Archive | 2008

Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

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Beware hubris (7 November 2008)

Posted on 07 November 2008 by admin

Glenrothes was a triumph for Labour. But to call a general election now would be folly

Labour’s win in Glenrothes is astonishing, all the more so for being so unexpected. The Scottish National Party were confident and Labour nervous even as the polls closed.

There are several ways in which this election was extremely good for Labour. The party not only increased its share of the vote, a rare enough feat for a party in government, particularly in a seat it already holds. Labour’s share of the vote increased by 3.2 percentage points. But it actually polled a few hundred more votes in absolute terms than it did in 2005, because there was only a small fall in turnout. There is simply no way of spinning that into anything other than a triumph.

The swing to the SNP was kept down to 5% in Glenrothes, even though in campaigning terms the party had thrown the kitchen sink at the constituency. A 5% swing might sound a reasonable result for the SNP until one looks at the party’s record in byelections. While the 22.6% swing in Glasgow East earlier this year was very high, 10% is usual. In contests between Labour and the SNP, there is a double-digit swing more or less whatever the political circumstances. This happened in Livingston in 2005, Paisley South in 1997, the two Paisley elections in 1990 and Falkirk West in 2000. The only previous occasion in recent years that the SNP has fallen short of a 10% swing in a two-party contest for a Labour seat was in Glasgow Anniesland, following the death of Donald Dewar in 2000. There are some similarities between that contest and this – it took place at almost exactly the same point in the parliament, during a Labour recovery from a low point (although 2000′s nadir around the fuel crisis was shallow and very short in comparison to the recent trough), and was prompted by the death of a well-respected local MP.

Another historical parallel reaches back a little further. The SNP dominated Scottish politics in the mid-1970s, surging in the two 1974 elections and scoring some impressive results in the 1977 district council elections, although the supply of byelections had dried up. When two Labour seats fell vacant in 1978, at Glasgow Garscadden and then at Hamilton, the SNP contested them vigorously but Labour easily fought off the competition, electing Donald Dewar and George Robertson to parliament.

While Glenrothes was an extremely good result for Labour, and for Gordon Brown, Labour should not be tempted by a quick general election. The campaign focused on the shortcomings of the SNP-run Fife council, which effectively put the SNP candidate and council leader Peter Grant on the defensive. A general election would focus discontent at the national level.

Fife also has a particular regard for Gordon Brown, a a local MP, and for people like Glenrothes’ new MP, Lindsay Roy. The result is extremely satisfying for him, and also for Sarah Brown – who seems to have decided after her turn at the party conference that she has a taste for political campaigning. However, it is fair to say that Fife’s warmth for the PM still runs ahead of the nation’s, even though Brown has recovered a lot of ground during the financial crisis.

While Fife council bore the brunt of the SNP’s new found and uncomfortable accountability, the Scottish government cannot escape some damage. While Alex Salmond’s government is not unpopular, exactly, the gloss has come off and the voters are in a more questioning mood about what it has delivered and where it is taking Scotland. For Salmond himself, there will be momentary embarrassment at having predicted an SNP victory and come a cropper, but confidence and swagger are part of his political persona and he can absorb being proved wrong every now and then.

The byelection, crucially, said nothing about how competitive the Conservatives are in their target seats in England and Wales, although it was more evidence that the Liberal Democrats’ strong vote in Scotland in 2005 will not be repeated next time. To call a general election now, when it is cold, dark and wet, the mood of the country is apprehensive, and the extent of Labour’s national recovery remains uncertain, would be folly. There is time to wait and see if the national polls improve further before the next feasible election date comes round in spring 2009. Labour should celebrate Glenrothes, and the palpable turning of the tide, but keep cool and not let election speculation run out of control, as they did in September 2007. Glenrothes reminded us that a Labour win at the election is possible (particularly if one counts being the largest party in a hung parliament as a win), but that is not to say it is probable.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/07/glenrothes-scotland

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

Posted on 03 November 2008 by admin

Labour could win Glenrothes. Even defeat won’t see a nail in Brown’s political coffin

Anyone with a retentive political memory will recall that the Glenrothes byelection is supposed to be the killing blow to Gordon Brown’s ailing premiership, following Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in Glasgow East and the leadership speculation in July. The financial crisis and the conference season have removed this possibility from the agenda. Even another defeat, in this more serious and less frothy political climate, will not lead to Brown’s departure, and in reality it is doubtful that anything short of a truly awful result like a five-figure SNP majority, or third place, would have done so. The constituency is peculiarly unsuitable for a role as a national barometer.

The Glenrothes constituency is on the edge of one of the sharpest social and political divides of any rural area in Britain. Just to the east lies the soft agricultural, almost southern English-looking countryside of North East Fife, and towns such as academic St Andrews and the attractive fishing harbour of Anstruther. Glenrothes is where the rough, scarred landscape of the ex-coalfield of Central/West Fife begins. In East Fife, Menzies Campbell’s constituency, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are the main parties, with the SNP and Labour hardly relevant to the outcome and weak even at local government level. In Glenrothes the positions are reversed, with Labour and SNP dominant and the Lib Dems and Conservatives irrelevant (although they are fighting their own Lilliputian battle for third place). The tough mining towns and villages of Fife have a fierce collective, class-conscious tradition, typified by the Communist MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950, Willie Gallacher. This area is now divided between the Westminster seats of Glenrothes and the Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath seat of the prime minister.

Glenrothes itself is a new town, designed around a short-lived coal mine but reinvented as a centre for communities that would otherwise have died with the exhaustion of the Fife coal seams, a replacement source of employment (in manufacturing and the council’s headquarters) and better housing. In recent years some of the pit villages and new housing around Markinch have attracted Edinburgh commuters, rather as the English new towns have grown into new upmarket suburbs.

New town politics can be volatile and peculiar. Places like Basildon, Stevenage and Harlow started off as Labour, swung wildly to the Tories in Thatcher’s elections (home ownership and tax cuts were a potent appeal for predominantly skilled white working class communities) and then to Blair in 1997. Since then they have drifted back to the Tories, thanks in part to the new commuter estates, and in part to the long term trend Blair interrupted. In Scotland it is different, because no matter how enthusiastically the tenants bought their houses, the Conservative party was simply beyond the pale.

The Scottish new towns like Cumbernauld and Glenrothes have been fertile ground for the SNP when the party has been on an upward trend, although that vote slumps rapidly when the tide ebbs. There seems to be something about moving to a new town that encourages people to reassess traditional loyalties and think about politics in terms of consumer options and aspiration, although in Glenrothes this exists alongside a continuing broad attachment to socialism absent in England, except for Peterlee in the former Durham coalfield.

Constituencies like Glenrothes produce two sorts of result. One is typified by the 2005 Westminster election, a low point in the recent history of the SNP, in which Labour held Glenrothes with an apparently mountainous majority. The other sort happens when the SNP is surging: the Nationalists won the corresponding Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Given that Labour, even though some ground has been made up since summer, are still not exactly popular, one should probably expect Glenrothes to be in one of its SNP moods. The SNP, in any case, are good at campaigning in by-elections, and their activists have flooded into Glenrothes fuelled by confidence and optimism. In the past, the SNP has achieved high swings against Labour even when Labour has been popular, as in Monklands East in 1994 and Hamilton South in 1999, and of course only a few months ago they won their triumph in Glasgow East.

Even so, nobody is quite taking an SNP victory for granted in Glenrothes. Unlike Glasgow East, the area is used to electoral competition and the local Labour party has not grown complacent on a monopoly of representation. The electors are more familiar with the good and bad points of both main parties and their arguments, and probably more resistant to the sort of collapse that took place in Glasgow. For the first time, the SNP has to defend a record in power. While at Holyrood where they are still fairly popular, the collapse of HBOS has left the party looking less relevant to the big issues. While the UK government could organise a massive bailout that (somewhat) stabilised the markets, the nagging thought that an independent Scotland could have been next behind Iceland in the queue at the door of the IMF must have occurred to voters.

However, Alex Salmond’s government is not the main focus for those looking for criticisms of the SNP, this honour instead goes to Fife council whose leader Peter Grant is the candidate. Council leaders have their strengths and weaknesses as by-election candidates. While they are often experienced local politicians who can avoid campaign blunders, they are also responsible for what the council does, a lot of which is inherently unpopular. If electors are looking to cast a protest vote, they have a choice of whom to protest against. Labour’s candidate, Lindsay Roy, is far from a professional politician, coming to the contest from his position as head of Kirkcaldy High School. In Fife, educators and education are traditionally treated with a respect that exceeds that given by most other communities. As in Glasgow East, it is a contest between two strong candidates.

There will be a large swing to the SNP compared with the baseline of 2005, of that there is no doubt. Until the financial crisis broke, it looked as if it was going to be easily big enough to swamp Labour, and informed comment suggested that if Glenrothes got close enough for a recount, that would be a pretty good showing for Labour. Now it does not seem impossible that Labour could cling on. If you had asked people at the start of 2008 which Scottish seats Labour would hate to defend in a by-election, Glenrothes would rank high on the list, while any assessment of the irreducible hard core of Labour constituencies would have included Glasgow East. As the American maxim goes, “All politics is local”, and one does not have to look much further than Fife to prove that.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/03/glenrothes-labour

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This watchdog can growl and maul (9 October 2008)

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This watchdog can growl and maul (9 October 2008)

Posted on 09 October 2008 by admin

Forensic accountancy is a difficult business but the Electoral Commission takes its investigative duties seriously

David Hencke and his investigative colleagues at the Guardian have a fine record of unearthing dubious and corrupt practices in British politics. The Conservative party has a longer but not so fine record of being less than transparent and clean in its finances. From the share it took from the sale of honours in the 1920s to the secretive “river companies” set up in the 1940s to channel funds to the massive donations from wealthy foreigners it accepted in the 1990s, it is not surprising that the arrangements over Constituency Campaigning Services (CCS) have attracted suspicion. But sometimes, as Freud observed, a cigar is just a cigar, and even with political finance sometimes a company is just a company.

Forensic accountancy is a difficult business, as I found out when I tried to unravel the business dealings of Reginald Maudling and John Poulson, but the Electoral Commission takes its investigative duties seriously. If the commission’s conclusion is that CCS charged commercial rates for its services, and therefore did not effectively donate to the Conservative party, it is incumbent on its critics to find solid evidence to the contrary.

It is hard to see how paying the going rate amounts to an abuse of the spending limits, or a donation to the party. Whatever the party pays has to be within the spending limits, and any free or discounted services must also be accounted for. Nor is CCS entirely exempt from transparency rules. As with other organisations made up mostly of party members, it must report donations to the commission, which publishes them on its website. In recent years, the Conservative party has tried to be punctilious about following the letter of the rules, in something of the spirit of a reformed alcoholic making long detours to avoid his former favourite pub.

While it is not ideal that CCS does not have to publish its accounts, it is not the commission’s fault that the law fails to require it to do so. The government has the opportunity to tighten this up in its party funding bill.
Given the high profile of the Midlands Industrial Council (MIC) as CCS’s funder, it is easy to see why some think the money has been funnelled into the party, but the commission’s conclusion means that there could be other, potentially more entertaining possibilities. There would, after all, be a gentle irony if the prominent businessmen behind MIC had wasted so much money on keeping an unprofitable business afloat for the sake of party pride.

It is also unfair to blame the commission for the fact that the “cash for honours” affair did not result in any prosecutions. It was mainly focused on the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, a notoriously sloppy piece of legislative drafting that has nothing to do with the commission. And perhaps nothing that bad happened in the first place. Simply labelling something “cash for honours” does not mean that a trade took place. The “cash for questions” affair at least had witnesses and hard evidence.

The Electoral Commission is in a difficult position, in that it has to rule on matters that are highly contentious, and often has to irritate one side or other of the political spectrum. It has to do so within the law as it stands; that is frustrating, perhaps, but it is up to parliament to amend the law. The commission is far from a toothless watchdog, as Hencke says. If anything, there is an argument that its teeth are too sharp. It can growl, by issuing advice, and maul, by referring situations to the police for further action, but it has not been given the power to give minor offenders an admonitory nip to the ankle. However, in the case of CCS, it seems that a growl was really all that the situation called for.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/09/conservatives.partyfunding

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

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Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Posted on 30 September 2008 by admin

Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either

Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.

Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.

Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.

I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.

Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/30/electoralreform.toryconference

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Posted on 28 September 2008 by admin

The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, trading under Chapter 11. Cameron may be safe, but his policies look vulnerable

The Conservatives have had a wonderful year since their last conference, when they deterred Gordon Brown from calling an election in November. Apart from the wobble of the past week – which is probably attributable to Labour’s usual post-conference bounce – the Tory vote has been hitting a stable and high level in the mid-40s since spring 2008. That’s well ahead of anything they’ve managed since 1988, and an election-winning position. David Cameron’s personal approval ratings are more variable, but on this measure as well there is no cause for complaint. Their local and London elections in May demonstrated real electoral progress. The party has also recorded its first byelection gain since 1982 in Crewe and Nantwich and seen off a Liberal Democrat challenge in Henley.

So what could possibly go wrong at Birmingham? Now the prospect of a Tory government is being taken so seriously, the Conservatives can expect a greater degree of scrutiny from the broadsheets. Another risk will be bandwagon-jumping from interest groups and lobbyists who wish to become on better terms with the potential next government. Conference will have a busier, more glossy and hectic feel than in the past, which will fuel the feeling that the Conservatives are on their way. The risk is of premature hubris.

Winning is a considerable benefit in the struggle for party unity. The 2006 conference, which was at the softest and most listening phase of Cameronism, saw some subtle displays of different priorities: tote bags bearing tax-cutting and anti-EU slogans were carried around conference. Last year’s conference became a festival of unity, despite sub-surface misgivings within the party, because of the pressure generated by the mishandling of the election announcement by Number 10. An imminent election concentrates minds. In 2008, the sense that they are on the way and the Cameron strategy is working will mean that there will not be much by way of public dissent. The party’s self-presentation has also shifted a bit to the right, with recent pronouncements on obesity and other issues rooted in a traditional Conservative emphasis on personal responsibility. The party has also rowed back from some previous proposals for reform or consensus, such as the composition of a revised Lords. This suggests confidence in their ability before long to implement an undiluted Conservative agenda.

However, there are still a few tensions. One is quite how far it is permissible to go in painting a negative picture of the state of Britain. Oppositions always have to judge whether they will be hurt by the allegation that they are “running down Britain”. Cameron’s frequent references to a “broken society”, while striking a responsive chord with mid-market newspapers, seems hyperbolic to many other commentators: it does not match up with the reality of life as it is mostly lived. The phrase was criticised by none other than the principal Conservative executive politician, Boris Johnson, who called it “piffle“, but it remains a Conservative campaign theme and no doubt we will hear it from Birmingham. The Cameron team has essentially absorbed the particular definition of “social justice” promoted by Iain Duncan Smith since 2003.

The Tories’ plans and policies are at a late but nowhere near final stage of evolution. They have, however, a more pithy overall narrative than the other two parties. Policy areas have been grouped into three “agendas”: giving people more opportunity and power over their lives; making families stronger and society more responsible; making Britain safer and greener. It is not a bad narrative, but the detail is lacking and where it is spelt out (as, ironically enough, over the promotion of apprenticeships) it is sometimes not that different from Labour’s. Like a lot of political rhetoric, the Tory slogans are banal. Who would say they were for giving people less opportunity and power over their lives, weaker families and a more irresponsible society, and a more dangerous and dirty Britain?

While the economic downturn has helped the Conservatives to achieve their current position of dominance, it also risks undermining their policies. The likely recession’s effect on public finances may make the sums cease to add up (if indeed they did to start with), and the priorities of the public shift during recessions (as Labour found when its policies, conceived in the boom of 1988-89, looked less appropriate in recessionary 1992). The oil price spike has also exposed some contradictions between different strands of Conservatism, with potentially different free market, environmentalist and populist responses. The Conservatives have gone for the populist “hard pressed motorist” line – a possible sign that Cameron’s initial emphasis on the environment has shallow roots.

Indeed, in some ways the financial crisis undermines non-interventionist ideology that has driven the party. They still have little coherent to say about how the key institutions of capitalism should work. Gordon Brown last week at least had the start of a narrative of how to respond to the crisis. The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, at least trading under Chapter 11, and they are vulnerable because of their inexperience.

However, while policy is somewhat difficult, Cameron’s position is extremely strong and he can stamp his authority on the party at this conference. Emerging from the conference season with polling numbers back in the mid-40s and their poll lead recovered would be enough to rally the party’s confidence.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/28/toryconference.creditcrunch

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Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)

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Getting over the London blues (24 September 2008)

Posted on 24 September 2008 by admin

The mayoral defeat was painful for Labour, but urban voting patterns mean the Tories shouldn’t assume it means more success

At a Progress fringe meeting this week, Labour delegates in Manchester examined the London elections last May with a mixture of pain and pleasure. The pain was of course in the loss of the mayoralty, and the resulting self-criticism of the language, tactics and apparent deafness to the concerns of many white and outer London voters. The pleasure was in the gain of an assembly seat, and in what was generally acclaimed as a professionally organised campaign that had got activists enthusiastic in a way that is unusual in Labour politics (and contrasted with the paralysis of the will that prevails this week in Manchester).

As well as the surface politics of the London elections, there were some intriguing fragments of information in which deeper currents could be glimpsed, provided by Ben Page of the polling organisation Ipsos-Mori. These left me thinking as much about the Conservatives as Labour.

Ipsos-Mori’s research on local government suggest that levels of “unhappiness” – fear of crime, dissatisfaction with local services and the council’s record, and a perception of dirt and squalor – are highest in the outer London boroughs, with Croydon and Harrow leading the way. People in inner London seem by contrast relatively happy with their lot.

As early as 2002, the Conservatives under Iain Duncan Smith did relatively well in some outer London boroughs, regaining Barnet, Redbridge and Enfield. Their campaign in these boroughs tapped into a sense that the areas were in decline, becoming more inner city and chaotic. It would be inaccurate to see this merely as a coded appeal to racism, although no doubt susceptible voters did hear a dog-whistle. The main aim was more about tapping into a sense of a lost dream among London suburban voters of a clean, green place with families living in large houses, good public services and a sense of (perhaps stifling) social order. In voting Conservative in local elections in 2002 and 2006, and in such numbers for Boris Johnson in 2008, suburbanites (including the working class suburbanites of Dagenham, and other outer London council-built areas) are saying that they do not like the current state of their suburbs very much, and haven’t felt that Labour cares very much about it.

While many suburban voters feel that they are losing what they initially found attractive in their communities, inner Londoners have often made a conscious choice to come to a place that fits their aspirations. This applies to the people who have come from all over the world to live and work in London, and for instance to the affluent inhabitants of Camden Town or Islington who prefer urban life to the calm of the suburbs. This in turn displaces people who would like to live in inner London, but cannot afford it (recent immigrants and the young) further out to cheaper suburban areas. Population turnover is so high in the inner city that people, to some extent, are sorted into places that suit them. The same is not true of the suburbs, where older established voters (including those who moved there as recently as the 1990s) have seen their areas change before their eyes. In Bexley and Bromley, which turned in a massive vote for Johnson in 2008, there has been anxiety about ending up like Croydon or Lewisham.

Urban politics in a city on the scale of London messy and complicated. The task of maintaining a complicated rainbow coalition of competing interests without alienating any of them, or indeed arousing too much reaction from the white working and middle classes, is a tricky job to pull off, and the strains were clearly showing in Ken Livingstone’s second term with rows over the London Development Agency’s policies, Lee Jasper and Yusuf al-Qaradawi among others. London is, after all, still majority white and majority suburban, and assembling a winning vote for Labour on this basis is tricky. Livingstone and the Labour Assembly group pioneered some interesting new political approaches – in the first term, with Livingstone governing as an Independent, and in the second term with the City Hall alliance of Labour and Green facilitated by the proportional electoral system. Labour needs some new political skills – an inclusive, coalition-building approach and the ditching of old ambitions of monolithic control – to manage it.

There is no long term future for the Conservatives in a politics of suburban backlash. Little can be done about the broad trends, and by winning local elections a party becomes part of the perceived problem rather than part of the solution. The Conservatives now control most suburban boroughs, and in 2006 there was a swing to Labour in Enfield and a mediocre result in Barnet – four years of Tory control had not slowed the rate of change much. The Conservatives run Croydon, Merton and Harrow after the 2006 elections and it would not be surprising if they underperform in 2010.

But there is an alternative. The Republicans have won every New York mayoral election since 1993 with a formula of fiscal discipline, tough language (and achievement) on reducing crime, efficiency and social tolerance, and to some extent this has been a winning Conservative formula in the inner London boroughs like Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington & Chelsea which they control. But New York remains a very left-wing city in all other elections from president to borough council, and the fact remains that there is huge tension between what is needed to win in New York and the nature of the wider Republican Party. Michael Bloomberg, after all, was always a pretty nominal Republican and went independent in 2007. Perhaps there is something structural, as well as personal, in the speculation about a rift between Johnson and Cameron, but these are early days and it may take Tory control at both national and London level to reveal the potential for division.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/24/labourconference.labour1

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Posted on 20 September 2008 by admin

However unpleasant it might be for Labour in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976

The conference season in 2008 will be the first conference season in 20 years in which the psychology of politicians and the media is based on the fairly confident expectation that the next government will be a Conservative one.

Labour comes to Manchester against an awful background, the worst for a party of government since the Conservatives convened in 1996. John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997 was a tedious procession of failed relaunch attempts and stabs at defining a narrative of what the Conservatives were for, and so far at least the Brown government seems to be following in these footsteps. The conference is a – slim – chance to start getting it right. However, sometimes in the past a good conference has set a troubled government on the path to recovery, as with the Conservatives in 1986 and Labour in 1969.

Brown government’s relationship with public opinion falls into three phases, and ministers fervently hope that the conference will start a fourth, of recovery. The first was the honeymoon phase, lasting over the summer of 2007 and rising to a peak in mid to late September, until it was abruptly ended by the “non-election” at the start of October. This led to a sharp switch in public opinion about Brown, and this (and a successful Tory conference) led to a revival in Conservative voting intention and Cameron’s personal ratings which took them back to where they had been for most of the late Blair period.

Public opinion stayed fairly stable through this second phase which lasted until the end of February 2008. The third phase, of acute crisis for Labour and a large Conservative poll lead, has been in place since March, although June saw the slump that had taken place from March until the local and Crewe elections in May, bottom out. The polls are still bad and Gordon Brown’s personal rating at abysmal levels. There was perhaps a slight change of mood during August, as might be expected, as the holiday season calmed politics following the fevered days of July, but September has seen another frightening downturn with the banking crisis and the Conservatives hitting new highs in the opinion polls.

Since March the Labour Party has been in fatalistic mood. This is, I think, partly a matter of political generations. Few among younger Labour people will have experience of a government facing deep unpopularity other than this, and the Major government which went down to overwhelming defeat in 1997. But before this, in 1990, 1985, 1981, 1977, 1971, 1968, 1963, 1957… governments dipped to alarmingly low levels of popularity and came back from them, sometimes by enough to win. In an article for Progress, I quote a comment from Richard Crossman, a minister in Wilson’s government, reflecting on the apparent hopelessness of Labour’s position in December 1968. Yet only a year and a half later, the party was the favourite to win a general election.

The fatalism that has gripped Labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it generates the “every person for themselves” attitude – saving one’s personal position – that undermines party unity and in turn creates worse problems. The best hope for the party is to make a proper decision about whether or not to get rid of its leader, and stick to it. There will also have to be a turnaround at least in economic expectations – the collapse in confidence in people’s thinking about future economic conditions took Labour down to its current low ebb. Labour also needs a tough, brutal campaign modelled on the Conservatives’ in 1992 attacking an inexperienced and risky opposition party that has arguably not changed enough. But the party currently lacks the money, the self-confidence and the receptive ear from the public to carry it off, and needs to start pulling itself together.

Although a leadership coup is possible it is unlikely. More likely is that a consensus will start to form on whether Brown should stay, go later, or be given an ultimatum to shape up. Although there need not be action at Manchester, the strategic decision needs to be contemplated and no doubt it will. Before the conference, it seems that an ultimatum is the most likely route, with a showdown in spring 2009 if there has been no improvement by then in the polls. But moods can change, and movements form, rapidly at conference – one only has to return to Labour’s growing sense of euphoria at last year’s gathering in Bournemouth to demonstrate that.

Labour will also have to hope for not too many “noises off” so that the desired message comes across. The Lib Dems in Bournemouth lost out on coverage because of the more dramatic developments in the financial markets. The last thing Labour needs is for a re-run of 1976, when a run on the pound caused Chancellor Denis Healey to turn back at Heathrow Airport and return to Labour conference and try to calm the financial markets. Healey was heckled, delegates called upon him to resign, and the government had to go to the IMF anyway. Back in those days, Labour conferences were brutal festivals of blood sports as far-left delegates openly baited and denounced their own government’s ministers and the language of treachery was on everyone’s lips. However unpleasant it might be in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/20/labour.labourconference


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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy

The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year.

The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour?

The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide?

The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters.

But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything like that assumes a complete meltdown of the Labour vote. It is not completely impossible that Labour will follow the economic markets downhill in a collapse of epic proportions. But this is at the outer end of the range of possibilities, and more worthy of a bit of contingency planning than a large commitment of scarce resources.

Rightwing liberalism will not help win seats from Labour. Their leftwing profile in 2005 helped the Lib Dems build strong votes among a particular category of seat: academic, professional suburbs and college towns. The easiest seats to gain from Labour (other than Rochdale, which already has a Lib Dem incumbent but becomes theoretically Labour under new boundaries) tend to be in the same sort of places that swung strongly in 2005. Oxford East, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Islington South & Finsbury, Aberdeen South, Edinburgh North & Leith, Durham City and Norwich South are the logical successors to the seats that went Lib Dem in 2005 like Cambridge and Bristol West. While many of these seats were Conservative at one time, their electors are often liberal, environmentally minded people who were permanently turned off the Tories by Thatcherism and may desert the Lib Dems for the Greens or even Labour if the party sounds too rightwing.

Further down the target list there are a few seats that could plausibly pack a surprise, such as Swansea West, Burnley and Sheffield Central and probably a couple of seats that look safe from the 2005 numbers. But picking off a serious number of these is unlikely without a massive Labour meltdown (and even the current polls indicate only around a 3% national swing from Labour to Lib Dem). In seats where the Conservatives are still in contention (except maybe Watford, with its local scandal) it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to persuade floating voters not to join a national Tory tide. After all, seats such as Hastings & Rye followed the national trend in 1997 and elected Labour MPs despite the party running third in 1992, and it is reasonable to expect Conservatives in seats like Hampstead & Kilburn and Ealing Central & Acton to fancy their chances of winning. In some Scottish seats, the rise of the SNP (who polled poorly in 2005 but can expect much better at the next Westminster election) will interfere with Lib Dem chances, making places such as Edinburgh North & Leith and Glasgow North more difficult than they look on paper. Overall, again barring that meltdown, potential Lib Dem gains from Labour look more like 10-15 than 50.

Electorally, therefore, the Liberal Vision approach looks dubious. There is probably little mileage in going any further right than Clegg has already steered the party. The tax cuts approved at conference yesterday can be plausibly presented as being about fairness to low and middle income families, and therefore compatible with the liberal consciences of people who voted for them on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq war and tuition fees. A slide to the right would risk this core Lib Dem vote for uncertain reward. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps ask themselves why Cameron has found talking like a social liberal to be a route to electoral success, and fight him on their turf rather than charging into Tory territory.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/16/libdemconference.liberaldemocrats

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How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

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How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

A provocative index ranks Lib Dem MPs by their liberality. But is repealing the smoking ban really a vote-winner?

Liberalism has always been tugged between two conflicting ideological traditions, libertarianism and social reform. The Liberal party almost from its foundation until its nadir in the 1950s suffered splits, breakaways and defections from its economic liberals to the Conservatives and its radicals and reformers to Labour. None of these actually resolved the problem, and even in the 1950s the old conflicts were being played out in Lilliputian form.

A new pressure group, Liberal Vision, is interested in restarting the debate and has done it in the provocative form of an index of how liberal or not the 63 Lib Dem MPs are on various “lifestyle freedoms”, measuring their votes on measures concerning the smoking ban, gambling and licensing, and who signed which Early Day Motion on various subjects. The index was launched at a lively fringe meeting in Bournemouth, at which one of the speakers was Gavin Webb, a rebellious libertarian Lib Dem councillor from Stoke-on-Trent. Webb was introduced as having liberal views on drugs, prostitution, handguns and drink driving (hopefully not all at the same time). There are no out-and-out libertarians like Webb in the parliamentary party, but the liberal index is still quite intriguing and revealing.

The top and bottom scoring MPs for liberality on lifestyle issues illustrate a curious fact of political life. Lembit Öpik is the most “liberal” of the lot, but represents Montgomeryshire in mid Wales. The constituency has been one of the most consistently Liberal in the land, with only one Tory lapse (in 1979) in the last century. Despite a small influx of downsizing professionals and pot-smoking self-sufficient types, Montgomeryshire embodies the chapel-going, rural traditional heritage of the party. Other seats that consistently vote for the most liberal of the three main parties are also among the most conservative in their own social mores, such as Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to some extent Cornwall. The second and third most liberal, David Laws and Paul Keetch, represent Yeovil and Hereford, provincial towns not usually associated with letting it all hang out. Only at fourth place, with David Howarth of Cambridge, do we have a stereotypical liberal constituency.

The lowest score in the liberal index went to John Leech, who represents Manchester Withington. Withington is a classic example of a liberal, academic suburb. I would not be surprised if, despite Leech favouring a higher classification for the substance, Withington has a higher than average cannabis intake, and probably fair trade, organically grown cannabis at that. MPs’ views, perhaps particularly on these lifestyle liberal issues, are quirky, personal and often incongruous with their constituencies. Next lowest come three ex-Labour MPs, Mike Hancock, Vince Cable and Bob Russell, and leftwing Liberals such as Paul Holmes and John Pugh. Perhaps this means that MPs’ personalities are less important in deciding elections than they like to believe. Perhaps, also, voters tend to see these lifestyle liberties as being secondary to the principal questions of politics. Many voters who want these lifestyle choices just do it anyway, whatever the law says, and get away with it. Laws against brothels, pornography and cannabis are enforced in a rather liberal way, with the police usually taking action only in cases which clearly break the harm principle (such as people trafficking, child porn or gangsterism). The articulate and careful middle classes can already opt out, although it is unlikely that enforcing a law in a socially unequal way is a satisfactory way of dealing with lifestyle issues.

However, the view of Liberal Vision’s Mark Littlewood that some votes can be won on lifestyle liberalism is probably correct, even if the market for this sort of politics is smaller than Littlewood would like. There is potential in being the only large party that does not insist on telling people how to live their lives and which pleasures are officially licensed and which are punished. This has the potential to build a bridge between the old liberal left electorate and the new, more rightwing liberal types the party is wooing.

However, as the Liberal Vision meeting showed, what seems at first like a simple clear principle can end up being a matter of balance and compromise. Nearly every liberal accepts John Stuart Mill’s principle that activities that do not harm anyone else should not be restricted, but the question is always what counts as harm to others. The ban on smoking in public places is a particularly clear example of these differing interpretations and standards. Personal freedom will define and divide liberals long into the future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/16/libdemconference.liberaldemocrats4

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

Posted on 13 September 2008 by admin

As the conference season gets under way there are three simple steps the Lib Dems can take to get the public’s attention

When they convene at Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats will be queasily aware that they have spent a year treading water. Their poll ratings have more or less flatlined since their last conference. They have been stuck at 16% (give or take a point or two for sampling error), around 6 points down on where they stood in 2005, and about 5 points down on their rating at the equivalent stage of the 2001-05 parliament.

This showing is disappointing to the Lib Dems, as have been the election results in mid-term elections since autumn 2007. They did catastrophically in London and not brilliantly elsewhere. They were also squeezed by the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich, and even more ominously had a swing against them in Henley, the sort of seat where they would have previously expected to have a big swing in their favour.

The poor electoral results have added to a sense of drift at the centre of the party. Nick Clegg has not captured the public imagination since he became leader in December 2007. The Lib Dems have had a difficult time of it as the political scene has been polarised between the Conservatives and an increasingly troubled Labour government. They have had trouble in projecting a distinct image or any specific policies, and Clegg has been overshadowed by Cameron. They have also had problems and soul-searching in Wales and Scotland.

The Lib Dems have three basic tasks this season, the first of which is familiar from previous conferences:

1) Assert their continuing relevance. This is a perennial objective, and one that in the last couple of conference seasons has proved difficult as politics has centred on the presidential contrast of Cameron with Blair (then Brown). It will be difficult again this year. Coming first does the Lib Dems no favour in terms of gaining attention from the media and the public (for whom the first half of September still has something of a holiday feel).

2) Present attractive coherent policies. The Make it Happen document being referred to conference was intended to serve as a pre-manifesto, but given that no election is expected in 2009 it has been restyled as a “visions and values” document. The party needs a decent narrative, and some eye-catching policies. The party’s tax policy, of emphasising cuts for lower and middle income households (paid for by closing tax loopholes further up the scale) is part of this, although whether it bears scrutiny and commands support in the party are both questionable. Council tax abolition, lower and middle-end tax cuts, localism in public service and criminal justice, clean energy and an energy windfall tax will be some headline policies.

3) Build Nick Clegg up as a strong leader. Clegg needs to dispel the perception that he is not a political heavyweight and is more conservative than his party – “too light and too right” perhaps. Clegg’s speech needs to come over strongly to the party in the hall and the elements of the electorate that will be paying attention. Lacking an inspiring personal narrative (Ashdown and Campbell both had interesting backstories before they became politicians), he will have to surprise. One option is the Blair 1994 strategy of confronting his party with hard truths, and forcing it to do something against its instincts in the interests of modernisation. Another is to go against type – a rallying cry for social justice coming from someone who has seemed to belong to the right of the party. In any case, he needs to start defining himself before the public and this is as good an opportunity as he will get before the election campaign.

In terms of electoral strategy, the party is talking of targeting 50 Labour seats, which is a tall order and what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described as “brave”. I hope to return to this question in another post. Clegg’s leadership has involved a further repositioning of the party. Broadly, the Lib Dems were “equidistance”‘ between Labour and the Conservatives until around 1992, when Paddy Ashdown proclaimed that position as having come to an end (although in practice it was, for Labour, benevolent neutrality, particularly after 1989). From 1992 until about 2001 the Lib Dems were part of a loose progressive front with Labour. From 2001 until roughly 2007, they formed a left opposition to Labour. Now they seem to be back at equidistance. But Clegg’s tone implies that this equidistance could be evolving into benevolent neutrality towards the Conservatives.

The party’s grass roots are for the most part situated on the anti-Conservative left, although with a dislike of the Labour party’s culture because it seems too establishment and collectivist. The prospect of a deal with the Conservatives, or loose participation in a pincer movement aimed at securing not just defeat but humiliation for Labour, will have consequences that most Lib Dems would find unappetising. On the other hand, anti-Labour posturing has the effect of raising the price of cooperation with a minority Labour government.

The Lib Dems face the essential dilemmas of positioning, electoral strategy and simply how to get their message heard in a two-party climate where the pros and cons of the Conservative alternative and the Labour government are dominating the scene.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/13/libdemconference.nickclegg

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