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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