Thursday, 21 October 2010

Up to his old tricks?

Interesting debate going on over at LabourList between Darrell Goodliffe and Mark Ferguson on whether or not Ken has damaged the Party and should be disciplined over his support of independent candidate Lutfur Rahman.

The answer is, of course, that Ken has never really been a member of the Labour Party. Oh, he's had a membership card, on and off, but his real loyalty has always been to the Ken Party, a one-man campaigning machine with its own set of ideas. Now, don't get me wrong, Ken is an immensely talented politician and a not at all bad administrator, who has had more comebacks than the various members of Take That. He may even be mayor again. But loyalty has never been his strong suit.

Take this simple idea: most members would agree that campaigning for candidate in another party is a highly disloyal thing to do. In fact standing for another party is an automatic expulsion offence in this party, and always has been. I will leave on one side the fact that the somewhat twisted and unpleasantly race-tinged politics of Tower Hamlets combined with the Party's arcane (and occasionally cheated-on) selection procedures MAY have caused a candidate to be unfairly selected. Or, for that matter, that Ken has made the typical London-leftie mistake of cuddling up to nasty fundamentalist sympathisers like Rahman. The point is simply that, once you have a selection process, you stand behind it and your Party, come what may. Anything else just damages you and it. Or am I just old-fashioned?

But Ken has always played by different rules, and by cleverly pitching himself as David versus the party Goliath, dodges the charge of disloyalty and almost always comes out smelling of roses - as he did masterfully in the original mayoral race which ended up with him running as an independent. We shouldn't be surprised that these things happen - and, in particular, should we be if we really think about the constitutional changes we made only a few years ago.

You see, we're a party who has not quite got used to the decentralisation of power that we ourselves created. In the old days, as a member, you voted for the Leader and Deputy Leader and that was it. This, by the way, is a fact that neither Tony Blair nor John Prescott ever forgot - TB knew he could never sack JP because the members chose him, and you don't take on the membership lightly. So they always stuck close together.

Then, in 1999, it all changed, a fact not lost on a politician as wily as Livingstone. We had a candidate for Mayor directly elected by the membership, and suddenly there was another, albeit smaller, power base in the national Party. Once selected (and particularly once elected), this person would not be reliant on the patronage of the Party Leader, which of course was exactly what happened. Tony Blair was horrified when he realised what had happened, but was powerless to do anything. Ken then spent a modestly successful period as Mayor doing what he does best - i.e., just as he likes.

So, we could feel many emotions as we decide what the hell to do with this brilliant and talented but infuriating and ultimately self-serving man, who delights in making trouble for the leadership...but surprise really shouldn't be one of them.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Shadow cabinets - and this one

Well congratulations to my friends in Islington - not only won back the council in May, but now also a great result for Islington women. Mary Creagh (former LG leader) and Meg Hillier (former councillor and LGA member) are both in the Shadow Cabinet and Emily Thornberry (MP) missed it by a whisker.

Ed has done a good job of surprising people, not to mention a fine use of the talent of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor. Clever putting Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper in important positions but balancing them out with the only remaining heavyweight. I think Ed is aware that Mr Balls will only truly be useful to the Party over the next few years if he can ditch his Brownite instincts and refrain from plotting. I hope that he and his supporters will get behind Ed.

But...but, but. The Shadow Cabinet elections, let's think about that phrase. I found a good and detailed critique of the process on the interesting Life:Downloaded blog but I'll just limit myself to the more obvious points.

Firstly, why do we do this strange thing in Opposition, tying the hands of the Leader as to whom he can have on his team? None of the other parties do it (and, frankly, I don't know of any other party that does it in the Western world, although I'm happy to be proved wrong on this). Do we mistrust our Leaders so much that we have to pre-pick their team in case we don't agree with it? And even if we do, why do we trust them to pick it in government? Let's at least be consistent in our mistrust. It doesn't make any sense.

Secondly, what's this about women quotas? I thought this Harriet-inspired madness had been stopped but it was only a brief reprieve. I just can't agree with my former colleague Hopi Sen that the number of women in the Shadow Cabinet is an urgent problem which needs addressing (it certainly isn't to the electorate, I can guarantee you). Ok, even if we agreed (which, incidentally, I don't) that in some dark corners of the membership there is a latent sexism and racism still lurking that clearly justifies positive discrimination in selection of MPs...surely with the Leader we have just selected, we would at least expect HIM not to be a sexist? So why not just let him choose? Hmmm, no, that doesn't make any sense either.

From the outside world, this political sideshow may at best look quaint. However, if you scratch the surface and look at what we are actually doing, we reinforce the impression that, while pretending to be a modern party, the way we run it is often byzantine, old-fashioned and, not to put too finer point on it, odd. While thinking we look terribly progressive and are a beacon to the right-thinking world, the net result is that the wackier ideas of the PLP and NEC mean we actually make the Tories look good at party organisation, which is going some.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Ed’s defining week

So, after the speech, we now have a much clearer idea of what kind of leader Ed Miliband will be.

With regard to the three points from my last post, he’s doing ok. Does he have a vision? Yes, I think he does. Although it borrows ideas from New Labour, it’s a shift. And despite his “broad church” efforts to maintain “it’s not about right and left”, and a righteous refusal to oppose every Coalition policy for the sake of it, it seems clear that it is a modest move to the left. What’s not clear is whether this is calculated crowd-pleasing for the benefit of Conference, or whether he really means it, but I'm not sure it matters.

When we say the left, we don’t mean, of course, the hard left of the eighties (thank God). It is the soft left, the Kinnockite left, the left of Compass and the more moderate unions. In fact, this was amply demonstrated by the unusually partisan comments of the great man himself – “we’ve got our party back”, he glowed. Leaving aside the fact that such a comment is spectacularly unhelpful in the current political climate and undoes at a stroke his loyal support for the leadership through 13 years of government, it shows that Kinnock was never truly comfortable with New Labour from the start – something you could have also predicted by a close reading of the Campbell diaries.

However, much as we love the man and what he did for the Party, and understanding that perhaps he deserves a moment of vindication after all these years, are he and his politics really the model for a Labour victory? Not meaning to be overly mean, but…he did lose us two general elections, didn’t he?

And so to whether Ed can win an election. We’ll gloss over his stage persona – although at times his speech felt a little like a conference speech from an over-enthusiastic sixth-former (shades of the teenage William Hague’s “the thcourge of thocialism”) – he’s new to big stages. Let’s stick to the realpolitik. If we take the lesson of history, we can see one thing clearly: you don’t need to drag the Labour Party to the left – it’ll go there all on its own if you give it half a chance. You need to drag it to the centre – because there lies power. If you hold it, you hold the initiative and you push the Opposition to where you want them, like on a squash court.

The Tories currently hold the centre, by cleverly using the Lib Dems as cover: those not that interested in politics, like a friend of mine, think the Coalition is in the centre, not the right. She told me the other day that she liked the coalition because the Lib Dems were acting as a brake on the nastier aspects of the Tories. It’s not like that in practice, of course - politically the government is Tory in all but name - but that’s how it’s perceived. And that’s why the Tories have got the centre sewn up right now.

We have to take it back.
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