Monday, 30 May 2011

The New Politics (reprise) - Huhne’s Reagan Defence

Now, it takes a lot to make me indignant. Not at all partial to political witch-hunts or vicariously excited by the whiff of scandal. Non-plussed by the expenses scandal, thought David Laws foolish but not corrupt, same about Mandelson, couldn’t care less about Clarke or most of the myriad scandals which nowadays surround the political class. Sorry. 

Politicians are human and make mistakes; over-egging their mistakes merely besmirches the name of all politicians, most of whom are decent. I even happen to agree with the Independent that Chris Huhne is doing rather a good ministerial job in an area, environment, which is important to me. So I don’t know why the case of his wretched speeding points makes me so indignant, as mentioned in a previous post. Especially now it looks rather likely that he will get off.

Oh no, hang on, I do. It makes me indignant because he is probably going to get off: not because he can come up with reasonable answers to some obvious questions asked by police, but simply because the key witness, his wife, is withdrawing and the case will lack evidence. And it makes me indignant because he has taken us all for fools, trial or no trial.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Labour's poll lead: soft or hard?

Steel yourselves. Labour has had a single-figure lead in the polls for a while, but the principal question has always been: is it, like Kinnock's in the 80s, a soft lead; or a real one? Well, the election results of a couple of weeks back were not great, but yesterday's/MORI results suggest a considerably bleaker picture.

First the results on the economy: the New Statesman highlights the key result that:

Asked who they will blame if the economy gets worse over the next 12 months, 22 per cent of respondents say the last Labour government but just 10 per cent say the Tories. 
Let's reflect on that for a moment: while we are pursuing our "anti-cuts" positioning (ok, ok, "cuts but not this far this fast" positioning), more of the public will blame us than the Tories anyway if things get worse. So, to those who do not believe we have lost the overall-level-of-the-cuts argument and that further economic hardship will drive voters straight into  our loving arms, think again.

Second,
the poll on the readiness of the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) to become Prime Minister (Political Betting have a much better copy than in the Ipsos/MORI pack, although the question in the subtitle is for some reason incorrect):



The graph shows how many think the LOTO is ready versus not ready to be PM. The data is not perfect: the sample space is small and there are notable gaps.

However, the differential between the Readies and the Not-Readies could have been accurately used to predict that last four general election results. And the key finding is that, unlike Blair and Cameron, Ed Miliband's initial polling fits the Hague/Duncan Smith pattern of a seriously negative differential: 69% say not ready versus 17% ready.

Now, the good news is, Ed is at the beginning of his leadership and still has some time to change those numbers. But it is instructive that Blair had a positive differential from the beginning and Cameron from half-way through his leadership (and even he failed to win an overall majority).

So Ed has about three years to cross over from negative into positive and, even then, data which has predicted four general election results could still fail on the fifth. But, it wouldn't be stretching the point too much to say, on the basis of Cameron's data, that if Ed isn't close to crossover by the mid-point, say, 18 months from here, his prospects of an outright election win will look poor.  Worse still, the Hague and IDS data show that, once a negative differential is established, it is easily done to languish in the high negatives for one's whole tenure as leader.

In short: our overall poll lead is indeed showing distinct signs of Kinnockite softness. We need to reflect on why.



This post also at LabourList

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Observations on "A Journey" II: school segregation

For those who need a respite from Obama-itis, another in my occasional series of interesting things which have come out of Tony Blair's A Journey (cue rising hackles for some readers). Well, as it happens, I want to tell you something I disagree with him radically about. So, for those of you who think me a slavish Blairite, sorry to disappoint (hate labels anyway).

There is a fascinating, if a little inconsistent, observation where he talks about how his Faith Foundation works to break down barriers between people of different faiths at school age:
We have a programme which uses new technology to join up people of different faiths so that from a young age children can learn about each other's culture and faith based on truth, not on deeply misguided perceptions.
Well, while not sharing his faith, I fully concur with my Right Honourable friend, and wish him well with what seems a very sensible venture. But, in that case, why push segregated faith schools when he is painfully aware of the prevalent danger that kids of different faiths might not connect? Very odd. Do something on the one hand and then do something that works directly against it on the other.

As per my previous post here, the promotion of the faith schools concept, not to mention Michael Gove's misguidedly allowing non-faith teachers to be excluded entirely
seems to confound common sense and raises the strong possibility that we will reap the whirlwind in 10-20 years' time of more homogeneous schools - not really a good thing for starters - and of more, not less, divided communities. 

Further, in the case of Islamic schools, despite protestations to the contrary from various quarters, recruitment by extremist Islamist organisations within schools is already a real threat, as evidenced by the measures taken back in 2008 (the Quilliam Foundation is doing some interesting research in this area, although the government is threatening to cut its funding).

My broader fear is that we are ceding the whole policy area of what Trevor Phillips at Policy Network calls "Immigration, Integration and Islam" slowly but surely to the Tories, as we struggle to find a narrative.

Finally, I found an excellent observation by, of all people, a Tory - Danny Finkelstein. While I don't agree with a lot - or probably much - of what he says, he had this very nice line in a Times (£) piece back in April which connects that broader issue back to the faith school:
Immigration is won or lost in the playground.
He's right. That is where integration succeeds or fails for a generation. And there we make things more difficult at our peril.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Looking to 2014, not 1974: the case for spending limits

During the last two weeks, pieces by Uncut regulars Atul Hatwal and Peter Watt seem to have caused something of a controversy in Labour circles by suggesting that Labour keep to Tory spending limits. Peter’s piece was followed by a passionate defence of the current position by LabourList’s Mark Ferguson; not to mention a more wild-eyed, man-the-barricades-the-Tories-are-coming, ad hominem attack from Owen Jones.

So before making our minds up, perhaps we might take a cool, detached look at the case for change. The question of tax and spending limits is not new: indeed, it was raised on these pages back in March. However, given that spending is arguably the most critical question to answer before the next election and will quite possibly decide its outcome, it is important to construct the case clearly and calmly, brick by brick.

Friday, 20 May 2011

TUC's Brendan Barber writes back to me about Chávez

TUC responds to Rob Marchant on Chávez


Oh yes, with all the posts of the last week I forgot to mention: I finally got a response from the TUC's Brendan Barber, explaining why it is backing the rather unspeakable Chávez regime in Venezuela (you may remember I wrote an open letter to him on 23 April, asking why the TUC was sponsoring a conference of the Venezuela Solidarity Committee, Venezuela's propaganda mouthpiece in London, and suggesting why it might not be a good idea).

I suppose that, naïvely, I was vaguely hopeful that the most important trade union body in the country was not really propagandising for the repugnant Chávez. I was, sadly, disappointed.

For those who cannot read union-speak without assistance, I understand, and therefore provide below a rough translation of Brendan's three paragraphs:

Dear Rob
1. It doesn’t matter to us how bad the situation regarding human rights and democracy gets, as long as things are better than they were before in terms of healthcare and education (mind you, they could hardly be worse than under the old regime). We think that following these programmes is of considerable educational value to our members [I am not making this up, honestly. Read the letter]. So it's a good use of their money, really.
2. We should like to use an NGO, the International Labour Organisation [ILO, which forms part of the UN] as a fig-leaf for our indefensible stance (i.e. if they don't denounce Chávez, neither need we). So, we hereby absolve ourselves of all responsibility until the ILO, a body not really geared up for political sanctions, visits and makes a ruling, which it probably won’t [the ILO also deals happily with Cambodia, where child labour is common].
3. Venezuela might be bad, but you should see Colombia and Guatemala. We have relations with them as well. How can you make such a fuss about this? These are the good guys. Er, relatively speaking, that is.
Yours etc.
Brendan Barber
I also received an email from an anonymous former union official, now working internationally  for democracy, who understands the issues, to whom I showed the letter and whom I shall quote here:
That is so lame - predictably so - and a real betrayal of best of TUC tradition (and Brendan's own professed Bevinite* convictions). What's shameful is that it reads like a pro forma letter in which TUC could substitute China or Cuba for Venezuela - and it probably is.
There is little for me to add. I am not sure there is much to gain in responding, but be assured I will not be letting the issue rest.


Sorry to bang on about this: perhaps I am the only person who thinks it an extraordinary error of judgement on the part of major figures from the Labour movement, such as the heads of the TUC and major trade unions, and Labour's candidate for London Mayor, to support, and propagandise for, this awful regime.

*For those of a younger generation, "Bevinite" refers to the great Ernest Bevin (1881-1951), acclaimed Labour Foreign Secretary and arguably the greatest-ever British trade unionist. He hated the fascist apologists of the 1930s and would, there is no doubt, have had little time for the likes of Chávez.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Lib Dems: Readiness To Govern, 101

For the nth time in the last few days, the Lib Dems have shown themselves thrown by the basic politics of government; as opposed to opposition, where they were supremely comfortable.

Whilst our own reaction to scandal, in cases such as Phil Woolas, has sometimes been unnecessarily brutal – throwing someone out of the party before, even, the most basic of appeals against the complaint had been heard – the approach at least had the advantage of dealing with damage quickly and effectively. The case of the hapless Chris Huhne, and his alleged attempt to pass his driving licence points to his wife, is proving anything but.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Scottish independence: time for a homage to Catalonia?

“Seismic shift”, “game-changer”, and a number of other dreadful clichés have been used to describe the SNP’s win last Thursday. It was certainly an important result and, apart from during the final weeks, a rather unexpected one. It has also led to a number of reaction pieces, ranging from the Telegraph’s alarmist “Don’t let the Union drift apart”; to LFF’s “sleepwalking to separation”; to Simon Jenkins’ plain silly, knee-jerk calls for independence which, coming from an Englishman, seems to pass over entirely the wide and varied emotions among Scots about the idea.

However, emotive though the issue is, perhaps we should also calm down a little and try and take a cooler look at the situation. It is, of course, conceivable that it could lead to independence: but, without being complacent, we should also be aware that we are quite likely a long way from that.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

We must learn to make hard choices, or fail

There are four types of election result. Ones that are undeniably good. Ones that are undeniably bad. Ones that are on balance good, but look otherwise. And ones that are on balance bad, but look otherwise.

The most dangerous ones, obviously, are the last. There is a risk that, like an alcoholic, you don’t notice, or don’t accept, that there’s a problem.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Bizarre Electoral Love Triangle

Good, and perhaps important observation from John Underwood at Labour Uncut last week that, rather than we, the Lib Dems are now the primary target for the Tories. The Tories can win few seats from Labour, because we're pretty much down to our strongholds anyway. 

But they are n
ow eyeing hungrily their coalition partners after the latter's decimation in the local elections. And after that, too - thank heavens - pretty much the whole world agrees that where we need to get votes is from the Tories.

S
o, we have to win seats from the Tories, but they don't have to win them from us.

It's become a kind of bizarre, electoral love triangle.


Fig. 1: Bizarre Electoral Love Triangle

- With profuse apologies to New Order. The least I could do was to include the video of their electronica masterpiece on here, which I do below. If you have never heard it (or even if you have), I thoroughly recommend that you click.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

So, farewell then, progressive majority

Feel a tad vindicated today. 

You may remember that back in January the Centre Left first blogged about the so-called “progressive majority” which Ed had made the centrepiece of a Guardian article and a speech to the Fabians. We had (somewhat controversially) asserted that it didn’t actually exist, and that we should concentrate our fire on the Tories.

In other words, the idea that, in order to get back into power, we need only forge an alliance with “progressives” everywhere (i.e. disaffected, left-leaning Lib Dems) is entirely wrong-headed. Because that would, er, not make a majority. And you may remember that later Dan Hodges and Anthony Painter also, after the publication of the latter’s Searchlight report on race, migration and identity, said the same?

Well, according to Dan Hodges at Labour Uncut today, it has now been acknowledged by “sources close to the Labour leadership” that capturing this mythical progressive beast was never really a goal for the Party. That it was all a misunderstanding on our part:
“There never was any progressive majority strategy”, a member of Ed Miliband’s inner circle told me yesterday. “People have misunderstood the game plan. We’re not going to be making some desperate appeal to the Lib Dems. We’re going to be saying to them, ‘you’ve been duped, wouldn’t you be better off on board with us’”?
Phew. That’s all right then. But as Dan points out:
The claim that Labour’s leader never envisaged marching up Downing Street with a crowd of exultant liberal progressives is a touch disingenuous. “I want to see Labour become home to a new progressive majority”, Ed said in August. Labour must “earn the right to be the standard-bearer for the progressive majority in this country”, he repeated in January.
And finally, on AV:
“A yes vote would, above all, reflect confidence that there is a genuine progressive majority in this country”, he urged in May.
I should point out that there is a nice irony on that last one: you can see that the argument actually helps defeat itself. There was no Yes-to-AV moment: Yes lost and No won. A yes vote would have reflected confidence in a progressive majority. Ergo, no such confidence has arisen, because the public voted No.

Anyway, this progressive stuff has all been very interesting, but can we all get back to beating the Tories now, please?

Friday, 6 May 2011

To my favourite lightning conductor

The Centre Left has come by the following confidential letter, apparently written in the early hours of this morning following yesterday's local elections:

10 DOWNING STREET
LONDON SW1A 2AA 

THE PRIME MINISTER


06 May 2011



Dear Nick,

Just a quick note: I really wanted to say how sorry I am about the election results. Gutted for you. We seemed to do ok, of course, despite all the moaning about the cuts, but there you go (tried to warn you about AV, old chap. Terribly fickle things, electorates).

Anyway, onwards to 2015, eh? I’m sure we can work out whatever little differences there remain between our parties. After all, you’re not going anywhere any time soon, are you! Only joking.

Seriously, I shouldn’t worry too much. After all, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, does it?

Yours in friendship,

David


PS A real shame about Sheffield. The knives are out, eh? (pardon the pun)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

New Labour is dead. New Britain, still worth fighting for

After the weekend’s national outpouring of sentiment, I want to take you back to another, earlier one.

Almost exactly fourteen years to the day, on the 2nd May, 1997, a new dawn had broken – had it not? – at the foot of Millbank Tower. It was a day when, no matter in which pew you sat in Labour’s broad church, no matter whether you liked or hated Tony Blair (and, let’s be honest, most liked him in those days), you were just thankful that the Tories were out of power. We were, in that sun-filled, euphoric moment – and perhaps, in truth, only in that moment – fully united. We had done the seemingly impossible: we had ended the Tory hegemony of a generation.

If you are old enough to remember that morning just try, for a moment, to remember how you felt. I was elated and exhausted, arriving home from a sometimes inspiring, sometimes gruelling campaign as a parliamentary candidate in my native North Yorkshire. I had been fighting alongside people who may not have agreed with me on everything, but were prepared to back me because we shared, not only a common enemy, but a common goal.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Observations on "A Journey" I: Economics and Gordon

I have now - finally - finished "A Journey". You can love the man or you can hate him, but if you don't understand where he's coming from, you can't really hope to understand Labour politics of the last 20 years. Over the next couple of weeks I shall do an occasional post on things which stand out. First observation:

There is a conventional wisdom has always implied that Blair did not have a deep grasp of the economic fundamentals and left the economy to Brown, on the grounds that he is a technical inept and terrible at maths, by his own admission. (I have some sympathy for this view, having once tried to show him round the Labour Party website. He kept a PC on his desk during election campaigns at Millbank but never, reputedly, switched it on).

This conventional wisdom I now find to be completely false: not just because of what he says
explicitly about it "the perception was that I kept out of the economic policy space", but by reading the text you can see that he has a pretty profound grasp of macroeconomics. He simply disagreed with Brown on where it should go, after 2005 at least and, only at the last,  ceded control when he knew he was going to go anyway.

Blair never got his spending review in place, which would have trimmed and cut to get back towards the magic "golden rule": total taxation = total spending over the economic cycle. But he pretty much drew a diagram for Brown of where it should go, so that the decision would be Brown's alone when he diverted from it.

In short, it seems entirely credible the argument that Blair was a brake on the tax-hiking instincts of Brown, who fundamentally thought that people should pay more tax. Brown was good at this stuff, and understood the detail better than most. But Blair also understood as much as he needed to and, on the big picture, he arguably had much better instincts for what the electorate would buy.
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