The Thick of It


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ed Miliband: evolution not revolution

Ed Miliband's conference speech this week didn't represent a breakthrough moment. It shows that he is a leader who has growing potential but he isn't a galactico.

Opinion on both the quality of his speech, its content and plans differ. I noted that many of those who were at the conference we much more impressed than those outside. Of course, many at the conference work closely with Ed and are therefore more likely to agree with him. They often ignored the wooden and unglitzy delivery of the speech. They focused instead on what Ed had to say. Ed, rightly, emphasised at a question and answer session yesterday that he cares more about substance than style. Ultimately that is all that will matter if he gets into power. To reach that point though his delivery and public demeanor will need to continue improving so that voters, people who will never meet him one to one, get to see a bit of the Ed that all those who do meet him know. He cares, gets "it" and is highly personable, much more than his brother. Between them they'd make a perfect leader.

Many of those outside the conference centre and his opponents in the right wing media have kept the question marks up against Ed's leadership. As a result, for the second year running Ed was forced to spend the day after his set piece speech defending himself to the media. Last year it was against the "Red Ed" tags and this year it was stating that he is not anti-business. This is disappointing because it would have been better to have got it right first time and to have planned for the backlash and addressed this directly in the speech.

The content of Ed's speech saw him focus on his values. They are ones that most people will easily be able to identify with, though I'm not sure he can present himself as an "outsider" when he has hardly come from a difficult background. His speech and question and answer session yesterday show that he does understand the key issues voters worry about. His answers also showed someone who knows politically where he needs Labour to fight: against the Tories and for Tory votes, in the centre and not on the left of the political spectrum.

I hope this speech represents the first steps in the right direction for a four to five year journey to a commanding poll lead and election victory. As a leader of potential rather than as a ready made star I don't yet know if that will happen. I hope it does.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More racist Tories

Last week's round up of recent racist Tory comments was I admit, a bit of a cheap shot. There wasn't anything new. This week we have some new content to report. Whoops. Two weeks was obviously too long before it happened again.

The Scottish Herald reported that the editor of a Scottish Conservative site, Stewart Green, had to apologise after making allegedly racist remarks on the Tory Hoose blog, reportedly a Scottish version of Conservative Home. 

An example of Green's tasteless tweets included: 

 “An Asian festival is taking place a few doors up, either that or several cats are being strangled. Can’t quite decide which.”

Why is the Tory party home to such disgusting people?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#Lab 11 Ed Miliband's speech

Four years from an election the polls don't really matter but they do consistently show that Ed Miliband's leadership is yet to make a breakthrough. In today's speech Labour supporters like me were looking for a breakthrough from Ed. 

Winning back voters trust is central to Labour winning again. Miliband was calm and clear, his delivery has improved and he shows that he understands the issues that worry most ordinary people at the moment. There was a great deal from Ed about what is wrong in Britain at the moment. He cited the likes of Fred Goodwin of RBS as the wrong face of Britain. 

A new bargain for our economy, the something for something deal. "Producers versus predators". Suggested changing tax and regulation of the economy. A system that incentivises those that produce sounds great. Ed made great play of being on the side of business. That is crucial and it was clear that Ed wanted to talk more about business than unions. He then went on to hit the energy companies, moments after hitting bankers. He spoke of wanting to open the "closed circles" of opportunity. 

His delivery was calm and methodical and gave the feeling that he cared. There were lots of promising signs and he has clearly grown into the job. 

A great line was hidden in the middle of his speech. Contrasting the VAT rise with Tory attempts to cut the 50% top tax rate, he said that only David Cameron would make "ordinary people work harder by making them poorer and richest work harder by making them richer."

I can't help feeling that there wasn't enough. Delegates applauded loudly when he said you can't trust the Tories with the NHS. Fine. But this speech needed to be about what the Tories are doing wrong and how Ed's Labour will be better. 

He closed by saying he wanted to fulfil the promise of Britain. Today's speech showed me he knows what is wrong and has some ideas of how to change this. For me this wasn't a breakthrough moment. It was a steady and promising speech, one of potential rather than that of a star who is already there. 

Next for the media reaction...

Tony Blair and Channel 4's Dispatches hatchet

When I was growing up I looked forward to investigative political programmes on TV such as ITV's World in Action, BBC's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches. Unfortunately there isn't much left of that once great axis of investigative journalism. Last night's Dispatches about former PM Tony Blair's activities since leaving politics is a sad example of that decline, a cheap re-hash of similar Daily  Mail articles by the same author.

I've been used to Channel 4 giving up its Dispatches programme for biased political hatchet jobs over recent years. Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and climate change have all been victims of poorly researched, politically motivated attacks. Oborne, like many committed Tories is a fervent Blair opponent, much as Polly Toynbee doesn't like David Cameron very much. Imagine the right wing derision if she led a documentary against their Tory pals?

Blair is an easy target because many people hate Labour, hate Labour being successful and hate Blair for his role in that. Some dislike him for the Iraq war too, which I understand. Right wing Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph writer Peter Oborne likes to link the two, for political purposes.

In last night's programme Oborne claimed that Blair has lobbied on behalf of Palestinian telecom firm Wataniya because of links with investment bank JP Morgan. This is untrue. In his role acting for the Quartet, Blair is charged with enhancing the Palestinian economy. Therefore attracting foreign investment for the project is part of his role, one he has been asked to undertake by the Palestinians. One can read about this on Blair's website.

Oborne was critical of the sums Blair is meant to have earned after leaving politics. Blair's advisers have confirmed to me that these figures are incorrect. Aside from that I don't think it is anyone's business what someone earns after leaving politics - provided they are not in conflict with their previous jobs.

In the light of the Libyan revolution it has become easy to hit Blair for trying to build bridges with the former regime when he was in power. I'm sure Blair would have preferred a more democratic regime to have been in place, but he had to deal with the situation as it was. He should be praised for helping to persuade Gaddafi to give up his chemical and nuclear weapons programme.  It is also preposterous to suggest he had anything to do with the release of Megrahi. Blair has also never had any commercial  relationship with any part of the Libyan government or company.

John Major has made millions since leaving office in his role as a director of the Carlyle Group that made a mint from privatised British defence contracts. Where is the Dispatches about that?

Oborne is obsessed with Blair and has been peddling many of this nonsense for several years in his Daily Mail  and Telegraph columns. It disappoints me that Channel 4 thought it worthy of an hour of their airtime last night.

Monday, September 26, 2011

#Lab11 Ed Balls at conference: state is still the answer

Ed Balls attacked the Tories. His speech was well received by the conference. He repeated his attacks that rising unemployment will stop the deficit being paid off. He said that voters are not interested in Labour's previous record, they worry about making ends meet.

Balls cited Labour's mistakes when in power. Mistakes: 10 tax abolition, tougher migration controls needed, wasted spending and not enough banking regulation.

Nevertheless he went on the attack: "Don't let anyone tell you Labour went into the recession being profligate with public money". British debt was lower than elsewhere. He blamed the economic crisis on bankers, not on public spending. He blamed the worsening economic position on the Tories. He said that "austerity is an abdication of responsibility" by the government and one that hits the poorest hardest. 

He equalised Labour's mistakes with bigger Tory mistakes: included wasting billions on unnecessary NHS reorganisation, which is choking off the recovery when it needs it least.

Balls' gung-ho approach can win over people already committed to Labour. Will it win over those voters who switch between Labour and Tory? Labour needs their support to win power. That depends on who they believe was responsible for the Tory framed debt crisis. It also depends on if they believe Labour can make their lives better and protect their standard of living in the future.

Balls listed five steps he called on the government to take, which they won't. More taxes on bankers to support young people into work. Invest in infrastructure. Cut VAT on home improvements. Reverse VAT rise.National Insurance tax break for small businesses taking on new workers.

This is the first time under Ed Miliband's leadership we've heard specific commitments that takes account of the lack of money available but still offers to help people in difficult times. It is clear that he still believes the state is the answer to both the economic and cost of living problems we face.

Balls on the attack is the most ferocious member of the shadow cabinet. It is clear he can achieve the cut through with the media that perhaps his boss, Miliband, hasn't been able to. Both of them suffer from a closeness to Brown. Balls has to convince voters he has the answers for the future and that he understands the analysis of the past that says Labour didn't get it all right.

"Britain is no safe haven" under the Tories he repeated. He is clearly going to take the argument to them.

Refounding Labour @ #Lab11

The Labour Party desperately needed a new lease of life by the time 2010 brought election defeat. Being a party member means different things to different people but it is clear that whatever your view the structures and rules of the party needed a refresh. Ed Miliband's response was Refounding Labour, a wide consultation asking members for their views about how the party should work.

Personally I find it tiresome that being a Labour member often means spending at least one evening a week at a meeting. It is important that the Labour Party provides members an opportunity to debate local and political issues and I understand that there is always a certain level of administration, news and decision making that any local party needs to get through.

Unfortunately though I feel this structure of ward meetings, consistency general meetings, constituency executive meetings, local government meetings added to campaign meetings and whatever else one might have volunteered for leads to boredom and fatigue.

Given the many pressures on most peoples' time these meetings put a strain on how much time people can give to the party. If I go to all of these meetings and I want to also remain committed to my job, family, have a social life and commit enough time to sorting out my own personal administration there isn't much left. And people wonder why members don't attend meetings.

After attending all of these meetings I then have no time left to go campaigning. If Labour doesn't campaign Labour doesn't win and it doesn't meet the electorate. The meeting culture makes being a member almost self defeating because it doesn't prioritise the most important aspect - campaigning.

Peter Hain's conference speech yesterday alluded to changing the party to be focused on campaigning. This is encouraging but Refounding Labour needs to bring about  a huge cultural shift in the party too. Making sure councillors and MPs campaign is a start but it isn't enough.

I'm looking for Miliband and Hain to bring about wholesale changes though I suspect that won't happen, which disappoints me greatly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The racist Tory weekly

The Friday racist Tory bulletin is become a regular feature on this site. Over recent weeks I've featured:

Could I really make it five weeks in a row? Unfortunately not. The Tories have given me a week off as they prepare for their party conference. Instead Tory run Basildon council is facing claims that its action against the illegal traveller site at Dale Farm is racist from many. Though the issue isn't easy for any council is should and could have been handled much better.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does the UK work the longest hours in Europe?

I'd traditionally been led to believe that the UK worked the longest hours in Europe. This made us grumpy, tired and less productive than our European cousins. Finland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic and Slovakia all work more hours each year than us in the UK. Obviously, people in France do work far fewer hours than us, so some stereotypes are true...


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ed Miliband's conference message

I have just received Ed Miliband's pre-conference message. Watch it.

He sets out the key values that we should be hearing much more about over the next couple of weeks.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Do party conferences matter?

Conference season traditionally gives each of the main parties a week of owning the news and, they hope, a poll boost. They are also the time when leaders with something still to prove are expected to show they mean business. A bad conference can damage both credibility and popularity.

Gordon Brown had several "make or break" conferences, according to the commentariat anyway. It didn't make any difference. His first as leader saw him hint at a snap election, only to back down and to gain him the unwanted reputation as a "ditherer". He was unable to shift that tag.

Ed Miliband will enter his first conference as leader level in the polls with the Tories, or with a small lead, depending on which one you read. Your interpretation also flavours the results. Miliband's approval ratings might have gone down recently, but he is still the least unpopular between himself, Clegg and Cameron. His personal ratings are also similar to those Cameron received when he'd been in charge for a year.

A good speech will help his image, which has been a problem. The only way he'll really make headway in voters' minds though is through consistently saying the right thing and responding effectively to political events. He did well during the outbreak of the hacking scandal, more is needed. The political village gets excited every week at prime ministers questions, while it passes much of the country by. Conference season is little different.

Clegg's Lib Dems are failing to reap the benefit of being in coalition, with poll after poll still showing that around half of those who voted for them at the last election won't do so again. Lib Dem conference won't do anything to change that. Much as a bad conference for Miliband will lead to the same headlines being trotted out about his "poor leadership" and a good one will excite his friends and go unnoticed by most people.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Racist Tory...again

Every Friday for the last month I've Googled "racist Tory" and every week news of another inappropriate comment has emerged. How long will this go on for? What does it say about Cameron's Conservatives that they seem stuck with a party full of old men with a 1950s colonialist racist attitude to the world?

Another Friday and another report of racist comments made by a Tory. This time it is the slightly more significant Deputy Mayor Richard Barnes who is having his judgement and ethics being questioned. According to the Daily  Mirror, Barnes is alleged to have said, in the wake of the London riots, a highly sensitive time for the city: "why did police put Persil in the water cannon? To stop the colours running."

Not funny and plain racist.

After a member of staff complained Barnes is now under investigation.

Remember that Barnes is the same Deputy Mayor that you will remember recently made racist comments about Irish people, so this is potentially his second offence in just three months.

How long before Boris Johnson cuts him adrift? Or would he rather keep a racist deputy than lose yet another, having already lost three?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Bus fares when Boris Johnson came into power in 2008 were 90p per journey. In January he is putting them up to £1.40. That is a staggering 56% increase. Over the same period retail price inflation was just 13%.Tube and train fares in London will also go up by about 7-8%.

In 2008 my zones one and two Oyster single from Finsbury Park to Moorgate costed me £2. It now costs £2.50 and in January will cost me £2.70. That is an increase of 35%. You can see details of all next year's fares on the Mayor's site.

Stacking rises onto bus journeys, as BJ has done hits the poorest Londoners hardest as they rely more heavily on the cheapest form of public transport and make shorter journeys.

We all understand that government budgets are under increased pressure at the moment. That in itself though doesn't excuse Boris' eye-watering fares hike. Unfortunately, despite promising in 2008 to give Londoners "more bang for their buck" Johnson hasn't delivered.

Wasteful Boris is squandering our cash on a host of vanity projects at the very time when we can least afford them:

  • The new routemaster, more expensive and carries fewer passengers than bendy buses - and where are they? £2.27m per bus, plus all the costs of ending bendy bus contracts early...
  • Thames cable car - who wanted this? Entertainment group AEG were happy to pay for their own when bidding for the dome, but now Boris is getting us to pay for it - at least £57m at latest estimates
  • Cycle hire scheme - reports suggest that this loses £10m a year
  • Squandering up to £70m of revenue by scrapping the Western extension of the congestion charge to appease his Tory buddies in zone one Kensington and Chelsea

The Tories hit you in the pocket. Their supposed fiscal expertise comes down to stealth taxes and an increased cost of living. That's OK though as the millionaires in David Cameron's cabinet and Boris Johnson don't use public transport anyway, so at least they are going to be OK.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shirley Porter would be loving this

Politicos have long anticipated the Tory instigated boundary review and seat reduction. Now that the provisional plans have been released, they show what those of us on the left suspected: a reduction in seats benefits the Tories.  Britain's political boundaries, like those in many other countries such as the USA, mix geographical areas with common identities together with artificial political boundaries. That these are being shaken up doesn't matter that much as people will get used to the change.  What matters is the motivation behind these changes. To this end I can only see political advantage to the Tories driving this.  Citing a reduced cost of politics might sound amiable but it doesn't work when set against a higher social cost of having fewer MPs. This is especially so in urban areas, where most of the reduction is happening. This is why Labour and the Lib Dems are facing the greatest losses.  Modern MPs who do their jobs properly act as social workers for their constituents dealing with a host of problems, from immigration cases to housing. Lengthening the queues to see the remaining MPs doesn't make sense.  It also doesn't make democratic sense as it takes our representatives further away from voters. With his supposed classical liberal credentials I wonder how Nick Clegg let this through. Then I remember how he gambled everything to get the AV referendum. He lost that, his party will lose from the seat reduction. Unfortunately voters will too.  - Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, September 09, 2011

Racist Tory sacked

Dover Tory cllr Bob Frost who recently claimed he didn't realise calling rioters "jungle bunnies" was racist and offensive has lost his job as a secondary school teacher. Fair enough. Why is the local Tory party still "investigating"? What he said was clearly racist, he has shown he didn't understand that by not apologising "unreservedly" as he claims by sticking in the disclaimer "I did not mean to use any racist term."

He is either naive or more likely telling fibs.

Time for the Tories to show that they understand what Frost doesn't and give him the boot.  

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Will Cameron take Britain out of the EU?

The profile of Tory MPs is now weighted towards those in favour of the UK pulling out of the EU. As news reports show them getting more serious about organising their anti-European campaigning, will David Cameron be made to pay for buying their votes to win his leadership election?

At today's prime minister's questions, when asked by Tory MP Mark Reckless if Britain should pull out of the EU Cameron repeated his oft muttered line that the UK needs to re-assess its relationship with the EU to get the best deal from it.

What does this mean for Britain's future relationship with the EU? Anti-Europe Tory MPs want out and they are a sizeable bunch. They are already frustrated at the influence of the pro-European Lib Dems on a government they'd prefer to be pure-Tory. This leaves them without influence both because Cameron has to compromise with his coalition partners to stay in power and also because those Lib Dem votes mean he doesn't need to compromise with his own Tory right wing to get his legislation through.

My expectation is that their calls for a drastic pull out will fall on deaf ears as Cameron like those before him realises that to do so isn't easy or advisable. Continued problems in the Eurozone will weaken the current EU model but not fatally. The stronger northern European economies such as Germany, Britain and the Nordics will be able to exert more influence than those which have been ripped apart by the collapse of their economies.  

This means Britain can become more powerful and gain more from throwing its weight around. I expect Cameron to make the most of that but to keep Britain in the EU. If he wins a slim majority at a 2015 election his position will be weakened and that of the anti-Europeans in his party strengthened leaving the prospect of am more anti-European government than that of John Major who had more pro-Europeans for support than Cameron will have.

Cameron doesn't want to take Britain out of the EU but his party wants him to. At the moment they don't have the power but that could all change.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Captain Darling's weapon

Anthony Seldon's article in yesterday's Evening Standard was spot on in its analysis of Gordon Brown's strengths and weaknesses, in the news again following the release of Alistair Darling's book.

Darling has told us that Brown had no plan for government after spending years focusing on ousting Tony Blair. Brown was a nightmare to work with at times. Most of the cabinet except Ed Balls wanted Brown to quit but didn't force him out. This much we know. He also reacted to the global financial crisis superbly and led an international response. This much many of us knew and many dispute for political reasons.

Darling's book is interesting because he is such a reserved, measured and careful politician. Anything he says has to be taken seriously. Though there doesn't look to be much revelatory content in his book it does bring the Brown years to live in even more detail. It also gives the Tories a bit more mud to sling at Ed Balls who has again been heavily implicated in much of the negativity attributed to Brown.

Politically Labour still has work to do to establish economic credibility. That Darling and Brown disagreed with be played out as Balls making the wrong call. Balls is big enough to deal wit the blows he now expects to receive. It is going to be interesting to see how this is played out in the polls and whether voters really care about arguments that bother those in the Westminster bubble.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The greatest newspaper in the world

The Daily Express is according to itself. It seems to have moved on from Princess Diana's untimely death and is back to competing with the Daily Mail about scroungers. Today's front page made me chuckle:

I agree that it is scandalous that so many don't have work. What does the Express think we should do about it?  Either this is, as the Express claims, because of a culture of welfare dependency, or perhaps a symptom of post recession rising unemployment. Something that is happening worldwide.

I'm worried about John Cleese too. Has he only just noticed that London is an international city or that it is in Britain?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A Lib Dem future?

Ed Miliband and many in the Labour Party still feel that an olive branch to disaffected Lib Dems is a path back to redemption. There are votes to be had at the Lib Dem's expense though I doubt these will be sufficient. Recent Guardian/ICM polling shows that Labour and the Tories are neck and neck. Something else needs to give Labour the poll surge it needs to stand a chance at the next election.

Tories on the right will be keen to drive open divisions in the coalition as it still rankles with them that they don't rule alone. 

The Lib Dems claim they are exerting a moderating influence on the Tories. The polls suggest people think otherwise. 

Lord Adonis told that he wants Labour and the lefty Lib Dems to be closer aligned. Despite not fitting in with their Orange Book colleagues, these MPs and supporters find it difficult to reconcile their differences with Labour, either because they hold a 1980s grudge or because they feel that Labour in government was too authoritarian. 

I can't envisage any significant shifts in the party political boundaries in the near future. The Tories are keen to show that their tough medicine will help the country in the long term and want to win and govern alone at the next election. The Labour Party needs to be attractive enough to win votes from Tory voters in addition to the demotivated on the left. The Lib Dems are desperately trying to hold their nerve in government in the hope that people thank them in the end. As Rafael Behr points out, Nick Clegg "can't be ignored." Labour and the Tories hope voters think otherwise and that still seems likely.