Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brown should turn to Mr Upwardly-Mobile

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Saturday 15 December

***

There are times in politics when governments become so immersed in difficulties that even what might once have been seen as “good news” stories start to get lost in the mix.

Besieged by accusations of sleaze, incompetence and lack of vision, Gordon Brown has only one real option – to try and get on with the serious business of governing.

And make no mistake, the government has been doing some serious things in the past week. The Children’s Plan unveiled on Monday is a case in point.

It set out a vision for schools as centres for child welfare that goes far beyond their traditional teaching role, while among other things, there will also be £200m for extra childcare provision in deprived areas.

In newspapers interviews this week and in his appearance before the Liaison Committee of MPs on Thursday, the Prime Minister sought to re-emphasise the seriousness of purpose he was once known for.

Once again, though, the focus of attention has been on the negative, and Mr Brown’s apparent indecision over whether he would sign the European Treaty.

Not so long ago, a Prime Minister who was prepared to put an appointment with MPs before a photocall with other European leaders might have been applauded for his pains.

Instead, he was branded “gutless” by the Tories for not having attended the original Treaty signing – possibly a case of damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

But despite the media focus of recent weeks, it is not sleaze, nor incompetence, nor even signing the European Treaty which, in my view, has been the real scandal of the New Labour years.

It is, as I have said more than once before, the fact that a government which came into office to help “the many not the few” has managed to preside over an increase in inequality.

This week’s report by the Sutton Trust provided further hard evidence of this catastrophic policy failure for a party of the centre-left.

It found that social mobility in Britain has not improved for more than 30 years, leaving bright children from poorer families increasingly at risk of being overtaken by less able youngsters from wealthy ones.

Of course, it is not all Labour’s fault. The real emergence of a socially-excluded British underclass occurred under Margaret Thatcher as a result of the mass unemployment of the early 1980s.

Whatever else she achieved, the social divisions of the Thatcher era remain among her most enduring legacies.

But by the same token, New Labour’s failure over the course of ten years to address the resulting inequalities must go down as one of the biggest blots on its own historical record.

It is proof, if ever it were needed, that the role of New Labour has essentially been to perpetuate the Thatcherite settlement rather than challenge or overturn it.

This week’s report found that just 10pc of young people from the poorest fifth of households gained a university degree in 2002, compared to 44pc from the richest fifth of the population.

Some will point to the demise of the grammar schools as a factor in preventing children moving out of deprived backgrounds, and they may well have a point.

Others will blame the astronomical increase in house prices over the past 30 years which have left the nation increasingly divided between those who own such assets and those who do not.

Either way, the upside for Labour is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might just give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way out of its current political malaise.

There is also, if Mr Brown’s pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task – Darlington MP Alan Milburn, Labour’s Mr Upward Social Mobility himself in more ways than one.

The former health secretary famously grew up, the child of a single mother, on a council estate in a remote ex-mining town in County Durham.

Yet he himself has stated that he could not now imagine anyone from such a background as his reaching the Cabinet.

He is also, as far as this issue is concerned, Labour’s prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, having first warned about the looming problem as long ago as 2003.

Back then he wrote: “We should aim to reverse the slowing down of social mobility of recent decades. If these trends continue, Britain will be in danger of grinding socially to a halt.

"Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits.”

When Mr Milburn wrote those words, it was designed as a possible prospectus for the third term, a call to arms for Labour to be more, not less radical in its thinking

It didn’t work out that way. Although he did come back briefly to help run the election campaign, Mr Milburn along with most of his ideas ended up being marginalised.

Would Mr Brown now pick up the phone and ask Mr Milburn to join his Cabinet line-up? I don’t know, but it would certainly strengthen what is commonly seen as a rather lacklustre team.

Would Mr Milburn, for that matter, ever want to work again with Mr Brown? I don’t know the answer to that either.

I do know, however, that the last time I spoke to Mr Milburn, he was reading Giles Radice’s “Friends and Rivals,” a cautionary tale about three men whose rivalry prevented them working effectively together.

And as the Tories used to say in the days when they regularly won elections, surely now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party?

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Could Gordon stand down before the next election?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Saturday 8 December

***

A few weeks back, one of Gordon Brown’s strongest supporters in the national press wrote a column quoting a Labour MP as saying that the Prime Minister would not now fight the next general election.

The unnamed MP told columnist Jackie Ashley that Mr Brown would stand down at some point in the next two and a half years rather than risk defeat by David Cameron.

It is significant that this startling claim, which went oddly unnoticed by the rest of the media, came before the David Abrahams affair which has since sent the government’s reputation plummeting further.

If that’s what MPs were saying then, it’s hardly surprising that the Labour leadership is now once again becoming the talk of the tearooms at Westminster.

As Fraser Nelson in the Spectator magazine put it this week: “Life is finally returning to the corridors of the House of Commons. A journalist on patrol can once again gather intelligence from the clusters of MPs holding impromptu crisis meetings.

“Two themes dominate. One is the scale of the disaster. The other is whether Gordon Brown will be around long enough to fight the next general election.”

That this subject is even being discussed this early into Mr Brown’s premiership is evidence of the collapse in the Prime Minister’s authority in the weeks since the end of the party conference season.

But the same MPs who just six months ago were content to give the former Chancellor a clear run at the party leadership are now openly starting to question whether he is the right man.

In last week’s column, I concluded that the Abrahams affair had almost certainly put paid to one of the central aims of Mr Brown’s premiership – to restore trust in British politics.

This week has brought little respite for the Prime Minister, with suggestions that knowledge of the “Donorgate” scandal went far wider than ex-General Secretary Peter Watt.

At the same time, the Government’s attempts at compromise over the detention-without-trial row seem to have fallen on stony ground with Labour’s backbench rebels.

Mr Brown is facing the prospect of his first Commons defeat on the issue just seven months into his premiership. It took more than eight years for the same thing to happen to Tony Blair.

Speculation that Mr Brown will not lead Labour into a 2009 or 2010 election campaign has arisen partly from a succession of below-par performances at Prime Minister’s Questions.

In his younger days, Mr Brown used to dominate the Commons. As Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary in the early 1990s he regularly used to tear the Tory government to shreds.

But up against David Cameron, he now seems an oddly diminished figure, much to the surprise of those of us who believed he would make his greater experience and gravitas count.

Instead of swotting the Tory leader away like an irritating fly, he appears to have let him get under his skin, frequently becoming rattled rather than exuding the calm authority the public expects.

It has all lent itself to a general feeling among MPs that, having schemed and plotted to get the job for so long, Mr Brown has now found he doesn’t actually enjoy being Prime Minister.

As the veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell put it, maybe it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Others drop dark hints that Mr Brown’s health isn’t what it was, that he lacks the physical resilience to thrive on confrontation in the way that, say, Margaret Thatcher used to.

This was one thing they never said about Mr Blair, even when his mysterious heart ailment turned out to be more serious than Downing Street spin doctors had initially led us to believe.

At the moment, the talk is more of the order of low-level muttering than active plotting, but as someone said earlier this year: “Today’s tearoom conversations become tomorrow’s leadership contests.”

And while the overwhelming likelihood is still that Mr Brown will survive, there is some political logic to the suggestions that he could ultimately decide to throw in the towel.

The Prime Minister has already made it clear he does not intend to hold an election before spring 2009, but he could, if he wanted to, wait until 2010.

If between now and then the political situation for Labour does not improve, he may conclude that there is little to be gained, either for him or for the party, from staying on.

One very good reason that the talk has not become more serious is the absence of an obvious alternative to Mr Brown among the younger ranks of ministers.

The two names most frequently talked about in the “next generation” are South Shields MP David Miliband and Schools Secretary Ed Balls, but neither has done himself any favours of late.

Mr Miliband was seen by Mr Blair as a potential successor, but his performance as Foreign Secretary thus far suggests his own assessment of his capabilities was correct. He is not ready for the top job.

As for Mr Balls, in my view he is over-promoted as it is. He should go back to being a backroom boy and leave the front-line politics to his rather more gifted wife, Yvette Cooper.

But if the absence of a serious rival is one silver lining for Mr Brown, another lies in that phrase “today’s tearoom conversations become tomorrow’s leadership contests.”

Why? Because that comment was originally made not in the context of Mr Brown’s current troubles, but in relation to Mr Cameron, at a time when his leadership was under threat earlier this year.

Since then, the situation has changed utterly – which only goes to show that it could yet change back again.

It’s not going to be easy for Mr Brown to turn things round. But if the events of the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Curse of the North

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Sat 1 December.

***

They say troubles come along in threes, and so, for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour, it has proved – each one of them made and manufactured in the party’s North-East heartland.

First, there was Northern Rock, the first run on a British bank for more than 100 years. Then “Discgate,” or how a breach of adminstrative procedure at a government office in Washington caused the personal details of 25m people to go missing.

Now, potentially most damaging of all, a new police inquiry into Labour’s finances after a Newcastle businessman used middle-men and women to channel more than £600,000 into party funds.

Is it any wonder that some people at Westminster are starting to talk about the “Curse of the North?”

A conspiracy theorist might be sorely tempted to try to see links between the three, to point to some common thread of corruption or incompetence.

This part of the world has, after all, had a long history of Labour scandals, dating back to the days of T Dan Smith and Andy Cunningham in the 1970s.

There is, however, no such link. The confluence of these three North-East stories at the top of the national political agenda at the same time is no more than a bizarre coincidence.

But if it’s a somewhat happy coincidence for the region’s journalists and commentators, it is a very unhappy one for Mr Brown, who now finds not only his competence but his integrity called into question.

As far as both Northern Rock and Discgate are concerned, the focus on the Prime Minister’s role is only fair. Both happened on his watch, and as such his government has to take ultimately responsibility for them.

The David Abrahams affair is a slightly different matter, though. The vast majority of his dodgy donations were made during Tony Blair’s leadership, and it is only because it has taken until now for the scam to come to light that Mr Brown finds himself in the firing line.

Mr Brown has also acted swiftly to condemn the practices in question and to return the donations, although he should have gone further and called in the police himself before the Electoral Commission did so.

But even though the Prime Minister is almost certainly innocent of any personal involvement in the affair, it was inevitable in the current highly-charged political situation that the opposition parties would make him their main target.

Once again, the case of John Major provides an apt analogy. Amid all the Tory sleaaze of the mid-1990s, there was never the slightest evidence to suggest that he personally was anything other than a man of the highest integrity.

But that did not stop Labour targeting him, and eventually the electorate got the message.

Sir John remains sore to this day about the way he was treated, and the fact that New Labour’s aspirations to be “whiter than white” turned out to be so preposterously misplaced.

But the truth is that all is fair in love, war, and politics, and just as it fell to Mr Major to deal with a situation of others’ making, so it now falls to Mr Brown.

Of course, it didn’t help his cause that his deputy, Harriet Harman, was unwise enough to accept a donation of £5,000 for her deputy leadership campaign without checking where it had come from.

Mr Brown demonstrated his anger by effectively hanging her out to dry at his Prime Ministerial press conference on Tuesday, but her camp has now responded by claiming a Brown campaign organiser, Chris Leslie, told them to seek the donation.

Ms Harman is playing a very dangerous game here. If she thinks this crisis is primarily about ensuring her own personal political survival, she is very sadly mistaken.

In fact it’s no longer about her or Mr Brown. It is actually about the very survival of the Labour government.

As it is, it seems certain that there is more of the story to come out. To begin with, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has asked Durham Police to investigate the decision to allow Mr Abrahams to build a business park near the A1 south of the city.

This plan had been held up by Department of Transport objections until October 2006, when it was suddenly given the go-ahead.

The Department has denied that there is any link between its decision to allow the development and Mr Abrahams’ donations to the Labour Party, but in the current climate, such denials cannot necessarily be taken at face value.

There may be absolutely nothing to it. But if there is such a link, this is where the real scandal of the Abrahams affair may lie.

Secondly, Liberal Democrat candidate Greg Stone has called for an investigation into the Sedgefield by-election, and specifically whether any money was chanelled from Mr Abrahams into Labour’s campaign.

If it was, and this resulted in breaches of electoral law, it is more than possible that the Electoral Commission could order the contest to be rerun, in circumstances that could prove impossible for Labour to hold onto the seat.

Finally, there have been suggestions that Mr Abrahams himself is a front-man for a mysterious overseas donor.

All in all, it is enough to make Labour long for the days when it was solely dependent on the trade unions for its funding.

Whatever comes next, though, one thing that is already clear is that Mr Brown’s ambitions to restore trust in British politics after the deceptions of the Blair years now lie in ruins.

It is a very sad conclusion for those of us who hoped Mr Brown could offer a fresh start, but it is going to be hard if not impossible for him to do that now.

Voters are starting to conclude that the job of restoring trust in British politics will require not just a change of leadership, but a change of government.

Increasingly, that seems to be the end to which all roads are now beginning to point.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Gordon Brown the Steve McClaren of British politics?

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, November 24.

***

It’s a familiar enough story. Long-serving Number Two finally steps up to the top job after years of waiting for the boss to move on, only to see it all go to pot within a short space of time.

But am I talking about ex-England manager Steve McClaren – or Prime Minister Gordon Brown?

For all his achievements in getting Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup Final, McClaren’s best work was done as a deputy - to Jim Smith at Derby, Alex Ferguson at Man U and Sven Goran Eriksson with England.

Will the history books similarly say Brown was better cast in a supporting role to Tony Blair? If so, the past week may well come to be seen as a defining moment.

One of the truest old sayings in politics is Harold Macmillan’s famous dictum that the biggest problem facing any government is “events, dear boy, events”

What I think he meant was that it is often a government’s ability to deal with the unexpected which determines its success or failure.

Before the summer break, the Brown government could do no wrong in this regard.
The attempted terrorist attacks, the floods, foot and mouth, even the early days of the Northern Rock crisis were all seen to have been calmly and competently dealt with.

But since then, thanks to what is now being described as the curse of the cancelled election, very little has gone right.

Northern Rock is a case in point. Chancellor Alistair Darling was seen to have successfully defused the initial crisis by acting to guarantee peoples’ savings and stemming September’s run on the bank.

A couple of months on, he finds himself under fire for having loaned the bank billions of pounds of public money, although not all would echo those criticisms.

As one experienced observer of the North-East scene told me this week, the key issue in this part of the world at least is not the future of the loans but of the Rock’s 5,700-strong workforce.

“There is a North-South divide in the coverage of this story. In the South, it’s all about the money. In the North, it’s all about the jobs,” he said.

Far more damaging for the government is the scandal of the loss of 25m people’s computerised records - a story which also originated in the North-East.

It began on 18 October at HM Revenue and Customs office in Washington when a junior official sent two CDs containing the records unregistered via courier.

As everyone now knows, the package failed to arrive, and ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, were eventually told about it on 10 November.

But it was not until this Wednesday that the whole affair was finally made public in a Commons statement by Mr Darling that brought gasps of astonishment from even his own side.

In the short-term, the extent of the political fall-out will depend on two things. Firstly, whether ministers are seen to have in any way sought to conceal the truth about the debacle.

The Tories are already alleging that email records show the government’s original account to be incorrect, in that HMRC senior managers were aware of the breach of procedure.

It will also depend, of course, on whether the lost discs do indeed end up falling into the wrong hands.

Although that is an obvious risk, it is probably just as likely that they will end up being used as ersatz coasters or as bird-scarers hanging off a beanpole in some suburban garden.

In the longer-term, though, the real damage to the government lies in the impression of sheer incompetence at the top that this and other recent political developments have created.

When he cancelled the election, Mr Brown memorably said that while he could have fought an election on “competence,” he wanted also to set out his “vision.”

Well, while we’ve still seen precious little evidence of the great vision, what wouldn’t Labour MPs give now for a little bit of basic competence?

In the words of one commentator: “Mr Brown’s political persona for the past decade has been built on his perceived capability. If that goes, he does not have much else left.”

What Mr Brown should have realised is that most governments stand or fall on their reputation for competence rather than the brilliance of their “vision.” Ask John Major.

His own government’s reputation for competence disappeared down the plughole on 16 September 1992 – Black Wednesday - when he was forced effectively to devalue the pound.

It is still too early to call 21 November 2007 Brown’s Black Wednesday, but there are some obvious comparisons to be made.

One is that Mr Darling, like his predecessor-but-two Norman Lamont, does not possess the political authority to reassure either the public or the City in such troubled times.

There is, of course, a more charitable way of looking at all this – to say that it’s the kind of thing that could happen to any government at any time, and that Messrs Brown and Darling have just been unlucky.

You could say the same about Steve McClaren. It was not easy for him going into a crucial qualifier without his entire first-choice back four or two leading strikers.

But in the end, in politics as in football, you make your own luck, and it is no use governments relying on public sympathy to bail them out when they’ve clearly made a mess of things.

When it comes down to it, the electorate - like the FA - are a pretty unforgiving lot.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A fond farewell

It was a wreck when I bought it back in 1989, and it took me the best part of ten years to turn it into a comfortable place to live. But this little house in Belper became our home and although we have now had to move on in order to accommodate our growing family, it hurt to have to say goodbye. My only consolations are the memories of so many wonderful times spent here down the years, and the knowledge that this beloved house has now gone to two delightful people who will shortly be starting out on their married life together. I hope it will be as great a blessing to them as it has been for me.

Here are some pictures of the house looking at its best earlier this year after all the years of hard work and restoration had been completed. It's how I would like to remember it.

It's nothing much to look at on the outside, I know, but there was treasure within.

The lounge area with the original fireplace I discovered while removing a partition. A local man born in the house later told me it had been covered up since the 40s.

The dining room area, scene of some great evenings and Christmas meals down the years.

All roads led to and from the kitchen, the hub of the house.

My downstairs study area was a real oasis of calm away from the rest of the family. In latter years, much blogging was done from this room!

A room which went through many owners, from a friend who stayed here for a few riotous months in the summer of 1990, to my son George who had it for the last three years.

The garden, constructed from a concrete wilderness, was my proudest achievement, and many of my happiest hours at the house were spent here.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Left in the slow lane

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday 17 November.

***

This week, as David Miliband set out his vision for the future of Europe, the South of England finally fufilled a part of its European destiny by gaining a high-speed rail connection to the continent for the first time.

Thanks to the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, travellers were able to get on a train in London mid-morning, and arrive at the Gare du Nord in Paris in time for a late-ish lunch before hitting the culture spots.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....yet another hard-hitting report warned that the North-East risked being left in the slow lane unless its transport connections were dramatically improved.

As the French might say: plus ca change.

It was always intended that the North-East would be linked with Eurostar. Back in the 1980s when the Channel Tunnel Bill first went through Parliament, it was a lively issue among MPs from the northern regions.

As a result of their protestations, it was made a requirement of the Act that the regions, as well as London, would benefit from the Tunnel project.

A number of "regional eurostars" were subsequently ordered and built, but they were never deployed and the rolling stock was eventually used elsewhere on the rail network.

By the late 1990s, ministers no longer made any pretence that the Channel link would help the North. It became, rather, yet another in the long list of major infrastructure projects designed to benefit the capital.

Making that continental link a reality now depends on the construction of a new high-speed link from the North of England that will link with the St Pancras terminal.

Despite a marked shift of emphasis towards new investment in transport, the Brown government has refused to make this scheme a priority and that seems unlikely to change within the next decade.

Carlisle MP Eric Martlew, a member of the Transport Select Committee, is among those who has continued to lobby strongly for the idea, but even if it happens it seems overwhelmingly likely that it will be built up the West Coast.

That will be okay for Mr Martlew's constituents, but it will still leave the North-East's major conurbations cut off from the rail map of Europe.

The region's roads are faring little better. This week's report by the Road Users’ Alliance became the latest to warn that the region risked economic isolation because of its low-grade road network.

It pointed out that the North-East has just 36 miles of motorway compared to 406 miles in the South-East and the most number of cars per kilometre of motorway in England - 17,343.

Then, of course, there is the interminable problem of the A1 dualling.

A few weeks' back, The Journal's Graeme Whitfield revealed on his newsroom blog that this newspaper had considered a novel proposal to try to kick start the long-delayed project.

"In recent weeks we have been discussing the possibility of throwing The Journal's support at the next General Election behind a political party - even the Conservatives - if they would pledge to dual the A1," he wrote.

Graeme added: "We hadn't made a decision on this, but today the Tories have come out and said that they won't upgrade the road for 10 years at least, so that's that."

Perhaps the Tories deserve some credit for simply being honest. We have, after all, been here before with pledges to dual the A1

In an interview with in 1996, Tony Blair said it would be "a priority" for a Labour government. What he didn't say was how much or more accurately how little of one it would be.

The fact that five of New Labour's seven transport secretaries have been Scots - Gavin Strang, John Reid, Helen Liddell, Gus Macdonald and Alistair Darling - only rubbed salt into the wound.

The Scottish section of the route has of course long since been upgraded as a result of their £1bn-plus annual funding advantage.

Why is it so low a priority for national government? Well, partly because it is trapped in something of a vicious circle regards the statistical case for the upgrade.

Its traffic levels do not currently justify the spending, say ministers, as a result of which the road remains unimproved, as a result of which fewer people use it than would otherwise be the case.

It is also partly because opposition parties dare not promise anything these days that resembles a spending commitment.

Had the Tories agreed to a deal in return for The Journal's backing, they would immediately have been besieged by similar requests from every other area of the country.

In more than ten years of writing for The Journal, there has been no bigger single recurring issue in the region than the question of its transport links.

The whole case for the elected regional assembly eventually foundered, in my view, on the fact that it wouldn't have had significant powers over transport funding - certainly not enough to dual the A1.

Yet for all the dominance the issue has exerted in the region's politics, it has seemed for most of that time as if the region has been talking to itself.

Will this week's report finally signal a change of direction? At the moment, it looks about as likely as Tunisia joining the EU.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bottler Brown must learn to build

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, 10 November.

***

Whatever else is said about Gordon Brown, one thing on which his opponents and supporters alike have usually been able to agree is that he is a master strategist, a consummate politician.

They may well have a point. One does not manage to remain heir-apparent to the Labour leadership for 13 years, and then succeed to the top job unchallenged, without being something of a canny operator.

But there has been precious little evidence of Gordon’s legendary political skills in relation to his handling of this year’s Queen’s Speech, which was unveiled to MPs on Tuesday.

Since becoming Prime Minister, he has managed to hoist himself by his own petard not once, but twice over an event which should have been a great opportunity for him to set out his plans for Britain.

First, he revealed most of the contents of the package four months early in his pre-Queen’s Speech statement in July, thereby diluting the impact of most of the announcements made this week.

Second, he has talked far too much over recent weeks about needing to set out his “vision,” setting the bar for this workmanlike but distinctly un-visionary package unrealistically high.

So it was inevitable that, as Queen’s Speeches go, the programme announced on Tuesday would be a damper squib than some of recent vintage.

Sure, it contained some genuinely new and progressive ideas. But if the country was waiting for Gordon to unveil the “Big Idea” or connecting narrative that will define his government, it is still waiting.

Does it matter in the bigger scheme of things? Is it not more important that Mr Brown simply gets on with the job of providing competent, low-key government than setting out highfaluting “visions?”

Well, if you had asked me that question a few months back, I would have said yes. After ten years of Tony Blair, the country was not necessarily looking for more of that style of government.

But Mr Brown’s not-the-general-election announcement changed all that. By justifying the delay on the grounds that he needed to set out his vision, he thereby obliged himself to come up with one.

As the commentator Jonathan Freedland pointed out this week, it was the wrong word. What he should have said was programme – “something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list."

But if there was no single Big Idea in the Speech, there were at least an interesting collection of small or medium-sizes ones.

Of these, the one that seems likely to have the biggest impact in the longer-term is the plan to allow all parents, not just those of children under six, to request flexible working arrangements from their employers.

There is some evidence that Mr Brown’s people were trying to spin this as the real headline-grabber from the Speech, perhaps trying to take some of the inevitable focus off the plan to increase 28-day detention.

But the problem with trying to sell addressing the work-life balance as Labour’s new “Big Idea” is that it’s yet another policy that David Cameron’s Tories actually thought of first.

Of the other more overtly “progressive” proposals in the package, all raise potentially difficult choices for Labour.

The pledge to build 3m more new homes by 2020, for instance, will doubtless make it easier for some people on lower incomes to get onto the housing ladder – but only slightly.

One recent report claimed that raising the target from 2.6m to 3m will mean that average house prices are just seven times’ average earnings by 2020 as opposed to eight times’.

Set against that marginal benefit is the potentially huge cost to the environment, and the impact on regional economies of concentrating yet more development in the South East.

Then there’s the plan to ensure people stay on in some form of education to the age of 18, hailed by some as potentially the biggest boost to equality of opportunity in a generation.

Well, maybe, although at the end of the day there’s only so many people who can be chiefs, but to my mind it shows a bit of a lack of joined-up thinking.

We already allow 16-year-olds to marry, own property, and pay taxes, while this government also wants to give them the right to help decide who should run the country.

But at the same time, they are now telling 16-year-olds that they are not capable of making their own decisions about whether or not they should stay in full-time education.

So much for what was in the Speech – what should have been in it? Well, there seems to be a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the biggest statement of intent Mr Brown could have made would have been to scrap ID cards.

As well have saving him £5.6bn, it could have enabled him to make some headway with the so-called “liberty” agenda he outlined a couple of weeks ago.

He should also have been bolder in his proposed constitutional innovations, perhaps by announcing a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of the non-election debacle.

Such initiatives would certainly have grabbed the headlines. Whether they would have amounted to a “vision” though is another question.

If Mr Brown is still looking for that big idea, that connecting narrative that would neatly sum up what his government is about, he could do a lot worse in my view than the word “building.”

He could start with housing, and go on from there. Building homes. Building trust. Building equality of opportunity. Building the future.

It’s not an airy-fairy vision, not the kind of thing Mr Blair would have come out with, but it’s solid, workmanlike, and sounds authentically Mr Brown’s.

From bottler Brown to builder Brown. It’s not a bad route-map to election victory.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Brown's Barnett Blunders

Weekly column published in the Newcastle Journal this morning.

***

Over the past 18 months or so, there is one particular subject on which Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made more speeches, public comments and general pronouncements than on any other issue.

Is it the economy, you might very well ask? Or education, once New Labour’s number one priority? No, in fact, it is “Britishness.”

Some see this preoccupation with our national identity as phoney, a desperate attempt by a politician embarrassed about his Scottishness to convince the voters he’s really just like the rest of us.

Others see it as an attempt to smooth over the old rivalries between the UK’s constituent parts - such as when he talked about “the whole country” getting behind England’s Rugby World Cup Final bid.

Either way, Gordon Brown is clearly a great believer in the Union – or so at least he keeps telling us.

So is it merely a supreme political irony that the Prime Minister finds himself presiding over the gradual disintegration of that very Union – or is it down to supreme political ineptitude on his part?

This week, David Cameron did what some of us have been expecting for a very long time, and propelled the future constitutional arrangements between England and Scotland into the political frontline.

There is actually nothing very new in what the Tories are saying. But in politics, timing is all, and suddenly, Mr Cameron’s plans for English-only laws have struck a chord with the electorate.

To some extent, the current upsurge of interest in the “English Question” is the inevitable consequence of the accession to the British premiership of the MP for Dunfermline East.

But it is also being fuelled by growing discontent south of the border about the advantageous funding arrangements enjoyed by the Scots under the infamous “Barnett Formula.”

That is something, of course, that people in the North-East region have known about for a very long time, not least from the interminable wrangle over the state of the A1.

While the Scottish Executive has long since used the Barnett billions to upgrade its bit of the road, Ruth Kelly has recently become the latest in a long line of Labour Transport Secretaries to reject calls to dual the North-East section of the route.

That’s not all. Since the Scottish Parliament was established, it has also abolished university tuition fees, introduced free eye care and dental check ups, handed out extra central heating grants and brought in free personal care for the elderly.

In addition, it has also been able to fund the free bus travel for pensioners which, in England, is having to be paid for out of hard-pressed local authority coffers.

Over the course of recent weeks, Alex Salmond’s new SNP government in Edinburgh has brought the issue into fresh focus by announcing the wholesale scrapping of prescription charges as well.

As a result, people are beginning to realise what some of us have been saying for a decade – that the Scots’ inbuilt spending advantage under the Barnett Formula is neither justified nor politically sustainable.

But of all the leading figures in UK politics, it is Mr Brown who more than anyone else cannot say he wasn’t warned about this.

Back in 1999, the Treasury Select Committee under the then Durham North MP Giles Radice carried out an inquiry into the Barnett Formula which called on the government to carry out a new “assessment of regional need.”

Everyone knew this was tantamount to saying that the then 20-year-old formula no longer reflected the needs of the UK’s nations and regions and should be superseded by something new.

It was an incredibly brave move by Mr Radice, but although he resisted attempts to nobble him, he was unable to resist attempts to ennoble him, and he left the Commons at the 2001 election.

His replacement as Treasury Committee chair was a very different animal – the Brownite loyalist, and MP for West Dumbartonshire John McFall, who proceeded to bury the issue, despite valiant attempts by Newcastle Central MP Jim Cousins to keep it alive.

Yet in retrospect, Mr Brown might be wishing he had paid more attention to the Committee’s original 1999 report. Politically and economically, it was exactly the right time for Labour to reform the infamous formula.

The politics of the situation were that, having succeeded in setting up the Scottish Parliament, Labour’s support was riding high north of the border and the SNP reduced almost to irrelevance.

Even more compelling, though, were the economics. It was a time when public expenditure was rising sharply, and as Mr Cousins pointed out, a change to Scotland’s funding share could effectively have been “hidden” within the context of increased spending overall.

But because of his stubborn and shortsighted refusal to countenance change back then, Mr Brown now finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

While any departure from the status quo would hand a huge propaganda gift to Mr Salmond, doing nothing simply aids the Tories’ attempts to exploit the growing English discontent.

Significantly, Mr Cameron has not yet himself gone as far as pledging to scrap the formula. His proposal for an “English Grand Committee” is effectively a repackaged version of the policy of “English votes for English laws” on which they fought the last election.

There are huge flaws in the proposal – not least the fact that it would be up to Speaker Michael Martin, the MP for Glasgow North East, to determine what is an “English” bill – but at least the Tory leader is being seen to be doing something.

New Labour’s refusal to reform the Barnett Formula when it was in a position to do so is a metaphor for its entire performance in government.

It had two majorities of 160 plus. It was faced by an opposition which wasn’t capable of running a whelk stall. It had a chance to do difficult but necessary things for the long-term benefit of the country. And it didn’t do them.

If Labour tries to do reform the formula now, it will boost Mr Salmond’s campaign for a fully independent Scotland. If he does not, the resentment in England may well build to the point where people would be quite happy to see the Scots break away.

What price the poor old Union then, Mr Brown?

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Brown on the ropes

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday, 27 October 2007.

***

Two weeks ago, after the debacle of Gordon Brown’s non-election announcement, I posed the question whether there was anything at all the Prime Minister could do to regain the political initiative.

In a nutshell, I said the answer was to stop nicking the Tories’ ideas and set out an agenda that was distinctively and authentically his own.

Mr Brown’s fortunes have not improved in the ensuing fortnight. This week, a damning report on the conduct of May’s Scottish Parliament elections forced a grovelling apology from the then Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander, one of Mr Brown’s closest allies.

It gave David Cameron another golden opportunity to bash Mr Brown over the head at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday which he duly grabbed with both hands. So much for the Big Clunking Fist.

At the same time, the Government has continued to adopt a defensive posture over the big issue of the moment – the row over whether there should be a referendum on the new European Treaty.

In the immediate aftermath of the election decision, I was one of those who argued that it might make sense for Mr Brown to hold one, as a means of demonstrating that he is not afraid to face the voters.

Since the, however, the Government – most notably Foreign Secretary David Miliband – has dug in its heels so firmly against such a referendum as to rule out the option.

A U-turn on the issue at this stage would only reinforce the idea of Mr Brown as a “bottler” who is incapable of giving strong leadership.

So what can Mr Brown do to regain the upper hand? Well, ever since the outset of his premiership, it has been clear that he sees constitutional reform as a key part of his agenda.

It was the subject of his first big Commons statement after taking over in Number 10, and this week, Justice Secretary Jack Straw attempted to put some flesh on the bones in a follow-up statement to the House on Thursday.

Some of the ideas were rehashed from that earlier statement and from Mr Brown’s party conference speech, for instance, a fully-elected House of Lords and allowing MPs to vote on going to war.

What was new, however, was the emphasis placed on the “liberty” agenda, with Mr Brown setting out a range of measures to increase access to information and guarantee human rights.

From a purely professional point of view, it was gratifying to see that part and parcel of this included a new commitment to press freedom and the scrapping of plans to curb the Freedom of Information Act.

As readers of an older vintage will recall, this Act was pioneered by the former South Shields MP David Clark, now Lord Clark of Windermere, during his short spell in Cabinet from 1997-98.

Lord Clark spent most of that time being undermined by his own side, not least by a Number 10 press officer who told me he had “totally lost it,” but against the odds, he has managed to leave a lasting legacy.

This in spite of a campaign by Alastair Campbell to strangle the original Bill at birth, and the more recent attempts to water it down by making the costs of information requests prohibitive.

But although this announcement will doubtless help mend fences with the media, Mr Brown will need to do more to win a fourth term for Labour than merely pleasing the press.

If the “liberty agenda” is to mean anything, for a start, the Government surely has to look again at its hugely expensive and controversial compulsory ID card sheme.

As well as being potentially the biggest infringement of individual liberties in this country since rationing, it will also cost an estimated £15bn to implement which most people think could be better spent elsewhere.

This is another area where Mr Cameron’s Tories have managed to put themselves on the right side of both popular sentiment and liberal opinion, two things which don’t necessarily always coincide.

Similarly, if the “liberty agenda” does not go nearly far enough, neither at this stage to do the Government’s proposed constitutional reforms. If public trust in politics is genuinely to be restored, there are three specific areas which the Prime Minister should take a closer look at.

First, he should introduce a bill for four-year fixed term Parliaments, and pre-announce that the next General Election will therefore be held on the first weekend in May, 2009.

Mr Brown has already as good as accepted that he messed-up big time with the election announcement. Giving away his power to determine future polling days might be seen by the voters as a way of making amends.

Second, the Prime Minister should take a fresh look at proportional representation for Westminster. The first-past-the-post system, by encouraging the parties to target their messages at voters in a hundred or so marginal constituencies, has resulted in the effective disenfranchisement of most of the population.

Finally, Mr Brown should start to turn the "new localism” from a trendy political catchphrase into a meaningful reality, giving people and communities more power over how their taxes are both raised and spent.

If the Prime Minister is looking for a Big Idea, an overarching narrative by which he can define his proposed constitutional reforms, this, surely is it.

Beyond the constitutional agenda, Mr Brown badly needs to rediscover his old social justice credentials, and recreate the kind of One Nation politics that Labour used to espouse.

I find it amazing that, after a decade of Labour Government, we are still reading about the pernicious health divide between North and South – but perhaps I shouldn’t really be that surprised.

The big question at the end of the conference season was whether the Tories could sustain the poll lead they had suddenly established as a result of their inheritance tax gambit and Mr Brown’s indecisiveness.

So far, the answer is yes. One poll yesterday showed the Conservatives are now on 41pc, their highest level of support since before Black Wednesday.

Mr Brown needs to stop that hardening into the kind of consistent poll lead which would create an unstoppable momentum around Mr Cameron as the next Prime Minister.

In short, he needs to rediscover that Big Clunking Fist – and fast.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Third party facest its toughest choice

Column which first appeared in Newcastle Journal, Saturday 20 October 2007.

***

For most of the last 80-odd years since the old Liberal Party last held power, the third party in British politics has struggled to make a mark in what is still essentially a two-party system.

During the 1950s, the party’s MPs could be accommodated within a single taxi, and even as recently as the 1990s still numbered in the low teens.

But from the 1992 election onwards, the Liberal Democrats’ representation in the Commons finally started to climb towards more respectable levels, culminating in the current high water mark of 63.

So what has gone wrong? Is the party’s current desperate plight down to bad leadership? Or has it simply been a victim of deeper political forces, beyond the ability of either Charles Kennedy or Sir Menzies Campbell to control?

Well, the way the party has handled its leadership issues over the past two years has certainly done little to enhance its credibility in the eyes of voters.

Having unceremoniously knifed Mr Kennedy in January 2006, the Lib Dems had a chance to make a fresh start under a new leader from the talented younger generation of MPs.

Instead, the party opted for the "safe" option of Sir Menzies Campbell, even though it was obvious from the outset that he lacked the skills to prosper as a party leader in the current, media-driven era.

There’s been a lot of talk this week about whether 66-year-old Sir Ming was a victim of ageism - but I would say only in the sense that he seemed like a throwback to a bygone political age.

But the party’s leadership travails disguise a much more deep-seated problem for the Lib Dems which predates the leadership of Sir Ming and arguably also that of his predecessor.

It is this: that while most Liberal Democrats are left-leaning folk who believe in tax-and-spend, redistribution and greenery, most of the seats they hope to win are in right-leaning areas which don’t.

The North-East is obviously an exception to this. The Lib Dems’ three target seats at the last two elections have been Labour-held Durham, Blaydon and Newcastle Central, although boundary changes will alter that next time round.

But the Celtic fringes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall aside, most of the marginal seats which the Lib Dems are either defending or targeting are in the Tory-dominated South.

This in turn leads to what, for them is a difficult but recurring political dynamic - that when the Tories go up, the Lib Dems tend to go down, and vice-versa.

Hence at the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, when the Tories did extremely badly, the Lib Dems managed to almost treble their numbers of MPs from 22 to 63.

But moreorless ever since David Cameron took over the Conservative leadership in December 2005, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings have been in the doldrums.

Messrs Kennedy and Campbell, then, were not so much victims of their own leadership shortcomings, as victims of Mr Cameron’s success in reviving his own party’s fortunes.

It against this backdrop, then, that the party must now choose its third leader in little over 18 months, with the choice already seemingly narrowing to a straight fight between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

So who should they choose? Well, in the light of the dilemma outlined above, clearly the answer is the one who would cause the most difficulties for the Tories.

Eighteen months ago, this would have been Mr Huhne. Up against Sir Ming and Simon Hughes, he was the most right-wing candidate in the field, the moderniser up against two veterans from the past.

Up against Mr Clegg, however, he finds himself positioned as the “left” candidate, a redistributionist advocate of higher green taxes against the man who wants to get the state off our backs.

I personally remain unconvinced by Mr Clegg. Some Lib Dems seem to speak of him as if he is some sort of new Kennedy – John F., that is, not Charles.

He’s surely not that good. But there can be no doubting that, with good looks and charisma allied to rightish-leaning views, he is the candidate most feared by the Tories.

As regular readers will know, I am intensely suspicious of setting too much store by charisma when choosing political leaders, based largely on the country’s experiences with Tony Blair.

But given the difficulties faced by third parties in even getting the media to take notice of them, having a good communicator as leader will certainly help – as Dr David Owen showed when leading the SDP in the 1980s.

The strategic dilemma now faced by Lib Dem party members is not a million miles away from that faced by Labour when it chose Mr Blair in 1994.

Can they bring themselves to vote for someone whose views they know to be well to the right of their own, in the knowledge that he is the candidate most likely to win them more seats?

While I think we will find the answer to that question will yes, I also think they will get rather more than they bargained for – just as Labour did with Mr Blair.

If he wins, I would expect Mr Clegg to complete the Thatcherisation of British politics by abandoning, as New Labour did, any serious commitment to redistribution and tackling inequality.

But either way, I hope for the Liberal Democrats' sake that whoever wins is granted the kind of loyalty which the party's leaders used automatically to merit.

Both Paddy Ashdown and Mr Kennedy were given the chance to fight two general elections, and they repaid that loyalty by increasing the party’s number of MPs each time.

It made a bad call by going with a “caretaker leader” in the shape of Sir Ming, but the party must now put aside its internal differences and dig in for the long haul under Mr Clegg or Mr Huhne.

British politics badly needs a successful Liberal Democrat party. It is high time it stopped playing the nasty party and got its act together.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Sideblog Snippets #1

A return to the original spirit of web-logging....

  • Well done to former Derby Telegraph colleague Deborah Wain who has won the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism.

  • Could Cherie Blair become a Labour MP? Mike White thinks so.

  • The House of Commons may need to decamp to a new location. I nominate Derby.

  • Inheritance tax: Why Gordon should have listened to Stephen Byers.

  • Skipper asks whether Party Conference timings favour the Tories.

  • Bill Blanko reckons the new Commons Press Bar is a charter for editors' narks to spy on lunchtime tipplers.

  • "I think I've had my shot," says Charles Kennedy. What, just the one?

  • Ousted Telegraph pol ed George Jones' lobby career just rolls on and on

  • Former North-East Labour Regional Press Officer Hopi Sen launches a rather good blog.

  • Geoff Hoon succeeds where Hilary Armstrong failed and evicts the spin merchants from No 12.

  • Looks like the Blog Wars are back on again.


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    Sunday, October 14, 2007

    Has Gordon entered the twilight zone?

    Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Saturday 13 October 2007

    It all started so well. A smooth transition, with the party more united than it had been for years. A catalogue of crises, swiftly and competently dealt with. A skilful distancing from the Blair era, the decisions on supercasinos and cannabis suggesting that New Labour had finally rediscovered its lost moral compass.

    Just how did it all go so wrong, so quickly for Gordon Brown?

    The speculation about a snap election, which almost certainly began as a tactical tease to unsettle the Tories, ended up spiralling so far out of control that it trapped the Prime Minister in a lethal dilemma of his own making.

    In the end, with the polls in key marginals pointing towards a hung Parliament, he made the only decision possible – to call it off, take the hit, and try to buy himself more time.

    Back at the beginning of August, I said in this column that holding an election this year could cause irreparable damage to the "Brown brand."

    “The Prime Minister's whole appeal rests on being seen as a man of serious purpose and high principles - not someone who is prepared to cut and run at the earliest opportunity. Were he to do that in order to take advantage of a temporary downturn in Tory fortunes, he would risk destroying that reputation at a stroke,” I wrote.

    Well, the only thing I got wrong there was my assessment that it would take a snap election to damage the Brown brand. He's actually managed to damage it - possibly irreparably - without having one.

    Had he called the whole thing off while Labour was still ahead in the polls, everyone would have applauded his statesmanship. Instead, he waited until David Cameron had caught him up, with calamitous results.

    Yet in a way it wasn’t the Prime Minister’s decision not to hold an election which was the most damaging thing he did last week, nor even his cack-handed and frankly disingenuous attempts to explain it away.

    No, the really damaging decision was not postponing the election, it was using Tuesday’s pre-Budget report to implement the Tory manifesto.

    Okay, so I admit that I was among those who advocated that Labour needed to do something to neutralise the inheritance tax issue after the Tories’ success in Blackpool.

    But even I didn’t think they’d do it so quickly and so blatantly, even pinching the idea of taxing the so-called “non doms” to help pay for it – the very idea that, a week earlier, they had ridiculed.

    So why was this so very damaging to Mr Brown? Because it demonstrated that the Tories, for the first time since Labour came to power in 1997, are now making the political weather.

    This is when governments need to fear for their futures – not when they are assailed by one-off crises, but when they start to lose control of the political agenda.

    Shadow Chancellor George Osborne - who has emerged in the past fortnight as a serious political force – said of Mr Brown that he “talks about setting out his vision of the country, but he has to wait for us to tell him what it is.”

    That is a charge so damaging to the Prime Minister that it has had MPs and commentators alike talking darkly of “tipping points” having been reached.

    I have written about tipping points in this column before, those moments in political history when the public mood changes overnight and all things start to conspire towards one end.

    I have witnessed two in my lifetime, the first in 1978-79 when the Winter of Discontent destroyed the postwar consensus and with it Labour’s credibility as a governing party.

    Jim Callaghan famously captured the moment in his memorable phrase uttered to an aide on the eve of the 1979 election.

    “There are times when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a change, and it is for Mrs Thatcher,” he said.

    The next sea change, of course, happened on Black Wednesday, 16th September 1992, the day the Tories lost their reputation for economic competence

    It then did not matter what poor John Major said or did – he was going to be unceremoniously kicked out of office, and eventually, on 1st May 1997, that is what came to pass.

    The danger for Mr Brown is that his government, like Major’s, is now entering a period of what the Germans would call Gotterdammerung – the twilight of the gods.

    Far from renewing Labour in office, it could be that his destiny is to spend the next two years fighting back the inexorable Tory tide, while Mr Cameron prepares for his inevitable victory.

    So is there anything, anything at all, that Mr Brown can do about it? Well, as long as he is Prime Minister, he always retains the power of action, and that is not to be under-estimated.

    The trouble is, we’ve heard too much talk about Mr Brown’s “vision” and too little evidence of him putting it into effect.

    Part of that vision was meant to be about restoring trust in politics, but he can’t now do that just by not being Tony Blair. It is clear something much more fundamental is required.

    For starters, I think Mr Brown is going to have to be much more radical in his plans to give away power, putting real decision making in the hands of localities and communities.

    For what it’s worth, I also think the political cross-dressing has to stop. The past week has surely shown Mr Brown that there is no real advantage to be gained in apeing the Tories, when the public can just as easily vote for the real thing.

    If he is to regain the political initiative, he will need to set out an agenda which people will see as authentically and distinctively his own - one based on fairness and social justice.

    For those of us who have always thought of Gordon Brown as a man of principle who would usher in a new era of political honesty and an end to spin, these are difficult days indeed.

    Yes, he can still recover – but it’s going to be no easy task.

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    Tuesday, October 09, 2007

    Journalist bloggers - gamekeepers turned poachers?

    This was an article written for Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging 2007 published recently by Harriman House.

    ***

    Whether it’s a ground-breaking new band, an up-and-coming avant garde painter, or just the latest technological craze, there is always a tendency among groups of people who have discovered something new to want to keep it to themselves, to resent those Johnny-come-latelies who seek to get in on the act and jump aboard the rolling bandwagon.

    That was, by and large, the reaction among internet political bloggers when, during the course of 2006, the UK’s national press and major broadcasting organisations belatedly woke up to the emergence of the new blogging phenomenon.

    They were pejoratively dubbed “old media,” “mainstream media,” and worse of all, the “dead tree press.” They represented the smug, complacent old elite, the handing down of received wisdom from on high, the stifling of true debate in the name of bogus consensus, the past.

    Bloggers, on the other hand, were the future, the pioneers of a new, postmodernist style of political journalism in which there was no truth, only opinion, and in which the views of Joe and Joanna Bloggs were as intrinsically valid as those of the most highly-paid political pundits in the land.

    Thankfully for me, perhaps, I had by then left full-time journalism for the world of digital publishing, and although I continued to supplement my main income by writing political columns for various regional newspapers, the blogosphere tended to treat me from the start as one of its own.

    But for other, better-known figures from the world of political journalism, it was a different story. The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh, the most influential “dead tree” lobby hack of the past 25 years, was deservedly ridiculed after his blog, launched in a fanfare of hype as “The Blog the Politicians Fear,” was updated only a couple of times before it swiftly died a death.

    More enduring, but equally contentious was The Guardian’s attempt to capture the zeitgeist with the launch of its uber-blog “Comment is Free,” which sought to corral the best of the blogosphere and its almost infinite range of opinions under the already flourishing Guardian Unlimited brand.

    It has performed a valuable function in providing a forum for people to interact with Guardian columnists and other guest writers, but its claims to blog-dom have always been hotly contested - for instance it still does not link out to other blogs and is too diverse to possess a true personality of its own.

    But such developments were really only one relatively small facet of a much larger commercial game that is still ongoing – the reorientation of the newspaper publishing industry as it seeks to diversify away from print and respond to the fact that much of its business is now migrating online.

    It wasn’t just blogging that suddenly became the flavour of the month. Newspapers and broadcasters also enthusiastically embraced podcasting, vodcasting, and other new technological gimmickry, while more and more news was being published on the web before it appeared in print.

    In other words, the gamekeepers of the dead tree press needed to turn poachers simply to remain competitive in the new 24-hour news environment – but at the same time, some of the poachers of the blogging world have effectively turned gamekeepers as the profile and importance of the blogosphere has increased.

    It might have been pistols at dawn to begin with - but the story of the relationship between political blogging and political journalism, over the past 12 months in particular, has been one of gradual and irresistible convergence.

    So if Trevor Kavanagh was to blogging what Alastair Campbell was to objective truth, the BBC’s Nick Robinson was always a different kettle of fish, using his blog not so much to rehash his on-air prognostications as to amplify them, earning a reputation for a time across the blogosphere as the only MSM blogger worth reading.

    Robinson’s success as a journalist blogger has been emulated in recent months by the Daily Mail’s Benedict Brogan, one of the youngest of the national daily political editors yet already regarded by his peers as one of the outstanding political journalists of his generation.

    Brogan is not an old-fashioned story-getter in the sense that, say, Kavanagh or his Mail on Sunday counterpart Simon Walters obviously are, but he does have an instinctive feel for what constitutes an important political story, and it is this quality which makes him such a good blogger.

    As a politics junkie – you don’t get where he is without being one – he is also fascinated by the kind of detail that would not necessarily be of interest to general Mail readers, using his blog, like Robinson, as a sort of “Politics Plus” channel for a more specialist political readership.

    But at the same time as some of the leading political journalists have been getting into blogging, some of the leading political bloggers have become steadily absorbed into the journalistic mainstream, reflecting their increasingly high profile in the media generally.

    Blogs such as Iain Dale’s Diary, Guido Fawkes, Political Betting and Conservative Home are now regarded as primary political news sources, and are reputedly read by most Lobby journalists and MPs.

    You could make a respectable argument that their authors are now more influential media figures than, say, the political editor of the News of the World, and indeed The Guardian already has done, recently listing Guido in its media Top 100 “Power List” alongside national newspaper editors and proprietors.

    As if to emphasise the fact that the old demarcation lines are now becoming increasingly blurred, the man behind the Guido mask, Paul Staines, has applied for a Lobby pass, while Dale has been given a column in the Daily Telegraph to complement his regular slots as a TV pundit.

    Even the government, it seems, is now treating blogs as an extension of the mainstream political media. As the Financial Times reported last month, the COI’s Media Monitoring Unit is now considering how to add blogs to its regular summaries of government coverage in mainstream press or television.

    The FT itself acknowledged that the move reflects “the growing media profile of the format and the fact some individual bloggers are moving from niche self-publishers to establishment opinionformers.”

    Clarence Mitchell, director of the Media Monitoring Unit, was quoted as saying that although there was debate about the objectivity of some bloggers, several of them were taken “increasingly seriously” within government.

    In this context, it is perhaps significant that most of the leading political bloggers – those most in danger of becoming “establishment opinion formers” - are people who had a pre-existing political commitment or background which had already taken them within the orbit of the Westminster Village.

    So for instance Iain Dale has in his various incarnations been Chief of Staff to David Davis, a Conservative parliamentary candidate, and, before that, the proprietor of a bookshop known to, and at some time or another regularly patronised by virtually everyone in Westminster.

    Likewise, long before he launched the Guido Fawkes blog, Paul Staines was a well-connected figure within libertarian right circles, supplying jokes for Mrs Thatcher’s speeches, and even working for the Iron Lady’s favourite fixer, David Hart, who, with the help of MI5, fixed the miners good and proper in 1984-5.

    The leading left-of-centre bloggers were, if anything, even more obviously on the inside track. Recess Monkey’s Alex Hilton was a Labour candidate, Tom Watson an actual Labour MP, and Kerron Cross a long-serving MP’s researcher, allegedly the model for the central character in TV political soap “Party Animals.”

    And of course, probably a lot fewer people would have read my own blog had I not been in a position to furnish it with some of the insights gained from my time in the Lobby, a period during which I was able to observe the internal politics of New Labour at fairly close quarters.

    In this respect, the blogosphere mimics the world of journalism itself, where who you know is often more important than what you know and where the ability to construct networks is probably a more important skill than the ability to construct the perfect intro.

    Just occasionally, an original writing talent will emerge as if from nowhere – in blogging terms Chicken Yoghurt’s Justin McKeating springs to mind – but among the ranks of the leading bloggers, such meteors are very much the exception rather than the rule.

    Undoubtedly the single most talented writer thrown up by the entire blogging medium to date has been Rachel North, who began blogging as personal catharsis following the terrible events of 7/7 in which she found herself caught up - but her story was indeed truly exceptional.

    In truth, the political blogosphere is not nearly so diverse as its own hype would suggest. It has the potential to be, yes, but thus far, that potential has not been realised.

    So, for me, the blogging v journalism dichotomy was always something of a false opposition. Yes, they are different disciplines, and as Trevor Kavanagh proved, success in one does not necessarily engender success in the other, but essentially they are both part and parcel of that huge and amorphous beast, the modern media.

    Sure, it sometimes suits both sides to paint them as diametric opposites, as personified by the infamous clash between Paul Staines and the veteran former Guardian political editor Michael White on Newsnight, which “Sir Michael” is widely held to have shaded.

    But the relationship was always more complex than that. In actual fact the blogosphere has fed off the mainstream media from the earliest days of “weblogs” consisting of little more than long lists of links to interesting material that could be found online.

    In those days, relatively few blog posts did not, in some way, lead back to the MSM, but recently the trend has reversed, with newspaper diary columnists in particular regularly plundering the blogosphere for material – not all of it necessarily accurate.

    Journalism, like music, does not stand still. The political journalism of today bears absolutely no resemblance to the straight, low-key factual reporting of 40 years ago, an era in which the parliamentary correspondent reigned supreme while the lobby correspondent was regarded as a form of journalistic pond-life.

    A line was crossed, in my view, with the reporting of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s comments after returning from an international summit in Guadeloupe at the height of the Winter of Discontent in 1979, when he was asked what he thought of the “mounting chaos” at home.

    His complacent reply - “I don’t think other people would necessarily take the view that there is mounting chaos” – was famously transposed the following day on the front page of The Sun as “Crisis? What Crisis?”

    That, of course, was an interpretation rather than a quote – but the episode exemplified that it had become fair game to report such interpretation as fact. Much of the political journalism of today – and I have been as guilty of it as anyone – is built on that pretext.

    Why the history lesson? Well, it’s simply to demonstrate that journalism is a constantly evolving trade, and will evolve again as a result of the need to embrace new technologies and meet new commercial challenges.

    At the same time blogging, too, will have to change and adapt. It is particularly vital, if the blogosphere is not to degenerate into a right-wing mutual admiration society, that the left gets its collective act together, and produces a blog that can rival Dale and Guido for influence.

    But just as the best political bloggers, like Dale, will increasingly become seen as important journalistic figures, the best political journalists, like Brogan, will increasingly embrace blogging. Indeed it would not surprise me if, in five years’ time, much of Ben Brogan’s output as political editor of the Daily Mail was online.

    Thus, as in music, and as in art, do new departures eventually become assimilated by the mainstream, while simultaneously ensuring that the mainstream itself is also changed beyond recognition.

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    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    Ten years of my Journal column

    Column published in today's Newcastle Journal, marking 10 years since the start of the column.

    ***

    This May, unless of course he is forced out of office before then, Tony Blair will chalk up ten consecutive years as Prime Minister, only the second politician to achieve the milestone since 1827.

    There will doubtless be much more to say about that if and when the time comes - but first, another rather less significant but, for me, very happy tenth anniversary.

    It was ten years ago this week – on Saturday, January 18, 1997 in fact – that this column appeared in The Journal for the first time.

    I remain grateful to the then editor Mark Dickinson for starting it off, to the current editor Brian Aitken for keeping it on after I stood down as political editor in 2004, and to Geoff Laws whose brilliant cartoons have illuminated it from the start.

    It seems hard to remember sometimes that, when the column first began, the Tories were still in power, and the New Labour project was seen as something fresh, exciting, and even inspiring.

    Mr Blair was still derided in some quarters as “Bambi,” a rather effete young leader as opposed to the tough-as-old-boots political survivor who would go on to dominate his era.

    In this region, politicians talked about regional government as if it was just around the corner, and speculated about which of them might one day lead the North’s “mini Parliament.”

    Well, a decade is a long time in politics, and although few things turned out as expected, it has been my privilege to help chart the twists and turns of the past one for this great newspaper.

    That’s enough of me. But sticking with the subject of anniversaries, this week marked 300 years since one of the seminal political events in our history – the Act of Union between England and Scotland.

    It comes at a time of much such-searching about the future of the Union, due in part to the devolution reforms Labour has enacted over the past 10 years.

    For sure, devolution represented a belated and much-needed recognition of the Scots’ desire for a great measure of self-determination, and to that extent it has succeeded.

    But the failure to address the wider implications for the UK as a whole - or level the funding playing field between its constituent parts – has bred a resentment that now threatens the Union’s long-term viability.

    Regional government, of course, was meant to deal with that. It was hoped that by devolving power to a network of regional assemblies, we would eventually arrive at a broadly symmetrical framework.
    The North-East referendum in 2004 put paid to that, and those like me who believe some form of English devolution is needed to rebalance the constitution switched our attentions to the idea of an English Parliament.

    Two years ago, this was at best a fringe cause with about the same degree of support as the Flat Earth Society or the Monster Raving Loony Party.

    Since then, though, it has moved dramatically into the mainstream, with a poll this week showing that 61pc of people in England now support the idea.

    Yet in more than one respect this week, we saw a Government whose leading members are in denial about the situation they have helped create.

    For Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, it’s still quite simple. Regional government remains the only sensible solution, and some bright day, the people will come to realise this.

    “I'm sad that regional government was rejected in the North East, but I believe that England will eventually move to elected regional government - just as Scotland and Wales originally rejected devolution and then voted for it,” he said on Wednesday.

    Some might call it contempt for the electorate. Others might call it losing touch with reality. Both would be fair accusations.

    But for me, in an era in which most politicians will say anything to get elected, I can’t help but admire Prezza for the way he sticks to his guns in support of an unpopular cause.

    Mr Blair’s position, though, is even more bone-headed. Having allowed this state of affairs to develop in the first place, he now proposes to do precisely nothing about it.

    Questioned about this week’s poll at his monthly press conference on Tuesday, he said that setting up a separate English parliament would be "unworkable" and "unnecessary".

    That is all of a piece with his eve-of-election pledge to this newspaper in 2001 when he said he would not reform the funding rules by which English taxpayers continue to subsidise the Scots.

    “No taxation without representation” goes the old slogan. For the English, read “More taxation means less representation.”

    Finally, there is Gordon Brown. Unlike Mr Blair, who soon won’t have to worry about it any more, the uncertainty over the future of the Union presents him with an acute political problem.

    As he made clear in an interview this week, he is desperate to keep the Union together, and I don’t doubt for a moment that he genuinely believes in it.

    But more pertinent to the Chancellor’s current predicament is the fear that, as the present situation unravels, the English will become less and less likely to consent to be ruled by a Scot.

    It is almost bound to become an election issue in 2009/10, and the Chancellor just has to live in hope that it doesn’t become too big a one.

    So is the Union falling apart? Well, you certainly wouldn’t bet on it lasting another 300 years at the moment.

    But then again, adaptability to changing political circumstances has been the watchword of our unwritten constitution for centuries, and there is no reason why it cannot adapt to this new challenge.

    A nationalist victory in May’s Scottish Parliament elections may well force the Government to take a wider look at the issue, and in my view, that would be a positive development.

    I won’t be here in another 50 years’ time. But I would rather like to think that the United Kingdom will be.

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    Podcast: A follower, not a leader

    Script of Week in Politics podcast, Episode 52.

    ***

    On the face of it, there would appear to be little connection between this week’s row over the Prime Minister’s “carbon footprint” and the ongoing controversy over the execution of Saddam Hussein.

    Both are moral issues, for sure, but while one merely concerns the fate of a reviled dictator, the other concerns the future viability of the entire planet.

    In one vital sense, though, Tony Blair’s failure to take a lead either in curbing greenhouse gas emissions or in condemning the manner of Saddam’s execution are one and same story, in what they show us about his character.

    For both highlight what I have always regarded as his primary deficiency as a politician and a Prime Minister – that he is, essentially, a follower rather than a leader.

    Take first, then, the case of Saddam. This issue has been causing discomfiture for Mr Blair ever since the Butcher of Baghdad was initially condemned to death in November.

    He doesn’t, of course, agree with the death penalty, but he sure as hell wanted it applied to Saddam lest the former dictator emerge as a rallying-point for the Iraqi insurgents.

    Mr Blair sought to extricate himself from this tricky little moral dilemma by saying nothing and hiding behind the coat-tails of his Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, whose views about capital punishment are no different to his own.

    It was too much for one television interviewer, who told Mr Blair contemptuously: “You’ve been Prime Minister for ten years, she’s been Foreign Secretary for five minutes.”

    So when Saddam was finally executed on December 30, it was scarcely surprising that it was poor old Mrs Beckett who was once more wheeled out to give the Government’s response.

    Choosing her words with her customary care, Mrs Beckett said the deposed tyrant had been “held to account.”

    Then mobile phone images started circulating around the internet demonstrating that the execution, far from being a dignified, behind-closed-doors affair, had been a shameful public humiliation.

    To his very great credit, John Prescott for once showed himself to be the moral conscience of the Government by condemning the scenes as “deplorable.”

    Still, though, Mr Blair said nothing, his official spokesman briefing the Lobby that the Deputy Prime Minister had been “expressing his own view.”

    And doubtless that is where he would have left it, had it not been for Gordon Brown deciding to weigh in on Mr Prescott’s side in his interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last Sunday.

    The following day, the official spokesman changed his line, revealing that Mr Blair now thought the manner of the execution had been “completely wrong” and that it “shouldn’t have happened in this way.”

    Was that really the action of a leader, to be forced to concede the moral high ground not only to his hated rival at No 11, but also to his discredited deputy?

    But if that episode shamed Mr Blair, even more contemptible was his performance over the issue of air travel and the growing damage which aviation is doing to the environment.

    Once again, it was a less senior figure, environment minister Ian Pearson who took the lead, singling out no-frills airline Ryanair as “not just the unacceptable face of capitalism, but the irresponsible face of capitalism."

    The degree of political courage required for a junior minister to make a comment such as this should not be underestimated.

    Ever since Peter Mandelson told the CBI that the Government was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,” this kind of criticism has been off-limits for New Labour.

    But what did Mr Blair do? Not only did he fail to back up Mr Pearson’s brave stance, he attempted to reverse the growing political consensus on the aircraft emissions issue.

    Asked whether people should make sacrifices by taking holidays closer to home, the Prime Minister said it would be wrong to impose "unrealistic targets" on travellers.

    "You know, I'm still waiting for the first politician who's actually running for office who's going to come out and say it - and they're not," Mr Blair says. "It's like telling people you shouldn't drive anywhere."

    He had clearly already forgotten that Mr Pearson, who unlike him actually is running for office at the next election, had actually said something very similar just a few days’ before.

    But these are merely two small topical examples of a depressing theme has run throughout the lifetime of the New Labour project.

    The aim of that project should have been to bring about an irreversible shift in wealth, power and opportunity in favour of the many, not the few, and indeed, in its early years, it was billed as such.

    But it has been clear for some years now that its true purpose was not to shift the country to the left, but simply to shift the Labour Party to the right.

    As a result, Mr Blair’s eventual successor now risks being portrayed as “Old Labour” by the resurgent Tories if he so much as attempts to shift one millimetre from the Blairite path.

    And there, in a nutshell, you have Mr Blair’s precious “legacy.” Not Iraq, nor even the fact that he has presided over widening inequality, though both of those things are part of it.

    No, Mr Blair’s legacy is that despite three election wins and a Tory Party which was incapable of being elected to run a whelk stall, he failed to build that progressive consensus.

    It is a failure borne of the same tendency to seek to follow public opinion rather than lead it that we have seen manifested in the events of the past seven days.

    And when all the dust has settled, it is a failure that may well go down as the greatest missed opportunity in the history of progressive politics.

    Monday, January 08, 2007

    Podcast: Who will be Labour's No 2?

    Script for my Week in Politics podcast, Episode 51, which went live today.

    ***

    Last week, in my podcast previewing the political year 2007, I focused on what everyone expects to be the big story of the next 12 months – the election of a new Labour leader and Prime Minister.

    It goes without saying that it is an event of huge political significance. But the problem with it from a pundit’s point of view is that is the outcome is widely seen as cut and dried.

    Over the past few days, Home Secretary John Reid has done his best to suggest that
    Gordon Brown may not, after all, have a coronation, with a speech warning him not to veer from the true path of New Labour.

    From Labour’s perspective, I happen to think it was spectacularly unhelpful, but if there is to be a contest, then Dr Reid remains overwhelmingly the most likely challenger.

    But so much for the main attraction – what of the main support act, namely the contest to become Labour’s deputy leader?

    With the leadership battle seen as increasingly sewn-up, much New Year media speculation has centred on the question not of who will succeed Tony Blair, but who will replace John Prescott.

    There are six declared candidates - International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, Party Chairman Hazel Blears, backbencher Jon Cruddas, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, Solicitor-General Harriet Harman, and Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

    Two of them are currently a little way ahead of the rest of the field – but it’s a wide open race and any of the other four could yet come out on top.

    The two early frontrunners are Mr Benn, who has emerged as the leading candidate from inside the current Cabinet, and Mr Cruddas, who is fighting a classic “outsider’s” campaign from the backbenches.

    Mr Benn’s attraction is that, as a member of the Blair Cabinet but with slightly left-of-centre views in Labour terms, he is seen as a unifier with broad cross-party appeal.

    Some of this is doubtless sentimental, in that Hilary is the son of the left’s great hero Tony Benn, who so narrowly failed to wrest the deputy leadership of the party from Denis Healey in 1981.

    But Mr Cruddas is also winning significant support, not just from the left from but from Labour activists who like his emphasis on making the party more accountable to its members.

    So can any of the others catch-up? Well, there is little doubt that the candidate whose vote is being squeezed hardest by the Benn-Cruddas ascendancy is Mr Hain.
    He is himself a man of the left, having initially gained prominence as an anti-apartheid campaigner, and imagined he would get much of the support that has instead gone to Mr Cruddas.

    Mr Hain’s problem is that he is seen to have made too many compromises. He was, for a time, very close to the late Robin Cook, but failed to resign with him over the Iraq War in 2003.

    Had he done so, it is at least arguable that he would now be in with a good shout of becoming not merely deputy leader, but Prime Minister.

    Of the two female candidates, Ms Blears has recently run into trouble on two counts. Firstly, as Party Chair, she is in charge of party organisation and thus technically responsible for staging the contest, a fairly obvious conflict of interest.

    Secondly, her protest against health cuts in her constituency, while brave, has brought accusations of hypocrisy and claims she should resign her Cabinet post.

    Ms Harman is likely to have broader support in the party, but the problem with her leadership pitch is that it appears solely to be based on the fact that she is a woman.

    She is also handicapped by her poor performance in Cabinet as Social Security Secretary between 1997 and 1998 before Mr Blair had to sack her on the grounds of general uselessness.

    That, at least, is not an accusation that could be levelled at Mr Johnson, who has proved himself one of the more energetic and articulate spokesmen for the New Labour cause since joining the Cabinet two years ago.

    But his political star appears to be on the wane, after his failure to emerge as a convincing challenger to Mr Brown for the top job last autumn.

    Rightly or wrongly, Mr Johnson is still viewed by many as more of a would-be leader than a natural deputy.

    As Lord Hattersley pointed out yesterday, his election would lead to moreorless constant media speculation that he was out to undermine Mr Brown in the hope of succeeding to the top job.

    Other names could yet enter the fray. The backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, is rumoured to be launching a bid from the far left.

    But Commons leader Jack Straw has probably left it too late. As I wrote last week, he is really the fallback unity candidate for leader should anything amiss happen to Gordon.

    I sense the feeling in the party is that the deputy leadership needs to go to a fresh face, to balance out the fact that the leadership is likely to go to a very well-known one.

    That need not exclude the likes of Mr Johnson or Mr Benn, but it does rule out figures like Mr Straw and Margaret Becket who have been pivotal Cabinet figures throughout the Blair years.

    If I had to put my money on anyone at the moment, it would be Mr Cruddas, on the grounds that the unions and party members will see it as a chance for them to have a bigger say in the way the party is run.

    But the really intriguing thing about that is that the anti-establishment Mr Cruddas
    could actually be the candidate Mr Brown secretly wants as his deputy.

    It was reported last year that the Chancellor intends to do away with the somewhat discredited post of Deputy Prime Minister, and Mr Cruddas is standing on precisely this platform.

    Looked at in those terms, a Brown-Cruddas leadership is beginning to seem like it could be Labour’s new dream ticket.
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