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.
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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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