Tony Blair

Be afraid…

In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.

In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.

I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.

I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.

 

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.

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 BBC, Murdoch and the Tories

Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.

Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:

“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.

“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”

There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.

Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.

The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.

All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.

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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).]