Saturday, January 26, 2008

Brown bottles it again

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 26 January 2008.


When the history of New Labour’s long period in government finally comes to be written, it is unlikely that January 24 will go down as one of the more auspicious dates in its calendar.

It was on that day in 2001 that the then Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson resigned from Tony Blair’s Cabinet for the second and last time over claims that he helped procure a passport for an Indian businessman.

Although the allegations later turned out to be false, Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell acted swiftly and ruthlessly to despatch their close friend and ally into the outer political darkness.

Seven years on, by one of those bizarre coincidences that add to the spice of political life, Thursday January 24 saw the final demise of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain – although his treatment at the hands of premier Gordon Brown could not have been more different.

As I wrote last week, it has been clear for some time that Mr Hain’s position is untenable, yet Mr Brown, like John Major before him, appeared unable or unwilling to bite the bullet.

You can criticise Mr Blair’s behaviour towards Mr Mandelson – and I did at the time – but by acting decisively, he did at least limit the damage to the government.

Mr Brown, by contrast, tried to hang on to his colleague, while at the same time appearing to undermine him.

It has not, to be fair, been one of his more distinguished episodes, and has served only to enhance the image of him in the public mind as a ditherer.

The Prime Minister did a little better in his handling of the subsequent reshuffle, even if he failed to do either of the things I was urging in these pages a week ago.

He didn’t decide to bring back a heavyweight figure from the Blair years to bolster his flagging administration, and neither did he take the opportunity to scrap the pointless part-time posts of Scottish and Welsh Secretary.

What he did do, though, was to underline one of the key themes that marked his first attempt at Cabinet-making last July – the transition from one Labour generation to the next.

James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the three main beneficiaries of Thuesday's changes, are all in their 30s. To paraphrase Mr Blair, they are the future now.

Certainly, Mr Brown had a golden opportunity to restore Darlington MP Alan Milburn or another senior Blairite such as Charles Clarke had he wanted to.
The fact that he passed up that opportunity means they are almost certainly not now returning to the Cabinet table – at least not under Mr Brown – and it will be interesting to see if they stand again at the next election.

The choice of 59-year-old retread Paul Murphy to head the Welsh Office appears to fly in the face of the accent on youth, but this may just turn out to be a relatively short-term appointment.

I still believe that a restructuring of the territorial posts into a "Department for Devolution" is on the cards at some point.

But there was something else that happened on Thursday that, amid the excitement of the Hain resignation, passed almost unnoticed, and it is to this that I want to devote the remainder of this week’s column.

It was an announcement from the Justice Minister Michael Wills of the results of a review of the different voting systems currently in use across the UK.

I doubt if it was a case of “burying bad news,” since the announcement had been scheduled for some time previously and Mr Hain’s resignation on that day was unplanned.

Either way, it concluded that voters in Scotland and Wales had been “confused” by the use of proportional representation for devolved elections, and ruled out its introduction for Westminster.

So what, you might think? Well, there is no region in the UK where this actually matters more than in the North East of England.

Almost half of people in the region who actually bother to vote do not support Labour, yet for the past three elections, the region has ended up with 28 Labour MPs, one Conservative, and one Liberal Democrat.

What this means is that, in 2005, it took 20,730 people in the North-East to elect one Labour MP, 214,414 to elect one Conservative, and 256,295 to send one Liberal Democrat to the Commons.

Or to put it another way, it took more than 12 times as many people to elect one Lib Dem MP in the region than it took to elect one Labour MP.

It is little wonder, then, that voter turnout in the region has continued to lag well behind the national average, at a time when wider political engagement is in any case at an all-time low.

The years of New Labour spin, culminating in the dodgy dossier which sent British soldiers to war on a false prospectus, have well-nigh destroyed the bond of trust between politicians and the public.

Mr Brown said at the start of his premiership that he wanted to restore that lost trust, yet the ongoing controversy over Labour funding and campaign donations have only compounded the situation.

Doing something to make people think their votes were actually worth something would, in my view, have been a good to way to start addressing it.

But there is another reason why Mr Brown should have had a fresh look at the voting system, not so much for reasons of principle as for reasons of realpolitik.

The next election is shaping up to be a bit like 1992 – a contest between a government that has been in a bit too long, and an opposition that hasn’t really yet earned the right to govern. In short, it has hung Parliament written all over it.

If Labour are going to need the Liberal Democrats in order to remain in power, they are also going to need to look again at electoral reform.

Mr Brown had a chance to prepare the ground for that this week. Just as with his failure to sack Mr Hain, he bottled it.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hain's departure could strengthen Brown

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 19 January, 2007.


Anyone who has followed this column for any length of time will know by now that I take the view that very little of what happens in politics is historically inevitable.

Contrary to those who would have us believe that everything is pre-ordained, the world is full of “what ifs?” which could have caused everything to turn out differently.

Margaret Thatcher may have come to dominate her era – but had it not been for Jim Callaghan’s tactical blundering in the autumn of 1978, the Iron Lady might never even have made it to Number 10.

Later, Tony Blair would be Prime Minister for almost as long – but had John Smith not dropped dead one morning in May 1994, New Labour might have forever remained just a twinkle in Peter Mandelson’s eye.

So to begin with this week, here’s a slice of counterfactual history. It is 2003, and former Leader of the Commons Robin Cook has just stood up to make a personal statement in the House following his resignation over the plans to invade Iraq.

Mr Cook is just getting into his formidable stride when, suddenly, journalists and MPs alike are startled to see the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, slip onto the backbenches alongside him.

Outside the Chamber afterwards, Mr Hain confirms to camera crews in Central Lobby that he, too, has resigned from the Cabinet in protest at Mr Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion.

The twin resignation rocks the government to its foundations, and although Mr Blair narrowly survives, Messrs Cook and Hain increasingly come to be seen as the moral conscience of the Labour movement.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005, and Mr Cook’s sudden death while out walking in the Scottish Highlands leaves Mr Hain as the undisputed leader of Labour’s anti-war left.

His principled opposition to the disastrous conflict, coupled with his brave stance against apartheid in the 70s, has made him a hero for many, and he is increasingly spoken of as a potential challenger for the leadership when Mr Blair stands down.

Sure enough, in June 2007, the 56-year-old Neath MP announces to rapturous applause from party activists that he will take on Gordon Brown for the Labour crown.

After a titanic struggle for the soul of the party, Mr Brown prevails. But Mr Hain has too much support in the party to be sidelined, and is rewarded with the plum job of Foreign Secretary and effective Cabinet Number Two.

Far-fetched? Well, perhaps no more so than a minister spending £200,000 of someone else’s money pursuing the most worthless job in British politics only to come fifth behind Harriet Harman.

But what this little story hopefully illustrates is that, for Mr Hain, his problems began long before it emerged that he had failed to fill in his campaign returns properly.

What finished him was not so much that, as the realisation that this one-time radical idealist had ended up compromising every radical ideal he ever held in order to keep his backside on a ministerial chair.

The upshot was a loss of credibility within the party, the extent of which only finally became clear following his dismal performance in last summer’s deputy leadership contest.

In the light of that result, it was a rather magnanimous gesture on Mr Brown’s part to keep Mr Hain in the Cabinet at all, albeit in the middle-ranking post of Work and Pensions Secretary.

To be fair, he has since gone on to win one small but important victory in that role, overcoming Treasury objections to secure a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust.

But the truth is that ever since the deputy leadership debacle, Mr Hain has been living on borrowed political time.

Even if the row over his campaign funding not occurred, he was already seen as a likely casualty of the next reshuffle, and this appears now to have escalated into a racing certainty.

If anyone is in any doubt about this, he or she should make a careful study of the Prime Minister’s words on the subject in a week in which he has twice effectively hung Mr Hain out to dry.

On Monday, he gave an interview in which he said that while he had full confidence in his Cabinet colleague, his future was “out of his hands.”

Later in the week, he said that while Mr Hain had done a good job overall, he had been guilty of “an incompetence” in failing to file his campaign returns – a careful distinction likely to remain lost on Labour’s opponents.

If this is what passes for a vote of confidence in Mr Brown’s eyes, remind me never to go tiger-shooting with him.

The Prime Minister would have done better, in my view, to have acted more decisively and used the departure of Mr Hain as an opportunity to strengthen his beleaguered administration.

Firstly, it would have freed up a Cabinet berth for Darlington MP Alan Milburn, bringing much-needed fresh thinking into the government and enabling Mr Brown to stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites.

Secondly, it would have created an opening for a long-overdue structural reshuffle, combining the territorial Cabinet posts under a single Department for Devolved Affairs.

Why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still need a Cabinet minister each when they all now have their own elected First Ministers is not just beyond me but many other observers besides.

What of the bigger picture? Has the ongoing controversy over Mr Hain blown Gordon’s much-vaunted New Year “relaunch” off-course?

Well, maybe - although the looming question of whether or not to nationalise Northern Rock is probably giving the Prime Minister many more sleepless nights.

But that said, Mr Brown seemed at last this week to be finding his feet at Prime Minister’s Questions, putting David Cameron on the defensive over his own shifts in policy towards the Rock.

Maybe he’s starting to like the job a bit more. Or maybe he was just enjoying the fact that, for once, the focus of attention was elsewhere.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gordon the grinder digs in the for the long haul

Saturday column published in the Newcastle Journal, 12 January 2008


Before going any further, I would like to make one thing clear. Unlike some fellow commentators, I am not going to spend the ten months between now and the US presidential election in November attempting to draw spurious analogies between that contest and the current state of UK politics.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying American politics doesn’t affect what happens over here. Any cursory look at the history of the past decade and a half clearly shows that it does.

It certainly did in the 1990s when Bill Clinton’s victory helped lay the ground for the success of Tony Blair and New Labour a few years later.

And it certainly did in the current decade when a Labour Prime Minister found himself dragged into a disastrous military adventure by a neo-conservative US president – an entanglement that eventually cost him his premiership.

But much as I’d like to, I’m afraid I just don’t buy the idea that Hillary Clinton’s dramatic comeback to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday provides some kind of get-out-of-jail card for Gordon Brown.

Certain well-known pundits have spent the past few days trying to construct a “narrative” in which, because one serious, experienced politician has bounced back from adversity, the other will invariably do the same.

Even more ludicrous was the earlier suggestion that victory for the youthful Barack Obama victory in Tuesday’s primary would have provided a boost for the almost equally youthful Tory leader David Cameron.

I look forward to the spectacle of Cameron attempting to remain aboard the Obama bandwagon if the latter wins in November and orders an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But that said, one thing that Mrs Clinton and Mr Brown do have in common, besides experience and seriousness, is resilience.

What we have seen from both of them this week is that, whatever the outcome, they are in it for the long-term.

It may not guarantee either ultimate success, and it certainly does not mean their destinies are somehow joined at the hip as some commentators have sought to suggest.

But it does mean that seeing off either of them will be a somewhat tougher task for their opponents than some recent polls might have suggested.

Mr Brown’s New Year message certainly gave no indication of a politician who is about to throw in the towel. Rather, he is selling himself as the proven economic helmsman who can steer the ship of state through the troubled times ahead.
As I have previously mentioned, the prospect of a serious economic downturn poses some risk to Mr Brown, in that he has been in charge of the economy for the past decade.

Furthermore, while nearly everyone currently regards him as a successful economic manager, a Prime Minister is expected to be more than that.

But if, in 12 months’ time, Mr Brown can indeed claim to have guided us safely through the choppy economic waters, we may well see his reputation recovering to its former levels.

Journalists covering his monthly press conference on Monday may have mocked the Prime Minister’s repeated talk of “difficult decisions” and “long-term choices,” but at least its authentic Gordon.

After the serial debacles of last autumn, he is committing himself to what one commentator called “a long unglamorous campaign of hard graft” to rescue his fortunes.

His hard line on public sector pay is a case in point. Because of the nature of the jobs they do, there will always be a certain amount of public sympathy for the police and the nurses.

But if by putting the battle against inflation once again at the top of his priorities Mr Brown can ensure a soft economic landing for the UK, his stance will have been more than vindicated.

Thursday’s announcement of a new generation of nuclear power stations is another example of a decision which, while potentially unpopular in itself, may yield wider political benefits.

Memories of Chernobyl may have faded, and worries about the industry’s safety record given way to concerns about the effect of burning fossil fuels, but most people still see nuclear energy as, at best, a necessary evil.

But what it does do, once again, is send out a wider message about the government’s long-termism and seriousness of intent.

Even Mr Brown’s opponents may have to admit to a certain grudging admiration for him for taking a decision that the Labour Party would once almost certainly have sought to fudge.

What is clear is that, having decided there will not be an election this year or maybe even next, the Prime Minister is now digging in for the long haul.

There is a clear political logic to this. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and as things stand, Mr Brown does not have to give up the lease on 10 Downing Street until May 2010.

Even if he were to go on until then and lose, he will still have had nearly three years as Prime Minister in which to lay down some kind of long-term legacy, in the hope that history might judge him rather better than his contemporaries.

And of course, there is always just a chance that he might win, if he can govern competently and sensibly enough for the public to change their mind about him again.

Earlier this week Mr Brown was asked – by an experienced radio interviewer who should have known better – whether he was “enjoying” the job.

Much was made of his refusal to give a straight answer, but I suspect that the reason was that, for a puritanical Son of the Manse like Gordon, the question was simply irrelevant.

The truth is almost certainly that he is neither enjoying the job nor hating it. He is just getting on with it.

Indeed, in the circumstances, it is the only thing he can do.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Brown should accept the Blairite olive-branch

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 5 January 2008.


Earlier this week, I came across a list of “Wishes for 2008” which concluded with the words: “For Bush and Bin Laden to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to Pluto so the rest of us can kiss and make up.”

Joking aside, what it showed was that for most of us, Christmas and New Year is seen as a time of peace and goodwill, an opportunity for the burying of hatchets and the making of fresh starts.

Sadly, not everyone in the world sees it that way. Ever since the Russian tanks rolled into Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve, 1978, overseas conflicts have become almost a regular occurrence at this time of year.

The past week has been no exception, with the tribal warfare in Kenya following on from the terrible events in Pakistan surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

But in one small corner of the political world, though, peace did break out over the course of this festive season – in the British Labour Party, no less.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown having experienced such a dreadful couple of months that there was even talk of another change of leadership, his old rivals on the uber-Blairite wing of the party suddenly decided to sue for peace.

North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers led the way with a dramatic declaration that Tony Blair was “history” and a call for the party to get solidly behind Mr Brown.

It also emerged that his friend and fellow North-East MP Alan Milburn has been “quietly” helping Downing Street, at a time when some might have urged him to distance himself.

Mr Byers wrote last Sunday: “With Tony Blair gone from domestic politics, the task of leading Labour to victory falls to Gordon Brown. It is the responsibility of all of us who want to see a fourth election victory to give him our support.

"Tony Blair is history. He is the political past and will not be part of the future of domestic politics in our country."

The message was unmistakeable. The Blair-Brown feud is finally over, and will not be carried on at one remove by the former Prime Minister’s closest remaining allies.

Mr Blair, who has no intention of becoming a “back-seat driver” like Lady Thatcher, is himself reported to have demanded a show of loyalty to Mr Brown in the tumultuous weeks following the cancellation of the general election last autumn.

Now the first thing to say about all this, from a purely North-East perspective, is that it might make the regional Labour Party slightly less of a beargarden than has been the case for the past decade.

For many years, the tribal Blairite-Brownite split has cut through the politics of the region like a knife.

Here were to be found some of Mr Blair’s strongest and most influential supporters – Mr Byers, Mr Milburn, Peter Mandelson, Hilary Armstrong, and latterly David Miliband.

But at the same time, the North-East was also home to many of Mr Brown’s key lieutenants - Nick Brown, Doug Henderson, Kevan Jones and, before his retirement from the Commons in 2005, Derek Foster.

Too much bad blood has been spilt between these two camps down the years to expect them all to kiss and make up overnight, but of course the implications of Mr Byers’ olive-branch go far wider.

So what was it all about? Well, one thing it was not was an attempt to suck-up to Mr Brown in the hope of making a ministerial comeback.

The former Transport Secretary has no ambitions to return to government, and appears content with his role as a thoughtful, and by no means uninfluential, backbench voice.

Neither was it, in my view, simply a call for unity brought on by the desperate circumstances in which the government and Mr Brown currently find themselves.

No, I think Mr Byers’ intervention was part of a more complex picture that will become clearer over the next few weeks as other former Blairites dip their toes into the waters of internal party debate.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett, for instance, is shortly expected to make a major speech on social mobility, an issue over which the government was heavily criticised in a report last month.

Mr Milburn himself will also be returning to the fray, majoring on public sector reform and the “choice” agenda – still the key issue for many ex-Blairites.

What Mr Byers’ article has done is prepared the ground for this policy debate to take place in a context where it is interpreted not as a challenge to Mr Brown’s leadership, but as helpful and constructive advice.

So how should Mr Brown respond? Well, as one commentator wrote last week, his initial temptation will probably be to “pick up this olive branch and use it to give the Blairites a thrashing.”

But he does not have that luxury. Such is the Prime Minister’s current plight that he needs to be able to swallow his pride and accept help wherever it is offered.

Mr Brown was badly let down last year by his closest allies who allowed the autumn election fever to get so out of control, openly speculating about whether “the gamble” lay in going or not going to the polls.

He clearly needs to widen the circle of those he listens to, and there is now no reason why it should not include experienced former ministers such as Messrs Byers, Blunkett and Milburn.

Amid all his current difficulties, Mr Brown has two crucial advantages compared to the position John Major was in during the mid-1990s.

First, as I pointed out last week, there has been no great upsurge of enthusiasm for David Cameron as there was then for Mr Blair. Second, he leads a moreorless united party.

But it is not so much mere unity which is now on offer from his former rivals, as fresh thinking and new ideas.

And with his government in danger of looking like an exhausted volcano, that, surely, is what Mr Brown now needs most of all.

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