Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Reasons to be cheerful, Part 2015

A hefty bit of blood-letting and internecine warfare within the Labour Party was inevitable after their dreadful election result. It would happen in any party. Runners and riders from various party factions, from the Blairites to the Union loyalists, will pop up and talk about the mistakes of the past, how their vision represents the path to tread. Inevitably, it seems, they'll waffle on about ‘aspiration’.

Contrary to some claims, Labour actually had a very good election campaign until the final couple of weeks; it was energetic, released new policies in a timely fashion and appeared to want power more than a lacklustre and gloomy Conservative Party. The last couple of weeks, though, were a mess. Ed Miliband should never have gone to kowtow to the dishonourable member for wasted youth, Russell Brand, and the #edstone, while probably a much needed commission for a stone mason, was utterly ridiculous. It was simply impossible to satirise, such was its absurdity.

Ultimately Labour lost, not because of ideas, but because they picked the wrong leader. Ed Miliband is an eminently decent man – something David Cameron shamefully couldn’t bring himself to admit – but he was simply never leadership material. He was and remains a policy wonk, someone fascinated by political ideas and theories, but not someone to sell a vision or map out a clear direction. Combined with a failure to challenge sufficiently the notion of ‘Labour’s Great Recession’, when it was anything but, and the SNP surge in Scotland, Labour has been left in the political wilderness for another five years.

So yes, Labour will endure bitter, inward-facing days in the months and possibly years to come, especially as they try and make some sort of recovery in Scotland; but judging from some of the reports recently one could be mistaken for thinking the next five years are going to be all sweetness and light for the Tories.

There is much euphoria following their first election victory since 1992. Today (May 27) sees the first Tory-only Queen’s speech since John Major’s days and finally those backbenchers will be able to revel in Tory policies: the Human Rights Act is for the chop; the benefits bill will have to be slashed (but just leave the pensioners alone); an in/out referendum on the EU will be set in motion.

When John Major won the 1992 General Election – like Cameron, largely based on his own popularity and campaigning – the Conservatives had a majority of 21 seats. Cameron has a majority of 12. John Major had his ‘bastards’ including three of them in his own cabinet; Cameron endured the most rebellious backbenchers in history in the last parliament. Yes, they no longer have to suffer the ignominy of having to share power with the Liberal Democrats but anyone who thinks they’ll now be a joy to work with will soon find they will be sorely mistaken.

Already, several prominent ex-ministers – Damien Green, Dominic Grieve, Andrew Mitchell – have indicated they will oppose efforts to replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of British rights. And these are far from the usual suspects. The government will struggle to get their plans through the House of Commons and will face an almighty battle in the Lords.

And then there is Europe.

I know some Tories who think the argument in the party is settled. After the bitterest internal political row which has lasted the best part of 30 years, the Tories now have a settled view. This seems remarkably optimistic. Assuming, and it is a big assumption, that David Cameron gets the concessions he wants from our European partners, he will campaign to stay within the union. It is hard to imagine he will be joined in the trenches by the likes of John Redwood, Daniel Hannan or Owen Paterson. They, and much of the parliamentary Conservative Party, will be on the 'out' side of the argument and there is little the Prime Minister can do to convince them otherwise.

Managing a small majority, therefore, is likely to be a tough, pretty wretched experience for Cameron, much as it was for the hapless Major. And, as governing parties frequently lose by-elections between general elections, his majority is likely to be whittled down further, perhaps even into a minority government as Major’s was.

There is one thing that Cameron and his opponents can look forward to; he won’t be standing at the next election. Contrary to his claims, the Prime Minister simply cannot serve every day of a second term, waltzing off to a wine bar singing when the 2020 General Election comes around. He must either change his mind and decide to stick around anyway, or he has to leave giving sufficient time for his successor to bed-in before the next vote. His potential successors will spend much of their time in this government jostling for the best position and once they get there may find they are seen as used and tired goods by the electorate. Labour and the Lib Dems will, by contrast, have a new leader and one not tainted by years in government or links to Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Labour supporters have little choice but to grin and bear it for now; and if that fails they can at least console themselves that they're not the Lib Dems.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The campaign trail to nowhere

This election campaign may have only officially begun at the end of March, but as we approach the final hours, it seems to have lasted many more months and years. And, ultimately, what has been the point? For all the polls have shifted, it might as well have just started at the start of last week. For all the flashy billboards, boisterous though far from spontaneous rallies of the faithful, the personal attacks, the sniping in the press and the plethora of pledges, the polls have barely moved an inch.

For a brief moment last week, the Conservatives appeared, in a couple of polls, to be establishing something of a lead; was clear blue water finally emerging? Well, no. The polls have levelled once more, maybe the Tories holding a slender, but far from firm, lead. A hung parliament is, it seems, an inevitability.

So how have the campaigns gone for each of the main political parties:


The leading member of the coalition had a very leaden, clunking, gloomy start. The messages were dour, warnings of ‘chaos’ tedious beyond belief and the operation slack. The personal attacks on Ed Miliband, such as the backstabbing one from Michael Fallon backfired, and David Cameron failing to acknowledge Ed Miliband as a 'decent man' was jarring and unbecoming of the man. 

Just from the wordcloud above, using statements made in Conservative Party press releases since Friday, the words 'Nicola', 'Sturgeon', 'SNP' are have been used almost as often as 'Miliband'; 'ransom' is also pretty prominent. For an apparently 'Unionist' party the venom stirred up against Scottish voters has been extraordinary. Stirring up English nationalism may well prove, in the long run, to have been an extremely unwise thing to do.

Then there were pledges, a windfall of them: Inheritance Tax threshold increased to £1million for a couple; 40 per cent Income Tax threshold raised to £50,000; personal allowance up to £12,500; commuter rail fares frozen; £8billion above inflation for the NHS; 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year-olds, What a gold mine; who could possibly suffer from such pledges? The only problem there was little information how any of these would be paid for; they almost appeared like post-election coalition talks. And they came on top of the repeated failure by senior Tory figures to explain '£12billion in welfare cuts' apparently planned for after the election.

In the last week, however, the party has recovered lost momentum, mainly due to David Cameron's own campaigning skills. His 'I'm pumped up' and 'bloody lively' routine sounds absurd but there is something in Dan Hodges' piece from early April which talks about the Prime Minister rolling up his sleeves and hitting the road after a lacklustre campaign start. It's also possible that the constant repetition of the same slogans is finally hitting home.

If Cameron wins a majority, it will be a huge personal success and not a ringing endorsement of Lynton Crosby's election campaign; frankly the Tories should really ask for their money back.


For some reason Ed Miliband has been routinely underestimated throughout his leadership of the Labour Party. His doggedness has been entirely overlooked. So when it came to the election campaign itself expectations were not high. As a consequence, the fact that Labour launched a coherent, spirited, hungry campaign rather took onlookers by surprise.

Miliband also did well in the debates. In the spin room at the first non-debate, reporters from pro-Tory papers acknowledged to each other that the Labour leader had easily beaten Cameron, who looked utterly terrified when confronted by Jeremy Paxman.

The #edstone
But, in the penultimate week, as the polls appeared to be giving the Tories a slender leader, jitters could be seen. Perhaps this is why Ed Miliband decided that rather than a pledge card, which can be slipped easily into a wallet, he would opt to have his promises engraved on an 8-foot limestone monument; surely the invocation of gravestones or Old Testament tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments were inevitable? It is as though a member of his team watched The Thick of It thinking it was a template from which to copy rather than a satire. Perhaps, again, evidence of an imported public relations guru not really worth his weight in gold, or even limestone.

Liberal Democrats

Pitching themselves as a moderating force for both the Conservatives and Labour, this election has been one of consolidation for the Lib Dems. Whatever Nick Clegg says, they will lose seats on Thursday night, probably a lot of them. They may lose so many that he cannot stay as party leader. In many ways this would be a shame as the Lib Dem leader is unquestionably a decent man who was thrust in an invidious position back in 2010. The numbers could have allowed a Labour/Lib Dem coalition but it would have been far from stable and far less so than the Tory/Lib Dem coalition has proved to be.

Danny Alexander's leaking of apparent Tory post-election child benefit plans had the air of someone who knew who was going to lose and didn't care any more. Safe to say that after he loses his Inverness seat - which he almost certainly will - even if Alexander ends up in the Lords, he won't be the first person to whom the Tories turn to join another coalition in the future.


Nigel Farage's party has maintained its level in the polls surprisingly well considering what a wretched campaign they have had. It may not be until after the election that the full details of why Ukip's campaign never gained any momentum is known; Farage's health issues with his back are clearly a factor. But, the cancelled events, the comments - whether reasonable or not - about Farage's own lack of appearances in Thanet South where he is standing, have all not helped.

The party also seems to have decided there is a concerted media plot against it. Farage launched a misguided attack on an independently selected audience during a BBC debate complaining it was too left wing, forgetting that, with Cameron's absence, right-wing members of the audience had little to clap for. It isn't actually the media's fault that member after member says or does something stupid or offensive. The latest is the suspension of Robert Blay, a Ukip parliamentary candidate who was caught on camera saying he would 'personally put a bullet between' the eyes of his much-tipped Tory opponent if he were ever to become Britain's first Asian prime minister.

Through the share of the vote they look likely to take, Ukip could still cause the Tories problems but it seems less likely that this will prove a breakthrough election for them; Carswell looks set to win but none other can be as sure.


Remember the Green surge? Membership shot up, overtaking Ukip and even the Lib Dems but today's poll of polls leave them on five per cent. Caroline Lucas may return for the Brighton Pavilion seat but other gains look very unlikely.

Sadly for Natalie Bennett, the party's surge never really kept going after her 'mental brain fade' on LBC radio back in February, even thought she stood her ground well when she took to the stage on the BBC Challengers' Election debate. We should not forget the fact that this programme featured three effective female politicians - Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. This is possibly the only time women have ever outnumbered men in such a format, and it lent the discussino a novel, even an exciting, edge. It was in this format that Bennett was probably at her best.

Before long, however, fundamental problems faced the party. Because the Greens were now pitching themselves as members of a serious political and less a campaign group, their manifesto faced more scrutiny than ever before. Bennett was repeatedly challenged as to whether she wanted to ban the grand national or outlaw rabbit hutches, or back up the party's economic policy with solid evidence. Perhaps inevitably, while there was no repeat of the 'mind-fade', she continued to struggle in interviews.


The next five years are likely to be troublesome: Britain's membership of the European Union could well be the subject of a referendum; the strength of the Union will be put under enormous strain; the refugee crisis in the Middle East is not going away and its effects will spread further; Russia under Putin is likely to maintain is bellicose stance; global security is shaky; the environment is under threat; and the economy is still vulnerable to shocks. And, yet it seems, if we believe the opinion polls, we may well, after the general election, be left with an unstable, fractious, government with a major party reliant on the support of one, two, even three smaller parties.

It's clear neither the Conservatives nor Labour has presented a vision for the country which has captured the imagination of the public, their campaigning has been narrow, artificial and blinkered. There has been too little discussion about several vital issues during this campaign. Foreign affairs and the environment have barely featured.

From the uncertain melee of this messy, unsatisfactory, campaign, one can hope for a stable government to emerge but if not, we might have to do it all again soon.