Saturday, 31 December 2011

Hats off to Val Shawcross

If Andrew Gilligan's blog is to be believed (I admit, a not entirely moot point), we learn, via the excellent Harry's Place, that Val Shawcross, Ken's running-mate in the London mayorals, has commented on the former's lack of wisdom in his choice of friends the extremist Al-Qaradawi, and his comments to Jewish journalist Oliver Finegold that got him suspended as Mayor.

In other words, at last, someone senior in the Labour Party has clocked the damage that these things has caused, as Gilligan says, to the support of "liberals, gay people, Jews, feminists and democrats" for the mayoral campaign, and to the party in general.

Chapeau, Val, for speaking out. I hope you are not the last.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The best of 2011 - who's Number One?

Just in case you missed them first time around, here were the best-read posts of 2011 at the Centre Left:

5. UCU and the siren call of “my enemy’s enemy” - written after the union's extraordinary, Kafkaesque decision, on being accused of anti-semitism, to rewrite what anti-semitism means.

4. The New Politics (reprise) - Huhne’s Reagan Defence - on the decision of Chris Huhne to claim, somewhat implausibly, that he had forgotten all about a night about which exists a taped conversation between him and his wife.

3. Our tolerance of extremism will do for us - on the various attempts of the British left to abhor racism without, whilst tolerating it within.

2. Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse - on Michael Gove's allowing the total exclusion of non-faith teachers

1. A response to Richard Burden MP on racist extremism And, at no. 1, many thanks to Richard Burden MP, for entertaining us with his irony-free plea to exclude a visiting Bible-basher from the UK as a homophobe, while defending overtly homophobic and racist preacher Raed Salah, friend of suicide-bombing terrorists Hamas. Well done, Richard, you really have brought credit on our party with that flawless logic.

Thank you all so much for your continued interest, support and debate through the year. We'll be doing our best to keep it coming this end during 2012.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

2012: A year to fix the party

As our leaders sit back and take stock during the holidays, they might reflect, not just on the daily parliamentary grind against Cameron and the coalition, but of something else: of the time that opposition affords parties to deal with their own problems and, in dealing with them, help show their fitness to govern.

They’re not small, these problems. The unfinished business of the party organisation, freely acknowledged by Tony Blair in A Journey, is coming back to haunt us, as it becomes clear that this year’s exercise of Refounding Labour has done precious little to advance, well, the refounding of anything at all.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

And the winner of the 2011 "Reagan Defence" Award is...

...a late entry, the irrepressible CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, for apparently having forgotten most of his life as editor at the Daily Mirror during yesterday's Leveson inquiry hearings.

He beat off stern competition, however, from News International's Les Hinton (also forgot about phone-hacking during Leveson) and of course the government's very own Chris Huhne (forgot about any details of a rather important speeding ticket).

An eminent field, surely worthy of comparison with the untouchable President Reagan, who memorably forgot about everything that ever happened to do with Iran-Contra.

So, congratulations to Piers. As @SimonNRicketts tweeted yesterday: 

Piers Morgan is only being filmed from the waist up at the #leveson inquiry because his pants are obviously on fire.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Two reactions to extremism

Compare and contrast:

a. Tory MP, snapped next to man dressed as Nazi, sacked
b. Labour MPs invite real, declared anti-Semite to speak at Westminster: still in post.

I am no fan of the Tories, but...something's not right here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

It’s the financial markets, stupid

‘The real game’s not over here’ – Lou Reed
What is the main thing driving the urgency of a solution to the euro crisis? Why, the financial markets, of course. Not because they should be calling the shots, but just the obvious reason, that you need to keep them on board in times of crisis because, if not, in that water there are sharks who will kill you. That is the way it has always been, from the South Sea Bubble to the current crisis.
First of all, there was the summit, which had the UK media, not to mention those in Europe and across the world, in a frenzy. But not about the dismal failure of the summit to agree a credible package to save the euro. No, a much more readable story was Cameron’s walkout and Britain’s isolation. But some softer voices, the business editors and the FT , made the point.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The coalition is on life-support

“Mummy, what is that man for”? This exquisite, though probably apocryphal, comment from a small child has been variously said to be about many politicians over the years, including Herbert Asquith. But Asquith’s successor a century later, Nick Clegg, may suddenly be finding that a real and painful question, as he reflects on the wreckage of last week’s European summit.

But first, what happened: Cameron vetoed a treaty amendment on European integration, leaving the remaining countries no alternative but to set up a separate group which would implement the deal outside the EU. It was technically a veto, but only technically: it stopped nothing. The sticking point was said to be the financial transaction tax (FTT), an oddly unfair idea that a group of countries with relatively small financial sectors could jointly gang up to tax the one country which has an unseasonably large one, and which would certainly have damaged British interests. In that sense he was right to veto. Since the FTT is unfeasible without Britain, it was very likely a deliberate ploy by Sarkozy, as Ben Brogan suggests, to insist on this point which he knew Cameron could not accept, thus removing the “difficult” Cameron from the scene and clearing the way for an EU which might just have a chance of agreeing what it needed to

, this does not mean a triumph for Cameron – far from it. It is, as former Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told John Rentoul, “the worst foreign policy disaster in my adult lifetime”. But not because of the FTT. It is a disaster because it should never have come to this. Sarkozy took this action precisely because he knew Cameron was hamstrung and would never co-operate. Rather than the EU limping around with a British club foot, Sarkozy ruthlessly opted for amputation. But Sarkozy is no fool: he must have seen the attractions of a deal, but didn’t see it as possible.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Flynn: tolerating the intolerable

Last week, two things happened which produced condemnation by our politicians. Jeremy Clarkson appeared on national television threatening to shoot strikers in front of their families. And Paul Flynn MP, interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle, spoke against having a Jewish ambassador for Israel, after suggesting in Parliament that he might be working for a foreign power.

Clarkson is a big-mouth and a boor. He may even, from his recorded comments, be described as casually xenophobic. He is also – many may not realise this – extraordinarily successful at an international level (Top Gear has 350 million viewers per week in 170 countries – believe me, despite their protestations the BBC will not sack him any time soon). I don’t particularly warm to him or his alleged humour, but that’s beside the point.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Miliband the seer, Miliband the invulnerable

Last Thursday, Ed MIliband was speaking at the IPPR on the economy, doughtily willing that Labour’s alternative can soon be heard again, in light of Britain’s increasingly dreadful prospects. In spite of the response of many commentators, that here was a battle he couldn’t win, his words indicated that, on the contrary, he genuinely believes things are going his way on the economy and that Labour merely needs “one more heave”, as Dan Hodges puts it. He and Ed Balls need only keep saying the same thing, and the political tectonic plates will have shifted their way by the general election.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Labour's business: out today

Today, Alex Smith and Luke Bozier launch Labour's Business, their excellent work on how we need to engage with business (rather than alienate it). I've done Chapter 3, Reaching Out: engaging
with business at every level of the party and there are other chapters by Anthony Painter, Hazel Blears and Kitty Usher among others, and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna has done the Foreword. So I am quite honoured to be in such hallowed company.

y, take a look and see what you think, feedback (public or private) most welcome.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

How we all look from the other side of the world

We are all taught at school about the five, or even the seven, continents. But in business and elsewhere many still think of the world in three groupings, matching the three broad time-zones, or the three big financial centres, of the developed world: Europe, America and Asia. In each there exists an informal hub for the Anglophone, Anglo-Saxon world: in Europe there is Britain, in the Americas, the US. In Asia, largely old-world but arguably the most dynamic and developing of the three areas, it is economically confident and rapidly-expanding Australia.

Last week
I was in Sydney and it was fascinating to view our troubled continent from there. While Australia still holds a great affection for Britain (the Royal Wedding was huge), the link pretty much ends at the emotional and historical. Labour Prime Minister – and how tantalising those words sound nowadays – Julia Gillard now presides over an economy which has not known recession since 1991 (not even in the Asian crisis of 1998) and has been protected from the worst of the global financial crisis, largely thanks to an Asia-fuelled boom in demand for its mining output. Its population has doubled in the last half-century and, compared with the UK, jobs are relatively easy to come by, with unemployment currently at around 5%.

The learning point from the comparison? All politics, as Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously observed, is local. Information does not flow as freely across borders as you might think.

First, Australia “gets” the rise of Asia, because it is part of it. In fact, it has spent most of the postwar period aligning itself towards it and away from the British Commonwealth. We in Europe, largely, do not. Yes, we know that China is growing and we must engage. We know we can make things there very cheaply. But we do not, perhaps, recognise just how much and how quickly the geopolitical ball-game is changing because of that. Now, this understanding is not the sole reason for Australia’s success. But its Asian alignment has clearly helped.

the reverse lack of understanding is also true: the euro crisis is probably not being jumped up and down about in Asia simply because its full extent hasn’t yet impinged upon people’s consciousness. “My colleague came back from Europe last week and told me that we just don’t get how big a deal the euro crisis is”, a senior Australian fund manager told me. But this is not good news. Because when other world players really do understand the trouble we’re in, the big hedge funds will really start to move in (Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha, was quoted on Monday as saying the euro had a “major flaw”). What is disturbing is not that such judgements are being made, but the fact they are coming this late in the day implies that, internationally, people are only just waking up to the crisis.

neither is it surprising: our own leaders have taken months to recognise the scale of the crisis, and still seem to be dragging their feet as to the solution. Furthermore, the intricacies of European politics and what the EU actually means are lost on many. From the outside, it is easy to think of the EU as what it is not: a United States of Europe with a universal single currency, a uniform set of laws and free movement of labour.

Third, there is an underlying reason why not those outside Europe might not immediately see the gravity of the situation. Much commentary that you read on the euro crisis, because it is the terrain of specialists, is by economic staff. It is the business editor of this publication or the economics guru of that: after all, their readers, businesspeople and financiers, have a great deal to lose from a possible disaster.

Now, it is sometimes comforting to look at the world as economists do, as a set of reliable mathematical equations. But all models are based on a set of assumptions which have to hold; those same economic commentators may not be quite so well versed in the underlying politics of Europe, with its Byzantine structures at EU level and its long history of irrational, emotionally-tinged politics. If you cannot get your head around the foot-dragging by Europe’s leaders, it is easy to assume that it is because the problem is not all that big. This is a dangerous misreading: it is quite that big, and more. Just because from outside you cannot see the economic logic of failing to prevent an entirely preventable slump in the world’s largest trading bloc, does not mean that Europe’s leaders will behave logically and fix it.

What does all this tell us? Well, we could certainly benefit by taking our stare away from our European navels and looking out to the rest of the world, before they truly wake up to the trouble we’re in. Not only could they teach us that the real game is being played out far from Europe and we had better shape up: they would also be unlikely to forgive us easily for dragging them and the rest of the world into recession.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Centre Left goes to...Australia!

The Centre Left is, as they say in all the best rock bands, "on hiatus" (usually, apparently, around the time they start "not feeling it") for a couple of weeks.

On the minus side, the last major left-wing government in Europe, Spain, will probably fall while I'm away (although a last-minute rush for Rubalcaba is still possible, given that the alternative is fairly awful). Come to think of it, so might the rest of Europe, which might have me returning to a dystopian, Mad Max landscape, peopled by hordes of marauding Greeks. Ok, maybe not.

On the plus side, I will land in one of the only (perhaps the only) major left-wing democracies left in the West (and no, a cohabiting Obama does not count). And the surfing is apparently rather good, too.

Who knows, I may return to regale you of tales of how Labour Party Prime Minister Julia Gillard explained to me how the left could win again in the UK (it worked for Tony Blair with Paul Keating, after all, as noted here). Well, as I'm going to Sydney and I imagine she works in Canberra, coupled with the fact that, er, she has no idea who I am, probably not. However, I should note that my former Party colleague and fellow Labour Uncut writer, John McTernan, has just disappeared off to be her spin doctor. So you never know how or when those learning points might filter back to the UK to win the day for Labour...

See you all in a couple of weeks.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The world still doesn’t know about the PSC

Well, from my New Statesman article last Friday about anti-semitism, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and their fellow-travellers, I learned a couple of things: that there are an awful lot of crazy people in the world, most of whom, it seemed, wanted to comment on my piece; and that there are also sensible, decent people on the left who simply don’t know this stuff is going on.

Anyway, since PSC chair Hugh Lanning has now posted a response piece at the NS, I should try and correct what he has said.  It is not difficult to take apart his argument, but I shall do it, for completeness and because I am, frankly, a bit bloody-minded.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Labour vindicated on the economy? Not so fast

Polly Toynbee
On Monday Alastair Campbell ran a positive blog piece which points out that a billion pounds worth of infrastructure projects signals a change in the Tories’ previous policy of “no plan B”:

“It is not exactly plan B. But it is an admission of sorts that plan A isn’t working, that their hope that the private sector would fill the gap left by their huge cuts in the public sector (most of which are yet to be felt incidentally) was exactly that – a hope.
Now that the hope has been shown to be largely hopeless, their magic wand having failed to deliver, and more bad figures due this week, they are having to turn back to good old-fashioned public money kickstarting. And about time too.” 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Cameron’s history notes 1: Achilles, revisited

Last week, David Cameron had a bad week. But it’s important to understand what kind of a bad week. He’s had not a defeat, but a sour victory in the Commons against his own rebels; but so did Tony Blair on two memorable occasions – Iraq and tuition fees – when he feared he might have to resign, and didn’t. These things, although nerve-wracking at the time, are to some extent part and parcel of being a prime minister.

The extent of the defeat, though large, was rather to be expected over an issue as touchy as Europe and the relative weakness of his electoral position. However, neither does his government look “in office but not in power”, as Norman Lamont described the Major government. And his rebuke by Sarkozy for trying to interfere in a subject, the euro, which Britain long ago put on the long finger its joining up, was also to be expected. Many have criticized his handling of the Commons vote, saying that he was looking for a fight; but it is hardly his fault that half of his backbenchers defy rationality on this subject. And some believe that, despite the bad headlines, he called it right.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Anti-Semitism is the new black

My second piece for the New Statesman is here. It's also the no. 2 post over the last couple of days appearing in the Most Popular section on the NS site.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Competition for the Reagan Defence Award, 2011

For those who followed the wonderful story of Chris Huhne's extraordinary inability to remember important events about his wife's driving offence - the "Reagan Defence", in honour of the ex-President who miraculously forgot all details of the Iran-Contra affair - today's news is that he's got competition.

Simon Hoggart delightfully recounts the appearance of
Les Hinton, the former executive chairman of News International, who could not answer a question seven times during his appearance before the House of Commons culture committee regarding phone hacking. But, as Tom Watson MP gleefully pointed out, this was an improvement: during his previous appearance, his memory had failed a total of thirty-two times.

Watch it, Chris: your crown's not safe yet.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Polling, polling, polling. Raw hide?

Image: CBS
(With profuse apologies to the late Frankie Laine, or the Blues Brothers, depending on your generation. Sorry about that.)

Just in case anyone is still feeling a bit too upbeat after Mark Ferguson's piece yesterday at LabourList, a question: is our polling taking a turn for the better, or giving us a good kicking?

Five months ago we took a look, here at the Centre Left, at whether Labour's poll lead was soft or hard, and concluded the former. However, a year into the new leadership, it behoves us to take another look, to see whether the picture has improved or declined since then. In particular, a Populus poll for the Times at the weekend has sent many Labour pulses racing by showing an 8-point lead over the Tories.

It's also notable that, during conference week, there was a marked split between left-leaning commentators on how things had gone, especially that Leader's Speech. Few had a nuanced view on it: people either thought it had finally encapsulated Ed Miliband's vision and made it connect with people, or thought it fuzzy, vague and windy. The really important thing, of course, is simple: did the public engage with the vision or not? If it did, it should surely be reflecting in the polls.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

ETA: really the beginning of the end?

In recent days, rather extraordinary news has been breaking about the last remaining home-grown terrorist group in Europe. Yesterday a conference in San Sebastian, involving no lesser figures than Kofi Annan, Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams, reached out to ETA and it is strongly felt that a positive response is likely. Other notable figures such as Tony Blair have been involved with the consultations. However, although it may seem strange, no national Spanish politicians attended, for reasons we shall now explore. This begs a few important questions:

1. Why is it happening now?
It seems to have resulted from two things: a growing popular movement for peace (the conference was organised by the “social collective” Lokarri) and positive indications on the part of ETA itself.

While ETA has clearly been in slow decline ever since the “decapitation” of its leadership in 1992, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the timing has everything to do with the impending general election on 2o November, which the conservative PP seem very likely to win: a recent poll gave them a whopping 18% lead over the socialist PSOE. While both parties refused to attend the meeting, they have different reasons.

The PSOE got its fingers burned in 2006: Prime Minister Zapatero agreed for contacts to be made, then was made to look foolish and naïve when the ceasefire collapsed. The PP, on the other hand, has historically been strongly against any kind of contact with ETA and pursued a very hard-line policy when in power under the Aznar administration. It has also, on occasion, played populist politics with the issue by siding with terrorist victims’ organisations, who have a powerful voice and who have also taken a hard-line position. For this reason, when ETA announced a further ceasefire in January, both main parties treated it with scepticism, and neither now want to take a big risk in the middle of an election campaign. That does not mean they do not see possibilities. However, ETA know very well that if the PP win, this may all become very difficult unless an unstoppable momentum is built up beforehand.

2. Are they serious? 
It seems so. They actually announced the ceasefire in January this year: problem was, they had cried wolf in 2006 and no-one believed them. Having thus squandered nearly eight years of Socialist government, an environment which obviously made for a better chance of peace, ETA must also, if they have any seriousness at all about disarmament, realise that the involvement of these international figures, as well as the timing, gives them the best possible chance they are likely to get to negotiate for at least another four, or even eight, years. That said, others are accusing ETA and the organisers of “theatricising” the process.

3. What’s the reaction so far?
According to El Pais, the PP leader and likely next Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has been dismissive in public, while instructing his political lieutenants to play the subject down while he formulates his own strategy, so as not to convert it into a major campaign issue. In fact, he “just happened” to visit the Basque country yesterday himself to meet business leaders, deliberately giving the impression of nonchalance about the peace conference nearby. But, privately, he knows ETA is on the way out – it’s just a question of when. And they are banking on the fact that the Socialists won’t have time to make political capital out of it before the election.

As for the Socialists, their prime ministerial candidate, Rubalcaba, has been quiet and cautious: he does not want to rock the election boat, for now at least. Others have been more forthright: the Basque Socialist regional president, Patxi López, called it “magnificent news”. And the still-influential Spanish ex-president, Felipe Gonzalez, criticised the PP for their public dismissal of the conference: “every time we approach the end of ETA, there are certain people who try and distance themselves from it, and deny that it’s true”.

4. And the impact on national politics? 
Conceivably, it could be big, but the real answer is “it depends”. The question is this: in an election where Rubalcaba is in serious danger of being crushed, will he risk diverting his campaign and aligning himself more strongly with the peace process, in order that he can both help support it – being in the party of government – and, of no little importance, win support for his own re-election so he can see it through? One could argue that he hasn’t much to lose but, whatever happens, he must tread carefully and look like a prime-minister-in-waiting putting the country’s interest first, not a desperate politician clutching at straws. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s yet another false start.

On the other hand, if this were to become the defining issue of the campaign, and the PP were to come down on the wrong side of it, it is conceivable that the PP could yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, just as their fatal misjudgement in wrongly attributing the Madrid bombing to ETA (in the face of clear evidence to the contrary) cost them the 2004 election. Although perhaps still highly unlikely, it would be an extraordinary irony for a party to lose two out of three elections for the same reason: ETA. But such is the persistent influence of the conflict in this little region on Spanish politics.

Two things, though, are pretty much certain: first, that ETA is weak and, sooner or later, will disarm. And second, that this rather lacklustre and predictable general election campaign just got interesting.

This post first published at Left Foot Forward

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

Delighted to announce my first-ever guest piece at the New Statesman: see it here.

STOP PRESS 29/10/2011:

My fine fellow blogger Emma Burnell, whose piece on personal experiences is linked in the article, has recorded this short film for Andrew Neil's Daily Politics.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

We can’t spend another 50 years like this

As I meander through Hugo Young’s outstanding A Blessed Plot, a highly readable history of Britain’s vexed relationship with Europe, the theme of head-in-the-sand denial of the inevitable is a constant one.

One particularly striking thing is that the fundamental arguments have not really changed, and that Britain’s attitude has usually been one of fatal underestimation of the capacity of "the Continentals" to pull the project off and go ahead without them. Again and again, Britain thinks that further integration will not happen. Again and again, it is flummoxed and irritated when it does.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

To boldly go... Ed's relationship with enterprise

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. So, the ship has now set a course and we’ve done the crew changeover. It may be a course that not everyone’s happy with, but let’s face it: they never are, are they? And at least there is a course. The Tory conference wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t exactly a runaway success, either: what with Teresa May’s cats and Cameron’s dogs, it seemed sometimes that it was raining very hard indeed last week. And the mess now being caused by Liam Fox has helped us. So let’s be thankful for small mercies and look to the future.

In a year’s time, we’ll be looking to the completion of the policy review. We will be practically at the electoral midpoint, and will know for sure whether regaining the London mayoralty was a real possibility or a pipe-dream (the tea-leaves, admittedly, do not look good on this one). We will then be able to start setting broad policy lines in serious, and start long-term planning for the next election. Things aren’t so bad, right?

This, at least, seems to be more or less what conventional wisdom in the party is saying right now. Full speed ahead, we’re on our way. The question is, of course: is this a realistic assessment of where we are? Casting an eye over the three major political developments over the last two weeks – not forgetting the euro crisis, which is likely to have a further, substantial impact on everything – it doesn’t look it. We know that a deliberate step-change has been made as regards the riskiness of the strategy; but it’s useful to look at just how much.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Where the Tories are weak

While we are still in the throes of reforming our Party (although that debate is pretty much over, it seems) and defining our policies, we are in some ways a little hamstrung. However, there still is one thing that we can do well on an everyday basis: be a good opposition and attack the government. As they are the senior partner in the coalition, and while we are in Tory conference week, it seems appropriate to focus on the Tories. And, after all, their junior partner may well not even be around to worry about after 2015, at least as part of the government.

This requires a certain looking at our opponents with calm and rational eyes, rather than seeing them as the evil Tories, bent on destroying our country (although they might do a good impression of the latter). While on the one hand, we accept that all Shadow portfolios need to spend their lives bashing their counterparts, there are some which are more likely to bear fruit than others. And, to get maximum impact, we need to understand where they are stronger as well as where they are weaker, so as not to spend our time banging our heads against a brick wall. Or rather as Sun Tzu put it in The Art Of War:
"Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoid the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes waste much time and energy trying to argue the toss on arguments we are losing.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Vision and denial

“The system has failed”, ran the original headline for the speech write-up chosen by the BBC, though they later changed it. But it has not. Britain has problems, yes. But it is not, in Cameron’s words, broken, however politically convenient it might be for either party to use that as a basis for change. And this was by no means a terrible speech; but its fundamental premise of moral decline was flawed, and it became a disappointing, and slightly alarming one.

In fact, in the wonderfully reassuring and welcoming bubble of a party conference, it is rather difficult to give a truly bad speech. The trick is not to sink into the soft, comfy armchair of audience acclaim and be drowned in its melting, enveloping embrace, like in some bad horror movie. Crowd pleasing is easy but, as Ed is only too aware, the real audience is outside.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Centre Left's conference week highlights

It's been an eventful week at my first conference in eight years, if extremely mixed politically (I know it's not over yet, but do you really think it's worth staying till Thursday? I'm home already). On Sunday the Refounding Labour party reform package was passed, including some difficult-to-justify gender quotas for the Shadow Cabinet, Leader and Deputy Leader. The Sunday night Progress fringe, which I attended and wrote up for them here, was an excellent show featuring the best of the Labour Party's sensible squad, as well as a barnstorming speech by Ivan Lewis, surely a good tip for higher things.

On Monday, Ed Balls' speech gave cause for modest cheering, when he agreed to long-term fiscal targets to aid our financial credibility. But it was only the first baby step along a long road. But the Leader's speech was both disappointing and worrying: I have a blow-by-blow analysis piece here. There are some other very good articles about it and its aftermath by two fellow bloggers I finally met in the flesh (instead of on Twitter), Anthony Painter and Atul Hatwal, not to mention the usual forensic analysis by John Rentoul. But the upshot is that the speech has not taken us anywhere and, indeed, it seems that Miliband spent much of Wednesday morning justifying it in the TV studios. Worse still, it had ecstatic crits from the current bunch of union leaders, not to mention mad Seumas Milne from the Guardian. Not a good sign.

That same morning Andrew Neil also asked Andy Burnham whether the passage in Ed's speech about responsibility meant we were now going to differentiate between the "deserving poor and the undeserving poor". Which, of course, was exactly what it meant. Poor Andy was cornered. But it wasn't his fault, he was just defending the indefensible, like a good lieutenant. The problem, I'm afraid, was caused by the general.

Difficult, difficult times for Labour.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Leader’s speech: holding our breath

Let’s get things straight. This is not a make-or-break speech (very few are, as John Rentoul recently pointed out). Only a small number of people, apart from the political media and the usual political anoraks, may even pay this speech much attention, for reasons which are, to be fair, not Ed’s fault at all.

To wit: we are a quarter-way through a now-stable electoral cycle, all three main leaders and the government look secure. Labour are highly unlikely to form a government before 2015 and quite conceivably not even then. Many journalists, in the unusual situation of coalition, perceive that the Lib Dems are providing as much of an opposition function within government as Labour are without it, and often pay more attention to their words (as they are more likely to have a direct effect on outcomes) than those of Labour.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Centre Left goes to Liverpool

So, arrived in Liverpool for Labour Party conference. Writing this in a somewhat, er, basic hotel in Bank Hall, one of the perhaps slightly less beautiful parts of the city (no, it's not the area in the photo). Which, for the record, I have booked, and to which I have travelled some distance at my own expense. This, dear reader, is the glamorous, jet-set life of the political blogger.

Let's be honest, party conference attendance is not exactly a majority interest, is it? Looking around me, I get to thinking what, perhaps, normal men of my age might be doing this Saturday night.

Come on: strange I may be, but I defy you to look me in the eye and say that I do not love my party.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The euro paradox: the lesson is better institutions, not less

This week, our sleepy European politicians seem to be waking up to the dangers of the euro crisis: even George Osborne seems to be starting to panic just a little. Aside from the delicious irony of a Euro-sceptic Tory Chancellor arguing for more integration, there are important lessons which we need to be drawing.
Britain, it is surely obvious, will be as affected by a euro-zone disaster as much as any other major European country; that is, an awful lot. To disabuse oneself of Osborne's rather ill-judged recent suggestion that the pound is a "safe haven", one has to look no further than the euro-sterling exchange rate, which has barely budged over recent months. In simple terms, the markets are discounting the fact that the economies are rather locked together, and that what ever miserable misfortune may befall the euro and Europe is likely also to be visited on sterling and the UK in similar measure.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The seven-year itch: a cautionary tale of tax, cuts and debt

There was this bloke. And there was this girl. They met, fell in love, got married, usual story. It was a big, special wedding – everybody went. A match made in heaven, everyone said. People came out of their houses to wave as they went to the church. Kind of wedding that fills everyone with hope for the future.

She was popular, always a lot of boys round her. But she was smart, knew what she wanted. Sometimes it looked like she wasn’t paying much attention, but she did when it counted. Didn’t stand for any nonsense. He, on the other hand, was a bit of a tearaway. Heart in the right place, but not very together, a lot of the time. And a drinker. A long history, in fact. Lots of girlfriends, but in the end, they all went, because of the drink. But not this one: this time it’d be different.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The boy Miliband done good

So, Ed got boos and catcalls at the TUC - as it happens, catcalls which are, rightly or wrongly, likely to be very useful indeed for his standing in the country, as Jack McConnell points out, showing as it does that he is standing outside of what is likely to be a very unpopular and widespread program of strike action.

In fact, although the media has tried to make a big deal of this, as usual, in the end 
it seemed almost uneventful. What they didn't really focus on is that the heckling largely came from non-affiliated unions, which have chosen not to take any part in the Labour Party's structures, and the fact of the heckling may have had as much to do with an increased militancy on the part of  these non-affiliated unions as it has to do with any serious falling-out between Labour and unions.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Scottish Labour: everyone’s problem

I imagine that, in the run-up to his conference speech - and having had a rather unexpectedly busy summer - Ed Miliband is turning his thoughts to his grand plan for Britain. And rightly - this will be a defining moment for his leadership. But, at the same time, it might be a little too easy to forget a rather pressing issue north of the border.

Now, it seems clear that Labour failed to win in 2007, and was decimated in 2011, largely because it stopped having a convincing argument for the electorate, as in Westminster. But, unlike Labour nationally, it has already had four years to regroup from the initial defeat, and is patently going backwards rather than forwards. For a country which has been dominated by Labour for surely the majority of the last century, it has been a fall from a great height indeed. And it's not over yet.

Friday, 2 September 2011

For your entertainment, an update on the delightful Mr Chávez

I know it’s starting to become a bit of an obsession, but I can’t help myself. Since my letter some time back asking why supposedly respectable trade unionists from the TUC were giving backing to the anti-democratic, constitution-twisting President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, a few more nuggets have surfaced:

  • A few weeks ago, Chávez decided to repatriate all gold reserves held abroad (as well as, at the same time, nationalising the entire domestic and foreign gold-mining industry). When concerns were expressed on how the treasury might find space for it all on its return, he kindly offered the basement of the presidential palace as a suitable location. The aim suggested by Reuters, to help prop up the economy ahead of next year’s elections, seems more than plausible, however I am sure that there is also complete separation between that fine democratic leader and the Venezuelan state on this one, and that the gold reserves would be perfectly safe there from, say, suddenly disappearing into a Swiss bank account.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Labour must never be allowed to get this broke again

Yesterday the Guardian reported that proposed new rules for party funding could result in the Labour Party being "ruined". But this is only a metaphorical straw landing on a camel with an already decidedly poorly back.
Peter Mandelson's memoirs are interesting for many reasons, but one of the most important is as the first insider account of the Brown government and the 2010 general election campaign. What I hadn't realised, as a former party staffer, and what blew me away, was just how tight money was in relation to the two previous elections, for both of which I'd been on the payroll.

Part of the reason is for external factors beyond the party's control: membership of all political parties is down, and Labour's larger corporate and individual donations all but dried up following tougher declaration rules that it itself introduced, and the subsequent 2007 funding controversy, which resulted in the resignation - and subsequent clearing - of General Secretary Peter Watt. This has left only one real source - union donations - to fill the gap.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Brand the Tories right wing? I Woodwouldn’t

Oh dear. To read the Observer report of Shaun Woodward’s leaked memo on how Labour should attack the Tories, the question which springs to mind is not so much, is this going to be genuine Labour strategy as, what on earth was he thinking?

The thrust of the piece is that Labour should attack the Tories for reverting from their “cuddly conservative” projection to a more traditional right-wing positioning, and to make this the Brown-style “dividing line” between us and them, on which we should base our attack.

Now, there is much to be said for dividing lines, indeed their judicious use has been a great help to Labour over the last twenty years. And there is no doubt that Cameron is now pursuing a more right-wing agenda than was being projected in the run-up to the general election. However, for a whole raft of reasons, Woodward has badly miscalculated.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Hard choices (reprise)

Nearing the end of the Mandelson memoirs: love or hate the Prince of Darkness, they are essential reading for those who want to understand Labour's last twenty years, and the Brown years in particular. Memoirs must always be read with the caveat that you view the world through the author’s prism. However, at their best, they can be fascinating in revealing, through events, the strengths and weaknesses of personalities.

And what do we find, tucked away on page 526, but a little insight into the mind of Ed Miliband - written, of course, before he ever became party leader - on Labour's 2010 manifesto, which he wrote: 

"It adopted radical rhetoric, but when it was boiled down it was vague and appeared to avoid any hard choices."

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Warning: Euro-iceberg approaching

As we pass an unusually newsworthy summer on the domestic front with phone-hacking and riots, not to mention economic wobbles in the US and China, let alone Libya, it might be wise to return for a moment to the iceberg edging towards our own continent, its long-term significance for Britain ultimately liable to outstrip all these things.

For a measure of just how significant, you must admit that it is newsworthy, not to say deliciously ironic, when that full-blooded Tory George Osborne finds himself somewhat sheepishly agreeing that 
"the remorseless logic of monetary union leads from a single currency to greater fiscal integration". 
In other words: you Euro-chaps really should get cracking on giving away more sovereignty. 

Excuse me? As Nick Cohen relates: 
“We have become so used to hearing it that we fail to notice the strangeness of a eurosceptic Tory chancellor begging Europeans to integrate faster...Osborne is panicking because the theories of what will happen if the EU tries to keep muddling on and a major European country defaults range from the alarming to the catastrophic. Liquidity would freeze, British banks' capital would be wiped out, Britain would go back into recession…and the deficit balloon beyond control…he must support a policy he has spent his career opposing.” 

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Labour’s riots response: wrong on tactics, wrong on strategy

It was a mere few days ago that we were praising the willingness of a reinvigorated Ed Miliband to make hard decisions. The dumping of the Shadow Cabinet elections. The explicit non-backing for an unpopular strike. Most striking of all, two occasions on which he had gone out on a limb against powerful interests – even though the endgame of both is still uncertain – his sure-footed handling of the parliamentary debate on phone-hacking, which finally had Cameron on the back foot; and his determination to adjust the representation of unions in party decision-making.

It seemed like Labour had things all sewn up for the summer recess, and we could look forward to a renewing summer break and a gentle trot into conference season, enjoying the first truly glad, confident morning of the Miliband leadership. But oh, how quickly events can intervene, dear boy.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The week the tectonic plates shifted

Night view from the Peace Hotel, Shanghai
Think for a moment, if you can, beyond the riots. Beyond the slow-burning flames engulfing parts of the Murdoch empire. Beyond the British cuts and the British growth problem, to that delicate balancing of immense forces which is global geopolitics.

And, last week, amongst the domestic news, you saw some truly momentous events. Some momentous in themselves, some merely telling indicators, signifying how far we’ve come incrementally along a historical road.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Parliamentary recall: the return of gesture politics

So, parliament is to be recalled for a day to debate the disturbances in London and elsewhere. Now, there is clearly an arguable case for the home secretary, the mayor of London and even the Prime Minister to be there for COBRA, but...parliament? Why?

First, a necessity for parliament sitting arises if we need to pass laws. Is there a need, as blogger Pat Osgood sensibly pointed out, for primary legislation? Of course there is not.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

In the hands of the many, not the few

So, we are having a debate about the role of unions in the Party. Perhaps Ed, as my Uncut colleague Peter Watt suggests, is on a hiding to nothing: he is paddling against a strong current of realpolitik that dictates that this cannot change, at least whilst the party is taking ninety per cent of its donations from unions.

But, this aside, perhaps we should examine something more important: rather than whether Ed will win, we should look at whether or not Ed is right.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

How pseudo-democracy fools us all

Democracy, as even that oft-pessimistic Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, noted in his rather good volume Age Of Extremes, is one of the great unsung advances of the twentieth century. The post-war period, especially, saw a huge increase in the proportion of the population living in democracies, a development for which we should all be thankful. Think about it: just India, Russia and South America account for around a quarter of the world’s population and, within the space of a mere half-century, all had flipped over to democracy.

But there is a caveat. Before all this, countries were largely either undemocratic (that is, totalitarian or feudal) or democratic. No messing about. It was the Allies versus the fascists, or the West versus the USSR and China. That’s not to say Britain wasn’t friendly to some awful regimes, but you knew that and accepted it as realpolitik. In the old days, you knew where you were. There were some foolish people who pretended the USSR was free, but they were just that – foolish.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Racism: you couldn’t make this stuff up

“Appeasing racists and the...ideology that is behind them does not lead to success or cohesion. Concessions and encouragement...lead them to demand and get more.”
Jeremy Corbyn MP, who continues to defend racist Islamist preacher Raed Salah, rightly vilifies white racists in the Morning Star

But without, apparently, seeing the slightest hint of irony.
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