The Party Conferyawns

A graphic depicting not least the heart rate of conference-goers this year.

David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.

The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.

Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.

The Strange Undeath of Liberal England

People who check this site often will have spotted that I haven’t written about politics properly in some time – this despite the fact that, in the wake of the last General Election, I actually joined a political party for the first time. I was thinking about this falling away of the blog’s political content – and it could easily be seen as a function of my lower levels of blogging activity in general – whilst watching last night’s Newsnight coverage of Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.

The segment ended with Fraser Nelson, the endlessly juvenile editor of the Tory house magazine, the Spectator, snorting with amused discomfort as Paxman moved on to the paper review. See, the other panellist, the Guardian’s Deborah Orr, had just spoke at some emotional length about the ‘hollowing out’ of our political system. A disillusioned Liberal Democrat, Orr railed against the duopoly of Tory and Labour for years, but now finds her party in power and plainly manifesting as another sad iteration of the 21st centuries enervated, discredited, and directionless free market consensus. Nelson, a fully paid-up member of this great politician-manager’s game, didn’t quite know where to put himself – he had been expecting the usual knockabout fun.

Minus the emotion, this was her argument in yesterday’s paper: “Fresh thinking is needed, if we are to move on politically, economically, socially, even morally. Instead the Lib Dems have allowed themselves to become the focus of the nation’s frustration, a dire warning, supposedly, of what happens when a party doesn’t know whether it’s left or right.” The difficulty for Orr, and perhaps having watched Clegg’s speech between the piece being published and Paxo putting her to the question she had realised this, is that the modern Liberal Democrats know exactly where they stand. It is on the right.

These may not be easy times for us as a party. But much more importantly: These are not easy times for the country. Economic insecurity. Conflict and terrorism. Disorder flaring up on our streets. Times like these can breed protectionism and populism. So times like these are when liberals are needed most. Our party has fought for liberal values for a century and half: justice, optimism, freedom. We’re not about to give up now.

This conference centre is on the site of the old Bingley Hall where William Gladstone stood a hundred and thirty years ago to found the National Liberal Federation. Gladstone observed that day that Birmingham had shown it was no place for ‘weak-kneed Liberalism’. No change there then.

This is not the rhetoric of a social democrat – indeed, that half of his party was entirely absent from Clegg’s speech, with its focus on financial rectitude and moral goodness, on bashing Labour and out-flanking the Tories. Tim Farron, the party’s president, can tell as many jokes about the Conservatives as he wishes; Chris Huhne can conjure a phantom tea party tendency from nowhere in an attempt to burnish his left-wing credentials; and Vince Cable can continue to look pained and isolated every time he posits a policy position, only for it to be torn down by Andrew Neil hours afterwards: Nick Clegg has put it better than anyone else could. What are the words that best some up the Liberal Democrats’ policy positions? “Not easy, but right.”

Still, he was correct in one key regard: Labour continue to seem clueless as to how to respond to the economic nightmare engulfing Europe and the USA. In an interview with his critical supporter Mehdi Hassan in the latest New Statesman, Ed Miliband promises to “tear up the rule book”: “what I am going to be arguing is that the set of things I’ve talked about – the squeezed middle, what’s happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom – they’re not coincidences or accidents; they’re part of an economic and political settlement of some decades and that settlement’s got to change.” This sounds OK – but to do any of this effectively Labour must emphasise truly collectivist policies, and Miliband find it in himself and in his party to abandon cold political calculation for an evangelical spirit that can shift a paradigm. The last party leader to achieve such a shift from consensus, and to set up a new one in turn, was of course Thatcher – and she had the luxury of springing it on her electors whilst in office. Labour has in the last eighteen months shown none of the muscle necessary to begin this work in opposition, despite some notable hard-hitting during the phone hacking scandal. They need to find that strength now, in no small part because the leader of what was once one of the two main progressive parties in the United Kingdom yesterday argued that union ‘barons’ are morally equivalent with bankers and media moguls.

When there is a political voice that will speak out against those sort of veering right-turns, expect more politics in these pages. Meanwhile, I’ll be with Deborah Orr in the corner.

 

Why Liberal England Slept

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.

Well OK Then to AV

Over-stated, under-sold

Has constitutional reform ever been so unsexy? It’s hard not to see in Nick Clegg’s acceptance of the Tory offer to hold a referendum on AV the germ of today’s poll numbers: the problem with AV is that it only excites people desperate to stick with First Past The Post. Even the greatest proponent of the Yes To AV campaign can find only lukewarm arguments in favour of the system we will all be voting under should it prevail tomorrow. Most of these arguments have to do with how AV is not FPTP – and a negative argument is rarely a convincing one. The rest – that MPs will work harder, or that it will make every vote count – are various shades of nonsensical.

And this, of course, was always the Tory plan. AV doesn’t change the game so much as add a modifier; and therefore conversion to one side or the other is difficult. This leaves the sort of rallying cries and dog whistles we’ve seen each campaign resort to with depressing ease – because the aim can only be to fire up those already against voting reform, or to enthuse those in favour of it. I believe FPTP is unfar; I don’t particularly believe AV is the silver bullet. Nor do I believe that a Yes to AV will mean further reform soon – though I agree with Ed Miliband that should the result be a No, then there will be little chance of revisiting the issue voting reform for some time to come.

Thus, of course, the dilemma: faced with a choice between AV and many other alternative voting systems that could replace FPTP, I would not choose the Alternative Vote. Our Tory overlords, however, have connived to ensure I have only a choice between a broken system and a slightly less broken one (or one that’s still broken, but in different ways). Vote Yes, and I risk contributing to the adoption of a system I don’t like that much, either; vote No, and not only do I side with John Reid and David Cameron – I in effect register my disinterest in further debate on voting reform. In the absence of the zeal of conversion, however, both campaigns tomorrow face a referendum set to default – few have been convinced by anything more than their pre-existing prejudices, and the rest have largely ignored the whole affair. Does anyone expect turn-out to be very high? Thought not. Over on Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges didn’t need a crystal ball to call the result as early as yesterday.

Doomed to a forlorn hope and incrementalism, however, I shall vote yes. But as I do so I’ll hear David Cameron’s cackle all the way from Downing Street.

Perception is Reality, Neophyte

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.

Mr Ed

Hi, kids!

Ed Miliband has spent his leadership campaign posing as the trendy supply teacher – all informal authority and ideas attractive but somehow received, for which he has a great deal of enthusiasm but possibly not the skill to implement. Having given the supply teacher a permanent contract, Labour now get to see whether he’s as good at the daily grind as he is at letting the kids off the toughest homework; even more so, the awkward kid at the back of the room who was most keen on the teacher can now expect a bit of discipline from Mr M, just to show who’s now boss.

That awkward kid, of course, represents the unions, whose members gave Miliband the leadership on the waferiest of wafer-thin majorities – 50.65 to 49.75. The post-1980 federal electoral college has delivered tight results like this before (think Healey-Benn), but never has it seen a victorious candidate lose both the MPs and party members. This makes the job of my party’s new leader more difficult than it might have been – his enemies will have a ready-made line of attack, however disingenuous, and in the coming years a potentially arid dividing line between cutters and cutted must be avoided.

Not, you’ll understand, that a member who voted for Ed Balls would accuse Ed Miliband of being too left-wing – if anything, quite the opposite. Miliband’s conversion to cuddly leftism hasn’t quite convinced me, as long-term readers will know, and what Roy Hattersley is calling the new leader’s “gentle and joyous philosophy” will require a good deal more grit if it is to carry a general election. Matthew D’ancona trots out all the emerging right-wing talking points in his latest column, but is on to something when he casts the Leader of the Opposition as a preacher rather than a persuader.

Another always astute commentator, Steve Richards, this week fingered Vince Cable, who had a fairly disastrous joint appearance with John Redwood on Question Time this week (followed, on Friday, by a ranty Chris Huhne on Any Questions), as the Coalition’s cover man par excellence. Labour’s job must be to have no truck with empty leftie populism, but to espouse certain and credible alternatives to the true programme of the government. Ed Miliband spoke a lot about making Labour a movement again. This requires uniting and providing practical purpose to the party, and that would go a long way to capitalising on the clear lack of public enthusiasm for the Coalition’s direction of travel. Maybe the party, which predates my membership by some considerable distance, knows better than I do after all …

Labour Leadership: Crunch Time

The dilemma for the Labour party member in voting for their next leader has been simple: does one vote for success, or for purity? Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, in their most recent leadership elections, voted for success: neither Cameron nor Clegg hail from the most dominant wings of their party, yet both seemed to promise electoral gain. They now share power (though Nick shares more than Dave), and thus the experiment – like the last Labour contest, way back in 1994 – was a success. How, though, to respond to the new politics? Pick a champion  of Labour values, or a potential Prime Minister?

The choice is not so stark: three of the candidates (Ed B, Ed M, and David M) could make passable claims to offering both. But the elder Miliband places the emphasis on being a readymade PM, and the younger on championing Labour values (many of which observers may have missed he previously held); Ed Balls is the most interesting of the three, in the sense that he has blossomed during this contest more than any other – developing his arguments and harrying the government, he has emerged as not just a credible leader but also the only prominent politician offering a narrative other than the one established by the Tories (and Jonathan Freedland is right that this is the urgent task facing Labour).

Consequently, and in the absence of a clear perfect candidate, today I took the radical step of placing my first preference simply for the candidate who has fought the best campaign. And here are the words I could not possibly have predicted writing in May: that was Ed Balls. Not a single poll suggests he has much of a chance of winning – although he’s second choice amongst former MPs – so my hope remains that, between the Milibands, it’ll be the firstborn that wins. Much like many of Ed M’s own supporters, it’s clear to me he’d be the better leader of the two.

You’ll be pleased to read that I won’t bore you with where my Treasurer, NEC and NPF votes went.