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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.

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.

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.

Purposeful David is Purposeful

The developing view of David Cameron is as a reasonable pragmatist. To confirm this, one need only look at two recent BBC radio productions: 5 Days In May was a rather ponderous dramatisation of the coalition negotiations following the General Election, in which Nick Clegg was cast as a dithering bride, and Gordon Brown as the bombastic, dogmatic suitor. David Cameron, played with a hint of Hugh Grant by Samuel West, was the consensual new man, all understanding circumlocutions and soothing respectfulness. More interesting has been Number 10, in which Damien Lewis has played a bold and unideological Tory PM, a very thinly veiled Cameron stand-in, whilst various other thesps provide a West Wing-lite coterie of well-meaning but frustrated aides.

Both dramas could have easily taken their conception of Cameron and his coalition straight from David Laws’s new book, the rather less snappily titled 22 Days In May. Serialised in the Mail, Laws’s self-serving account of a glorious coming-together saves special spite for Ed Miliband, and depicts the Labour negotiation team not just as under-prepared – as Nick Robinson’s documentary on the topic suggestions – but actively mendacious (5 Days in May had Ed Balls bellowing at the Lib Dems about how they were stupid-heads – I exaggerate, but only a bit). Even Cameron’s humiliating climb-down after appointing Tory party photographers to the civil service payroll was spun as a pragmatist’s response to public outcry; even as student protests plunge the capital into gridlock, Cameron – like Blair before him – can pose, perversely, as peacemaker.

This is some considerable feat, and is achieved largely by force of personality. If Blair was warm and winning, though faintly studied and oleaginous, Cameron is cool but in control, though faintly aristocratic. Cameron’s strength, then, is his appearance to be driven by ends rather than means; his weakness will likely prove to be the very distance that approach implies. Fow now, though, what’s most interesting about his premiership is that, unlike Blair, he does not command his party: the radio dramas and reality alike depict, yes, a pragmatist – but one struggling to hold together a party often anything but.

Both Lord Young and Lord-to-be Flight have, in successive weeks, given voice to the right-wing passions and prejudices which animate Cameron’s party, to gasps of outrage and rapid rebuttals from Number 10. But this, too, is inevitably part of the PM’s public persona – the sense that he is constantly keeping the lid on the true motivations which lie beneath his party’s policy. This is a tension of public identity which Blair better managed to neutralise: all those ‘New Labour, New Danger’ smears didn’t stick. If Cameron can’t do the same (and it is this blog’s opinion, of course, that he can’t and shan’t), he won’t, alas, last as long as his forebear. Shame.

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 …

In happier days.

Labour Party members this week await with baited breath their leadership ballots. In less than a month, we’ll know the identity of the new Labour leader, and it is therefore no great surprise that the mainstream media has suddenly started taking notice. The papers were full this week of claim and counter-claim from the various camps (although Burnham’s and Abbott’s remain curiously silent). Most notably, the right-wing press has been having its say, and making not a little mischief: in the Sunday Telegraph today, Matthew d’Ancona encourages Labour to vote for their own Dave; anonymous Tory sources have been briefing the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt that Cameron is practically quaking in his boots at the prospect of facing the elder Miliband; and at the Spectator’s Coffee House, Fraser Nelson adds to the emerging Tory consensus that the only man for Labour is the former foreign secretary.

Nelson is honest enough in his piece to admit that, however under-reported the contest has been, it remains acutely relevant: Labour retain too many seats to be discounted as a political force. Indeed, going on precedent, it would be more unusual for them to lose the next election that it would be strange for them to win it. This alone makes one pause when considering the right-wing noises: do they really believe David Miliband is the best leader the party has to offer, or do they fear another in their secret moments, talking up the nobbled favourite in an attempt to ensure a cakewalk?

This was certainly Sunny Hundal’s view, and it’s gratifying to think that Labour remain such a fighting force that the Coalition puts such time and energy into fixing its leadership race. But Hundal’s belief that Cameron truly fears the younger Miliband seems to me wishful thinking. Ed’s article in the Observer today is thin gruel indeed: he’ll make capitalism work for the people; he’s for wealth creation as well as redistribution; the environment, about which he was once so passionate, merits an afterthought of a sentence; he attacks (rightly) the Coalition for having no plan for growth, but his own seems to consist largely of platitudes about diversifying the industrial base. None of these ‘policies’ – more properly, platitudes – is aimed at anything more than winning the Labour leadership; it isn’t a credible programme for opposition, let alone government – and feels in some way confected, to boot.

Compare this with Ed Balls’s speech to Bloomberg, also delivered in this week of increasingly targeted attacks amongst the candidates: Balls’s campaign slogan has become ‘There is an alternative’, ostensibly referring to the dreary Coalition consensus, but in truth surely aimed at voters thinking Labour is now a subsidiary of Miliband Bros. “Adopting the consensus view,” he argues, “may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.” This is an obvious attack on David Miliband’s campaign, but it is supported by a depth of reference and policy which beats Ed Miliband into a cocked hat. Balls, however, remains hostage to his unbreakable alliance with Gordon Brown, and has little chance of winning.

David Miliband, meanwhile, was never a true fellow traveller of Tony Blair’s – described by the ex-PM as his Wayne Rooney in the dying days of the Blair premiership, Miliband was nevertheless replaced as soon as practicable as head of Numb er 10’s Policy Unit by the true Blairite, Andrew Adonis. He escapes, therefore, easy attachment to destructive factionalism. It’s in one way to his credit, however, that he hasn’t attempted to wash his hands of the government of which he was such a prominent part. With or without the support of Jon Cruddas, however, and laudable grassroots focus aside, can Labour afford to elect be led by another politician in favour of the Iraq War, or one who communicates in the same technocratic language the electorate have so clearly come to despise?

The decidedly cuddlier Ed Miliband currently seems a compromise between the likeable-but-sullied David and the combative-but-comprehensive Balls. But he is the sort of compromise which feels watered down rather than balanced out. We have a government whose supporters condemn the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a pinko outfit as soon as it disagrees with them (even Nick Clegg had a go); it’s even unkind to animals. Its approval rating dipped into the negative this week. Labour needs a leader who can capitalise on that: Sunder Katwala has some timely thoughts on not buying the usual right-wing warnings about alienating the ‘middle’, and the question is whether the siren voices on the right are playing canny or straight when they say David Miliband is the best man for the job. Alistair Campbell, for it is he, has his own thoughts on this topic. But whatever the case, the left shouldn’t elect his as yet under-developed brother just to be ornery.

Maybe Michael White should stand.

Regular readers will know that I became a member of the Labour party just after the election. Due to personal circumstances, I’ve yet to get involved in a constituency party – I’m still not really sure which to call my own. But in all honesty that may also reflect some lingering reluctance fully to nail my colours to the mast. Lefty activist and 19th most politically influential Tweeter Sunny Hundal, who rather rashly endorsed the Liberal Democrats in May, rather bashfully announced this week that he, too, had joined Labour, and for conflicted reasons similar to my own:

Given the Coalition’s agenda, the time to just shout from the sidelines and hope the system changes is over. We have to campaign for it and get involved in the political system. We have to try and influence that direction. Labour’s values used to be different, and it can change again.

The whole post is worth reading. Hundal writes of the ‘intellectual juncture’ at which Labour currently finds itself, and, as I did in June, resolves to be a part of the debate about which direction to take next.

The obvious forum for that debate is the leadership contest, which has – despite the efforts of the many who agitated for a longer period prior to the vote – failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the wider public. One says this in full knowledge that, the paper’s shameless burying of the headline figures aside, this week’s Guardian-ICM poll put the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck on 37% each. Nevertheless, the leadership election’s media presentation has been slight compared to the Cameron/David bout of 2005. In no small part, this lack of coverage mirrors my own lack of inspiration: what fresh ideas the runners and riders have espoused have been buried under a crowd-pleasing and insipid niceness.

Most notably un-nice has been Ed Balls, who has run by far the most pro-active and impressive campaign, attacking the government and causing Michael Gove, his opposite number at Education, real trouble; but Balls is tarred with precisely that ‘un-nice’ tag, and the party seems desperate not to appear bullish or combative after the bunker years of Brown. This has given the nice-guy Andy Burnham his chance, but, despite some appealing lines of argument dealing with breaking down elites and broadening the party’s base, he has failed to prove himself either eloquent or coherent. Diane Abbott, meanwhile, has never broken free of accusations of tokenism: she is there to bang the socialist drum, but depressingly her championing of women’s issues in particular seems limited to being herself a woman.

This, of course, leaves the two Milibands. Here lies the real problem with the contest: the two frontrunners are both thoroughly predictable and, you know. Related. David is impressive – fully and comprehensively briefed, and, dare one say it, Prime Ministerial. But we all know that, and we know his Blairite weaknesses, too. His brother, on the other hand, aims to ape his brother’s cool and calm exterior, but add to it the piss and vinegar of a Junior Common Room firebrand. The reader may read between the lines here a certain lack of awe. Ed Miliband has, for this party member at least, performed a quite unconvincing jink to the left, and wholly failed to articulate his vision of the party beyond a sort of kumbaya co-operative which will very much hate the Liberal Democrats (or at least Nick Clegg). Dull, preaching-to-the-choir stuff.

So Miliband The Elder probably deserves the eight-point lead he had in late July. Whither the race has since gone is an open question, but The Younger has adopted, if anything, less, not more, consistent messaging. Peter Watt was right, of course, when he wrote this week on the excellent Labour Uncut that the new leader will need quickly to define a narrative quickly once he (or, ahem, she) is elected. To do so, though, he (or, ahem, she) will need something approximating a coherent, complete story about themselves (or else, as James Forsyth notes, the Coalition will do it for them). That leaves David Miliband and Ed Balls standing – however seductive Burnham’s soundbites, he lacks an holistic vision.

Balls and Miliband are two quite different candidates, and of the two only the latter seems likely to triumph. It remains a shame, though, that my continuing indecision is less a result of a closely contested race between big ideas and passionate speakers, and more a result of the uninspiring effect of candidates pillow-fighting their way to power.

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