John Major

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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The Winning Formula?

With the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race, the choice before party members suddenly appears to be a wider and more diverse one than before – the other declared names are David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. The fact that there is a contest at all makes this a more different scenario from the 2007 ‘shoo-in’ of Gordon Brown, and Abbott’s candidacy brings a welcome shot of diversity to the equation.

All credit to Labour for that but, realistically, the chances are that the next leader of their party is going to be called either ‘Ed’ or ‘Miliband’ or both, thus conforming to the current major party trend of electing a fresh-faced (perhaps not in Balls’ case) forty-something white male leader, with a full head of hair and an easy television manner. This is perhaps Tony Blair’s most lasting legacy to the political landscape of Britain.

When John Smith died so suddenly in 1994 politics was a very different place to the ‘New Politics’ of 2010. It was a post-Thatcher world where John Major had played the ‘safe pair of hands’ card and won the 1992 General Election in the process, Smith had used his substance and intellect to win the Labour leadership, and the fledgling Lib Dems were headed by the flamboyant Paddy Ashdown. 1994 changed everything. While most of the outside world assumed Gordon Brown would be next in line, Peter Mandelson and the New Labour Focus-Groupies had other ideas. Tony Blair won the – post-Granita – leadership election by a landslide (as a member of the party at that time, I must confess that I voted for him) and things were never the same again.

Blair was fresh-faced, energetic and non-threatening to Middle England. He looked like the sort of chap your average ‘soft Tory’ would be happy for their daughter to bring home. In policy terms, the programme was so light there was very little risk in ‘giving the guy a chance’, and the staged battle over Clause Four showed a man very much in charge of, what had previously seemed, an unleadable party. An historic landslide victory at the 1997 General Election confirmed the new leadership model as a winner.

There have been numerous exceptions to this trend of ‘natural’ selection, of course: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith & Michael Howard for the Tories, Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, and indeed, Gordon Brown for the Labour Party. Unfortunately the one common strand between these party leaders is that they were all deemed to be failures. Contrast their fortunes with those of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daddy of them all, Tony Blair, and it starts to look like there really is a winning formula for the selection of a leader: as long as the policies (where they exist) don’t frighten the horses, go for the young-looking guy with the nice suit.

I’m not saying that any of these men are idiots. To lead a major political party you need intelligence, determination and an extremely thick skin, and all the successful leaders have had these qualities in abundance. Indeed, I’ve often thought that history will be kinder to Tony Blair than any of his contemporaries were. I believe that, despite his many policy failures, he will come to be seen as the great politician of his era, a communicator without equal in the early part of the 21st century. I just think that there may well be women, ethnic minority politicians and people over 60 who have all of these qualities and more.

Will a woman lead a major political party again any time soon? Will the job fall to anyone over 60? Will the chances of any baldies (like me) be forever ruined by association with Hague, Duncan Smith and Kinnock? And what chance have we of following America’s inspirational presidential lead and electing a black Prime Minister? The ‘New Politics’ is all very well, but perhaps there are still a few things to be learned from the old.

GE 2010: Campaign Review

Now that the 2010 election campaign is finally, mercifully over, the short period between the close of polls and the arrival of the first few results is perhaps a good time to reflect on the last few weeks. (I may even find the time for a late hostage-to-fortune in the shape of a prediction of how the night may unfold.)

This is the fifth General Election at which I’ve been eligible to vote, and it is also by far the most interesting one I can recall in my lifetime. I remember well the euphoria of 1997, with the dramatic end of the Tories’ eighteen-year reign, the iconic “Portillo Moment”, Martin Bell quoting (as I remember it) G.K. Chesterton after he defeated Neil Hamilton, and mainland Britain’s three Celtic nations proudly declaring themselves Tory-free zones.  But what 1997 lacked was any sense of the unexpected happening. It was pretty clear from the outset that the electorate couldn’t wait to be rid of John Major’s hapless government, and the only unknown quantity was the size of Tony Blair’s majority (massive, as it turned out).

2010 has been different ever since the first Leaders’ Debate – pounding the streets and rural roads of North Cornwall it’s been noticeable that people seem much more engaged with the political process than has been the case in previous years. I think this is in large part due to these debates and it would seem that they have changed the way elections will be done from now onwards. I must admit to being sceptical about these set-pieces at the start of the campaign, but if they enthuse people (particularly younger voters) to get involved then they have to be a good thing.

Without a doubt, and regardless of the result, the story of the 2010 General Election has been the emergence of Nick Clegg. He was always going to be a beneficiary of the equal exposure of the Leaders’ Debates, but the manner in which he grasped the opportunity with both hands was extraordinary and led to extreme panic among the strategists of the “old parties”. He also finally managed to take ownership of a party whose main saleable asset had previously been Vince Cable. Over the series of debates he was the clear winner, and his emergence sparked an interest in this campaign the like of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. On the doorsteps it was noticeable that, through the debates and Clegg’s dominance of them, people were engaging in the democratic process where previously they might have opted out. Undoubtedly the star of the 2010 General Election.

It has been a campaign to forget for Gordon Brown, despite a brief glimmer of life on the last Monday of the campaign when he spoke with some of the passion I remember him having before power took its toll. Nevertheless his campaign will most probably be remembered for ‘Bigotgate’, 2010’s storm in a teacup which nevertheless sparked a media feeding frenzy and forced his return to Rochdale to apologise in person to the woman he had insulted. It didn’t do him any good as she ended up saying she wouldn’t vote.

It was also clear that the televised debates were not a happy forum for him. By the end of the sequence he had appeared to recognise that and started to use his lack of telegenicity (if there is such a word) as further proof of his standing as a man of substance rather than presentation. Even so, most observers would say that, throughout the debates, he was the poorest performer out of the three party leaders. As I write this I have no idea of the results, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Gordon Brown to be focussing on a well-earned retirement.

David Cameron was perhaps the enigma of the campaign. We were all led to believe that here was the Tory answer to Tony Blair, a grand communicator who would sweep his opponents aside once the campaign commenced. Instead the Conservative campaign slipped into lavishly-funded mediocrity. Considering he could once point to poll leads of 28%, the level to which the Tories nearly threw it away is astonishing. Their campaign has been at times tetchy and patronising with an unwelcome air of entitlement running through, and their allies in the print media have hardly shown off their more edifying side (the Tory-orchestrated attacks on Nick Clegg were nothing short of a disgrace). It nevertheless seems to have been just enough in the end to drag them to the line.

So now we must look to the next phase of our parliamentary process. I have long thought, given the particular set of circumstances, that the 2010 election would be a good one to lose, with the winners being punished for having to do the difficult things to stabilise the UK economy. The Liberal Democrats will have learned a great deal from this election, but so too will their opponents. Everyone will be ready for Nick Clegg next time. Even so, the Lib Dems will certainly be able to claim they won the campaign, even if they didn’t win the election. There are now great foundations to be built on.

Labour historians may well look back at the 2010 election and conclude that losing it was a far better outcome than winning it might have been – they have their chance for party renewal under the cover of opposition.

Equally there’s every chance that the Tories may look back and wish there had been a hung parliament.

[So that late hostage-to-fortune? I think David Cameron will be Prime Minister by lunchtime tomorrow, with our barmy voting system delivering him a small ‘working’ majority. Kill me in the Comments if I’m wrong (as I’d love to be).]

Are the pollsters getting it wrong – again?

I mentioned before that the 2010 General Election probably has more parallels with 1992 than 1997, and I’m particularly starting to form this impression with regard to the opinion polls. Those of us who are old enough will remember how John Major’s Tory government trailed in all but (I think) one of the surveys carried out during the 1992 campaign, yet spectacularly found themselves returned to power with a working majority once the real votes had been counted.

The polls at the moment seem just as erratic – one minute Labour activists are cock-a-hoop at polls which show the gap narrowing to four points, the next minute Tory smugness returns as another poll shows them twelve points ahead. There is no clear picture and it’s very hard to put your finger on a trend. Only one thing’s for sure – someone’s getting it all wrong.

The 1992 disaster (from the pollsters’ perspective) was put down to the phenomenon of “Shy Tories”. The theory went that, since the Conservatives had been in power for so long (thirteen years by then) and seemed so universally unpopular, it was embarrassing to admit to supporting them. Instead a significant number of respondents told pollsters they would vote for Neil Kinnock ahead of the hapless John Major. (Kinnock regrettably took the polls at face value and indulged in a fit of triumphalism at Labour’s pre-election rally in Sheffield – a sight still guaranteed to make Labour supporters wince.)

I suspect that the problem still exists (to be fair, who would want to admit to anyone that they think George Osborne might make a good Chancellor of the Exchequer?) but are there also a number of ‘shy’ Labour voters out there who choose not to admit their support for Gordon Brown?

And perhaps we should factor in a general cussedness among many when it comes to answering questions about their political views. I have previously lied blatantly to an opinion pollster (purely for sport, you understand) and I very much doubt that I’m alone in this. As people become more and more cynicised by the entire political process it’s surely no surprise that they don’t take ‘being polled’ particularly seriously. Add to that the residual effect of the expenses scandal and it begins to look like an election that will be volatile right up to the end. Such an election would be very difficult for anyone to predict.

It seems there is little to be gleaned from the endless avalanche of polls. Perhaps we could surmise that the Tories are ahead, but not by much; Labour look set to lose a number of seats; and the Liberal Democrats may yet have a say in what happens after the big day. The truth is no one knows exactly what will be the outcome on 6th May – the only thing we can be sure of is that we will get no concrete answers from the opinion polls.