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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In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.
Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.
Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.
What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.
As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?
Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.
By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.
Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.
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As a Manchester United fan I refused to believe the tabloid talk of a widening rift between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the usual overexcited babble, trotted out simply to fill column inches. The sports pages have always brimmed with such gossip and rumour when the decorated, dour Scott decided to take a no nonsense approach to one of his big players. Rarely did such an approach lead to outright irreparable confrontation, and when it did the players had always past their prime or become replaceable. No one was seriously considering Wayne Rooney as a player who has already peaked, a player who could easily be slotted out of the side. When Ferguson had had enough of a player’s ego in the past he ushered them out the door and reinvented his side. Stam was eventually replaced by Ferdinand, Beckham by Ronaldo. When Van Nistelrooy departed Fergie changed the team’s playing style and adapted for the better. This time there was no question of Rooney departing and that being the catalyst for a wave of positive renewal, because Rooney was the one remaining talisman, the fulcrum around which any new generation would grow. Besides just months ago the England striker had pledged his entire playing life to a club he loved, respected and was grateful to. It is impossible to imagine where he would go.
I put all the excited chatter down to his recent personal and footballing woes. Rooney was the type of character who was bound to get agitated when in a bad run of form. He was also, or so I thought, a football puritan who just wanted to play as much as humanly possible. That’s why he was furious with Ferguson for being left out of the side a few times recently after news of his personal life rocked the airwaves. He wanted to play his way out of trouble, smash the doubters and the critics with his genius and endeavour on the pitch. Sir Alex, experienced with such media storms, clearly felt that Rooney would be better off shielded from the harsh glare of scrutiny whenever possible and unleashed to prove his doubters wrong only when fully, 100% fit. The manager was doubtless aware how he has allowed his squad to deteriorate in quality, to the point where Rooney carried United’s title challenge almost single handed last season, and he would be needed again at his best if United were to win back the crown. Sadly Rooney too could feel that burden on his shoulders and was no longer relishing it but allowing it to undermine his brilliance on the pitch.
Nevertheless even as the evidence mounted I would not believe that Rooney wanted to leave until Ferguson confirmed it in a press conference and Rooney followed this with a statement of his own. If there is to be a media battle as to who is blamed more, manager or talisman, it would seem Fergie has already masterfully laid the seeds of manipulation in his favour. Or perhaps the veteran manager was simply being honest and there was nothing calculated at all about his approach to the news. He seemed solemn at the press conference, powerless. The fingerprints of the modern game’s big money, agent culture were all over Rooney’s statement. The fans could make up their own minds.
Having said this Rooney does have some weight behind his argument. There is no doubt that Ferguson has let his team become over reliant on Rooney’s presence. I have been arguing for the last couple of years, and indeed have mentioned in previous pieces, the need for Fergie to invest in the future, a new generation of Red Devils and thus avoid the need for a massive, unrealistic replacement of faded stars like Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand in one go with high quality, expensive replacements. There are still gaps in the team left by the departure of Ronaldo and even Roy Keane. At times United’s trophy charge last season was a limp and a wheezing carcass was dragged reluctantly towards the finish line by Rooney’s goals. When his form dried up so did the team’s trophy hopes. This summer it seemed inevitable that Fergie would finally reinvest some of Ronaldo’s gargantuan transfer fee. But he let more time pass without acquiring replacements and dumbfounded supporters by missing the chance to sign a bargain like Ozil, who ended up at Madrid. There was no excuse for such a failure. The manager has always insisted that he would not be held to ransom by the market, but here was a proven, emerging young talent at a sensible price. Instead an impulsive £7 million went on Bebe, an untested, youthful player from a low level of football, who judging by his start to life at Old Trafford looks set to go the way of Djemba-Djemba and other Fergie transfer flops.
Letting Ronaldo go may have been inevitable and a good deal for United, but since his departure the manager has not moved to build a new great side or plug glaring gaps. In the aftermath of Ronaldo’s departure United’s weakness was the lack of a strong midfield spine, which cost them a second consecutive Champions League against Barca in the final. However rather than acquire that solid spine and build a new team for a renewed push for that third European Cup Fergie has allowed his squad to age. Now there is the need to replace Van Der Sar soon, find a new partner for Vidic given Rio’s continued fitness problems and secure long term creators and goal getters going forward. Acquiring all that quality in a hurry will be expensive and impossible given United’s financial constraints these days. Perhaps I am being unfair and in reality Ferguson, like any manager, was keen to go out and get players but was hampered by cautious voices behind the scenes, filtering down from the boardroom and from the Glazers. But in my view United’s diminished financial clout made it all the more important to gradually and sustainably acquire the parts of the next great side. Leaving things so late heaps so much pressure on players who simply don’t have it in them and risks a Liverpool style fall from grace from which the club might not recover.
Ok things might not be THAT drastic. Manchester United remains a massive club, with or without Wayne Rooney. Top, top managers hungry for glory and a place in history and capable of putting their own stamp of success on a team, would be desperate to step in should this crisis prove the beating of Sir Alex. If Rooney were to leave he would bring in a fee similar to that of Ronaldo, if not more. He is certainly worth more to the team, if not in the same dazzling, world beating form that the Portuguese was in. With no Ronaldo or Tevez at the club now only Dimitar Berbatov stands out as a world class potential talisman, and his form is sporadic. Therefore Rooney’s departure would surely demand serious investment in like for like replacements to keep United at the forefront of the game. There is already talk of Torres, Kaka, Benzema, Bale. As with Ronaldo though Rooney’s unique qualities make him effectively irreplaceable and a number of players, coupled with a change in style, would be needed to cover his absence.
Whilst Sir Alex has clearly missed opportunities in recent transfer windows that may have made the effects of this crisis even worse, there is a reason why Rooney is emerging as the villain of the piece; he is. Sir Alex Ferguson is a wise, successful manager, hindered by a difficult boardroom situation and impossibly high expectations. Wayne Rooney is a good player, but at 24 owes everything to his manager and his club. His statement talked of ambition and the club’s apparent lack of it, but for all the failings I have mentioned Manchester United remain one of the best clubs in Europe and are rivalled seriously only by Chelsea in the Premiership. Rooney has been privileged enough to have been elevated to effectively the leader of United’s trophy pushes, the carrier of supporters’ hopes and dreams. As Mark Lawrenson remarked in the build up to United’s stale win over Bursapor last night, Rooney has clearly forgotten where he has come from. He is a Champions League and Premier League winner and it is within his own power to ensure continued success for his club. Has he no sense of responsibility, respect or greatness? Where exactly would he like to go? Manchester City or Chelsea? Madrid or Barca? The choices are limited and none would suit him like United. Those who abandon Fergie’s projects rarely go on to better things, even if their already sizeable pay packets swell that little bit more. Rooney’s departure could permanently scupper United, but it will more than likely simply herald the beginning of the end for his own career and hero status.
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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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