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.


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.


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.


“We’re Here To Listen And To Work With You”

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.


Coalition Whispers

Two People Separated By A Common Government

Nine months from now, we will be asked the following question: “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first-past-the-post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?” Nick Clegg will, in what is becoming his habitual manner, claim this as a great victory for his party with an uncomfortable mix of bashfulness and pugnacity. This was a shtick which stood him in poor stead for his debut at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, which hadn’t even ended before Tory spokesmen were insisting that the Liberal Democrat leader was not speaking for the Coalition when he declared the Iraq War illegal (and probably in anything else he said, were they to be pressed). Liberal Democrats everywhere must be heartened by the news that their Cabinet moles do not speak for the Coalition in those moments when they disagree with the Tory leadership.

In fairness, it is not just Liberal Democrats who are being shot down – if Vince Cable must still be smarting after summary and rapid dismissal of his graduate tax proposal, Liam Fox can be no less wounded by Cameroon insistence that his comments to the Telegraph this week that the UK can no longer defend itself against all threats were bobbins. Only Cameron – who this week seemed to suggest on his visit to Barack Obama that in 1940 Britain was the junior partner to a USA which had not yet entered the war – is allowed to make mistakes without condemnation being delivered swiftly and severely.

The criticism instead comes from outside the Cameroon Coalition. At the Coffee House, David Blackburn underplays today’s reports that David Davis has been calling the government the ‘Brokeback Coalition’; Blackburn’s probably right to do so on one level, since one senses a sixth-form joke about Cameron and Clegg somewhere in this. On another, though, it’s the sort of soundbite – a ‘from Stalin to Mr Bean’ – which can gain wider traction. More interesting, and yet along the same lines, is Chris Patten’s suggestion in a Straight Talk interview this weekend that the government risks seeming ‘breathless’. Patten is ideologically no die-hard enemy of Cameron’s project; his criticism is constructive, but hints that the competing messages, and messy initiatives, which have begun to characterise what had at first seemed a solid start by the government risk coming to define it.

The Telegraph profiles Francis Maude this morning, suggesting that, in his position at the centre of the Cameroon networks, he resembles a Tory Mandelson. If this were true, one might detect a greater intellectual centre of gravity in the government. The Coalition is in a rush to dismantle things – Labour’s legacy, the state, what it perceives to be civil rights infringements – but no coherence is emerging out of the babble. If this continues, then nine months from now we may answer that question in a radically different context.


Over A Barrel: George Osborne’s First Budget

"Look, ma - no proles!"

“Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.” If a quote from a figure in the new Tory (sorry, Coalition) administration has revealed more about the way in which it conceives the world, I’ve yet to find it. Quoted in today’s Telegraph, Richard Balfe explains the government’s approach to public sector negotiation. Mr Balfe is – ha – David Cameron’s envoy to the unions, and his position is simple: pensions will be used as a cosh with which to force unions to accept the swingeing cuts (£100bn over 5 years) George Osborne announced in this week’s Budget. We’re not so much all in this together as all under the same thumb.

This week’s Budget still didn’t please everyone on the right – two blogs at The Spectator, one from Andrew Haldenby and another from Matthew Sinclair, expressed early on the insatiable lust on the right for unravelling the state. But coverage from the Tory press was largely swooning – the Torygraph’s sketchwriter, Andrew Gimson, has never been quite so panting, for instance. Indeed, it’s hard to see the Liberal Democrat influence in the programme detailed by Osborne – one might emphasise the rise in Capital Gains Tax, except that it is so woefully far from being in line with income taxation that it makes a better argument for the strength of Tory backbenchers. If you were so minded, you might also point to the lift in the lowest rate of income tax. Certainly, Clegg was tugging his forelock in gratitude in the chamber. But this is small recompense for the party and its supporters.

Certainly, Cameron has made it known that, when he goes on holiday in August and on paternity leave in September, he won’t be continuing the ‘carry-on’ of Prescott taking over from Blair. Nick will not be let anywhere near the levers of state, whilst his erstwhile deputy, Vince Cable, will be sent on to the first BBC Question Time following the Budget to defend the indefensible. Cable was a sorry figure on Thursday night, all downcast gaze and half-hearted, irritable retorts. The audience gave him a much rougher time than they did Ed Balls, who turned in a pretty creditable performance which will help his profile in the Labour leadership race. The hapless Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, meanwhile, was let loose on Newsnight on the evening of the Budget to be comprehensively bested by, of all people, Liam Byrne. The Liberal Democrats are providing inimitable political cover, but what are they getting in return if not power and influence?

Because you don’t have to take David Miliband’s word for it – the Institute for Fiscal Studies made it plain that this Budget will hurt the poorest hardest. It’s no great surprise that Simon Hughes has already indicated he might vote against the rise in VAT – Liberal Democrats representing constituencies like his, from Sarah Teather to Lynne Featherstone, will be loath to cut benefits, freeze wages, and raise VAT. If they don’t, Hopi Sen’s mischievous theory will surely be the only one which fits all the facts.


You Still Have A Conservative Prime Minister

They're getting on better ...

Left Foot Forward has been doing a series of interesting and valuable analyses of the coalition government’s programme for government, published this week – Shamik Dass links to most of them here, and the latest post, on the regions, is here. The picture that emerges is one of benign confusion. Confusion is to be expected – even the most unified of single governments has an initially unclear programme, despite all the inked spilled on its election manifesto. The proof, as every man and his dog have said in this whole new age of cliche, will be in the pudding.

But ‘progressives’ will find it hard to ignore or discount some of the benignity: a judicial review into the extradition of Gary McKinnon; a promise to repeal some of Labour’s worst civil liberties infractions, from ID cards to the DNA database; Tory acceptance that totemic capital gains and stamp duty policies will not fly. Even Theresa May has been forced to toe the softly-softly line, insisting through gritted teeth and palpable tension that, yes, she actually rather likes gay people and they would make wonderful adoptive parents, naturally. Gottle of geer, gottle of geer.

Labour would thus be wrong to underestimate the potential of this Tory government to reshape British politics. John Rentoul may have gone too far in calling Cameron’s alliance with Clegg a takeover rather than a merger; but whether or not such a formal outcome is likely, and despite Cameron’s own (rather flimsy) insistence on the separateness of the two parties in today’s Telegraph, were the coalition to be a success it would significantly realign at least the Liberal Democrats as a party with successful centre-right experience in government. Leftie Liberals hoping for an easy return to the status quo come the next election may be disappointed: their party will have to run of their record in government, and this record will, of course, be one of tempering Tory instincts; but it will also be one of actual legislative achievements, all of which will be framed in a centre-right context. This will define not just the party’s pitch, and its subsequent direction to travel, but potentially the country’s.

Labour may therefore find it tempting to outflank the Lib Dems on the left. Their fight, however, is not with Clegg. Had their core vote not held up so well, perhaps it might have betokened a greater struggle for the second position in British politics; as it is, there is clear appetite for a Labour message delivered more adroitly; Labour are yet a party of government, and this makes their primary enemy the Tories. Tacking to the left will not defeat Cameron – it would play into his newly centrist hands. This may account for the theme of the first week of the Labour leadership contest which John Harris has disapprovingly noted: immigration. Andy Burnham in the Mirror, for instance, argued that during the election campaign Labour “were in denial about the effects of immigration on wages, housing and anti-social behaviour in places where life is hardest.” The privileging of immigration over those other issues – a priority the left-wing leadership candidate, John McDonnell, inverts – is the problem.

... and they're not.

Ed Miliband has suggested, correctly in my view, that immigration is a class issue. It is key that, in the victory of the two great parties of the middle class, Labour does not lose site of its separate roots. In safe Labour seats across the country, immigration is an issue because of social and economic deprivation. This is emphatically not to say it does not have a racist element – but it is to argue optimistically that that racism has a root other than the racist’s irredeemable, inherent, bigotry. The one-upmanship on immigration currently defining the Labour leadership race (and influenced by thinking such as David Goodhart’s) needs to be nuanced with this argument in mind. Burnham’s pitch, for example, is seductive on a certain level: the son of skilled and semi-skilled workers from the north, he has never lost touch with those roots. His ministerial career is less garlanded than the Milibands’ or Balls’s, but at this juncture that seems less important if he can show their flair for communication of his less technocratic views. As he argues thus persuasively, Labour must address, must debate, the issue which has troubled its core vote for so long (and done so understandably, if not always rightly); but there is a difference between addressing and pandering.

Of the awkward squad candidates, John McDonnell is a known quantity – and an unreconstructed leftie like me is bound to nod sagely to much of what he said in front of the PCS last week. Diane Abbott has in addition the profile and smooth media skills of the television personality she is in danger of becoming, and her message is absolutely vital in the face of what was shaping up to be a dull debate over a tiny series of minor disagreements between identikit ex-ministers. In providing the opportunity to force a keener examination of what the Labour party needs to be, though bearing in mind that a lurch to (as opposed to an embrace of) the left plays into Cameron’s cunning triangulation, it’s hugely gratifying that both are in the race: the voice of the party’s left, and – hallelujah – women, need to be represented in the Labour party of all parties. Their role ultimately is to keep the others honest, and they should start with immigration.