Friday, 24 September 2010

Labour Hearts Ruling Labour Heads

The kindness of others; Ghost of Labour past; No compromise with the electorate

It was Nick Robinson calling the election in his favour that proved the kiss of death for David Miliband. Sure, the teenage facial hair adorning his top lip can't have been good for karma, but when Robbo plumps for you you know you're done for. To be fair to the BBC's political editor, the facial expressions of the brothers had suggested the senior had been victorious, David sitting relaxed, grinning like a Cheshire cat, Ed ashen faced, like his cat had just been drowned. But as the rounds progressed, and the also-rans were eliminated, the affiliates shifted their weight decisively behind Mili-junior, giving him a final victory margin of just 1.3%. The brothers embraced, providing the papers with the photo they wanted, but more significantly, a genuinely poignant moment. Then Ed Miliband took to the stage to deliver his first speech as leader of the Labour Party.

On 24 May nominations opened for Gordon Brown's successor. 33 MPs (12.5% of the commons members of the Parliamentary Labour Party) was the threshold, what seems to me like a perfectly reasonable number. You would hope that the person who is going to be the face of your party going into the future is a face preferred by at least an eighth of your MPs, but this being the Labour Party, there were quickly calls that the number was unfair and discriminatory towards the less popular candidates (which is kind of the point of the threshold in the first place).

Both Miliband's secured the requisite amount, and more, with ease, whilst Andy Burnham and Ed Balls rounded up the numbers to secure their place on the ballot with 33 nominations each. This left just John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, both candidates of the left, scuffling to make it. Both had called for all candidates to be let on the ballot but the party had stood firm. If the left was to be represented, some kind of deal was to be done. Abbott held not one, but two trump cards, in that she was a woman and she was black, so McDonnell withdrew and threw his provisional support by Abbott. Yet still Andrew Neil's 'chocolate hobnob' was short of the required number, and it fell upon David Miliband to patronisingly nominate her himself. It was like an inept high jumper asking for the bar to removed, and when told this would defeat the point of the sport, simply asking the world record holder for a leg-up. Hustings season was embarked upon with five contenders in the running.

Even the most ardent Labour supported would have to agree that the summer's leadership campaign failed to spark the nation's interest. The media were quick to point how all the candidates were Oxbridge educated, which is no bad thing, and how Ed Balls and both the Milibands had studied PPE, which again, doesn't seem unreasonable for politicians. However, even throughout the fifty-plus husting events that the candidates attended there seemed little significant friction between each candidates platform- this excludes Diane Abbott who from henceforth shall be widely ignored- and the campaign remained tucked firmly on the inner pages of the newspapers.

Whilst the candidates broadly acknowledged the successes of New Labour whilst arguing it was time to move on, it took two of its architects to make Labour politics front-page news. At the start of July Peter Mandelson published The Third Man, a book released and written as you would expect from someone with an ego as large, as the ads for it were creepy. The memoirs were quickly condemned for both timing and content and the world moved on.

Then in September Tony Blair, know to some as the former Prime Minister, to others as an international war criminal, released his memoirs, A Journey. It is strange how someone who led Labour to power, and kept them in it for 13 years (for the Brown years were won by Blair in 2005), can now prove so divisive. But all five candidates were quick to declare, like kids on the playground, that they don't like him now, and never liked him that much in the first place. Blair himself made little secret of his preference for David Miliband, but the front page stories were all of tales of Labour's past, not of any vision for the future.

The only definitive view of Labour's future was that it would be in the hands of a Miliband. Diane Abbott never had a realistic chance, Andy Burnham was quite dull (the most interesting thing about his campaign being that Jamie Carragher had donated £10,000) to it, and Ed Balls, though slowly growing in stature, wasn't the right for for leader. Whilst their were similarities between the brothers platforms their was a key distinguishing feature. David was painted by many as the New Labour continuity candidate, much as he himself tried to shrug the the tag. He was clear though, that he believed Labour needed to reach out to the centre, and reconnect with the middle-class voters who were with them in 1997, but got lost in the following thirteen years. This appealed to the more centrist parts of the media and seemed like a logical analysis of Labour's recent failures. Ed, on the other hand, felt that Labour needed to reconnect with their tradition support, those that had been taken for granted by New Labour. Whilst this may also have been true, comparisons were quickly drawn, from those on the centre and the right, with Labour's folly that led them down an electoral cul-de-sac in the 1980s. Yet it would appeal to those on the left, those that in the end were the ones that needed to be wooed. It was upon these premises that the dividing lines were drawn.

Voting opened at the start of September and David Miliband was quickly installed as the bookies favourite. But as the result neared, opinion polls suggested that Ed would win it, including one for the Sunday Times that raised some interesting issues. Polling 1,011 Labour members, and using the same electoral system Labour uses, Ed Miliband came out winner in the final round by 52% to David's 48%. Yet of those same 1,011 members, 55% thought David most likely to lead Labour to victory in the next election, compared to 25% for Ed, and 45% thought David would make the best Prime Minister, compared to 28% for Ed. Whilst not exactly the same as the polling data misunderstanding illustrated in The West Wing clip, it was still puzzling. As John Rentoul put it: 'Vote Ed Miliband. No compromise with the electorate.'

And so it was. The MPs went for David in greater numbers than expected, but the second preferences turned things round for Ed, and the more junior brother in age, experience and reputation was declared the winner. Whilst David may be more likely to win a general election, Ed campaigned for the Labour Party electorate and reaped its rewards. His acceptance speech was warm and gracious in its acknowledgement of the other candidates and hinted that becoming leader would not lead to a change of tune towards a centrist approach as some had perhaps expected. It's early days, but much as I like Ed Miliband, and though I probably sit ideologically closer to him, I'd have felt a lot more confident in Labour's chances in the next election with David as leader. Like it or not, elections are fought on the centre ground, and though Ed may 'tickle Labour's tummy' and provide 'the warm feeling that all those deep Labour instincts were right all along', today could be a fateful day for the party. Here's hoping my early pessimism's unfounded.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Lib Dems Identity Crisis

At last years party conference Nick Clegg proclaimed- to much sniggering- that he aspired to be Prime Minister. A year down the line, and though he is only Deputy PM, few people would categorise his year as a failure. But whilst Clegg may be comfortable in his new surroundings in government, rubbing shoulders with Tories and making decisions that he is will now be held accountable to, there were rumblings that sections of his own party were less enamoured with their new bedfellows. And so the Liberal Democrats entered this week in Liverpool with some serious questions needing answering. A conference proceeded by Clegg's announcement that the party had no future as one of the left, and rounded off by Vince Cable's call to arms against capitalism, has sent out mixed messages to say the least.

The issue arises from the very nature of the Liberal Democrats themselves. They are a synthesis between the Liberal and the Social Democrat traditions, meaning internal divisions on certain issues are inevitable. What appears to have become apparent since May is that, if not the majority of its members, but certainly the majority of the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats are more of the Social Democrat variety, whilst the higher echelons of the party, those that now sit in David Cameron's cabinet, run more in the liberal vein. Whilst Lib Dem support in the polls has collapsed since the coalition agreement, as those who voted for them in the General Election, like myself, have deserted, the delegates in Liverpool this week sat like fans of a band making its commercial breakthrough, unsure whether to keep supporting the people they'd been following for the last few years, or brand the new, successful sound as having sold out.

There were no cries of 'Judas' as Clegg delivered his conference speech but it was a defensive piece of oratory, filled with denials- 'we will never lose our soul, we haven't changed our liberal values'- and pleas for support- 'hold our nerve', 'stick with us'. It was , in fact, a well-judged speech, pitched at an audience who may have dropped out of sync with his footsteps, but still trusted him enough to follow his path. Clegg, to date, has done a good job of selling the coalition to his party members, and has competently, if inconsistently with his pre-election thinking, put forward the case for the impending cuts.

While many members accept the coalition's belief in the need for swift deficit reduction, clearly other aspects are more of a hard sell. A motion condemning the Conservative's free schools policy was passed and planned reduction to universal benefits were also overwhelmingly rejected. When grilled on this Clegg extolled the democratic virtues of his party, but what good democracy if those Lib Dems in government must sit like nodding dogs as the coalition sees these measures passed. Five months into government and these are minor tremors, but come conference season next year cracks could open both internally within the Lib Dems, and within the coalition.

One senior Lib Dem who definitely sits in the Social Democrat corner of the party is former Labour Party member and current Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Last week I read a description of Cable as looking like a 'shot-down pilot being forced by his captors to read out a propaganda statement.' Today he was a Marxist revolutionary, proclaiming from the barricades the fall of capitalism. Ok, maybe not- but the mainstream media might make you think so. Cable obviously does believe in capitalism, but the kind he believes in is a more regulated, responsible kind, a perfectly reasonable desire in light of recent effects. Cable's speech was one for all those who consider themselves on the left-wing of the liberal democrats and showed the face of the party that I fell for in May. Unfortunately that face, like Cable himself, looks rather the worse for wear after the bruises and blows encountered from five months with the Conservatives.

The coalition has raised many questions about the Lib Dems identity, but it also provides the key answer to it. Right now the Liberal Democrats are a force in government, not a voice in opposition. Though the slogan 'Delivering for Britain' may seem more appropriate for a conference of the national union of midwives, the point is clear. The Liberal Democrats are influencing policy within Britain in a way they never have in their history, and there is little about that the rank-and-file members can condemn.