Ed Miliband may have found a way to shake off the label “Red Ed”. Unfortunately for him it could simply be replaced by the even more damaging nickname “Robot Ed”.
It’s hard to believe that just last September Miliband’s acceptance speech as leader of the Labour party was greeted by a chorus of relief. The wooden and cold Gordon Brown had been replaced by a youthful, honest, reasonable and approachable man, not afraid to at least attempt a joke and flash a bumbling but genuine smile. Now though Miliband’s PR machine is working so hard to preserve this flattering initial image of reason and humanity, that they have forgotten to let him be natural at any moment, even between highly choreographed press conferences or interviews.
I am always keen to write about the policy as opposed to the personalities of politics. The culture of spin and press manipulation too often overshadows the important debates about what Britain needs or what would be a better way of doing things. There are so many pressing challenges to thrash out swift but credible and long term solutions to, that it is plain irresponsible and arrogant to get bogged down in ideological or personal differences. Miliband’s shadow cabinet have been far too slow to produce viable and inspiring policy ideas.
However as the shocking revelations of the past week have shown, dishonesty and deceit are facts of life on a national scale. Rightly or wrongly the public digests the truths, half truths, lies and simplifications of the press every day. And for the average voter that mysterious quality of “likeability” will always prove crucial to which party they back at the polls.
Ed Miliband’s team are clearly aware of this, as anyone working in politics must be. But rather than supporting the key work on policy behind the scenes, the Labour leader’s media experts have meddled to such an obvious and unsubtle extent, that the overwhelming impression of Miliband amongst the public of late has been one of fakery and artificiality. The most embarrassing incident for Miliband has been the exposure of this interview about the planned strike of teachers across the country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZtVm8wtyFI
It makes for excruciating viewing. The journalist conducting the interview has written and spoken about his frustration. And it really is the sort of snippet behind the curtain of political life at the grim reality of it all that makes you doubt the truth of anything any MP ever says. Miliband delivers the same answer, reordered a little each time, to ensure a carefully crafted soundbite makes the news. His delivery, seen in context, is terrifyingly robotic. At no point is there even a glimmer of the man himself or a hint of his own opinion.
Ironically Miliband is now speaking out boldly against such negative elements of the press because of the ever growing scandal engulfing News International, forcing the closure of the News of the World. Cynical onlookers will criticise Miliband for yet another case of opportunism. But whatever his political motives, it’s clear that Miliband is putting himself in the firing line of an extremely powerful Murdoch empire in a way that no politician has previously done, to first and foremost, do the right thing. He has defended press freedom throughout and simply called for the proper investigations to go ahead.
In the midst of the phone hacking turmoil, an interview with former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been buried, in which he openly criticised Gordon Brown’s betrayal of New Labour. He stressed the importance of occupying the centre ground to win elections. Miliband responded in an interview with Andrew Marr by saying that he believed the centre ground had moved, presumably to the left.
Another factor Miliband must consider as he takes the initiative on phone hacking, is avoiding categorization as a popular leader of the “politics of protest” Blair warns against, which might count against his credibility as a potential Prime Minister. In other words, the fallout from the News of the World crisis might win Miliband supporters as a leader of the opposition, but ultimately not convince them that he has what it takes to lead the country.
This may be the crisis that establishes Miliband’s credentials as an opposition leader with influence. Then again Miliband may have sowed the seeds of his downfall by angering Murdoch and perhaps even more dangerously, leaving himself open to charges of hypocrisy. His PR team need to dramatically alter their strategy and have more confidence in Miliband’s ability to be himself and to speak through policy. Otherwise the correct case he is making about the BSkyB takeover and the immorality of hacking the phones of Milly Dowler and others, will be undermined and defeated.
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Not a dusty cave but a million dollar mansion. The intelligence has been meticulously gathered, the courier watched, followed and watched again. A highly trained team of professionals swoop in by helicopter and penetrate the hideout, at long last. Shots are fired and echo in the night; of course there is resistance. He won’t come quietly and perhaps they don’t want him to. After an intense fire fight, only deep silence reigns. The bullet battered body is bittersweet treasure. The hunt is over and the operation a success. No American casualties.
President Obama’s dramatic, triumphant but restrained announcement was long overdue. His predecessor had launched a largely misguided military mission across the world, with the objective to wage “war on terror”. Since the daring and devastating attacks of September 2001 though, the primary target has always been the apparent mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. There can be no doubt that his eventual death, and the American managed manner of it, will have widespread political ramifications. The significance of these, particularly in relation to the future threat of Al-Qaida, remain up for debate.
The first consequence commentators are quick to highlight is the boost to Obama’s presidency. Many are already saying that the deliverance of justice and his apparent personal involvement will prove the vital factor in tipping the balance of next year’s presidential election his way. Obama will already be the favourite and confident of securing a second term, mainly because of the meagre Republican candidates standing in his way. Sarah Palin’s ridiculous volatility makes her unelectable, whilst Donald Trump just seems ridiculous. The election will probably boil down to economic performance, as they always tend to do. But for independent voters and the more patriotically minded American, retribution for 9/11 could prove the difference between a Democrat and Republican vote. After all Bush failed to get real results and what would the new candidates offer, besides perhaps more foolhardy wars putting Americans in harm’s way?
The more globally contentious result of Bin Laden’s assassination, for that is what this was no matter how jubilant some people are, is what the future of Al-Qaida as an organisation will now be. Prime Ministers and heads of state are quick to urge “vigilance” and that the battle with extremism is not over. In a statement Tony Blair made this his key message in reaction to the news. Indeed security chiefs have even warned that the world should be on high alert and ready for a backlash; Al-Qaida will be invigorated to act soon through furious grief. But other experts are saying that apart from an initial anger driven response, we no longer have as much to fear from Al-Qaida. They are already a fading force and Bin Laden’s death is the final symbolic nail in their coffin.
Some articles are pointing to the peaceful dawn of the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, supposed Al-Qaida heartlands, revolutions are in full swing that are driven by peaceful protestors calling for democracy. Al-Qaida and indeed other extreme Islamists have failed to hijack the will of the masses in these revolts. If they cannot grasp the initiative and seize control in such turbulent times, what sort of a threat do they now pose? The evidence suggests their strength is severely diminished. Times are changing and this is a new decade of the 21st century.
I am no expert on Al-Qaida and it might be true that the evidence seems to suggest the organisation itself is growing weaker, despite Bin Laden’s encouragement of autonomous cells in numerous cities. I also listen to leaders using the word “vigilance” and can only think how hollow it sounds, how meaningless to the life of the ordinary citizen. I am inspired and awestruck by the historic peaceful stands in support of freedom being made in a growing number of Arab countries. But anyone can see that these peaceful protests are not the end of the story and they certainly don’t herald the end of extremism.
Extremism, by its nature, is pursued by ideologically brainwashed or ignorant individuals in the minority. This has always been a fact, always be known to the reasonable man, but occasionally obscured by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric and foolhardy foreign policy. The Arab Spring is driven by democracy because the majority of Arabs and Muslim share our desires, dreams and aspirations for rights. It’s not a new phenomenon, even if their sudden decision to act has created a shocking domino effect. The uprisings are a cause for immense hope and a huge step forward but they do not signal the end of extremism in these countries. And just because extremists are yet to influence the process, doesn’t mean that they won’t.
The ethical dilemmas of these conflicts and potential civil wars are already plain, illustrated best in Libya where we may or may not provide the rebels with weapons. History shows us what happened in Afghanistan where the people were armed against the Russians only to morph into the Taliban. It is difficult to know where and when the West should get involved for the best outcome. Why not Syria, right on the borders of Israel, when we’ve given support to those championing democracy in Libya?
For me the most worrying thing about the Arab Spring is what happens next, after the apparent victory and the departure of the news crews. If Gaddafi falls, hooray for Libya, but what takes his place? As rebellions ignite and swell everywhere, the outcome of the Egyptian rebellion, one of the most vital and influential countries to be gripped by trouble, is consigned to the past. Why are we not tracking the progress of democratic reform there, ensuring that something worse than a dictator cannot step into the vacuum? Why are we not helping the Egyptians achieve the democracy they covet and fought for?
Ok of course someone, somewhere is doing this job. People at the UN, in our own foreign office, are probably involved in the process. But the story of what happened next to Egypt and any other nation successful in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator is not being told in the news. And it should be. If leaders are serious about vigilance then that must be a part of it, keeping the spotlight on reform and not letting dangerous reactionaries creep in from the shadows. The public and the media should be aware of what’s going on and care beyond the drama and the headlines. I’m not saying Al-Qaida will revive in the thawing of the Arab Spring, but if we stop paying attention we can hardly complain when we find something or someone we don’t like with the reins to power and oil.
Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, perhaps as important as the Twin Towers bleeding smoke, and as Hilary Clinton said today, a time for renewed optimism and hope. It is not a time for barbaric and inflammatory jubilation, but for justice, relief and remembrance. And of course we must keep up that so called “vigilance”. Ordinary folk like us can do something more than being unnaturally wary in public places by keeping up the pressure on our media to show us the ongoing ends to their stories, not just the thrilling battlegrounds and premature triumphs.
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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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Imagine a world in which Tesco invaded Denmark. That’s right the supermarket, grabbing itself a piece of prime Scandinavian real estate. Imagine television listings brightened by the presence of celebrity game show, Rape An Ape, complete with catchy theme tune. Imagine a political landscape in which David Cameron was a forgotten has-been like the Conservative leaders that preceded him and Tony Blair roams the streets of Baghdad, bearded, greying and haunted by his contorted legacy. These mad and brilliant ideas are all generated by the brain of Armando Iannucci for his hilarious and unique BBC series Time Trumpet. Loving this as much as I did I had no hesitation in snapping up In The Loop from amongst the many varied seasonal offers at HMV.
Released in 2009, In The Loop is of course a feature length, larger scale version of The Thick of It, an enormously successful political satire first launched on BBC4 that has since acquired a cult following. The popularity of the show is not just down to witty and intelligent scripts, but perhaps largely due to the superb and vibrant character that is Malcolm Tucker, political spin doctor. Played magnificently by Peter Capaldi, Tucker is Number 10’s attack dog, unleashed to deal with media storms reflecting badly on government. He spits out line after line of venomous insults, dripping with graphic and vulgar imagery. He hovers around in a frenzy, fretting about the incompetence of others. His swearing is so loud and non-stop that in one scene a passing American accosts him; “Enough with the curse words pal”. Tucker simply replies with a volley of typical vitriol.
In London Tucker is the big cheese, charging about confidently, marching into ministerial offices like he owns the place and intimidating cabinet members. Tom Hollander is an impressive addition to the cast as a bumbling everyman figure, essentially well meaning but conscious of his infant career. He tries valiantly to talk sense to Tucker, only to be bulldozed aside and dominated like the rest. A few too many slightly opinionated responses to interview questions about the developing situation in the Middle East and a “will they/won’t they” war (no prizes for guessing the recent crisis used for inspiration), and Hollander’s International Development minister is dispatched to Washington to quell fears about his resignation and bribe him back on side. Hilariously and accurately he is repeatedly told to stick to the government line, without being told clearly what this is, in fact he is simply baffled by the repeated blasts of explanation from Tucker.
In The Loop is impressive because once things shift to Washington the writers do a wonderful job of creating believable and amusing Yank career vultures too. Across the pond their own inter-departmental war is raging, between those for and against conflict, and no one will overtly announce what they’re rushing around and bickering about. A funny speech from Hollander’s character back home, trying to be ambiguous about the UK’s stance with typical MP speak, has been adapted and taken on by the pro-war Americans, with the cliché phrase “climb the mountain of conflict” isolated.
Tucker tags along for the ride, keen to ensure his mistake prone minister doesn’t balls up again. Hollander is accompanied by his geeky and clumsy new aide, played by Chris Addison, who gives a warm and funny performance. He is surprisingly well connected and becomes crucial to the plot, whilst remaining inept. Drawing his Washington trip he beds an old American university colleague and when this is found out by his British Foreign Office girlfriend on his return, he comically and awkwardly attempts to claim he did it to try and stop the war. Things zip along with laughs in every scene, the stateside action broken up with a constituency visit and an irate Steve Coogan, until the climax of a vote at the UN for or against military action.
Prior to the vote Malcolm Tucker is slapped down by his American superiors. In Washington he is a castrated beast, a joke to the hot shot Yanks. Push aside his vulgarity and the obvious point of the film and the series, to get us to look at the ridiculous and distorted nature of modern political spin, truly engineered and evolved by Blair with Alastair Campbell, and Tucker is irresistibly likeable as a character. He is weirdly brilliant at what he does. And bewilderingly you root for him as he rises from the ashes, despite the immorality and twisted motivation. You don’t mind so much as Hollander’s eventual moral stand is crushed by his masterful scheming. You laugh along and rejoice in his charisma and sheer balls, as he and fellow Scott sidekick Paul Higgins, playing Senior Press Officer Jamie McDonald back in Britain, smash their way to their objectives. In The Loop is an intelligent and endlessly funny Christmas present, but however much Tucker’s insults have you splitting your sides, you wouldn’t want him around the family turkey dinner table.
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Two Eds are better than one? Well perhaps not as Labour’s new leader opted not to make his namesake Ed Balls shadow chancellor, despite the weight of expertise, a strong leadership campaign and many votes in the shadow cabinet elections behind him. His wife Yvette Cooper then, who topped the poll of Labour MPs, would surely get the chance to carve Labour a new, distinctive position on the deficit in response to the Con-Dem’s cuts? No. 60 year old Alan Johnson, the earliest backer of Ed’s elder brother, was chosen by young Ed as his right hand man. Despite David’s choice to bow out from frontline politics, his shadows hangs heavy over his brother’s first team selection.
Of all the shadow cabinet roles assigned it was obviously that of shadow chancellor that carried the most importance and also Johnson’s appointment to that role which was the biggest shock. Ed Miliband has been either slammed for his caution or praised for his unifying skills and his courage to make the right choices regardless of popularity. I happen to think that making Johnson shadow chancellor is a missed opportunity for Labour’s new generation but there are some well selected roles in Ed’s team. Andy Burnham is a good match for the education brief, given his reasonably strong leadership campaign, working class background and accessible, relevant character traits such as his love of football. His ordinary accent will contrast well with Michael Gove’s nasal snobbery in the Commons. Likewise Jim Murphy seems a good choice to shadow the MOD and Liam Fox, with his dour Scots accent he shall be able to pour scorn on government defence cuts whilst emphasising the needs of the ordinary soldier and citizen. There is also no reason why Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander and John Denham ought not to succeed in their new roles in International Development, Work and Pensions and Business respectively. Alexander and Denham in particular have their work cut out, with capable coalition opponents in Ian Duncan Smith and Vince Cable, but both are able ministers themselves.
However in my view Miliband has made a mistake in his handling of where exactly to place the popular and talented husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Both are wasted at the Home and Foreign office. Those who support the leader’s decision say that it was unavoidable to maintain party unity and to avoid the mistakes of the Blair-Brown years. An economic policy handed to Balls, they say, would have conceded this ground to him permanently as Blair did for Brown, dividing the party again and sowing the seeds of future turmoil. My response to the argument of unity is that by appointing Balls Shadow Home Secretary Miliband has not necessarily pacified him. Balls will be gutted as it is to have missed out on his shot at the Treasury yet again; he made no secret of his desire for the job. To be so bluntly snubbed and given what many regard as the jinxed ministerial brief will not endear him to the younger Miliband. Besides there was no reason for Balls and Miliband to be enemies as Blair and Brown were, especially if Miliband had trusted Balls and rewarded with a job he had long coveted. If Miliband was uncomfortable handing his most important role to the volatile Balls though, he should have given it to his wife Cooper. Cooper won the shadow cabinet elections, and therefore had democratic legitimacy as well as the additional merits of youth (only 40 years old and part of the new generation), expertise (she was previously Work and Pensions secretary, a closely related role), intelligence (Harvard educated, a journalist at the Independent) and the fact that she is female. Appointing her to his top job would have sent exactly the right sort of modern, fair message but instead Miliband played it safe. Whilst being Foreign Secretary is an important, prestigious position, shadowing the area is less glamorous and less crucial to the argument defining British politics at the moment; how best to respond to the deficit.
With Johnson’s appointment Miliband signalled that he is planning to stick largely to Alistair Darling’s failed election pledge to halve the deficit in four years. This is disappointing as frankly Labour need a new idea to be championed by their new generation. Ed Miliband needs his equivalent of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and he has an enormous opportunity if he can find his big idea, because voters refuse to buy into the Prime Minister’s. Appointing Johnson though is unlikely to lead to a distinctive, radical or inspiring position on the deficit with credible, imaginative solutions. Yes Johnson is a capable minister, having held high profile jobs as Home Secretary and Health Secretary amongst others, but he has always taken a back seat and kept a low profile. He has shown the capacity to be popular with ordinary voters; with his working class charm often talked about, but lacked the desire or courage to use it. In the past he has passed up opportunities for advancement and you wonder if he is genuinely enthused by the task set him by his new leader and the opportunities to make a real difference to fairness he has, or whether he is merely grimly descending to his task for the sake of previously mentioned, holy party unity.
Forging a successful, coherent and credible economic policy that is also electable is THE challenge facing Labour. The coalition is struggling over issues like universal benefit, tuition fees and the spending reviews. Tension is set to rise, with the NUS leading students to the streets on the 10th November to highlight the backtracking of Lib Dems. The shadow chancellor should be the spearhead of Labour’s new generation, with new ideas gradually forming a fresh vision, one more accessible than Cameron’s “Big Society” and fairer too. He should be prepared to examine ideas like the Robin Hood tax, mansion tax and graduate tax, whilst also backing the more sensible reforms of the coalition, such as a standard benefit payment and lifting the income tax threshold, as long as they are carried out properly. Labour needs to propose ideas for a new sustainable economy that can support essential and modern public services, whilst always striving for growth. It should look at green taxes, green jobs and green industries and offer a new deal with concrete investment. It should be prepared to ring fence areas of spending the Conservatives are set to cripple, whilst being ready to remain credible and a force in the argument by suggesting alternative means of revenue. Labour has to offer the opportunities a modern day, liberal British society craves in a way that can be paid for and delivered on; not the idealistic, vague promises of Cameron’s individualistic rhetoric, which merely serves as a cover for a smaller state, no matter how well intentioned.
Unfortunately I fear that Miliband’s selections for his shadow cabinet and his chancellor in particular, will lead to half baked, over cautious policies that lack the passion for real change. Indeed an incoherent policy on the deficit will lead to policy clashes throughout the party that might give Labour’s new generation an identity crisis. Balls as shadow chancellor would have relished the chance to set out a genuine alternative to the coalition and Miliband would have had to rein him in at times when he was wrong. But ultimately I feel the dynamism glimpsed in the Labour leadership campaign would have been better channelled towards George Osborne than given a bitter, limited home in opposition to Theresa May. Balls is likely to propose tough, populist positions on crime, driven by his resentment at missing out, policies that could undermine his new leader’s courtship of liberal Britain. Cooper too could have been a far more effective weapon against Osborne than Johnson and shall be wasted in her standoff with Hague, on issues like Afghanistan where there is no real disagreement. She also could have been a far better symbol of the new party Miliband is trying to create. Ultimately I can only assume Miliband feared she would be the puppet of her husband and his appointment of an ensemble of women to less important ministerial positions shows that he may not be as pro-women as he likes to make out. His appointment of an unknown to his previous brief as Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary also shows a disappointing lack of regard for an issue he led supporters to believe was vital to him, but now may well have proved to be a mere rung on his career ladder. A high profile appointment to this area in his shadow cabinet could have been a signal of intent. Despite my criticisms though it’s possible that the team Ed has chosen, with its mix of his and his brother’s supporters, will offer a unified and passionate opposition. It is wrong to judge before they have set to work, after all the road to the election is a marathon not a sprint, it just might have been possible to set out at a faster pace.
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Peter Morgan may or may not see his script for the 23rd James Bond film become a reality, and it may or not be a picture directed by acclaimed director Sam Mendes, but Morgan has certainly not struggled to make films about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Equally serial impressionist Michael Sheen has not found it hard to play the charming leader, taking on the role in previous dramas The Deal, The Queen and now The Special Relationship. Sheen has made a living out of playing real people, from the chaotic camp of Kenneth Williams to the masculine self assurance of football manager Brian Clough and he has always fitted snugly into Blair’s recognisable suits and effortlessly donned his trademark grin. As with Morgan’s previous examinations of Blair The Special Relationship looks at a particular period of this remarkable man’s life through a narrow lens with a small cluster of essential characters. This is the story of Clinton and Blair; the President’s influence on the Prime Minister, the wives influence on the two men’s friendship and the advisers grappling with how best to make use of such ideological and personal bonds.
Blair’s devious tabloid spin doctor Alastair Campbell slammed Morgan’s latest drama before it premiered on BBC2 on Saturday night as a complete work of fiction bearing almost no relation to the facts and events as they happened. Now whilst it must be true that Morgan wielded creative license to craft a number of personal scenes between the two leaders and the leaders and their wives, as he cannot have known the content of such intimate chats besides glimpses from memoirs, Campbell’s utter rejection of the drama’s credibility may be down to his own less than flattering portrayal. The special media adviser appears to be a brash, sneering and crude presence throughout. He represents the dark side of Blair he had to embrace in order to haul Labour out of Opposition in a new media age, a dark side of tabloid manipulation and sinister back stabbing and sordid scandals. Campbell is less of a character in Morgan’s drama than a commentator providing rolling coverage of the headlines at the time, highlighting the worst of public bloodlust and opinion, slipping in details that both provide background and represent the scale of the struggle Blair faces to get things done, when faced with an indifferent public more motivated by the shape of a President’s penis than his foreign policy commitments.
In fact given the political nature of the subject matter it’s hard to get to know any of the characters in The Special Relationship, because we don’t know them and neither did Morgan writing the script. We recall the events of the time, remember the urgency they tried to convey in their speeches and are familiar with their managed images in front of the flash bulbs. But even when we see Dennis Quaid’s brooding Clinton, seemingly drained by scandal and the web of lies he has entangled himself in, it’s impossible to deduce the sentiment of the man, he’s presented as a blank, an enigma of a stress deliberating how best to handle the political fallout. Hillary is arguably the most lifelike character in this drama and she is sensitively played. The restrained emotion is there, visibly only just in check but her ambition and necessity trap her in her situation. She doggedly soldiers on.
The events, somewhat inevitably, are major characters in themselves in this historical drama. That’s not to say we don’t get insight into character; it’s clear early on that despite Clinton’s insistence that Blair owes him nothing he expects good old Tony to tow the line. Initially he does so, movingly and hesitantly sticking his neck out over the affair, but when Blair makes a stand on Kosovo Clinton is not prepared to be in Blair’s debt, he was always managing the upstart Brit whatever the praise. It’s when the plot gathers pace over the Kosovan crisis that this drama comes into its own, engaging far more than the early, plodding set up of the Clinton-Blair relationship. Blair refuses to be politically positioned like a pawn by Clinton and the stage is set for confrontation. Churchillian like speeches full of inspiration captured the mood of the new millennium, a mood of optimistic cooperation in which every nation with a moral compass could play its part and make a genuine difference, a mood banished by 9/11 and the subsequent retaliation. It’s odd to think that Clinton’s America, although led by an adulterer, was more trusted and respected around the world and that Blair was able to harness goodwill felt towards it.
Blair’s boldness wins over the American press, with gushing approval ratings calling for him to run for the Presidency. Throughout the piece however the more experienced Clinton urged Blair to consider his legacy, not just fickle opinion polls, and whilst it may seem triumph in Kosovo secured it for Blair we all knew it was to be eclipsed, and the drama ends ominously with his heart and mind in the right place, committed to a pragmatic, meaningful relationship with new Republican President George Bush, but ultimately to underestimate and be sucked into a damaging legacy he would never shake off. Popularity would pass by Tony Blair just as it passed for Bill Clinton and both men arguably spurned opportunities to make use of it. The Special Relationship of progressive centre left leaders, leading the world in a unified, positive banishment of right-wing politics to the dark ages never truly materialised. Morgan’s drama ends by asking topical questions raised by the release of Blair’s memoir; did Blair waste his legacy and was he ever the politician he claimed to be, given his current support for the coalition, or was he just a self-centred man grabbing his place in history with both hands, wherever he had to reach to? Whatever the answers, despite Clinton’s warning to Blair that rhetoric alone is not enough, both leaders had moments in this drama that demonstrated the enormous power of words in the hands of a politician and leader, the power to ignite, transform and inspire, but also sadly, to disappoint.
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Prior to and during this year’s historic General Election my opinion of the then Schools Secretary Ed Balls was pretty low. In countless TV appearances his arrogant, aggressive demeanour failed to endear him to me, the general public or the voters in his constituency, which he nearly lost. One appearance on a Daily Politics education debate stands out in my mind. Balls had a strong argument backed with evidence, but his bullying behaviour of the unlikeable Tory Michael Gove alienated capable Lib Dem David Laws and I suspect the viewers at home. His intense, wide eyed robotic stare gave the impression of an obsessive madman, with whom it was pointless to try and reason. I always felt afraid for the children accosted to play with him for the cameras and prayed they would escape the education minister’s clutches, unscarred by those unblinking, shining orbs. Behind the insane eyes I suspected that Gordon Brown had long ago replaced Balls’ human brain with a Tory termination calculator, more suited to Labour’s attack dog.
The Conservatives had rightly singled him out as their Michael Portillo of 1997; an unpopular Labour big gun to be toppled to highlight the scale of the reversal, the sheer triumph of Cameron’s new blues. As it happened Balls clung to his seat and not enough red dominoes fell in the wake of the blue tide to give Cameron a majority. The fall of Balls did not materialise as the symbolic story of a Conservative return and was replaced by the drama of coalition negotiations. And with the resignation of his long term mentor Gordon Brown, Balls felt free to step out from his shadow (after a deal with his able, intelligent wife) and run for the party leadership.
Since this decision Balls has quietly transformed himself into the country’s most able Opposition politician. It’s now pretty much the generally accepted consensus that he has run the best campaign of all the Labour leadership contenders, one that focuses on the fatal flaws of the coalition and proposes serious counter policies, as opposed to sifting through the wreckage of New Labour and whining on about the party’s identity. When Brown took over from Blair the expectations were that Balls, Brown’s protégé, would eventually clash with Blair’s heir David Miliband. Due to the fact that Brown had just acquired the top job and Balls was expected to be made Chancellor, and the storm of the financial crisis was yet to break disastrously over Brown’s popularity, Balls was once favourite to become the next leader. If he retains any of the arrogant self confidence that was evident during the election campaign, he will no doubt be finding it hard to take that even the most gushing articles about him do not give him a hope in hell of success. His carefully targeted, policy driven push for the leadership has been undermined by the Miliband family feud and an image of a bullying suck-up that he can’t quite shake off.
Frankly it’s a damn shame Balls didn’t conduct himself with a little less brash brutality and a little more civility in his formative political years. If it were not for the lingering impression of a ruthless career politician, who shamelessly and tribally attached himself to one of New Labour’s rising stars, it would be far more difficult for Balls to be pinned down as a leftist candidate, with no credible chance of success. Of course it might be said that Balls would not have got where he is today by behaving differently, and that a degree of forcefulness is necessary for success in politics but his track record has nevertheless made it difficult for the party or the country to imagine him as leader. It also must be asked whether or not Balls’ transformation is genuine, as he cannot surely have shed all his unattractive qualities overnight, but the facts of his policy decisions seem to mark him out as Labour’s best hope for an alternative vision to the coalition right now.
Rightly Balls places himself in the progressive camp by backing AV and a graduate tax. He disagrees with the coalition’s package for AV, because of its various measures to redraw constituency boundaries but says he would back it in a modified form. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy and set out a sensible argument for reducing the deficit through fair tax rises like a NI rise, that only hits those in employment, rather than the coalition’s planned VAT increase. He has been the only shadow minister to effectively challenge the new government in his area, successfully landing blows against new Schools Secretary Michael Gove, not just for his building programme cuts but on the wisdom of the free schools project. Crucially as well as setting out his own fresh, progressive policies, Balls has shown the leadership qualities and level-headedness to stick to positions Labour adopted whilst in government he still believes to be right, despite media hype swinging the other way. On the economy Balls insists that new stimulus packages are still needed to ensure jobs, housing and growth and that the pressing need for drastic deficit reduction is an ideological myth created by the Tories. Whilst the truth probably lies between the extremes of the coalition’s cuts and Balls delay and extra spending, it is refreshing to have a Labour leadership candidate point out the lunacy of the culture of fear surrounding the deficit. Balls also has the weight of past policy judgements he called right behind him, such as his opposition to the euro and creation of an independent Bank of England, but his reluctance to draw attention to his aggressive past has meant he cannot point these out in the leadership contest as enthusiastically as he would like. There is an undoubted logic and sense to Balls’ arguments, as economic growth has always been the best way to reduce the deficit through higher tax receipts.
Whilst Balls looks unlikely to become the next leader of the Labour party there are already rumours of a deal between him and David Miliband. Such a deal would probably see Balls finally have the long coveted Treasury in his sights. Before this leadership election I would have been sceptical about Balls as Chancellor and much preferred the steady hand of Alistair Darling in control of the nation’s finances. However Balls has refreshed his image sufficiently, or at least cleverly concealed his flaws, to present himself as a competent and radical member of a new look, progressive Labour front bench that could offer the country a genuine choice and avoid the gloom of prolonged Opposition.
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Gerard Houllier’s appointment as Aston Villa’s new manager on a three-year contract has highlighted the growing complexity and difficulty of selecting a Premier League manager. Choosing a new man to pick the team, train the players and generally steer the club in the right direction is clearly always going to be a big decision, but these days things are complicated further by numerous additional roles. Houllier for example has just left the French Football Federation from the mysterious role of “technical director” to the national team and due to Randy Lerner’s apparent liking of caretaker manager Kevin McDonald’s coaching style there was talk of Houllier taking a similar role at Villa at one time, with McDonald handling the coaching of first-team affairs. Villa fans, whatever their views on Houllier, ought to be counting themselves lucky that they have at least appointed a manager and not adopted an incomprehensible system, inspired by continental clubs, that has produced only failure when tried in the Premiership before.
Personally I think it’s a shame Villa didn’t appoint Alan Curbishley and give an obviously capable and talented English coach a chance with a decent sized club. Curbishley had a torrid time with the board room at West Ham and deserves a more stable environment in which to try and manage a top club. However it remains to be seen whether Villa’s moneymen are content, given the circumstances under which O’Neil left the club and the telling words in the club’s statement which suggest Houllier was a candidate willing to compromise about lack of funds: “Two of the key qualities in our search for the new manager were experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad, and Gérard Houllier comfortably satisfies these criteria.” I certainly find it odd that Villa should turn to Houllier given his exile from the English game since his departure from Liverpool. Articles reporting the appointment emphasize Houllier’s glittering CV, but much of his experience is with French clubs a long time ago. Since Liverpool he has returned to his French comfort zone and can hardly said to have been successful in whatever it was he was asked to do as “technical director”, given the French’s disastrous World Cup. As manager Raymond Domenech got the barrage of blame but Houllier had a role and it was hardly part of a successful set up.
Indeed whenever I have seen them enacted systems involving a “technical director” or “director of football” do not seem to bring success. Certainly in the English game it would seem from the evidence that clubs who put their faith in a talented coach over a long period of time stay at the top of the game, such as Arsenal and Manchester United. When Chelsea tried a system involving “sporting directors” or something similar, “the special one” clashed with both Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, with disagreements between Jose and Grant eventually leading to the Portuguese’s departure. Following this Chelsea entered a period of decline, allowing United to reclaim dominance and they have only recovered to wrest back control since trusting two excellent coaches in Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti to run things their own way. “Technical Directors” or their equivalent always appear to be the owner or chairman’s spy, breathing down the neck of the manager and meddling with his transfer budget to create conflict and a climate of paranoia at clubs that does not breed a the unified vision and team spirit necessary to win trophies. Equally though the system has not worked well at clubs at the opposite end of the league, those in need of new impetus to avoid relegation. Dennis Wise was handed a role at Newcastle United by hands-on owner Mike Ashley that did nothing to revert the Toon’s slide to the Championship, but grabbed plenty of dramatic headlines. Portsmouth too experimented during their topsy-turvy period of ownership and poor performances, to no avail.
Like many people at the moment I have succumbed to curiosity and bought Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. In the first chapter he touches on the opposition he met from the Civil Service for bringing special advisers into the affairs of state, but makes a convincing argument that modern governments need such expertise on hand immediately to deal effectively with situations. I imagine the fascination with “technical directors” stems from a similar realization that the modern game of football requires a variety of top level experts. However Blair’s memoir also makes it clear that he and he only was leader, he felt that individual burden and we’re all aware of the complications between him and Gordon Brown over who should be leader that eventually ended his time in office. Football clubs today still require a leader, someone who has the final say and whose vision should always be behind day to day decisions. “Directors of football” and other such roles may have their place, but particularly when the person appointed to such a role has a high profile they cease to be an adviser and ally to the manager but become an inspector and internal threat to his authority. Too often these positions are merely waiting rooms for the next manager, from which the “technical director” shall opportunistically spring as the pressure rises. Even if the person taking such an advisory position has no ambition to take over as manager, the culture of the game in this country has not changed sufficiently for the manager to be unconcerned by such an appointment. In an age where foreign managers and all the communication problems that come with them are commonplace, it is surely better to at least keep the management structures of a club simple and have the best man at the helm, supported by staff of his own choosing. This man should then be judged on the way he deals with the various pressures of the modern game and whether he gets results; not constantly assessed internally by an observer that adds unnecessary weight to the burden of management.
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I can remember the media storm then as we witness another now. In the dying weeks of Blair’s premiership before Brown finally took office, the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister criss-crossed the country, controlled the airwaves, plastered the newspapers with his grey, weary image. It was all so desperate, so futile. A man who had done so much to secure his place in the history books but had also not achieved enough. A man who had done too much in some instances so that all his other work was overshadowed. I remember his helicopter landing at one of his much praised academy schools on the news, the crowds of children ordered to gather in bemusement at the fading celebrity anxious to go out with a bang, anxious not to be forgotten. All it all did was remind everyone what they disliked about him and enable Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period, in which the gruff Scott dealt with crisis after crisis, got on with the job, unconcerned by image.
Three years on so much has changed in British politics and Blair returns. How strange it seems to recall that Brown seemed the perfect antidote to years of Blair’s charm, that Cameron was perhaps weeks away from swift election defeat. Who could have predicted a Lib-Con pact that seems to have ushered in a new political era and at the very least left the Labour party isolated and leaderless? In one newspaper today the totality of media coverage achieved by the release of Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is compared to that of a budget and this is testament to how his legacy provokes a response from any British voter. It is impossible to be indifferent to Blair. Just as the average voter will passionately launch a diatribe against the Chancellor for raising fuel or cider duty, they will relish the opportunity to vent their feelings on Blair. Unfortunately for him and a man once so dependent on popularity his legacy is overshadowed by one thing: Iraq.
In many ways the issue of Iraq stands totally separate to all other aspects of Blair’s legacy but looms larger than everything else. So for example Blair can still be talked about as one of the top three post-war British Prime Ministers along with Atlee and Thatcher. He can still rightly be hailed as the architect of New Labour, a man whose visions and whims steered the course of history. Journalists and commentators still refer to him as the benchmark of the modern British leader, even the current Conservative Prime Minister does not shy from the title “heir to Blair”. Cameron’s reorganisation of his party in Blair’s style and the coalition’s continuation of Blairite reforms in areas like education, show just how successful Blair was in occupying the centre ground of politics so totally that it shifted to the left. His overwhelming electoral success redefined the British political landscape and leaves the Labour party with an enormous task in replacing him. And yet despite the continuing significance of his influence in the everyday struggle of British politics and indeed across the globe many believe he missed opportunities and even he now recognises this.
In his interview with Andrew Marr, Marr challenged Blair that he should have achieved more given the commanding nature of his majorities and the time he had in power. Blair’s direct response was a defence of what he did achieve but elsewhere in the interview true regrets and the motivation behind the title of A Journey for his memoir emerged. Blair admitted that he did not acquire a true vision until towards the end of his time in office, a vision about the structural reform of the state and modernising public services. In the beginning he had been “trying to please all of the people all of the time”. The most significant and influential strand of Blair’s legacy today relates directly to this in that people look to him for a master class in winning elections. In terms of policy Blair has only a handful of achievements he has now willing to enthusiastically champion as his successes and admits he left it too late to start initiating meaningful reform he took time to acquire a passion for. Prior to this costly, late revelation that occurred long after he had the surge of popular backing to properly carry it through, it seems he was content to leave matters of expenditure and policy largely to the Treasury, and to the statist agenda of Gordon Brown he so criticises.
Throughout his time in office though, Blair was enthusiastically active in areas of foreign policy. He embraced the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and with the exception of Iraq was successful in both achieving results and convincing the British people of the necessity of action. Large chunks of his recent interview with Andrew Marr inevitably focused on Iraq and the morality of the decision to go to war, but Blair was also asked about Iran. He made it clear that if he were still Prime Minister he would not rule out military action to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons and that to allow them to have such weapons would be unthinkable. Now of course the argument as to whether or not Britain should ever intervene militarily in Iran, especially given the lessons of Iraq, will be long and fierce. But Blair is not wrong to insist it should remain an option; Britain should have the capability. And yet at the moment a ballooning deficit and the extent of government overspend would mean an overstretched, slim line MOD mobilising to invade Iran at short notice.
This then is perhaps one of the worst aspects of Blair’s legacy. I do not disagree with his passionate moral crusade in many areas of foreign policy and his preference for interventionism. Britain still has a role to play as a civilized, developed nation and a proud history of just conflict. However Blair’s inaction whilst in office when it came to the restructure of the state leaves Britain underprepared for the decisions he believes to be right now and may partly explain his guilty donation of the proceeds of his book to the British Legion. Blair appears to be aware he asked too much of the armed forces. He now claims he would have taken a different path than Gordon Brown out of recession, a “New Labour” path that modernised welfare through the combination of public and private and reduced statist spending. He says he wants to see more power in the hands of individuals. Controversially he appears to praise the coalition at the end of his book, but insists he wants neither a bigger or smaller but “reshaped” state. If this was truly the case during his tenure as Prime Minister, then surely Blair could have recognised that some areas of government can only have “big government” solutions, as I have said in previous articles. One of these areas would be defence and yet the armed forces felt cutbacks during the New Labour years, unlike most other departments. An area where more private involvement could have been encouraged was in health, but the NHS budget swelled to become the government’s biggest burden.
An Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat far more real than Saddam Hussein ever was. This time the evidence is undoubtedly there. Iran and Israel poised with their fingers on nuclear triggers is surely not a recipe for a peaceful Middle East, not a stable environment for a young Iraqi democracy, not a safe haven for energy companies in ever growing need of oil, not the right backdrop for the fight against terrorism and slow withdrawal in Afghanistan. Tony Blair rightly insists Britain should be involved if global consensus is reached and action is taken, but the choices he made or failed to make whilst in government shall make it hard for any Prime Minister to commit to a successful intervention in which the lives of our service men and women are best protected. Whether or not Blair was right or wrong about Iraq he failed to introduce seismic change in government on the same scale as he did in politics, paving the way for the coalition to tackle New Labour’s excess excessively. The challenge for Blair’s eventual Labour successor, after winning the party and the country over, will be to find a middle way that promotes sustainable growth and equality, whilst not turning off voters.
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