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

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.