Last week’s Strategic Defence and Comprehensive Spending Reviews brought out the best and worst of the British political system. In particular the format of Prime Minister’s Questions, with two opposing teams hurling groans at one another, was shown to be both redundant and formulaic on the one hand and sensible and necessary on the other. In the majority of recent encounters in the chamber, the Prime Minister David Cameron has used the inexperience of his new opponent Ed Miliband to derail any challenges before they can gather steam. He stands there, shaking his head at the indignation swelling from the Labour benches, moaning about the shambolic economic legacy they left behind. Rather than accept any alternative method to the path chosen by his coalition, he puffs out his chest and talks patronisingly as a wise old figure, one that has been there and done it. “You cannot attack a plan without a plan” he tells Miliband, is something he learnt from his time in Opposition. Miliband must be desperate to slam the Prime Minister for his sheer cheek and hypocrisy. After all it must be obvious to anyone that Miliband and his new Labour front bench will need time to devise an alternative to Cameron’s cuts, just as he and George Osborne took time to decide where the axe would fall hardest. And given the way Cameron did a drastic u-turn on economic policy after the banking crisis, guided by ideology and the opportunity for massive political gain, it must pain Miliband to watch the Prime Minister get away with his own allegations now. But sensibly, rather than lose his cool, Miliband has stuck to a reasoned, calm approach to PMQs that should quietly serve him well if he can keep it up.
It’s been difficult for Miliband to land any decisive blows, given that Cameron’s catch all defence of the deficit still seems to hold sway with voters. But Cameron must know that he will not be able to pass the buck forever, and soon it will be the policies of his own government being judged and assessed. He must hope, for example, that circumstances do not change and Britain does not need to fight a conventional war within the next ten years. The decision to go ahead with the construction of two aircraft carriers was made inevitable due to the costs of cancellation bizarrely exceeding the build itself, but surely it would have made sense to provide these carriers with strike capability, if they had to be built? As usual Cameron blamed Labour’s legacy of overspend and for the most part the defence budget was balanced in a way the Opposition could not disagree with. The vital parts of the military’s capability, such as those operational in Afghanistan, were protected and excess necessarily trimmed. Provision was made for the emergence of new threats such as terrorism and cyber warfare, and strengths like our Special Forces were recognised and reinforced with additional funding. In fact the only real disagreement Miliband had with the SDR was the fact that it was rushed and made more about cutting than equipping the nation to protect itself. This led to a largely pointless session in which Miliband reasserted this main theme.
Of course Miliband was right not to challenge strategic advice for the sake of it, and I am not saying he should have. However there were certainly other approaches that could have been taken to the review and some will regard it as an opportunity dangerously missed. Why, for example, did the majority of the defence budget still deal with threats deemed extremely unlikely, and a far smaller portion dedicated to combating new, ever present dangers? The intelligence services did receive a funding boost but many will say that the real threats are still not properly dealt with, in favour of costly projections of power such as carriers and troop numbers. Critics will argue that in a time of austerity the money safeguarded for outdated areas of defence, which aim to maintain Britain’s world power status but fail, would be better spent on public services and assets the country has that could broadcast our influence globally in other ways. The big decision on Trident was essentially postponed. Millions of voters would happily see Britain’s nuclear deterrent decommissioned, especially when the equivalent cost of schools or hospitals is drawn in stark comparison. Despite all the political talk of fairness doing the rounds at the moment, the views of millions will go unheard. And it’s very hard to believe in the so called fairness being dished out when it is controlled by establishment figures from a wealthy, elite background and they are failing to deal with the looming problems of the future.
There was of course far more fundamental disagreement between the coalition and Labour over the Comprehensive Spending Review. It’s practically impossible to get a firm handle on all of the cuts, as they are so widespread. It’s clear though that some will lead to greater unfairness and inequality, and Labour should rightly fight them. However lame an excuse it is though the Prime Minister has a point about Labour’s lack of an alternative plan. So far the only thing Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson have come up with is a promise for more taxation on the banks, which is good but would need to be carefully implemented, and an archaic stimulus package for growth. The emphasis on growth is right but too vague and will need to be contrasted favourably with the coalition’s overreliance on a private sector driven recovery. The growth should also be modern and sustainable, so to hear Johnson talking about road building projects sounds like something from Germany or America in the depression hit 30s.
It seems that all the major parties are happy to surrender the green agenda in the current climate. Miliband, once Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has done absolutely nothing since becoming leader to demonstrate a commitment to the challenge and a disheartening impression that green issues were always simply a means to end for him is developing. Cameron will no doubt continue to call his government the “greenest ever”. Whilst he may have cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, and he may not be proposing outdated road building programmes, he is providing little actual public investment for much needed green power sources. Plans for a barrier on the Severn estuary, which could have potentially generated 5% of Britain’s energy needs for zero carbon output, were dropped in the spending review. The efficiency of the technology was questionable, but it’s the sort of ambitious project that someone ought to be championing. Labour kicked up a little fuss, despite it fitting their ideals of investment for sustainable jobs and growth.
At the moment there is a sole Green voice in Parliament, that of party leader Caroline Lucas, speaking up on these issues. Of course this does not accurately reflect the extent of support for the Green party at the last election. Under a truly representative voting system the Greens would have more MPs based on the last set of results. But should the system be made more fair then without a doubt more still would vote for not just the Greens but whichever fringe party they genuinely thought to have the best policies and that cared about the right issues. Given the crisis of confidence in British politics recently, I can think of no better breath of fresh air and accountability than a more democratic, modern system of election. Next May we’ll have the chance to vote for real votes. And with any luck the defenders of the establishment will fail and the next time decisions as important as those made in the CSR are carried out, thousands of previously silent people will have a genuine voice.
I passionately believe that without fairer votes honesty cannot be restored to politics. And not only honesty but the ability to inspire. Votes that count will inspire people to use politics as the vehicle for real, progressive, needed change. I’m saying YES to the Alternative Vote and I hope you’ll join me.
Two Eds really are better than one
It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.
At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.
Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.
Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.
I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.
Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.
There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.
However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.
Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.
Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.
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