Thursday, 30 September 2010

Chris Mullin's diaries

I had been meaning to read Chris Mullin's diaries for some time after he gave a sparkling after dinner speech at the PSA conference at Manchester. The publication of the second volume encouraged me to buy the first and a great read it was, full of insights and informative anecdotes.

Mullin paints a bleak picture of the life of a junior minister, giving speeches badly written by civil servants. He reckons that he had more influence as a select committee chair or a campaigning backbencher.

For many politicians being a 'Pussy' or at most a minister of state is as far as their career goes. Mullin discusses the case of Anna Eagle who had done a perfectly competent job as a junior minister but was then dismissed. It appears that this was simply because space had to be created for new faces and no one was willing to speak up for her. Tony Blair told her, 'You've had a good run.'

Mullin faced many challenges with embedded social deprivation in Sunderland. Voter turnout was notoriously low. He recalls visiting an estate where considerable investment had been made on refurbishing the houses and providing other amenities, only to be told by a voter 'You do nothing for us.'

For those who are cynical about politicians, Mullin comes across as a person of decency and integrity, motivated by a desire to make a positive difference. He was also a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But I was surprised that Sunderland Football Club was not mentioned until late in the volume.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Red Ed? Come off it!

That was Ed Miliband's message as he gave a heartfelt (and apart from the odd stumble) polished performance to the Labour Party conference this afternoon. Sometimes it did feel as if the Revd. Blair had been replaced as vicar by his curate who combined youthfulness, earnestness and a commitment to optimism, the theme on which he ended.

Ed Miliband tried to differentiate himself from Old and New Labour, while acknowledging the latter's achievements, by presenting himself as part of a new generation which wanted a new politics. How many times have we heard politicians say before that they want to change politics?

He presented his back story quite well, with a self-deprecatory remark about his father, Ralph (Adolph) Miliband. There were also references to the future in terms of his 16 month old son.

One of the clear themes came through to me was that he was not going to vacate the centre ground of politics, although he also argued that the centre ground can be re-shaped. He endorsed the central premise of the New Labour argument: one can deliver both economic efficiency and social justice. He also tried to make a strong ethical appeal, emphasising that 'my values are my anchor'.

He also made clear that the party 'wouldn't always like what I have to say ... but lead I will.' Militant trade unionists got a slap on the wrist with a reference to 'overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes'.

On the deficit, he said that the need to reduce it would have meant painful cuts under Labour. Even if Labour regained office, it would not be possible to reverse all the cuts. Fiscal credibility had been hard won by New Labour and it must be won back. What this all came down to at the end, however, was a rather lame endorsement of the approach of halving the deficit.

One of the most potentially important statements was the announcement that he would vote in favour of AV in referendum, a move away from the opportunistic opposition Labour had been pursuing. It should increase the chances of the measure passing.

So a good start, but the real tests lie ahead. How will he match up against David Cameron at question time?

What will David do?

David Miliband has to decide within the next 24 hours to carry on in front-line politics, if he has not decided already. His acclaimed speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday could be his last from the front bench.

One can understand why he might not wish to continue. He has been pipped to the leadership of the party by his own brother. Even if Labour regain office, he would never be prime minister.

Moreover, if he did carry on as a front bench spokesman, the media would constantly be looking to expose differences between him and Red Ed - and they do exist.

On the other hand, if he does stand down, Ed Balls is likely to be the Shadow Chancellor. Balls is a leading deficit denier. Or to put it more generously, he believes that a lot of the gap can be closed by clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance. If it was that easy, it would have been done years ago.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The UK economy is on the mend

That is the verdict of the International Monetary Fund in a positive report on the UK economy: Fund .

The report praises the Coalition Government's 'strong and credible' deficit reduction plan. While fiscal tightening could dampen short-term growth, it will not stop it, one in the eye for the double dip recession school of thought. CPI inflation should be back on target by 2012.

There are some araes of concern in relation to the banks and the report emphasises the need for the momentum of financial sector reform to continue. Backing for Vince, then. BTW, it was interesting to see my local Conservative MP Chris White writing an 'I'm with Vince' piece in the local paper.

Quite how 'Red Ed' will respond to this remains to be seen. It is his first test on the economic front.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ed edges it

Gilmanton, NH: So Ed Miliband has just pipped his brother to his leadership of the Labour Party through vote transfers and support among members and trade unions.

Both the Milibands are policy wonks, but there is a view that Ed is better at relating to people on a human level.

Whether Ed's left leaning posture was a ploy to win the leadership election remains to be seen. However, if Labour thinks its future is mobilising its core vote rather than winning back aspirational voters, it may have made a mistake.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Nick strikes the right note

Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership came away relatively unscathed from the conference at Liverpool. Delegates staged a symbolic revolt over the controversial 'free schools' issue but the real test will come at Birmingham next year when the cuts have started to bite and the AV referendum may well have been lost.

Clegg's speech was short, sober and restrained and was designed to reassure anxious delegates. It largely achieved that objective. Many of them are councillors who have experienced coalition arrangements in local government and hence are familiar with the constraints and opportunities they offer.

If the Lib Dems had not entered a coalition and forced a second election they would have suffered at the polls. As it is, they have shown they are prepared to accept the responsibilities of government. Whether they will be given any electoral credit for that is another matter.

To those who believe the Lib Dems should have entered a coalition with Labour, Clegg said that Labour had ordered the invasion of Iraq, run roughshod over Britain's civil liberties and brought the country to the bank of bankruptcy.

Clegg had one decent joke about New Labour authors: 'Never in the field of political memoirs has so much been written by so few about so little.'

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Crooked Sixpence

I greatly enjoyed a novel written by investigative journalist Murray Sayle called A Crooked Sixpence. which was published in 1960. I still have my copy on my shelves. It was an often amusing exposé of Sunday tabloid journalism, probably with a slight period flavour today.

Reading his obituary in The Times today, I learnt that the editor of The People where Sayle had worked had taken exception to the novel. Sayle was sued for libel and all copies were pulped.

As I recall I was given mine by a media contact who wanted to warn me about the seamier side of journalism and dissuade me from it as a career.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Asking the right questions

A Populus poll in The Times earlier this week read like bad news for the Coalition Government's deficit reduction strategy, but legitimate doubts have now been raised about the appropriateness of the questions: Poll

One thing that needs to be borne in mind is that setting a target for deficit reduction is one thing and achieving it is another. So Labour's halving target could have turned out to be a 30 per cent reduction in practice and the Coalition's target may well fall short at around 80 per cent over the lifetime of a Parliament.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The era of cheap undies is over

So proclaimed The Sun this morning and they are right. Cotton prices have gone up by 45 per cent and this is likely to feed into a price rise of 5 to 8 per cent in the shops next year according to Next.

The latest CPI figures show inflation at a stubborn 3.1 per cent, down from its April peak, but well above the Bank of England 2 per cent target. Food prices in particular have risen, as well as clothes. With supply and demand pressures on food staples, some are predicting a double digit rise in food prices by the end of the year.

This has a number of implications for government policy. There is likely to be more resistance to a public sector pay freeze if real incomes are being eroded by inflation, particularly on basic items like food and clothes. It would also affect the cost of providing the state pension.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The conference season is under way

The pace of politics is quickening in the run up to the vitally important Comprehensive Spending Review. This week we have the TUC Congress and this will be followed by the Liberal Democrats, suddenly a more significant event on the political calendar.

On the radio this morning one public sector trade union leader said that not one public sector job should go. This shows a complete disconnect with reality. Even under a Labour Government there would have been public sector job cuts.

According to the June budget, we are already spending £44 billion on debt interest. This is more than we spend on defence (£40bn) or public order (£35bn). It represents a substantial opportunity cost. If the deficit was not cut, interest rates would go up, the UK's credit rating would decline and we would be spending even more on interest.

The BBC's Nick Robinson made a journey down the A1 last week in which he talked to members of the public about spending cuts. People found it far easier to say what they wouldn't cut than what they would. Overseas aid was mentioned, but this is a small proportion of the total budget.

Another popular candidate was 'welfare' and this is certainly a big ticket item. Child benefit may be stopped at 16 and the age at which people become eligible for the winter fuel allowance may be raised. In this way some dent may be made in the £194bn spent on 'social protection'.

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Biden-Clegg relationship

Washington DC: One of the interesting by-products of the Coalition Government is the relationship that has developed between Deputy PM Nick Clegg and US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Within minutes of Clegg's appointment, Biden was on the phone to deliver his congratulations. They have been video conferencing and when Nick Clegg comes to the UN later in the month he will spend two hours in Washington with his opposite number.

The vice-presidency in the US has come a long way since it was described by one incumbent as worth a 'pitcher of warm spit'. Vice-President Mondale described the role as 'You die, I fly' in reference to his role as an attendee at state funerals.

The role of deputy prime minister has no constitutional foundation and does not always exist but it has had some distinguished incumbents such as Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Discuss with Facebook friends

Washington DC: This is a British politics blog, but occasionally it is interesting to make comments on the politics of other countries when visiting them. Yesterday evening I watched President Obama give a presidential address, ostensibly on the departure of combat troops from Iraq in what he called 'an age without surrender ceremonies'. Watching it just a couple of miles from where it was given in the Oval Office made it seem different.

It was a little to odd to see, while the President was in full flow, a message flash across the bottom of the screen 'Discuss with Facebook Friends' at the website of the station concerned. The address was preceded by an advert for carpets and then some commentary which said that the speech could not have been made without the efforts of President George W. Bush, said apparently without irony. The President was actually quite generous to his predecessor whilst pointing out his disagreements with him.

In many ways the speech sounded like an election broadcast before the mid-terms to me. There was quite a lot on the economy and the need to 'strengthen our middle class', a phrase that would be taboo in Britain. There were also quite a few rhetorical clichés such as describing Iraq as 'the cradle of civilisation'.

It is sobering to think that this has been one of America's longest wars and also one of its more controversial as the President admitted. The entanglement in Afganistgan may be even be more difficult to pull out of whilst being able to make any kind of claim to success.

Prime ministerial broadcasts were very much in vogue in the 1970s when Ted Heath was always declaring states of emergency and lecturing the nation in gloomy and wooden tones, much good that it did him.