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

Monday, 23 February 2009

Brown: A drag on the Ticket?

A new Guardian/ICM poll published today shows that two thirds of voters believe Labour would do better under a different leader.

Only 28% believe he is best placed to lead the Labour Party into the next election, compared to 63% who think the Party would do better under a different leader.

But a change of leader ain't going to happen.

The Party had its chance to swap leaders last summer and chickened out - rightly or wrongly. I don't think the Party has the stomach for it now. So that means Gordon Brown is not going to go anywhere. To his credit he will shrug this off and get on with the job but the findings will undermine his authority even more and encourage some of his more foolish colleagues to carry on with their barely concealed leadership campaigns.

The poll also shows that support for the Tories has flatlined at 42%. This might bring some comfort to the Brownites but remember the Tories don't have to do well, they just have to sit there and wait for the government to collapse.

I am at a loss to know what to do about figures like these. The Prime Minister has tried numerous different approaches, with little or no result. What can he do to turn this around? There have been so many attempts at rebranding excercises that they are just not working and anyway the problems run deeper than that. The electorate simply lacks confidence in the government.

Most worryingly Labour now lags behind the Tories on the issue of the economy by six points. Not good. With the economy the single most important factor at the next election Labour should be deeply concerned.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Could Harriet Harman be the next leader of the Labour Party?

Simple answer: no. But neither do I think should she be underestimated.

Westminster seems to be rife with speculation that the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party is lining herself up to replace Gordon Brown. The rumour mill is in full swing.

She is certainly popular with activists and party members. She got a good reception in my own constituency, Islington, when she addressed members during the Deputy Leadership contest. But then you might say you would expect that in a place like Islington North. She has been around a long time, has good name recognition – compared to many of Labour’s front bench women – and is obviously very ambitious.

It was a surprise to me that she won the Deputy Leadership election but this probably goes to show how hard she works and how well liked she is with party members and the unions. She has certainly fought her own personal battles with colleagues over policy and I suppose this means she is something of a survivor.

But I think Harriet (for all her qualities) would be a stretch as leader. I just don’t see it.

I don’t think other Labour MPs would vote for her and the Right of the Party would simply not allow it. It would lead to a mass civil war. I also think there are stronger characters.

However, it is impossible to predict what will happen when and if Gordon Brown goes. In fact it is really too early to speculate. Who knows what the circumstances will be like in a year’s time or eighteen months? Everything is possible.

But for now, the Prime Minister is not going anywhere this side of a General Election. At the moment he is the best person to do the job.

And anyway, speculation like this isn’t really helpful. Is Labour really going to replace its leader in the middle of the worst economic recession in seventy years? No.

We should stop our naval gazing and get on with sorting out the economy. The public are the priority. Labour needs to remember this and so do those who are angling for positions now.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

My favourite writers...

With Barack Obama now firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, I wanted to say something about two of the best writers who have covered the US election from start to finish. I have been glued to their daily and weekly reports.

Andrew Sullivan, on his blog
The Atlantic and in the Sunday Times and Michael Tomasky in the Guardian were early Obama watchers. They spotted his talent and predicted his success, while the rest of the rest of the press pack were still obsessed with Hillary and the whole Clinton drama.

I wouldn’t say they shared exactly the same beliefs but what they do share in common is a lack of cynicism about the political process. A lot of hacks treat politicians with barely concealed contempt and vice versa (deservedly so in some cases) but Sullivan and Tomasky seem to have a genuinely healthy respect for politicians and US politics without being too deferential. This makes their writing free of the usual ‘bitchiness’.

They are also impeccably fine writers – frequently witty, clever and of sound judgement. Andrew Sullivan was even named one of the world’s most influential blogger’s recently.

I’ll stop going on now - you get my drift – but I would encourage everyone to read them.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Politician's Politician

Channel 4 is about to hold its annual political awards and the most important category in the contest is for the 'Politician's Politician'. This year the contenders are Diane Abbott, John Bercow, Lord Mandelson and George Osborne.
I think Lord Mandelson should get it.

His return to front line politics last autumn was a spectacular coup for the government. Nobody expected him to be recalled from Brussels, mainly because we all thought Gordon Brown hated him. But as the Prime Minister calculated at the time, Mandelson's return was both in the national and the Party interest.

Some interpreted it as a sign of how desperate Brown was, but in politics you do what you need to do to survive. And anyway, it showed that Brown did have a magnanimous streak after all.

Mandelson returned to the Cabinet with the noblesse oblige of an elder statesman being called back to do his duty at a time of national crisis.

And he hit the ground running.

Within weeks, you detected a change in the way the government was conducting its communications. The message was more co-ordinated and focused. The briefings against colleagues which had been in abundance up until Party Conference, seemed to disappear. Yet, the attacks on the Conservatives multiplied.

This culminated in the one man campaign Mandelson seemed to wage against George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor. The story of the Greek yacht saga may have dented Mandelson slightly but it irrevocably damaged Osborne more in the eyes of his Party and the country. It was classic Peter. The message was clear: 'I'm back, don't mess with me'.

Mandelson, the arch strategist, seemed to instill a new sense of direction and purpose in the government. The result: Labour's poll numbers shot up, briefly coming close to overtaking the Tories.

He was perfect for the role of Business Secretary. His international experience negotiating the world trade deals on behalf of the EU made him probably the most experienced member of the Cabinet there was. He has an instinctive understanding of what business wants. And like Brown, he correctly believes that free trade and free markets can be used for social ends.

In this role he has called for a more 'mixed economy' less reliant on financial services. Last week, he bailed out the car industry, saving jobs and livelihoods. He has also called for the part-privatisation of the Post Office. A necessary step I believe to ensuring that there is a Post Office at all in the future.

Mandelson brings a level of competence and expertise to the Cabinet - which, let's face it - wasn't there beforehand. I never feel with Mandelson, that he has given up on securing Labour a fourth term. He may know it is an uphill struggle, but unlike some members of the PLP and the Cabinet, he is not just waiting around to collect his pension. He is keen to ensure that the New Labour legacy survives and adapts for the future. He has a hunger and energy which counteracts the fatalism of some in the Labour Party.

Most importantly from my perspective, Mandelson is an antidote to some of the people the Prime Minister surrounds himself with. His judgement and strategy when it comes to politics are second to none - much better than some of those cynical young men the Prime Minister normally listened to.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. He still needs to do more to win over people in the Labour Party and the media and he should have really chosen his words more carefully last week, when he was commenting on the wildcat strikes.

But these are minor blips. Lord Mandelson (a bit like Tony Blair) has star quality. When he speaks, you listen. He commands authority and respect. With him in the government, I feel more confident.

Yes, the real test is how to get Britain out of this recession and get Labour a fourth term. But, these are all contests for another day. For now, I think he deserves to win the Channel 4 one.

Monday, 2 February 2009

"British Jobs for British Workers"

“British Jobs for British Workers”

When Gordon Brown first said this nearly two years ago, I felt distinctly uneasy.

I know when he said it he meant that he wanted to see every British citizen equipped with the skills they needed to get ahead, but I thought then that it would be taken to mean something else. And, anyway, it was an ugly phrase.

Now it’s come back to haunt him.

Over the weekend the Prime Minister said that the wild cat strikes of last week were “indefensible”. Really?

I think the economic circumstances made it pretty likely there was going to be this sort of anger and disruption. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again.

I don’t think we can just dismiss these concerns out of hand. A lot of people share the perception that jobs they want and need are going to foreign workers. There is no denying this. It is not ‘indefensible’ for them to be concerned.

The Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet need to address this. They could start by making a strong argument to people out there why the free movement of labour and an outward-forward looking approach to immigration has served this country so well and will continue to do so.

If Brown really wanted to, he could talk of the dangers of protectionism and make the case again why globalisation (not unfettered or unchecked) is best placed to serve this country.

The politicians, academics, bankers and economists at Davos have been doing this all week, but have any of them made this case to their own domestic populations? At Davos, you are preaching to the converted.

What Brown really needs to do is go into the country on the front foot and explain the situation. The fact is that now that Britain’s economy is faltering, many immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe are returning from whence they came. And what if other countries adopted similar stances? Would the 2.4million Brits living in the rest of Europe suddenly find themselves kicked out because the Italians wanted Italian jobs for Italian workers?

By the same token, I would also find out why it is that companies like Total feel the need to bring in workers from Portugal and Spain and do not use local workers. Is there a reason for this? Has it been explained? Is it because of the local skills base and if so, what can the government do to change this?

The government mustn’t pander to prejudice – because undoubtedly some of this is – but it should also recognise that many people perceive a fundamental unfairness in the balance of work between local citizens and foreign workers.

While I think Frank Field’s suggestion that the government should legislate so companies only use British workers in the first instance, is a step too far, I do think he is right to point out that the government could be doing more to address people’s concerns.

I am still thinking about how you do that (and I am sorry I don’t have the answers yet) but as the economy get worse, this situation is likely to increase.

The Prime Minister should take last week’s strike actions as an early warning.