Month: September 2010

David Miliband decides not to be Gordon Brown

The days of speculation around the future of David Miliband, following the narrow defeat by his brother in the Labour Leadership election, must surely have done enough to convince any watcher of the party’s internal warfare that his decision to step back from frontline politics is the right one.

Ed has been making all the right noises, talking about how he desperately wants David to be in his Shadow Cabinet and so on, but it has become abundantly clear that the leadership contest has done lasting damage to the relationship of the two brothers. This is hardly difficult to understand. David must have assumed that the leadership was his for the taking, having been the favourite for so long, only to have the prize snatched from him at the very end by his own brother.

His disappointment and the resentment of those around him is perhaps an understandable human emotion but there does seem to be more than a touch of the ‘Michael Portillos’ about his failed bid. Miliband, like Portillo in the John Major government, had an opportunity to topple Gordon Brown at the depths of his unpopularity but chose instead to sit tight and wait. Both men missed their best chance and ended up as hugely disappointed bridesmaids.

Ed Miliband, for his part, should feel no guilt for standing in the same contest as his brother. He had every right to put himself forward for the leadership and can point to the result – in spite of Labour’s bizarre electoral college system – as justification for his boldness. Perhaps in time his older brother will come to terms with it, but for now the emotions are probably just too raw.

David’s simmering resentment was clearly demonstrated by his unguarded remarks to Harriet Harman during the new Leader’s speech this week (towards the end of the clip below) and there can be no doubt that, if he had accepted the rumoured offer of Shadow Chancellor, a less-than-friendly media would have had years of fun highlighting divisions between the two brothers, whether real or imagined. After sixteen years of warfare between the Blair and Brown camps, the last thing Labour needed was two new faces to carry the civil war into the future.

David Miliband has done the smart thing for himself, his brother and his party and, although much will be made of it in the news over the coming days, the discomfort of such scrutiny will be nothing compared to the long-term dysfunctionality which would surely have been unleashed had he stayed within Ed’s shiny new tent.

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Ed gets the nod

All credit to the Labour Party for providing a touch of drama at the announcement of Ed Miliband’s victory in their leadership contest. After four rounds of recalculating, Miliband beat his brother David by 1.3% of Labour’s slightly quirky electoral college.

Miliband the Younger now faces the challenge of any Leader of the Opposition in the wake of a recent defeat: ensuring his party doesn’t descend into navel-gazing and grand theoretical gestures. Ed Miliband’s campaign has been presented as ‘of the left’ but he is surely too canny to allow his party to vacate the middle ground. As one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, would happily tell him – that way lies long-term opposition.

Miliband’s challenge is to draw his party away from much of the, perfectly natural, hurling of toys from prams which has gone on since defeat in May. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the merits or otherwise of the Coalition, any administration needs strong, focussed opposition and I genuinely hope that the Labour Party will quickly find themselves in a position to hold the government to account.

Much will be made about the fact that Miliband only crept over the line as a result of union support – his brother carried a final round majority of MPs and ordinary members – but the truth is that all of that will be forgotten if he proves to have been the right choice for Labour.

What Ed Miliband will need to do quickly is decide where Labour now stand on the deficit and to build a constructive narrative around that. In the short-term he will also have to decide his party’s position on next year’s AV referendum, particularly in the light of the manifesto Labour ran on in May and the fact that he himself was elected by that process.

I wish him well, as a healthy opposition is a vital part of a healthy democracy. There are likely to be interesting times ahead.

The Lib Dems and what’s left of ‘The Left’

Much has been said and written about the current state of the Liberal Democrats, with seemingly desperate poll ratings and talk of a total sell-out to the Tories, and I realise a post like this gives free rein in the ‘Comments’ section to continue the kicking so willingly dished out by so many in the weeks and months since the General Election.

I am a Liberal Democrat, but that doesn’t mean I blindly love the Coalition and everything it does. Indeed, I could quite comfortably rattle off a list of government policies which, in my opinion, range from the ill-advised to the downright shameful. But equally, that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the nature of coalition politics and the, at times painful, compromises which need to be made in circumstances such as those delivered by the electorate in May of this year. Nor does it mean that I don’t think this government is putting forward some good policies. The civil liberties agenda, for example, suddenly looks in much better shape now that the New Labour experiment is over.

Having said that, I would very much have preferred a coalition agreement to have been reached with the ‘progressive left’ in Parliament. Such an arrangement could have realigned British politics for good and marginalised many of the malign influences on the way we are governed (Murdoch, Ashcroft, safe seats) but I fully accept that, due to issues of arithmetic, legitimacy and lack of will, this was never really a viable option. Nor was allowing the Tories to govern as a minority administration. Nick Clegg is right to make the point that, after generations of campaigning for coalition politics at Westminster, the Lib Dems could hardly duck out when the opportunity finally arose. I understand the gulf between my ‘ideal world’ view and the harsh reality of government, even if it leaves me feeling highly uncomfortable at times.

My real concern is where Clegg intends to take the party philosophically over the coming years. I joined the party because its policies chimed with what I believe: freedom, fairness, support for the less well off, radical constitutional reform and so on. I viewed the party as less right-wing than the Labour Party and refreshingly free of the Tory/Labour need to tailor its message to the Murdoch press. I still believe that this is where the party stands. The difference, of course, is that the party is now in government for the first time in its brief history.

In interviews with The Independent and The Guardian over the weekend, Clegg made clear that he doesn’t see the Liberal Democrats as a comfortable home for those of the disaffected left in the coming years. This should probably come as no surprise since the ‘Orange Book‘ tendency have been been in the ascendant since the demise of Charles Kennedy, at least at the ‘top’ of the party. But, as Andrew Grice’s piece for The Independent portrays, the broader rank-and-file membership still sits to the left of British politics and this is something the party’s leadership would be foolish to ignore.

Since I joined the Lib Dems in 2005 I’ve always identified myself as belonging to the ‘social democrat’ wing, and I’ve always understood that this places me to the left of the party. I have no problem with that as the party is and always has been a comfortable place for a person with my views. It is my hope that this will continue to be the case. I have already been invited to defect by members of other parties but I have no intention of doing so. I’m more than happy to stay a Liberal Democrat because it is still the philosophy which most closely matches my own.

No thinking member of any political party will ever agree with every policy their movement puts forward, and there must always be a place for the sceptical supporter to advance a minority viewpoint from within. The Liberal Democrats will continue to be attacked from those disappointed with the decision to join the Tories in government – indeed, it seems that many on the left are concentrating their fire more against the Lib Dems than the Tories – and we will continue to hear the boring, unimaginative ‘Condem’ nonsense being bandied around, mostly by the same people who used to (quite rightly) find all the ‘Nu Lie-bore’ stuff so tiresome.

Regardless of this I will still hope that the Coalition proves successful, in spite of the many mistakes it has already made and in spite of the fact a deal with the Tories would have been just about my last preference. But it will not stop me, and many others within the Liberal Democrats, criticising when we feel a deeply-held principle has been surrendered or when the government too closely reflects the view of its resounding Tory majority. And I will still be happy to be a member of a party which makes the dissenting voice feel quite at home.

So, is Andy Coulson off the hook?

Just a matter of days ago there seemed to be no way for Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s Director of Communications, to save his job. The growing clamour and drip-feed of testimony to his involvement in the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal was, a very short time ago, threatening to suck the life out of his Downing Street career.

Yet here we are, 21 days after the New York Times re-launched the story, and still Coulson shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

The story itself is a fairly unpleasant and unsettling one. The essence of it is that, during Coulson’s time at the News Of The World, the paper’s journalists (allegedly) frequently and systematically hacked into the voicemail accounts of a large number of celebrities and public figures in pursuit of a scoop. Many of these figures have launched legal actions against the NOTW and, in some cases, the Metropolitan Police for their apparent lack of concern in informing those whose phones may have been hacked. (Coulson denies any wrongdoing, or indeed knowledge, of any illegal practices which may have taken place during his period as editor, although he did resign in 2007 following the jailing of his Royal Correspondent, Clive Goodman.) It is further alleged that strong links between the NOTW and the Met have led to a less than thorough investigation into these allegations. Much of the background to this story can be found on The Guardian website.

The Guardian does rather seem to be ploughing a lone furrow on this story, although there has been a certain degree of follow-up from The Independent and the broadcast media. Beyond that, there are large chunks of the print media who simply haven’t gone anywhere near this story.

And why would that be, you might ask yourself? Is it because this alleged large-scale criminal activity is a complete non-story? Unlikely, I would suggest. If there was the merest suggestion that the BBC had been up to these tricks the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and the entire Murdoch stable would have been all over this story like a rash – and rightly so.

Is it because the right-wing press don’t want to rock the boat for their new friends in Downing Street? Possibly, and Coulson’s personal relationships with individual journalists may well have played some part in the dampening down of the story. But I still believe (perhaps naively) that most journalists know when they have to put personal and professional links aside in pursuit of the truth – unless of course, their very jobs are at stake due to pressure from above.

And this raises the other possibility: if phone-hacking really was rife at the News Of The World, how much of a leap of faith would it be to assume that it is common in other sections of what we used to call Fleet Street? Could certain newspapers simply be following the biblical directive to ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’?

Maybe new life will be breathed into this story when the various victims’ legal challenges approach their conclusions. It may even turn out that nothing can be pinned on Coulson from his time at the News Of The World. But this whole episode currently reveals the lack of will for the truth from large sections of the media, and invites one to draw the very worst conclusions about the motives behind this failure.

Another take on the Papal visit

I’m grateful to David Briggs for pointing me in the direction of this splendid take on the Papal visit to the UK:

I’m fully aware that there are some who will view the continual criticism of Mr Ratzinger during his visit as regrettable and perhaps even offensive but, despite my unashamed atheism, I post this clip simply because it made me laugh. Make of it what you will…

William Hague – why should anyone give a monkey’s?

The stream of speculation, inference and behind-the-hand sniggering about William Hague’s personal life shows no sign of abating any time soon. His Special Adviser, Chris Myers, has bowed to the pressure and resigned, and certain sections of the press seem intent on keeping the ‘news’ cycle rumbling for as long as is humanly possible.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not in the least bit interested in the bedroom arrangements of the Foreign Secretary. The Cold War is over, and the threat of blackmail is not the national security issue it was back in the time of the Profumo Affair. Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it if you persist in reading some of Britain’s more questionable newspapers, but we do actually live in the 21st Century now, and it shouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference whether someone is gay, straight or undecided. Hague has denied the rumours and, in a move which seems regrettable in the extreme, felt forced to reveal details of his wife’s recent miscarriage to demonstrate to the world that he isn’t a ‘non-playing captain’.

I’m not William Hague’s biggest fan. Perhaps it was his precocious appearance at the 1977 Tory conference when he was a mere boy, but to me he will always be a whiny little Thatcherite who went on to become one of the least effective Opposition Leaders this country has ever had, while actively encouraging the malign influence of Michael Ashcroft on the British electoral system. Having said that, the man deserves a private life.

Some (although certainly not all) British newspapers have a dubious reputation both at home and abroad when it comes to this kind of thing. The practices of self-regulated tabloid newspapers have long left a lingering bad smell across public life in this country, and are often coupled with the unspoken hypocrisy that the media rarely turns its gaze inwards. Perhaps that’s part of the hidden agenda with all this nonsense about William Hague. At the same time that this ‘story’ continues to do the rounds, it seems that only The Guardian has found the time or the inclination to scrutinise David Cameron’s combative Director of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Coulson, a former editor of the News Of The World, continues to be implicated in the disgraceful bullying and phone-tapping practices which occurred under his leadership but the media seems strangely reluctant to tell the story and, at the same time, ask whether he is a fit and proper person to be heading the Number Ten communications operation. It strikes me that Andy Coulson’s working practices are of direct relevance to his work on the government payroll, and that this is a story that needs to be told. Hague’s sleeping arrangements, on the other hand, would appear to bear no relation to policy decisions on Europe, the Middle East or the continuing involvement of British troops in Afghanistan.

While speculation about Hague’s future is fostered in certain quarters, Coulson continues to set the government’s news agenda, largely untouched by a seemingly passive media who don’t see any problem. The Hague and Coulson scenarios both have one thing in common – both men should be judged on their professional actions alone. Something tells me that’s probably too much to expect.