The Thick of It


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mandelson meddling again?

Peter Mandelson's speech to Progress yesterday was a predictable, right and honest appraisal of the Labour Party's current predicament.

It isn't news that Labour needs to make a bigger impact on voters after a natural period of reflection following defeat a year ago. It isn't news that Labour is skint either, but how exactly the party is going to fund itself is a rather large, unaswered question. At the moment the reliance on trade union funding is stark and quite worrying. A return to the days of big business donations is also unlikely as a party of opposition is far less attractive a proposition.

His lesson is that what Labour learnt in the 1980s and 1990s - that it must focus on appealing to voters first and last is as true today. That is why the real lesson of New Labour, which is about having an honest centre left appeal to people that is based on an understanding of what people actually want, stands as true today as it did in 1994.

Personalities may change but the principle should remain exactly the same. 

Changes do need to be made to the wording. Party structure and policies need to change to reflect that we are not in 1994, 1997 or 2005 any more. The game has changed and will have done so further after at least five years of Tory destruction. The relationship between state and individual will be completely different in 2015 to the one Labour left behind.

As Ed Miliband said in one of his first speeches as leader, we need to be the optimists. Labour need to show the country that we can improve public services and offer better value for money. We also need to stand up for services that improve people's lives, protect the environment, enhance opportunity and create opportunities for business. The Tories are pessimists who don't believe it is even worth trying to achieve many of these goals. Labour needs to show that things can be different.

Mandelson's speech demonstrates there is a lot of work to be done to get Labour into a winning position again. He also shows that by sticking to the principles that made the party so successful not that long ago, it doesn't have to be that difficult.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A poor week for all the parties

It is popular to remark that the Tories are undergoing a series of policy and political retreats. It is also popular to opine that this is a result of the Lib Dems restreating to their lefty safe territory after their local election wipe out.

Some of this is true. We wouldn't have had the NHS reform listening exercise or the changes to the programme if there wasn't something different about it. The real difference isn't in the policy changes that may or may not happen, I expect wholesale changes to the NHS to happen anyway.

What this all demonstrates is that the Tories feel politically weak. They are allowing both the Lib Dems and the risk of unpopularity with the electorate to force their hand. The Tories should feel stronger than they do because even if the Lib Dems want to flex their muscles, they too are week and facing oblivion.

The Tories know that the NHS is an historic weakness. People don't trust them with it so they can't take the risk losing whatever credibility they have with the health service. This also demonstrates political naiivity. Properly researched and planned before being announced, these changes could have met the needs of the health service in the first place and avoided talk of u-turns and retreats. This suggests that in the quest for taking power the coalition partners didn't work their way through all the detail. If the Lib Dems really were so opposed to all of this why didn't they say so when they had real power - at the coalition negoatiation phase.

This will be presented as a Lib Dem victory. The danger is that this will appeal to some of the Lib Dems lost voters but will further antagonise their coalition partners and masters, the Tories.

Nick Clegg needs to be very careful, while Cameron has more political strength than he realises. Ed Miliband should do everything to exploit a Clegg clinging on for life and a Cameron who is weak and reactiving the poltical environment rather than shaping it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Where now for Ed?

It is too early to properly judge Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party after only eight months. He still has time to prove his doubters wrong because there won’t be another general election for four years. Unfortunately the minds of many in the party and media have already been made up. Ed was on the back foot from the moment he was elected. First he had to defend himself from the “Red Ed” tags and has since been fending off a succession of polls that show he hasn’t yet convinced voters to back him.

Given that he hasn’t made the most convincing start but still has time, how can Ed show people he really is leadership material? He needs to have a plan for the country and needs to communicate that. His vision must be clear and show that he understands that the country doesn’t want a lurch to the left but does want Labour to offer them protection against the rising cost of living and understands their concerns about crime and immigration. 

The plan needs to come quickly to enable Ed to gain positive momentum in time for party conference in September. He has to convince a sceptical party he can get them back into government. Will he? I hope so, though that depends on whether he gives himself the chance. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Does the Archbishop of Canterbury really matter?

There has been a lot of brouhaha about the Archbishop of Canterbury's political comments today. It has been the leading story on most news sites. Does this mean anything and does it show that the Church of England is still important socially and politically?

I don't think it does. I think the level of news space given to Rowan Williams' comments owes everything to the media desire to open up a political debate rather than the status of the church. Clearly the church has some status, otherwise Williams' comments would have passed us all by and they didn't.
Williams' comments have held the government to account to some extent. First Vince Cable and now David Cameron have defended their government's record.

I remember the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie criticising Margaret Thatcher’s (lack of ) social policy in the late 1980s. Then as now it will do nothing unless the attack resonates with enough ordinary people to create political change. If the church really had status it could do that. As much as I agree with Williams, I don't expect that to happen.

The church getting involved in politics reminds me of Prince Charles commenting on modern architecture. It triggers a debate but a few days later everyone settles down again and forgets all about it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Can Ed Miliband succeed where Tony Blair failed?

The Labour Party has surveyed voters' views as part of the major policy review. This has shown that voters want Labour to be strong on immigration, protect British interests first in Europe and international affairs, propose welfare reform and be tough on crime. This sounds remarkably like Tony Blair's rights and responsibilities policy agenda. It should surprise nobody.

This is no surprise because the country moved to the right at the last election. These are issues that are typically hard for Labour to campaign on as the party finds it easier to talk about subjects that matter to lefties. These leftie issues are unlikely to be enough to win Labour an election. However, these are the bread and butter working class issues and Ed Miliband needs to seize control of this agenda.
The Labour survey also showed that voters want the party to be tough on bankers and to soften the market. This is Miliband's natural territory. I don't think he'll find it easy to be talking about crime and immigration but it is an absolute must. That he hasn't yet can in part explain Labour's failure to secure first place in the English local elections.
Miliband's challenge is the tough, classic one faced by all Labour leaders. Talk tough on crime and immigration and lose support of the party and win votes, or do the opposite. If he can find a happy equilibrium he will strike gold.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

NHS reform will press ahead

After being criticised by GPs, doctors, nurses, trade unions, the lap-dog Lib-Dems and Labour, David Cameron today unveiled sweeping changes to NHS reforms. Is this a significant political moment as it shows that the coalition isn't quite steaming ahead with its agenda as it would have liked?

I'm not sure the changes are as big as Cameron makes out. The fundamental changes to the NHS will still happen, even if a bit later than planned. GPs will still take over the commissioning of services from primary care trusts. Greater competition will still take place with private sector providers. I accept that the plans have been watered down but the fundamentals remain.
The reform process is ill thought out and suggests a dogmatic wish to return to the John Major days of GP fund-holding. I don't really understand on what basis the Tories decided that GP commissioning would be the answer to the NHS ills. There is no reason at all for this form of service delivery to be more efficient. On the contrary, spending swathes of scarce cash on a major reorganisation at a time when funds are so scarce seems completely foolhardy. For a Tory party that is so bent on cutting public spending to do this now shows how committed they are to the changes and demonstrates an ideological commitment to them.
The delays and changes show how hard Cameron is finding it to run his party and get his legislation through. I expect him to overcome these obstacles and press ahead with an unnecessary and costly reorganisation of the NHS just when it needed it least.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

What has Boris Johnson actually achieved?

Mayor Boris Johnson is in campaign mode and is wasting no time in telling us all about his achievements. Unfortunately his "achievements" are not that at all, as has been widely pointed out.

BJ is claiming credit for Crossrail, the tube upgrade and obviously the cycle hire scheme. All of these schemes were under way well before his election in 2008. He also claims credit for the Olympic park, again something that has been finished while he has been in power but was secured by the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone.

As the race for London (mayor) 2012 hots up I wonder how many more half truths BJ will be peddling? Quite why he tries to cling on to power so hard when he does nothing with it is beyond me. It all seems quite pointless, much like his mayoralty.