Sunday, May 31, 2009


Two Observations About the Current State of British Politics

Two things occur to me today to include in my post, the first associated with BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, and the second former Home Secretary tipped for a possible return after the June reshuffle,David Blunkett.

Nick Robinson reported yesterday on a Radio 4 news bulletin from the constituency of one of the accused MPs and put it to some voters that the offences of their MP- I think they were mostly minor but had received publicity- were less reprehensible than those who had taken the taxpayer for many thousands as Cameron has done for mortgage interest payments, for example. But, as he explains on his blog, it's not really the amount involved, it's the appalling lapses in judgement involved in claiming for a bathplug, porn video or whatever. These transgressions paint an all too accessibly negative picture of the person involved. It used to be said that Dennis Skinner was so scrupulous regarding accepting favours that he would even refuse a free cup of tea. Over the top, maybe, but perhaps he had a point.

Blunkett and Peter Hain yesterday both sounded off about voting reform, with the former claiming:

"PR is a recipe for weak government, born out of the understandable moment." And he warns that an AV system that also involves "topping up the Commons with members elected from a party list" would be a "dual ­disaster"

There are argumnets on both sides of course: Labour has tended to favour FPTP because the present system is so heavily skewed to their advantage; Conservatives oppose it because they fear the anti-Tory majority in the UK might form an allaince thereby which might marginalise them for power indefinitely. But if it PR is so disempowering, how come:

1. All our EU partners have adopted it? The admittedly extreme case of Israel which has a 'pure' PR system and too many minority parties in the Knesset, could be cured by setting a threshold -usually 5% of votes- required before a party can win a seat.

2. If PR is so bad why have we have progressively given a form of PR-an amended Additional Member System- to the new Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, not to mention STV for Northern Ireland elections and even Scottish local government? In addition we have PR for the EU elections. To exclude the most important election from such a method seems illogical in the extreme, especially when PR actually 'empowers' voters by allowing them a say in the election of every candidate.

Nothing would cleanse the system more effectively than the adoption of the Jenkins AV+ system as urged in his 1998 report and left mouldering in the long grass ever since. Sadly it won't happen, or not yet a -whiles, even though voters are, for once, actually calling out for radical change. Anyone who doubts the merits of this excellent system should read this article.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Farage wins his Spurs Against Humphrys this Morning

I have to make a confession and a sort of an apology. I had always assumed Nigel Farage was a bit like the plausible door to door salesman he rather resembles. Glibly fluent he always seemed a bit too street-smart to trust in any way. And besides, I'm a convinced EU enthusiast who believes it helped bring to an end the most disastrous sequence of wars in the world's history by replacing hostile competition with economic cooperation. As a template for a world likely to survive more than just a few centuries I can't think of a better one on offer.

Add to all that the fact that UKIP supporters and those of the BNP are so mutually sympathetic a merger was mooted not so long ago, and you can see why I found UKIP's leader resistible. But I thought he came out of his interview this morning with John 'Rotweiller' Humphrys on Today, with colours flying. It wasn't just that Farage was confident- he's always seemed a bit too cocky- he was also articulate, direct and saw off his interrogator's questions with aplomb. He admits he exploits MEP allowances, up to £2m a year and employs his own wife, but claims he spends the money on UKIP campaigning.

Reprehesible? Well, he answered, the EU spends £2 billion a year trying to convince us they are wonderful so this small amount dedicated to questioning such propoganda is surely justified. Good answer which seemed to satisfy Humphrys though Farage might find others will want to dig further. No doubt in my mind that Farage came through his interview with some distinction. I thought Farage a superficicial lightweight: he is clearly a formidable politician. When today's poll showing Labour running behind UKIP for the 4th June elections, one has to appreciate the full extent of the former's plight and the latter's advantage. I and others like me, may not like it, but we're going to hear and see a lot more of Mr Farage after those elections.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Marquand's Analysis Correct but no Route to Needed 'Moral Reform' Offered

This expenses scandal has taken our eye off the wider social malaise which underlies the much more important financial crisis which will bear more immediately on our lives than any squalid fiddling by our MPs. So the article by David Marquand yesterday, merits some close attention. He argues that all over Europe, people feel betrayed by the state but should also look at their own ideas and behaviour.

He points out that ther 'neo-liberal' period of economic orthodoxy inculcated a particular view of materialism:

According to it[neo-liberalism], the unhindered, ­rationally calculated ­pursuit of ­individual self interest in free, competitive markets was not just economically efficient, but also morally right. Individuals were, by definition, the only competent judges of their own interests. Only if they were set free to pursue them as they saw fit would they become autonomous moral agents. ­Collectivist interference would turn them, in ­Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase, into "moral cripples".

This vision of the moral economy was enormously powerful, and enormously seductive. It bathed the flagrant ­disparities of reward that marked the neoliberal era in the odour of sanctity. It told the ultra-rich that they were ­morally entitled to their riches.

Marquand believes the influence of neo-liberalism extended beyond the tight and privileged circle of the very rich and led to profligate spending by society at large on houses, credit cards and the like.

voters who thought they were morally entitled to ever-rising living standards without effort on their part, were all playing at the gaming tables of the ­neoliberals' casino capitalism.

I think he's right and that we have all been more than a little hypocrtical in condemning MPs for behaviour many of us would have joined in had we had the chance.
Marquand concludes that 'we, the "people"' are also part of the problem, that

'the real culprit is the hyper-individualistic, materialistic hedonism of the entire culture, popular at least as much as elite.

So 'moral reform' must be the precursor to any genuine and lasting change for the better. I do so agree and Marquand's critique is both perceptive and abasolutely correct. The only problem is- how do we achieve this 'moral reform'? The philosopher has no advice on this to offer. And in this way, I fear, the really fundamental problem of our times is defined.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Johnson and Ed Miliband Hint at Leadership Availability

I see two Cabinet members have apparently stuck their heads above the parapet today. First up is Ed Miliband, Climate Change Secretary, and the second is Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary. Miliband has often been spoken of as a more compelling candidate for leadership than his brother David, who made such a poor effort of nudging Gordon aside last autumn. Ed is alleged to have a more natural political style and maybe he thinks the Miliband family deserves a second run at the top job. Johnson, however has long been the bookies' favourite and seems to have the qualities- modesty, competence, political savvy, good television manner and a back story to die for- needed to lead the Labour Party.

Miliband suggests a major programme of constitutional reform will be needed to restore voter faith in politics but his proposals are quite modest: more powerful select committees, abolish antique language and clothing in Commons, return to twice weekly PMQs and extend parliamentary sitting times. What is interesting is that Johnson seems to have gone for a heavyweight transformation: a pitch on PR. He suggests, in a novel twist, a referendum on the issue should be run alongside the next general election. My favouite columnist Peter Riddell suggests, like the wide old fox he is, Johnson has a particular eventuality in mind:

If the outcome of the general election were a hung Parliament, but voters backed AV plus, there would be a strong incentive for the Lib Dems to support Labour, since the Tories would oppose the change. So what Mr Johnson is really talking about is an attempted Labour rescue plan or lifeboat in the face of the storm of public disillusionment.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Steen Says it All re MPs' Expenses

At last we have the definitive statement of the trangressing MP's point of view. The answer, of course, according to Anthony Steen MP is that we 'are jealous' and have no right to intrude into his private life. No doubt he was all in favour of Emperor Bokassa's and Imelda Marcos's behaviour as to criticise them would have been to commit similar violations.

Check out this hilarious video to realise why parliament has reached its present parlous state.
Hat-tip Gavin Trait.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Will Labour Decide to Follow the Road of Reform?

Yesterday I used Alan Duncan's term 'Quiet Revolution' to describe the juncture at which British political history finds itself. Maybe it's a bit too quiet in the Labour Party. It's unclear Gordon Brown has really absorbed the extent of public anger over the expenses scandal. He criticised Hazel Blears' behaviour as 'totally unacceptable' and then was happy to express full confidence in her as a Cabinet colleague. And today he has done something similar regarding offences by Geoff Hoon and James Purnell which sound not unlike to those committed by Blears herself. By contrast Cameron has been decisive and has sacked those deemed guilty. Poor old Gordon.

I doubt very much he'll take rare advantage of the crossroads at which we are located: amazingly voters are ready and willing to accept something recedived political wisdom says they care not a fig about: radical constitutional change. The gulf opened up by loss of trust, dislike of spin and disgust at incompetence was ratcheted up by horror at the economic recession and then into hyper mode by the expenses scandal. There is a chance to heal these wounds if the right steps are taken. Tony Wright MP, talented chairman of the Select Committee on Administration, was on Newsnight last night and thought it could go either way: progressive remedial measures or a total meltdown of remaining faith in our political system.

The Guardian today published a supplement which is fascinating but I just wonder if any of its sensible measures will get on the statute book. PR is something which would transform our politics for the better, for example, but Labour diehards will almost certainly veto it as the status quo favours it so heavily. Never mind the country's future, or voter opinion, party advantage will prove the winner.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


The 'Quiet Revolution' Gathers Pace

Alan Duncan looked an idiot on Have I Got News for You when they juxtaposed his smug response to an aghast Ian Hislop's question regarding his three homes of 'an ideal system wouldn't you say?' with his stammering condemnation of this same system once the expenses shit hit the fan. But this morning on Today he produced the telling phrase, 'The Quiet Revolution' to describe the volte face in public attitudes to politicians and Parliament's developing reactions. How far it will go is anyone's guess but suddenly those 'tectonic plates' are not just shifting but spinning around like pucks on an ice hockey pitch.

So far we have seen the Speaker dethroned, perhaps a little unfairly, but he did very little to save himself when he had the chance. We have seen a number of MPs punished by David Cameron and no doubt Brown will follow suit. Some interim tightening of expenses rules were announced by the hapless Speaker, shortly before his resignation, but Brown's proposed measures were of more significance. He has proposed an outside body will in future regulate parliament. Patrick Wintour sees this as a major constitutional breach with past practice:

The reform goes some way to breaching the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. It has always been a core constitutional principle that parliament is the highest court of the land – sovereign and therefore self-governing. That principle was established centuries ago by asserting parliament's supremacy over the church, and subsequently over the monarch.

Was such a major departure necessary? I fear it was. The notion that MPs are all 'honourable' and worthy of being entrusted with every aspect of their own rewards from elected office was always a bit suspect. 'Politics is nothing more or less than a means of rising in the world' said Dr Johnson in a time when we can believe the judgement to have been accurate. Sadly the intervening centuries have revealed many MPs to have not progressed from such venal nest feathering. 'The good news is they are just like us' said a Cabinet serving MP to Estelle Morris when she asked what Cabinet members were really like. She went on to add: 'the bad news is also that they are just like us'.

Public anger has banished apathy for the moment at least. I would dearly like to see the quiet revolution embrace, proportional representation, fixed terms, open primaries, more power for select committees and much else besides. But this will do nicely for the time being.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Speaker Martin will be Only the First of Expenses Cull

I suppose it was obvious after yesterday's chaotic events that the Speaker's days were numbered. The picture on the front of The Guardian this morning and the accompanying articles, including Simon Hoggart's headed, 'Blundering numbly to Oblivion- a Piteous Sight', must have made it clear to the ageing Scot that his number was up. Yesterday's bumbling effort to convene a top level meeting to establish control over the reform process and thereby save his Speakership, was far too little too late.

His authority had already drained away, despite support from his lifelong friends in Scottish Labour politics, including Gordon Brown. Has he been made a scapegoat? To an extent yes, but he has done little to help himself over the nine years he has served in hnis role. From the outset there were criticisms that he was not up to the job and he righly resented the cruel soubriquet, 'Gorbals Mick' daubed on him by the rightwing press. Supporters dismissed it as Tory class snobbishness but Martin did little to dispell the perception that he was struggling to cope. Then came the enquiry into his own expense claims, with air miles being used by family members and his wife's huge bill for cabs used in shopping expeditions.

When questions began to be asked about the expenses system following the Derek Conway affair in January 2008, Martin did his best to resist transparency, playing shop steward to those who had milked the system rather than realising Parliament's authority was ohn the line. A more subtle politician would have sensed the change in the political weather but he is a stubborn member of the Old Guard and atempted to use its traditional draconian methods to snuff out demands for daylight and reform. I thought the moment he became 'toast' was when he refused to accept criticisms from Kate Hoey and others, prefering to upbraid them for having the temerity to criticise him.

So glaring were his inadequacies and mistakes it was not possible for him to serve out the term until next May: he had to go right away. No doubt Brown made it clear to him sometime yesterday that support from Downing St was no longer there. I expect more heads to roll in both main parties. Brown today has declared MPs who have broken the expenses rules will not be allowed to stand as candidates but I foresee great difficulties in deciding who these MPs might be. The rules have been so slack for so long, it was possible to exploit them to their very limits without technically infringing them. The Fees Office must also accept some culpability and there must be some uneasy heads on pillows amongst its staff right now. Given the almost certain loss of Martin's constituency in a by-election, stand by for an eventful summer.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Will Expenses Scandal Trigger Radical Constitutional Change?

Change in politics is a will o the wisp thing, sometimes arriving as the result of a long campaign, and sometimes with the election of a brand new government and sometimes almost by accident. I get the feeling it might just be the latter if the present crisis continues to evolve as it has done.

The disengagement between government and voters seemed to begin during the 1990s when turnout figures began to fall sharply in 1997 and then plummet in 2001. Polls reflected great falls in trust of politicians, maybe caused by New Labour's use of spin and cynical news management. Brown's period in office did not repair any of this damage and the economic crisis has merely intensified to a much greater degree dissatisfaction with the powers that be, both political and economic.

The combination of these two factors has prodicedd a febrile atmosphere in which radical change seems both essentail and maybe imminent. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a major period of change which would have appeared impossible a year ago or even in June 2007 when Brown promised so much constituional change and then promptly stopped talking about it. Few now believe mere tinkering with the expenses regime is sufficient to heal the body politic. The public seems to want a wider and deeper cleansing. The Observer poll today reveals: 82% think excessive MP claimants should not be allowed to stand at the next election; 63% will vote differently in the euroelections as a result of the scandal; and that UKIP and the BNP will bde the biggest beneficiaries of the resultant redistribition.

Writing in the News of the World, Gordon Brown seems to reflect something of this awareness. He says paying back cash misappropriated would 'not necessarily be sufficient sanction' suggesting penalties will be harsh and adding:

"As well as righting wrongs and cleaning up the system there is now a clear need to go much further, as we start the process of rebuilding trust in our political system."

Maybe Gordon is going to attempt to seize the political high ground with a suggestion that PR be introduced to reduce the immovability of safe seat MPs. This would have the advantages of appearing radical, winning Lib Dem support both before and possibly after an election and out bidding Cameron in efforts to assauge public anger. Alternatively a 'call back' device, of the kind used in the USA might be introduced to enable constituents to deselect MPs should they prove unsatisfactory. The summer months should be extremely interesting for politics watchers.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Who's Winning the Politics of Expenses Scandal? So far, Dave and the Telegraph

Speaker Martin could soon be waving goodbye rather than just 'hi'. He, more than anyone has expressed the 'we've done nothing wrong' attitude so prevalent in the Westminster village until the Telegraph's revelations electrified the nation. The Guardian editorial weighs in with a 'Time to go' piece of advice. It can only be a matter of time but he may get to survive until the next election depending on how the party struggle to urge the cleansing of the stables evolves I suspect also that Andrew Walker, head of the Parliamentary Fees Office, might have to pay with his job for being too easy going and overly respectful of elected members.

Elliot Morley's 'mistake' lay in carrying on receiving £800 a month for mortgage interest on his Scunthorpe house, when the mortgage had already been paid. He has repaid the money but I would think there is a prima facie case of something against the law there notwithstanding.

Ann Widdicombe has noted that the parties are engaged in a 'bidding war' to out 'tough' each other on how to respond. And it has to be said Cameron has been winning this hands down. Brown, as always, has been disastrously leaden footed in his responses and has allowed Dave to dance around him with specific plans and to play the sweeping, unanswerable trump card of the 'payback' cheques for his offenders. Though I note it's in some cases the tabloid headline horse manure or lightbulbs sums which are being repaid while the tidy little profits from 'flipping' are nestling, secure, for the time being in the bank accounts of the MPs concerned.

There can be no doubt newspaper which has scooped their rivals bigtime on this is the Daily Telegraph. While the rest of Fleet St hesitated, they plunged in, bought the probably stolen material and have been on trebles all around ever since. I noticed a brilliant little feature they have added to their coverage: videos showing MPs apologising or otherwise commenting or explaining their views on the expenses issue. Top form stuff.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Top Left of Centre Columnists Tell Gordon to Go!

One is the doyen of the Guardianistas, with a track record of loyalty to Labour, often, say her phalanx of critics, to a slavish extent. The other is the daughter of Labour's former national treasure, Jack Ashley (and wife of good old Andrew Marr into the bargain). But both have reached a parting of the ways with Gordon Broon. Yesterday I thought Ashley was perhaps a little too febrile over the expenses crisis. Anyway she thinks it's really 'the worst' and is keen to foment rebellion against the man she once backed as Blair's successor.

If the party gets behind any of Johhnson, Harmon or Ed Miliband, she thinks damage limitation would ensue. Either of the men, she thinks, would have 'some moral authority' to reform the system.

But we are not there yet, and Brown has a record for stubbornness and for fighting on even when things look very black. He still believes a change in the economy could lead to a change in the political weather in the autumn, by which time memories of all those cushions and lampshades might have faded.

Polly is even more emphatic in her piece. 'Plot it now' she hisses like Lady Macbeth; 'Do it Fast. By 5 June, Brown Must Go'. She proceeds to shred Brown's character. There was a 'Good Gordon' and a 'Bad Gordon' she seems to say, and the latter won out once he was in office while all decent Guardian readers had hoped the good guy would turn up instead. In addition to being a manipulative and full of low cunning, he lacks communication skills and any vision for the future. Terrible poll results, unless they are a blip, 'are the beginning of meltdown'. She toys with the idea Brown might anounce he was sorting out the expenses mess and then holding an election to clear the air and 'stop a slaughter'. She knows he'd never do it.

IHe may be the best-read prime minister in decades, but his learning seems to hamper instead of illuminate his path. His indecision is legendary, every department awaiting answers that linger on his desk for months as he agonises sleepless but indecisive into the early hours. But then the decisions he takes are too often tactical, not purposeful or strategic.

Johnson is her pick also but if anyone asks him he says he's not interested, quite emphaticlly to Jackie's husband last Sunday actually. He might have calculated that he would be on a hiding to nothing: a year's torture culminating in a defeat. He might prefer to wait until the defeat and then stand in the aftermath to pick up the battered banner. But it would be good if he would stand. What a contest it would be: 'The orphan from nowhere against the boy who had everything'. Enjoying that campaign might compensate just a batsqueak or two for Labour's inevitable defeat.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Debating the Expenses Issue

This morning we learn about the claims of Tory MPs and the result is just as unedifying as it was for the Labour lot. But I thought I'd like to run through the arguments for and against the MPs to see how they stacked up. There is an argument of the MPs and I'd express it thus:

Case for the MPs:

1. MPs work exceptionally long hours at a very important job. They deserve fair recompense, especially if Parliament is to attract the best possible people to its benches.

2.The whips have intimated to MPs in recent decades that while their salaries should not increase, their expenses allowance will be boosted. This has nourished a culture in which it is seen as quite fair to regard expenses as a virtual salary 'top-up', which can be freely exploited.

3. Almost all the accusations against MPs are misplaced in that they have acted strictly within the rules. They have not broken any laws and often have consulted the Commons fees office before submitting their claims.

4. To expect MPs not to claim is ingenuous and unrealistic. Anyone in a job with a culture of generous expenses will inevitably behave like anyone else. I recall people I knew in the media during the 1970s eagerly collecting restaurant receipts from friends in order to submit them as their own expenses. Being wholly honest, how many of us would not have joined in this free for all expenses culture had we had the chance?

Case Against MPs

1. MPs receive a decent professional salary of £63,000 p.a. It does not compare with salaries in the law, accountancy, business in general or the City but if people want to earn high salaries, they should avoid politics, just as they should avoid academe for that matter. Serving one's national community as an MP should be an honour for which the level of remuneration should not be the prime consideration.

2. While MP's expenses are generous they were still designed to relieve expenditure disbursed in pursuit of their parliamentary roles. Paying for repairs to a lawnmower, for landscape gardening or indeed food bills- and I'm not even mentioning entering the property business- are seen by us taxpayers as desperately inappropriate. Nobody pays for our gardens or food except ourselves out of our own salaries.

3. Not all MPs joined the free for all snouts in trough mentality. An honourable minority, for example Ed Miliband, submitted very modest claims which were true to the spirit, rather than the strict letter of parliamentary expenses regulations.

4. We expect our MPs to behave in exemplary fashion, to live up to their own idealistic rhetoric; the fact that they have not has hugely diminished trust in the trade of politics and in consequence we are all poorer.

5. MPs seem to have fallen prey to a culture which sets them apart from those who elected them. When they talk about 'ordinary people' they are excluding themselves from the category.

So where does the balance of the argument leave MPs? I fear it leaves them looking more than a little short on honesty and genuine commitment to serving anyone apart from themselves and their families. But we should not be too condemnatory: few of us could claim to be wholly immune to the lure of material advantage and MPs are essentially no different from the rest of us. A change in the system is essential if trust is to be reborn in our parliamentary system and establishing an independent outside body to set salaries and monitor expenses seems like an excellent start.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Are we Worrying too Much About Debt?

Don't know about you but I have found the economic crisis a real downer- unemployment, expenditure cuts pending, tax rises, debt expetending into the future and so on. But I now feel slightly less worried after reading an article by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot on the BBC website. In it he argues that debt is

"basically fine. In fact, we're coining it in the UK, with more wealth stretching ever further ahead of the amount we owe...So we hear that the British owe more on their mortgages than anywhere else in Europe.

He goes on to say:

But we seldom hear the obvious corollary - that the British also own more housing wealth than anywhere else in Europe... By 2005 wealth was six times as great as annual national income. Not poorer, but hugely richer, is the story of the last 20 or so years... Some of the increase reflects house-price growth, some increases in share prices, but there is no denying that as the economy has grown, and incomes with it, so have savings and wealth. Debt has been rising, but wealth has been rising much more quickly.

Reassured? I was... sort of. But I question this apparently easy explanation. All debt cannot be such good news, surely? If I borrow money to buy a business which fails, then I lose out, right? Well the sub-prime mortgages were business which failed and we dived into a lot of that debt. And even if I have a house in exchange for my mortgage, what if I can't repay? Surely then debt becomes a bad thing?

So I'm still not convinced. Blastland and Dilnot are clever guys but so are all the people telling us we're in hock to the future for a decade. But read the article and see what you think.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Can Gordon Save Labour? Paul and Skipper Exchange Views

The future of Gordon Brown is dominating political discussion at the moment both at Westminster and across the blogosphere. Fellow left-of-centre blogger Paul Linford and myself decided-at his suggestion I might add- to hold an exchange of views which we hereby publish for your entertainment and, possibly, enlightenment.

If there are any other bloggers who would like to take part in a similar exchange on a politically-related subject, feel free to email me or Paul.

Paul: I said in my column at the weekend that in order to stand any chance of victory at the next election, there needs to be a fundamental change in the character, culture and direction of the government, and that this will probably entail a change of leadership. And yet, as a long-standing admirer of Gordon Brown, part of me still clings to the hope that he can somehow turn it round. I suppose his only real hope is an early end to the recession and some sort of vindication of his economic rescue package, but even then there is the danger that the voters will blame him for having created the mess in the first place. Do you think the party can still win under Gordon, or is it time for Labour to move on from the Blair-Brown years?

Skipper: As a lifetime Labour supporter it grieves me to say that I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which Brown can win next year. He has been a huge disappointment. I thought this precocious political talent (oh yes, he has lots of it) would reveal his distinctive contribution to government once Blair had departed- God knows he conspired and plotted enough to get it- but he has contributed virtually nothing since June 2007. Most depressing is his lack of judgement: pulling back from the expected ‘snap election’ started the rot in 2007 and, adding to others we have seen most recently, his total misjudgement of popular sentiment on both the Gurkha issue and MP’s expenses.

Whatever his faults- and they were many- Blair would never have allowed both items in a single week to avoid his antennae. Gordon might climb partially out of the hole he’s in but I don’t think there’s time to complete the job. Even if he did I think he’s had his run in the first 11 but has come up only with low scores and ducks. I just hope he’ll recognise his own failure and go voluntarily but an obsessive introverted high achiever like Gordon will probably lack any true self awareness.

Paul: I actually think there’s a chance he will go voluntarily, Bill – he’s a loyal party man if nothing else. But for the time being, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that he won’t. What, if anything, should the Cabinet do to bring the issue to a head? And do they even have the bottle? Last year, Labour found itself in a not dissimilar position, there was a lot of talk about plots, about Jack Straw handing him the pearl-handed revolver, about people refusing to be moved in a reshuffle or refusing to serve altogether, about David Miliband taking over – and none of it came to anything. Will this year be any different?

Skipper: Well, that's what we are all so fascinated about is it not? Will they have the bottle or will they fall away? I suspect the latter. There is no real alternative candidate available. Straw, Johnson and Harman could all make a fist of at least an interim leadership tenure: vital if Labour are to minimize the almost inevitable landslide in 2010. The smaller the loss the quicker it will be to recover. Johnson looks like the best bet to me; Straw would command respect; and Harman might think, as Thatcher did back in 1975, that 'This is my moment' and seek to advance the ambitions which I feel sure she is disguising.

But they have all three cried off over the past few days. Does this mean they won't stand in any circumstances? No. But those circumstances- a formal contest- are unlikely to occur. So the most likely outcome, I fear, is more of the same limping, faltering Brown until the meltdown happens. Depressing. A voluntary exit would be a hugely beneficial and unselfish act.

Paul: As I said before, I think there’s a chance he might do that. For starters, he is a loyal party man at heart, and I don’t think he would want the party destroyed in an election if there was a chance that someone else could achieve a better outcome. There is also Gordon’s risk-averse history to consider – his failure to contest the Labour nomination for the Hamilton by-election against George Robertson in 1978, his failure to contest the Labour leadership against Tony Blair in 1994, and as you have mentioned, his failure to hold a general election in 2007 (which I thought was the right decision at the time but events have probably proved me wrong.) The unmistakable conclusion we should draw from this is that Gordon doesn’t fight elections when there is a chance he will lose. I think he would be especially unlikely to contest such an election against David Cameron, who is someone he genuinely despises. Against that, there’s the Micawberist argument – that something might turn up – and that Place in History argument – that three years in No 10 looks better than two. Although those can be persuasive factors, on balance my feeling is that he will go.

Skipper: This, along with whether the Cabinet are spineless or not, is the really intriguing question. In favour of a voluntary exit is your case- shies away from contests he can't win, 'solid party man' provides an excuse for bowing out. And, who knows? the 'men in flat caps' (I'm looking for the Labour equivalent of 'men in suits') might be down to pay a visit after the June elections.

Against that we have: your 'Micawber possibility', his stubborn grasp of the power he sought all his political life; and the desire to outstay the short term premiers like Canning (5 months), Bonar Law (6 months), Douglas Home (12 months) and Eden (21 months). So far he's running ahead of that lot but I suspect the one with whom he will compare himself is Jim Callaghan, who served virtually 36 months. Surely he wouldn't be so petty as to worry about such a thing? Oh yes, he would; remember how Blair hung on to make it into double figures?

So far Brown has managed nearly 24 months: he could equal Jim's stint if he hangs on. Which case will prove correct? Well, I can quite see Paul's persuasive argument and it wouldn't surprise me too much if Gordon fell on his sword, but I'd put a tenner on him not doing so.

Paul: I said at the outset that I’ve always been an admirer of Brown’s, and genuinely thought he would make a successful Prime Minister. Why do you think he has been such a spectacularly unsuccessful one? A lot of people have pointed to the so-called “psychological flaws” in Gordon, but to my mind you have to be pretty psychologically flawed to want to be a politician in the first place, so it’s not an argument I have ever had a lot of truck with. Was it simply that he had the bad luck to inherit the leadership just at the time the political tide was going out on New Labour and the roof was about to fall in economically, or has he been more the author of his own misfortunes? And will history look on him more kindly than his contemporaries, particularly if the economy does recover and his rescue package comes to be seen as having played a key part in that?

Skipper: Well, there is not so much to chalk up in the 'achievements' column is there? And we've already discussed his poor judgement. It could be his economic remedies will come to be seen as well crafted, well timed and ultimately effective. I really do hope so for us all and for Gordon's reputation as there isn't much else in the locker is there? And as for his decade at the Treasury's helm, our present predicament has thrown into less flattering relief his championship of the ultra deregulated Anglo-American Model of capitalism.

But I do so agree he was unfortunate acceding to power after 10 years of his predecessor's squandering of Labour's political capital. However, I subscribe to the 'pathological flaws' view of Brown: a driven, manipulative, quite ruthless politician some degrees worse than the usual run of them, which usually includes, in my view some very decent and public spirited people.

Monday, May 04, 2009


'Where there is Discord May I bring Harmony' ??

Today is the 30th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher's arrival in Downing St and I thought some sort of brief assessment was appropriate. She was the person who inspired more hate in me than I was aware I possessed. It got so bad I couldn't stand to see her face on the TV or listen to her ubiquitous condescending elocution coached tones. But that was then, what about the light of history since 1979? There can be no doubt there is a 'good' tale to tell as well as a 'bad' one.

Good Points

1. Trade Unions: Thatcher took on the unions and beat them. I was never a fan of the union hegemony nor of Scargill as I felt these sectional interests did not embrace society as a whole. If Thatcher had not tamed them someone like Blair would have had to grasp the nettle later on down the line. It was ugly, harmful but maybe necessary.

2. Privatisation: the nationalised industries were immensely inefficient, to some extent corrupt and very costly to the taxpayer. On balance- though definitive studies are lacking- privatisation, despite its cock-ups and absurd fat cat management- has been a preferable arrangement.

3. Courage and Clarity: Thatcher certainly had bottle and was not afraid to take on vested interests or, indeed, General Galtieri. She showed that this quality is a key to achieving things in politics and is all the more admirable for being vested in a woman who rose to lead the most male dominated right-wing party in Europe. Moreover, her limited powers of comunication were sufficient to convey her astonishingly clear ideas. We knew where we stood with her.


1. Divisiveness: Thatcher was the most divisive politician of the 20th century, possibly, even, since Cromwell. Her behaviour in office made a mockery of her famous words, spoken outside No. 10 which I use as the title to this post. We are still reaping the whirlwind of 1980s mass unemployment- a fair slice of it longterm- in the form of poverty, soaring crime rates and anti-social behaviour.

2. Free-for -all Capitalism: Her fetish for totally unregulated capitalism racked up economic inequality, invented the loathsome super-rich and led, via New Labour's espousal of the creed, to the miserable recession which we now suffer.

3. 'Presidentialism': Her hubristic determination to impose her personal will led to a tendency to bypass Cabinet and offer herself as a figure above party. So we saw her making decisions in small groups outside Cabinet and a consequent dimunition of that body. This was the legacy on which Blair chose to build, though, if Brown has done anything, he has presided over the exit of this style for the time being at least.

Do I still hate her? Not really. Not wishing to do 'therapy speak' but it is a foolish person who clings onto negative feelings. I rather regard her as being like a legendary Australian cricketer: Ponting, Warne, McGrath. I hated their achievements at the expense of the team I support, but I recognised their brilliance then and now? I am just glad I was able to watch them playing.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Tough Times to be a Labour Supporter

At PMQs last Wednesday it felt a relief for Brown to deal with the swineflu threat: well prepared, not Labour's fault, easy consensus all round. Then came the Gurkha issue and, it went a bit pear-shaped. These past 10 days or so have been awful. A week or so ago it was the shocking revelations of Damian McBride's smearing campaign-and it was so disingenuous of Brown to pretend he knew nothing when 'McPoison', we have been assured by insiders, had been doing his dirty work for years. Just when we needed a period of calm, came the expenses debacle.

What possessed Brown to do that embarrassing Youtube video? He had set up Sir Christopher Kelly to conduct an inquiry then, without any consultation with his own party, he fires off his own ideas- presumably because he believed he knows best- and drives up the motorway the wrong way. Cameron and Clegg then snookered him by refusing to agree his scheme. Then came the humiliating Gurkha defeat followed by the surrender over the expenses issue.

This draws a picture of a politician totally unable to judge the mood of the country. Maybe his recent journies to Poland and Afghanistan- where he received yet more snubs, had left him exhausted? If so he should have had the experience to take advice: Mandelson should have whispered in his ear to prevent such directionless meanderings. Today the Indy sports an apposite headline: 'Labour United in Despair'; Blunkett warns of a 'meltdown in trust' and Charles Clarke, once a powerful heavyweight figure and still respected on the backbenches says he is 'ashamed to be a Labour MP'. Some say it's all reminiscent of Major's government at its worst- I think it's a lot worse than that.

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