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

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

We're off

I'll be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks, as I go to work for the Party in the North West during the General Election campaign.

But before I go I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the next few weeks.

Although some polls currently put the Tories 10 points ahead, you never know what wildcards or upsets might happen during a campaign. The big unknown is the impact the televised leadership debates will have. I would be willing to bet that Brown, when he gets the chance to speak directly to the British public, will do better than many commentators predict. Serious and substantial, he will stand in sharp contrast to lightweight Clegg and plastic Cameron.

I also think Labour has a much more compelling message to tell on the economy which will dominate the campaign. I think people will gradually see through last week's Tory announcement on National Insurance tax cuts. A policy like that can only be funded by hiking VAT, hurting ordinary people the most. We need to sustain the economic recovery, not undermine it with severe spending cuts which would harm our public services and increase unemployment. This is the Labour message from now until polling day.

I think just getting voters to listen will be hard though. After the disappointments of the last five years and the expenses saga, many people on the doorstep are angry and disillusioned with all politicians. That is why it's important Labour's manifesto offers radical action to transform the way politics operates in this country. I hope there are bold plans for parliamentary and political reform which will help us regain voters' trust.

Good luck Labour candidates everywhere!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Return of Tony Blair

The decision to bring Tony Blair back for the election campaign is a good move by the Labour Party.

His speech today to Trimdon Labour club was a reminder of just how good he is. It had a narrative and a coherent argument. It set out clearly the choice facing the electorate and managed to convincingly attack the Tory philosophy without descending into a personal attack on Cameron and Osborne, which would have been inappropriate for a former prime minister.

I thought his best line was about needing "certain leadership in uncertain times".

Some people will argue that the move is risky because it reminds voters of Iraq and has the potential to show up the presentational failures of Brown.

But I think the pros outweigh the cons.

If Blair is used judiciously and effectively in the campaign he could be a real asset with party members and marginal voters in the swing constituencies.

We forget that Blair left office with very high ratings amongst Labour supporters, 89 per cent of whom rated him as a good prime minister overall. The same was said by 61 per cent of the electorate. Clearly, there were voters who still liked Blair until the very end. And probably still do.

I reckon his return will help stem the tide of voters who have, until recently, been drifting to Cameron and give Labour Party members a boost before the campaign proper begins next week.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

What would I like to see in tomorrow's Budget?

Tomorrow marks Alistair Darling’s third Budget as Chancellor. Like many people in the Labour Party, I think Darling has done the best possible job he could have under very difficult circumstances.

Two years ago, when he predicted that this would be the worst economic crisis for 60 years, he was widely denounced (even by his colleagues in Number Ten) but in the end he was vindicated. He is now a more credible figure for it.

Tomorrow he faces one of his toughest tests. He made most of his announcements about tax and spending in last November’s Pre Budget Report so he has left himself very little wriggle room now.

Therefore, tomorrow’s Budget is likely to be narrowly focused with relatively few new measures. He should certainly steer clear from pre-election ‘give-aways’. Voters will see through them.

Instead, he needs to show the public and the markets how the Government will nurture the economy back to growth.

There is likely to be some extra revenue from the bank bonus tax. He should use this to pay down the deficit and introduce new measures to alleviate unemployment.

He should announce a Green Investment Bank to stimulate low carbon industries in the future. Sometimes government support can kick start private sector investment. This is surely the right thing to do and something Thatcherites have never understood.

A serious crackdown on tax evasion is long overdue. It’s essentially about fairness and paying your way.

Finally, if the Chancellor wanted to be really radical the closest he could come to a game changer is to announce support for a Robin Hood tax on all financial transactions. This would raise revenue and help repair the damage to the public finances. France and Germany favour this approach, so does the economist Jeffrey Sachs. Apparently, Richard Curtis and the actor Bill Nighy have already met with George Osborne to discuss the issue so why not come out strongly for it? Radical by any standards but entirely fair.

This might be the last Budget a Labour Chancellor delivers for a long time. Mr Darling should treat it as a final opportunity to show voters the Government is on their side.

Obama Passes Healthcare Bill

I am delighted that Barack Obama has finally got his health care Bill through Congress. It's been nearly twenty years since the Clintons (and Hillary especially) first tried.

The new Bill will insure around 32 million people and save the American taxpayer money in the long run. It is the single most important piece of domestic legislation passed since the 1960s.

It took enormous arm twisting and lots of cajoling to get the thing passed (it brings to mind the famous Bismarck quote that “laws are like sausages. Its better not to see them being made”) but I don’t think that matters too much. The president and his party just needed a win and once the dust has settled the American public will come to support health care reform just as they did with Medicare in the 1960s, also denounced at the time.

In the short term the Democrats may well suffer badly as Republicans seek to exploit the electorate’s fears, but it is the Republicans who have bombed spectacularly. Their party has been pushed further to the Right, moderate sensible voices have been drowned out. Their message has been entirely negative. They have offered nothing positive in response. In the long term, it will be seen as the Republican’s great failure.

After a gruelling year, Obama has emerged as a political street fighter – not the aloof, philosophical president some had complained about. It will stand him in good stead for the future battles that lie ahead.

And the best bit of the whole vote? Well, the sight and sound of Democrats chanting “Yes We Can” in the House just after the Bill had been passed. Pure political magic.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Cameron's judgment is on the line

The row over Lord Ashcroft's tax status continues to rumble on.

The Tories point out that Labour is hypocritical on the issue because we have taken money from non-doms as well.

But this misses the point.

The issue isn't Ashcroft's tax status (although I dislike the idea that a non dom can become a peer) but rather the Conservative party's handling of it.

Back in 2000, William Hague gave very clear assurances to Tony Blair, the Appointments Committee, Parliament and the Palace that Ashcroft was committed to becoming permanently resident in the UK. We now know that this did not happen.

For ten years, the Tories and Ashcroft have refused to answer any questions on it.

Either Cameron did not know about it (which reveals an extraordinary weakness and lack of judgment on his part) of he knew about it and decided to do nothing (which means he deliberately lied to people and all his talk of a fresh start and a new type of politics can not be trusted).

Even Norman Tebbit now reckons Ashcroft should have revealed the truth earlier.

David Cameron acted shrewdly and in my view correctly during the expenses scandal but his sure touch seems to have deserted him on this occasion. Voters fear that for all their talk of change, the Conservatives are still the "Same Old Tories" they were in 1997. The Ashcroft affair only confirms that impression.

It also confirms voters' fears that Cameron's Conservatives are a rich, metropolitan, self centred elite. The Ashcroft affair can now be added to a long list: George Osborne (otherwise known as the 'Sun King') and his dealings with a certain Russian oligarch, Zac Goldsmith's non dom status, Nicholas Winterton's blatherings about 'standard class', the Notting Hill fraternity - they all suggests a party out of touch with ordinary voters.

Cameron should have acted on this much sooner. The fact that he didn't raises serious question marks over his judgment. And Labour would be foolish to let an opportunity like this pass by.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Tories still need to answer questions about Ashcroft

The brouah over Lord Ashcroft’s tax status is good news for Labour, which now smells blood.

Ashcroft has secretly remained a non dom for nine years while he has sat in Parliament. In order to qualify for a peerage he should be “permanently resident” but it seems he has got away with only being “long term resident”.

Not only does he appear to have broken a promise that he would become permanently resident in the UK to secure a seat in the House of Lords but his odd tax status also means that he could have avoided paying tens of millions of pounds in income tax.

William Hague doesn’t seem to know what, if any, tax Ashcroft was paying. Cameron doesn’t seem to understand that this is a question about his judgement and integrity.

Ashcroft has effectively bankrolled the Tories over the last few years. He has developed his own personal fiefdom at Central Office which has given him enormous sway over Tory policy and, because of the bags of cash he has thrown at swing seats, an enormous sway over the outcome of the next election

The Conservatives refuse to answer any more questions about the affair but there should now be a full inquiry into his nomination for a peerage and his tax affairs.

The situation is not comparable with that of the Labour peer, Lord Paul, either. He has never hidden his non dom status. He has never had a say over the direction of the Labour Party and he was never described by the chair of the peerages scrutiny committee as “not a suitable man to be a peer”.

The whole affair only adds to voters’ impressions that the Tory leadership is an out of touch, mega-rich elite who think there is one rule for them and one rule for everyone else.

It is a sign of Labour’s appetite for a fight on this that Mandelson was all over the air waves yesterday stoking the flames. This thing still has legs.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

After the election: what next for Labour's health policy?

A blog post I wrote for work which I thought might be of interest here. It outlines the major challenges and opportunities for Labour in healthcare after the next election.

"The NHS is probably the most important public service institution for the centre-left" - Neal Lawson (Director of Compass)

The reform of public services is the bread and butter of British politics.

The party that positions itself as the champion of reform and the deliverer of quality services usually reaps the electoral rewards.

Over the last ten years this party has been New Labour.

In two important areas, New Labour has made significant advances. One, it has improved health service delivery. This has meant addressing the chronic under-funding of the NHS, modernising ageing hospitals, increasing the numbers of doctors and nurses by 38,000 and 80,000 respectively and significantly reducing long waits for treatment, particularly in areas like cancer care. There is more progress to be made, but much has been accomplished.

Secondly, New Labour has given huge priority to the development of our public services and set the environment for the future development of health services. The fact that the Conservatives now talk of investment in health services before tax cuts, is testament to this. It was a Conservative Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who once observed that the NHS was as close as Britain came to a national religion. If that was true in the 1980s, an even stronger case can be made for it now. New Labour's achievement has been to put public service reform at the heart of political debate.

But this does not mean that the NHS is inoculated from future spending cuts. The crisis in the public finances will eventually hit the NHS and healthcare hard. All of the political parties will stress value for money and will debate how that money is spent.

The Next Debate

For Labour, the question after the next election is: After reductions in public spending, what will the future shape of the health service be?

Before it can begin to answer that question, New Labour will have to accept that it has not been able to convince a majority of people that its spending on healthcare and reforms have delivered real improvement. For a party that has an ideological commitment to health care free at the point of need and seeks to improve the NHS because the vast majority of people depend on it, this will be a tough debate to have. Pundits and strategists will wonder why Labour spent all that money and why it devoted all that energy and political capital to the NHS and still achieved little political gain.

If Labour loses the next election (and this is a big if judging by the polls) this debate is likely to take place against a background of political division and bitter recrimination. It will make a meaningful debate about the future of Labour's health policy even more difficult. In opposition, there will be a likely shift to the left which will result in a thorough re-examination of the party's policies.

So then, what next?

At the moment, the NHS is in a transition phase. As the former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, recently told an audience:

"The NHS today is in transition between a 20th century model characterised by state control, monopoly provision and a provider-dominated culture - and a 21st century one where the citizen is in control and there is a mixed economy of provision and a user-led culture".

Although Alan Milburn is standing down at the next election, he is not alone in arguing for greater radicalism.

There are many within the Labour Party who would like to see the party push for more payment by results, more use of individual NHS budgets so that patients can buy their own treatment and more use of the private and third sector in providing healthcare.

On the other side of the argument are those in the party pushing for less privatisation and commercialisation, the end to the 'command and control' culture of centralisation of the NHS and a more democratic, accountable and bottom up organisation.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive but advocates of each will have to grapple with some serious challenges and pressure points over the next few years.

The Challenges

Firstly, if Labour loses the election, it will inevitably find itself having to react to a more modest funding settlement for the NHS. The party will relish a battle with a Conservative government on the issue but it will also be an opportunity to re-open a debate in the party about ways to bring in new resources to fund some parts of the NHS. There will be an argument about how to get better value for money and what the priorities should be. It is not impossible to imagine left wing Labour MPs suggesting that private health insurance benefits should be taxed at a higher level or that pharmaceutical companies should face a surcharge on their profits.

On the other side, some on the right of the Party will argue for a debate on charging patients for health services. For many in the party, this remains a taboo subject. The party is wedded to the basic principle that healthcare should be free at the point of need and this will not change. After all it was Nye Bevan, the Labour Minister and founder of the NHS, who resigned in 1951 over the Atlee Government's decision to bring in prescription charges. Nevertheless, one idea on the Labour Right is to introduce a charge to see GPs.

Students, the unemployed, the under 16s, the old and the chronically ill would be exempt but a nominal charge would apply for everyone else. It is argued this would force people to think about the best way of using the NHS and it is hoped this would encourage people to seek out alternative assistance eg at pharmacies, walk in clinics or NHS Direct. In the long term, this would prevent the bottle-necking that occurs at the primary care level.

Secondly, the public's expectations and demands of the NHS will only increase in the future. Patients will demand a personal, tailored service. Across the Labour Party, there is a strong belief that the best way of doing this is to democratise the NHS. Labour will pursue policies that it believes will empower the users of healthcare services and give them more choice and power over services. This could mean that GPs will suddenly be made accountable to the local communities in which they operate or hospitals held to account through commissioning or local elections to vote for the Chief Executive of the PCT. This is an approach the Liberal Democrats have long advocated.

Labour modernisers on the left and right argue that genuinely redistributing power throughout the system will transform the culture of the NHS and lead to innovation and experimentation.

The pursuit of democratisation will also bridge the gap within Labour between those who think the market has all the answers and those who do not. Although there are issues regarding who is elected and what they are responsible for, most party members will agree that the democratisation of the NHS chimes with their own values of equality, empowerment and redistribution. It is likely, therefore, to underpin the party's approach to healthcare.

As a result, those that seek to shape public policy in healthcare will quickly realise that the levers of power do not begin and end at the Department of Health. Labour will push for a genuine redistribution of power. This will mean that decisions which are currently made in Whitehall will be passed down to a local level. As a result, charities, patient groups and the commercial sector will have to re-evaluate their public affairs strategies in the future.

Thirdly, Labour will respond to demands by patients for a more personalised service by stressing the benefits of improved technology. As products become cheaper and easier to use, Labour will want to find ways of using technology to improve healthcare, a goal President Obama is also pursing in the United States. For example, it will campaign for health tests and screening to be done at home rather than in the hospital. Pharmaceutical companies and the rest of the commercial sector will have to find ways of responding to Labour's demands that specific drugs are tailored to meet the needs of individual patients.

Finally, Labour will have to find ways of responding to the demographic challenge. People are living longer and leading more active lives. Labour will again stress the importance of preventative healthcare to allow doctors to spend more time treating chronic illnesses. Successful policies like free swimming places for the elderly (keeping the older generation fit and away from hospital) will be pursued more vigorously. We can expect to see Labour campaigning strongly on anti-smoking, anti- obesity and food education platforms. A new generation of school nurses may be advocated to provide healthcare advice and minor treatments for children and families, thus freeing up other healthcare professionals to spend more time treating and caring for the elderly.

Why the Labour Party will still matter

For Labour in opposition, health will be the litmus test of whether Cameron's conservatives stay true to their modernizing beliefs or revert to a more traditional Conservative agenda. Therefore, expect whoever becomes Shadow Secretary of State to assume the position of leading opposition attack dog.

Many of the ideas outlined in this article will assume centre stage in debates about the future direction of the Labour Party.

The Party will also need to reconcile itself to perceived areas of failure over the last ten years.

The debacle over doctor recruitment. The fiasco over the NHS IT project. The failure to stop mixed sex words. The obsession with targets. And worst of all, the demoralisation of staff. Expect all of them to be thrown across the Despatch Box with regular abandon.

Some of Labour's reforms have alienated the very people they were trying to help.

Consultants, doctors, nurses and midwives feel undervalued and underappreciated. Labour has failed to get the best out of people because it has failed to root those reforms in the very values that underpin the public service ethos. After the next election, Labour will have to find a new way of speaking to public sector workers that does not demean or antagonise them.

Even if Labour loses the next election, the party will still remain the second largest in Parliament. It will continue to be an important political stakeholder. Many of its MPs and members will have, at one time or another, worked in the public services. What it does and what it says on the NHS will still matter. How the Labour Party responds to the challenges outlined will determine its ability to get back into power again in the future.

Of course Labour might win the next election (and I hope it does), in which case all of these issues will assume an even greater importance as the Party struggles to stay in power with a much reduced majority.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

James Purnell's resignation is a loss to the Party

I am surprised and disappointed that James Purnell has chosen to resign as a MP. His departure is a blow to the Labour Party. He was one of the few senior figures who understood the Tories and thought about ways we could move on from the New Labour era.

In recent months, he had come up with some interesting ideas about regulating the City and grassroots politics that Labour would do well to listen to. His closeness to Jon Cruddas also suggested that the two might even be a formidable partnership after the next election. The Party can scarcely afford to lose people like this.

But it was his courage in resigning from the Cabinet last June which marked him out. He displayed a backbone that his other colleagues lacked. Not for nothing did people talk about him as a future leader.

It is not hard to believe that he is just fed up with politics - disillusioned with the Party and the system in the same way that many voters are. He is approaching 40. He may have calculated that the election is lost and he doesn't want to spend the best years of his life as an opposition MP.

Either way it is another ominous sign for the Labour Party that its best and its brightest are quitting. As Steve Richards says in today's Independent "Youngish MPs do not leave Parliament when sunny days of stimulating power appear to stretch ahead".

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Gordon Brown's Appearance on Piers Morgan

Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan on Sunday night is hardly the stuff of Frost and Nixon but I think it worked very well for the Prime Minister and will cause the Tories a lot of worry.

At its peak, the TV show attracted over 4 million viewers (plus all those who saw the heavy trailing on the news channels and in the papers over the weekend). They saw the prime minister open up in a way he has never done before.

It’s no secret that his personality has often been his Archilles’ Heel but Brown was honest and humorous throughout the interview and I thought came across really well. He was certainly more human (and humane) than we’ve ever seen him before.

Very few people could have failed to have been moved when he talked about the death of his daughter, which was handled sensitively by Morgan, or his son's illness. It is precisely experience like this which helps people empathise with him.

It is only right that we know about the personal motivations and experiences of the man that is leading us. I have no problem with this line of questioning. But, at times, some of it was a bit grating and over familiar. Did we really need to know how he proposed to Sarah on the beach in Fife? I don’t think so.

Still, from a Labour perspective this was good stuff and even if Brown makes only a tentative connection with voters as a result of it, this might open up some space for people to listen to him about Labour's policies.

Cynical metropolitan media hacks may well deride this but the normal person in the street will have seen a different side to Brown. It will be interesting to see whether Cameron is forced to do his own version of this in the next few weeks.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Would Be Comeback Kids: ex-MPs hoping to return in 2010

Bill Clinton was the original comeback kid.

The former president was first elected as Governor of Arkansas in 1978 but after a series of slip ups he lost the 1980 gubernatorial contest only to come back and win again two years later.

During the Democrat primaries in 1992 when it looked like the Clinton campaign was down and out, a memorable interview with Hillary on 60 Minutes earned him a second place victory in the New Hampshire primary. The “Comeback Kid” was back - and the rest, as they say, is history.

On this side of the Atlantic our most celebrated leader, Winston Churchill, lost two elections, was deselected once and represented five constituencies before he became Prime Minister.

And this year’s General Election in the UK looks like it could have a fair few retreads too (ex-MPs returning to the Commons). With the help of the Mandate Twitter (and thanks to everyone who responded) here is a list of the most eye-catching candidates from the ranks of ex-MPs who might just yet make a return to the green benches:

1) Stephen Twigg

Perhaps the most famous of the 1997 Labour intake, Stephen Twigg sensationally beat Michael Portillo in his Enfield Southgate seat and earned a place in political history. But after 8 years in Parliament and a brief spell as a Minister, Twigg lost the marginal seat in 2005 in a swing to the Tories of over 8%.

He is now standing in Liverpool West Derby after the incumbent Labour MP Bob Wareing was deselected. Politics in Liverpool dictates that nothing ever comes easy but a strong local campaign and Twigg's star quality mean he is likely to return to the Commons.

2) Jonathan Evans

Former Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnor until 1997, Minister in the Major Government and MEP for Wales for ten years, Jonathan Evans is standing in Cardiff North which is 20th on the Tory list of target seats.

The constituency is suburban, affluent and middle class and recently went Conservative at the Assembly level in 2007. The current MP is Julie Morgan (wife of First Minister Rhodri Morgan) but she is highly vulnerable to a challenge. ConservativeHome was cock-a-hoop when Mr Evans was selected claiming his brand of compassionate conservatism meant a win in Cardiff North could be a bridgehead back into Wales for the party.

3) Parmjit Singh Gill

An MP for only one year from 2004-5, Parmjit Singh Gill was the first ethnic minority MP for the Liberal Democrats and was elected to the House of Commons at the Leicester South by-election. However, he lost the General Election a year later and returned to Leicester where he is now a councillor. He will stand again this year.

Despite a Labour majority of only 3,717 Mr Singh Gill may struggle to get re-elected. The Labour victor in 2005 was Peter Soulsby, former leader of Leicester City Council, whose rebellious streak in Parliament and careful wooing of the Asian vote mean he is well liked by his constituents. The Lib Dems may decide to concentrate their resources elsewhere.

4) Sue Doughty

One seat the Liberal Democrats may focus on is Guildford where former Liberal Democrat MP Sue Doughty is standing against Anne Milton (Shadow Health Minister) who defeated her in 2005. Guildford is third on the list of Liberal Democrat target seats and it would take only a swing of 0.1% to overturn Anne Milton's 347 vote majority. Could Sue Doughty follow in her colleague Mike Hancock's footsteps? He lost his Portsmouth South seat in 1987 but regained it in 1997. Only time - and a good campaign - will tell.

5) Peter Duncan

The former MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale constituency between 2001 and 2005, Mr Duncan unsuccessfully contested the new seat of Dumfries and Galloway in 2005 when boundary changes altered his constituency. He had been Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland between 2003 and 2005 but this wasn't enough to stop him losing to Labour's Russell Brown in a closely fought campaign.

This is likely to be a tough race but Mr Duncan's work as a local councillor and his grassroots support mean he might just overturn Russell Brown's majority. However, it is not certain and a lot will depend on how the Tories perform in Scotland overall.

6) Phil Sawford

Former Leader of Kettering Borough Council, Phil Sawford was MP for Kettering between 1997 and 2005. He won in 1997 after three recounts and managed to double his majority to 665 in 2001 but this wasn't enough to keep him in power. Four years later he lost to Philip Hollobone, who defeated him with a swing of 3.6 per cent. Hardly the most memorable of the 1997 intake, Phil Sawford nevertheless gained a reputation as a 'champion' of local issues and an inveterate 'left winger'. He is still a member of the 'Campaign Group'.

Kettering is a semi rural seat which is due to undergo significant expansion over the next decade, with new homes and major regeneration planned. It is unclear what affect this will eventually have on the constituency but recent boundary changes favour Labour. If the polls remain tight Phil Sawford might win but it is too soon to tell.

7) Ivan Henderson

"Still here, still working". Ivan Henderson's slogan for the forthcoming campaign in Clacton sums up this popular former MP. He was elected for Harwich in 1997 but lost to Tory right winger Douglas Carswell in the 2005 General Election. Since then, Ivan Henderson has remained involved in local politics but it will be a hard slog to win this seat back. Douglas Carswell's radical views go down well in the constituency - it was his motion of no confidence which removed Speaker Michael Martin.

However, the Tories won't simply be able to assume victory here. And if Labour forces the Conservatives to spread their resources thinly by concentrating on places like Clacton, it might enable Labour to hold onto other seats elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Pope is wrong about the Equality Bill

The Pope's intervention over the Government's equality agenda and legislation is unwelcome and unhelpful.

The pontiff said that "the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal [of equality] has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs". He said that Catholic Bishops must invoke "missionary zeal" to resist it.

Everyone is entitled to express their view and in a secular society the Catholic Church should be treated as one voice amongst many but there is no excuse for the pope to be so badly misinformed.

The new Equality Bill tidies up a whole host of equalities legislation and extends anti-discrimination laws in some areas. But it does not affect Catholic schools which are covered by separate legislation and it certainly does not affect churches' hiring for religious posts. The Church should have nothing to fear from the new Bill.

Therefore, I can't understand his intervention. When church attendances are in decline, I don't think this will win him or the Catholic Church in the UK many new friends. There's also something troubling about a foreign leader telling us to change the laws currently being voted on by our elected representatives. Better for him to stay out of it altogether.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The West Wing Does Obama

For West Wing and Obama fans everywhere...

Friday, 29 January 2010

Tony Blair at the Chilcott Inquiry

After his appearance at today’s Chilcott inquiry I think Tony Blair should be able to hold his head high, even though his appearance took place under very difficult circumstances.

Some of the stuff that has been written about him over the last few days has been despicable. The media has twisted and distorted everything about Iraq to such an extent that he is now treated like a criminal.

You can imagine the likes of George Monbiot frothing at the mouth as they bash out their polemics on the keyboard.

And I find it galling that some mandarins, particularly Sir Christopher Meyer (the British Ambassador to the United States at the time) have suddenly found their principled opposition to the war. I didn’t see any of them – with their houses, cars, pensions, knighthoods and everything else that the British Establishment hands them on a plate – resign at the time of the war. Meyer wasn’t even at the Crawford summit which he claims to have such a detailed knowledge of.

Once again, I thought Blair made the case for invading Iraq in a convincing and compelling way. He laid out the facts clearly and reasonably, not indulging in the hysteria of his opponents. For those of us who supported Blair’s actions at the time, there remains nothing wrong with the grounds for invasion or the legality of it.

Finally, I thought he was particularly strong when pressing his critics on what they would have done if no action had been taken in 2003 and Saddam was left in place. He was also right to publicly warn of the dangers of Iran. It would be interesting to know what he would do about this if he was still in power.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Barack Obama's State of the Union

Tomorrow night Barack Obama will address both Houses of Congress in his first State of the Union Address.

It is not an auspicious moment. After one year in office, Obama’s poll numbers are the lowest of any President since Gerald Ford and he suffered a serious setback last week when the Democrats lost the Senatorial election in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown.

As David Plouffe told supporters yesterday, the President has hit some “serious bumps in the road…in the march toward change”.

That’s why Obama’s speech tomorrow has to be good enough to allow him to seize the agenda. Great speeches can do this. Think of all the times Tony Blair was counted out before he delivered a barnstorming speech to Labour conference and seized the initiative again. Even on a bad day, Obama is better than Blair.

So tomorrow night will be about vision and delivery.

He can point to some successes. His fiscal stimulus stabilised the economy. He has ended the era of torture. He has built a new relationship with the rest of the world. He put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court and although Copenhagen failed, he has changed the way the US Government thinks about climate change. He has also rightly decided that Afghanistan is a fight worth having.

But there are items he cannot ignore. He was elected on the promise of health care reform and this he must do. After twelve months of negotiations, he cannot back down now. He must reach out to Republicans when it comes to health care costs and look for a compromise with them on the issue. Any Bill that insures more people is better than no Bill at all.

He must talk about reducing the Budget deficit but send the bankers a clear warning at the same time. If they stand in the way of his banking reforms, they should be prepared to face the consequences. Defeating Wall Street for the sake of Main Street it is a battle worth having.

Finally, he should use the bully-pulpit the occasion affords him to reach out to Americans about the importance of climate change. It is a great chance to lead and to educate. He needs to display the same courage and bipartisanship on this issue that he showed in the campaign.

All of these issues are potentially fatal for him. The United States is more conservative than we often imagine. But he is absolutely right to press ahead. What he says tomorrow will tell us whether he is the transformational president we expect him to be.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Lessons from the Obama campaign

I have just finished reading David Plouffe’s fantastic account of his time as Barack Obama’s campaign manager and after reading his book ‘The Audacity to Win’ I think there are some important lessons which Labour could follow at the next election:

1) Have a clear message and a single strategy. The Obama campaign was good at not getting buffeted by events or setbacks whether that ranged from Jeremiah Wright’s crazy rantings to Joe the Plumber’s sudden appearance in the campaign. It had a message - "Change We Can Believe In" - and a strategy which were inviolable and they stuck to that regardless of what people were saying. Sometimes this placed them under intense pressure but they never changed course. Labour can learn from this. Now that Brown seems to have settled for a strategy based on middle class aspiration we should make sure we stick to that, even when engaging in a bit of class warfare with the Tories might look like an easy option.

2) Be Bold.
The Obama campaign was great at taking action which people thought was ‘outside the box’. For example, he made a foreign trip (and speech in Berlin) right in the middle of the campaign which looked and sounded great to American voters at home. He addressed the race issue head on with a fantastic, memorable speech and he performed brilliantly in the debates. The Labour campaign has nothing to lose by following the same principle. It would be great if the Party high command could save up a few surprises for the campaign (and not just new policy announcements) which could set the cat amongst the pigeons. It should also remember to take the bold option when it has to respond to the Conservatives in the midst of the campaign.

3) Build a healthy organisation. Plouffe makes the point that healthy organisations do not thrive under leaders who yell and scream and fly off the handle. Brown who is infamous for the ‘hairdryer treatments’ he dishes out could do well to remember this. Better to run a campaign when there is “clarity, calmness and collegiality” throughout the ranks. Labour has to get over its in-fighting. Brown has to widen his circle of advisers and control his temper. And Party leaders have got to feel confident that they can get on with the job in hand without being undermined by their colleagues. If we can’t trust each other, how will the electorate trust us?

4) Expand the electorate. The Obama campaign always knew that the Clintons would have the Democratic establishment locked up. They also knew that if they relied on swing voters they would end up with a dead heat like in the General Election campaigns of 2004 and 2000. So they decided that they would focus on getting young voters, African Americans and independents who had never previously participated to the polls. By expanding the electorate, they increased the percentage of people who would support their campaign. Labour could do the same. We worry about the middle class vote in the 30 or so swing seats in the south east where elections are supposedly won and lost, but we never think about ways we can get young people or non voters to the polls. If we could do more to win their support, we might find that we have a new group of voters ready to support us.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Seven Seats to watch at the General Election

Forced resignations, retirement and defeat mean that at the next General Election we could see the biggest churn of MPs in Parliament since 1945. As many as half of all current MPs may not return and there are likely to be some interesting results on the night, so I've compiled what I think (and my colleagues at Mandate have helped) will be the 'Top 7' seats to watch at the next General Election:

1) Brentford and Isleworth

A genuine bellweather seat and the type of Tory/Labour straight fight that will decide the election, Brentford and Isleworth is a key target for the Tories. The current MP and Health Minister, Ann Keen - otherwise known as 'Mrs Expenses' by her less charitable friends - is in the fight of her life to defend her seat.

As things stand, it doesn't look good. Voter anger over plans to expand Heathrow, fallout from her and her husband's expenses claims and a strong local Tory campaign mean the Conservatives might win it back. She is one of four Health ministers who could lose their seats.

However, nothing is conclusive. There are still pockets of strong Labour support and demographic and boundary changes slightly favour Labour. One to watch.

2) Brighton Pavilion

A once solid Conservative seat which the Party lost in 1997, the Tories will need a 7% swing if they are to reclaim this seat at the next election. But it looks more likely to fall to the Green Party - giving them their first ever MP. The Greens have been winning council seat after council seat over the last couple of years (and are now equal with Labour) and an ICM poll in January showed the Green Party candidate and Leader Caroline Lucas on 35 per cent, with an 8 per cent lead over the Conservatives. A win for the Green Party would be a breakthrough.

It would also show just how far the demographics and voting habits of some of the 'Deep South, True Blue' seats that the Conservatives lost to Labour in 1997 have changed in the intervening years.

3) Bethnal Green and Bow

Labour lost this rock solid East End seat in 2005 when George Galloway capitalised on anti-war sentiment and sensationally beat the incumbent Labour MP, Oona King. However, fulfilling a campaign promise he made at the last election, Galloway announced that he will not contest the seat this time around. This leaves the Leader of the Respect Group on Tower Hamlets council, Abjol Miah, and Labour candidate Rushanara Ali to battle it out. Ali would be the first Muslim woman to be elected to Parliament if she wins. It promises to be a tough fight but Labour might just have the edge.

4) Burnley

With former Government Minister Kitty Usher standing down because of her expenses' claims, Burnley is the sort of seat the Liberal Democrats need to gain from Labour in order to do well. The Lib Dem candidate, Gordon Birtwistle, is the current leader of Burnley Council and has strong local roots and the Liberal Democrats have performed well in recent local elections. The BNP is also a factor. It could steal some of Labour's traditional voters away, allowing the Liberal Democrats to sneak in. A defeat for Labour in its heartland would send shockwaves around the Party.

5) South Basildon and East Thurrock

One of the best known bellweather seats, Basildon has voted for the winning Party in each election since its creation. It was the first marginal seat to declare in 1992 and the failure of Labour to win the seat that year foreshadowed the night's crushing defeat for the Party. Held by Cabinet Office Minister, Angela E Smith, it will only take a 1.7 per cent swing to the Conservatives for her to lose it. Tory and Labour Party strategists will be watching this one closely.

6) Buckingham

UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage announced in September that he would stand against House of Commons Speaker John Bercow. By convention the main parties do not normally put up candidates against the Speaker but Farage said Bercow represented "all that was wrong with British politics" and has thrown himself into the campaign. There is nothing the Tory high command would like to see more than Bercow defeated but the odds are unlikely - he is defending a majority of over 18, 000. Still, with Nigel Farage involved the contest promises to be dramatic and the campaign could throw up one or two surprises.

7) Morley and Outwood

The Conservative Party is hoping to deliver its very own Portillo moment of the night as it aggressively targets the constituency where current Schools Secretary Ed Balls is standing.

The new seat which is formed out of boundary changes has a notional majority of 9,000but the Tories hope their decapitation strategy will force Labour to spread its resources thinly and remove Ed Balls and one or two of the Cabinet's other big beasts in the process. Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and John Denham are also being targeted but if Balls loses this it will be a sensational result for the Tories and plunge the Labour Party into post-election chaos.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Great Posters from Go Fourth

In response to the Conservative Party's recent poster campaign, Go Fourth (the Labour campaign group) has come up with some pretty good posters of its own. The one below is excellent and sends out a stong, clear message - while taking the mick out of the Tory leader. Just goes to show what a bit of creativity and humour can do. Good job from Go Fourth on this.

By The People: The election of Barack Obama

I've just finished watching the fantastic documentary "By The People: The election of Barack Obama" which was shown on BBC Two over the weekend. It goes behind the scenes of the campaign and provides an insider's account of how the election was won. It is absolutely brilliant and had me laughing and crying in equal measure.

What the documentary really shows is the dedication and commitment of Obama's team of young supporters. It captures how hard they work, how much they admire Obama (even if they never actually get to meet him) and their belief that politics can change things. I came away reminded that it really is the candidate that shapes the tone and direction of a campaign - only a great candidate can inspire an army of volunteers like Obama did. It makes me sad that we really have no equivalent in the UK who can do the same.

You can still catch the film on iplayer.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Hewitt and Hoon are Wrong

Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have made a bad mistake and have misjudged the mood of the Party.

In calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership, they have not acted in the interests of Labour and their actions are a betrayal which serve no purpose.

By calling for a secret ballot, they don't even have the guts to say what they think - proving their duplicity. It shows unbelievably bad judgement and is another self inflicted wound which will cost us more votes in key constituencies.

But bad judgement is hardly surprising. If ever someone epitomised the faceless managerialism of politics its Geoff Hoon. I wouldn't follow his lead anywhere.

I make no secret of the fact that I have always had strong reservations about Gordon Brown's leadership. I have never been entirely comfortable with his politics or ideology. But there have been many opportunities over the last two years when he could have been removed or he could have resigned gracefully. When James Purnell resigned last June and none of his Cabinet colleagues had the guts to follow, I decided that the issue had been settled and Brown would lead us into the next election. This remains my view.

It does the Party irrevocable damage to raise the issue again now. It gives the Tories more ammunition to attack us with and will demoralise Labour activists around the country. No one ever votes for a divided Party and with only 120 days to go before an election has to be called, it is hard to feel any sympathy with either Hoon or Hewitt.

We must apologise to the British public for letting them down. When we should be concentrating on getting the economy going again, we are instead concentrating on ourselves. We lose our credibility.

That's why Mandelson's decision to issue a clear but muted reaction to the rebel plot was spot on. He said "The prime minister continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual."

It was a perfectly judged response - neither a hysterical over-reaction nor a source of further division. Treating it like a 'damp squib' will take some of the sting out of it and close it down quickly so that we can get back to concentrating on the issues and the forthcoming General Election.

Some long term rebels like Charles Clarke and James Purnell, whose judgement I think is right on this issue, have been very clear about where they stand and have always had my respect for that. And history probably will be sympathetic to the rebels' arguments but to do this now on this day - when things were looking up for us - is very bad form and I cannot support it.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Top 7 Political Moments in 2009

Another Top 7 - this time 'Top 7 Political Moments from 2009'. I did this for work but thought I would bung it up here as well. If we think last year has been a tumultous one in politics, 2010 will be even more exciting!

1. Barack Obama's inauguration as 44th President of the United States. After a gruelling election campaign, America's first black President finally reached the White House. The Supreme Court Chief Justice may have fluffed his lines but this didn't stop thousands of Obama's supporters celebrating on the streets of Washington DC or billions worldwide tuning in to watch. The new President promised a new era of American leadership and responsibility and temporarily, at least, restored our faith in politics.

2. The 2009 Budget. Alistair Darling revealed that Britain would have to borrow £175 billion as he admitted that the UK faced the worst economic conditions since the Second World War. Labour also scrapped its manifesto pledge not to raise income tax before the next General Election, effectively killing off one of New Labour's central tenets. The Chancellor said it was about Building Britain's Future; the Tories called it an 'utter mess'.

3. The Expenses scandal. Westminster was rocked by allegations of sleaze and impropriety as information on MPs' expenses was leaked to the Daily Telegraph in the biggest scoop of the year. The most ridiculous claim went to Sir Peter Viggers for his floating duck house but some MPs may still yet face criminal charges. Reputations were ruined, careers ended. The fallout continues.

4. Exodus of New Labour. Only hours after polls closed in the June local and European elections, James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, sensationally quit the Cabinet. In a rare act of political courage, the arch moderniser put his reputation on the line and asked Brown to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election. With Hazel Blears and John Hutton announcing their resignations too, the exodus of New Labour heavyweights from the Government continued. Brown was irrevocably damaged but Purnell established himself as one to watch for the future. The Economist called him one of New Labour's heroes.

5. The Sun Goes blue. Britain's biggest selling daily tabloid did what many had expected it to do for months and officially announced that it would endorse the Conservatives at the next election. After 12 years of support for Labour, the Sun's editorial screamed 'Labour's Lost It'. Coming only the day after Gordon Brown's set piece speech to conference, the decision looked like a deliberate attempt to scupper the Prime Minister's re-launch. The Tories rejoiced.

6. A change of Speaker. One of the fallouts from the expenses scandal was Michael Martin's resignation as Speaker of the House of Commons, effectively becoming the first speaker to be forced out of office in 300 years. Martin had faced enormous criticism over his handling of the expenses scandal with many MPs prepared to sign a motion of no confidence in him. The left-leaning Tory MP, John Bercow, was chosen to replace him, much to the delight of Labour MPs and the fury of his Tory colleagues.

7. The BNP on the BBC.
The British National Party had one of its most successful years ever in 2009 when the party won two seats in the European Parliament and consolidated its strength in the London Assembly and across councils in England. Its gains sent shudders of horror across Westminster. The BNP's leader Nick Griffin received widespread coverage in the press and even appeared on the BBC's flagship 'Question Time' programme, with the Corporation receiving a barrage of complaints as a result. Many wonder whether the Party has peaked but the question remains whether it can emulate its success in next year's General Election.