UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

He missed his moment

For the first time since Tony Blair swept to the leadership in 1994, the Labour Party today will elect its new leader. It appears to have gone down to the wire. And in the battle of the brothers, Ed Miliband now seems most likely to snatch the crown from his brother and long-running favourite, David.

This would be a remarkable turnaround. It would be a staggering psychological and political blow to David Miliband, who has been leader-in-waiting since at least 2007. And in a contest that has failed to spark and where it has been difficult to discern major policy differences between either the Milibands or their other opponents, it would reveal boldness – or the lack of it – as the decisive factor in this leadership race.

It was never clear that Ed Miliband would even run for the leadership. Although it is reported that Ed told David he would run as far back as January, it was a shock that Ed decided to run at all. It was a bold decision, and one that stands in contrast with David’s reluctance to seize many moments during Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership.

We now know that David Miliband sought Tony Blair’s advice on whether to run against Gordon Brown in 2007. He decided against it: perhaps fearing defeat, demotion and splitting the party whilst still in office - or perhaps he just thought Brown too big a giant to slay. There was also the botched banana coup the following summer, when David effectively challenged Gordon Brown in a Guardian article. It was “not a time for a novice”, and David Miliband retreated again. And, the following summer, when James Purnell explosively resigned as the local election polls closed in 2009 – Gordon Brown’s most perilous moment – David Miliband once again stepped back from the brink. And bottling it a third time brought him considerable opprobrium.

Perhaps he didn’t want to fight an election he thought was a dead loss. Perhaps (and more likely) he thought Labour would look ridiculous for installing a third leader in a single Parliament. Perhaps he heeded Michael Heseltine’s lesson that “he who wields the dagger, never seizes the crown”.

But the Heseltine lesson is not set in stone. A lack of boldness in seizing the leadership also raises serious doubts about seriousness of desire and seriousness as a politician. Are they someone who genuinely seizes the moment? And it also risks letting your moment pass you by. Ask Michael Portillo, who retreated from challenging John Major in 1995, and then was defeated early on in a contest that elected the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith back in 2001. A dead-cert leader-in-waiting saw his hopes disintegrate. The party was distrustful, of course - but the moment had passed.

We now know from Blair’s memoirs, that he realised in 1994 that Gordon Brown wasn’t bold enough or radical enough to be trusted with the Labour leadership. Until around 1994, he claims he had always been content with being the second-in-command. Perhaps Ed Miliband had a similar journey with his brother.

So, if Ed Miliband wins today, it will be a victory for boldness. It wasn’t a certainty that he would stand. It was even less certain that he would win. Labour’s electoral system is a quirky one, and one that produced a shock victory for Harriet Harman in the deputy leadership contest in 2007. But it will be the result of a considerable boldness and skill if Ed seizes the crown today. And a boldness that might just worry the Coalition Government.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The long game

Some under-reported, but significant news as we begin party conference season. Leaderless Labour and the Coalition Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls. The YouGov snapshot earlier this week shows the Tories and Labour the closest they have been since Gordon Brown called off the election that never was in 2007. Tories on 41 (respectable), Labour on 39 (impressive and yet to have its new leader bounce), Lib Dems on 12 (well into "pretend to hold your nerve but actually be quite scared " kind of stuff).

It is surprising that this poll hasn't had more coverage. It comes alongside falling approval ratings for the coalition as a whole. Back in July, it had an already low approval rating of +4%. Now it stands at -4%. Just four months in. And facing a still leaderless, yet to re-launch Labour Party. As I said in my blog before the election, Labour without Brown and its old guard figures will quickly present itself to the voters as a much re-energised, more attractive outfit. Impressive as the unity has been since Cameron and Clegg “got it together”, the Coalition is yet to face its real tests. It’s been the honeymoon period, the four months grace whilst the Opposition sorts itself out.

It is now reasonable to speculate as to the kind of lead David (or maybe, just maybe, Ed) Miliband will be able to generate once they take over next week. We'll see a few party conference poll bounces over the next few weeks, but - once the various crinkles have been ironed out - I would expect Labour to open up a fairly consistent poll lead of between three and five points over the autumn and into next year.

All of this will weigh heavily on Nick Clegg's mind at party conference this week. He is likely to face some criticism, but overall I expect Lib Dems to behave themselves. The novelty of power will keep the criticisms manageable for now. Poll ratings in the teens are fine with a general election seemingly five years away. Plenty of time to devise what Lord Steel has called an "exit strategy" from the Coalition Government, they may think.

But in terms of pure political calculation for his party’s survival, Nick Clegg may not need to worry. He has two strategies – the “annex strategy” and the “AV strategy” as he plays his long game. However committed he is to the Coalition Government and to governing, the party will be calculating its hand very carefully.

In the annex strategy, everything depends on the strength of the Labour lead. If David Miliband opens up and maintains as much as a five point lead (but no bigger) over the Tories, the UK is likely to remain in a state of flux and could, at a General Election, end up with a second Hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party. The Lib Dems get a shoe-ing, lose another 10 MPs - but (what the hell) still find themselves as king-makers. Enter Clegg and the Liberal Democrats once again as chief propper-uppers of major parties who didn't quite squeak home.

Ten years for the Lib Dems in Government? Don't rule it out.

Much of course depends on how the Conservatives fare over the course of this Parliament. Labour's gains have been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative poll rating has not collapsed. It is to a great extent in Nick Clegg's interests to keep it that way. I am not saying that he will be glad to lose support from his own party to Labour - or that the Lib Dems should forfeit their identity and define their existence by the extent to which they can flit from being the annex of one party to another. But with the risk that he has taken, the Lib Dems are safer if the Tory vote continues to hold up against Labour's - that the gap between the two major parties remains tight. And that an overall majority for either party is impossible. An "annex strategy", you might call it. And it is a strategy that, if followed, keeps the Lib Dems riding the bucking bronco of the polls - feeling every kick, rise, fall... and wondering when it's best just to give up and fall off.

The “annex strategy” assumes that the number of seats you have in power in Cabinet are more important than number of seats you have influencing Parliament. The AV strategy places all hope and the future of the Coalition Government on next month’s referendum on changing the voting system. The Lib Dems would have won 22 more seats had the 2010 election been fought under the voting system they'll be campaigning for at the referendum next summer. And it's why the AV campaign matters so much next summer. It will be the crunch point. Lose it, and the usefulness of the Coalition to Lib Dems becomes less obvious. (You already feel as though many Lib Dems are willing to sacrifice coalition with the Tories only for the prize of securing electoral reform). Lose it, and the annex strategy becomes less short-termist, more the harsh reality that you have to face up to. You can't ask the country for electoral reform again. And you’re facing up to your party becoming an irrelevance, defined by its collaboration and not by the values it stands for in its own right. Win it, and you will have demonstrated your seriousness in being a coalition partner and will fight future on elections under a system that will give you what first-past-the-post lacked: Cabinet seats but not at the expense of seats in Parliament. The Holy Grail.

Of course, the Lib Dems will currently be following a mixture of the two strategies. Play the annex strategy, whilst you wait and see how the AV strategy pans out. Which is why, whatever the polls are saying now, the key strain for the coalition will come when the AV referendum result is known next May. Lose it, and the AV strategy is dead. You could be noble, grown-up and hang on – but not if Miliband kills of the annex strategy by opening up a poll lead that suggests Labour is on course for governing without the need for another Brokeback Coalition. More likely, the Lib Dems will withdraw from the coalition at the moment when its usefulness has evapourated but in a way that presents itself as the re-awakening of the Liberal Democrats in disagreement with the Tories - and not as withdrawal through self-interest. It may be so risky in itself, that they don't do it - no matter how bad the polls look. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It will all depend on the mood at the time.

AV and DM. Surely four letters that will define the long game that the Liberal Democrats must play.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Return of the Return of Politics?

I haven't blogged since the General Election. I fear too that I haven't properly commented since I was mistaken in believing that the Liberal Democrats wouldn't go into a full blown coalition with the Conservatives. I thought they would plump for a government of national unity, supporting the Tories piecemeal on vital economic reforms, and keep their own counsel on the rest of the agenda. I couldn't see enough common ground. The divisions and name-calling of the election seemed too raw and too real to make a coalition possible.

That it happened was down to the sheer desire and determination of Cameron and Clegg to make workable government happen. Cameron desperately wanted stable government. Clegg desperately wanted a stake in government. So, over a hundred days into the coalition, it seems strange to think of any other outcome. But hung parliaments are rare in this country, and we were in uncharted waters. And even now, although the transformation and sense of shared unity and purpose has been impressive, it will clearly be a massive task to keep this coalition together and effective.

So, we've had some return of politics. But the politics we have today is also unrecognisable for my generation. A coalition for the Conservatives for the first time in their modern history. A gigantic leg-up for the Lib Dems after an intially disappointing showing at the polls. And a Labour Party shorn of its old guard and about to conclude its first leadership election since Tony Blair swept to power in 1994. It's a return to politics, but not as we know it.

My blog title was initally conceived of as a plea - a plea for the return of politics in the sense of genuine engagement, debate, opposition and connection with the voters. I believed that the large majorities of the Labour governments of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 had the effect of creating impotent opposition and a sense that government could do what it liked. A sense that an initially unbalanced electoral system - itself a process that discourages engagement - delivered a government that was even more distant from the people. I also felt that the fag end of Gordon Brown's government was distant from the people through its irrelevance, its lack of ideas and its dwindling public support.

So now, our politics is ground level again. The issues are stark: tough decisions on the economy, on cuts, on the state versus society, on conservatism versus progressive politics. The coalition government will always be on a knife edge. It has harsh critics both within its main parties and without. This is now a five year bare knuckle fight.

And it's a fight that will only begin properly next week, when Labour elects its new leader. David Miliband, who will be elected on Wednesday, will be the final point in the return of politics for this Parliament. We've had the stunning shock of a coalition government being successfully assembled in a week. We've had the honeymoon. Now it's down to the real business of street fighting politics. And Party Conference season. Story of this Parliament? The Tories will have their sights set on seeking a mandate to govern alone. The Lib Dems want to define themselves within this coalition, and avoid becoming an irrelevant annex to another party. And Labour, defeated as it was, has nevertheless lived to fight another day.

So, politics is back. But it's all very different. Phew.