Tuesday, 28 June 2011

How not to appoint a Labour General Secretary

It is difficult to imagine a potentially more difficult thankless job than that of Labour Party General Secretary. Except perhaps Leader of the Opposition, England football manager, or chief election strategist for the Liberal Democrats in 2015.

Dan Hodges had a good scoop for the New Statesman about the Labour General Secretary stakes yesterday.

Hodges' call is that Chris Lennie has the support of the leader’s office and so is set to get the job is a credible one, consistent with the word around Westminster over the last week.

But is it really a done deal – or might reaction to this premature pre-announcement yet affect the outcome? Mark Ferguson on LabourList was first to argue that it should – by pointing out the apparently stark clash between Monday’s news about the top party job and the major speech which Ed Miliband gave on changing the party’s culture last weekend.

There are two reasons that this.

Firstly, it is surely fair to describe Chris Lennie as the candidate of continuity, rather than change.

There are always both pros and cons in that. The current assistant general secretary is obviously well informed about the current personnel, structures, processes and culture of the party. He has particularly had lead responsibility for the party’s fundraising effort, where both the leader and new general secretary will be aware of the need to significantly rebuild Labour’s ability to raise resources, given that non-union funding has almost entirely dried up.

This continuity choice might well represent an attempt for the leader’s office to accommodate and so improve fractious relations with current senior party staff.

But observers will legitimately ask whether the trade-off is to blunt the scale of cultural and organisational change which the Refounding Labour – so it would be up to the leader - and his new General Secretary - to signpost very clearly that the ‘change’ vision will be carried through.

It is hardly any secret in Westminster that relations between Ed Miliband and Victoria Street have been difficult over the last year. The shared perception across most of the five rival leadership campaigns was that party HQ was doing whatever they felt they legitimately could do to assist the frontrunner. The new “Ed” biography by Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre reports some of the detail of how party staff struggled to deal with the immediate impact of a surprise result.

The New Labour theory of party management that party HQ is a 100% loyal extension of the leader's office was set out recently by ex-General Secretary Peter Watt.

"since the clause four debate, party staff have always been 100 per cent loyal to the leader. They have always acted in concert with the leader, the leader's office or senior team. When they have acted and whatever they have done has been as an extension of the leader's office. And quite right too!"

Whether this is a good idea or not - and there should be some limits – I doubt anybody, whatever their own personal politics, could seriously describe that as 100% the actualite over the last year.

Will Straw and Nick Anstead argued cogently in a Fabian pamphlet ‘The Change We Need’ back in 2009 that Labour needed a “cultural glasnost” in its internal culture. This chimes with what the leader himself has argued. Would the Lennie appointment perhaps reflect the counter-intuitive hypothesis in the leader’s office that Labour’s Gorbachev will also be found from within the current party HQ regime?


Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the question of how the merits of the different possible candidates will be assessed. Hodges’ report quotes a "senior party official" suggesting that the most impressive alternative candidates will be excluded from the shortlist, precisely for that reason!

"Ed's team have moved heavily behind Chris," said the source. "The only serious opposition was McNicol, which is why he won't be included on the shortlist."

Unfortunately, that modus operandi would not be surprising – but it is indicative of a problem culture in the Labour Party specifically, and across the parties too. I hope the leader and NEC will make it very clear this will not be the principle on which shortlisting will take place. It was good to hear NEC member Johanna Baxter briefly set out her belief that the NEC must run a fair process, based on merit, in which she also questioned whether it would be "in any candidate's favour to run their campaign in the press".

I should be very clear that I don’t have enough information about the full field of potential candidates, and especially the vision which each of them would have of both the party’s future and the General Secretary’s role within it, to say who I think would be the best choice for the job. Scrutiny of the personal qualities and vision of potential candidates is legitimately the job of the NEC, and the selection panel it appoints, as Baxter argues.

So I am certainly not in a position to gauge whether Lennie, Iain McNicol, Joe Irvine or AN Other would be the best man or woman for Labour now. It could well be Lennie who would come through a rigorous and fair process strongest, on the basis of his experience and ideas. My point is simply that I don’t think that anybody else, however elevated their position in the party, could credibly claim to already be in a position to make a final, informed judgement either.

That is why neither the leader’s office nor the NEC should fix the outcome in advance, making the recruitment process simply a matter of ratifying their prior decision.

The job of those charged with making the appointment is to select the best possible candidate – and the best way to do this is to ensure that the best possible candidates are rigorously tested, including by competing with the strongest possible alternatives for the role.

In a high-profile, very political job like Labour General Secretary, it can be rather difficult to secure a strong shortlist of competing candidates. For example, Sam Allardyce could well be wary of going for an interview at the Football Association if he did not think he had some fair chance of being selected.

So it may be that Hodges' senior party sources aim to persuade rival candidates to withdraw ahead of the contest. But this idea expressed in the piece of excluding strong contenders in case they might prove more impressive at interview in their vision of the role should be flagged clearly offside – and explicitly rejected by the leader and NEC.

There is some risk of personal and political fallout from having a rigorous open contest and a level playing field. The leader knows perhaps better than anybody that there can be more than one impressive candidate for a major political job. For a role of this importance, it is worth taking every opportunity to test front-runners seriously against the best possible rival contenders.

Just because our politics is rarely done on those basic principles doesn’t mean it is right to carry on with current practice.

What is striking is that ministerial offices, political parties and newspapers – being those most likely to preach vociferously about the merits of transparency, fair competition and level playing fields – are consistently the least likely organisations to even attempt to practice it.

One result is that– even as political recruitment in Parliament has broadened, at least in terms of gender and ethnicity if not class - the cohorts of special advisers and party staffers seems to have become narrower in all parties. There is a shared ‘groupthink’ culture, across the major parties, that informal recruitment from within existing networks is the only way that works in the real world, prioritising personal loyalty and prior connections within the current circle. And those making these decisions lack the time, capacity and expertise to work out how to do it more rigorously.

But I doubt it is impossible, even for the major political parties, to attempt a fair competitive process for important jobs. The open advertisement and process for the recruitment of a Fabian General Secretary shows that political organisations can choose to emulate what is routine best practice in NGOs and commercial organisations, if they believe that their values demand that approach.

And Ed Miliband is clearly promising a different party culture – one of openness and transparency.

There were too many decisions once in smoke-filled rooms in the past, and by a few people on a sofa in Westminster in the New Labour era, he rightly said on Saturday.

Parties show they have changed their culture by living their values. So it could hardly be too much to ask that how the leader and the NEC appoints his General Secretary – whoever turns out to be best for the job - should surely meet the tests the leader has set.

The choice is between a standard political fix and a rigorous contest – in order to decide who gets to play the lead role in ‘Refounding Labour’.

The leader is right to want to change the culture of the party.

It is never too early to start.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Fabians appoint new General Secretary

Andrew Harrop has been appointed as the new General Secretary of the Fabian Society and will be taking up the post in September.

Andrew is currently Director of Policy and Public Affairs for Age UK, where he leads the charity's policy, public affairs, campaigns and events teams. He has previously worked for Age Concern, the New Policy Institute and Anne Campbell MP. He has been a Labour Party activist since 18 and was a Parliamentary Candidate in the 2005 General Election.

Suresh Pushpananthan, Chair of the Fabian Society, said:

‘Andy is an exceptional candidate who will bring great political and organisational strengths to the Society. Andy has some fresh ideas about the important issues facing left-of-centre politics at the moment. I’m excited about the contribution Andy’s leadership will make to our historic Society and in helping return Labour to power. I’m confident that members of the Fabian Society, as well as the wider political community, will share in my excitement.’

I would like to add my congratulations to Andrew too. Leading the Fabians is a great job, which I have enjoyed doing, and I also look forward to the Society thriving under his leadership.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Five things we've learnt about Ed

I have been reading “Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour leader”, the biography of Ed Miliband, by Mehdi Hasan and James MacIntyre, which is published today.

Many Next Left readers will no doubt want to get hold of the book itself, published by Biteback.

There has been quite a lot of press coverage of the book. Mail on Sunday extracts last weekend focused very much on the Miliband v Miliband psychodrama, as most discussion of the book doubtless will. The Independent has picked up on the book’s account of Ed Miliband's decision to run, including Neil Kinnock going to see Ed Miliband in February 2011 to persuade him to run for leader. I will hold off on my overall take, as I am writing a review of the book for the weekend, but here are a few of the intriguing but less headline-grabbing snippets of new information which caught my eye.

1. Narrowing the gap matters: Blair on Beckham as a teaching aide

Ed Miliband took a year out at Harvard in 2002, frustrated by the limits of his influence as a Treasury adviser, but not sure whether to go into Parliament, or to do something else, such as academia or applying to run the ippr think-tank.

Miliband taught a course on ‘the politics of social justice’ – which involved using Tony Blair, Jeremy Paxman and David Beckham as a teaching aide.

Ed used his course to ask questions about a subject that he cared deeply about: inequality. Does it matter? Should it matter? How should it be defined? ‘He didn’t preach to the student but given what they were reading the one thing the course would do is give the students reasons for why inequality mattered, says Martin O'Neill' [an academic colleague].

In the very first class of his course, Ed played a video to his students of the famous BBC Newsnight interview with Tony Blair in the run-up to the 2001 General Election. Presenter Jeremy Paxman had asked the then Prime Minister six times whether the gap between rich and poor mattered – but, each time, to no avail. Blair’s response was typically evasive: ‘It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money”.

2. Ed was against the Iraq war at the time in 2003

One of the challenges to Ed Miliband during the leadership campaign was that he claimed to have been against the Iraq war in 2003, but hadn’t told anybody at the time. The book conclusively documents examples of his expressing his private opposition to the war, including to those at Harvard with no particular stake or axe to grind in British politics, though he was unwilling to criticise his government publicly. Nor did this disagreement prevent Miliband returning from Harvard to work for Brown at the Treasury in February 2004.

The authors report that Ed Miliband, in a call from Harvard, advised Gordon Brown to break with Blair over Iraq:

The Chancellor, sitting at his desk, could be heard remonstrating with his adviser on the phone: ‘Ed, you’ve got to understand that we can not break with the Americans’.

The call went on for several minutes. Ed urged Brown to give Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors more time to finish their work. Use your influence with Blair, he urged. Try and delay the military action. If you resign, suggested Ed to Brown, its over’

The Mail on Sunday serialisation has already reported some of the details of the book’s account of how this call led to Brown summoning his closest aides to discuss Ed Miliband’s view, though Ed Balls I unimpressed: “He told Gordon that it was easy for Ed Miliband, swanning off to America, but the rest of us have to deal with this here and now”.

That Ed Miliband didn’t seek to challenge his opponents over this and other evidence of his views in 2003 during the campaign itself suggests that he felt he had done enough to identify at the outset Iraq as an issue where Labour should learn lessons from mistakes in government, but did not then intend to escalate an argument between the candidates after this.

3. The blue Labour film club: how Ed fell out with Jon

Had six MPs switched a first or second preference to David Miliband, then the leadership election result would have been different. The book suggests that Ed Miliband was considerably effective in one-to-one meetings with Labour MPs than his rivals, and paid much more attention to individual members of the PLP than his brother.

It worked well – but not always.

Ed Miliband had particularly difficulty making a connection with influential backbencher Jon Cruddas, who found the idea of a contest between brothers incomprehensible and at odds with the ‘new currency of politics around issues of identity, nationhood, belonging and family’.

Cruddas also failed to recruit Miliband to the Blue Labour film club:

Relations between Ed and Cruddas had broken down ahead of the General Election. The two men met in secret at Ed’s office at DECC, organised by Compass Chair Neal Lawson, in the spring of 2010. Cruddas had asked Ed to watch the award-winning 2009 film Fish Tank, which offers a bleak glimpse of working-class life on a scruffy Essex housing estate, but Ed had to admit in the meeting that he’d switched it off halfway through because he found it ‘too depressing’. ‘That pissed me off’, admits Cruddas. ‘It was symptomatic of a problem inside of Labour – what’s inside that film is exactly what we as a party need to be discussing’

The half an hour meeting went downhill from there. Cruddas was sullen and belligerent to the point of rudeness; Ed was quiet, reserved and unwilling to engage. “It was an unmitigated disaster”, said Lawson.

Cruddas later says he is "much more impressed with him as leader than I thought I would be", after the backbencher's invitation to the leader to visit the porters at Billingsgate Fish Market goes much better.

4. Tom Watson gave Ed the line that upset Peter Mandelson

Peter Mandelson said that he felt ‘hurt’ by Ed Miliband’s remarks about him during the first hustings of the leadership contest, which suggested he should be ‘packed off rather prematurely to an old people’s home’. The line was premeditated – but it was not Miliband’s but Tom Watson’s, as Hasan and MacIntyre report:

He [Ed Miliband] had some help. Tom Watson, the backbench Labour MP and Balls allyhad bumped into Ed before the hustings. ‘Paul Kenny [the GMB general secretary] says they’re going to ask all the candidates whether or not they plan to bring back Peter Mandelson’, he warned Ed. ‘What should I say?’ asked the younger Miliband. ‘Say you believe in dignity in retirement’ replied Watson with a chuckle’.

That Tom Watson nominated and voted for Ed Balls, casting a second preference for Ed Miliband, may make it curious that he tipped off Ed Miliband about the question, though the answer may just be that he happened to bump into him.

5. Ed was sure he’d won the leadership election by the time of the result

On the basis of Parliamentary preferences, the Ed Miliband team was confident they had edged the leadership contest as the Labour party headed to Manchester. Ed Miliband was perhaps more confident than most of his own team.

However, the campaign had expected to do better on 1st preferences from party members, and so to win a plurality of the party members’ vote. The book shows how the campaign spotted the implications of the split electoral college more quickly than BBC political editor Nick Robinson:

The first round of results were projected onto a screen and read out, showing a total percentage of 37.78 for David and 34.33 for Ed, with the membership section, judged at this point by both camps as key, broken down as 13.9 for David and 10.5 for Ed …. In an embarrassing – if unusual – error of judgement, the respected BBC political editor Nick Robinson predicted that David had won. Marcus Roberts, Ed’s director of field operations, was sharper. The moment the results of the first round flashed up on screen, he scribbled a line on a piece of paper and passed it down the line of colleagues sitting next to him. It read: ‘We’ve won, but without the members. Sorry’.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Why David wouldn't succeed if Ed failed

My hope is that Labour will next choose a party leader closer to 2020, or beyond, than immediately after the 2015 general election, or even before it.

Whenever that happens, I can predict that Ed Miliband’s successor as leader will almost certainly be called neither Ed nor Miliband.

It could well prove as difficult to guess the identity of the next Labour leader as it would have been to, in 2001, spot David Cameron as the coming man, or Ed Miliband in 2005. The next leader of the Labour Party could well be Yvette Cooper or Jim Murphy, or perhaps in time Stella Creasy, Rachel Reeves or Chris Leslie, or any number of the other potential talents who have only just got into Parliament, such as Labour's newest recruit Dan Jarvis.

But it almost certainly won’t now be David Miliband who is next.

If the leader fell out of a helicopter tomorrow, I think it most likely that Yvette Cooper would emerge as the winner of a snap contest, her chances immeasurably boosted by acres of media coverage salivating over another stand-off between David Miliband and Ed Balls. (Our top commentators and reporters may panickedly realise that it could prove their very last chance to share any remaining TB-GB memories with the grateful readers).

I am not a great believer in theories that David Miliband had his chance in 2007 (when he was really being offered the chance to be a gallant runner-up to the Gordon Brown juggernaut), or around the leadership crises of 2008 and 2009 provoked first by the rather public non-resignation of David Miliband himself and then the actual resignation of James Purnell. (Alan Johnson would have been seen as a more plausible emergency replacement for an imminent election by many of those who would have supported David Miliband as a longer-term prospect).

But David Miliband certainly had the clearest of chances to secure the leadership in the open contest during the summer of 2010 and he is unlikely to get another one now.

There are two reasons for that.

The more foundational is that, in the sad circumstances that the Labour party were to decide that Ed Miliband wasn’t up to it, then the answer is not going to be a second Miliband.

(Perhaps there is an element of fraternal unfairness here, though it would still be somewhat difficult for the defeated candidate to again run as ‘the future, not the past’ if, say, he had lost the race to Andy Burnham. But it is Westminster bubble thinking to think that “sorry, we got the wrong brother” makes any sense. The political classes often fail to see the wood for the trees, or to understand how the electorate sees things. It is almost always forgotten that, out there in the real world, very few people yet have anything beyond a sketchy idea of who Ed Balls is, despite his having been a political power for 15 years. Public knowledge of comparative Milibandism is much narrower still).

But, secondly, let’s imagine it were still a likely prospect that one Miliband could succeed another. The problem for those who still hanker after this is that “friends of David” seem to this weekend be badly damaging his reputation within the party.

Whoever released the text of the David Miliband leadership speech that never was for yesterday's Guardian front-page seems to be following the playbook used by the David Miliband camp with the Guardian op-ed and non-strike against Gordon Brown of August 2008. Very little is gained, politically, from developing a reputation for plotting without then having a plot.

Much more damagingly, briefings like that for today’s Independent on Sunday front page, about how he is “waiting for his brother to fail” are toxic and would surely badly weaken his prospects were we ever to enter the scenario that David Miliband’s so-called friend is publicly fantasising about, because they look primarily like a refusal to accept the result of the leadership election.

But nobody would want to become New Labour's answer to Ted Heath.

These briefings so often sound as though they are coming from that section of David Miliband support which lies to his right, which sees itself as savvily plugged in to media connections in playing the game, and yet which does not seem to have had even five minutes reflection since last Autumn as to how a period of silence on their part may have been all that was necessary to secure their man the prize in the first place.

So which do we prefer? Contests or Coronations?

It is now often argued, firstly, that a leadership election would have been better for Tony Blair than the ambiguous Granita pact in 1994, and secondly, that it would have been much better for the party to have a leadership contest, and not a Coronation, in 2007.

Both of these are certainly articles of Blairite faith, though it is pretty difficult to find anybody from any wing of the party who now seriously dissents from at least the second.

It is inconsistent for anybody articulating those views to argue that Ed Miliband should have stood aside for his elder brother in 2010.

It was clear to most of the Labour Party by the party conference of 2009 that the two brothers were the likely frontrunners, and that it was quite probable that both would run (as Next Left's history of the pre-contest has shown).

If contests are better than coronations, then all David Miliband’s campaign needed to do was to win an election in which he began as the favourite. The problem for David Miliband supporters is not that Ed Miliband ran; it is that the frontrunner’s strategy failed to secure victory.

Here, it is missing the point to complain about being defeated in the electoral college, since the task was surely for the favourite to organise a campaign which could win the electoral college.

If Tony Blair could win 55% of the union and affiliate vote in 1995, David Miliband supporters simply needed a plan which would reach and mobilise these voters. (No candidate succeeded in securing a decent turnout, among less political affiliate members, and this problem was exacerbated for David Miliband because too many prominent supporters were making noisy interventions which repelled support by caricaturing their own candidate, somewhat against Douglas Alexander’s official ‘unity candidate’ campaign script).

It is also the case that the leadership contest rules also give a very significant advantage to favourites – a candidate who can persuasively show that they are likely to win has an important opportunity to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy early in the race, because of the nomination rules (20% of MPs) and the weight of the Parliamentarians (33%) in the electoral college itself.

There are strong incentives for MPs to both nominate and vote for a winner – with their votes made public afterwards – as we saw with the scale of the Brownite Coronation at nomination stage in 2007.

Affiliate voting couldn’t have mattered at all if David Miliband had got the type of share of MPs that appeared easily within his grasp when the contest began.

That is how the leadership was lost.

Sharing lost leader fantasies with the newspapers only going to confirm that there won't be a chance to reverse it.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

So much advice for Ed M

Party leaders will never be short of unsolicited advice. Sunday's Observer contains plenty of advice for Ed Miliband from party thinkers, scribblers and wonks, though nobody thinks there is any easy solution for a party which got so badly thumped in the election a year ago.

Most of it is constructive, though there could well be some less constructive advice around in the Sunday papers too.

Here - in 200 words for 5 questions - is my contribution. (I said a little bit more about the overall direction of travel in Fabian Review when previewing the political year).

What would your main piece of advice be for Labour's leader?


What is your verdict on Ed Miliband's leadership so far?

He's doing better than many people say. A year since Labour got 2% less of the vote than the Tories in 1997, he understands the need to earn permission to be heard again. It's bound to take time. I know he has a plan about what needs to change – but nobody has heard it yet, even around Westminster. He needs to change that.

What "big idea" in terms of policy/strategy do you think Labour should pursue in opposition?

A credible economic argument is vital. But the next election must also be about choices for the future. So scrutinise the fairness of what this government does – are the next generation bearing too much of the cuts burden? – as the platform for the choices to keep the British promise of a better future.

Who should Labour be appealing to to win the next election? (Disaffected Lib Dems, soft Tory vote, the core vote?)

Labour's vote fell from 44% to 29% from 1997 to 2010 but with the Tories and Lib Dems gaining only 6 points each. So arguing about which voters Labour shouldn't want is silly — a recipe for defeat. Those who have switched from the Lib Dems are likely to stay; now the Tory-Labour battle must be joined too. But winning coalitions aren't built like patchwork quilts from demographic segments: it takes a coherent argument with broad appeal.

What would be your top tip for Ed Miliband to give steel to his leadership?

Articulate his strategy to get Labour into power. Promoting open debate has been good. This summer and autumn, we need to hear where the leader defines where he wants the rethink to end up.

What slogan would you suggest for Labour?

Let's invest hope in our future.

Sunder Katwala, General Secretary, Fabian Society

So, what would David Miliband have done differently?

The appearance of David Miliband leader’s speech which never was after his knife-edge defeat in the Labour leadership contest last Autumn gives the Guardian an intriguing contemporary political history scoop - all the better in being from 2010 rather than 2005, as with the Telegraph’s exclusive shock revelation that Ed Balls and Gordon Brown had wanted Tony Blair to make way as Prime Minister earlier.

Anybody and everybody can have their view on Blair v Brown, but Next Left has always tried to define the shape of the emerging field of comparative Milibandism. There may be rather more of it coming up soon, with the serialisation of the Ed Miliband biography by Medhi Hasan and James MacIntyre beginning in the Mail this Sunday. (It may be that the release of the text is connected to the fact that that book which will surely put the events of last summer and Autumn under the microscope).

I thought it was a very good speech - though I just can't believe the Guardian's account that the disappointed candidate recited it to his wife in the car on the way home. But, on the whole, the content of this speech perhaps weighs on the side of the hypothesis that differences between the brothers have often been exaggerated. Indeed, the David Miliband speech perhaps underlines why the more “ultra” elements of the post-Blairite group had reasons to worry about whether David Miliband was really one of them.

There is a cruel irony in that, given that the faction formerly known as Blairites can claim to have had a decisive influence on the knife-edge leadership contest. It was just unfortunate for the candidate that they wanted to help that this came in the form of noisy and counter-productive interventions that ultimately proved decisive in causing his defeat, helping to paint the candidate into a “Blairite” position which was something of a caricature of his moderately modernising centre-left social democratic views. As this blog wrote as the contest began last May, "the interesting thing about David Miliband's candidacy is that he is the so-called "Blairite" candidate who is not really a Blairite", but his campaign never did enough to establish that point before the old New Labour biographies came out at the wrong moment.

Most strikingly, his line “we live in a market economy but I don’t want to live in a market society” is taken from French Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who made it his signature soundbite to differentiate his approach from a full throated embrace of the Third Way/Neue Mitte politics of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. (It is still in form clearly a 'third way' approach, since the rhetorical device of triangulation does not determine what becomes crucial: which positions one chooses to pitch the triangulated tent between!)

That is certainly a line one could imagine Ed Miliband using. In 2010, it would have helped David Miliband to challenge the idea that chanting mantras of “bold reform” are always a test of modernisation and centrism, whatever the content of the reforms being adopted, and in particular to question the equation of reform with marketization. That is a sensible strategy for scrutinising the Coalition’s approach to universities and the NHS. But it also reflects why Tony Blair felt that the elder Miliband should not step up from Schools Minister to Education Secretary.

He was “pro-reform”, to the extent that such rhetoric has meaning, but felt that scrutiny of what the reforms were was perhaps missing from that late New Labour period.


The speech also suggests that David Miliband would not have had a different overall strategy on public spending and deficit reduction from that currently being pursued by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

As leader, David Milband would also have stuck to Alastair Darling’s spending plans, and challenged George Osborne for going too far and too fast.

George Osborne says we are in denial about the deficit. Because he wants us to be. So let's not be.

It is a test.

I profoundly believe the Tories are wrong in their economic judgment. As they push up unemployment and push down confidence, the pain will be severe and real ...

The issue is not Labour's policy; it is the Tory policy of adding to Labour's plans [£666] of spending cuts and tax increases for every man, woman and child in the country.

Don't try to blame us Mr Osborne. We had a clear plan for reducing the deficit. You chose to go a lot further, a lot faster. Your choice. Your cuts.

It is not us in denial Mr Osborne.

It is you in denial – about jobs, about growth, about the lives and livelihoods that depend on a growing economy.

You are in denial because no country can cut its deficit unless it grows its economy. You prattle on about Canada in the 1990s. But Canada has a 3,000 mile border with the US which at the time was going through the Clinton boom.

You have taken the biggest economic gamble in a generation….with other people's lives.

He would have made a good argument about the Office of Budget Responsibility – chiming with what this blog has previously argued about that.

What the Guardian sees as most newsworthy in David Miliband speech is the tone and style of his mea culpa over New Labour’s economic record.

So the speech would have maintained the previous policy – yet Miliband the Elder would have tried to place the emphasis on being vocal about what Labour got wrong about the economy, and chosen to take on the challenge about deficit reduction head on by being vocal about the importance of being able to answer the charge of “denial”.

On content, however, David Miliband’s answer is to turn the challenge around and charge George Osborne of being in denial.

In tone, Miliband takes great care to offer several heresies against Brownism.

(The proposed attack on the apparent Brown claim to have abolished the economic cycle was made, immediately after the leadership election, by Ed Miliband, as the Guardian reported on September 28th last year - "And when you saw jobs disappear and economic insecurity undermined, I understand your anger at a Labour government that claimed it could end boom and bust" - which perhaps nuances the claim in today's report of a stark difference between the two speeches).

Yet, in content, this is, in essence, similar to Ed Balls’ attempts to get up the phrase “growth denier”.

While I am not sure that the line that “the answer to the mean state is the lean state” quite comes off rhetorically, it is essentially an application of the Clinton/Gore era ‘Reinventing Government’ agenda to more difficult times of austerity, and here being used to promote both the former (Darling) and current (Miliband E) Labour party policy rather than to harden it.

There is a defence of incurring the deficit - "explain that it was not immoral to incur the vast bulk of the deficit to prevent recession turning into Depression; it was necessary; to protect your savings and rescue the economy. And when the history books are written people will admit Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did lead the world".

Words and symbols matter in politics as well as policies.

It is about what is heard as well as what is said. And David Miliband's speech is effective in being clear that some concessions need to be made - because clearly something very important went wrong - but careful about what the concessions are.

This debate is really about the balance to be struck between the need for Labour to acknowledge mistakes and the pressure to join and endorse a blanket denigration of Labour’s record in office.

There are differences too. Again, sometimes the symbolism as well as the policy matters. David Miliband would not have emulated what his brother said to try to draw a line under the issue of Iraq, because he doesn't take the same view of the war itself, and would have focused instead on a bipartisan approach to Afghanistan had he won the leadership. Nevertheless, the elder Miliband (who was Schools Minister, outside the Cabinet, not Foreign Secretary, in 2003) has gone further in comments about the lessons of Iraq this year than he did during the contest.

David Miliband’s speech suggests that he believes that Labour” wins from a centre-left position” – a very welcome statement from ex-PM Tony Blair in his Times interview last week. I can certainly imagine David Miliband voicing the argument, as Ed Miliband did in his speech at Progress recently, that Labour can not become a party of the status quo and “there is no alternative”.

The elder Miliband would also clearly reject the view that Labour should endorse entirely and in full George Osborne’s economic and deficit reduction strategy (facilitating charges of hypocrisy against the party whenever they then challenge specific decisions).

The noisily provocative blogger Dan Hodges’ latest attempt to clang dustbin lids is to adopt the trope of declaring anybody who doesn’t agree with him about this and everything else to be a “flat earther”.

He has given notice too that we can all now rely on Hodges to pop up in the popular prints by predicting seven out of the next two leadership challenges: he has already scheduled the first abortive attempt for May 2012. (It is becoming clear that a key danger for any actually existing plotters in future will be how they can prevent Hodges wrecking the plan with a breathless account before the plot itself has had any time to take shape).

But I am not sure I can identify anybody except Galileo Hodges and former Labour party general secretary Peter Watt who they would place outside their "non-flat earth” faction.

For it seems pretty clear that David Miliband’s draft speech means that he too would count as a “flat earther” for Galileo Hodges. (If the non flat earthers do want a candidate in a future leadership contest, they may well have to try to secure the defection of David Laws. C'est magnifique, but it isn't really politics).

Hodges blogging is very often an entertainment but I can’t quite see where he acquired the credentials to pose as the Galileo of the Labour blogosphere.

His declaration that “David Miliband has won” – though it would have helped motivate the speech-writing team to get on with polishing this final draft - was surely a classic of the flat earth genre. (Easy with hindsight. I can point to our argument in the comments thread of the post before the result, where I took the boringly sensiblist view that it was too close to definitively call, as a caveat to my own projection that Ed M may have nicked it by a whisker).

Was that the moment that Dan Hodges fell over the edge?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

50 Less MPs. 600 More Headaches

Parliamentary watchers have been quietly musing over this one in the shadows for a while now, but after a year the boundary review makes its first major appearance in the political spotlight after the Guardian published an interactive map based on projections by Lewis Baston of the Electoral Reform Society.

The Guardian, like the majority of the left-wing blogosphere, knows that any headline which reads “Nick ‘Thick’ Clegg Does Something A Bit Thick” tends to generate a disproportionate amount of clicks and comments from the angry brigade. Therefore initial reports on the new seat predictions have been reported through that prism as Baston’s model predicts that "24% of Lib-Dem turkeys will be voting for Christmas" (© the angry commenter) when the bill goes through Parliament later this year.

It’s worth noting that, though rigorous, the research is largely speculative. The bill has a rip it up and start again clause telling the commission to do what it needs to do in order to get those constituencies equal in terms of voter size. It is important to reflect however just how much effort and energy this is going to use up inside the Westminster bubble between now and the next election.

For fervent watchers of the Westminster bubble it’s going to be entertaining, but for MPs it’s about to become a massive, time consuming headache. Imagine it from the MPs perspective for a minute; not only are you being asked to vote to potentially abolish your job, you’re voting to maybe get rid of half the constituency where you’ve spent ten years cultivating a personal vote. Or maybe you’re voting to turn your uber-safe seat into a marginal, voting to turn your life from a broad political thinker to a voter ID machine.

The electorate that you as an MP speaks to could completely change overnight. As soon as your seat comes up on the chopping block your electorate stops being the public as a whole, but might become 200 engaged members of your local political party. A Cameroon moderniser with ambitions on the cabinet could suddenly him or herself pandering to the Turnip Taleban for however long it takes.

On the flipside you might get a few MPs making 360 degree turns on the floor of the house. Is your seat one of the abolished? Well maybe there’s a seat in the Lords if you stay quiet and help reduce three seats into two.

Predictably, some are starting to get nervous. The mutterings of some Liberal MPs have already reached influential Lib-Dem blogger Mike Smithson but, unless party whips carefully manage the transition, this is just the tip of what is potentially a massive iceberg. Every meeting, briefing, speech and article could start to be viewed through a completely different prism; is it a lurch to the right? Attack on the leadership? Brazen u-turn? It’ll all be within the context of trying to secure the seat.

For Labour, the anonymity of opposition means that any problems, and there will be massive problems, will largely take place outside the spotlight. For Number 10 however this could be a publically massive headache. Mike Smithson calls it “just about the only leverage that Clegg’s party still has” and it’s starting to look like they intend to use it. Also, if you’re a Tory, then what better to prove your independence than by teaming up with other like-minded MPs to force a vote just to prove that you’re “sound” to a group of activists who don’t even remotely reflect the priorities of the wider public?

People are worried about their jobs, the cuts and the future of the economy. Parliamentary parlour games will make Westminster even more remote from people’s real lives and the public’s regard for politicians will get even lower. So while some will no doubt enjoy the fireworks as the internal bickering starts, we have a duty to constantly remind ourselves why we’re doing this and not get too distracted by the side-show.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

How can we ensure that Bahrain's Grand Prix backfires?

I am shocked, shocked to discover that Formula One “has demonstrated that it exists in a moral vacuum”, as The Independent says in its critical editorial about the decision to reinstate Bahrain’s place to the Formula One circuit this morning: “it appears not to have crossed Mr Ecclestone’s mind that moral principle should also be taken into consideration”, says the paper.

Oh Bernie, how could you?

Those who have seen the Formula One chief as a paragon of transparency, accountability and good governance in sport, and indeed modest good taste in his refined enjoyment of his personal wealth too, will find themselves most cruelly disillusioned this morning.

The Bahrain authorities are certainly grateful to Bernie Ecclestone for the “business as usual” signal that the Formula One decision sends. The cancellation of the race would have been a major blow to the project of demonstrating the “normalisation” of the Kingdom after the decision to attack peaceful protestors and send in Saudi tanks to suppress moderate pro-democracy demonstrations which were primarily seeking a path towards democratic constitutional monarchy.

The cancellation of the race would not quite have signalled pariah status for the Bahrain regime. The decisive factor was what is described as “safety”, one important concern, though perhaps also a euphemism for the ability to get cancellation insurance at rates which would not eat prohibitively into the race’s profits. The grateful Bahraini authorities will doubtless have been willing to address that concern, though their assurances about a safe and peaceful environment can not be guaranteed. (The teams, to their credit, made clear that they were against racing in Bahrain, though none appears to be prepared to sacrifice a contractual commitment to uphold that principle, even though they could yet, by acting collectively, scupper the plan).

Bahrain’s dictators believe that they are back in pole position. They are taking a risk that deserves to backfire. The Independent editorial quotes the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights as saying that the Formula One decision sends a crushing message to the protestors that they are forgotten. The question now is how to show that this is not the case.

Bahrain has a government that has sought to assiduously shepherd its reputation with western elites and decision-makers as moderate and reformist. That image was battered by its violent crackdown on peaceful protest. Yet, even then, events in Egypt and Libya meant that Bahrain was usually only a fleeting focus of international coverage, on the foreign news pages but rarely the front pages. It has been the controversy over Formula One which has kept Bahrain most prominently in international headlines – and which will now continue to do so.

So the Formula One race itself should now be a focal point of protest and pressure to ensure that the Bahrain government ends this PR exercise with the public reputation that their violent actions merit.

As I have argued before, the strategic principle behind this should be “contextual universalism” – what do those who I wish to support want (and not want) from me? The Formula One race has now become an important opportunity to show solidarity with those in Bahrain who seek the democratic rights to free expression that we can take for granted. Advocates of human rights outside Bahrain would benefit from a steer from within about what forms of protest and solidarity would help those who we seek to help (and whether there are types of external pressure that could be counterproductive).

Given the suppression of free expression, the international media has an important role in seeking to inform civic debate about the form which such solidarity might best take, while social media enables a rapid dissemination of such strategies. Blogs can take small steps, like promoting the most informative coverage of what is going on in Bahrain, and giving a platform and greater reach to advocates of human rights.

Initial signs are that Bahraini rights advocates would welcome an international storm of protest, and are bravely planning to use the race to return to the streets, with Nabeel Rajad of the Bahraini Centre for Human rights telling the BBC that

"Already they have called the day of that racing 'a day of rage', where they're going to come out everywhere, in every city of Bahrain, to show anger to what the Bahrain government, the Bahrain regime, is doing towards their own people."

Formula One is not in a position to right every wrong in the world. But it is responsible for the consequences of its own decisions. It seems likely that the very fact of the race – with the authorities under pressure to demonstrate “normality”, and so probably stepping up a new crackdown, because of the race itself. This makes the decision to proceed neither ethically defensible, nor even prudentially sensible.

There is still an opportunity to get the decision reversed and, at least, to ensure that the public relations consequences of proceeding with the race are negative for Bahrain’s international reputation.

With the race in October, there is time to ensure a concerted campaign to achieve this if human rights advocates, media outlets and concerned citizens can coordinate effective pressure.

So how could Formula One drivers, teams and sponsors be pressed on this issue? What actions could we reasonably expect them to take to demonstrate their discontent about this decision, and indeed to protect their own interests and reputations from being damaged by it?

What form of challenge should be put to western governments, businesses and others engaged in the Kingdom to show what actions they are prepared to take to support, and not actively assist in the suppression of, fundamental principles of human rights? How could MPs and MEPs from across the party spectrum in Britain and other countries cooperate to press these issues?

How will international human rights bodies take the opportunity to increase the salience and profile of the Bahraini human rights advocates who deserve our support? What routes can they suggest as to how the media, formula one fans and citizens generally can practically demonstrate support and solidarity for Bahrain’s democrats?

With the BBC having the rights to televise the race in Britain, is it now an important test of the channel’s broadcasting integrity that they ensure this major political controversy over the race is fully reflected in its coverage. Were this to be soft pedalled, it could well raise questions about whether an expensive contract for sporting rights creates tensions and conflicts with the responsibility for telling the story straight. I would expect the BBC to report on the full range of Bahraini opinion about what holding this race means, and to be absolutely clear if the authorities seek to impose reporting restrictions on their doing so. If such restrictions are in place, might the screening of the race itself be challenged?

Perhaps the BBC Trust should be pressed to indicate it is aware of such concerns, and will be ensuring that they are met. If they want to show that they are unbowed, the least the BBC should do is to commission a Panorama special on the Bahrain crackdown, and who in the west is playing their part alongside Bernie Ecclestone in the PR campaign to forget about it and move on.

It has never been possible to keep politics out of sport. It is one arena through which we contest important questions of identity and values. Just about every dictatorship has thought about how to make use of the cultural, economic and social power of sport for its own ends. Democrats should not depart the field but should work out how to respond in kind.

Bahrain’s Grand Prix could yet become an expensive and hubristic own goal. But that will now depend on what we can do, as citizens, to make it so.