This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Second Minister urges Labour to be bolder

A second senior Government Minister weighed into the debate about Gordon Brown's leadership today when the Health Minister, Ivan Lewis, urged Gordon Brown to be bolder in his approach to policy.

The Member of Parliament for Bury South (where I grew up near Manchester) argued that the only way forward for Labour was to be bolder.

This is the second time in as many months that Ivan has argued openly for Labour to change and be bolder when it comes to helping and reassuring people that Labour is on their side. It was an echo of David Miliband's comments yesterday.

Ivan Lewis is absolutely right. We are best when we are bold.

But like David Miliband, it is hard to believe that a Government Minister would have ever made such comments under Tony Blair, whose direction and control of the Party was never seriously questioned.

The cumulative effect of these small events makes the likelihood of a challenge to Gordon Brown all the greater. The fact that the Foreign Secretary refused to dampen speculation today that he wanted to be leader means we are heading into a frenzied month of leadership speculation. Brown must be clawing at his knuckles.

However, we must make sure that we have a proper debate about what the Party stands for. Miliband and Lewis are absolutely right to advocate a bolder sweep of policies. The coronation of Gordon Brown last year avoided a debate about the direction of the Party which was desperately needed. If there is a leadership election over the next two months, members must listen to what each candidate is offering.

The one who offers the boldest platform to take New Labour forward gets my vote.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

What is David up to?

David Miliband's intervention in the Guardian today shows that there are still one or two members of the Cabinet capable of offering an alternative synthesis of the Government's problems. It is also the first time in a while that I have heard a member of the Government actually attack the Conservative Party.

In his article, Miliband rightly points out that while the Tories may have identified the problems facing the country, they have still not yet come up with any new solutions to them,

"They say they have adopted "progressive ends" — social justice, better public services and fighting climate change — but they insist on traditional Tory means of charity, deregulation and lower spending to deliver them. It doesn't add up."

Quite right.

Most refreshingly, Miliband's article is an antidote to the fatalism of Labour Ministers and MPs. He is right to argue that things are still retrievable for the Party because, according to him, Cameron has no vision for the country and is "stuck on New Labour Mark I at just the time when the times demand a radical new phase."

Right again.

Voters are not sold on Cameron's New Look Tories. There is still everything to play for. And Labour could, if it wanted to, make a convincing case for change and social justice particularly at a time of economic peril that would leave the Tories flailing about for an answer.

In calling for change and offering a different vision than the Prime Minister's Miliband is positioning himself as a future leader of the Party and Prime Minister. This article is a tacit acknowledgment that he wants to be the heir apparent. (I should admit now that I have always liked David Miliband and would have voted for him had he stood against Brown last year).

While Miliband is right, it is hard to believe that such an important Cabinet figure like him would ever have made such an intervention under Tony Blair. For this reason alone, we must see Miliband's article as an example of the breakdown of Cabinet discipline. In publicly questioning where Labour is heading, Miliband must know that he is effectively offering the Prime Minister a public rebuke.

I still think a change of leader would be incredibly risky for the Party. It is not absolutely certain that a change of leader would help Labour either. What if we got rid of Gordon Brown and still remained low in the polls? This would truly be the doomsday scenario. In this sense, Miliband is right in arguing that it is not "about debating personalities, but winning the argument about our record, our vision for the future and how we achieve it." The Labour Party has got to decide what it stands for.

I think David Miliband has helped that process today, but I can't wait to see what Gordon Brown's reaction will be.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

What does Labour do next?

Well, the first thing is 'Don't Panic.' Things are very, very bad for the Party at the moment but I do not believe the Tories have yet won over the public and this means there is still everything to play for.

But, how can Labour recover? Here are my initial thoughts (and excuse me if they are written in a sort of breathless prose):

1) Stick by Gordon Brown. Whatever his personal shortcomings, Gordon Brown remains the right man to lead our Party. If there was an obvious and credible alternative candidate waiting in the wings to take over then things would be very different, but there isn't, so we stick with who we've got and we show loyalty and self-respect. I do not accept that the British public would tolerate another change of leader without the Party going to the polls in a General Election and if this was held in the next three months we would lose. Whatever the pundits might say, Britain is not being badly run and a change of leader would be too risky. The Party's problems are bigger than one man anyway. As Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian today, "There is no point in changing leader, without changing direction."

2) Be radical when it comes to policy. Follow Frank Field's example and "think the unthinkable." We need to help people who are feeling the affects of the economic downturn the most. I would introduce a windfall levy on the gas and oil companies (generating around £10 billion) that would then go straight back to every home in the country to help with rising fuel costs.

3) Raise tax on the top 1% of earners to pay for tax cuts for everyone earning less than £25,000 a year. Its about fairness and helping bottom and middle income households.

4) Push ahead with the choice and market agenda in our public services - even if this pisses off the Unions. When it comes to the Unions, we should listen and act. Obviously some of their demands like re-introducing secondary picketing are complete baloney but some of their other demands are exactly what Labour should do and it would be madness to reject them out of hand. I hope that the deals being done at Warwick this weekend are genuinely radical and commit Labour to a programme of social democracy. I have always considered myself an uber-Blairite but I don't think showing some red water between us and the Tories is such a bad thing. People want us to act and make their lives a bit easier. Labour can do this.

5) Cut tax where possible for the poorest in society and scrap the duty on fuel but strengthen our environmental credentials by introducing forms of taxation that penalise the user rather than everyone across the board and are genuine attempts to change behaviour rather than raise revenue.

6) Push ahead with Labour's popular policies and start comparing them with what the Tories would do - school building programmes, Sure Start centres (we need more of these now!), house building, help for first time buyers e.g. joint-mortgage schemes, implement Lord Darzai's recommendations, more training and work schemes, re-introduce school nurses. Stuff like this.

I watched Ed Miliband on the TV the other night and what he said struck me as right. The big problems facing Britain and the rest of the world - climate change, globalisation, economic slowdown - are problems that require a role for an active, dynamic government. They demand Labour solutions. But if we don't start delivering them then we allow the Tories to set the agenda and claim it was all a failure in the first place. This would be the real tragedy.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Obama the Rock Star

Obama's campaign trip to Europe has been a stunning success.

Addressing a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin yesterday, Barack Obama looked every bit like the leader of the free world. If this doesn't give him a bump in the polls, I don't know what will!

For those watching, it must have felt like being in the presence of a rock star. The location was perfect, the crowd excited, the candidate on top form.

And the speech did exactly what it was supposed to do i.e portray Obama as the antidote to the unilateralism, arrogance and machismo of the Bush years. We did not need any more policy detail than this.

Some of John McCain's aides thought it looked like a "premature victory lap" or evidence of arrogance and ambition.

But I think we can pretty much take it for granted that anyone running to be President has a certain amount of arrogance and ambition. Not always such a bad thing.

And as for the "premature victory lap," I think Obama took a big risk coming to Europe but it paved off. The images being beamed back to homes in the United States show Obama as the statesman he is, engaging with people and showing true leadership. Not the kind of bullying hectoring Europeans have grown accustomed to under George Bush.

Politically, the trip helped Obama steal McCain's thunder and although I think this election is going to be closer than many people think, I expect Obama's Berlin speech will play very well with voters at home.

If Obama runs his White House like he runs his campaign, we've got eight years of excitement, innovation and leadership to look forward to.

Glasgow East: Things can ONLY get better?

I was wrong.

We were all wrong.

I thought Labour would narrowly sneak to victory in yesterday's by-election, but instead we narrowly lost to the Nationalists.

Another depressing - make that suicidal night - for the Party.

The only possible, positive spin I can put on it is that things can't get much worse than this. When you are this low in the polls and you suffer setback after setback, perhaps the only real direction is up.

Let's hope so.

One thing is clear though: the Labour Party is universally hated.

The campaign in Glasgow East was pretty good, the candidate, Margaret Curran was strong and Gordon Brown was hardly mentioned at all. Yet, the electorate rejected the Labour Party and voted for the SNP, sending a clear signal to the Party leadership that Labour has got to shift a gear.

We are now witnessing the hemorrhaging of Labour's core vote.

We lost the swing vote a long time ago as the local elections showed.

If we can not win Middle England (Crewe and Nantwich) and we can not win the aspirational South-East (Henley) and we can not win in our own back yard (Glasgow East), we have to ask ourselves where exactly can we win? What is the point of us?

It is not as simple as changing a leader or a Cabinet reshuffle either - which is what some Party hacks will be advocating this weekend. It is more important that as a Party we ask ourselves precisely what we stand for. If I struggle to articulate Labour's message, then no wonder voters in Glasgow East haven't a clue either and no wonder they are angry with the Government.

If the results of last night were repeated across the country in a General Election Labour would be thrown out of power for over a decade. And deservedly so.

But I agree with Gordon Brown that voters have not yet made their mind up when it comes to the Tories. Every day is a referendum on the government, but in a General Election it will really come down to a choice between two parties and I am still not yet convinced the public is sold on Cameron's New Look Tories. However, with every defeat, with every setback, with every gaffe ,we make their job a whole lot easier.

The rot has set so far in it may be impossible to stop. But, if we don't come up with something quick and I mean NOW (big ideas, big changes of direction, going for it full steam ahead) it is hard to see how we pull it around.

Labour is staring into the abyss and so far no one is pulling us back.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Could Glasgow East be the turning point?

When voters go to the polls in Glasgow East on Thursday, they have the future of the Labour Party in their hands.

Politics is a messy business at the best of times, but Scottish politics is in a league of its own. And Glasgow East could be the turning point for this government and the Labour movement.

There are two outcomes to Thursday's result: one, we lose, the Labour Party goes into meltdown and rumours of a leadership challenge turn into the real thing or two, we win (although our 13,000 majority is severely reduced) and the whole Labour Party breathes a collective sigh of relief. Either way, Glasgow East is where this government lives or falls.

Our candidate, Margaret Curran, seems like a plucky, tenacious campaigner. She has served her time in the Party, survived the maelstrom of Scottish politics, risen through the Labour ranks and for once in a by-election seems like a Labour candidate worth fighting for. She has a lot riding on her.

The constituency, which as the media loves to remind us has an average life expectancy lower than the Gaza strip, also has an opportunity to have its voice heard. Working class politics has been forgotten by the mainstream parties, much to their eternal shame. New Labour, rightly needed a big tent strategy to succeed, but we can no longer rely on our working class vote to come out for us each time. Why should they? It is not safe to assume that they have no other Party to vote for. As we are seeing, they are turning to the Nationalists, the crank parties and in some parts of England the BNP to represent them. How the Labour Party re-connects with this part of the electorate is crucial to its future success.

I think Labour will win on Thursday but Glasgow East, which is solidly white and working class, should be the wake up call our Party needs. The worst possible thing we could do on Friday morning is shrug our shoulders, breathe a collective sigh of relief and cross our fingers for the next time. This strategy, which most of the PLP seems to have subscribed to, is simply not good enough.

It is about time we listened rather than pay lip-service to the people of Glasgow East, Barking, Knowsley and elsewhere. The Labour Party can no longer, nor should it, take these places for granted. We need to speak their language, re-connect and give them a reason to vote for us. You never know, Margaret Curran could come to symbolise the new politics we have been looking for.

This is the lesson of Glasgow East.

This should be our turning point.

Monday, 21 July 2008

A Little Bit of Whittle

My colleague Dan Whittle gave me my first ever job working for the Labour Party as a Parliamentary Researcher for Anne Snelgrove MP. Dan is currently standing to be London Youth Rep for the Co-op Party.

I thought I would give him a shameless plug and put his video clip on-line so you can meet him for yourself. Please vote for him in the election.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Hug him tight, Mr. Brown

"Go on, reach out and hug."

Obamamania is about to reach our shores.

This week, the Senator from Illinois and Democrat candidate for the Presidency will visit Europe and the Middle East. He is expected to reach London next Saturday where he will have his photo taken with our Prime Minister outside Downing Street.

It is the first time I can think of that a candidate has taken time off from a busy campaign schedule to go abroad.

It is a high stakes strategy but if it works it will cement Obama's reputation as a truly revolutionary candidate.

Instead of concentrating on domestic concerns like the economy and job losses, Obama is hoping that his ten day trip - taking in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, Germany, France and the UK - will beef up his foreign policy credentials (where he currently lags behind McCain) and show the American public that he is the right man to have his finger on the button.

It is also clever politics.
His staff must hope that the huge crowds who will inevitably greet Obama when he visits Berlin, Paris and London will provide a brilliant photo opportunity and visual image for the folks back home. It should help hammer home to the American public that Obama offers real change from the Bush years. Only he can enhance America's reputation abroad.

For ten days, Obama will dominate the news cycle. It is the kind of event that has the potential to be hugely exciting, with every anchorman and journalist following the candidate's every move. This could also be dangerous. Obama can not put a foot wrong.

If I was Gordon Brown, I would try and hug him close.

There is already some competition between Brown and Cameron about who is Obama's rightful heir. In terms of politics, principle and instinct it is clearly Brown but Cameron's youthful charisma, star appeal and message of change makes him look dangerously like an Obama clone. Brown needs to tread carefully and maintain his impartiality, but he should start wrapping himself in Obama's cloak now. You never know, some of the magic may rub off.

In the meantime, Obama's visit to Europe will help repair transatlantic relations after the disastrous Bush years and spread his message of change globally.

It is not just the American people who have a stake in this election.

The next President of the United States will face global financial, environmental and security problems that will all need to be addressed. As Barack Obama visits our shores, us Europeans once again look to America to take the lead.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Gordon Brown Goes Great Guns

At times, I have been just as guilty as parts of the media have at focusing on the Government's failings and ignoring its successes. So I think it's about time we stopped for a second and examined all the good things Gordon Brown has done over the past year. Here are a few:

1) The Darzai Report - clear, practical and sensible solutions for reforming the NHS, such as polyclinics.

2) Extended GP opening hours.

3) Extra grants and funding for university students.

4) A Climate Change Bill - the first of its kind anywhere.

5) A Renewables Policy which plans for 4,000 offshore wind turbines and 3,000 onshore turbines.

6) Progress made on ratifying the Lisbon Treaty when the Tories and a few cranks are determined to stop it at all costs.

7) The White Paper on Community Empowerment and Local Government Reform from Hazel Blears - innovative, interesting solutions to encourage and build communities.

8) A single Equalities and Human Rights Commission. There is going to be an Equalities Bill sometime in 2009.

9) The Leitch Report, which is being taken seriously by Government, promises to redress the balance between formal education and skills.

10) Zimbabwe - Brown got other G8 leaders to agree to sanctions, even though they were then subsequently defeated at the UN. He has been consistent and right on this issue.

11) The New Youth Justice Plan - extends Sure Start programmes, increases the number of parenting and children classes and introduces intensive parental support. Compare this to the "hang 'em and flog em" policy of the Daily Mail and the Tories.

12) Banned cluster bombs.

13) Supports a Congestion Charge for Manchester.

14) Gave agency workers the same equal rights to permanent workers, when the CBI and the Tories were hostile to the idea.

15) Gave parents of children up the age of 16 the right to ask for flexible working hours.

16) Passed the Human Embryo and Fertilisation Bill, making it easier for couples and gay people to have families and helping science along the way.

17) Made swimming free for over 60s. My grandparents are feeling the benefit.

18) Kept up the momentum at the last G8 summit to ensure countries did not renege on their international aid commitments.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

The Political Brain

If you have ever wondered why Democrats have only won two out of the last seven Presidential elections, then Drew Westen may have the answer.

I have just finished reading his book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, which was published recently.

Using the best available evidence from neuroscience, psychology and politics, Westen makes a convincing and compelling argument why candidates who appeal to our emotions win elections.

Westen argues that all elections take place in a "marketplace of emotions" where voters make their decisions based on the feelings candidates and parties elicit in them. He shows that the Democrats have traditionally appealed to the dispassionate part of the brain where they expect voters to weigh up policy positions and then make a decision based on their relative utility.

This, he argues, will always result in a Democratic defeat. When reason and emotion collide, emotion always wins.

Westen shows that voters make decisions based on three factors: how they feel toward a party and its principles, how they feel toward the candidate and then, and only then, how they feel toward the candidates' policy positions.

Republicans, he believes, understand this. Great candidates like Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton also get it. They are able to tell emotionally compelling stories that resonate with voters and hit them right in the gut, influencing how they vote.

The book is well worth reading. Not only does it show how important emotion and passion are in eliciting support for a candidate, it also acts as a step-by-step guide for any aspiring Democrat politician. I was pleased that Obama seems to be doing many of the things Westen advocates.

The book also made me angry.

Angry that the Democrats have been so poor at framing their argument over the last eight years. If only they hadn't kowtowed to the Republicans on nearly every issue and instead offered their own passionate and principled stand we may not be suffering now from Bush's legacy of cynicism and despair.

It also got me worried about Gordon.

Candidates who are unable to connect with voters on an emotional level, appeal to their gut instinct and offer a compelling emotional narrative of who they are and what they stand for lose elections.

In one particular passage Westen analyses the types of personalities that are attracted to politics:

Some individuals are competitive and driven and may enjoy the fray of politics. They frequently hold values many of us would consider noble. They are particularly comfortable with policy, facts, figures and poll results...they may also require control in ways that others find overbearing.

But, then he argues, these individuals are also:

Misattuned to some of the most important emotional signals in electoral politics, such as whether a candidate has charisma, what nonverbal signals he or she is sending and what emotions the candidate is or is not activating in the electorate. They are fundamentally handicapped by an emotional style that runs contrary to what is required, particularly in the era of television, of someone charged with managing the emotions of the electorate.

When I first read this, my immediate thoughts turned to Gordon Brown. Based on Westen's research, there is no hope for him unless he changes his approach to politics.

Everyone running for office or interested in politics should read this book - starting with Gordon Brown, Stephen Carter and the people inside Downing Street.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Obama on Patriotism

Barack Obama kicked off a series of "big theme" speeches this week, with an address delivered yesterday on patriotism.

Since 9/11, Democrats have allowed Republicans to seize 'patriotism' as one of their issues. Most Democrat politicians have been scared that any criticism of the Bush Administration or the war on terror would make them look unpatriotic.

Democrats have always had a problem with this. Time and time again, they have allowed Republicans to paint them as weak on defence and foreign affairs and hence unpatriotic.

Secondly, Obama's name and background pose another problem. For some Americans, whether we like it or not, Obama is just not American enough - particularly compared to McCain, the Vietnam veteran.

Therefore this was an issue that he could not afford to ignore. And in true Obama style he tackled it full on.

He spoke eloquently about the armed forces, distancing himself from some on the left who have repeatedly attacked the Generals in charge.

He spoke of self-sacrifice and national community.

And, like a good liberal, he argued forcefully that dissent could be patriotic.

His speech also came with a warning: he would not allow anyone to attack his patriotism during the campaign.

This was a speech that needed to be made. It lay down the parameters of the debate on Obama's own terms. Its message that he shared the same patriotic ideas as ordinary Americans will help reach out to those who still question Obama's credentials and make him appear like an ordinary bloke - just like them.

Campaigns need grand speeches that lay out big themes like patriotism or religion or democracy. They help establish where the candidate stands on the issue and they set the tone of the debate usually, if they are any good, on the candidates own terms.

But they also need to be complimented by smaller speeches on specific topics. It would actually be refreshing now to hear Obama make a speech that was brimming with policy details or other specific ideas on narrow topics. This, I think, would make him a less abstract figure - a politician capable of coping with the nitty-gritty of daily life and not some ivory-tower figure.

It was a good speech but he has to make sure that he gets the balance right.