Like it or not, love him or loathe him, David Cameron has proved himself to be a competent and capable leader in his first year in Number 10. He has shown himself to be easily the most adaptable Prime Minister of the 21st century and perhaps the most versatile and formidable party leader too. He has embraced the unique hurdles and challenges of coalition government to at once deliver radical policy his party believes in and please the electorate. He has vowed not to make the mistake of Tony Blair’s early years, in which political capital went unspent. He’s taken a blitzkrieg approach to numerous important issues and departments, somehow taking most of the country with him through a combination of confidence and yellow human shields.
Ed Miliband on the other hand, has been constantly under fire from both the media and Britain as a whole, and his own party. His leadership is generally, and not unjustifiably, characterised as ineffectual and inactive. He has more often than not chosen to stand by and do nothing but protest vocally at government plans. He has claimed to be the voice of Britain’s ordinary people and its “progressive majority”. His critics say that this majority doesn’t exist and even those that think it might, recognise that it has to be earned and forged from blood, sweat, tears and most crucially of all, policy.
Labour under Ed Miliband has produced almost no policy. His supporters and aides will argue that he’s been focusing on healing Labour’s image, bruised and battered by thirteen years of controversial government. But there has been no clear rebranding or change of direction either. The publication of elder brother David’s would-be acceptance speech last week highlighted just how much more Ed could have done from the start. I was critical of David’s lazy leadership campaign and even praised Ed’s more concrete vision. Looking at David Miliband’s speech though, it’s hard to argue with those who say he would be doing better as leader right now.
The speech sets out the deficit as Britain’s key political argument. It simultaneously does more to defend Labour’s record in government and admit its mistakes than Ed has done. It systematically addresses key areas with attractive focus; Ed’s speech tended to waffle more generally, focusing on alerting the world to the fact that he was an alright sort of guy. Well now we all want to know what he’s going to do to prove it.
To make things worse for the victorious Miliband, his shadow cabinet has hardly had time to settle. Alan Johnson didn’t last long as Shadow Chancellor. There has already been more than one reshuffle. Ed Balls, finally in the role he has craved for so long, is Labour’s only ray of activity. Last week he announced the one concrete policy they have in opposition; increase the bonus tax on bankers. Balls intends to gather support from rebellious Lib Dem and even Conservative MPs to push a Bill through Parliament that would take more money from the banks to fund employment schemes for the young and house building projects; to stop the rot on growth.
Now it’s obvious that one of Miliband’s weak points has been his inability to do much else besides bash the banks. Credible Prime Ministers cannot afford to make such powerful enemies or be defined by the one headline grabbing policy. But the plans of his money man Ed Balls are exactly the type of thing Labour should be doing more of. The government’s refusal to invest in the economy or change course on its programme of cuts is doing lasting damage. Labour cannot afford to just talk about this. They should hit the coalition where it hurts; by acting to safeguard the national interest it claims to be working for.
And Miliband could go further. He could say that a Labour government would not just build homes for struggling first time buyers but insist that they are all green. Labour needs a new stamp that marks out policy as theirs, which goes further than simply investment vs. cuts. As David Miliband set out, Labour has to acknowledge that it will tackle the deficit; the question is how will it do it differently?
Ed should make it abundantly clear that he is proposing policies for consideration now, intending to pass them now because to act too late would let the state of the economy and the government’s initiatives do irreparable harm. More house building would kick start the construction industry; more homes would get the property markets moving and add stability to a fragile, slow recovery.
Miliband has continually fallen back on the fact that the party in opposition traditionally keeps its cards close to its chest until an election. People should not be expecting him to be outlining detailed policy now, he says. I defended criticisms of him early on by using the argument that he shouldn’t rush through thinking about such important issues. But he has had time now. He must have some ideas. And he needs to start sharing them.
This is not an ordinary government. The coalition can be stalled, halted and persuaded on almost any issue. Parliament is not a sea of blue and carefully selected opposition proposals could become law. The NHS “listening exercise” and the rethink of Ken Clarke’s justice reform are examples from the past week alone where Cameron has been swayed enough to track back. Ed Miliband needs to do something bold to win the respect of voters. Disclosing genuine alternatives in full and frank detail will show that Labour care enough to act in the country’s interest, not their own.
I write just hours after both leaders in the contest for the nation’s political affections made important speeches on policy. As is the trend of late, it was David Cameron’s that made the greater impact. Speaking to a meeting in London of a foundation called GAVI, backed by Bill Gates, which provides vaccines for the world’s poor, the Prime Minister would have won over voters usually hostile to all things Tory.
His detoxification of his party has been enormously successful and pledging £814 million (the biggest donation of any nation) to an effective charity, goes a long way to satisfying his own voters, thanks to a clear strategy, and others in the electorate. With one speech Cameron scored moral points as well as talking convincingly about finding a clear foreign policy role for Britain based on duty, encouraging private sector growth and stable, democratic government.
Miliband’s speech was also important. It aimed to win back the agenda of community from Cameron, who has dominated the thinking of voters even with his unsuccessful Big Society idea. Miliband talked of responsibility and made surprisingly tough statements about those who didn’t give back not receiving welfare support. There were strong strains of the Blue Labour ideology Miliband recently endorsed, which focuses on democracy and accountability at the grass roots. It was about the overall narrative direction of Miliband’s leadership and designed to answer critics.
However whilst it’s important Miliband finds a stronger and more defined guiding vision for his party, action is what the public wants from him now. For an opposition leader options are limited, so action essentially means policy announcements. The Labour leader needs to be braver and take some gambles with his leadership, to both win over the country and protect it. No one will reward him for waiting until the election.
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The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.
Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.
They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.
They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.
Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.
Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term. Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.
Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.
With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.
Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.
Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.
The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.
What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat. A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.
I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.
It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.
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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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It’s a cliché that you can’t rely on politicians for anything. But as I recently discussed with someone, clichés are clichés for a reason. Most people think that you can at least rely on MPs, particularly party leaders, to be dishonest and always on the lookout for an opportunity to score cheap points against their rivals and amass political capital. However Britain’s recent icy snap proved there are depths the media strategists will not dare sanction for their employers to sink to.
It really is a mystery why no one had the guts or guile to pounce on the targets laid bare by the blankets of white stuff. About a month ago I was reading an article in a hotel lobby in sporadically sunny Spain. Back home the country had already groaned to a moaning, bemused halt under the weight of the snow. This article was in The Times and I forget the identity of the writer, which is regrettably locked behind Murdoch’s News International Paywall. It made the very interesting point that neither leader of the two main parties had utilised a huge moment to deliver defining, resonant messages. The snow touched every single person in the country. It was a destructive but unifying force. The potential for delivering a knockout political blow was immense.
And yet our notoriously backstabbing, corrupt, two-faced politicians did nothing. Well nothing worthwhile. Of course there were the usual gripes about lack of planning and the inevitable shortage of grit. Labour had its half-hearted dig at the government, knowing full well it couldn’t overdo it because the previous administration had been responsible for much of the preparation. Most surprisingly of all, I remember the article in The Times highlighting, was David Cameron passing up his moment to finally win the public’s hearts over to the “Big Society”.
With all the complaints about councils failing to grit icy pavements and elderly neighbours slipping and sliding to serious injury, surely this was Dave’s moment to urge us all to lend a helping hand? This was the closest we were going to get to a modern day Blitz spirit. Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful change, waving to complete strangers, engaging in snowball fights; except those blocked in and cut off. Free those trapped in your area, band together and get by, show the true power that community still had. The Prime Minister said none of this and his chance to convey what his key policy might mean in reality was quickly gone.
It would have been an extraordinary moment for a Prime Minister under fire to show leadership and go on the offensive with a more optimistic message. The distraction from constant protests against cuts would have been welcome and may have lingered memorably in voters’ minds, but instead Cameron chose to wait it out till Christmas for his respite. Ultimately his characteristic caution probably held him back from any such message. It would have been open to ridicule. Evidence, his critics would say, that the Conservatives are leaving you to do it all alone, another excuse for incompetent governance, dressed up as positive ideology. Those criticisms of the “Big Society” might be true and are longstanding, but if Cameron genuinely believes in his policy then why did he have reservations about seizing his best opportunity yet of hammering its message through?
There seems to be an unwritten rule that a crisis caused by natural causes is off limits for use as political ammunition. Even so it is perhaps even more surprising in some ways that Ed Miliband didn’t capitalise on the snow. Miliband didn’t have a readymade policy to bolster like Cameron, but he needs to set his party on a new, distinctive course at some point. As a former Climate Change Secretary he could have pointed out the changing nature of Britain’s climate and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather. He could have been extremely bold and announced that Climate Change would become a central, unifying theme of all Labour policy, especially now that it was proving directly damaging to the UK economy and its citizens everyday lives. However he needn’t have been so specific to achieve an effect, and with his policies still under review a vaguer, flexible approach would have been preferable. He could have simply called for greater provision to deal with such extreme conditions in future and indicated how Climate Change would be one of several of his key priorities, whether he meant it or not. This week Miliband demonstrated he could make decisions and announcements that were at once cynical and correct. Declaring he wished to see the banking bonus tax extended is sensible but he is only willing to commit to this policy ahead of so many others because it wins support. Why then did he not show similar political pragmatism with the snow?
Of course ideally Miliband would have used the snow as a platform, from which to launch a new sustainable set of policies which would see Britain cope better with such circumstances in future and begin an inspiring new assault on Climate Change. Sadly such genuinely motivational and good natured politics is so rare no one expects it. It is reassuring though that some areas, perhaps still considered by some to be acts of God, are still considered off limits for cheap, manipulative political point scoring.
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I feel a tremendous guilt for allowing my political articles to dry up over the last few months. It is not as if there have not been issues to debate, dissect and confront. In fact the coalition’s spending cuts have energised the public’s political opinions more than any other topic in recent years. Whether their policies are right or wrong, this government has shown a willingness to listen to its people and even a tendency to undo unpopular decisions when faced with a sufficient backlash, albeit over relatively minor issues like free milk, sport in schools and reading initiatives.
I have also not stopped writing about politics due to a loss of interest or lack of activity; in fact the opposite scenario is the case. I’ve welcomed the Lib Dem achievements gained in power. I have joined a number of campaigns against government policies I believe to be destructive and misguided, such as plans to sell off Britain’s woodlands, and marched on several student protests. Hordes of people to seem feel that the gravity of what the coalition is doing demands opposition and not only this but that the very nature of coalition politics makes democratic protest unusually effective.
Why then the failure to articulate reasoned and persuasive arguments against the cuts? In particular why the lack of output in relation to tuition fees? An issue directly relevant to my immediate future and the strength of the party I voted for, now branded as the great betrayers. After all as I’ve already said, it is not as if I would think my actions completely hopeless. Even though the motion passed in the Commons, the foundations of the government’s majority were shown to be extremely weak when great pressure is applied, with both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs refusing to back their leaders. If I added my voice to the online chorus it might not do much but it could do no harm in adding to the ever rising volume of argument.
I suppose I felt compromised. So swept up was I in passionate outrage, camaraderie and the excitement of genuinely doing something historic, that I could not write in a sufficiently detached, analytical manner. The issue was simply too close to home and tied up with too many emotions for me to rationally look closely at all sides of the debate. That is not to say I don’t have opinions I believe to be well supported and accurate about the issue, just that whenever I tried to express them they would sound weak and as if they were merely scratching the surface of something so vitally important to economic recovery, the future of our country and my own education. Of course I managed to write up my experiences of protest but whatever I said sounded inadequate and I felt incapable of getting across how strongly my fellow marchers felt and how justified I believed them to be.
Now though I am finally going to attempt to air my views on the issue, if only for my own personal relief and satisfaction. By keeping them simple and focusing on where the debate goes from here, I hope they can cut through all the complexity to the heart of the matter.
Firstly a note on Nick Clegg and his ministers’ eventual decision to back the plans. I completely understand why he chose to vote in favour of the proposals. He worked hard to inject fairness into the legislation and went above and beyond the safeguards suggested in the Browne report, despite the fact he was unavoidably still engineering a policy that upped the fees he’d promised his party would fight to keep down and if possible, abolish altogether. I think Clegg genuinely believes that despite the rise in fees, the modifications he secured ensure the new system will be fairer, especially for disadvantaged students, than the previous one. However it was still a grave mistake for Clegg not to utilise the clause in the coalition agreement allowing his party to abstain. He may have worried that had the motion not passed universities would have faced a funding crisis and the coalition would have splintered. Or behind the scenes he may have only gained his concessions in exchange for his supporting vote. Nevertheless if the option for him to abstain was truly there, he was foolish not to take it. Or, ironically given the savage demonization of him as a treacherous liar, he is simply too honest to not back a plan he was a partial architect of and believes in. Even after this crisis I am still of the opinion that Nick Clegg is a bold and truly progressive politician, bravely securing real change through compromise. I may disagree with his decision to back the change to tuition fees and stand aside for other Conservative policy, but this is the reality of coalition, and if he had had a majority government (in a dreamy alternate world) he would’ve squeezed the budget elsewhere.
At the height of the protests Clegg desperately tried to champion his hard won tweaks for fairness and criticised the marchers drumming up unfounded fears about the new system. Here he made another catastrophic political error, essentially labelling the protestors, vast swathes of which probably voted Lid Dem, as ignorant. If he’d listened to the prevailing, dominant chant at the protests he’d have understood that the marchers weren’t ignorant and that whatever modifications he offered as sweeteners collapsed under one fact: “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS”. Just like everything else the coalition was facing opposition over, these protests were primarily about cuts. The NUS and others had made the mistake of focusing on the rise in fees in their criticisms; perhaps because the thought of paying more would inspire more students to turn up. But in reality it would be several years before the higher fees would come in and some real help had been hardwired in for poorer students. The arguments that a burden of debt would be a huge deterrent, that there would be no proper help for middle income families and that students would choose their university on price not quality, were all valid, but not as clear and convincing as the cuts.
The cuts to teaching and all aspects of university funding were big and would hit the standard and availability of university education immediately. Ideologically what really irked people was that fees were rising to plug the gap from a drop in government investment, thus sparking accusations of a shift to a privatised system predominantly paid for by students directly. Logically the coalition’s insistent argument that the rise in fees was a necessary evil to secure Britain’s world class higher education system long term, also fell apart because of the deficit driven cuts. All the reports say universities need more money to remain competitive. But the government was actually reducing investment and making up the shortfall with a huge hike in fees which might even jeopardise the current quality of education, let alone increase it. Perhaps most bafflingly of all, the government plans, with all Clegg and co’s little alterations for fairness, would still require expenditure and make absolutely no impact on the size of deficit, the coalition’s Holy Grail.
The leaders of campaign groups rant and rave that, as with Thatcher’s Poll Tax, protests will continue despite coalition success in Parliament, until the act is undone. However it looks unlikely that anything other than a hardcore will continue to mobilise on this issue. Unless, of course, a real alternative can be found to march for. This was always the Achilles heel of these protests, and marchers discussed it, wishing someone would get their act together. The ball is now in Ed Miliband’s court, with his new generation of Labour players. Labour must offer a practical but popular vision for higher education, sooner rather than later, if the fight is not to be lost. Of course Miliband’s team needed time to get it right and may need more, but the clock is ticking.
It will be a difficult balance to strike for Miliband. Understandably as a new, fresh leader of the Opposition, he jumped on the bandwagon of protest, stopping short of joining one, but regularly singing the praises of a graduate tax. Ultimately this progressive leap forward may prove unworkable and in any case his chosen Shadow Chancellor opposes any such measure. But if Labour focus on the cuts to higher education they can still offer a fairer, point scoring alternative. Growth is the coalition’s weak spot and Labour should highlight the decisions of other major economies to boost education investment and therefore jobs and tax revenues. A world class university system should drive a sustainable economic recovery. Restore investment and throw in a drop in fees, whilst retaining some Lib Dem additions, and Labour would not only be doing the right thing but keeping alive an issue that could break the coalition, with a credible, sensible alternative.
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