Sunday, October 04, 2015

Healey: The antithesis of the machine politician

My Journal column may have gone, but life and politics goes on, and since this blog is now the sole remaining outlet for my political writing, it is here that any periodic musings on the state of the nation will be appearing.

I could not, of course, let the death of Denis Healey pass without comment.  On my Facebook page I described him yesterday both as my political hero and without doubt the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had.   As those are bold statements I feel the need this morning to amplify them a bit.

There have been many politicians I have admired down the years - Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, David Owen, Charles Kennedy and Robin Cook to name but five.  What was it that made Denis stand out in particular?

I think it was probably summed up in the word he himself used - his "hinterland."  A WW2 hero and genuine polymath, Healey was the very antithesis of today's machine politicians who progress effortlessly from uni to MPs' research assistant to parliamentary candidate without experiencing anything resembling the real world.

Opinions will invariably differ about whether Denis was a great politician.  His tendency to make unnecessary enemies at the height of his career in the 70s and early 80s probably cost him the leadership of the Labour Party, but it was that very refusal to 'play the political game' that made him, in my eyes, such an attractive figure.

An alternative history of Britain in the 1980s would have had him as Prime Minister in place of Margaret Thatcher, using the benefits of North Sea Oil to build a Swedish-style social democracy instead of the American-style market economy we became.  I happen to think Britain would be a kinder and fairer society now had that been the case.

Could it have happened?   Probably not. Denis's best chance of becoming PM probably came in 1976 when Harold Wilson retired, but he came a poor third behind Jim Callaghan.   By the time Callaghan stepped down in 1980, the left was in disarray and the Thatcherite hegemony was in full swing.

Denis as leader in place of Michael Foot might have limited the scale of Thatcher's victory in the post-Falklands election in 1983, but I don't, in all honesty, think he would have stopped it.

Where a Healey leadership would have made a bigger difference is in terms of the internal politics of the left.  Had he succeeded Callaghan in 1980, the marginalisation of the hard left would have begun five years earlier than it actually did, and the impact of the SDP breakaway would have been greatly reduced.

In this respect, it is tragic that Denis should have lived to see the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader - an outcome he sought to prevent in what proved to be the last political intervention of his career.

Ever since I first launched this blog more than ten years ago, the footer has contained a quote from Denis's autobiography 'The Time of My Life' - a comment about his old friend and rival Roy Jenkins which says just as much about himself.

"He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change."

Why do I like this quote so much? Well, partly because it references Trollope, but mainly because it sums up in a single sentence the tension which makes politics such an endlessly fascinating business.

It is, more often than not, Jenkins' definition which prevails. But Healey's definition of politics is the way it probably ought to be. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's the end of an era for me - but what about Labour?

Today marks a bit of an end of an era for me as I have filed my last Saturday politics column for The Journal after 18 and a half years.

The column was launched by my former editor Mark Dickinson shortly after I joined the paper as political editor in 1997, and his successor-but-one Brian Aitken agreed to keep it going after I left the staff in 2004.

I will miss the opportunity to hold forth on the week's political events, but all good things come to an end and I will always be grateful to The Journal for having given me an outlet for my writing for so many years.

Anyway here's the final column, which focuses on the fallout for Labour from Jeremy Corbyn's leadership election victory. The pay-off line is a Journal in-joke, but I am happy to explain it anyone who wants to know.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Opposition parties pay bitter price for 2010 mistakes

Labour hobbled itself in Thursday's election by choosing the wrong brother as leader in 2010, while the Liberal Democrats lost their political identity by joining the coalition. Here's my election round-up which will appear in today's edition of The Journal.

SO we all got it wrong.  All the speculation about hung Parliaments, deals with the Scottish National Party, questions of what would constitute a ‘legitimate’ minority government – in the end, it all proved to be so much hot air.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not the only political institutions that will need to take a long, hard look at themselves after the biggest general election upset since 1992.   So will the opinion polling industry.

Its continued insistence that the two main parties were running neck and neck, and that we were duly headed for a hung Parliament, ended up framing the main debate around which the campaign revolved in its latter stages.

Had the polls showed the Tories with a six-point lead, the debate would not have been about whether Ed Miliband would do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon, but about whether the NHS would survive another five years of David Cameron.

There were many reasons why, to my mind, the Conservatives did not deserve to be re-elected, not least the divisive way in which they fought the campaign.

By relying on fear of the Scottish Nationalists to deliver victory in England and thereby setting the two nations against eachother, Mr Cameron has brought the union he professes to love to near-breaking point.

Preventing this now deeply divided country from flying apart is going to require a markedly different and more inclusive style of politics in Mr Cameron’s second term, in which devolution and possibly also electoral reform will be key.

Thankfully the Prime Minister appears to recognise this, although one is perhaps entitled to a certain degree of scepticism over his sudden rediscovery of “One Nation Conservatism” yesterday morning.

But what of the opposition parties?  Well, it is fair to say that both suffered more from mistakes made not during this election campaign but in the aftermath of the last one.

Make no mistake, this was an eminently winnable election for Labour, but it would have been a great deal more winnable had the party chosen the former South Shields MP David Miliband as its leader in 2010 ahead of his younger brother.

That said, Ed fought a much better campaign than many anticipated and stood up well in the face of some disgraceful and frankly juvenile attacks by certain sections of the national media.

What may have swung the undecideds against him in the end was his apparent state of denial about the last Labour government’s spending record, while I shouldn’t think the tombstone helped much either.

Of course - Stockton South aside - Labour continued to perform well in the North East on Thursday, and the party also had a reasonably good night in London.

It was the East and West Midlands that proved particularly allergic to Mr Miliband’s party, and it is here that whoever emerges from the forthcoming leadership contest will need to concentrate their energies with 2020 in mind.

Mr Miliband has facilitated that contest by swiftly falling on his sword, and with deputy leader Harriet Harman also set to stand down, the party will now be able to choose a new team to take it forward.

After such a shattering defeat there will doubtless be calls for a completely fresh start, and new names such as Liz Kendall, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy will come into the frame alongside some of the more usual suspects.

As for the Liberal Democrats, well, the Tories’ cannibalisation of their erstwhile coalition partners seems to prove once and for all that Nick Clegg made a catastrophic misjudgement in taking them into government in 2010 – as some of us warned him at the time.

He has also been rightly punished by the electorate for what many saw as an appalling breach of trust over university tuition fees.

The upshot is that a party which achieved a fifth of the national vote under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has not just lost nearly all its MPs, more seriously it has lost its identity.

The laws of political dynamics will ensure Labour eventually bounces back from this defeat, just as it did in 1964 and 1997.  For the Lib Dems, though, the future is much more uncertain.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Five reasons why I'm backing a Lab/Lib coalition

Yesterday I outlined why I don't think the current Tory-Lib Dem coalition deserves to be re-elected.  Here's why I hope a Lab-Lib coalition will emerge in its place.

1.  Labour has fought the most positive campaign. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I still believe that politics should be about sharing a vision of a better world rather than promising to protect us from nightmares - the politics of hope versus the politics of fear. While the Tories have relied on negative campaigning and the tired old tactic of better-the-devil-you-know, Labour has set out a positive case for change, outlining how they would change this country for the better. Even if you don't agree with all the details, this is the right way to do politics and it deserves to succeed.

2.  Ed Miliband has exceeded expectations and has demonstrated that he is ready to be Prime Minister. Despite being subjected to the most disgraceful and frankly juvenile abuse from certain elements of the national press, the Labour leader has held up well under pressure.  As someone said on Twitter today: "I’m sure Cameron eats a bacon sandwich really well. But he’s overseen a million people visiting food banks. I know which matters more."  Ed M may never have that easy rapport with the public that Tony Blair had in his pomp, but in a contest with Cameron he wins hands down, simply because he is more in touch with the lives of ordinary voters.

3.  Labour is the only major party committed to repealing the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. I've heard it argued by health service professionals that the horse has already bolted on this, and that the unleashing of private sector forces into the NHS cannot now be undone.  Well, maybe, but it can be contained.  The Health and Social Care Act - that massive, top-down reorganisation the Tories promised us would never happpen - was a deceitful piece of legislation that set out a route-map towards a system of privatised health care that few people actually want.  It needs to go so we can rebuild our NHS according to the principles on which it was founded.

4.  Contrary to the received wisdom, Labour's policies are actually more business-friendly than those of the Tories. People who do not realise this are faling to see the elephant in the room, namely David Cameron's commitment to an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017.  The uncertainty created by this will wreck the so-called 'recovery' and prolong the economic pain for those households, businesses and regions who have yet to see its benefits.  On the question of the deficit, there is very little to choose between the two big parties and, since 2010, Labour has moved significantly in the direction of greater fiscal responsibility.

5.  In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband would lead a social democratic rather than a socialist government.  Nick Clegg has been absolutely right in this campaign to position the Lib Dems as a moderating influence on left and right, maintaining his equidistance between the two big parties and appealing to the centre ground which is where British politics should continue to be anchored.  Many see Clegg as a Tory collaborator but to be fair, he has made it clear he will talk first to whichever party has the most seats.  For the other reasons set out above, I hope - and pray - that this will be Labour.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Five reasons why the Tories do not deserve to be re-elected

Despite having a very good local constituency MP in Pauline Latham, here's why I won't be voting for her party on Thursday.

1.  The Tories have fought a negative and uninspiring campaign characterised mainly by telling lies about Labour's tax plans, lies about Labour's 'relationship' with the Scottish National Party, and a complete lack of candour about their own plans to slash welfare benefits in the next Parliament. Apart from a brief period around their manifesto launch, when David Cameron brought his 'sunshine' agenda back out of cold storage, the party's campaign has focused almost exclusively on spreading fear rather than hope. Such an approach is unworthy of a major political party and does not deserve to succeed.

2.  David Cameron has failed to engage with the public at any level, turning the campaign into a series of carefully-managed photo-ops rather than the conversation with the voters it should have been. His disdainful treatment of the regional press - for instance keeping local journalists in a room while he toured a factory - has been well-documented on HoldtheFrontPage, but is symptomatic of a wider reluctance to engage, of which the scrapping of the morning press conferences and his refusal to debate Ed Miliband head to head are also part and parcel.  The British public deserve better than a Prime Minister who is seemingly afraid of the voters, afraid of legitimate questioning by the media and afraid of what an opponent he has repeatedly sought to denigrate as not up to the job might do him in a one-on-one encounter.

3.  The Tories cannot be trusted with the National Health Service. Having pledged not to introduce a top-down reorganisation of the NHS at the last election, they then passed the Health and Social Care Act 2012.  This provides a route-map towards a nightmarish future in which the NHS ceases to exist as an organisational entity, with health care commissioned by GPs from a panoply of mainly private providers.  Once the profit-motive becomes embedded in our health service, it will be impossible to maintain it as free at the point of delivery.  Private providers have shareholders to please and profit margins to meet, and this will inevitably get passed on to patients.

4.  George Osborne's management of the economy has led to an uneven recovery which has widened the divide between the haves and the have nots and kept wage levels depressed while the cost of living has increased. The economic statictics may tell a positive story for the Conservatives, but the experiences of people at the sharp end tell another and small business people, public sector workers and anyone living north of Watford Gap have seen very little evidence of recovery at all. For all the Chancellor's talk about creating a 'Northern Powerhouse,' the economic divide between the North and South of the UK has grown over the past five years, with potentially baleful repercussions for the unity of the British state.

5.  The Tories' reckless promise of an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017 will create two years of uncertainty in the business community which will further paralyse already sluggish economic growth in the UK.  The Europe question was decisively settled by a previous generation in 1975 and millions of British jobs and livelihoods now depend on EU membership.  The issue does not need to be reopened now just so Mr Cameron can appease his recalcitrant backbenchers or seek to win back a disaffected, xenophobic minority who have temporarily deserted his party for Nigel Farage and UKIP

Tomorrow, I give my five reasons why I'm backing a Labour/Lib Dem coalition as the best election outcome.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Mid Derbyshire Hustings 2015

Five years ago I produced this blog post about the election hustings for the new Mid-Derbyshire constituency organised by Churches Together in Duffield.

Churches Together has since renamed itself the Duffield Christian Council and last night I took myself along to the follow-up event at Ecclesbourne School in the village to see how this year's candidates measured up.

On the stage were Pauline Latham, defending the seat for the Conservatives after five years as its MP, and the four opponents hoping to wrest it from her.

They were Nicola Heaton for Labour, Hilary Jones for the Lib Dems, Martin Fitzpatrick for UKIP and Sue McFarlane for the Greens.

As was the case five years ago, the result is probably a foregone conclusion. Pauline is going to win and, having been a hard-working and reasonably effective constituency MP since 2010, there will be many who say it's no less than she deserves.

She has been particularly effective on local planning issues, helping to reduce the number of homes planned for green belt land in Belper and opposing similar plans in Allestree, and this came through in her response to the first question, which concerned farming and planning.

Nevertheless I think even Pauline would confess to having been outshone by the Green Party candidate, Sue McFarlane from Belper, who on this and other issues spoke with the genuine passion of someone who clearly cares deeply about her local area.

I scored each candidate from 1-5 on their answers to each of the eight question plus their closing statements, and Sue emerged as the overwhelming winner with 38 points out of a possible 45.

The other candidates each had their moments.  Nicola, the youngest of them by about 20 years, showed great maturity in dealing with a question about defence after Pauline had attempted to claim that the SNP would block Labour from renewing Trident.

Nicola, who is a councillor in Nottingham, neatly skewered that one by pointing out that, with both Labour and the Tories in favour of renewal, there was "no need to involve the SNP" in the decision at all.

UKIP's Martin Fitzpatrick came over as eminently sensible and thankfully did not try to blame everything on either the EU or foreign immigrants

The Sheffield businessman also got the biggest applause when the candidates were asked what Private Members' Bill they might introduce, arguing that spending on the NHS and Defence should be taken out of the annual spending round and instead determined by agreed, cross-party 20-year plans.

Hilary Jones, the former leader of Derby City Council, was the only candidate who openly described herself as a Christian and who spoke of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which will almost certainly have won her a few votes from an audience largely composed of churchgoers.

But in truth, with only one rather vague question devoted to "Christian values," there was little opportunity for the candidates to display their credentials on faith-related issues.

Disappointingly, there were no questions about any of the specific issues that have greatly vexed evangelical/charismatic Christians over the course of the last Parliament, and when members of the audience attempted to raise some of those issues from the floor, they were slapped down by the organisers.

I'm not sure why the Duffield Christian Council appeared to be so afraid of allowing a more interactive debate, given that the event was only advertised through local churches.  Were they expecting Rentamob to turn up, or something?

As the Christian Institute points out in its excellent election briefing this has been a perplexing election for many Christians, mainly as a result of the redefinition of marriage by the current coalition and the loss of trust in politicians that this engendered.

Says the Institute: "The redefinition of marriage is plainly contrary to the Bible. But it was also introduced in a deceitful way. The political leaders hid their true intentions at the last election: for example, none of the three main parties at Westminster included same-sex marriage in their manifesto in 2010.

"So there has been a huge breach of trust. In 2010 the political parties knowingly sold Christians a false prospectus. Christians are perplexed by all of this."

In an election in which many Christians have felt disenfranchised, it was odd that the Duffield Christian Council, of all organisations, seemed equally reluctant to allow them to have their say.