Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Interview: Andrew Adonis

April 21, 2013

Lord Adonis, Progress AGM, London, England

London Euston and Virgin Trains make an annoying double act. Not only does it take longer than you think to get to your departure platform, but once you’re there, and assuming you could only afford a standard class ticket, you have to walk past at least four gleaming and unspoilt first class carriages before you reach a seat you have the right to sit in.

The reason rail travel is so expensive, despite the government’s generosity to the train operating companies, is because standard class ticket holders subsidise empty first class seats. If Virgin replaced just one of their first class carriages with standard class accommodation they could sell another 70-odd cheap tickets instead of nothing. If I have my sums right, that means more money for the train companies for negligible extra cost and cheaper travel for UK taxpayers.

I put this theory to Lord Andrew Adonis, the former Secretary of State for Transport, in his Parliamentary office. It sounds like he’s heard it before. “I agree,” he says, “and I think the government should do something about it, myself.” With my policy proposal accepted, my work here is done. Hang on though, why didn’t you do anything about it while you were in charge of the country’s transport network?

Adonis reminds me that he managed to achieve a fair amount in his 20-month tenure at the DfT in the final years of the Labour government, such as nationalising the East Coast Mainline. “Every day I was Transport Secretary I would come in in the morning with five or six specific things that I wanted done. There’s always more to be done,” he concedes.

The 2010 Election put Adonis’s transport policy checklist on hiatus. After leading Labour’s ultimately fruitless attempt to forge a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he left the front bench and took up the post of director at the non-partisan Institute for Government. As of autumn last year he is back in the fold as Labour’s spokesman on infrastructure in the Lords, shadowing former Locog chief Lord Deighton.

His flagship cause at the IfG was the expansion of the London Mayor model to other cities. The London Mayoralty has been a “phenomenal success”, Adonis says, particularly in integrating public transport, and he believes elected mayors for metropolitan areas, with genuine powers over transport, regeneration, policing and skills, would bring sorely needed prosperity to regional economies that have been struggling compared with London.

The important aspect of this model is to preserve the powers of local authorities. The reason that seven of eight cities to hold referenda last year rejected elected mayors was because, Adonis says, “existing local councillors were opposed to it. To put it bluntly, they saw it as a threat to their own position and it was.”

Speaking of regional economies, what does Adonis think of the claims that his project for high speed rail will, instead of bringing growth to Birmingham and Manchester, merely turn them into glorified dormitory towns within easy reach of London, inflating only their property prices?

He is strenuous in his rebuttal. “Speak to the mayors of Lille, Lyon and Marseille and none of them are saying, ‘please, take our high speed trains away because all our business is being sucked into Paris!’ The people who are using these ludicrous arguments are by and large those who for other reasons, mainly Nimby reasons, are opposed to high speed rail.”

He argues that the cities waiting for HS2 are already rich in culture and there is no danger for investment to disappear to London. On the contrary, high speed rail will give the north greater capacity to grow; he cites a strong correlation between journey times to London and a town’s economic output, with Oxford and Reading’s gross value added outstripping that of Plymouth and Middlesbrough.

A line we heard the other week from Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Amersham, was that “the first phase of construction should be between the Northern cities rather than between Birmingham and London”. Now, this may be just another Nimby excuse, but is there not a case to start in the north and build south? Perhaps, but the reason to start in the south “is simply because the most congested parts of the West Coast Main Line are in the south.”

If Labour were in power, “we would get on with it. This government is utterly useless at delivering anything. It’s three years now since I published the plan for HS2 – they haven’t even managed to complete a public consultation. We still do not have the legislation even for south of Birmingham. They’re talking now of it not even coming forward for another year.”

As a believer in “getting things done”, what does Adonis make of his biggest fan in the Conservative party, Michael Gove, who has since 2010 put the academies programme on a course of steroids?

He supports Gove’s replacement of underperforming comprehensive schools with academies, a policy Adonis first set up in the 10 Downing Street policy unit and implemented as Minister for Schools. He is less keen on other aspects of the Education Secretary’s programme – which took another twist the day before we meet when Gove binned plans for an English Baccalaureate Certificate. “He has developed a lot of right-wing claptrap including a lot of stuff he’s had to reverse, including his entire policy on curriculum and assessments. It was always mad to seek to replace the GCSE with a 1970s exam system.”

Adonis warns Labour against allowing the Conservatives to claim the academies policy as their own; he describes it as a mission to demolish social inequality. “I’d love to make private schools obsolete. What I want them to do is become academies – a number of independent schools have already gone down that route.”

We can see the fee-paying, selective Westminster School from Adonis’s window. It could be a different situation after a generation of the academies programme. “If you could get outstanding education at Pimlico Academy, why would you pay £35,000 to go to Westminster?”

“It’s not respectable in this country to say that you’re buying social privilege but it is respectable to say you’re buying a better education. So if we can remove the better education imperative behind people going private, then I think we can deal with the social exclusivity quite quickly.”

He highlights the impact that Teach First has had in getting highly qualified graduates into the teaching profession. He views the two-year contract as essential because the traditional career path is too daunting for many graduates; but a majority of participants have kept teaching beyond the initial period. “Almost all those people would not have applied in the first place if it wasn’t for Teach First.”

He is now championing the same approach in social care, with Frontline (previously trailed as “Care First”) to be launched in the summer. The scheme will focus on vulnerable young people and address the fact that the profession has been “too amorphous”, without the definition needed to attract enough talented young people.

Lord Adonis’s interests appear eclectic, but – from the growth unlocked by infrastructure to increasing opportunity for disadvantaged young people – they all come together to address “the single biggest challenge facing the country”: eradicating youth unemployment.

This will be the key to Labour’s election strategy but as well as “economic credibility” and “hope” – which are givens – he stresses, “It’s almost always true that the party that has the most credible reform programme is the one that wins elections. It is essential that we don’t allow the Conservatives to paint themselves as the party of change and us as the party of the status quo.”

To date Ed Miliband has defined his leadership of the Labour party by talking of a different approach to capitalism. As one of the highest-profile Blairites still active in Labour how does he view capitalism since the 2008 crash? How will Miliband’s concepts such as predistribution – the idea that we can no longer rely on public spending to increase living standards – and the need to stifle predatory capitalism translate into policies?

Predistribution – “an ugly phrase”, he reckons – “is about jobs with prospects… in terms of pay, training and career development.” Labour paid “too little attention” to median wages when in government, Adonis admits; they didn’t recognise “a problem in the number of jobs the economy was generating”, and assumed “economic growth would take care of pay levels”.

The answer to this is “a work and train route between schools and jobs”. “For every three higher education places there are for 19-year-olds there’s only one decent apprenticeship – we need there to be the same number of each and that’s a huge social and industrial challenge, but it goes to the heart of the mission of the next Labour government.”

He stresses the importance of the public sector setting an example by taking on apprentices – something the coalition have been “terrible” on – but I still get the sense that while Labour may have a narrative that resonates with the electorate, headline policies that a future government can go out and get done are still thin on the ground.

That said, Andrew Adonis is both a thinker and a doer – an unquestionable asset to any political party, and therefore one Labour is lucky to have.

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of the Young Fabians’ magazine, Anticipations. The interview took place in February.

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I humbly offer Obama my strategy for winning in 2012

January 10, 2012

An extract from Thomas Frank’s book Pity The Billionaire in the Guardian on Saturday explained how the Republican Party has managed to wrest a post-crash populist agenda away from the Democrats since Barack Obama starting trying to lift the USA out of the economic mess George Bush had left him with.

The Tea Party that drove the GOP’s congressional successes in 2010 and now the Republican presidential candidates seem to be getting away with ludicrous claims that what the economy needs is a smaller state and less regulation to return to health. Frank’s article contains many terrifying examples of their views. Rather than the lack of financial regulation, Republicans believe it was housing policy that led to the economic meltdown in 2008. Somehow they appear to be winning the argument with the people, with polls showing more Americans blaming big government than big business for economic woes.

Obama has struggled to make an impact in political debate over the past few years, ever since the wrangles over the healthcare reforms. Apparently this is due to his love of being correct, rather than playing to the crowd and appealing to their emotions, which the Republicans have mastered. Put simply, it’s the triumph of heart over head, and it’s been going on for ages. Drew Westen wrote a book about it. And Obama still seems to get it wrong.

According to Republicans, Obama is some hideous hybrid of a socialist, a fascist, and a communist, which is funny, given that he’s so nice and cares about poor people getting healthcare. But while you can demolish their case from now until Super Tuesday, the GOP have a narrative that gets traction with the public.

Obama needs a narrative of his own, and while he made a decent stab at it in Kansas last month, it needed more fear. So why doesn’t he try something like this:

  • Republicans want unfettered capitalism, but as we all know, among the many corporations that make a positive difference to the nation, there are irresponsible and unethical businessmen and companies who fire productive workers, asset-strip profitable businesses, and decimate communities, all for short-term gain that does nothing to sustain economic growth.
  • The United States has only got to the level of prosperity it enjoyed into the early twenty-first century thanks to the intervention of the Federal Government after the Depression to ensure that corporations act in the national interest and that all Americans who strive can succeed and prosper.
  • Without the New Deal, the human cost of the Depression could have been even higher. Communism was on the march across the world and without the federal government America was at risk of falling prey to it.
  • From 1932 to 1990, what defeated the Soviet Union was not a weak United States government who didn’t care about their people – it was an active and bold government that supported the rise in living standards that became the envy of the Eastern bloc, inspired its people to demand more, and led to the crumbling of the biggest existential threat to the USA we have ever known. FDR knew what effective government could do, Truman knew this, Eisenhower knew this, JFK knew this, Ronald Reagan knew this.
  • It was only when politicians started dismantling the framework that had supported long term economic growth did the markets spiral out of control and the country fall to earth with a bump.
  • If my Republican opponent becomes President and starts dismantling everything we’ve done to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis and support the American People in these difficult times, then in a decade’s time we’ll see another crisis. Next time, however, there will be no safety net.
  • The communists believed that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own downfall and clear the way for communism – this is the downfall that another banking collapse will create. For 70 years the United States kept communism at bay through a system of responsible capitalism which protects the less fortunate and restrains the worst excesses of business. We are now in danger of tearing this down.
  • My opponents have long said I’m a communist. If I were really a communist, then you’d think I would be fully behind the efforts to create unfettered capitalism, given that it would be the best way to bring about a communist society. I invite you to look at me, and look at my opponents and ask yourself: who is the real communist in this race?

Obama, you might want to find some evidence to back up the points I’ve given you here, but, judging by your opponents, you might not actually need it.

Having said all that, Mitt Romney’s challengers to the title have, much like the Tories of late, started attacking irresponsible big business as part of their populist campaign. Should Romney end up with the nomination, Obama will have Newt and Ricky P to thank for the groundwork.

Why you should be unimpressed by the deficit debate

December 9, 2011

Since 2009, Labour has not explained what it would cut if it were in government right now. Now the latest budget forecasts suggest that if Labour wins the next election, it would have to continue making cuts. They have a dilemma: they need to restore their economic credibility by having a plan for reducing the UK’s debt, but if they announce the sort of things they would cut, it may reduce their core support. As a Labour party member, Politics graduate and someone who has an A-level grasp of economics, I’ve been unsatisfied with the debate around this. So I’m going to explore this area of policy as a lay person and see if I can either come up with any answers, or conclude that we really are screwed. In this piece I’ll start with regurgitating what I understand. (Disclaimer: this is pretty stream-of-consciousness, so no references I’m afraid.)

Labour’s main problem

Except when you have a war, a strong economy is what normally wins incumbent parties elections, and a weak economy is what lets opposition parties in. To be more precise, it is a perception of economic competence that will secure a party’s place in government. The past two changes of government can be explained this way: Labour won in 1997 because even though the economy had been growing for the previous 3-4 years, the Conservatives’ ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism had destroyed their reputation as economic managers. In 2010, Labour was given the heave-ho because of the perception that, notwithstanding Gordon Brown’s heroic efforts to rescue the economy from total collapse, the party was at least partially responsible for the biggest recession in living memory, and this was compounded by an irresponsible fiscal policy.

The Conservatives used a couple of lines to convince the electorate that Labour had wrecked the economy. Comparing the country’s books to a household budget doesn’t hold water, unless your house has its own internal market economy. The analogy that Labour finds it more difficult to shake off is that it “failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining”. Objectively, this is a pretty handy summary of the structural deficit problem.

Fiscal policy – the basics

The core argument of Keynesian economics is that, through a multiplier effect, tax cuts and public spending increases help economic growth by putting more money in people’s pockets. A fiscal policy of balancing the books is unhelpful because when there is a recession, raising taxes to maintain the level of revenue while more people are out of work and cutting discretionary spending to maintain the level of spending while more people are claiming benefits will take money out of people’s pockets and lead to a downward economic spiral.

Allowing deficits to happen in recession – at a bare minimum, through the “automatic stabilisers” of lower tax receipts and higher benefit payments – means that more money is flowing to the economy from the government and the multiplier effect will help lift the economy out of recession. Discretionary stimuli, like tax cuts or capital spending projects, will help boost a flagging economy even more. Therefore fiscal deficits aren’t necessarily bad.

The corollary to this is that in a period of economic growth, the government should seek to balance the long-term books by seeking fiscal surpluses. Once again the automatic stabilisers play a part – in a boom, people who were on the dole in the recession are now earning money and paying taxes. The general prosperity of the nation gives the government a bit of leeway to raise taxes or cut spending without damaging their electoral prospects too much.

Labour’s approach

Labour, famously, played around with those rules. After sticking by the Tories’ spending plans for the first few years of government, they started running deficits, even though the economy was growing. Brown invoked the golden rule, whereby deficits are okay if the money borrowed is spent only on investment (or, to put it in economic terms, capital spending). This investment, in hospitals, schools and infrastructure, is a one-off payment and is expected to pay for itself through a healthier, better-educated workforce and an economy with greater capacity, reflected in higher tax receipts.

What doesn’t happen under the golden rule is increases in current spending that aren’t paid for by taxes. To use a simple example, increasing the number of policemen – who will, naturally, expect to be paid every year once recruited – needs to be paid for by either finding savings in the rest of the police’s budget, cutting other public spending, or raising taxes. If you do none of these things, you have to borrow to pay their wages and you will need to borrow the same amount every year. This is basically what the structural deficit is. And this is what the government have been trying to eliminate by 2015.

When the economy returns to pre-2008 levels of activity – which is apparently years away – the “cyclical” part of the budget will be balanced, but there will still be a structural deficit. Only when the structural deficit is out of the way can Britain’s debt then start being paid off.

The structural deficit

This is where my understanding starts running out of steam. I presume that you have the public spending that is paid for by taxes, the capital spending that is paid for by borrowing (and can be paid for in the long term) and then the current spending that is paid for by borrowing. It is the latter that we ought to be worried about. What I don’t understand is how it originated; between the last surplus in 2002 to the recession, there must have been some unfunded current spending increases. Assuming that these increases were on “nice to haves”, and using the principle of “first in first out”, would these not be the first areas to target spending cuts on? What we seem to have instead is a free-for-all where our cherished public services are being cut to the bone. Maybe I haven’t delved as deeply as I could, but I haven’t seen any explanation of this by our leaders.

A lot of the blame for the crisis has been put at the door of the PFI projects, which do involve current spending commitments that cannot be got out of easily. But that – and the perennial problem of “public sector waste” – surely cannot be the whole obstacle we face. Elsewhere you hear the charge that Labour built too many schools, for example. Here there may be a distinction between schools replacing old ones (which will, presumably pay for themselves down the line) and brand new schools requiring brand new teachers, which involve expenditure on an annual basis. Can there be many of these that weren’t adequately funded?

The Coalition’s priorities

Assuming that the cuts to spending that the government wants to eliminate will be unsustainable even by the time the economy has recovered, I can appreciate why the bond markets have been frightened and why the government believes that pursuing austerity in a time of economic fragility trumps an extended stimulus (though I’m not qualified enough to condone it or not).

But I can’t help thinking the government are going above and beyond this, by using austerity to compensate for the high levels of investment and the rescue package under Labour, which are one-offs and can be paid off once the budget is in surplus again (i.e. once the economy is on a firm footing again and unsustainable current spending has been eliminated).

George Osborne made a great deal of his “expansionary fiscal contraction” which aimed to stimulate the private sector by scaling back the public sector to free up credit and labour. This approach is said to have worked for Canada in the mid-1990s. What has become clear since Osborne’s espousal of this is that the conditions Canada enjoyed – a booming US export market – are absent for the UK as the Eurozone suffers the current crippling crisis.

Rather than encouraging the private sector to take up the slack, withdrawal of public sector spending has depressed aggregate demand for goods and services, thus weakening rather than strengthening the private sector. The Chancellor has now pledged more support for capital projects, but who knows if this is going to be enough to balance the books in six years.

This is what I want to find out:

  1. What current spending increases were made by Labour without a corresponding rise in tax receipts (or, vice versa, what tax cuts were not matched by spending cuts)?
  2. How much of the structural deficit the government wants to eliminate consists of this type of spending?
  3. Of these items of spending, what is being cut and how painful will such cuts be compared with the others?
  4. Given the amount of investment the economy needs, is it really the structural deficit we’re worried about, or unsustainable current spending? Can the markets not be kept happy with reductions in the latter as long as a longer term structural deficit only consists of capital spending which will deliver future growth?

Any useful pointers welcome.

The day the NHS felt a bit under the weather

October 12, 2011

There’s been enough hyperbole on Twitter today to to give Health Ministers a run for their money as the House of Lords rejected two amendments designed respectively to slow down the progress of the Health Bill (Lords Owen and Hennessey), or bin it altogether (Labour).

Despite claims littering my feed that the NHS has now been destroyed by those bastard Lords, there are still a few stages that it needs to go through. Yes: by waving the Bill through its second reading, peers have indicated that they’re going to enact it eventually. But to describe this as the death knell for the NHS is a little premature.

There are those who are implacably opposed to the Bill on the reasonable grounds that with £20bn of efficiency savings to make before the next election, forking out £3bn on a top-down reorganisation is an unnecessary expense. The Government’s argument is that the reforms are needed to facilitate these savings, a point accepted to some extent by Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham – though he argued at the weekend that legislation is avoidable.

The concessions the Lib Dems managed to force on Andrew Lansley after the “pause” in the legislation in the spring seemed to have bought their votes today. After all that faff it would have been a bit churlish of them to reject the whole thing.

So while we are stuck with this piece of legislation, we know that the thing is malleable. Heck, what might have swung the vote on the Owen-Hennessey amendment today (to refer certain parts of the Bill on accountability to a special committee) was probably the Health Minister’s last-ditch promise to make a necessary amendment to make clear that the Secretary of State will still be accountable, thus negating the need for Owen’s committee. There’s been a lot of uninformed stomping of feet about the behaviour unelected members of the upper house but, to be fair, they have been a lot less partisan and childish in their approach to the legislation than our elected representatives in the Commons.

Contrary to popular opinion the purpose of the Bill is not to privatise or destroy the NHS, but to devolve responsibility for commissioning hospital and other services to GP surgeries. Yes, the new system may lead to more private sector operators providing services, but the NHS will still be free at the point of delivery. And there’s no rule saying that the private sector has to be evil. One problem the NHS faces even now is that services for some conditions are not integrated well enough. Why shouldn’t a private sector company with expertise in logistics and supply chain management be drafted in to help design services?

Of course there are still major concerns with the legislation:

  • The Government have promised “no frontline cuts” but are devolving the responsibility for cuts to local areas. That amendment to maintain the accountability of the Secretary of State will at least make sure he gives a shit.
  • There’s a danger that private sector companies could profiteer from the by creaming off the most lucrative surgeries and leaving trusts with ever-dwindling budgets to carry out costly but essential work.
  • While it’s probably a good thing for hospitals and other providers to be more business-like in order to improve the patient experience and make savings, they can’t be forced by the regulator to fight to the death when people’s lives are at stake and where collaboration may well be the solution in many cases.
  • NHS trusts are to be freed up to perform more private work. It’s difficult to see how this could not lead to longer waiting lists for NHS patients.
  • There are a lot of health conditions, including long-term or rare conditions, that would be ignored by GPs so need to be commissioned on a regional level – patient groups and specialist providers will want assurance that they won’t fall through the gaps.*

I’m pretty confident that none of these will get past the Lords. There are enough of them who are open-minded and wise enough to make sure the dodgiest bits of the Bill get expunged during the Committee and Report stages.

And there will be plenty more opportunities to Save The NHS.

*This post is completely personal opinion, though I should declare an interest that I do work for examples of these in my job.

How will today’s graduates afford retirement?

September 9, 2011

Free tertiary education. A job for life. Affordable housing. Final salary pension. All a thing of the past, we’re told. The children of the baby boomer generation are looking increasingly likely to be worse off than their parents.

The Young Fabians recently considered the implications of the last of these, and how individuals entering the world of work can be encouraged to start putting money aside in a pension scheme. There was a broad consensus that better financial education was needed and the demise of the Child Trust Fund – as a way to get citizens in the habit of saving from an early – was not. The pension industry’s marketing of itself to young people was found wanting, particularly as their selling points – the tax-free nature, the employer contributions – were not familiar to some of the young professionals in the session itself.

Rachel Reeves MP noted that formulation of pensions policy involved, quite rightly, the likes of the ABI, the financial services sector and employers, but seemed to have ignored the views of the very people who it was aimed at.

While the pensions industry could be given a kick up the arse, I get the feeling a significant barrier to take-up is the effect of the economic downturn. Since 2008 there have been three trends. Firstly people, particularly the young, have a lot less job security and are less likely to want to put money away for a long period of time when they might need some in the bank in case things take a turn for the worse. Secondly, with the cost of borrowing pushed down, there is no incentive to save as it is difficult to find an interest rate which will beat inflation. Thirdly, the shortcomings of the financial markets as a generator of wealth have been exposed, so that the “value of investments may fall as well as rise” warning on financial products is even more ominous for an unseasoned investor.

Talking about pensions is not enough to address the generational divide. Even if we all signed up for a pension, retirement doesn’t sound like fun. With credit still crunched and house prices still out of the reach of thirtysomethings, there are going to be a lot of people who will not own a home outright by the time they retire.

Only one in twenty over-65s currently live in the private rented sector with three quarters in owner occupation and a fifth in social housing, according to the CLG. In comparison, 36% of 25-34-year-olds rent in the private sector. Now of course many of them will buy eventually, but the rate of those still renting when they hit 65 (or whenever we’ll retire) is going to be a lot higher than 5% the way things are going. Apparently if I continue paying £1200 into my pension pot per year and assuming it earns an average of 7% growth a year, I will get around £5000 per year in retirement. This sum would barely cover rent this year, let alone after 40 years of inflation.

Housing will have to be made a lot more affordable if the pensioners of the mid 21st century are going to keep a roof over their heads.

The voters who could have changed the country

May 9, 2010

Combined, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have 315 seats in the House of Commons – 11 seats short of the 326 required for a majority. As it is, any potential Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have to look to Plaid Cymru and the SNP to secure support for a government, so a Lib Dem-Tory pact currently looks more likely to succeed (if they can agree to cooperate).

There must be many people who voted Lib Dem on Thursday with the intention of keeping the Tories out, who are now looking at the negotiations and feeling like idiots. I know at least one, and he didn’t even end up with a Tory MP.

There were so many close calls on Thursday night and Friday morning that I wondered just how many people Labour and the Lib Dems needed to vote with their heads rather than their hearts to make an anti-Tory coalition a no-brainer rather than a pipe dream. I decided to find out.

There were 17 Tory gains on Thursday that had majorities of less than 1000. These are the 11 constituencies that have the smallest Tory majorities:

Warwickshire North (Labour in second place) – 54

Camborne & Redruth (LD) – 66

Thurrock (Lab) – 92

Hendon (Lab) – 106

Oxford West & Abingdon (LD) – 176

Cardiff North (Lab) – 194

Sherwood (Lab) – 214

Stockton South (Lab) – 332

Lancaster & Fleetwood (Lab) – 333

Broxtowe (Lab) – 389

Truro & Falmouth (LD) – 435

Adding up those figures, plus a voter in each constituency to tip the balance, you get 2402. That’s 2402 people in Britain who could have voted for the party that came in second place rather than the party they actually liked, who could have elected a centre-left candidate rather than allowed a Tory to be elected, who could have changed the course of the election and its aftermath.

Massive counterfactual I know, and it would only give the coalition the slimmest of edges over the Tories but I just thought you should know.

Can it get any worse for Labour?

July 26, 2008

The overall verdict on the result of the Glasgow East by-election, where the SNP overturned a Labour majority with a swing of 22%, seems to be that Gordon Brown can’t even win in the Scottish Labour heartlands, and a similar swing replicated across the country would all but destroy the party (20 MPs left is the figure being bandied about).

I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. It’s bad, certainly – I’m dreading a 1997-sized landslide for Tories at the next general election – but Labour lost to the Scottish Nationalists, who actually provided Labour’s core voters with a left-of-centre alternative. The SNP proved themselves as a credible political force last year when they took Holyrood, and with a largely positive year in power up there, I’m not surprised they performed so strongly in their first Westminster test since then.

South of the border, Labour are still the only major (ostensibly) left-wing party traditional Labour voters have to vote for, so they’ll do a better job of hanging on to their seats in northern cities and avoid a complete wipeout. But it’s still clear that the core voters don’t like the party any more. If Brown can’t prove that he’s on the side of the worker, many of them will not vote at all, or opt for the BNP, allowing the Tories or Lib Dems to sneak in in seats where Labour thought they had healthy majorities (cf Crewe and Nantwich, which was compounded by a poor campaign).

It’s looking more and more likely that Labour are going to have to make some kind of lurch to the left to win back their heartlands. With Cameron having basically won back the Middle England voters who elected Blair in 1997, the next election is lost – it seems that if they want to avoid utter humiliation, Labour’s job is to abandon their chase of the Daily Mail’s favour and focus on working-class friendly policies. (So a slight modification of my opinion after the local elections.)

What the Republican party is really like

June 1, 2008

Last week it emerged that Texan evangelical preacher John Hagee once told his flock that the Holocaust was God’s way of getting the Jews back into Israel. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, responded by saying, “you know what John? I’d rather you hadn’t backed me for President. Have your endorsement back.” Which is fair enough.

The thing is, this Hagee character said back in April that Hurricane Katrina happened because of a gay parade in New Orleans, which was “offensive to God”. McCain was apparently okay with this. Not surprising for the cynics among you, but still: bloody hell.

Fun fact: Hagee has also referred to the Catholic Church as “the Great Whore”.

Hansard: how to read between the lines

May 21, 2008

Remember Tracy Temple, John Prescott’s old bit on the side? Ever wondered what she’s doing now? Tory frontbencher Eric “eats too many” Pickles does and has. Yesterday he asked Ed Miliband, who’s in charge of the civil service, in which Department she works.

Parmjit Dhanda, a minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, was inexplicably asked to reply instead. He said:

“It is not Government practice to name individual civil servants below the senior civil service or comment on their employment.”

Erm, so that’ll be the DCLG then…?

What Labour should do next

May 14, 2008

These are some thoughts I’ve had over the past week or so about politics and that. Of course, if I was more committed to my art I would be writing in-depth about the draft legislative programme, but I’m not.

It looks like Labour will lose the next General Election. What Gordon will probably do is try and court the centre ground voter as much a possible, by pandering to the right-wing press. The trouble is, this hasn’t done much good in the past few months. The Tories have pretty much got the centre ground sewn up with Cameron’s changes, and I don’t think it’s Labour’s ideology that is doing them any harm in the polls but a string of blunders and half-baked policies that make them look incompetent and a spent force as a Government. The Tories have the initiative, policy-wise.

 

Labour’s undoing seems to be an obsession with polls and what the media thinks of them, and the way they act on this clearly isn’t working. Now that it looks highly likely the Tories will win the next General Election, I think they should abandon this and just be a bit more honest. Do what they think is right. Go back to core Labour values. They’ve got nothing to lose by doing so and maybe if people saw what the real Labour can do, they’d have a bit more respect for them.

 

If, somehow, like Major in 1992, they do manage to hang on in 2010, perhaps by ditching Gordon, there’ll just be another five years of division, dithering and unnecessary authoritarianism which will alienate Labour from the people, leaving the party like the Conservatives pre-Cameron. Another three or more terms in the wilderness. I agree with Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian today that a period in opposition would be refreshing the party – particularly all the young policy wonks who’ve known nothing but Government.

 

Cameron hasn’t got what Tony Blair has – sure he has some coherent ideas and a good joke writer – but I don’t think Labour are as hated as the Tories were by 1997. Obviously we’ll have to see how the recession goes. So assuming that we have only two more years in power, how about making the Labour Party something to believe in again? Ignore the press – except maybe the Guardian – and actually think policies through. Listen to and understand the swing voters but don’t go announcing the first thing that comes into your head in a shallow attempt to get them onside. Use the time also to push through things that the Conservatives are going to abandon when they get into office – target child poverty, for example. Leave the public services in a good state, so the Tories can’t beat us with the stick that we’ve beaten them with for the past eleven years. Then after four years of Cameron pissing everyone off with his smug, phoney ‘I care, honest’ line Labour won’t look as bad and might have a recovery.