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

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

My 'Top 7 Political Heroes of 2009'

In the spirit of annual yearly reviews and The Economist’s recent feature on New Labour heroes I thought it would be a good idea to compile my own list of ‘Top 7 political heroes of 2009’. Here they are:

1. Barack Obama

After one of the most gruelling and exciting presidential election campaigns of recent times, Barack Obama was inaugurated in January and has rapidly changed US policy. He is about to get his healthcare reform bill passed in Congress, which will insure a further 30 million Americans, and he has improved America’s relations with the rest of the world. He is my top hero of 2009.

2. James Purnell
More courageous than his colleagues, the former Work and Pensions Secretary challenged Gordon Brown’s leadership after the local and European elections in June and very nearly brought the Prime Minister down. His judgement on the leadership issue was right, I only wish more of his colleagues had followed his lead. I expect him to play an important role in the Labour Party after the next election.

3. Peter Mandelson
For being the best politician in the Government. For his competence. For his attacks on the Tories. For keeping the Government going. For a barnstorming speech to Labour conference. Over the last year, Lord Mandelson has rehabilitated himself and proved himself to be one of the most effective politicians of his generation.

4. Alistair Darling
Despite poisonous briefings against him by the media and some members of his own side, the Chancellor has remained one of the calmest and most competent members of the Government. Faced with the largest post war deficit in this country’s history and some terrible economic conditions, he has remained a quiet, thoughtful and steady presence on our screens. His decisions, including the brave one to raise income tax, probably saved us from an even worse fiscal situation than we might have faced.

4. Charles Clarke

Utterly relentless in his pursuit of Gordon Brown, Charles Clarke has stuck to his guns and repeatedly called for the Prime Minister to step aside. He has had the decency and honour to say in public what many members of the Party think in private.

5. Harriet Harman
A surprising choice for me but I think our Deputy Leader has been one of the most effective members of the Government this year. She has done a brilliant job facing William Hague at PMQs and attacking the Tories. People belittle Harriet Harman but she is one of New Labour’s great survivors and managed to get most of her equalities legislation passed in the House of Commons this year.

6. Ed Miliband
I have forgiven him for his disloyalty to Tony Blair because since the younger Miliband brother became Energy and Climate Change Secretary back in 2008 he has become one of the Government’s most competent and effective ministers. He single-handedly saved the Copenhagen climate change summit and has treated climate changes issues with a seriousness and sincerity that his predecessors lacked. Buy shares now.

7. Hillary Clinton

The great machine politician proved she could bury the hatchet and not in her opponent’s head, when she agreed to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. She has remained steadfast and loyal to her boss, while managing to pursue her own areas of interest like Africa and development policy too. In charge at the State Department, she has also shown she is good at running things.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Game On for Brown

I think it is a really good idea that Gordon Brown has agreed to take part in a TV debate during next year’s General Election campaign.

I can understand the reticence of any Prime Minister to agree to this, they have a lot to lose and it’s not like the opposition leaders aren’t given a chance every week to grill Brown during PMQs. But a proper debate, broadcast live, in front of a studio audience will give Brown the chance to shine and could provide real excitement during the election campaign. The proposed debates will be on the economy, public services and foreign policy.

It is fair enough that Clegg should be included but I think Cameron could have the most to lose. He will need to hide his temper and deliver the knock out blow people expect him to make, both of which he may struggle to do.

Brown, on the other hand, will be able to demonstrate his grasp of the issues, his experience and his intellect.

I don’t see why TV style debates should not be extended to other senior politicians during the campaign too. Darling versus Osborne would be good but Mandelson versus Clarke would really be one to watch.

In the past, some US Presidential debates have been game changers. With so little left to lose, the same could happen for Brown. Game on.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Brown should call a March election

Gordon Brown should call a March election. The circumstances have never been better for Labour.

Last week's Pre Budget Report pushed all the right buttons and with recent opinion polls showing the Tories only 9 points ahead, it is the best we could have hoped for.

It is hard to imagine what the Chancellor would say if he had to make another Budget Report before an election next year.

Instead last week's report did just enough to put Labour back in the game. It managed to spread the pain around for everyone and clearly lay out the Government's plans to halve the deficit by 2014.

The Chancellor’s announcement of a one off 50% windfall tax on bankers’ bonuses was music to my ears. At last, Labour politicians seem to have got it.

The tax may only last until April and bankers will do all they can to avoid paying it but, as well as bringing in more cash, the tax sends out an important message too. It signifies a change in Government priorities - no longer will we be in thrall to the Square Mile.

It may be populist but don't we need popular policies?

The politics of it are right too. We can't ask public sector workers and ordinary taxpayers to foot the bill without bankers paying for the mistakes they have made as well. It is fair and sensible, although a complete re-think about the tax system should surely be on the cards too.

It is doubtful the economy will drastically improve between March and June anyway, so what has Brown got to lose? This is the second poll we have seen which shows the Tory lead narrowing. If this continues, it looks like a trend and we would be foolish to delay.

Under these circumstances, why would Brown wait? He should surprise us all and call a snap election early in the new year. It would put the Tories on the back foot, help us to seize the initiative and end the drift which will surely set in early in the new year.

Don't do a Jim Callaghan Gordon, go for it in March.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mayor of San Diego reverses his position on gay marriage

I have just stumbled across this fantastic clip from 2007 of Jerry Sanders, Mayor of San Diego, who changed his mind on gay marriage. Up until then he had been a dyed in the wool opponent, but for reasons personal to him, he reversed his position and made this dramatic speech to the waiting media.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this or where you stand on the issue of gay marriage, I think there is something very courageous about a politician who can admit their mistakes so publicly. This happened a few years ago now and even in that short space of time things have changed in the United States but as this clip shows politics can be a raw, emotional, personal business. This isn't always such a bad thing.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Whose ever heard of the Belgian and the Baroness?

I think it is disastrous for Europe that we have ended up with two lightweights in the top positions of EU President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

I am sure both Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton have admirable qualities, but they are not the best people for the job.

In particular, Van Rompuy has consistently oppposed Turkish membership of the EU which I think he is wrong about.

The decision to choose two unknowns also shows Europe is not serious about leading or projecting its power onto a global stage. There is no powerful, self-assertive voice to represent us here. Europe's status is diminished once again.

Tony Blair won't lose any sleep over this. But we should worry that Europe has chosen to bury its head in the sand again. This was an opportunity to be radical and show leadership. Instead we end up with the worst of all worlds.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Brown must reverse his decision on childcare vouchers

If weekend press reports are to be believed, I am delighted that Gordon Brown appears to have changed his mind on plans to remove tax relief on Employer Supported Childcare Vouchers.

Brown originally told delegates to the Labour Party Conference that he was removing the tax relief to pay for ten hours of free childcare for 250,000 two-year olds by 2015.

But while extending childcare support for parents should be applauded, it should not come at the expense of other parents who are struggling to balance their careers with family life.

Childcare vouchers currently support over 340,000 parents and help more than 30,000 employers help their employees get back to work.

But many of the mums and dads who use childcare vouchers are middle income earners, often working in the public sector, who rely on the voucher system to support their childcare costs.

70% of parents who use them are basic tax rate payers.

They are popular with employees and employers because of their flexibility and ease of use. They allow parents to get back to work (hasn’t this always been a Labour goal?) and they offer real choice and flexibility when it comes to childcare options.

So it seemed madness to me at the time that Brown was prepared to scrap them.

Since Brown made the announcement, there has been a huge campaign to get him to reverse his decision. A petition on Downing Street opposing the decision to scrap vouchers has so far received over 80,000 signatures. Progress sent a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to change his mind. It was signed by Patricia Hewitt MP, Hilary Armstrong MP, Beverley Hughes MP, Caroline Flint MP, David Cairns MP, Denis MacShane MP and Estelle Morris to name but a few. And there has been widespread media coverage, particularly in The Sun and Mail, which has kept the issue alive.

It is also bad politics. It doesn’t make sense to penalize working parents in Middle England ie marginal constituencies, whose support Labour will need if it is to win the next election.

It is wrong for the Government to force us to choose between tax relief on the one hand and extending childcare to two-year olds on the other hand. I hope Brown will recognize this in the forthcoming Pre Budget Report and reverse his decision for good.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Can Labour capitalise on Tory EU division?

The return of 'Europe' as a problem for the Conservative Party should provide Labour with a few good opportunities to score some political goals.

Tory policy on the issue is a complete mess. First, they want to have a referendum and now they don't. Instead they want to repatriate certain powers from Europe which have already been given away. The idea that the rest of Europe will let them is fanciful.

The Europe 'issue' has dogged every Tory leader for the last thirty years, but with Cameron doing so well in the polls and a General Election just around the corner I doubt there will be any Conservative Eurosceptic willing to put their neck above the parapet and criticise their leadership's policy.

It's up to Labour then to really tug at those divisions. We need to stress the positive benefits of EU membership on issues like climate change, highlight the Tory cracks and warn people which EU powers the Tories would like to repatriate, most of which concern the European Social Chapter and a whole raft of social measures and workers' rights like paternity leave. I don't think it would go down well with the electorate if they knew that Mr Cameron was, in effect, saying he wanted to get rid of these.

We should also remember that UKIP won't give up on its bonkers crusade to get us out of Europe. In a few Tory marginals it is likely to put real pressure on Tory candidates. If we can find ways of driving a bigger wedge between the Tories and UKIP, we might just force Cameron to adopt an even more irrational policy on Europe.

Finally, we should continue to push for a strong EU Presidency (preferably with Tony Blair in the role) that can act as a counterweight to a future Conservative Government's Euroscepticism and make life difficult for David Cameron.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Alan Johnson was right to sack his drugs adviser

I think Alan Johnson was well within his rights to sack Professor David Nutt as the Government’s Chief Drug Adviser.

It is perfectly possible, in fact desirable, for advisers to government to voice independent views but it is not okay to publicly repudiate government policy. David Nutt seemed to think it was alright to be the government’s drug adviser and at the same time rubbish the government’s drug policy.

It is his job to advise, it is Alan Johnson’s job to decide. This is what the Home Secretary is paid to do and ultimately he is the one who has to answer to the public for it.

When it comes to drugs policy, the government needs to send out very clear messages and Professor Nutt’s comments only added to the confusion.

I believe it was wrong to downgrade cannabis (as does the World Health Organisation) and I believe it would be wrong to go down a similar route with ecstasy. Soft drugs often lead to hard drugs. They are responsible for significant amounts of crime and they do kill people.

Everyone is entitled to their own views, but you cannot reasonably be expected to serve a government which you are hell bent on criticizing.

Alan Johnson’s decision to get rid of him was the right one.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Tony Blair should be the next EU President

It’s a no brainer. Tony Blair should be the next president of the European Union.

He is the only candidate with the vision, stature and star quality to give the EU the credibility it needs.

As David Miliband rightly points out, we need an EU President who can “stop traffic”. Tony Blair is that man.

Contrary to what some media commentators have argued, he also proved himself as a committed Europhile when he was in office. So what, that the UK did not join the Euro under his watch? This is not the only defining characteristic of being a good European.

Under Blair, there was no more “awkward partner” or “empty chair” policy as there had been under John Major. Instead, we got a dynamic leader (who incidentally speaks French) who put the UK in the driving seat of European reform. On every issue ranging from European defence to the Budget to climate change to EU enlargement, the UK played a key role in shaping EU policy. This was thanks to Tony Blair. His contribution over ten years in power was invaluable.

The Left should support his candidacy because with Labour facing near certain electoral defeat next year, we will need a strong counterweight to what will be a viscerally bonkers anti-EU Tory Government. A Tony Blair presidency makes David Cameron’s job a lot harder. We should relish that.

Blair is also a naturally outward looking leader and this is what the EU needs. There would be little or no institutional introspection with him. Good. He would be very clear about his goals and achieving them. He could not be ignored in the capitals of Beijing, Moscow or Delhi.

After Bill Clinton, he is probably the best political communicator going. If anyone can explain the Byzantine workings of the EU to ordinary voters, he can. As he demonstrated in Northern Ireland, he is also capable of the type of schmoozing and arm twisting that is an essential feature of EU business. Never underestimate Tony Blair’s ability to persuade people.

If EU leaders fail to choose Tony Blair, it will be a bad omen. It will show that they are not really serious about reforming the EU and making it a stronger actor in world affairs.

We should get behind a Blair presidency. It will be good for Europe and what is good for Europe is good for Britain.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Where is CJ Cregg when you need her?

Does Gordon Brown have the worst spokesman ever? Asked by the Guardian this week whether the Prime Minister had watched the BBC's Question Time show, the spokesman replied:

"He very rarely watches Question Time. He is often busy on important government matters, finishing paperwork and other government business. He was certainly engaged on government business."

God, I wish CJ was here. On the most important political issue of the week, Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, Number Ten did not even have a good line to take. They could have used the opportunity to talk about anti-racism or tolerence or multiculturalism but instead we got this ridiculous, flustered reply.

If you want to see how a good press officer should answer a question (and still get across the Government's key messages) watch this:

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why the BBC is right to let the BNP speak

I think the decision by the BBC to invite Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, onto its Question Time show tonight is the right one.

I oppose everything the BNP stands for but the BBC has a public service duty to allow everyone, regardless of how odious their views are, the right to a hearing. I do not for one second accept that Sinn Fein should be classed in the same category as the BNP but it was a mistake to silence Gerry Adams’s voice (quite literally) in the 1980s and 1990s and I think it is self defeating to silence Nick Griffin’s voice now.

We have to face facts. In both Yorkshire and the North West, there are BNP MEPs. Nick Griffin got 8% of the vote in those elections. The party polled 8.9% in the North East and 8.6% in both the West and East Midlands. They polled 6.1% in the Eastern region, 5.5% in London, 5.4% in Wales, 4.4% in the South East and 3.9% in the South West. In places like Rotherham and Doncaster, they polled even higher. They are a political fact and a majority of people in a few communities voted for them. We cannot ignore this reality any more.

Labour’s ‘No Platform’ approach has been an utter failure as well. Pretending that they don’t exist, hoping that they will go away and just calling them ‘racist’ all the time hasn’t worked. We need a new strategy that proactively argues against the BNP’s views. That is why the Generals’ intervention earlier in the week was so effective.

I also think we should stop blaming the BBC for this. The real culprit is the Labour Government for spectacularly ignoring the working class over the last ten years, failing to listen to some of its legitimate grievances about housing and jobs and treating many members of the working class as if they are nothing more than an underclass or a bunch of 'chavs' (as we are now supposed to call them). Effective MPs like Jon Cruddas, Hazel Blears and David Blunkett, who speak to that working class demographic, are sadly few and far between.

I also think that if we give the BNP the opportunity to appear on shows like Question Time, it will allow us to interrogate their views and expose them for what they are. A Paxman interrogation of Nick Griffin would show him up for sure.

I think we should all watch Question Time tonight. I think we all need to be aware of what the BNP stands for so we can take them on. And in light of that, the other political parties, but notably Labour, need to rethink the way they deal with the BNP in the future.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

We should all hate the Mail

The reaction to Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail has been fantastic.

It just goes to show that after all the progressive advances over the last ten years, you simply can’t get away with expressing views like hers anymore.

I don’t know how she can hold her head up in polite company. Where is her humanity?

Her article is just another example of the poisonous, spiteful writing that passes as journalism at that paper.

The poor boy was not even buried before she decided to attack him by suggesting that there was nothing ‘natural’ about his death. Her comments were nasty, insidious and spiteful.

But the reaction to her comments has been overwhelming and just shows how much our society has changed over the last ten years.

There have been over 1,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. They will have to do something now.

There are 12,000 members of the Facebook group calling for the Mail to retract her comments.

Stephen Fry has denounced her. A well liked, respected figure he described her comments as "loathesome" and "inhumane".

Alastair Campbell on his blog reminds us all of why we should hate the Mail anyway.

And best of all, Marks & Spencer withdrew their online advertising from the offending web page. Whoever decided to do that at M&S should be commended. They have just enhanced their brand reputation by about 100%. Other companies should follow suit.

There are lessons to draw from this. Unfortunately nasty views like Ms Moir’s still exist and are still readily expressed and we have to remain vigilant against them. And secondly, and more positively, they are no longer considered acceptable. Marks & Spencer’s response just shows how seriously even big business takes this sort of thing nowadays.

We should follow its example and vote with our feet and never buy the Mail again. Not that I ever did.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Are the Tories already out of date?

If the Conservatives are supposed to be the party of the future, why did their conference today feel so dated and past it?

Not only did we have to watch Ken Clarke shuffling about in his Hush Puppies, we also had to put up with Kenneth Baker (who was bloody old in the Thatcher Government) droan on. He looked as slimy as he did when Spitting Image used to mock him.

The fact that the conference was obsessed with Europe as well meant the whole thing had a distinct 1990s flavour to it. It was all a bit tired and past it.

Boris Johnson didn't exactly spice things up either. And we can usually count on him to have a good laugh (at).

After admitting to delegates that Manchester was one of the few great British cities he had yet to insult, the Mayor then promptly told his audience that London remained the motor of the UK economy and cities like Manchester were dependent on it. This was surely not the message the Tory leader, David Cameron, wanted northern voters to hear.

It's also untrue, Manchester does very well for itself thanks Boris.

During his speech, the Mayor stuck rigidly to a traditional Tory agenda of tax cuts, free markets and anti-statism. He staunchly defended the actions of city bankers and even moaned about the “communist era free sheet called the Londoner”. The speech felt like it was twenty years out of date.

There was no mention of Europe or President Blair or anything of controversy in what he said. It was all a bit safe and tired and traditional, not the Conservative Party David Cameron has been trying to sell us.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Conservatives head to Manchester

The Conservative Party begins its conference in my hometown of Manchester this week. The party has every reason to feel pleased with itself. Although the Labour conference wasn’t as bad as everybody expected, the Sun’s decision to come out in favour of Cameron will have given the Tories a nice little boost before they all gather together.

However, let me throw a few spanners in the works.

Firstly, this is not 1996 and Mr Cameron is no Tony Blair. There is little public appetite for the Tories as the opinion polls show. Its poll numbers should be in the high 40s (and they’re not), there should be fewer floating voters and its lead over Labour should be bigger. It is a tired phrase but the Tories have not sealed the deal with voters.

Secondly, there are serious question marks over the Conservative’s handling of the economic crisis and its stance on Europe. I think there is an increasing view out there that the Tories made the wrong call on the economic crisis twelve months ago. Voters still feel uneasy about trusting a leader who displayed such poor judgement. The party’s position on Europe is all over the place as well. Its stance on the Lisbon Treaty is ill thought through, liable to antagonise important allies like Sarkozy and Merkel and makes no sense. Cameron looks like he is about to have a major row on his hands. It also seems hypocritical to me that a party which says it has changed has got into bed with some pretty unsavoury characters in the European Parliament.

Thirdly, George Osborne is a liability for the party. He is disliked, distrusted, looks like he relishes the idea of enacting ‘savage cuts’ and has shown bad judgement on some major decisions. His speech will be the most important of the week and he will have to demonstrate that he looks like a credible Chancellor in waiting. Fat chance.

Finally, I have doubts that the Tories message of ‘cuts, cuts and more cuts’ will resonate with voters in the major northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds - never mind Wales and Scotland! The Conservatives are not a national party, yet.

So, Conservative MPs may well feel that they are about to be handed the keys to Number Ten and I am sure they will spend the next week desperately trying not to appear smug. But there remains some major concerns about what they stand for, their competence and their policies for the future. This should give Labour some hope.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Sun's decision is not surprising

It is no surprise to me that The Sun has turned its back on Labour.

Its decision to come out in favour of the Tories today was an unmistakable, deliberate act of sabotage, timed to steal the Prime Minister’s thunder.

No wonder Brown and Mandelson were furious. It has just flat footed us again.

Party members put on an admirably brave face but they must recognise that it is a blow.

The Sun is not as powerful as it once was, but it is a good bellwether of public opinion. And its decision shows that public opinion is shifting towards the Conservatives.

In close elections, like 1992, newspapers do have the power to influence their readers. The Sun’s disgraceful attacks on Kinnock, a good man, in that election did influence what their readers thought of him. And I expect that the Sun’s endorsement of Cameron might just give the Tories an extra edge if the next election is really that close.

But why someone didn’t see this happening two years ago is a mystery to me. It was inevitable that The Sun would switch sides. We haven’t been addressing the concerns of Sun readers for a long time now.

The Sun’s announcement clearly infuriated the Prime Minister. When he stormed out of his interview with Adam Boulton on Sky today, part of me thought, “Oh, good on yer!” But I felt sorry for Brown and even in Blair’s darkest days I never felt sorry for him. Blair was always in control of events around him. Brown’s temper tantrum, on the other hand, only further exposed the personality flaws we have come to know so well. No one votes for a leader because they feel sorry for them.

The loss of the Sun is a blow. But there is a lesson here for us. Our love affair with the Murdoch press never delivered what we expected and hoped for. Let’s remember that next time.

And let’s hope that the ever loyal Mirror is there to support us come the election this time.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Was Brown's Speech Enough?

It didn’t quite live up to all the expectations, but Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference today was a tubthumper.

The Prime Minister put on a strong performance and delivered a policy rich speech. He promised a referendum on electoral reform, a care home network for teenage mothers, an extension of free childcare places and to enshrine in law the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on international development. If the intention was to put clear red water between us and the Tories then it worked.

The new announcements showed that we are still capable of delivering up fresh ideas which are relevant to the British people.

I particularly welcomed the strong attacks he made on anti-social behaviour. It wasn’t directly mentioned but there were strong echoes of Tony Blair’s Respect Agenda in what the Prime Minister said. Up until today Brown has ignored this issue but I am pleased it is at the top of his agenda again. It will certainly help us to appeal to floating voters.

Some of the policies he announced also pivoted to our base which was good. The announcements on Post Offices and ID Cards were met with big cheers. They will win him friends where he needs them.

I also thought he established the Tory lines of attack very well, while still managing to sound positive. I think there is a view, increasingly taking hold amongst the British public, that Cameron made the wrong call about the recession twelve months ago. Brown hammered this point home. “The Conservative Party were faced with the economic call of the century and they called it wrong”, he said. I think Joe Bloggs will agree with him.

He also made promises on the minimum wage and a National Care Service for the elderly which will leave the Tories in a tricky position. Will they be able to match them?

Unlike some cynics, I also liked Sarah Brown’s introduction. It was personal, emotional and honest. It worked the first time and I think it has again.

But the speech was not a game changer.

Of course, it takes more than just one speech to turn around the fortunes of a political party but for me it still sounded like a rag bag of ideas and sound bites stuck together, rather than a compelling narrative or vision of what Labour’s election message will be.

I thought it could have been bolder. Why stop at the recall of corrupt MPs? Why not introduce primaries? Why not hold a referendum on PR on the day of the election? Why not take tougher action on bankers’ bonuses? It didn’t go far enough. It won’t be enough to convince the voters.

Brown may have littered his speech with good announcements and good reminders of what we have done, but the trouble (as it has always been with him) is that the British public have just stopped listening.

Maybe we can get them to listen again. But I doubt it.

That’s why at the end of the day, it may have been a good speech, but it will be the last he makes as Prime Minister.

Monday, 28 September 2009

A Barnstorming Speech from Mandelson Saves The Day!

"If I can do it, we can do it," declared Peter Mandelson to the Labour Party Conference.

His speech today was a barnstorming attempt to breathe life into a conference which up until then had looked moribund.

He told delegates that if he could return from oblivion, so could the party. Labour was in the fight of its life. And it was exactly what we needed to hear.

If the architect of our successful 1997 victory still thinks we can win, then who are we to argue?

Although Mandelson announced an extension of the car scrappage scheme, there was little in the way of new policy announcements in his speech.

But this didn’t matter. Mandelson directed all his fire at the Tories.

Frequently referring to the Shadow Chancellor as ‘Boy George’ he said that Osborne had sailed too close to the wind, too often. A neat reminder to all of us of the last time the two men met on a yacht in Corfu.

He accused Cameron of being shallow and mocked the Shadow Secretary of State, Ken Clarke for his inability to get to grips with modern technology. No mobile phone. No Blackberry. A Business Secretary who can’t function in the modern world. Ken Clarke –the old duffer. A highly effective form of attack.

The speech was littered with criticism of the Tories. If only more Labour politicians could do it.

It was theatrical, camp and a little self indulgent. But if anyone can get away with this, it is Peter Mandelson. And it worked.

It gave us some fire in our bellies, made us laugh at ourselves and reminded us that the real enemies are Cameron and his cronies.

I remember the second time Mandelson resigned from Government and the Mirror newspaper or the Sun (one of them) carried a picture of him and Blair sat on the frontbenches looking thoroughly miserable. The headline was “He could have been one of Labour’s Heroes”.

I hope that Peter Mandelson has put headlines like that to rest now. Over the last twelve months, he has proven his ability and his judgement.

His speech today showed that he has true star quality. God knows Labour needs some of that magic and sparkle.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Brown needs to surprise us at conference

As we all head to Brighton for Labour Conference this week, there are a number of things that I would like to see happen.

Firstly, Gordon Brown has to announce some big policy changes in his speech. It is the only way the polls may move towards him.

Last year, in the wake of Lehman Brothers collapse, the Prime Minister’s response to the crisis played to his strengths. He showed he was a capable, effective and experienced politician. Public opinion shifted and for a time the polls improved.

Andrew Rawnsley points out in today’s Observer that Brown could still do this by surprising us. On this, he already has form – remember his announcement regarding the independence of the Bank of England or even Mandelson’s return to Cabinet. But any surprise announcement has to be a game-changer. And it has to be sufficiently startling to resonate with the British public.

Secondly, we need to ram home our message that only Labour will make cuts in a careful, sustainable way that doesn’t ruin our public services or destroy our social fabric. In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher made brutal cuts which created enormous poverty and deprivation. Generations of families are still reaping the consequences of this.

Cameron and Osborne are no better. If they had their way, they would make severe cuts now based on a perverse out-dated ideology with no thought or conscience about how it might affect ordinary people. Labour can be trusted to be kinder and more careful. This has to be our line of attack. I believe our core working vote could respond well to it.

Paul Richards wrote on Labour List this week that conference needs to be a ‘Cameron Killing Machine’. He is right.

So thirdly, we have to stop talking about the leadership question. I have been very clear all along that I do not believe Gordon Brown was right for the job but I accept that the party has now come to a settled view on this.

As much as I agree with what Charles Clarke says, it is now time to put these questions behind us. It destabilises us when we need to come together. It makes us look divided when we need to show unity.

This is the last conference before an election so we need to take the fight to the Tories. There is much to be said for adopting a strategy of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at them.

If that means negative campaigning then so be it. How do the British public know we will fight for them if we don’t take the fight to the Tories? We need some fire in our bellies. And a bit of Tory bashing in Brighton this week is exactly the right medicine.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Brown's Best Week Yet?

Gordon Brown has had one of his best weeks in office so far – which is good news for him as we approach the start of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

His address to the UN General Assembly was masterful, right and displayed his best qualities. His spontaneous response to mad dog Qadaffi’s bonkers behaviour won him good will and the support of most sensible onlookers. He looked and sounded like a world leader.

His press conference with Presidents Obama and Sarkozy to talk about Iran was effective as well. It is about time we stopped messing around with this despicable regime and put on a united show. It was good to see all three leaders there but Brown’s strong rhetoric and push for greater sanctions singled him out.

I have even been watching him over the past few weeks on BBC Two’s excellent ‘The Love of Money’ show, which explored what happened during the financial crisis and ended on Thursday night. Anyone watching that could not doubt Brown’s importance to what happened. It is quite clear that he saved this country from a terrible depression, contributed to the rescue of the banks and was the first to encourage a global stimulus which is now helping the world to move out of recession.

Forget this media rubbish about Obama snubbing him too. I know the British media love to write those stories and the Conservative’s Propaganda Chief Nick Robinson worked himself up into a flap about it, but the President is just BUSY – you know, chairing Security Council meetings and stuff like that.

Both leaders can work off the same page without meeting every two minutes to discuss it.

So I was very proud of Brown this week. The UN and the G20 obviously played to his strengths but he handled it all very well. On the eve of conference, Brown should feel happy that he did all he could, which was more than most people expected.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Cuts, Cuts and Cuts

Up until this week, it had seemed like the word “cuts” was a whisper Labour politicians dare not even speak.

And now it seems we can’t get away from it.

At the beginning of the week Lord Mandelson made an impressive speech in which he said that Labour would be the “wise spenders” while the Conservatives would impose “savage cuts”.

At the TUC conference, Gordon Brown said he would “cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets”. He talked of “tough choices” ahead.

And only this morning, the Sunday Times reports an interview with the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, in which he details more than £2bn worth of cuts across the schools budget.

Every adult with half a brain knows that public spending cuts are inevitable. This message seems to have finally gotten through.

I would not have started by going after the schools budget though. I thought we were meant to be the party of ‘education, education, education’. Instead, why shouldn’t we be bolder and immediately scrap Trident and ID cards? These policies are not bread and butter Labour stuff.

At least now we are being honest though.

Labour has laid down the battle lines for the next election. We are the party which will make sensible, wise choices while the Tories are the party practically salivating or “foaming at the mouth” (as Mandelson said) at the prospect of being able to cut spending. This is a wiser strategy for Labour.

It even hints at the ‘nasty’ label which the Conservatives have unsuccessfully tried to shake off.

On balance, the Government had a good week and now that a strategy is settled on, we can go to conference feeling a little less gloomy.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Labour still has to be more honest

At last Labour seems to have started to change its message on the economy.

I thought Alistair Darling's speech in Cardiff today was better because it was more honest.

The Chancellor spoke of 'hard choices' ahead and went further than any other senior minister has done to talk about spending cuts.

He also made a vigorous defence of why cutting spending now (but not necessarily in the future) would only prolong the recession and have a negative social and economic impact. Heaven forbid, it was almost an attack on Tory policy.

So much so the better.

But I still think Labour will have to be more direct about where it thinks cuts might fall. I don't think we have been honest enough with people about the scale of the problem.

On the other hand David Cameron has been very clear that a Conservatve Government would impose cuts. To show he is serious about cutting public spending, he has said that he will reduce miniserial salaries and end subsidised food and drink at Westminster.

I know this all populist nonsense and will only save a relatively small amount of money each year but I think it will go down well with voters. And it sends out an important signal.

It will certainly make it easier to sell public spending cuts further down the line if politicians can show they have made sacrifices as well. I wish Labour had made a similar suggestion first.

Labour still needs to be more honest with people but the Chancellor's speech today was a start.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Is 'Broken Britain' like The Wire or a bit more like Shameless?

Yesterday Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, warned that Britain was falling apart so quickly we were in danger of turning into an episode of 'The Wire'.

What a load of rubbish.

Instead of glib references to TV shows, why can't any senior Tory make a single thoughtful speech about what we can do to tackle crime and social deprivation?

It is true that there are people in the UK trapped on sink estates, without a job, dependent on benefits, living in poverty. I admit to knowing one or two families exactly like the Gallaghers in the C4 drama 'Shameless'.

But it is not the case that places like Manchester or Liverpool are even remotely comparable to Baltimore, where The Wire is filmed, and where there are hundreds of violent gun deaths each year.

The Tories are trying to paint a picture of a nation crumbling apart which is inaccurate, scare-mongering and panders to the poisonous Daily Mail agenda. This is not the sensible politics of a party which wants to form the next government.

Labour could do more though. We used to talk a lot about welfare reform. We used to talk about the 'Respect' agenda which I thought was very important and a good response to issues of social deprivation and community crime. But this seems to have all fallen by the wayside now.

I think Labour would improve its chances amongst voters if it recovered some of that early Blair radicalism on welfare reform and started to talk about these issues again. If we don't we allow the Tories to paint a picture of our society which is terribly misleading and terribly destructive.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

It was the right decision to release the Lockerbie bomber

I think the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, was the right decision.

Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, made a very brave, principled decision which was clearly based on his strong values. In doing so, he withstood tremendous political and international pressure.

I think there is something deeply honourable about that and he should be applauded.

I don’t believe the SNP Government has damaged Scotland’s reputation either. The SNP has followed the law, under difficult circumstances, and shown that you can have disagreements with the United States without the whole edifice collapsing.

I actually think that when the dust has settled on this, the SNP Government will come out of it very well and the UK Government will look shifty and unprincipled, particularly if Gaddafi’s comments today that the UK Government helped facilitate the release are proven to be true.

It is of course entirely inappropriate for al-Megrahi to be given a heroes welcome back in Libya. It makes me feel very uncomfortable. And I can understand how upsetting that must be for the victims’ families.

But I do think Kenny MacAskill did the right thing. He showed a compassion to al-Megrahi which al-Megrahi never showed to the victims’ families. In an age when we complain that politicians are too cynical and have forgotten what they believe in and don’t do what they believe in, there is something refreshing about that.

I am not usually a fan of the SNP Government, but today Scottish voters should feel proud.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Tories would destroy the NHS

The Conservatives are all over the place on the NHS.

Bonkers MEP Daniel Hannan (seen in the picture) should have the whip removed. His actions are unpatriotic and have exposed just how unreformed and nasty parts of the Conservative Party still are.

He is clearly a nutter for comparing the NHS to North Korea.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, should not escape blame either. I think he is one of the most thoughtful and considerate members of the Conservative front bench but he was silly to put his name to a book “Direct Democracy” which argued that the NHS was a “1940s monopolistic structure . . . no longer relevant in the 21st century”.

The Conservative Cornerstone Group also produced a report in 2007 which described the NHS as ‘Stalinist’ and called for a compulsory insurance scheme.

So, is this the progressive party George Osborne alluded to earlier in the week?

Laughable. Indeed.

The row exposes the Conservative Party’s half-hearted commitment to the NHS. Many Tory members share Mr Hannan's views.

I also find it particularly distasteful the way Cameron, every time the NHS is mentioned, has to bring up the subject of his family (like he did yesterday morning). To his eternal credit, the Prime Minister has never done this.

If the polling of their PPCs is to be believed, the next intake of Tory MPs are even less committed to the NHS than this current lot. The British public should be concerned.

The Conservatives are totally divided on the issue. If today it is the NHS, tomorrow it will be taxes and Wednesday it will be Europe. No change.

The problem, as it has always been for the Tories, is that they think 1997 was a blip. That somehow the British public made a terrible mistake and they will finally see sense. It has meant the Conservative Party has never had to reconcile itself to its own failings in the way Labour had to do in the 1990s. It has never had a Clause IV moment. It has never had to change and adapt. This row underlines that.

It remains an unreformed, out of touch, pathetic little party.

David Cameron owes the doctors and nurses who work in the NHS an apology for his MEPs idiotic remarks.

Labour must exploit this mercilessly. We are the party of the NHS because we share the public service values and ethos that the NHS is built on.

I would hammer the Tories on this from now until the Election Day.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Why I like Harriet

You’ve got to give it to Harriet Harman – she doesn’t give up.

She is clearly enjoying standing in for Gordon while he is on holiday.

But if press reports are to be believed she has apparently used the opportunity to block a review into the operation of rape laws because she is unhappy with the scope of the inquiry.

She would like to see a wider review conducted which looks at the low conviction rates in rape cases, violence against women more generally and the legal question of ‘consent’.

Now, in the past I have not always been a fan of Harriet. And I also tend to think that although this is a really important issue, voters want to hear what the government is doing about the recession and getting them back into work. And this is what the Government should be talking about – Harriet included.

But you have to hand it to her. No other politician at such a senior level pursues an equality agenda with such gusto.

Over the last week, she has talked about the importance of women at the heart of government, focused on the thorny issue of the proverbial glass ceiling in the City and even said that Lehman Brothers might not have collapsed if it had been Lehman Sisters!

She may receive criticism from the likes of John Prescott for this sort of interference but this goes with the territory.

Over the years, she has consistently shown a commitment to women’s issues and now that she has an opportunity to actually do something, why shouldn’t she seize it?

In the past, there are people who have treated her with contempt. They have patronised her achievements and this has been wrong.

Since becoming Deputy Leader she has done well when she has had to stand in for Gordon at PMQs, she has robustly defended the government when needed to and she has been very clear about her purpose. In fact, she has been one of the strongest members of the government.

Unlike many of her colleagues, she is clearly not riding out the clock until the next election. I like this and she does deserve credit for that.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

What does it mean to be on the Left today?

I am fan of the ideas behind the Open Left project at Demos. It argues that there has to be an open debate in the party about values and goals.

I like that its starting point is about rediscovering the Left’s idealism and radicalism.

So, the first question it poses ‘What does it mean to be on the Left today?’ has got me thinking.

For me, the answer can be summed up in one word: Aspiration.

I think that what essentially motivates people in life is aspiration and ambition.

Families aspire to own their own homes. Parents aspire to send their kids to a good school and then on to university. I aspire to have a successful career. We all aspire to go on holiday once a year. We all want our friends and family to be looked after and cared for when they are in need. We all aspire to lead the good life. A better life.

And I think only the Left which is committed to putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many and not the few is capable of delivering this.

Only the Left, which delivered universal health care, comprehensive education, the minimum wage, the expansion of higher education and training opportunities for the young has the values and ideas which will allow people to achieve their goals.

Working class, middle class, white or black, male or female – this doesn’t really matter, because we are all motivated by the same thing. Labour is strongest when it recognises this.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Conservative Party. It is committed to defending the status quo. It is incapable of helping people to realise their aspirations and dreams because it is too conservative, too reactionary, not interested.

Left wing politics, for me anyway, also comes from a place of anger.

I look around and see terrible injustice and poverty and inequality. It makes me furious. I know that in the UK, there are millions of households living in fuel poverty. I know that in Africa there are thousands of deaths every day that could be prevented because of malaria or HIV. I know that inequality in Britain has never been greater and we seem a less happy society.

If Conservatives look around and think that the status quo is worth preserving, worth defending, worth conserving then more fool them.

The Labour Party has to be about helping people fulfil their dreams. The Left has to be about change and progress and hope and idealism. Without these values, we are nothing.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dreams from my father by Barack Obama

I have just finished reading Barack Obama’s memoirs ‘Dreams from My Father’. I read the Audacity of Hope when it first came out, so I don’t know quite why it has taken me so long to get around to his earlier book but I really loved it.

I know Obama wrote the book before he reached national prominence, but I can’t recall a similar occasion when a President or any politician has written with such honesty and eloquence.

Firstly, it is very well written. Obama has a knack for capturing a particular person or moment. His trip back to Kenya is both sad and funny in equal measure. At times, you sense that he feels isolated and alone but you are really gripped by the journey he is on to discover who he is and where he came from.

Secondly, the memoirs also help to personalise him. When you read of his time on Chicago’s South Side, you suddenly understand what it means for Americans, and in particular African Americans, to see Obama elected. The Bushes, Clintons and Reagan’s didn’t sweat and worry with the poor and the underprivileged in the way Obama did. He doesn’t just empathise with people or ‘feel their pain’, he experienced it. For the first time you understand that his own troubled identity as the son of an African man and a white, American mother gives him a vantage point which is unique amongst American leaders. His experience as a grass roots organizer means he knows what being poor and hopeless can lead people to do. In a perverse way, this gives you confidence and hope that the man sitting in the Oval Office will make the right types of decisions.

You also get the sense that Obama is a different man now from the man who wrote ‘Dreams from my Father’. His professorial, cool demeanour contrasts with the emotive, anxious young man who is in a hurry to get somewhere that he writes about in ‘Dreams…’ This is probably about age and experience but it is interesting to know what he was like before and where he has come from.

Even if you are not that interested in politics, I would still recommend reading this book.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

After Norwich Labour must rethink its strategy

It will come as no surprise to anyone if Labour loses the by-election in Norwich North today.

However, I think it will be a closer result than many people expect. The expenses scandal has hurt all the parties and Labour’s decision to ban Ian Gibson from standing as a MP at the next election has not gone down well with many party members and constituents.

So the Tories will sneak in, but it won’t be a ringing endorsement for them like it was in Crewe. A win with a majority of less than 8,000 is not good news for Cameron.

The lesson Labour must draw from defeat is that its message of “Tory cuts” versus “Labour investment” is just not credible or believed by voters. As a strategy for the next election, it will not work.

We have to face up to this. We have to be honest with the British public. We have to be more sophisticated.

Every poll conducted shows that voters know that there will be tough choices ahead about what we spend public money on.

Labour’s message has got to be “Yes, some cuts in spending are coming, but you trust Labour to make the right cuts”.

This is a much more credible and effective message than the simplistic one we have peddled in Norwich. Voters will appreciate the honesty of it and it will allow Labour to establish some clear dividing lines in areas of policy and public spending with the Tories.

It will put them in an uncomfortable position because Cameron will be forced to say whether he would match Labour commitments and/or tell us which areas of policy he would make cuts in.

It is time Labour was honest with the voters. If we can do that, then we can win back the trust and the respect we desperately need.

Monday, 20 July 2009

McBride's 5 Live Interview

I listened to Damian McBride’s radio interview on 5 Live this morning.

I believe that everyone deserves a second chance and McBride was contrite enough for it to sound genuine.

We should all be able to forgive stupid mistakes.

But it is difficult to explain away behaviour which, according to most people, was endemic in Number Ten at the time.

It is probably true that Brown didn’t have a clue what McBride was up to but isn’t Brown responsible for the culture that allows this sort of behaviour to become acceptable. When you employ attack dogs, what do you expect?

Only a few days ago, Jane Kennedy compared the Prime Minister to a mafia boss and she used to be a Government Minister! It is not as if accusations like this, against Brown, are rare either. We have all heard about this sort of stuff before. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the time it was directed at people on the Labour side.

Everyone from Peter Mandelson to Frank Field to Patricia Hewitt to Stephen Byers have talked about the bullying tactics emanating first from the Treasury and then Number Ten. McBride’s attempt to smear senior Conservatives was a rare example of him directing his fire at the opposition.

I know politics can be a rough ol’ business and you have to expose the weaknesses and failings of the oppposition. But my beef is when it's directed at your own side tactics like these are not a very effective form of motivating people.

You don’t get the best out of people by scaring them, attacking them or subjecting them to the hairdryer treatment. You get the best out of people by encouraging them and valuing their work.

Businesses should learn this but so should governments, political parties and indeed prime ministers.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Moving on from New Labour?

I thought James Purnell’s interview in the Guardian this weekend was interesting.

I think he is right to point out that we should all stop “hankering” for the heyday of New Labour in the late 1990s. As he points out (and Tony Blair would be the first to agree) we need to develop a new set of policies that is relevant for today, not for 1994.

Purnell states:

“We took the electoral furniture to be too fixed. We didn't think about creating a new coalition and I think that's what we need to do now. To be honest I think we were too conservative about our means, so it was easier to take on arguments on the left, not the right. So what I want to try and do now is be as radical on the left as on the right.

"I think we need to go back and clarify values which underlie new Labour and be very candid about what worked and didn't work”.

Even Tony Blair’s biggest fans, myself included, have to accept that what worked and what was right in 1997, isn’t necessarily what will work now.

We shouldn’t forget about the electoral coalition that got Labour elected in 1997 but nor should we get ourselves trapped in a permanent time warp. Sometimes even the best ministers still think they need to fight the 1997 election all over again.

That is why it is interesting Purnell will be talking to people like Jon Cruddas over the next few months, as he leads a three year project for Demos. Why shouldn’t Purnell, Cruddas and others start setting out their own ideas and vision for the party and the country? We need to be creative about what we we can offer the British public. We don’t need more timidity and indecision.

Even though Cruddas and Purnell offer different perspectives, I would expect both of them to be powerful voices in opposition. They both ‘get it’ that New Labour needs refreshing. The real issue will be whether, as a party, we are willing to listen to and give their ideas a chance.

Let’s wait and see.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What can we learn from the West Wing?

Writing in this week's Observer Andrew Rawnsley states that Josiah Bartlet has a lot to answer for.

Rawnsley uses his article to criticise David Cameron and Tony Blair before him of trying to turn Downing Street into a mini West Wing.

Is Rawnsley right?

On one level he probably is. In the West Wing decisions are made by Josh, CJ and Sam as they dash from meeting to meeting at a breakneck speed. "Impromptu, informal, haphazard gatherings", as Rawnsley calls them, are probably not the best way of reaching decisions. He argues it was this sort of approach which led to some of the most disastrous periods of the Blair Government - like the dodgy dossier.

On this I tend to think he is right. Meetings for meetings sake are a pointless waste of time. But there is value in stopping a moment, weighing up the facts, listening to dissenting voices, considering the options and then reaching a decision.

But Rawnsley is wrong on another level because he fails to understand the point of the West Wing. It was about recapturing the idealism of politics. And it would seem to me that British politics could do with more of this.

A tight knit group of young, idealistic, talented and intelligent people helped turn around the Labour Party in the mid 1990s. But we have lost that magic now. We have lost that ambition and hunger and idealism that helps propel parties into power.

Unlike Josiah Barlet, we have also become afraid of our own liberalism and social democracy. Bartlet was a liberal lion who wasn't afraid to champion difficult or unpopular causes. In fact it was what gave him his authenticity. I think we try to triangulate too much and we forget our values.

The West Wing showed that you could be true to your values and still be politically skillful and electorally successful. It would seem to me that we should try to emulate this as much as possible.

In British politics we need more Josiah Barlets and fewer Francis Urquharts.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Have the Tories changed on gay rights?

The rainbow flags were flying in Soho this weekend as London celebrated Gay Pride.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Westminster's politicians have been falling over themselves to prove their gay credentials.

Last week, David Cameron said "sorry" for Section 28, the law which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, described the apology as "historic".

In a reversal of historic trends, it appears that the Conservatives have certainly made it possible once again for gay men and women to vote for them.

A poll conducted by Jake, the professional gay networking organisation, found that out of over 600 gay men and women, 38% said they would vote Conservative if an election was held tomorrow, while only 20% would vote Labour - figures which mirror the national polling preferences too.

In constituencies in London, the key battleground for next year's election, the 'pink vote' could be decisive.

The National Portrait Gallery also played host last week to a debate between senior gay political figures about which party could offer the gay vote more.

Ben Bradshaw MP (the new Secretary of State for Culture), Chris Bryant MP (Foreign Officer Minister), Nick Herbert MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Defra), Stephen Williams MP (Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Universities) and Nick Boles (PPC for Grantham) were all in attendance.

There was even a brief appearance from Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife. She also led the Pride parade as it worked its way through London's streets on Saturday.

However, both Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant used the occasion at the Gallery to attack their Tory colleagues, claiming that many Conservative MPs and PPCs were still prejudiced.

I think it is right for Labour to remind people of the great work it has done extending gay rights - one of the really successful achievements of the Blair years. But I am not sure it is fair any more to criticise the Tories on this. In any organisation, there is bound to be some element of prejudice. After all, it is made up of humans. But the Tory leadership, at the very least, has changed on this. And shouldn't social democrats in particular, accept that people can make mistakes and forgive them for it?

At the National Gallery, the most eloquent and articulate speaker, turned out to be Nick Herbert, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environmment.

In his speech, he gave credit to the Labour Government for establishing the legal framework for gay equality and was honest about previous Conservative failings in this area. But he quoted David Cameron's first conference speech when the new leader stated that marriage between two men was equally valued as marriage between a man and a woman, and reminded the audience that it was important to remain vigilant in the future.

This is not the Tory voice of Norman Tebbit or John Hannam, the MP Ben Bradshaw originally defeated in Exeter. Herbert represents a new generation of Tories who recognise the importance of gay rights legislation. They are not going to roll back the clock now. And I think Labour has to accept this. It also has to accept that there are many people who will now begin to look at the Tories in a different light and, as the poll suggests, are willing to vote for them.

It would be better for Labour to fight the Tories on what we can offer for the future, like what are we going to do about homophobic bullying in schools, rather than hark back to the fights of yesterday.

It is often said that gay men and women are the first to start a new trend and are always just one step ahead of the curve.

Labour strategists may be conceeding that it would be ironic indeed, if, after all the progress Labour has made over the last ten years, it is the Conservatives who turn out to be the biggest beneficiaries of the pink vote at the next election.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Building Britain's Future

The Prime Minister’s package of reforms that he announced today, “Building Britain’s Future”, is good stuff.

It has been attacked for containing ‘rehashed ideas’ but it does establish clear dividing lines with the Tories and there is an attempt at the ‘vision thing’ in it.

Importantly, it is an opportunity to move away from the economy and get back to reforming the public services which have been understandably neglected over the last year.

The parts I liked included:

• The mandatory training or employment for every young person who has been out of work for a year

• Training or a school place for each 16 or 17 year old

• An energy bill which pledges support for 4 CCS demonstration projects

• Extra investment in housing with a focus on new council build; and

• Reform of the House of Lords

All of this was positive and right.

However, I still think that the Government’s strategy of going into the next election with an offer of Labour investment versus Tory cuts is fundamentally wrong. I don’t think it is going to wash with the British public.

We have a £140 billion debt. Our public finances have taken a battering. Everyone knows this. It is isn’t credible or truthful to go into the next election saying that we’re going to carry on spending at the same level as we are doing now.

We all know that there will be tough choices ahead and yes indeed, some cuts. Wouldn’t it be better for Labour to be honest about this? Draw a line in the sand with 4 or 5 key things that we will defend like new Sure Start centres and then tell the British public where the sacrifices will be made.

I would start with Trident and ID cards for one. Both are totally unnecessary, have clear alternatives and would save us billions. It isn’t too late to do this and still be believed.

The political journos and the Westminster village might worry about u-turns but all the British public are concerned about is making the right decision. On this, I think the public would reflect and think the Government had got it right.

If we just start telling people that the Tories will cut 10% across the board, we face the danger that the public might actually think this a good idea. I don’t know anyone who would like to see their taxes increased as an alternative. It simply isn’t a good enough argument to vote Labour.

And while Brown had a good day today so did Cameron. I know some people think this is a problem for the Tory leader, but I think he is most effective when he is angry.

At the press conference he gave this morning he was asked about the debate over Labour investment and Tory cuts and he replied:

"I don't care what the government does any more. They can announce cuts, they can announce increases, they can set out whatever they want. Set the whole thing to music and do a karaoke. I have lost faith in a prime minister who stands up and says black is white. We will make our own decisions about what's right for the country."

This was powerful, brutal, elegant and steely stuff. If Mandelson saw this he should worry.

It just goes to show you that even when Labour has good news days, Cameron now has the power to effectively hijack our coverage.

Today was a good start for Brown after the tumultous last few weeks but we are not even close to being out of the woods yet. He must know this.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Alan Milburn Stepping Down

I have been on holiday the last couple of weeks hence the lack of blogging.

But I did consider Alan Milburn's decision to stand down at the next election, announced yesterday, as further evidence that senior people within the Party have given up on Labour winning the next election.

This isn't a criticism, merely an observation. John Hutton and Alan Milburn have both concluded that they are done with front line politics and don't want to spend another ten years slugging it out on the opposition benches. They have done their service so I can't really blame them.

I think both are quite creative thinkers so it's a bit of a loss for the future. But it can also be a window of opportunity. Fresh blood and fresh thinking is what's required - a new generation of Labour activists to take the Party forward - so it's no bad thing that one or two of the Party's top brass calls it a day.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

We Bottled It

It looks like a done deal then. Gordon Brown is staying on as leader. The Party bottled it. What a pity.

At last night's make or break PLP meeting, there simply wasn't enough support to challenge the Prime Minister.

It was blind loyalty that allowed Labour to walk into electoral defeat in 1983 and we are repeating the same mistake now.

Last night, Brown claimed he would change. I don't believe he can. I don't believe a word he says.

Well done to Tom Harris and Charles Clarke for sticking to their guns and saying what they thought. I agree with them 100%.

Well done to Jane Kennedy too. She got into politics to fight the bullies of Militant in Liverpool and she has resigned because of the bullies at Number Ten. Another one of the many good ministers who have resigned over the last few days.

I attended the Progress event last night in Parliament, held just minutes after the PLP showdown and there was little sympathy on show for the Prime Minister.

Although the acting Director of Progress, Jessica Asato and Ben Bradshaw, the new Culture Secretary, valiantly tried to steer the discussion onto policy there was no getting away from the elephant in the room.

The question marks over leadership and loyalty could not be ignored.

Stephen Byers, the former Transport Secretary, launched a withering attack on the PM which was received with considerable applause by the audience.

Ben Bradshaw, convincing and articulate (why wasn’t he in the Cabinet sooner?) responded with a passionate defence of the PM which helped to change a few members’ minds.

Arguments were strong on both sides. The passion intense.

But the overall feeling was that nothing was really resolved. My sense was that the audience was split 50:50 on the leadership – much like the Cabinet, MPs and the Labour Party.The Prime Minister will limp on like a wounded elephant.

But we should have had more courage to remove him, particularly after the poll in the Independent today suggests that Alan Johnson is more popular than Brown and would deny the Tories an outright victory.

After achieving 15% of the vote in the European elections and losing to the Conservatives in Wales, believe me, it doesn't get worse than this!

I believe that the Labour Government needs an ambitious, radical programme of change between now and the next election. This should start with the type of massive constitutional and electoral reform many people have been calling for.

Number Ten should forget about all the small initiatives and concentrate on 4 or 5 big ideas that can get pushed through in the next ten months. This is where our possible salvation lies.

But Gordon Brown isn't the person to do this.

He lacks the legitimacy, credibility and authenticity to do it properly. He is neither liked, respected or trusted.

As Tom Harris points out, the British people already have a settled view of him and this will not change. He is a liability to the Labour Party and the wider movement of progressive politics. By clinging on, he does the country a grave disservice.

And if you think that a change of leader would necessarily force us into an early election, then you should read Polly Toynbee's convincing argument in the Guardian today. There is a way of changing the leader and still delaying an election until next year.

This was our chance to get rid of Brown and the Party blew it. After the next election, we will all have to live with that guilt - some more than others.

I am prepared to admit that my judgement about Brown might be wrong. I also recognise that there is now a settled view of him. He is staying on and we go into the next election with him. After this week, you won't hear me call for a change of leader again. These are my last words on it.

But I suspect that no matter how good Brown's speech to the PLP was last night and no matter how much he tries to change, most Party members know that its over. It will take more than just one good speech to turn around the fortunes of this Government.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

My Forecast for the European Election Results

Tonight, when the European election results come through, Labour will have performed very badly.

I predict that Labour's share of the vote will be less than 20%. We will be lucky if we hold one MEP per region.

More seriously, in one area at least, we will come behind UKIP. All that money sloshing around Nigel Farrage will have worked. Voters will flock to the fringes and desert Labour in droves. The BNP will do well enough in some areas, probably the North West, to make all of us worry.

Because the elections are proportional, the humiliation will be worse for Labour because the elections mean more.

The results will be more ammunition to those that think, like I do, that Brown must go. They will be an indictment on his calamitous leadership.

Our presence and effectiveness in the European Parliament will be severely curtailed. Our influence in Europe will diminish.

John Prescott on Labour Home blamed a bad campaign. True. But he then rather pathetically focused his attack on Caroline Flint and other current and former members of the Cabinet who he accused of not doing enough. Wrong. It takes more than just licking a few more envelopes and knocking on a few more doors to win John.

You need vision, direction and leadership. Brown did not make a single substantial speech on our membership during the whole campaign. He demonstrated no leadership and his visibility was virtually nil. The buck stops with him.

One more reason why he should go.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Like shuffling the deck chairs about on the Titanic

Another tumultuous day in Westminster.

Another awful day for the Labour Party.

We have become a laughing stock.

Gordon Brown’s reshuffle is a bit like shuffling the deck chairs around on the Titanic. It ain’t gonna solve anything.

It is window dressing – something which the Prime Minister knows all about, according to Caroline Flint.

Her brave and direct attack on Brown is very serious because we all know it is true. By the way it is not just women he treats like that, its men too.

However, she weakened her case by professing such loyalty only twenty four hours before. In the end, at least she had the courage to eventually say what she thought, unlike some of her colleagues. It was a stinging rebuke to a Prime Minister who treats his colleagues with utter contempt and sanctions the poisonous briefings against them which have sadly become the norm in the Brown Government. Flint has done the right thing.

What a pusillanimous Cabinet. They have tied their fortunes in with Brown and they’ll go down with him. After the next election, James Purnell will be in a very strong position indeed.

I can understand the disappointment of many MPs that not a single other Cabinet Minister was prepared to support Purnell, even though many of them privately agree with him. If Miliband ever hoped to be leader, his chances have surely now gone for good.

The fact is Labour has never had such a disastrous local election result. We are no longer in charge of any county councils. We have lost in places like Lancashire and Derbyshire which should be the backbone of Labour Party support. They have gone – perhaps for good. Responsibility for this rests with Brown.

I am an instinctive Party loyalist and I have defended this Government until I am blue in the face. But Brown has tested my loyalty to the limits and I can no longer support him. He is dreadful. I do not want anything to do with him.

In nailing my colours to the mast, I know I will be criticised. I still believe in the Labour Party and its values. I still believe that a Labour Government is always preferable to a Tory one and I still believe that our Party can go on to achieve great things for the British people. I am Labour through and through and prepared to accept it if people think I am wrong. But I can’t be loyal to a Prime Minister I have no confidence in. I have no faith in him and no belief.

If he thinks that bringing Alan Sugar into the Government (who, incidentally I do admire) as Enterprise Tsar is suddenly going to provide us with the vision and direction we need, he is very fickle. What next, ‘Casualty actor’ for Cancer Captain? Please.

To lose half a dozen Cabinet Ministers within four days makes his position look untenable and yet he clings to power with a desperation that makes him look pathetic.

And yet, cling he does. The rebels are divided and unsure. They may even cock this up – which would make it all pointless. I urge them not to.

Purnell, Milburn, Clarke and those on the Progress wing of the Party have to find a way of working with the impressive Jon Cruddas and his Compass band of supporters. It is nothing to do with being Blairite or Brownite, on the left or on the right of the Party. It is about character and values. The Prime Minister lacks both. He is an electoral liability. A change of leader would be a damage limitation exercise which might mitigate our loss at the next General Election.

If we change leader, we can find a way of uniting behind a centre left agenda – starting with huge reform of Parliament in an attempt to regain voters’ trust – that could recapture the political initiative and lead us into the next election in a stronger position. Remember, the Conservatives didn't have the brilliant night they had been hoping for on Thursday. Their vote was down, hardly a ringing endorsement for Cameron.

But Brown is an obstacle to any chance of reform. He does not have the trust or credibility to see it through.

The Euro election results are going to be equally as bad for the Party and powerful because they are proportional. MPs should seriously consider them on Sunday night, weigh up how this would look in a General Election and act decisively on Monday when they return to Westminster.

The British public would never forgive us if we gave up on them. But if we stick with Brown, we seal our fate and theirs. We leave them to the rot of a Tory Government.

The pressure on him must be maintained. More ministers must resign. More senior figures on the backbenches need to speak out. There should be a secret PLP vote on Monday night. Time is running out to get rid of him. Go he must and go now.

*I was very angry when I wrote this, apologies.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

For the love of God, Go

It is clear to many of us that Gordon Brown must go. He has neither the character nor the policies to see us through to the next election. As long as he remains Prime Minister a Conservative election victory is more likely.

It is for this reason and for the sake of the Labour Party and the country that Gordon Brown must go.

He should resign or be pushed.

He has no vision for the country.

He is not trusted.

He is not liked.

He is not competent.

And he is not respected.

It is time he went.

He is simply not up to the job.

James Purnell’s decision to resign to force Brown’s hand is very brave. He has been prepared to put his reputation on the line and for this I applaud him. His reasons for leaving are clear and heartfelt. It is an act of immense honesty. He quits, now Gordon must quit.

Loyalty is an underestimated quality. But loyalty for loyalty’s sake is just plain stupid. And tribalism is ridiculous, when you are heading towards political annihilation.

I hope that all Labour MPs and those that love the Labour Party, like I do, do what is necessary to get rid of Brown. This isn’t about saving your own skins, it’s about saving the Labour Party and as long as he remains in charge the Party has no chance of being rescued.

If we cannot save the Labour Party then we leave the country to face the Tories. This would be unforgiveable. There are many people who depend on a Labour Government and we would be hanging them out to dry if we let Cameron in through the back door.

The rebels are not just the usual malcontents either. Blears, Purnell and Smith must have agonised over their decisions and thought it through hard. We need a leadership election to unite behind a different leader – one who doesn’t have Brown’s personal and political flaws – who can communicate with the electorate, provide us with a vision for the country and reconnect with voters.

If the local and European elections are half as bad as we can expect then the man responsible for this is Brown too. I have not known what to say on the doorstep to defend him. I don’t know what Gordon Brown believes in, I don’t know what his vision is for the country.

It is with a heavy heart, that I urge Gordon Brown to resign.

If he is not prepared to, we – as a Party – must get rid of him.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hazel Blears Is Right

Hazel Blears decision to resign is brave and politically astute.

Constantly underestimated, Blears has shown her steel. Rather than knifing the Prime Minister in the back, she has looked him square in the eyes and done it.

Fed up with being briefed against, she must hope that her decision to leave government and pre-empt a ministerial reshuffle will fatally undermine the Prime Minister.

I don’t believe she would have done it if she thought Labour had any chance of winning the next election with Brown as its leader. Like many of us, she has concluded that as long as he stays, we are headed for defeat. And she cares too much about the Labour Party to do nothing and let that happen.

She owes him no loyalty. He has shown her none. Her loyalty is to the people of Salford and elsewhere who depend on a Labour Government and would suffer under a Tory one. She resigned for them.

Like Jacqui Smith (and maybe others) why would she want anything to do with a Government that was drifting to defeat? Better to get out and disassociate yourself from it and him. And campaign for Labour on your own strengths and values.

It is interesting that it is the women in the Government who seem to be leading this charge. They obviously don’t like Brown’s brand of politics. I don’t blame them. I agree.

Without her, the Cabinet will be a worse place. She was doing good work as Communities Secretary and her political instinct is better than most of her colleagues. She speaks to a wider audience than just the party or the trade unions and she is a great campaigner.

A personal consideration must be at work here too. She was badly damaged by the expenses scandal and I am sure she is the first to admit that she needs to win back some trust starting in Salford and then elsewhere. She can do it – this is retrievable for her but she will have to work hard to win over Salford’s sceptical voters. She is one of the best campaigners the party have and I have every faith she will.

Blears will relish the opportunity of taking on the Tories from opposition and she will be good at it. No, she shouldn’t be counted out. This is not the last we have heard from her.

Anyone who thinks the Labour Party and progressive politics needs saving from fifteen years of opposition to a Tory Government should applaud Hazel’s actions.

If only more were braver.

We look like a rabble

Jacqui Smith’s resignation was inevitable. She jumped before she was pushed.

But, I can’t help thinking it’s all ended a bit sadly for her. I was not her greatest fan. She made mistakes, like over the Gurkhas or 42 day detention, which could have been avoided. But the failure of these policies rests solely at the door of Number Ten and it would be wrong to blame her for the government’s troubles.

I hope she fights to keep her seat at the next election and is successful.

The resignation of Tom Watson is more interesting. One of Brown’s henchman, he was plotter in chief when an attempt was made to remove Tony Blair a few years ago. He may have personal reasons for quitting, but like Patricia Hewitt and Beverley Hughes perhaps he already sees the writing on the wall. Very few sensible people should mourn his departure.

And yet a reshuffle could be very dangerous. If Brown demotes Miliband and sacks Blears they could both go nuclear.

Blear’s credibility is damaged (perhaps irrevocably) but she would be a dangerous threat on the backbenchers and should not be counted out.

If Miliband refuses to be moved, there would be nothing to stop him from sticking the knife in.

It would also seem unfair to remove Alistair Darling – although I accept that this might be inevitable know. He has been steady and courageous in the face of very difficult circumstances and to remove him, might look like Brown is repudiating his own policies.

The effect of yesterday’s resignations makes the Party look like a rabble – leaderless, unfit to govern, incompetent.

Number Ten has no control over events. Ministers are making their own calculated decisions, MPs are refusing to act. Rather than doing what is necessary to save the Government and the Labour Party, they are thinking only about saving their own skins. Can anyone blame them?

An excellent editorial in today’s Guardian, makes it clear what needs to be done.

On a final note, the decision to stop Ian Gibson standing at the next election is a harsh one I think. I know he is an awkward maverick and annoys lots of people. His judgement and politics, at times, is questionable. But he is also one of Parliament’s few trained scientists, with a nationally renowned reputation in cancer medicine. He supports the work of many cancer and patient charities – who will miss him being around – and I can’t help thinking Parliament will be a worse place without him. He is certainly not corrupt.

But that is what the expenses scandal has done – ruined reputations and ended careers.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A New Supreme

Congratulations again to Barack Obama for stealing a march on the Republicans and everyone else by nominating Sonia Sotomayer as the first Latino on the Supreme Court.

She would replace David Souter, a liberal, who is due to retire in June.

With issues like civil rights, gun control, abortion and terror laws likely to rear their head over the coming decade, Sotomayer's elevation to the Court will ensure it does not tilt too far to the right.

You can already hear the Republicans sniping though.

They argue that her radical, hard left judicial activism makes her an inappropriate choice to defend the Constitution. But I wonder why John Roberts right wing conservativism made him a better one. (He is the current Chief Justice and was nominated by Bush a few years ago).

Incidentally, there is nothing hard left or radical about her approach to issues like affirmative action, which just seem like good, mainstream, liberal common sense to me.

A female Latino Justice makes the Court a more diverse place which is a better reflection of America as it stands today. And a court which is a more accurate reflection of society is a better, more legitimate one.

The fact that she was appointed to her first judicial post by George Bush Snr and then promoted by Bill Clinton also shows that she must have some bipartisan appeal. Her back story also makes her an appealing choice.

Anyway, all of this reminds me of the time the West Wing staff nominated Glenn Close to the Supreme Court. It was a good episode.