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After AV and election humiliation: what next for Clegg and the Lib Dems?


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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Ed’s safe shadow cabinet of unity must not lose the fire of Opposition


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.

Ed must not falter as Cameron eyes comfy legacy


I have just finished watching Ed Miliband’s first speech as the new leader of the Labour party. It began with a volley of jokes, of human humour, that must have had many Labour supporters sighing with relief that they at least now had a leader who could smile and appear accessible to the public, following the stoic, grim Scott that preceded him. Indeed the strongest feature of the speech was a man with beliefs and ordinary concerns defining himself, announcing himself to the people of Britain. Here was a reasonable, genuine man the public could relate to but did he have the stature of a leader?

Yesterday elder brother David delivered a rallying cry to his party that had the media scrambling to suggest Labour had picked the wrong Miliband and that David Cameron had been right to fear the Shadow Foreign Secretary the most. Losing by the narrowest of margins, the bouncy figure once derided as Mr Bean and Banana Man looked like a leader, like a man who could be Prime Minister. In contrast Ed can sometimes look like a rabbit caught in the headlights, particularly in the acceptance speech immediately following his victory and again at times today. He can also look a soft geeky presence rather than a strong inspiring one, ready for the challenge of leadership and Opposition.

But David lost for a reason. The elder Miliband was content to ride a wave of guaranteed support to the leadership, with minimal effort. He may have honed his demeanour and conducted himself like a leader, but he did not reach out enough in the necessary ways. He was essentially lazy. He had incredibly strong support and need only had made some minor concessions to the trade unions and supporters of his brother to secure victory. He lost because he refused to break with the past of New Labour in the way that many grass roots voters wanted. He was admirably defiant about New Labour’s positive legacy but made few moves to indicate where the project went wrong and more importantly in which direction he would take it. David did not grab and harness the mood of change.

Ed, like David Cameron and Barack Obama and even Tony Blair, who emerged from almost nowhere to lead their country, did recognise the value of a clean slate, of a breath of fresh air. He recognised that the party knew it had stagnated and the electorate were no longer interested unless it refreshed its ideas, reconnected with its ideals in a new optimistic way. Ed ended his speech by declaring his Labour to be the party of optimism in contrast to Cameron’s cuts. He began his speech talking about a new generation. During his speech we learnt little more about Ed’s policy vision for the party, as he perhaps wisely kept most hands close to his chest, vague and adaptable to the demands of Opposition. However during his campaign Ed’s denouncement of Iraq, and his support for a living wage, AV and a graduate tax, were all bigger indicators of Ed’s Labour party than David was willing to offer. His brother simply didn’t offer the progressive policies that even many in the Labour old guard wanted to see championed now by a new wave of youthful renewal, equal to the challenge of Clegg and Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition.

Following Ed’s triumph though the media have blasted him and he has been labelled a puppet of the unions, “Red Ed”, out of touch with the core middle England vote. He moved quickly to counter these claims with interviews in the Sunday Telegraph and on the Andrew Marr show, saying he would fight for Britain’s “squeezed middle”. Reading the coverage of his victory I noticed that David Cameron had called Ed to congratulate him from Chequers, and warned him that his job would be a tough one. I can’t help but think Cameron would not have been so eager to call, or so superior and wise in his manner, had the more experienced and in his view more threatening elder brother won the contest. Cameron no doubt sees Ed as an easy target and may already be eyeing a second term, free of Lib Dem constraint. “Red ED” will be inexperienced and easy to sideline as an illegitimate Union toy, keen on tax rises and simply not credible on the economy. He also authored Labour’s last, losing election manifesto, and is not as new and fresh as he would make out. Cameron should easily get the better of him at PMQs for a while and any Labour poll leads will prove superficial when 2015 comes around and the coalition has secured economic recovery.

Ed must obviously be cautious that he is not unfairly painted by the Tories and that his policies do not alienate the very voters Labour must win back in the south, the voters who chose Blair in 1997. This accounts for his soothing rhetoric with regards to the middle classes. But Ed must hold his nerve and be bold too and learn the lessons of his leadership victory. He won because he presented a more dynamic vision on policy than his brother. He won with a clear progressive message. He also won because although he may not look like a leader at times he does look genuine, not a fake performer but an actual idealist, committed to what he says, reasonable and pragmatic in his approach and willing to talk about love and compassion in ways other politicians of different generations cannot. He must not tarnish the positive, honest image he is building for himself with the British people by muddling his message. He must not take fright at the newspaper headlines and give out mixed views but continue to pursue the radical, progressive and optimistic agenda that carried him through his campaign. He should not be afraid to take a distinctive stance on the deficit with a different emphasis on tax and other kinds of cuts than those proposed by the coalition, as long as it is credible. He should prove he is a man of his word and not simply a career politician by putting a green economy, green taxes and carbon emissions reductions at the heart of his party’s policy, following his role as Climate Change Secretary. He has the potential to both inspire a new youthful generation on issues of the day such as new politics and global warming and reconnect with the values of older generations on issues like family, Afghanistan and tax. The formation of his Shadow Cabinet in the coming weeks will be the first true test of Ed’s leadership qualities and also be crucial to defining his vision for the party. Whatever his brother decides to do Ed must remain proactive in challenging the establishment as he said in his speech and not budge on his message of a progressive alternative for Britain, regardless of media pressure. Voters will repay passionate consistent calls for change in the long run.

Is there a grand Miliband Plan?


This article should be up on DemoCritic soon, and I’d ask any readers of my blog to check it out as my political pieces are usually published there along with great and varied contributions from a variety of others. So join the debate, express an opinion! Also check it out for the funky revamp of the look of the site alone!

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It seems certain that the next leader of the Labour party will have the surname Miliband. The leadership contest so far has largely been a quiet, muted, good natured affair, perhaps mainly because of the brothers’ boring pact not to attack each other but also disappointingly by the failure of a third serious contender to emerge. In a previous article (A Two Ed Race? 28th June) I praised the vigour with which both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls took to opposition, whilst questioning the tame safety of David’s approach. Sadly whilst Balls has continued to display a dynamism on policy not matched by the other candidates it’s clear he has failed to gain enough support to make the battle a more interesting three way clash. Doubts also still remain about the benefits of either Miliband becoming the next leader.

With David the worry is stagnation. At a time when the Labour party requires a rebirth the elder Miliband brother may only offer repetition; a repetition of the failures of New Labour. For whilst David may rightly defend the successes of the Blair and Brown administrations against unfair rewrites of history by both the Tories and some within the party, to not make a decisive break with the past and all New Labour did wrong will not reinvigorate or cleanse the party in the eyes of the public. And the party needs a new lease of life. At the moment the Lib Dems are fragmenting, getting cold feet at the helm of power but not enough to pull the plug on a Conservative government. The cuts in public spending and particularly to the welfare state ought to provide a catalyst for a new generation of Labour activists to take the fight to the next election with renewed gusto. That election could come at any time, as who knows how precarious the coalition will become as tensions mount within the Lib Dems, especially once the holy referendum has passed. David Miliband is the walk-in Prime Minster candidate of this Labour leadership election, but would his Labour party reinvent itself sufficiently to win back voters?

With Ed there are perhaps more worries, more unknowns but the concern is not lack of change. He has enthusiastically denounced the Iraq war, a significant break with the failed past of New Labour. He has also advocated alternatives to tuition fees and made it clear Labour needs to win back the worker, the ordinary man the party’s foundations were built upon. It seems that a Labour party under his stewardship would be undoubtedly more left wing. An article in the Guardian today claims that Ed is the only Miliband to offer the Labour party the change it needs but others worry a realignment too far to the left, coupled with an inexperienced leader, would be catastrophic. I too have expressed concern that Ed Miliband would take the axe too severely to the Lib Dems, hacking away Labour’s chances of a coalition in a new era of closely fought, compromise politics. Both Milibands however must be aware of the drawbacks of their respective bids for power and I would therefore suspect a plan.

I’m not talking about the sort of shadowy deals that are now infamously connected to New Labour. I don’t think either Ed or David has seized the napkin at a family dinner, hastily sketched out his cabinet, a timeline of power and then thrust it across the table for their sibling’s signature. I think they are both genuinely contesting the leadership. However it shall be interesting to see exactly where the losing Miliband turns up in the shadow cabinet. Could David settle again at the Foreign Office and will Ed feel confident enough to demand the Treasury? The answers to these questions shall no doubt prove interesting as they unravel. More realistically though I would hope that Ed, on becoming leader, would divert his energy and verve to the creation of policy and the opposition of coalition policy, rather than simply targeting Lib Dem voters. Clearly winning back those who defected to the Lib Dems is one method of rebuilding Labour’s electoral strength but it does not go far enough to undo the damage and Ed’s current course of rhetoric sets him on a collision course that would make a Lib-Lab coalition unworkable when it could be likely. He calls Nick Clegg a traitor to Liberalism for example but they share many policy objectives and Ed would do better to emphasise similarities between his refreshed Labour and the Lib Dems than continually hammer on about the differences. An emphasis on similarities would still have the benefit of highlighting Labour’s new liberal credentials to undecided voters, whilst also sowing seeds of doubt within the coalition and laying the ground for a future alliance. Ed must surely be aware of all this and this leads me to suspect he will tone down his approach if elected, but keep playing the role of the change candidate for now.

David’s plan must be a bigger secret. He has so far revealed very little about the direction he would take Labour in, playing it safe with well meaning but fluffy talk about reconnecting with local activists and restoring trust. Today he acquired the backing of Jon Cruddas, an influential, left wing backbencher. Does Jon know something we don’t? You might have expected him to back Ed, whose programme of realignment towards the left so far seems much more radical. David must surely have plans to refresh his party, even if he disagrees that it needs a complete rebirth he must see the craving for new direction from its members and voters and the opportunities presented by a cutting coalition. He might be playing a very clever game; slowly accumulating the backing of his party before wrong footing the Conservatives with the revelation of his vision, an accessible, popular, new Labour party. If he does not have a plan then Labour supporters and perhaps the country should worry. Labour could find itself with either an unattractive, bland continuity figure unable to shake the legacy of Brown or an equally unelectable young, left wing scaremonger.  We might find ourselves hoping for a third Miliband; a fusion of the two. This Miliband would be experienced, Prime Minister material and yet youthful, detached from New Labour but proud of its achievements, passionate about change but wary of not alienating middle class voters and, perhaps, a woman.