Monday, May 29, 2006

Mandleson knifes Prescott

Peter Mandleson on Radio 4 just a few minutes ago said vis-a-vis Prescott that he "is a party man to his fingertips and I'm sure whatever he does will be in the party's interest and not his own". I was going to entitle this post "Mandleson puts the boot in" but I think the stiletto is more his style.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Recent Polls

Two polls last week seem to show that the Conservative lead is more than a blip. ICM in the Guardian had: Conservatives 38%, Labour 34% and the Lib-Dems 20%. YouGov in the Telegraph had Conservatives 38%, Labour 32% and the Lib-Dems 16%. Of course, the election is a long way off, and Labour has had a disastrous couple of months. On the issues Anthony Wells at UK Polling sees a “collapse in confidence in the government” rather than “any great surge in Conservative support”. (Then again, as the old adage has it: "Governments lose elections, Oppositions don't win them"). On the economy Labour is still ahead of the Tories (on 32%) but this is a fall of 17%, whereas the Conservatives are up only 2 points to 29%. The Conservatives have big leads on Tory core-vote issues such as immigration and law and order, but ICM also shows they are slightly ahead on education and health (YouGov has them ahead on education and just behind on the NHS). Labour is also ahead on inflation, interest rates, childcare, unemployment and housing. This does not suggest that Labour's position is irrecoverable.

ICM also asked the Brown Question: “If at the next election the Conservatives are led by David Cameron, Gordon Brown leads Labour, and Menzies Campbell (Ming Campbell) leads the Liberal-Democrats, how would you vote: Conservative, Labour, Liberal-Democrat, or for another party?” This produced the following result: Conservative 40%; Labour 31%; Liberal-Democrats 19%; Other 10%. But when asked: “As you know Gordon Brown is likely to take over from Tony Blair at some point before the next General Election. (Does this make you) more likely to vote Labour”? The result was: 26% were more likely to vote Labour with Blair and 41% with Brown. When asked who was more “trustworthy” Brown led Blair 40% to 26%; “looks to the future” gave Brown a 40% to 32% lead; “more style than substance” had Blair on 51% to Brown’s 31%; “more likely to tell the truth” had Brown on 44% and Blair on 18%; and “competent manager” had Brown leading Blair 51% to 27%.

It seems we simply don’t know what effect a Brown Leadership would have on voters. But the collapse of trust in Blair seems clear enough.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

True-Blue Dave

Matthew Parris in the Times (20/5/06) is arguing that the Conservatives have moved to the right in two policy areas since David Cameron became leader: Europe and Foreign Policy. He identifies Fox, Hague, Osborne and Michael Gove as rightists on these issues and concludes "...we could be just a few years from a Cabinet in which the PM, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are to the right of Margaret Thatcher in their view of Britain's place in the world". I suspect the Conservatives at heart remain pretty right-wing on domestic policy also: the move to the centre is so far mainly all spin and image. We should never forget Cameron's role in drafting the Conservative Manifesto at the last election: a thoroughly nasty right-wing document if ever there was one.

Eric Forth

That the Tory right should be distresed at the death of Eric Forth is understandable; but the incontinent outpouring of grief by all and sundry is more bewildering. It reminds me of the old "Not The Nine O'Clock News" sketch: two politicians are verbally abusing each other when one suddenly keels over and dies of a heart attack; the other, without a beat, starts praising "a man of the utmost integrity", etc. One does not want to speak ill of the recently deceased, but according to the Guardian obituary Forth, iner alia: opposed the sex equality Bill; supported the Rugby Union tour of South Africa; and opposed spending "vast sums" on combating AIDS (which he described as "self-inflicted"). This sort of thing was combined with more common-or-garden right-wing views such as criticising "all this sucking up to minorities" and advocating the restoration of hanging. He is currently being described as "colourful", "unfashionable", "a good House of Commons man" and so on. I seem to remember Tony Benn in "Not The Nine O'Clock News" mode after Enoch Powell died (even going so far as to say he "was not a racist"). I'm afraid I cannot find the views of Forth or Powell on apartheid or AIDS simply an amusing eccentricity ("lurid ties and waistcoats" notwithstanding). At a stretch Forth may well, on a personal level, have been an amusing and engaging fellow; I have no idea, although my experiences of saloon-bar types with these kind of views suggests perhaps not. In any case, those of us who think so should not pretend his views were anything but utterly vile. Frankly, I myself will not be weeping with inconsolable grief when Maggie Thatcher or Ian Paisley kick the bucket. I'm sorry if this all seems uncharitable, but honestly...

Gavyn Davies Does The Sums

Politaholic is quite fond of the little articles by Gavyn Davies on the back page of G2. The one last Thursday was about Ministerial tenure. Davies has done the sums: Blair has so far appointed 54 different people to Cabinet, and the average time spent in Cabinet is roughly speaking four and a half years (Davies says 4.68 on the assumpton Blair leaves office after 11 years and there are no further reshuffles). Under Thatcher it was 4.28 years. But the average tenure in a particular Cabinet post is 2.53 years (under Thatcher it was 2.34 years). Including transfers between jobs Blair has made 100 separate Cabinet appointments (Thatcher made 108). Blair has so far had 7 Leaders of the House, 7 Chief Secretaries to the Treasury, 6 Employment Secretaries, 6 Industry Secretaries, and 5 Education Secretaries. John Reid has occupied 7 different Cabinet posts since 1999, before which he was a Minister of State (two posts). They are: 1997-1998 Minister of Defence; 1998-1999 Minister for Transport; 1999-2001 Secretary of State for Scotland; 2001-2002 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; 2002-2003 Party Chair and Minister without Portfolio; 2003 Leader of the House of Commons; 2003-2005 Secretary of State for Health; 2005 Secretary of State for Defence; 2006-? Home Secretary. Davies argues shortage of tenure matters more than it used to, given that the "traditional strengths of the independent mandarin have been emasculated" and the end result has "too often been dysfunctional government". Oh, and Blair has had just one Chancellor.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blair: Has the Magic Gone?

There was an interesting article by Polly Toynbee in Tuesday's Guardian. She quotes from Professor John Curtis who in "reviewing the voting evidence" - she doesn't say where, if anyone knows I'd be grateful - casts doubt on the "Blair magic" vis-a-vis Middle England. Blair inherited a double digit lead from John Smith (MORI in a poll taken on April 21-25 just a few weeks before John Smith's death had Labour on 47% to the Conservatives 26%. MORI also had Labour consistently ahead of Labour from July 1992 onwards). Curtis apparently argues that "...Blair's luck has been a decade of Tory collapse and that his luck has just run out". In 2005 Labour polled only 1% more than Kinnock in 1992: 35.2% in 2005 compared to 34.4% in 1992. The difference was in the level of support for the Conservatives: 41.9% in 1992 compared to 32.2% in 2005. Custis also (apparently) argues that no one can know how well Brown will do as PM; he thinks "How would you vote if Brown were PM?" is a "rubbish" question. No one can know until it happens. In any case, Brown's task will be more difficult than Blair's. In 1997 it was a matter of removing a divided, exhausted, and discredited government from office. Brown will have to win a fourth term for a government which has had its own fair share of sleaze and failure. Toynbee raises the question of whether there will be "room" for Brown "to strike out progressively". She also makes the point that even if Blair "did inveigle middle England by encouraging individualism and consumer greed" that "nine years is a long time in office" and "times change". The only problem with this is that she seems to think there is more political distance between Blair and Brown than there actually is; I doubt if we will see the government launch itself in a radically new direction under Brown. Finally, Curtis makes the point that whatever "southern magic" Blair had has now gone: "They don't believe a word he says". Neither does Gordon.

Monday, May 15, 2006

NHS Reform?

I missed this in The Guardian (Thanks to Burning Our Money - see Links - from where I have borrowed it): "A team of consultants who drew up plans to cut 400 hospital jobs have been paid almost £700,000 in three months. The turnaround team from KPMG has been paid the money after the firm was hired by Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, which is mired in £40.9 million debt. Geoff Martin of Health Emergency said: "It's a scandal that big firms of accountants are being paid fat fees to recommend trusts to sack front-line nurses. That's New Labour's modernisation of the NHS where pen-pushers and hit-squads are seen as more important than the hard-working staff at the frontline of our hospital services." (Guardian 11.5.06)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Labour and Inequality

An article in the Daily Telegraph (13/5/06) shows the Gini Coefficient has fallen to 0.32. According to an earlier paper by Jonathan Shaw for the Institute of Fiscal Studies the Gini Coefficent increased by 2% during Labour's first term, but has fallen since 2000. The table - from here actually shows less inequality during the Major years than under Blair, but the table only goes as far as 2003. Furthermore, Shaw's projecions show that without changes in tax and benefits introduced by Labour inequality would have substantially increased after 1997. It does seem to be the case that the fall is due to Labour's policies: especially tax credits and benefit increases for pensioners and low-income families. However,the big increases in inequality in the 1980's have not been reversed (the Gini Coefficient was 0.25 in 1979).

The Battle for the Leadership

Blair apparently had a hard time at the PLP meeting last Monday and was forced to concede that he will give his successor “ample” time to settle in as leader before the next election (which is being interpreted as meaning he will go next year sometime between May and September). Wisely, and chastened by previous broken promises, Brown doesn’t appear to think this is sufficient. He wants Blair to have talks with “senior colleagues” about the handover (presumably he wants Blair to give them a date). Blair is resisting this. The Blairites have a tactical advantage here: Brown does not want to inherit a party fatally damaged by a bitter internal dispute (hence his excess of caution about striking the fatal blow); whereas Blair is going off into the lucrative American lecture circuit and in my view he doesn’t care that much about what happens to the Labour Party thereafter (and Milburn and Byers know there is no future for them under Brown). That is why Blair will try to cling on long after it is obvious his doing so damages his successors chances of winning a fourth election. The mood of the party seems to be that Blair and Brown should “sort this out”. But there is now also a groundswell against Blair; and many see no point in his hanging-on. Why does he hang on? Two reasons: (i) The record book: he would like to make ten years and, even better, he would like to outdistance Maggie. (ii) He wants his “legacy”. Well, we all know what his principal legacy will always be: his part in unleashing the bloody carnage in Iraq. He will never escape it. What if Blair doesn’t give the private assurances to the “senior colleagues”? Things have gone quiet over the last few days, but my bet is still on a leadership contest in the autumn.

Premature Exultation?

Last week's Populus Poll in the Times gave the Conservatives an 8-point lead: 38% to Labour’s 30% (with Brown as Leader it was 41% to 31%). The Poll also showed that 35% want Blair to go now and a further 15% by the end of this year; only 25% want him to stay until just before the next election (19% “don’t know” and 6% opt for next year). These findings are broadly borne out by the YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph which showed the Conservatives on 37% to Labour's 31%. Blair's approval rating was his worst ever: minus 40% (only 26% approve of him as PM). The YouGov poll also showed 41% want Blair to go this year and 13% next year (only 26% wanted him to serve a full term). A very ominous finding is that 83% see the Labour Party as divided.
Of course these polls come after a series of scandals and amid internal conflict over the leadership. They do however raise the question of how well Brown will do when pitted against Cameron (some of those who want Blair to go may be Tories who think Cameron can trounce Brown). The Conservative strategy is to depict Brown as an Old Labour “dinosaur” opposed to Blairite “reform” (If only it were true: Brown is no leftist – his manic commitment to “flexible labour markets” and PFI craziness are evidence enough of that). The Tories think that Gordon will lack Tony’s magic when it comes to appealing to Middle England (They will also exploit the fact that he is Scotttish: an ICM poll for the Daily Politics shows 52% think it wrong for there to be a Scottish PM now that Scotland has its own Parliament). There is probably a lot of truth in the claim that Brown will find it harder to woo Middle England than Blair. But although he is dour and Scottish Brown is a serious, substantial figure (a “heavyweight”) whereas Cameron is still mostly all spin and image-management (and the wheels could easily come off that bicycle). Cameron may also have trouble with he Tebbit wing of the party (already Liam Fox is cautiously distancing himself from Cameron, positioning himself for a leadership bid should it all go pear-shaped).Of course, Brown will have a difficult task: to win a fourth term for Labour. But after years of Phoney-Tony will the voters really want a Phoney-Tory-Tony-Clone? Without being complacent, I think Brown under Labour can win the next election, assuming Blair does not stay in his bunker until the party is in ruins around him. On the back of the Populus and YouGov polls the Tories current rejoicing may well be a case of “premature exultation”.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where Is Brutus When You Need Him?

There is some confusion about the letters circulating among Labour backbenchers. Are there one or two? Neil Lawson on Radio 5 this morning denied there was a Compass letter (he says it was a press statement not a letter). But there is another letter giving Blair three months to set out a timetable for the election of the new party leader, which at least 50 MP's are ready to sign. Presumably, the plan - if Blair fails to meet the deadline - is to stand a candidate against him in the autumn. Anthony Howard on BBC 1 said that “they are really frightened” by the letter in Downing Street and “they are pretty scared behind the wagons in No. 10”. On the Marr programme this morning Brown spoke repeatedly of the need for “renewal” and for “stable and ordinary transition”, repeating each phrase ad nauseam. But he stopped short of backing the demand for a timetable, taking the line that this is a matter for Blair. Mind you, Brown bridled at being compared to "Rab" Butler (who "always played the game and always lost"). Interestingly, he described Clarke as “a very good friend of mine” and a “very competent Minister” who could "legitimately" expect to return to Cabinet in due course. Apparently, before he was sacked last week, Clarke told Blair he should set a timetable. I would be wary of Clarke if I were Blair; and also of the other losers in this reshuffle: Straw, Kelly, and Hoon (although none of these three are noted for their excess of backbone). Perhaps Margaret Beckett might put loyalty to the party before loyalty and gratitude to Blair (to lose two Foreign Secretaries is carelessness, but three..)? She is said to be closer to Brown than Blair (then again, I can't see her as Foreign Secretary under Brown and, as with all politicians, self-interest comes first). The fatal blow will probably have to come from those close enough to wield the knife. A Brutus (or a Geoffrey Howe) – if someone can summon up the courage - is badly needed. A Brutus who (unlike the original) would prosper under the new regime. But Caesar is resourceful, and if they tarry too long the moment for forcing an early departure may pass. This is the time to act.

The White House and the Reshuffle

Tony Benn was on BBC 1 just before the Andy Marr show. He said this must be “the first reshuffle conducted by an American President”. The BBC interviewer (a non-entity I didn’t recognize) tried to dismiss this with a derisory: “Let’s get back to the main issue if we can?” Anthony Howard, to his credit, said he agreed with Benn, that Straw had been moved for being “a bit too independent”, and that Beckett was appointed because Blair believes he can control her. (To a large extent Blair conducts his own foreign policy anyway). Of course, Benn is exaggerating when he says that Bush conducted the reshuffle, but it is quite plausible that Bush’s displeasure was one factor in Straw’s demotion and this is yet further evidence (if any were needed) of Blair's servility to White House.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The plot against Blair

The Guardian is leading on “Plotters Move to Oust Blair”. It seems there is an “embryonic letter in circulation on the Labour backbenches calling for Mr. Blair to quit”. A draft text of the letter, written by Neil Lawson (who used to work for Gordon Brown and is chair of the pressure group Compass, which describes itself as of the “democratic left”) can be seen on Guido Fawkes’ web-site (see Links). Brown on Friday morning on Radio 4 called for a “renewal” of the party (what could he possibly mean?). This was followed by Andrew (“Our air is not for sale”. Oops. Yes it is.) Smith calling for Blair to set the date. Others who have called either for Blair to go or to set a date include Nick Brown, Frank Dobson, and Nick Raynsford. The question is whether Gordon Brown will decide to strike: Anthony Howard on Radio 4 thought it unlikely he would himself mount a putsch but he “might not be against a putsch mounted on his behalf”, adding that he seems “afraid to strike”. But if he does not act soon it may be too late. The battle for the future of Labour is now underway: the Blairites are manoeuvring to prevent a Brown succession, the Brownites (and what’s left of the left) are manoeuvring to get Blair out sooner rather than later. The denouement cannot be long delayed…

Blair's Last Throw of the Dice

The Cabinet reshuffle was described by Anthony Howard on Radio 4 this morning as “drab” (too many old faces) and “a last throw that hasn’t worked”. Like Blair’s other re-shuffles it looks botched. Clarke has gone (after refusing demotion). Straw is demoted: perhaps for being “off message” on Iran (it seems the White House phoned Blair to complain) perhaps for some other transgression. Both have been loyal to Blair in the past; neither has any reason to be so in the future. Prescott – incredibly – has been stripped of his departmental responsibilities but stays in the Cabinet with salary and perks. The tabloids will have a field-day with this; can he really survive (and has he no pride)? And I wonder what odds Ladbrokes would have given on Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary last week? It is an astonishing appointment. It was also botched: it seems the original intention was that she share the job with Geoff (“Buff”) Hoon, but she refused, and instead he has been made Europe Minister (allowed to attend Cabinet but not as a member, which in effect, is a demotion). David Miliband and Douglas Alexander have been promoted to Cabinet rank, a long expected move. The interesting appointment is the peripatetic John Reid at the Home Office, it was suggested on Radio 4 (I can’t remember whether by Howard or someone else) that he is being “groomed” as a rival alternative leader to Brown and that Blair is “trying to set up” a leadership contest. The appointment of the robotic apparatchik Hazel Blears as Minister without Portfolio and party chairman and Jacqui Smith as Chief Whip, both Blairites, both promoted to Cabinet, is also a slap in the face to Brown and a sign that Blair intends to put up a fight.

BNP raises its ugly head

The most disturbing feature of the election is the gains by the BNP. They now have 46 council seats (they won 11 in Barking and Dagenham to become the second-largest party). There are probably a number of factors here: disillusionment with the mainstream parties; New Labour’s obsession with “Middle England” and neglect of the inner-city white working-class; the rise of “Islamophbia”; the fiasco at the Home Office forcing “immigration” up the agenda; Margaret Hodge’s gift of free publicity; and probably– I hate to say it – effective campaigning by the BNP. It is also possible that if the Conservatives under Cameron move to the centre a gap on the right opens up into which parties such as UKIP and the BNP can move. The most propitious circumstances for the far-right do seem to be Labour in power and the Conservatives pitching for the middle ground. I seem to remember that the last time the far-right appeared on the political map was in the mid-to-late 1970’s. With the election of Thatcher – who quite cynically played the “race card” in the 1979 election – the far-right bubble burst. Lets hope this isn’t the only way the threat can be countered.

Council Elections: Bad But Not Disastrous

Labour’s losses in the local elections are greater than I expected but fell short of “meltdown”. In the Guardian on Thursday Patrick Wintour et al rated potential losses as follows: 200 (“doing better than 2 years ago”), 300 (“almost as bad as 2004”), 400 (“bad but recoverable”), 550 (“wipeout”). Well, on this scale the result was bad but not completely disastrous. The LSE’s Tony Travers is quoted in this morning’s Times as saying that the result is “a good, old-fashioned bad result for a party in power rather than a complete meltdown”. The result would, of course, have been much worse if Labour had not also done badly in 2004. This time Labour lost 319 councillors and control of 18 councils; the Conservatives gained 316 councillors and 11 councils. Labour did especially badly in the south. Conservatives gains included Bexley, Croydon, Ealing, and Hammersmith and Fulham. Labour also lost overall control of 14 councils including Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Bury, and Warrington. Manchester remains a Tory-free zone (long may it be so!). David Cameron has done well enough for the moment; gains of fewer than 200 and he would have been in trouble. The Liberal-Democrats gained 2 councillors and 1 council: no progress at all really. This is probably due to a combination of the “Cameron factor” and the uninspiring leadership of Ming the Monotonous.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Pressure on Blair Grows

This morning's Guardian reports that "senior Cabinet Ministers" want Blair to name the date. They include "normally loyal Cabinet Ministers", although no names are given (by my calculation, if Prescott and Clarke go, as seems likely, only about a third of the Cabinet are hard-core Blairites, and one or two of those - the belligerent Reid, for example - are pragmatic enough to jump ship). So who are these "senior Cabinet Ministers"? I suspect it is not the Balirite core (Reid, Hoon, Hewitt, Jowell, etc). Could it be Straw or Hain? A reshuffle could see Ed Balls, one of the Milibands, and/or Alexander Douglas promoted to Cabinet rank: but some of these are Brownites and even the broadly Blairite David Miliband has kept his options open. If Blair passes these over in order to promote some Blairite clones this would surely mean open warfare - as distinct from the guerrilla warfare now ongoing - with Brown (with Prescott the peacemaker gone). If Blair announces he will go in mid-2007 this could stave-off a leadership challenge later this year (the Guardian reports that what is left of the left in the parliamentary party have been planning for months to stand a "stalking horse" against Blair later this year); but such a relatively early departure date would leave him a lame-duck PM. The uber-Blairites want to prevent Brown inheriting the Leadership, but they are also running out of options so far as a credible leadership candidates are concerned: Milburn and Reid seem to be the only ones left, and I don't think either stands a chance against Brown. If there is a leadeship challenge a "compromise" (non-Blairite, non-Brownite) candidate could win the crown (Hain?). Brown cannot be assured of the trade union vote in the electoral college (given his well-known devotion to PFI). But I still think Brown is by far Blair's most likely successor. All this is Kremlinology of course: we will have to wait and see. The latest round-up of the opinion polls
here show Labour slipping.