The Thick of It


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The end of the SDP?

It is bbvious that there are splits of opinion among Lib Dems. They have always been, in effect, two different parties with two very distinct ideologies. I can't see how ex-Labour Party and SDP members like Vince Cable can really stomach acting as puppets for an incredibly right wing Tory government.

If ministers wholeheartedly disagree with the government's programme and they don't feel that they can fairly argue their case within it, they should do the honourable thing and quit. Perhaps the SDP splitters should think about what happened in the early 1980s and come back to Labour.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are we in football manager territory?

Ed Miliband has not been Labour leader for very long. I spoke briefly on this morning's LBC breakfast show with Nick Ferrari about whether he is doing a good job or not. Is it too early to be making this kind of judgement?

Of course it is. It feels like we are applying football manager levels of scrutiny to our leaders. This is unrealistic but also reflects the political and media landscape today. Everyone is looking for an immediate response to feed the 24 hour news and Twittering demand.

John Reid said today that Ed needs to show some of his cards now. He is right but I get the feeling that Ed is devising his. plan and is taking a long term view and had picked those as the battles he wants to win.

He is now building a team and has appointed his spokesperson. I want to see Ed hit the ground running in 2011. The coalition have plenty of weaknesses that are ripe for exploitation.

Is it too early to judge? Yes, but those judgements are being made already. The time is ready to start running.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just what they would have wanted

Reading through the weekend's newspapers it struck me that the Tories are doing quite well out of this coalition. There have been mass protests against student fees, but the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg were the butt of that. Unpopular decision have not significantly affected their poll rating and neither has a new Labour leader. Yet they are driving through a programme of cuts and policies that they will long have dreamed of and are getting the Lib Dems to do their dirty work for them. Perfect?

There could be trouble around the corner with Ken Clarke's relaxing of criminal justice. The cuts will bite and people will lash back at the Tories I'm sure. The Tories are as guilty as the Lib Dems of breaking pre-election promises. David Cameron gave personal guarantees that Child Benefit wouldn't be cut and nobody ever suggested that VAT would go up, yet it has.

The mud hasn't stuck to the Tories, I bet they cant' believe their luck.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bother for Teather

Lib Dem education minister and former Islington councillor Sarah Teather will be lining up with her colleagues to vote for trebling of tuition fees tomorrow. That much was clear today when she refused to answer questions from Sky News about why she had changed her mind on fees. Like many Lib Dems she probably hasn't and like most Lib Dems hadn't thought there would be any consequences of any of their policies as they all knew they wouldn't  win the election - except Nick Clegg who still hides behind the claim that the policy only counted if they won.

The Lib Dems are being punished on this issue precisely because they made such play of being honest and offering a new politics and because this policy was used at the election to demonstrate this. They are being punished because it was this policy that garnered so many votes for them. They can't have it both ways.

This isn't about voters not understanding the art of compromise and coalition. People haven't forgotten that the Lib Dems specifically targeted the student vote to win university seats.

Teather might not like it but she and her colleagues have to live in their own mess. Her more than many because she chose to raise the issue of student fees in her maiden speech to parliament. She said: 

"tuition fees are serious issues of concern to my constituents. All the evidence suggests that fear of debt will deter those from lower income families and ethnic minority communities."

Finally, a reminder from her own website in 2008, courtesy of the Wayback machine:

Of course, just like the real Sarah Teather, and despite the issue being so "close to her heart", her current site makes no mention of tuition fees at all. If actions speak louder than words, tomorrow she and the rest of the Lib Dems get to show us what they really think.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Judge Lib Dem MPs on what they do, not what they say

I picked up a great letter in Exeter's Express and Echo reminding us all of the specific wording of the Lib Dems' tuition fees election pledge:

'I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.'

Abstention means they will still be breaking their promise as they pledged to vote against. As is rightly pointed out, the pledge doesn't specify that this is dependent on being in government - when even Lib Dem supporters have to admit there was zero chance of them being the largest party after the election. They pledged to vote against increased fees. Full stop. End of. 

For once the language of the Lib Dems was plain. They should be held to that. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

How many straws can a camel's back hold?

This week's tuition fees vote is the first big tests of the Lib Dems coalition strength. I don't expect any major casualties yet as Clegg's belief in himself and the coalition remains strong. Cracks are appearing underneath though with junior ministers looking set to quit the coalition this week. When you only have 57 MPs there isn't a great choice for the party when selecting for government jobs.

Michael Crockart looks set to be the first to go. More are likely to follow. When the coalition was first announced and Tories were just happy to be back in government and Lib Dems couldn't believe their luck I predicted that the biggest tests were then unknown. The coalition agreement could only plan for what the two parties knew would arise, not for the unknowns to come.

That Clegg is facing his first casualties from the "know" policy agenda should be a worry for him.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Tuition fees: what changed for Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems?

Nick Clegg has claimed the reason his party can't stick to their pre-election pledge to scrap tuition fees is that they didn't win the election. He is right, the Lib Dems lost seats. It is an insult to anyone with half a brain to suggest that the Lib Dems were ever likely to win the general election.

Reading the full transcript of Clegg's Independent on Sunday interview reveals him to be a fantasist presenting himself as a realist. If he really thinks that his party could have won the election he deserves to be given his own three hour Sunday evening television show. Everyone knows that Clegg had no chance of being the first election winning Liberal prime minister since Asquith in 1911.

If we all accept that Clegg was never going to win the election that should be discounted as a reason for not standing up for his party's most prominent election pledge in coalition. Clegg could feasibly argue that not winning the election 'changes' everything so much that his party have no policies at all. If that is so why bother voting for them?

Friday, December 03, 2010

Lib Dem credibility hits a new low

Just over six months ago Nick Clegg was basking in the glow of being publicly recognised for the first time after the televised leadership debates. In Islington his party had clung on to power since a knife edge election in 2006, controlling the council since 2000. How things have changed. Islington went Labour in a landslide result and Clegg faces revolt from his party after selling out to take part in a slash'n'burn Tory government. Golden boy Vince Cable can't even work out whether he supports his own policy of hiking tuition fees.

Not content with letting the Tories push through a severe programme of cuts to education funding nationally, in Islington the Lib Dems are up to their old scaremongering tricks (see leaflet, left). Their latest leaflet suggests that the local Labour council is planning to close a range of primary schools.  What is going on? I thought the Lib Dems were in charge of education now as part of a coalition with their Tory chums? Former Islington Lib Dem councillor Sarah Teather runs the education department with Michael Gove and Cable is pushing through the tripling of tuition fees.

Admittedly Islington Lib Dems have mis-spelt the name of "Hugerford" (sic) school so I can only presume that this latest campaign isn't serious. What I expect is the Lib Dems to "campaign" against the fictitious school closures and then claim victory in a few months when, miraculously, the schools don't close. That means at least two more leaflets.

Local councillors, like me, are perplexed at where these allegations have come from. Perhaps this list was written by another Lib Dem activist, just like when Kingston Lib Dem Dan Falchikov admitted he was behind the bogus claims that Kingston Hospital was going to close. Of course, Clegg was quick to jump on that bandwagon and have his photo taken "campaign" there.

Latest Voting IntentionHaving lived under a Lib Dem council in Richmond and then Islington for many years I've got used to their negativity. I've never got used to the cheek of it all though.

Lets not forget that elsewhere, Lib Dem leaflets are smelling the coffee and encouraging their former voters to go with Labour. At least the Lib Dems have managed to overtake "other" in the latest YouGov poll. There is at least some comfort for the wicked.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

No more mister nice guy

The Economist is there to make me feel guilty. Guilty that I don't read it often enough. Guilty that I'd feel a better person were I to read it regularly. I read it today and found two articles resonating with me. One speculating that the Lib Dems are losing their branding as the "nice guys" of British politics and the other suggesting that Labour needs "to find an updated, outline version of Tony Blair’s election-winning Labour philosophy, combining respect for markets with a belief in strong public services, but fitted to the no-money age."

An election is unlikely to take place until 2015 but the fault lines of party politics are shifting already. We have a coalition for the first time since the second world war. The Lib Dems are in power for the first time since the first world war. Labour is out of power for the first time this century.

Nick Clegg went into the election with a sky high reputation, suffered a poor election result but was rewarded with power. The "sacrifices" made to secure coalition already look like proving fatal for the Lib Dems. Sooner or later "ordinary voters start to think of the Lib Dems and the Tories as a sort of amorphous “coalition party”, if that happens Clegg will be the loser.

At the same time Labour have a huge opportunity. A gap is likely to appear which will need to be filled with only one party able to credibly oppose and argue against the coalition. The faster it works out how to do that the better or it may find that the fault lines have shifted yet further, requiring another reinvention.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lib Dems falling apart at the seams

Ever since propping up the Tories in government I've reported on the Lib Dems plummeting poll ratings and of an increasing number of splits in the party. The Lib Dem bird was flying high after Nick Clegg's first appearance in the pre-election leaders' debates but now appears to be cowering in a corner, waiting for the inevitable as the party falls apart from the seams.

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In their first six months in power since the first world war the Lib Dems have managed to record their worst opinion poll ratings in two decades, hovering around 10%, after their 23% saw them lose 10% of their seats at the last election.

We've had rumours that former leader Charles Kennedy will defect to Labour, councillors in Devon, BirminghamSheffield, six in Rochdale have quit the party and the leader of Liverpool Council Warren Bradley has warned that the party face being wiped out after giving in so weakly to Tory cuts.

Closer to (my) home in Islington, the Lib Dems were once running a 'council of the year' (awarded before they'd even been in power for a year) but were wiped out in May (after presiding over an unpopular cutting frenzy), even before their bigger brothers and sisters turned blue.

There are only 11 Lib Dem councillors left in Islington but even they are now at war with each other over student tuition fees. Highbury East's John Gilbert has excused his party's volte-face after a single issue election campaign to scrap tuition fees by claiming that they were duped into accepting almost every Tory policy in coalition government finances were worse than expected. At the same time one of Gilbert's colleagues, Hillrise councillor Greg Foxsmith hit out at Nick Clegg's lack of credibility following the tuition fees debacle:

"In fact, when you go into an election promising to be straight with people you have to honour that. It is going to be difficult for Mr Clegg, and those in the Coalition, to keep their credibility."

It will be almost impossible for Islington Lib Dems, like those across the country to keep faith with the party under such trying circumstances. I'm not surprised that so many have broken and split from their (old) party. I'm not sure how long committed councillors like Foxsmith will be able to keep faith when the party they joined no longer exists, much as he and many like him left Labour in the 1980s when it lost touch.

A year ago I took part in a Five Live debate with Mark Oaten entitled: "What is the point in the Lib Dems?" Growing up in South West London I used to think it was to provide a local alternative, strong in local government. This has now been undermined. Nick Clegg might not mind as he prepares to follow Ramsay MacDonald's footsteps and become a full-blown Tory.

How long before Islington Lib Dems are down to an even smaller rump than they already are? It seems only a matter of time before some of them follow the lead of their (former) counterparts across the country walk away while there is still the chance of some dignity.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Labour ahead again

After the Independent, YouGov/Sun both put Labour ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls recently, The Guardian's ICM poll has also given them a slender lead.

Aside from appearances at Prime Ministers question time we've seen very little of Ed Miliband as yet. That he finds himself in a slightly advantageous poll position could result from several factors. The first is that not having Gordon Brown in charge seems to make Labour more popular/less unpopular. Not being the Tories helps too.

Until Ed Miliband's reign begins to take shape in public - and it hasn't yet - the main story is the demise of the Lib Dems. This was widely predicted at the outset of the coalition and the prophecy of many is being borne out. The third party's support is now the lowest among under 24s, the same group that supported them most strongly at the election only a few months ago. The Lib Dems are paying the price for campaigning on a single issue, student tuition fees, then dropping their core pledge as soon as they gain any power. The party was clearly to the right of where many (mistakenly) thought they were, repeatedly banishing their left wing policies and of course electing a proto-Tory in Nick Clegg as their leader.

After yesterday's showcase interview with The Guardian I'm looking forward to Ed Miliband making further dents in the Tories position. His strategy seems to be to re-build in-party morale first before turning outwards to the Tories. Nothing sorts party morale out like taking control of the media agenda and kicking the unpopular Tories.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Labour sustain lead over Tories

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Labour lead over Tories holds

Labour has maintained its opinion poll lead over the Tories, despite doing very little of note as Ed Miliband gets his feet settled in under his desk.

Having spent several years helping my clients understand data about their reputation I can safely say that a graph showing an upward trend is definitely a good thing in this context.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What wins elections?

Is it enough to be an opposition to a disliked government to win elections? Of course not. Neither is it enough to complain but not to offer an alternative. Perhaps the least likely path to electoral success is by heading into ideological extremes. Whenever Labour or the Tories have been perceived as occupying the left or the right respectively, they have been rejected by voters. 

YouGov's Peter Kellner has argued that while politicians and parties need to be seen to be centrist to be accepted by the electorate there were other reasons that were more significant in seeing a change in government since 1945. Kellner's advice is that Ed Miliband should be careful where he positions himself: follow current public opinion and look weak - the perceived centre shifts over time; "give swing voters solid reasons to hope their lives will get better if you win. Then they will vote for you". The point is simple and echoes what I've said for some time - opposition isn't enough for Labour. Labour needs to be a credible alternative and needs to set out some specifics about what would be different in a Labour Britain to a Tory one. As Dan Hodges states: "There is protest. And there is power. Labour cannot be the party of both".

Labour must not just shout, it needs to show it can act, in the centre ground but sensibly, to show it understands what people want and how their lives will be better if they vote for the party.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday poll boost

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The latest YouGov poll puts Labour (again) ahead of the Tories. ComRes for The Independent also puts Labour ahead. the first time the party has been ahead in that poll since Gordon Brown took charge.

We could see a rise in cynicism over the next few years. The Lib Dems profited in the last decade by ypresenting themselves as the only party honest enough to say what people needed to hear on Iraq and student tuition fees. The wheels have fallen off very quickly once they have had a sniff of power. Much like my own experience of a Lib Dem council in Islington. If a party that made such sway of a single policy trashes it as soon as they get in government what hope does anyone have of believing politicians any more?

The NUS planning to campaign against all Lib Dem MPs. This week's protest showed that the youngsters haven't become cynical and do still care. I was warmed by that. It showed that the cuts won't be easy to implement.

The Tories are little better than their coalition partners. Cameron made much of cutting back on special advisers. He has done that but only by employing a raft of Conservative Central Office staffers in the civil service anyway. This isn't new politics, much more like old politics. It just got interesting again, just like the 1980s.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Student protests and fees

Today's student protests will gain far more attention than any the preceded it over the last ten years. The violence will see to that but I expect there to be a positive trade-off from this - that alongside reports of the unrest will be an analysis of the issues involved. That hasn't happened as much as it should, I just hope the real issues are not over shadowed. 
Those pushing the changes through in the coalition didn't have to pay for their own education, though many did through pri. What worries me most about this is that charging students even more will cause further social problems with a long time lag. These issues were not addressed by the Browne review. At the moment most graduates spend most of their 20s paying off their loans. When fees double or treble this will take people almost half way through their working life before they pay it all off well into their 40s in some cases. As a result many graduates won't save for a pension or to buy a house. I fear the hike in tuition fees will have far greater implications than may of those waving the legislation through have even considered. 

With an ageing population which already saves too little for retirement and with first time buyers priced out because they can't save big enough deposits is heaping even more debt onto them really a good idea? I don't expect the coalition to u-turn, Tories never do. 

The d√©nouement will take some time. The first effect is likely to be that the Lib Dems who campaigned so hard for the student vote will lose many of their university seats such as Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg's seat; Manchester Withington, John Leech, held by only 4%; and those in Bristol, Cambridge and Leeds. That reckoning will come in five years. The rest will wait, but could be serious.

Lies, lies and leaflets

The Phil Woolas furore reminded me that many election campaigns probably sail close to the wind but nothing gets done as the result isn't as close as his. First let me say that he was wrong to use the statements he did. All the same he is entitled to a full legal process before the world sweeps him away.

It wasn't that long ago that Elwyn Watkins' own Lib Dem party were forced to pay my neighbouring MP Emily Thornberry four figure compensation for making false claims in leaflets about her attendance in Parliament. That seems to have escaped many people.

Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes also profited from a slanderous by-election campaign in 1983 when there were unsavoury and homophobic attacks on Labour candidate Peter Tatchell. The Guardian thought there was an "insistent level of vilification which infected the campaign." Hughes has held the seat ever since. 

What about Tory Peter Griffiths who in 1964 asked voters "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"?

Phil Woolas is the first in 100 years to have been taken to task in this way but I do feel that if these rules were applied more strictly that there would have been others. Woolas was wrong and I hope we have moved on from 1964 and 1983, but the other examples are a fruit for thought.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Phil Woolas and smears

Today's judgement that Phil Woolas fought a campaign including "lies and smears" at the 2010 general election demonstrates just how careful candidates must be. I campaigned in Oldham East and Saddleworth in the 2001 election for Woolas and saw then how emotions in a perennially marginal seat ran high. Relations between Labour and the Lib Dems were at absolute zero while racial tensions following rioting meant the constituency was littered with bitterness. Then much of the blame was laid at the hands of the council with some in my party blaming those in yellow of aiding the malaise and being indirectly responsible for Oldham's troubles. 

I'm not surprised it came to this after years of tensions in the area. I had always felt that Woolas had done a good job in tough circumstances. Now though I'm incredibly disappointed that Labour's name might be put to anything that could end up being described as nasty as this.

What happens now? Any one of the three main parties could win the seat. A backlash against Labour is possible but not automatic. The Lib Dems have been second there for several elections but are hitting rock bottom in the polls. The Tories haven't held the seat for fifteen years but could be in with a shout. The constituency is an odd mix of traditional Labour working class terraced housing and much wealthier country homes. If Labour loses the re-run it would be a dreadful shame for the party and activists who worked so hard to keep it Labour, but not a surprise after this.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Labour poll position holds, Lib Dems nosediving

YouGov today put both Labour and Tories equal on 40%. Before Ed Miliband has really started to forge his own path and identity this shows there is great potential for surging into a healthy lead as the Tory cuts take hold. For this to happen Labour quickly needs to agree policy positions and media messages to clearly communicate the optimistic, positive alternative

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Lib Dems would only get 11 MPs at this rate. Whenever there is a negative announcement it is always made by a Lib Dem or a Tory and a Lib Dem. Anything the Tories are confident they won't take heat for they announce alone. The continuing poll bashing the Lib Dems are taking shows that the Tory strategy of making their coalition partners take the hit for unpopular decisions is working. At this rate the Lib Dems would even lose seats if we had full proportional representation.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tube strike London

Today London has been hit by a tube strike. I'm currently trying to keep my evening appointment. So far this has led me to walking away empty handed from Old Street, my station, as the underground that TfL said was working,wasn't. I walked to Farringdon, took a train to Blackfriars and then a boat to Embankment.

The reason for all this? Most people don't realise or care as they just want to get home. Tory mayor Boris Johnson plans to cut the number of staff on the network.

Employees have the right to strike by law just as ordinary Londoners have the right to complain about the disruption. As mayor Boris has a duty to negotiate with the unions to avoid this. He came to power pledging to ban strikes - ridiculous and illegal. He could do something far less radical and far more achievable - agree a deal.  Londoners and London's economy could do with a mayor who gets things done rather than spouts empty rhetoric.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Labour in the lead

Today's ComRes poll for The Independent shows Labour in the lead over the Tories. While this makes me happy it doesn't mean a thing as there won't be another election for almost five years. What it shows is that before he has even done anything, Ed Miliband has a great opportunity. Post-Brown people are obviously liking Labour just that little bit more. Clear and consistent positive messaging from Labour can help to consolidate this.

Interesting nuggets from the research show that only 60% of those who voted Lib Dem only six months ago would do so again. 27% of them would now vote Labour. Labour are equal with the Tories among men but ahead among women. I want to see much more of Yvette Cooper to see that lead maintained.

The real test for the coalition will come when cuts start to bite. The same polling company is running a weekly survey for ITV about the cuts specifically. Very few services or benefits have yet been taken away from people. As that happens Labour's lead must grow for it to take advantage in 2015...a long way off.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Opposition is still not enough

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Just opposing the Tories' cuts won't be enough to propel Ed Miliband into Downing Street. Not being the Tories is helping slightly and not being Gordon Brown is too. Current opinion polls show Labour and Tories neck and neck with the Lib Dems dropping to pre-1997 levels. The government's approval rating is already negative demonstrating that perhaps 2010 was a good election to lose.

YouGov put both Labour and Tories on 40% each and Populous gives Labour a slight lead. If Labour's top team, and it has to be a team effort, can get the right messages across the Tories' popularity is likely to slide as their cuts come into force, and Labour's should increase.

The key for Labour is to get the right messages. It isn't enough to simply shout about the unfairness of cuts. Labour has to make it clear why the deficit exists and also what it would do about it. Doing things differently is important because many have pointed out that the spending review takes UK public spending "back" to the same levels as in 2006. We were fine in 2006 weren't we? It all depends. At the end of this four year cycle Britain's public spending might be at the 41% of GDP it was in 2006 but we won't be living in the same country any more. The spending review takes very different slices out of the cake than those that were added between 2006 and 2010.

Treasury advisor Colin Talbot points out that 41% of GDP is still 2% below the post-war average. We're looking at a Tory government that is becoming obsessed with the level of GDP spent by government. Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to cut it to below 40% and Cameron is aiming at the same target by planning to cut further after 2015.

Talbot argues: "Shrinking the size of the state is a perfectly legitimate policy aim – but it is not one anyone voted for at the last election because none of the three main parties put it forward". 

The politics has to be right, the messages have to be consistent and well targeted. Opposition alone isn't sufficient.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What it all means

The political and economic impact of yesterday's spending review are huge. Politically Labour is rightly trying to tread a careful path between accepting that some cuts were needed and proposing a realistic alternative. The economics can be laid out in tables and charts though the real impact won't be felt for another two years.

Politically Labour's response was encouraging. Alan Johnson contrasted with Osborne's tone and set out a viable alternative. This is based on believing Keynesian economics instead of the fiscal orthodoxy presented by the Tories. Protecting employment is the best means to protect and encourage growth. The Tory plan to lose half a million public sector workers is likely to lead to more lay offs in the private sector as many firms (like my own) rely on government contracts. Redundancies will increase the welfare bill, not cut it. I hope that Osborne's optimism that the private sector will automatically fill the gap created by the cuts will prove me wrong.

Economically the poorest will have to dig deepest as a result of Gideon Osborne's spending review yesterday. The government's own figures (page 98) show that the bottom 10% will lose a higher percentage of their income after yesterday's changes come into force. The spending review, shown in green, takes the most from those at the poorest end of the scale.

The spending review puts growth in doubt. When business and individuals are not confident about the future they spend less. Less spending and investment threatens growth. This sort of response to fiscal crisis has in the past deepened recessions, not made it easier.

I'm reminded of the 1997 Tory slogan: "yes it hurt, yes it worked." Then as now the Tories are ideologically opposed to the state investment Labour made. They want a smaller state as much now as they did in the 1930s, 1980s or 1990s. The Tories spouted the mantra of change at the election. They were right to, because they will change the social fabric of the country, but they haven't changed at all. This will certainly hurt. I'm not sure it will work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Opposition is not enough

I wrote on Monday that it will be insufficient for Labour simply to oppose everything the Tories do. The 1980s showed that not being the Tories just wasn't enough to put Labour into power when Labour wasn't attractive to voters in itself.

A Politics Home survey of "informed political opinion" (yes, I did take part) released today bolsters this view. Asked what Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson should do in response to today's spending review, 60% stated that Labour should focus on providing alternatives, including cuts, to show how they would do things differently. Only 35% thought Labour should focus on the pain the cuts will cause. "Simply bashing the government for cutting spending will not work for Labour."

Notably Labour "insiders" were split almost 50-50 on which course of action to take. Those identifying with other parties much more forthright. This just highlights that a core-vote strategy won't work. Labour needs to persuade those who voted Tory and Lib Dem who feel let down and will be let down by this spending review and in the next four years. Their views are clear. I await Ed and Alan's response eagerly.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How companies and politicians are using social media

When I'm not writing this I'm working at Metrica, where I write for the Measurement Matters blog. I write a weekly column Tim's week in social media where I highlight the most eye-catching developments in social media in the last week. 

My work involves helping companies understand the impact social media is having on them and helping them to work out what to do about it. Yesterday the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones presented a short piece about this - in general, not about me - watch the short film below.

The lessons for politics should be obvious. Politicians and political parties have a brand image to protect and need to engage in the same way that the most forward thinking companies are with social media. In the past it was enough to talk at your target audience or voters but not necessary to engage with them. The benefits are the same: the more people are engaged with you and receive a positive response the more popular you are likely to be. You should not need to write a letter to your local representative or meet them at a surgery if you need help. Social media should make it easier.

Much has been made of Obama's use of social media to recruit and activate a huge volunteer base. Less has been said of politicians that use social media to engage their voters with their work ongoing. 

Mashable's account of how US politicians are benefiting from social media shows that by opening themselves up to feedback has added a human touch to communication and allows more of their constituents to communicate with them. It allows more people to see more from their representative and to communicate directly with them. Social media is creating a wider community around both brands and politicians that embrace it.  

Blogminster appraises the web presence if the UK's 645 MPs. This shows that there is a lot going on in the UK among politicians already. The best are taking part in conversations with the wider community while many more blog as another means of telling people what they think. 

Like any channel of communication social media is only worth engaging with if you have something useful to say and defined objectives. For the sake of it or because others are doing it doesn't count. Most politicians are missing out on an opportunity to speak directly with more of their constituents than they will ever reach by knocking on doors. 

Others like Vince Cable just look silly. "He" ran a Twitter account for the election, which he hasn't taken down. In a raft of posts he criticises his future Tory masters, including the gem about his current boss: "Osborne is totally out of his depth.

What goes online stays online. Cable shows that you need to understand what you are doing otherwise you'd be better off leaving social media alone. Poor old Vince. It wasn't meant to be like this. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is it enough to not be the Tories?

This week's spending review is likely to unleash a nasty raft of cuts to government spending. The real effects of this will be felt over the next two to three years as services are gradually withdrawn. The mirror with Geoffrey Howe's deeply unpopular budget of 1981. Despite tax increases and public spending cuts being incredibly unpopular Labour failed to benefit because it wasn't focused on offering a feasible and credible alternative. What makes George Osbourne's spending cuts any different from those of Howe almost 20 years prior? Will an unpopular Tory government automatically propel Labour back into power in five years?

There are many arguments against the Tory plans:

  • Osbourne's plans will hurt and I don't expect the cuts to be "fair". The botched cuts to child benefit recently announced show that many of the plans will be ill thought out. 
  • The cuts are too hard and too fast not just from the Labour Party. This is my view. Taking so much money out of the economy will stall growth. It is also short-sighted to suggest that £1 spent by the government is £1 gone from the coffers. Much of that £1 will come back in VAT, corporation and income taxes. That won't happen now. Instead the economy will shrink, meaning recovery will become recession.
  • The state's finances are not worse than expected. It is disingenuous of ministers like Vince Cable to claim that the current government finances are worse than expected. The state of the public finances are public and widely known. He is simply playing the fall guy for cuts and policies, such as tuition fees, that the Tories wanted to put in place anyway.
  • The political problem for Labour is that the cuts will be blamed on the poor state of the nation's finances, which is Labour's fault, according to the Tories. That narrative will ignore the huge investment made to recapitalise the banks and in public spending to keep the economy going. Labour needs to respond that this was unavoidable. 
Significant though these are, none of these counter claims are sufficient for Labour to benefit from the Tories' unpopularity alone. Current polls show Labour edging into a small lead. To build on and sustain this, Labour needs to present a viable and credible alternative.  With a new leader that may take time, but having a leader at all is progress from the previous five months of an "empty chair." The quicker Ed Miliband can start setting out his alternative plan the better.

What does a credible alternative plan look like? It needs to show that both the deficit and growth are important. Cutting the deficit so fast could be a zero sum game, cancelling out growth that will itself increase tax receipts and reduce the deficit.

Labour's plan has to, and will, accept that the deficit needs to be tackled. It also needs to show that the better off would pay more than those in the middle and at the bottom. It needs to be fair and sensible.

If Labour's response is good enough perhaps David Cameron will start looking for a "popularity" war like the Falklands...oh, we can't afford one.

Friday, October 01, 2010

A loss to politics

Like many I am disappointed that David Miliband has relegated himself to the backbenches. I mentioned before his decision was announced that many politicians before him have been defeated in leadership contest then gone on to serve under their conqueror.

In the 1980s Denis Healy lost the Labour leadership election to Michael Foot but became his deputy. Kenneth Clarke lost the Tory contest three times, yet didn't shy away from the front line. In today's Telegraph Peter Oborne argues that there is more vanity in politics today than back in the day. He is partially right. I think the party and cause matters more than anything else.

Perhaps the family dimension makes this case different. I hoped that a commitment to the Labour cause would have won through. The media might get tired of the soap opera allowing MiliD a path back in the future under his brother - also for former leading light James Purnell.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Labour: a family party. Part two (of many?)

As David Miliband prepares to tell the world what he plans to do after losing out to his brother, Ed, in the Labour leadership contest there are a plethora of views about the benefits to the party of him staying or not. 

What is clear after David yesterday rebuked Harriet Harman for applauding Ed's denouncement of the Iraq war (she voted for the war remember) is that were he to hang around he would likely be a focus for the media, keen to spot any division and dissent. Blair versus Brown becomes The Miliband Brothers. The Times ran a poll yesterday suggesting that more people in the country feel that David has leadership qualities than Ed. This reminded me of the poll before the 1992 election that showed voters preferred John Smith to Neil Kinnock. We could do without these distractions. 

The key question is whether Labour can do without its (arguably) biggest hitter on the front bench? I'd argue not as does Mary Riddell, among others; though David himself and many others disagree. If he did stay there would need to be some convincing rubbishing of any split between the Milibands. How to do that? Ed can show that he wants to lead a strong team and to give his brother the profile and portfolio he deserves. The media might continue to show up the differences between the two but Ed can counter that by being a strong leader. This wouldn't be the first and won't be the last time that a heavy hitter has been beaten to a party leadership but has carried on in a significant post. That is what politics is all about. 

And so to Ed. What should he do? He would do well to heed Alistair Darling's advice on tackling the deficit. Darling as Chancellor took the deficit seriously, he wanted to go further than Brown to tackle it, but in order to protect the fragile recovery, understands that the Tories are going too far, too fast. Ed Miliband says he wants to move on from New Labour but he should heed to key lesson of the Blair/Brown years: that to win an election Labour must occupy the centre ground. 

Ed's first leader's speech yesterday shows that he can forge his own agenda. Having overcome the formidable barrier of his brother and the party he now needs to start talking language that will appeal to the country. The early signs are encouraging. His brother is feared by the Tories because he most closely resembled David Cameron but would have faced a divided party from his proximity to Blair. Ed will be more likely to take Labour to the centre ground precisely because of his distance from Blair/Brown which will mean he will lead a united party.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ed Miliband's opportunity

One of Ed Miliband's undoubted strengths is that he isn't as closely associated by the public with the Blair-Brown years as his brother or Ed Balls. He worked closely with Gordon Brown for a number of years but is seen as a "new man" and his focus on a "new generation" leading Labour is right. He needs to draw a careful line under the previous regime(s) in today's conference speech.

Ed Miliband also needs to be very careful. Several times during the hustings for the leadership other candidates Ed Balls and Andy Burnham were forthright in criticising other candidates for "rubbishing the record" of Labour in government. Miliband needs to tread a careful path between presenting a vision for the future but not trashing New Labour's achievements. If he goes too far in criticising the past I fear he will give credibility to Tory attacks that Labour's years in government were a failure. If that narrative wins then it will be very difficult for him to claw Labour back into power.

He has a tremendous opportunity demonstrated by today's YouGov poll showing that Labour has overtaken the Tories in opinion polls for the first time in over two years. His speech needs to win more gruond on the Tories to ensure that his lead isn't gobbled up by the Tory conference next week. The perfect start? We'll wait and see...

Monday, September 27, 2010

A family party?

David Miliband's speech to Labour Party conference today was excellent and showed why his brother needs him. Ed needs to build a strong team and to let that team share the limelight. Gordon Brown would have been better off letting others take more of the media spotlight and Ed would do well to learn from that mistake, starting with his brother.

It is also vital for Labour that David doesn't become a spurned thorn in his brother's side. Labour doesn't need a replay of the rivalry and bitterness the beset Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Playing a central role might be difficult for David to stomach right now. The party needs him. He can still be a star. His family could also do with staying united I'm sure.

If David walks away that would be understandable but would make life very difficult for Ed. It would keep the story of the 'wrong' Miliband running in the background.

I expect David to stay on and show us all that we haven't missed out on much at all after this weekend's knife-edge vote.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband beat his brother by the narrowest of margins. If you read the early comments of some this means that Labour is lurching to the left with "Red Ed" at the vanguard. I admit that I didn't vote for him as I felt David might present himself better to the media and to the country. I would have been happy had any other candidates won with the exception of Diane Abbott. Interestingly he is Labour's first English born full time leader since Michael Foot.

I watched the new leader's interview with Andrew Marr this morning and was impressed. He came across better than many have given him credit for and also showed that he understands the pressures faced by many in the country. He also has decent credentials and will contrast sharply with David Cameron, whose actions in government are likely to be unpopular. Perhaps the Tories should stop gloating and take him seriously. To have got this far and beaten the favourite shows that this he is no fluke.

What is clear is that Ed will face questions unlikely to have been asked of his brother, had the result been slightly different. Gaining victory through the trade union section was unfortunate, making it easy for detractors to claim that he is some sort of 1970s Jack Jones. Ed was right to point out that he was voted for my more individuals than any other candidate. The union block vote was abolished almost 20 years ago.

Ed also has as much experience as Tony Blair or David Cameron did when taking their respective leaderships. What he now needs to do is show that he can talk centre-ground policy to ensure that he broadens Labour's appeal. I hope this starts immediately, with Tuesday's leader's speech to conference. He had the guts to talk about Labour's lost votes repeatedly during his leadership campaign. I hope this conference shows he knows where to find them.

The early signs are that he does. He chose to begin his leadership by writing for the Sunday Telegraph, with a hostile Tory audience. He used that article to stake a claim for the centre of British politics, the right move. I'm impressed and suprised by him so far, though he will face a hostile media and will need to convince many more people than just myself to make a difference.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

This blog is going on holiday

I'm off to catch some sun in Cyprus for a couple of weeks. In between watching turtles hatching, seeing wild donkeys and former Leyton Orient 'legend' Jason Demetriou play I'll try to keep up to date with Labour politics. I can't promise though.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Blair book breaks records in first week

Tony Blair's A Journey sold almost 100,000 copies in its first week making it one of the fastest selling autobiographies since records began.

Over £1.2m was spent on the book in four days, the profits of which Blair is donating to an army charity. The Bookseller reports that four pence of every pound spent in UK bookshops last week went on his book. I have mentioned before that this book has brought Blair back into the public eye and shows what a big drawer he still is. I'm currently reading both his and Peter Mandelson's books and shows that the doubters were wrong to suggest his book wouldn't be of interest.

Whatever your view on Blair, the British public seemingly still haven't had enough of Tony.

My Labour Party ballot papers have finally arrived

Just two days before I am off on holiday my Labour Party ballot payers have finally arrived.

I joined Labour in 1996. This is the first time in those 14 years that I will have voted for the leader. I'm looking forward to it. I will also be voting for the London mayoral candidate,NEC and NPF.

If you are not a Labour member you have today and tomorrow to join at a very cheap rate and will get to cast your vote. Go to This is the chance for all those who have commented from outside the party to influence it by taking part. I heartedly encourage you.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Tony Blair's Richard Bacon interview

I've been following the media reaction to the launch of Tony Blair's book with interest and some incredulity. According to today's Telegraph the "revelations" in his book have caused a "war" in the Labour Party. I'm sure the Telegraph would like there to be a war, though I've not seen any evidence of it (this story is no longer on the Telegraph site otherwise I'd link to it).

Blair is still big news and the book has been selling fast. I'm looking forward to receiving my own copy shortly. Not because I expect to learn anything new from it, most of the highlights have been heavily covered in the media already or have appeared in other books, such as those by Andrew Rawnsley, Chris Mullin and Peter Mandelson. I'm looking forward to understanding more about Blair and to remind myself, for sentimental reasons, what Labour in power achieved.

I listened to his interview today with Five Live's Richard Bacon. The focus was predictable: Iraq, Northern Ireland and Gordon Brown. On Iraq Blair expressed a human regret for the bloodshed but stood by his decision to go to war. Nobody could expect anything else. He also reminded us of how dreadful Iraq was when Saddam was in power. That is often overlooked in the revisionist analysis of the chaos in the aftermath. Listening also took me back to 9-11 and 7-7. When thinking about Afghanistan is is also often forgotten about the context and terrifying events that led to that war. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly Blair's biggest and most lasting achievement domestically. Iraq often buries it as the focus of this interview showed.

Much of the media coverage has focused on Gordon Brown. Today Blair said:

  • "Gordon could be extremely difficult"
  • "He was also somebody who made an enormous contribution to government" 
  • "He is also brilliant" 
  • "His personality is out of line with 21st century politics" 

The media has focused on the negatives, but in the book and in his interviews Blair should be credited for admitting his troubles on working with Brown but also for painting a balanced picture. He was careful to meet every negative with a positive.

What I thought was very telling and quite revealing was that he strongly felt that Brown and his team didn't have the right answers to govern. He said to Bacon that he had no problem with people who think their plans are the right thing for the country to seek power. He had a problem with these ideas in the first place. I find that a little harsh because to suggest that Brown added nothing of value when PM would be wrong. The criticism that there was no clear agenda for reforming public services is valid.

Rather than focus on the negatives, which should be left to the media to fight over, Labour needs to remember how much progress was made with Blair as leader. While it is wrong to apply the same tactics and arguments that were successful in 1997 to 2010, it would also be wrong to forget what worked too. Listening to Blair and reading his book should provide support and guidance. He shouldn't be forgotten.

What does this mean for his legacy? It should serve as a reminder, as Alistair Campbell said today far better than I ever could:

How do you think that history will judge him? More kindly than most of the commentary in the UK. He was a winner, serving longer in office than any Labour leader by far … he presided over a decade of growth and prosperity, turned round investment in public services, got crime down, delivered on a major programme of devolution, the minimum wage … I could go on and on … and whilst many people like to pretend Iraq is his only legacy, don’t forget Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the leadership he showed after 9/11, Northern Ireland. He was without doubt one of the major reforming Prime Ministers in our history.