Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bye for now

Thanks for visiting the Paul Linford blog. This blog is now on hold for the time being for reasons I explain below.

1. The blog was originally spawned in a somewhat transitional period of my career between stepping down as political editor of The Journal, Newcastle, in August 2004 and becoming editor of HoldtheFrontPage in June 2008. During this period I was learning a lot about the internet but doing very little actual journalism, and I found the blog a useful outlet for my creative energies. Nowadays, all of these quite rightly go into my day job.

2. As I always suspected would happen, political blogging has fragmented into a small number of mega-blogs which have effectively become part of the mainstream media, and a much larger number of small blogs which receive very little traffic, interaction or attention from the political establishment. This is often no reflection on their quality, but it does have a fairly dispiriting effect as other political bloggers besides me have found.

The blog will remain online as an archive and - who knows? - may yet be resurrected in the future. But for now, it's goodbye.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Logic says he's bound to be the next PM - but there'll be no complacency from Ed

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about what the Labour Party needs to do to win the next general election.

One is that it has to do relatively little to get back into government other than rely on the growing unpopularity of the Tories, while the other is that that it won’t regain the trust of the people unless it demonstrates that it has radically changed

The two points of view roughly correspond to the positions adopted in the period after 1992 when the “one more heave” approach personified by John Smith contended with the “modernising” tendency represented by Tony Blair.

Mr Smith’s sudden death and Mr Blair’s subsequent elevation to the leadership settled that one, but, two decades on and with the party once more seeking a way back into power, the issue has recurred.

The first point of view was forcefully expressed in a Daily Telegraph article this week by Stefan Stern, a management writer and visiting professor at Cass Business School, who exhorted readers to “do the maths.”

“Labour won 258 seats at the last general election with 29pc of the vote, which was their second worst result in 70 years. They should do better next time. Governing parties, on the other hand, rarely get more votes at the election following a term (or terms) of office,” he wrote.

“So here’s the thing: it is actually going to be quite hard for Labour not to be the largest party after the next election.

“If Labour is the largest party after the election, perhaps comfortably so, we can expect the Lib Dems to enter coalition talks with them. That was the principle that lay behind the Lib Dems’ approach three years ago. “

Stern’s logic seems impeccable. But the opposing point of view was just as cogently expressed by the YouGov pollster Peter Kellner in a recent article in Prospect magazine.

“Labour’s real challenge is to reassemble the Blairite coalition that swept the party to power in 1997. That coalition included people from across Britain’s economic and social spectrum. The party reached parts of the electorate that had seemed out of bounds,” he wrote.

“To reassemble an election-winning coalition of voters next time, these are the people Labour must win back. This means rejecting the language of ideology, class and social division, and reviving the appeal of national purpose.”

As I noted in this column following May’s local election results, Labour has by no means succeeded in doing this, with the South in particular remaining stubbornly resistant to the party’s message.

It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that within Labour leader Ed Miliband’s inner circle, Mr Kellner’s point of view currently holds more sway than that of Mr Stern.

As has been fairly clear from the recent carefully co-ordinated statements by Mr Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, the party leadership is well aware of the fact that it has a credibility problem with certain types of voters, and is working hard to persuade them it has genuinely changed.

Mr Balls’ announcement earlier this month that Labour would keep within George Osborne’s spending limits for its first year in office if it wins in 2015 echoed a similar pledge made by Mr Blair ahead of the 1997 election.

And Mr Miliband’s subsequent speech signalling new limits on longer-term welfare payments was designed to show the party is prepared to get tough on benefit claimants.

Will it work in persuading the public that the Labour of 2013 is essentially a different party from the one which, in many voters’ estimations, allowed public spending to get out of control in the Blair-Brown years?

Well, it’s a start, but Mr Miliband knows there is still much to do, and won’t be hoodwinked by Daily Telegraph columns telling him he is almost certain to be the next Prime Minister, however impeccable their logic.

In the run-up to polling day in 1997, Mr Blair continually warned his party against complacency, even when the whole world could see he was heading for a landslide.

In that respect, at least, Mr Miliband will be no different.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why the Coalition won't last the course

IF a week is a long time in politics, then two weeks is twice as long – and the fortnight since this column last appeared seems to have been a particularly lengthy one for Prime Minister David Cameron.

A collective madness has descended upon his party, with rows about Europe and gay marriage punctuated by Cabinet ministers positioning themselves for what many now see as the inevitable post-Cameron succession battle.

Much of this is what Alastair Campbell used to call ‘froth.’ Whatever Michael Gove and Philip Hammond might dream about in bed at night, Mr Cameron is not going to be overthrown as Tory leader before the next election, and if he wins it, this bout of internal rancour will be long forgotten.

And if he loses, or fails again to win an outright majority, he’ll be overthrown anyway – but that’s par for the course for Tory leaders who fail to win elections and nothing that has happened over the past two weeks has altered that underlying reality.

What it may have done, however, is made it rather less likely that he will win in 2015.

Mr Cameron’s once-stated intention to stop his party “banging on about Europe” now seems laughable, while his attempts to detoxify the Tory brand by embracing liberal causes such as same-sex marriage seem only to have alienated his core supporters.

As I wrote in the context of the local election results, the only silver lining for the Prime Minister is that the country still seems less than overwhelmed by the idea of Ed Miliband as his successor.

So long as that remains the case, Mr Cameron may well be able to squeeze the UKIP vote by presenting the 2015 contest as a presidential battle between himself and a man who few voters of a right-wing disposition want to see in 10 Downing Street.

But for me, the most interesting political story of the past fortnight concerned not the fate of Mr Cameron, but the future of the Coalition government which he leads.

It appeared on the front page of The Times a week ago yesterday, and revealed that the Tories are now planning how they would govern without the Liberal Democrats for the last six to ten months of the Parliament.

“We need to have an idea of what we are going to do if at different points it does break up,” a source said.

The paper also quoted a senior Lib Dem as saying that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg needed to act to prevent them “drifting into a four party situation with us as the fourth party.”

For me, this is a story which has been crying out to be written ever since the Coalition was first formed.

As regular readers of this column will know, I have argued from the outset that the political dynamics are such that it will be impossible for the Coalition to survive a full five-year parliamentary term.

It has long been clear that, in order to avoid humiliation in 2015, the Lib Dems will need to start differentiating themselves from the Conservatives long before polling day.

However it is now becoming increasingly clear that if they are to win back some of their lost core supporters from the arms of UKIP, the Tories will also need to start differentiating themselves from the Liberal Democrats.

Here, for what it’s worth, is how I see it panning out. Next June’s European elections turn into a disaster for both governing parties, with Labour and UKIP forcing them into third and fourth place in the popular vote.

Both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will then have to face their party conferences in September 2014 with activists demanding how they are going to recover in time for an election that will then be less than eight months away.

If they try to stay together for the sake of the kids, it will almost certainly put Ed Miliband in Number Ten, in that the Lib Dems will find it impossible to woo back their disenchanted supporters from Labour while the Tories will struggle to win back theirs from UKIP.

The alternative – an amicable divorce with Mr Cameron leading a minority government for the final few months of the parliament - really is the only conceivable outcome.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

A plague on all their houses

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, a fringe party sent shockwaves through the political establishment after securing 15pc of the popular vote in the 1989 elections to the European Parliament.

Alas for the Green Party, it could not sustain the momentum of its unexpected success, and by the time of the following general election in 1992, it has sunk back into relative political obscurity.

So the big question in the wake of this week’s local elections is whether the UK Independence Party can succeed in 2013 where the Greens failed all those years ago, and achieve a lasting and significant political breakthrough.

Certainly the signs currently seem positive for Nigel Farage and his crew, who weathered a determined smear campaign by the big parties to emerge as the big winners of Thursday’s poll.

In the North-East, UKIP repeated its surprise second place at the Middlesbrough by-election last November by coming second to Labour in the South Shields contest to choose a successor to David Miliband.

While nobody expected the Conservatives to win here - it has been Labour or Liberal since the Great Reform Act of 1832 – the result was little short of a humiliation for the Coalition parties.

Not only were the Conservatives beaten into third place by Farage and Co, the Liberal Democrats were beaten into seventh place by a ragtag and bobtail collection of independents and fringe parties, including the BNP.

It suggests that, unless they can somehow extricate themselves from the Coalition in time to re-establish themselves as an independent force, the Lib Dems are facing electoral wipeout in the region come 2015.

But while South Shields provided an interesting snapshot of the current state of opinion in the North-East,  UKIP’s strong performance there was but a foretaste of what was to come across the rest of the country.

When last I counted, the party had gained 139 councillors across England compared to a loss of 106 for the Lib Dems and 320 for the Tories.

The political impact was immediate, with a Tory Party that had earlier in the week attempted to brand UKIP as a bunch of racist clowns being forced to eat a very large slice of humble pie.

“It’s no good insulting a political party that people have chosen to vote for,” said Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday, effectively withdrawing his previous claim that UKIP members were “fruitcakes.”

The real headache for Mr Cameron’s Tories is that, with the general election now only two years away, they are no nearer knowing how to deal with the threat of the anti-EU party.

Announcing a referendum on UK membership to be held in the next Parliament was supposed to lance the boil – but Thursday’s results show it has had no effect whatever in curbing support for UKIP.

The situation is likely to get worse for Mr Cameron before it gets better.  Mr Farage entertains legitimate hopes of first place in the popular share of the vote in next year’s Euro-elections, and a strong performance then will give his party even greater momentum going into 2015.

It is already looking very likely that, if TV debates are to be a part of the next general election campaign, the UKIP leader will have to be given a slot.

But if Thursday’s results were bad for the government, they were not a bed or roses for Labour either.

As ever, the party performed strongly in the North-East, holding South Shields and regaining the North Tyneside mayoralty, as well as winning 15 council seats to become the biggest single party in Northumberland and tightening its grip on County Durham.

But nationally, the party’s failure to win outright control of Lancashire and Staffordshire County Councils, or to do better in the South, leave a huge question mark over its ability to win in the key battlegrounds, as well as its claims to be  the ‘One Nation’ party.

On what was a bad night for Mr Cameron, the only saving grace is that it was a not much better one for Ed Miliband.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Blair is back, and Miliband will have to deal with it

If being Prime Minister is inevitably the toughest job in British politics, then being a former Prime Minister is surely not that far behind.

Of the three surviving bearers of the title, the only one who has made anything approaching a decent fist of it over the course of recent years is that much under-rated figure, Sir John Major.

I will never forget his quiet dignity in defeat on that bright May morning in 1997 when he spoke of curtains falling and actors leaving the stage before going off to watch some cricket at The Oval.

And he has continued to be dignity personified throughout the ensuing years, never once succumbing to the temptation to criticise any of his many successors as Tory leader and only ever intervening in a way helpful to his own party.

In this, Sir John was determined not to follow the example of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who made clear her own intentions shortly after he succeeded her by declaring her skill at back-seat driving.

The Iron Lady, who was finally laid to rest this week, clearly found being an ex-Prime Minister rather harder to come to terms with than the actual job itself.

So, it seems, has Gordon Brown.  When he lost the premiership in 2010, those of us who still counted ourselves among his admirers hoped he would rebuild his reputation by becoming a good constituency MP and backbench elder statesman.

Unfortunately, he has veered off into the biggest political sulk since Edward Heath’s, barely ever turning up at the Commons and, save for a rather self-justificatory attack on Rupert Murdoch, saying almost nothing of any value since leaving Number Ten.

But the former Prime Minister whose post-Downing Street career provides the greatest fascination, for me at any rate, is surely Tony Blair.

Aged just 54 when he left office in 2007, it was never remotely likely that the former Sedgefield MP would go gently into that good night as Sir John had done ten years earlier, and some sort of comeback was always on the cards.

For a time, this looked likely to be at European level, with the presidency of the European Council of Ministers the most obvious potential destination.

But thwarted in that ambition by the surprise elevation of Herman van Rompuy, his attentions have turned back to domestic politics and, specifically, the future of the Labour Party.

Mr Blair took to the pages of Labour house journal The New Statesman to warn party leader Ed Miliband that his opposition to welfare reform and spending cuts risked reducing Labour to a party of protest.

In another recent intervention, he declared that the result of the last election would have been closer had he still been leader, thereby implying that the party’s chances of winning in 2015 depend on the extent to which it stays true to his legacy.

This, incidentally, is poppycock.  Whatever Mr Brown’s failings, had Mr Blair gone on and on and attempted to win a fourth consecutive term in the teeth of a recession,  and with the baggage of Iraq still hung around his shoulders, he would have gone down to a landslide of 1997 proportions.

But no matter.  Blair is back, and it is clear that the younger Miliband had better get used to the fact.

For now, the party leader’s stock response has been to turn Mr Blair’s own revisionist methodology against him, saying:  “Tony Blair taught us the world changes. The world does change and we will learn our lessons."

But while this is undoubtedly true, he will eventually have to explain in much more detail how the Labour Party under his leadership has responded to those changes.

Over the past couple of weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron has had to suffer the inevitable unhelpful comparisons with an illustrious predecessor who won three straight election victories where he could only manage a hung Parliament.

Mr Miliband’s chances of going one better may well depend on how far, if at all, he can escape from Mr Blair’s long shadow.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Thatcher: There WAS an alternative

The first thing I need to say about Margaret Thatcher is that when it comes to the former Prime Minister, I can scarcely be regarded as a disinterested or objective observer.

I spent most of my early adulthood wishing she was no longer in Number Ten, and much of my later journalistic career was spent in areas such as South Wales and the North-East where the impact of her policies had been most adversely felt.

As Journal political editor from 1997-2004, much of my work revolved around the question of how the region should tackle the North-South divide which, if not created by her, was certainly sharply exacerbated during her long premiership.

So in the unlikely event that anyone has come here expecting to read another syrupy paean of praise to the Iron Lady following her death this week, it’s probably best to look away now.

Many millions of words have already been written and spoken about the woman who led Britain for 11 tumultuous years, but ultimately the debate seems to come down to the question of whether she saved the nation, or destroyed it.

Probably the answer is a bit of both.  Looked at in the round, the Thatcher legacy suggests a strange ambivalent power for good and bad which seems to run through most of the policies with which she is most closely associated.

Take the iconic right to buy scheme, for instance.  Yes, it enabled council tenants to buy their own homes, and the dramatic increase in social mobility it fostered helped break down the class barriers which held Britain back in the post-war years.

But the downside was that housing policy ceased to be a debate about who could build the most homes, and became instead a question of who could do most to artificially inflate the value of the increasingly limited number of homes available.

Then there were the employment laws.  It is beyond question that prior to 1979 the power of the union barons had got out of hand and that Mrs Thatcher’s changes helped restore a measure of democracy to a nation in danger of becoming ungovernable.

Yet in smashing the unions, she also ushered in an era of job insecurity which has had a baleful effect on the national psyche.

I could go on.   Deregulation of the City of London made it a world financial centre that spawned untold riches for Britain’s financial services industry, but led directly to the banking crisis that caused the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession.

Even the Falklands War, by rolling back the post-Suez defeatism in which British foreign policy had been enmeshed since 1956, paved the way for Tony Blair’s disastrous intervention in Iraq twenty years later.

When assessing the Thatcher legacy, therefore, the key question becomes could we actually have had the good without the bad?  Was there, despite what the Iron Lady herself said, an alternative?

I would like to think so.   While the challenges of globalisation would eventually have forced British industry to become more competitive, the impact of this would have been slower and less brutal than the wholesale destruction of our manufacturing base in the early 1980s.

It has to be remembered that, far from being an historical inevitability, Mrs Thatcher was in fact a very lucky Prime Minister. 

Labour in 1980 put itself out of serious contention for power by choosing the wrong leader and then splitting, while a couple of Exocet missiles in the wrong place in 1982 might have sunk not just the Falklands task force, but her premiership with it.

For me, the most interesting counterfactual question about Mrs Thatcher is what would the country have been like had she never become Prime Minister or, alternatively, been ousted in 1982-83.

Had a Tory wet like Jim Prior or a Labour moderate like Denis Healey run Britain in the 1980s, and invested the proceeds of North Sea Oil in social reconstruction rather than tax cuts, would we have ended up with Swedish-style social democracy rather than US-style neo-liberalism?

Since those days, we seem to have become a politically more united country, but a much more economically and socially divided one.

And if forced to make a judgement, I think I like the Britain she created rather less than the one which she destroyed.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

David Miliband: A right decision, borne out of a wrong one

So, then, David Miliband – political colossus, or inconsequential footnote?  The greatest loss to British politics since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, or a failed leadership wannabe who will soon be forgotten?

There were plenty of opinions flying around this week in the wake of the South Shields MP’s shock decision to quit Parliament for a well-paid but scarcely high profile role running an international rescue charity in New York.

Predictably, it was his old mentors Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson who led the grief-fest, both expressing the hope that this would be but a temporary exile from which their protege would one day return in triumph.

Many Blairite cheerleaders in the media viewed Mr Miliband as so significant a figure that the ‘project’ would not survive his departure, though in truth it has been no more than a twitching corpse since his 2010 leadership election defeat.

The Conservative commentator Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, took a rather different view of his career, however.

“Any detached judge has always been able to see that David Miliband was not front rank.  He is a hopeless public speaker and has never once expressed an original thought,” he wrote.

Oborne contrasted Mr Miliband’s “cosmic sulk” after losing the Labour leadership to his brother Ed with Denis Healey’s loyal service under Michael Foot after a similarly unexpected setback in 1980.

The difference between them, he argued, was hinterland:  Healey, who fought with distinction in the Second World War, knew that losing the leadership was a trivial matter by comparison, whereas Miliband, who has spent his entire adult life in politics, had no such perspective.

My own view for what it’s worth is that David Miliband was not a complete politician, but nevertheless still the best on offer at the time Labour was choosing a successor to Gordon Brown in 2010.

Oborne is right to point out that he certainly wasn’t in the front rank as an orator, but this didn’t prevent John Major reaching Number Ten and staying there for nearly seven years.

Where he was more lacking was in his tactical acumen – as was seen in his various hamfisted attempts to set out a distinctive New Labour policy agenda during the Gordon Brown years.

If these were covert leadership bids, they were spectacularly unsuccessful ones.  If they weren’t, he should have taken much more care to ensure they were not interpreted as such.

In his favour, he was certainly one of the brainiest people operating in public life over the past decade or so and also, it has to be said, one of the nicest.

As regular readers of this column will know, I was never a huge fan of New Labour, but with David it never spilled over into personal acrimony in the way it occasionally did with some of his North East Labour colleagues.

But it was not so much his cleverness or niceness that made him the best candidate to lead the party in 2010, it was simply that he was the party’s most popular and well-known figure among the wider public.

It may seem obvious that a party wanting to return to power at the earliest opportunity should take note of what the public thinks when choosing a leader, but actually they seldom do, as both Mr Healey and later Ken Clarke also found to their cost.

In the end, it is this very popularity that has forced Mr Miliband to the point where he now feels Labour’s chances of winning the next election would be better if he were 3,000 miles away from Westminster.

It was this, coupled with the peculiar dynamics of Labour’s electoral college which showed he was also the most popular choice of Labour activists and MPs, which would always prompt those comparisons with his brother’s performance.

Has he taken the right decision?  For himself, for his brother, and for the Labour Party, almost certainly yes.

But that still doesn’t alter the fact that the Labour Party made the wrong one when it decided to pass him over.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Seldon is right: Balls should fall on his sword

At the end of last week’s column, on the back of an opinion poll showing the party 11 points clear of the Tories, I suggested that the next general election in 2015 was beginning to look like it might be Labour’s to lose.

Premature? Well probably. But there seems to be a growing view in political circles – not least on the Tory backbenches - that Labour is on course to become, at worst, the largest single party in another hung Parliament.

At the same time, however, there remains a strong awareness that despite favourable poll ratings and the growing unpopularity of the Coalition, the party still has one huge Achilles Heel: the economic record of the last Labour government.

And the man who, more than any other, personifies this is the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls – Gordon Brown’s chief economic adviser for most of his time at the Treasury and his closest political ally once he got to Number 10.

In my political preview of 2013, published on the last Saturday of 2012, I predicted that Labour leader Ed Miliband might eventually be obliged to resolve this difficulty by relieving Mr Balls of his responsibilities.

So it came as no huge surprise, to me at any rate, to see this view being repeated by no less a figure than Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and the pre-eminent historian of the Blair-Brown years.

“As somebody who has written about you for many years it falls to me to say this: the time has come for you to fall on your sword,” he told Mr Balls in a New Statesman article this week.

“Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. Forgive me, but you stop Ed breathing fresh air. With you close to him, his breath will always be stale and smell of a toxic brand… Without you, Labour could present itself as a clean party, free of the factionalism and brutalism that so tarnished it when Brown was boss and you were his consigliere. “

If the Godfather allusion seems unnecessarily brutal, Seldon at least went on to hold out the prospect that Mr Balls could one day return to the front bench as a “redeemed and respected figure.”

He even went so far as to say that he might yet succeed to the party leadership one day, predicting that the public will eventually tire of the trend towards young leaders.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Tories to start leaping to the defence of the man they believe is their greatest electoral asset.

One prominent Conservative blogger praised his “good political brain” and grasp of economics, and suggested that, far from being a drain on Ed Miliband’s leadership, he acts as a useful lightning conductor for him.

The irony of all this is that Mr Balls has, broadly speaking, been proved right in his attack on the government’s economic policy since 2010, namely that it has cut too far, too fast and in so doing snuffed out an incipient recovery.

With growth still sluggish, it is hard to gainsay the central thrust of his argument that the Coalition needs a ‘Plan B’ in order to get the economy moving again.

But whereas people may agree with Mr Balls’ analysis of the problem, this does not mean they necessarily agree with his solutions.

And Mr Balls’ real difficulty is that, rightly or wrongly, many voters assume his much-vaunted Plan B would be no more than a return to the policies that got the country into such a mess in the first place.

One of the most successful and oft-used Tory slogans of all time is the one originally coined by Harold Macmillan’s government at the 1959 election: “Life’s better with the Conservatives – don’t let Labour ruin it.”

It was used again to good effect in the last week of the 1987 campaign after the Tories’ “wobbly Thursday,” and variants such as “Britain is booming – don’t let Labour blow it” have resurfaced from time to time.

So long as Ed Balls remains in the shadow Treasury brief, the Tories won’t need Saatchi and Saatchi to devise their next election slogan for them.

It will be quite straightforward: “Britain is on the way back. Don’t let Labour Balls it up.”

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Was this the week Cameron lost his party?

Whatever else the past seven eventful days in politics will ultimately be remembered for, it’s certainly been a good, maybe even vintage week for political jokes.

“I didn’t feel in the least bit sorry for Chris Huhne - until I heard that Lembit was planning to visit him in jail,” one Lib Dem wag is supposed to have told another.

Then there was the one about the new film they are making about the Tories: Gay Weddings and Dave’s Funeral.

And one enterprising cartoonist even managed to work Richard III in, depicting a battle-scarred Mr Huhne crying: "Three points, three points, my kingdom for three points."

The fact that South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband was pictured asleep on the Tube with his flies undone merely added to the general hilarity.

But all joking aside, this was a week of seriously big political stories which could have equally serious repercussions for David Cameron’s coalition government.

Timing apart, Mr Huhne’s dramatic fall from grace following a 10-year cover up over a driving offence and Tuesday’s Commons vote in favour of same sex marriage are completely unrelated stories.

Yet this week saw them come together in a way that may signal real trouble for the Coalition over the forthcoming weeks.

Mr Huhne’s demise has triggered potentially the most significant by-election of the current Parliament, with the two Coalition partners set to go head to head in what is a genuine Lib Dem-Tory marginal.

And the smouldering anger among grassroots Tories over the gay marriage vote means they are certain to see it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations by giving the Lib Dems a damned good kicking.

I suspect that in an ideal world Mr Cameron would like to have been in a position to give the Lib Dems a clear run in Eastleigh in order to avoid such obvious unpleasantness.

He did, after all, allow Mr Huhne to be replaced as Energy Secretary in Cabinet by another Lib Dem, Ed Davey, so why not allow him to be similarly replaced in Parliament.

The situation is vaguely analogous to what happens in a football match when a player gets injured and play has to stop while he is treated on the pitch.

On such occasions, when play resumes the ball is automatically thrown back to the side originally in possession before the injury occurred.

Yet Mr Cameron is not in a position to make such apparently sporting gestures. His own backbenchers, and his grassroots activists, simply wouldn’t stand for it.

And even if the two parties did manage to reach a non-aggression pact, there would be no guarantee it would stop UKIP snatching the seat.

Mr Huhne’s downfall was, for Mr Cameron at any rate, one of those random occurrences which come under the category what Harold Macmillan famously termed “events, dear boy, events.”

The split in the Tory Party over gay marriage, however, was entirely preventable from his point of view.

Mr Cameron has forged ahead with a piece of legislation that was neither in his party’s manifesto nor in the Coalition agreement in the belief that it would make his party look modern and inclusive.

What it has actually done is reveal it to be bitterly divided from top to bottom – and divided parties, of course, never win elections.

Neither is it ever politically wise for a Prime Minister to put himself in a position where he is dependent on the votes of the opposition parties to get a crucial measure through the Commons.

Since Mr Cameron is fond of drawing such comparisons, it is worth recalling that this nearly happened to Tony Blair in the Iraq War debate in 2003 which saw 139 Labour MPs vote against the invasion.

Although it took another four years before he was eventually forced from office, the knives were out for him from that moment on.

If 18 March 2003 was the day Mr Blair lost his party, will 5 February 2013 go down as the day David Cameron lost his?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Council leaders should pay heed to Kinnock's warning

 Earlier this week I tuned in to an interesting radio discussion about whether, in the era of instant communication via text messaging, email and Twitter, set-piece political speeches still retained any relevance.

The discussion had been precipitated by perhaps the most long-awaited and over-hyped set-piece political speech of recent times – Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned address on Britain’s relationship with Europe.

The consensus was that, while such speeches still had their place, it helped if the politician concerned had something new and original to say – as for instance Margaret Thatcher did in her famous Bruges speech of 1988 when she set her face against a federal Europe.

In that respect, perhaps it was a good thing that Mr Cameron’s proposed speech ended up being postponed, given the expectation among commentators that it would say little to appease his increasingly Eurosceptic backbenchers.

But if Bruges was, for those on the right of politics, the setting for the seminal political speech of modern times, those of a Labour disposition tend to look to another town beginning with B – namely Bournemouth.

For that was where, in 1985, Neil Kinnock delivered the Labour conference address subsequently credited with launching the party on the long road to recovery after the wilderness years of the early 1980s.

The historical significance of the speech was that it marked the start of a fightback by Labour modernisers against a hard left faction which had rendered the party unelectable.

This process of internal renewal would eventually lead to the creation of New Labour and, electorally speaking at any rate, the most successful period in the party’s history.

But in an era in which a Conservative-led government is once again imposing spending cutbacks on Labour-run councils, could Mr Kinnock’s great speech have a new relevance for today?

What he was railing against in Bournemouth was the kind of gesture politics typified, not just by Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council, but by a host of other Labour authorities of the era who used budget cuts as a means of ratcheting up political pressure on the government.

The key sentence in the speech was Mr Kinnock’s warning – delivered in the face of a heckling Derek Hatton – that “you can’t play politics with people’s jobs, or with people’s homes, or with people’s services.”

And more than a quarter of a century on, it’s people’s services that are once again at stake in Newcastle, as the city council decides how to implement what it claims are the £90m worth of savings demanded by the Con-Lib coalition at Westminster.

Council leader Nick Forbes’ decision to target some of the cutbacks at libraries and the arts has caused deep and bitter controversy in the region, but is actually nothing new in the annals of Labour local authorities.

Whether consciously or otherwise, he has taken a leaf out of the book of David Bookbinder, the left-wing firebrand who led Derbyshire County Council at the same time as Mr Hatton was running Liverpool.

Faced with a similar set of cutbacks in the 1980s, Mr Bookbinder decided to take the axe to a series of libraries in Tory-voting middle-class areas as well as scrapping school music tuition.

But just as Derbyshire’s voters saw through his attempts to blame the government for the sorry situation, so Newcastle’s are increasingly beginning to question who is really to blame for the present-day cutbacks.

Save Newcastle Libraries campaigner Lee Hall has made clear his own view on the matter, accusing Councillor Forbes in a speech last week of wanting to “make a name for himself” and wanting “a platform to rail at the Coalition.”

“Instead of trying to protect our libraries, our enormously successful arts organisations, Forbes, for his own political aggrandisement, is trying to cut as much as possible,” he said.

David Bookbinder’s unique brand of showmanship made Derbyshire a great place to be a local government reporter in the 1980s, but ultimately his attempts to play politics with people’s services did Labour no favours in the county.

Perhaps Councillor Forbes, too, should now take heed of Mr Kinnock’s wise words of warning.