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.
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