s answer to Alexis Tsiprias and Yanis Varoufakis (minus the good looks, academic qualifications and fashion sense), actually clawed his way to the top?

People are discussing this dystopian vision of Labour’s future sotto voce and there are some rather spurious polls which suggest that he may be ahead by quite a margin.

The repercussions would be immense and immediate.

There is no question in my mind that there would be a schism on a scale not seen since the breakaway by the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ in 1981 to form the SDP. Parliamentarians and ordinary members would leave Labour in droves to form an alternative power base. Corbyn would find himself in charge of some kind of Socialist Truth Society, which would draw in disillusioned leftists, former Green voters, Trotskyists and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam.

My feeling is that this rump Labour Party could command maybe 20% of the national vote and would be strong enough under first-past-the-post to have a reasonable representation in Parliament. But it would never be a party that would form a government. The alternative party of the centre-left, which we could perhaps imagine being led by a mainstream Labour politician, would possibly manage 15 or 20% of the vote itself – appealing to a base of progressive, aspirational voters in the Midlands, London and the South East.

You don’t need a PhD in psephology to realise that this set of circumstances would be an unmitigated disaster and a recipe for near permanent Tory government. It would be history repeating itself in the craziest of ways. As if we’d learnt nothing from the experiences of the 1980s. We’d probably even have the spectacle of the newly-formed breakaway party reaching out to the Liberal Democrats, with a view to forming some kind of alliance.

But the madness doesn’t end there. We have the referendum on membership of the European Union coming up within the next couple of years. In the past couple of weeks, there has been a growing sentiment on the left – from commentators such as George Monbiot and Owen Jones through to union baron Len McCluskey – that progressives should vote against staying in the EU.

This is truly the world turned upside down. Vote against the EU? We’re talking about an institution which, for all its faults, has reinforced workplace protection, imposed higher environment standards, protected consumers and acted as a champion of human rights. We would vote against being a part of this multinational institution at a time when all the most pressing issues we face – on the financial sector, the environment and terrorism – are only ones that we can tackle internationally?

So what exactly is going on during this insane summer season?  As the Mad Hatter asked Alice, ‘have you guessed the riddle yet?’

What’s the answer? I don’t think any of us have the slightest idea.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Five quick lessons Labour needs to learn

After the catastrophic defeat in the 2015 General Election, Labour will inevitably go through a long period of soul searching. Here are my first five thoughts on the lessons the Party needs to learn:

1.     THE GROUND WAR ISN’T EVERYTHING

We’ve heard for many years from organisers and some academics about the importance of the so-called ‘ground war’. According to their argument, it's flooding areas with activists that wins elections. Unfortunately, if the ‘air war’ is badly conducted, your ground offensive is unlikely to succeed. Labour failed to win key seats in which it had a strong presence. 

2.      YOU NEED A STORY TO WIN

In the jargon of political pundits, Labour needs a ‘narrative’. The Tories had one about the supposed success of their economic plan and how this would be put at risk by an alliance of Miliband and Sturgeon. Labour’s weak response was to say it had a ‘better plan’. They were framing the Labour message in the light of the Tory one.

3.      IT’S IMPORTANT TO ACCEPT PEOPLE AS THEY ARE

Alan Johnson has been talking about how Blair understood people’s aspirations. Nick Cohen has made the interesting – and allied point – that too many Labour people tend to look down its nose at the English, resenting their prejudices and ignorance. It doesn’t play well. In politics, you need to work with people rather than against them.

4.      LISTEN TO THE FOCUS GROUPS

The pink bus and stone plinth would never have survived any kind of consumer testing. There can only be two conclusions: no one bothered to ask a selection of voters what they thought of the ideas, or – worse still – the voters were asked, but Labour ignored what they said.

5.      YOU CAN’T TELL PEOPLE THEY’RE WRONG

Some people point to the moment in the debates when Ed Miliband told the audience that Labour hadn’t spent too much in their previous administration. It was a claim met with derision. If you want to challenge people’s perceptions and convert them to an objective truth, the process takes years. You can’t change their minds in the heat of a campaign or simply tell them they don’t understand.






Friday, 8 May 2015

Shed no tears for the Liberal Democrats

Yesterday, a rather desperate canvasser came knocking on my door in the outskirts of London. My Labour poster had obviously not done enough to deter this beleaguered emissary of the former Business Secretary, Vince Cable. In fact, it seems that showing my colours may actually have acted as something of a magnet to the Lib Dems. Just a day or two before, I’d had a leaflet spinning the rather unlikely story that The Daily Mirror was advising me to vote for Cable. I’d also had a letter from the Cabinet Minister telling me how much he understood my desire to get rid of the Tories.

Today, Labour and Green supporters in this leafy suburban constituency may be wondering if they did the right thing. They’ll see that Dr Tania Matthias – a GP in the NHS, who must surely need treatment for the cognitive dissonance associated with supporting the Conservatives – has swept Dr Cable aside.

As we pick up the pieces the morning after the night before, it’s quite natural to ask whether we perhaps should have voted tactically and saved Cable’s skin. My answer is a categorical no.

I’ve always been impressed with my dealings with the guy at a personal level. He is incredibly bright and has a razor-sharp memory for detail. On a couple of occasions, he stepped in to help with quite difficult issues and made representations on our behalf. I couldn’t fault his work as a constituency MP.

At the 2010 election, however, he told Labour voters to support him to keep the Tories out in Twickenham – a call echoed by his colleagues in other local seats such as Kingston & Surbiton and Sutton & Cheam. Many natural Labour supporters gritted their teeth and did what they were told. Cable then jumped into the bed with the very Tories he had denounced.

Five years go by. Five years in which the use of food banks has increased hugely, while the public has been fed a dubious diet of austerity. And then Cable has the nerve – the barefaced and unashamed cheek – to come back to me and say I should vote for him because he’s the only man who can beat the Tories.

I may be desperate, but I’m not signing up to join the cast of the Muppets. Cable is a bright man, but he insults the intelligence of his constituents with his opportunism and lack of principle. The Liberal Democrats have been utterly decimated in the 2015 general election, but they have only themselves to blame.
   

  

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The semantics of electioneering

Living in what the Tories consider to be a marginal constituency is a bit of a nightmare. I am bombarded with propaganda from their candidate Tania Mathias, who insists on using her title 'Dr' in all communications - probably because her rival, Vince Cable, has a PhD in economics. (I'll hang on to the leaflet, just in case I'm ever forced to change my family GP and need to draw up a list of local practices to avoid.)

The rhetoric is now becoming more and more strident. Let's just dissect this wonderful paragraph which sits under a picture of the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg.

"This year's General Election is not like last time - polls are showing the Lib Dems are set to lose many of their seats, which means this time you can't vote Lib Dem in Twickenham and expect to get David Cameron as Prime Minister. You'll risk getting the chaos of Ed Miliband propped up by the SNP - with Alex Salmond calling the shots."

Forget for a moment that Miliband has categorically ruled out any deals with the SNP and certainly will have nothing to do with any formal coalition. Look at the first, rather unwieldy, sentence. I love the implication that last time around, people might have been voting for Vince Cable expecting to get David Cameron. In fact, they voted for Cable because he claimed that he was against Cameron! It's hard to imagine that any of his supporters anticipated the veteran MP would jump so readily into bed with the Tories.

Of course, what the Conservatives actually mean here is that this time around, people might think they can vote for Vince Cable and keep David Cameron at No 10. Dr Tania fears a groundswell of opinion that says that Cable is a good constituency MP (which he is) and that we can hang on to him, while keeping the Bullingdon Club boys in charge nationally. To me her message smacks of desperation, but perhaps it strikes some kind of chord in mansions on Richmond Hill.

One of the funniest aspects of both the Lib Dem and Tory election leaflets is the deliberate attempt to anonymise the rival candidate. The headline above the picture here reads: "Don't risk Britain's future by voting for Nick Clegg's candidate." Would that be the unknown, untested Lib Dem novice the party has decided to field? Or would it be the guy who is currently Business Secretary in the Doc's coalition government?

The Lib Dems, of course, do the same thing in reverse. They tell us that the choice is between Vince Cable and the Tory. No mention of Tania or her medical credentials.

This is warming up to be a humdinger of a campaign.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Can anything save us from this constitutional car crash?

The latest predictions from The Guardian for the outcome of the UK general election will occupy the dreams of political scientists and the nightmares of politicians. The figures speak of a constitutional crisis. A stalemate in which a most unlikely coalition would need to be formed in order to produce a majority government.

If these numbers were reflected in the poll on May 7th, the only mathematically plausible option is for Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to forge a three-way alliance.

The disgraced former minister Chris Huhne rightly points out that the fixed-term parliaments may tend to favour coalition rather than minority government. But that presupposes there really is a workable coalition. I see this ScotLibLab pact as being something that might possibly be agreed on paper out of desperation, but which would be inherently unstable from hour one. Trident, tuition fees, the history of recent animosity. It’s a recipe for absolute chaos.

Of course, it’s the SNP who have put the marauding, predatory cat among the puffed-up pigeons of the London establishment. Who would have thought that a referendum which the nationalists lost would subsequently give them the whip hand at Westminster? But in The Guardian’s poll, it is they who will prevent Labour from having the automatic claim to form a government and make a mockery of the complacency too many in the Labour hierarchy had about the benefits of the electoral system.

The position of all the party leaders is extremely precarious. If Cameron fails to win an overall majority for the Tories, I really think he is history. There are too many right-wingers who see his coalition government as weak-willed and unnecessary. They have been biting their tongues to a certain extent, but will sink their teeth elsewhere after the election.

The Labour Party will be kinder to Miliband, but only if he succeeds in making Labour the largest force in Parliament. Unfortunately, thanks to the SNP, The Guardian predicts that he won’t even manage that. He will survive only as long as he is a credible contender for Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg might cling on to his tightly-fought seat of Sheffield Hallam, although there are people who understandably pray for a student revolution and a ‘Portillo moment’.

If we imagine he survives, he’ll have more MPs than some people suppose. That’s because the Lib Dems (despite their long-standing support for electoral reform) have played the first-past-the-post system very well and have entrenched their vote in some key constituencies. In my own area, I imagine that Vince Cable will survive, for example, even though the Tories control the local council and are hopeful of ousting him.

But Clegg will be a busted flush. The Lib Dems will know he’s poison when it comes to any negotiations with Labour and the SNP, so a third coup d’├ętat is surely in the offing.

Of course, there is a lot of water to flow under Westminster Bridge. Slight fluctuations in the percentage figures could shift the arithmetical balance. All it might take is a relatively small thing that moves the polls by a couple of points. A particularly strong or weak performance in the election debates, for instance, assuming they go ahead. Or a policy initiative that has some genuine stand-out value.

Peter Kellner of YouGov said today that he feels the Labour pledge to cut tuition fees to £6,000 could potentially swing the vote Miliband’s way in nine constituencies. Under normal circumstances, this might be hardly worth the effort. But in 2015, who knows?

Miliband did well, I thought, on the latest cash-for-access scandal. Despite former Jack Straw’s involvement alongside Malcolm Rifkind, the Labour leader managed to turn it into a here-and-now question: do we stop outside interests or don’t we? As a result, Cameron was left bleating unconvincingly about people running family businesses and looking hopelessly out of touch with the public mood.

Will issues of parliamentary probity make a difference? Or do the electors already think ‘a plague on all your houses’? The attack on tax avoidance didn’t seem to land a killer punch.

My feeling is that in the final weeks of the campaign, each of the two major party leaders will be looking for that tiny piece of good fortune that will make a difference of 10 or 15 or 20 seats. If it proves elusive, Labour and the Tories will retreat into their well-established comfort zones of the NHS and the economy respectively. May 7th will roll around and we’ll be in for a very rocky ride.