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

Monday, 29 September 2008

Time to go after the Tories

It is time to take the fight to the Tories.

This is what Hazel Blears intends to do when she travels to the Conservative Party conference this week - the only Cabinet Minister, to my knowledge, who is doing so.

And this is what Gordon Brown started to do in his conference speech last week when he attacked Cameron and Osborne with some effective and cutting lines.

But Labour won’t win the next election unless we get off our back foot and go after them.

From a political perspective, the economic situation offers Labour a number of opportunities.

What, for example, is the Tories answer to it all?

Even greater laissez-fair economics? Looser regulation? Neither the public, nor the media, nor indeed the financial services industry could tolerate that.

When Irwin Stelzer, the grand-master of capitalism, says that the old capitalism is dead and government intervention and tighter regulation, in some areas, is permissible, you know things have fundamentally shifted.

But do the Tories have an answer to it?

No, they trail behind public opinion – still extolling the virtues of unregulated, unfettered capitalism when the past few weeks have shown that the free market doesn’t have the solution to everything.

Why do the Tories oppose the ban on short selling as well? Is it because their wealthy backers have made millions out of this scheme and they don’t want to lose their rich friends?

And do the Tories really think that one of the features of capitalism is that people get wealthy off the misery off others as George Osborne said? This is what the Tories think and Labour needs to remind every voter of it.

Their economic document masquerading as a plan for economic reconstruction has no proper commitments for social housing and promises tax cuts but with no commitment to maintain public services. Bad economics and bad policy.

And while we’re on the subject of rich people who pay tax, let’s have a debate about Michael Ashcroft’s role – the Tory donor who skulks away in Belize.

Is he on the electoral register? Where does he live? Does he pay tax? And is he channelling funds through his corporations into Conservative Central Office’s coffers?

When modest and low income families are suffering, does the man who is practically bankrolling the Tories pay any tax? It is a simple question.

There is room here for Labour to strike. Do it.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Labour Conference: Gordon's speech

As speeches go it was one of his best.

He didn't dwell on past mistakes, although he apologised for the 10p tax fiasco, but instead he looked to the future.

He said, "I'm not going to be something I'm not" and for once you believed him.

The theme of the speech was fairness.

"A Britain of air chances for all and fair rules for all."

At last, you got a sense of what Brown's vision is.

There were some good new announcements too:

- the extension of free nursery places for two year olds
- funding for a million families to get online
- free universal check ups for everyone over 40
- free prescriptions for 250,000 cancer patients

And there was a hint of how Brown will attack the Tories over the coming months. His line,
"My children aren't props; they're people" was powerful and easily the best attack he has made against Cameron in a while. It is also a fair one.

Brown reminded us of George Osborne's reaction to last week's financial turmoil too. The Shadow Chancellor had said, "that its a function of financial markets that people make loads of money out of the misery of others". Classic Tory. Disgraceful. Vile. Wrong.

Brown is right to expose them for it. We need to see more of this over the coming months.

The issue, unfortunately, isn't whether it was a good speech or not. The issue is whether it has done enough to help turn around Labour's fortunes.

On that question, the jury is still out.

Next week, the Tories will have a great conference and Cameron will make a serious, statesmanlike speech that will see him steal the news agenda.

When that happens, Brown's speech may well fade into the background and we will be back to square one.

He has won himself a stay of execution. But that is all.

It will take more than a good speech to turn around Labour's fortunes.

Labour Conference: Delegates have their spiritis lifted

The Labour conference needed a bit of Olympic magic.

Delegates have spent the past week searching for that elusive feel good factor.

As the Prime Minister put the finishing touches to his make or break speech, we got a taste of it on Tuesday morning when Tim Brabants, Olympic gold medal canoeist in Beijing, spoke on the conference floor.

Taking part in a question and answer session with Alastair Campbell, Brabants had an important message for Labour Party members:

“You need to get behind one another. A good team behind you gives you confidence.”

It was a warning some elements of the Party might need to listen to.

Brabants was joined on stage by Olympics supremo, Tessa Jowell and Olympic Cycling Director, Dave Brailsford – the mastermind behind our recent cycling glory.

Brailsford wants to see cycling introduced as part of the national curriculum and he made a direct plea to government.

“Sport helps tackle social exclusion. It inspires people. It’s aspirational.”

Tessa Jowell agreed. The London 2012 Olympics she said would allow people “to realise their ambitions and possibilities”.

The conference lapped it up. Labour Party members can feel some pride that their government, which has increased funding for grassroots sport, is partly responsible for recent Olympic success.

The debate was rounded off with a speech by Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

He reminded the Party about the steps Labour had taken to increase participation, mentioning the compulsory five hours of sport in school that the government introduced.

He also welcomed the uptake of free swimming places – something my grandparents are currently feeling the benefit of.

It was a passionate speech. “Free culture, free sport, inspiring ideas that proclaim Labour values,” he yelled.

Not everyone will believe it. And not everyone will agree with it.

But as a welcome respite from the plotting and rumour mongering, the debate helped lift delegates’ spirits.

Not such a bad thing.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Labour Conference: Part Three. Miliband: Foreign Policy as a Labour Strength.

David Miliband cuts a dashing figure.

As he strode into Manchester Town Hall yesterday, he looked purposeful and determined.

All eyes were on him.

A couple of carefully placed features in the weekend papers about his personality and home life and Alan Johnson’s endorsement of him in an interview had raised temperatures.

Everyone was waiting to see what he would say about the leadership.

Addressing an audience of Fabian members, the Foreign Secretary of course disappointed us. He stuck rigidly to the topic: “Foreign Policy as a Labour Strength.”

He discussed everything from Iraq to Europe to Africa to climate change.

He sounded knowledgeable and serious and although it took him a while to get going, by the end the audience had really warmed to him.

Miliband pointed out that power in international relations is shifting.

From West to East.

From states to multilateral organisations.

From government to civil society.

The Labour Party had to recognise all three and develop policies which matched those changes.

A clever question from an audience member about how the Labour Party with its motions and committees and laborious processes could cope with the fast moving world of foreign relations, temporarily flawed the Foreign Secretary.

He didn’t have the answer.

But his mind quickly recovered and he instantly launched into a discussion about Labour values.

It was a good performance.

I came out of the meeting thinking that Mr. Miliband looked and acted the part of a leader.

Only time will tell whether he actually makes it.

Labour Conference - Part Two

On Saturday night, I tried to cram in as many parties as possible. C’mon I am allowed to!

I started the night off with a Young Labour reception. My friend and colleague Olivia Bailey, a member of the National Policy Forum, has finally got the Party to take seriously the issue of “Votes at 16.” It looks like it will be in the Party’s next manifesto. Great news! So the Young Labour reception was buzzing with success.

The Prime Minister turned up and seemed very high spirited. He gave a good, relaxed speech thanking Labour Youth members for all their work. Note: few Labour MPs or politicians ever thank activists, particularly the young ones (who they regard as dispensable), so it was nice that the PM did.

After the Young Labour reception, I went to the New Statesman Party. It was a great opportunity to hobnob with all and sundry. Then I finished the night at Labour’s LGBT Party on Canal Street. It seemed like the whole of the conference had descended there – really relaxed, inclusive and informal. I staggered home at 4am.

Labour Party Conference - Part One

The Labour Party Conference got off to a magical start on Saturday in Manchester with the announcement that J K Rowling was donating £1 million to the Labour Party.

Timed to perfection, the announcement put a smile on delegates’ faces.

In Manchester, the sun was shining brightly too.

On these occasions, I am always so proud that my city scrubs up well.

Manchester looked great.

When I got there I did the obligatory walk around the exhibition stands. There were some interesting groups but many big corporate names were missing and the exhibition area was smaller than in previous years.

Not a good sign.

My first fringe meeting of the day was a Fabian event at Manchester’s grand Town Hall.

“What does the white, working class want?” was the title. It was a packed audience.

Hazel Blears and Jon Cruddas were on the panel. Both gave good performances.

Hazel summed up Labour’s policy toward the working class in one word: “ambition.”

Working class communities are ambitious to own their own homes.

Ambitious to send their kids to a good school.

Ambitious for their kids to get to university.

Labour has to find policies that allow working class communities to fulfill their ambition.

She also raised the Respect Agenda as an important issue.

I couldn’t agree more.

Whether you call it Respect or not, anti-social behaviour is a real problem and one which working class communities suffer disproportionately from.

But over the last year, we have totally ceded the ground to the Tories on it. Where has it gone as an issue?

I don’t think I have heard the Prime Minister mention it once. Tony Blair used to be all over it.

Jon Cruddas, coming from a different place from Blears, was equally impressive.

I don’t always share his politics, but he was sincere, clued up and not afraid to talk about issues like immigration in a sensible Labour way. I am increasingly impressed by him.

Both Blears and Cruddas give us hope that there are some people in the PLP who have good ideas and want Labour to succeed.

This wasn’t the case everywhere though.

While the party put on a veneer of unity, everyone I spoke to talked about the leadership question.

A lot of people are burying their heads in the sand, saying that Gordon needs more time. I think that would be disastrous. The issue needs to be settled now - one way or another.

One former Minister told me that he was going around telling everyone that Brown had to make the speech of his life this week, because when he didn’t expectations would be raised so much that we would have to get rid of Brown.

And indeed I am sure Labour will have a good week and Brown will do just enough. But next week, the Conservatives will have a great week and Cameron will look like a great leader and the whispers and rumours about Brown will start again and nothing will have changed.

That isn’t fair on Brown. It isn’t fair on Labour and it certainly isn’t fair for the country.

The leadership issue needs to be resolved now.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Rebels attack Brown

"Infamy, Infamy, they've all got it in for me."

Poor Gordon Brown.

The last thing he needed as he was preparing for his conference speech this weekend, was to fight off a backbench insurrection.

It has all the echoes of the "September coup" that he mounted against Tony Blair a few years ago. Et tu Gordon.

I admire Siobhain McDonagah. At least she has had the courage to nail her sails to the mast and call publicly for a leadership contest. For someone so loyal, it must have been an agonising decision. At least, she is not another one of the mindless backbench Labour lemmings refusing to face up to reality, marching headlong into political oblivion.

It is quite clear now that for all the good measures announced over the past few weeks in energy policy and housing, none have had the seismic effect necessary to stop Labour's slump in the polls.

I may have waited until after the Labour Conference to see if Gordon could turn things around and I am still inclined to do this.

But more Labour MPs seem to be calling for a leadership contest and this morning the Business Secretary, John Hutton, refused to condemn them.

Even if you vehemently disagree with the Labour rebels, their actions have further destabilised and weakened the Prime Minister. It is hard to see how you row back from all of this.

I suppose like many Labour members, I am still in two minds about the best course of action to take. I am deeply frustrated and annoyed with the government and the Prime Minister but I am yet to see a credible alternative - hardly a ringing endorsement for Brown I know.

What infuriates me the most is those MPs who are happy to sit there and eek out another two years of salary and benefits, knowing full well that they will eventually lose their seats, but unwilling to take action now to prevent it.

The Labour Conference next weekend is going to be brutal.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

The week in politics

I started a new job this week and I am in the process of moving house at the moment so I haven't been blogging as frequently as I should, but by the end of the month I'll be back to normal.

However, two things stand out from the past week:

One, Charles Clarke's criticism of Gordon Brown was neither surprising nor particularly useful. But he did articulate what many Labour Party members are privately thinking. In fact, I thought he was too generous to the Prime Minister. He says Gordon has months to turn things around. I think he has a matter of weeks. The announcements this week by the government regarding the housing market and energy prices will go some way to alleviating concerns. But while these measures will help some people, they don't add up to a wider vision of what the government stands for. There is still no clear sense of purpose or direction. We need to see this over the forthcoming weeks and Brown needs to do a total mea culpa at Conference if the situation is to be improved even in the slightest.

Two, I am more convinced than ever that John McCain made a disastrous choice when he picked Sarah Palin as his VP. Although, she gave a barnstorming speech at the Republican convention (compared to McCain's lacklustre and plodding effort) she is inexperienced and lacks political judgement. Her extreme right wing stance on the issues and the question marks raised over her judgement back in Alaska should be areas which the Obama campaign can exploit ruthlessly. In choosing Palin, McCain shows us what a reckless and impulsive decision maker he actually is. You would have thought that after eight years of George W. Bush, Americans might want a more measured, thoughtful President. McCain's choice of Palin is pure political opportunism. Obama's choice of Biden shows someone who is serious about governing.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Another shake-up at Downing Street

Gordon Brown's Chief Strategist, Stephen Carter, is to be sidelined in a further shake up of operations at Number Ten.

It is another ominous sign that Gordon can't get a grip of his Downing Street team.

Mr. Carter was and is a welcome breath of fresh air. But, the PM's plunging popularity and the government's low opinion poll ratings show Carter has been unable to turn things around.

It doesn't instill confidence.

It doesn't inspire hope that the government's relaunch today will be a success and it doesn't suggest Gordon can dig himself out of this hole.

If Carter had been allowed to get on with his job, instead of facing all that sniping from Brownite hacks, he may have stood a chance.

As it is, Brown has no one else to blame but himself.