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Miliband move means Milburn is out of it

by Paul Linford     July 31, 2008 at 12:49 pm

So where do the events of the last 24 hours leave us? David Miliband has set out his stall in what despite his protestations is a barely-concealed leadership bid.

Sam Coates and Francis Elliott on The Times reckon it will boil down to a contest between him and Harriet Harman, which, with due respect to Sam and Francis, is no contest.

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Home thoughts from abroad

by Paul Linford     April 30, 2008 at 9:18 am

I have been out of the country for much of this month visiting my sister in the States.  I purposefully didn’t blog during this time because I wanted to take some time for reflection on the current state of British politics. I have to confess to being somewhat depressed by this, and to be honest I have been for some time.

Like a lot of people of a naturally progressive bent, I did have very high hopes for the Gordon Brown administration, above all that he could impart some fresh moral purpose to Labour after more than a decade in power. Not only has he not done this, he has done the cause of the left terrible damage by appearing to surrender Labour’s hard-won reputation for competence.

I still believe Gordon to be a good and decent man. I will continue to vigorously oppose those in the blogosphere who seek to attack him on the grounds of his so-called “psychological flaws,” as if they themselves somehow have none.

But what I can no longer defend is the failure to set out some higher purpose for his administration other than simply remaining in power – a failure which risks handing the next election to David Cameron on a plate.

During my time away there has been mounting speculation about “civil war” breaking out inside the Labour Party if this Thursday’s local election results are as bad as currently expected.

In my view, the suggestion that Brown should make way for a new leader remains fanciful without a very much clearer idea of what alternative his critics intend to put in his place. Simply substituting him with Jack Straw or even David Miliband will have zero impact unless other things change too.

Nevertheless, it is already clear that a leadership challenge this summer would have a very much better chance of success than one last summer would have done.

Maybe, just maybe, that was the Blairites’ game plan all along….

* Crossposted from my own blog.

Boring…but not bad

by Paul Linford     March 12, 2008 at 5:12 pm

I had thought of doing a blog-boycott of this year’s Budget, so narcoleptic was the content, but on reflection…there are some positives to be taken from Mr Darling’s package from a progressive/green point of view.

As the driver of a Vauxhall Zafira who likes the odd drop of Scotch, I am probably going to be among the people worst hit by today’s announcements, but I’m entirely content that it should be so. The 55p a bottle increase in whisky duty will in act cost me the princely sum of around £3.20 a year, which seems a small price to pay to help curb the binge-drinking culture and do my bit towards lifting 250,000 children out of poverty.

And although I only drive a people carrier out of necessity in order for me to be able to take my growing family away for weekends along with all their assorted clobber, I think it’s only right that people like me should pay more to alleviate the effects of our environmental pollution.

That said, it was undoubtedly the most politically unexciting Budget since 1997, and some papers may well not even lead on it tomorrow. Maybe that’s the government’s intention though.

I liked James Forsyth’s take on it at Spectator Coffee House. “l suspect that the government will be quite pleased if this Budget is nothing more than a one day story…..Darling must be hoping that by hopping on the Mail’s ban the bag bandwagon, he has guaranteed himself favourable coverage in at least one paper.”

I have some sympathy for Mr Darling in that Gordon Brown really “stole” this Budget last year, by pre-announcing the 2p cut in income tax. That said, had Brown not announced this a year ago, it is a fairly moot point whether it would have happened at all, as it’s hardly now the time for big tax reductions amid all the “global financial turbulence.”

This not so charming man

by Paul Linford     January 23, 2008 at 6:09 pm

A couple of weeks back, the right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn made a vile attack on Gordon Brown in which he made reference to his “kiddie fiddler smile.” That estimable blogger Paul Burgin was one of those who were suitably outraged, expressing the view that Littlejohn should not be allowed to get away with such a “joke.”

I left the following comment on his blog:

“It’s not a joke, Paul, it’s a deadly serious attempt by the right to fix the idea of Gordon as a “weirdo” in the public mind. It’s not just the likes of Littlejohn who are doing it, you can see also see it happening on all the leading right-wing blogs.”

When I wrote this, I had in mind a particularly disgusting post on Guido in which a sock-puppet called “Stanislav” claimed the Prime Minister was suffering from chronic mental illness as a result of having repressed his homosexuality, and that marrying Sarah and having children as the prospect of No 10 drew closer had essentially been a front.

Of course, David Cameron would never utter such contemptible rubbish. But nevertheless, it’s clear from his interview with the new Times editor this morning, in which he describes Mr Brown as “that strange man in Downing Street,” that portraying his opponent as somehow not one of us is a key part of the Tory leader’s political strategy.

Mr Cameron clearly wants to portray himself as This Charming Man, and Brown as This Strange Man, but if the public has any sense it will backfire. What on earth gives Cameron the right to describe another man as “strange” and by what measure of “normality” does he seek to judge the Prime Minister?

We are all individuals, and the fact that, like Esau, Gordon Brown is not a “smooth” man does not necessarily make him a bad man. Increasingly, for the political and media class, it seems that the worst crime is to be different.
* Cross-posted on my own blog.

Sunny adds: I also love Anthony Barnett’s response to this.

The Diana non-story continues

by Paul Linford     January 17, 2008 at 11:36 pm

Like most rational human beings, I gave up on the Princess Diana “story” a long time ago. Although my very first reaction when I heard about her death was to assume that the secret services had bumped her off, the idea of the Duke of Edinburgh as some sort of murderous eminence grise is simply not credible.

So I reckon Roy Greenslade’s call for editors to stop reporting the increasingly tedious Diana Inquest is probably quite timely.

But it seems to me there is a slightly deeper issue here to do with the nature of modern journalism which I am surprised that Greenslade, as a media commentator, does not address more fully. It concerns what I would term “journalism without context.”
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Is it time for Hain to leave the stage?

by Paul Linford     January 11, 2008 at 6:12 pm

I have, in the past, been a great admirer of Peter Hain. Up to around about 2002/3 he was a strong progressive voice within government who was occasionally given licence to challenge the orthodoxy as when, for instance, he advocated a higher top rate of tax.

There is a plausible counterfactual argument for saying that, had he resigned with his old ally Robin Cook over the Iraq War in 2003, as his former admirers on the left would have expected him to, he could conceivably have mounted a successful challenge to Gordon Brown in 2007, standing as an experienced former minister on an anti-war ticket.

But it is clear that at some point around that time, Hain lost his balls. He failed to speak out against a war he must in his heart of hearts have opposed, and gradually, his left-field contributions to government policy-making dried up.

Never having been entirely trusted by the right and with his credibility on the left now badly compromised, it did not surprise me in the least that he performed so poorly in last year’s deputy leadership election, when he found his whole USP had been successfully purloined by Jon Cruddas.

For me, that is what is so tragi-comic about Hain’s current predicament – the fact that he spent £200,000 on a campaign which ended in near-humiliation for a man who once entertained serious aspirations to, if not the premiership, then certainly the Foreign Office.

Since then, he has gone on to win one small but important victory as Work and Pensions Secretary, overcoming Treasury objections to secure a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust or wound up their schemes.

But even had the row over his campaign donations not occurred, I think it likely that he would have left the Cabinet at the next reshuffle, and hence I cannot help but think his time at the top of British politics is now drawing naturally to a close.

Who knows – if it meant Gordon could bring in Alan Milburn as Work and Pensions Secretary and stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites, then this is one crisis that the government might even be able to turn to its advantage?

Sunny’s update: Anthony Barnett at OurKingdom also weighs in on Hain’s future.

Is “progressive” a word worth fighting for?

by Paul Linford     December 17, 2007 at 5:47 pm

David Cameron is nothing if not audacious. He is after all, the Conservative leader who set out to be the “heir to Blair,” who tried to steal the Lib Dems’ long-held mantle as the party of the environment, and who even attempted to convince us that the Tories are now the party that cares most about “society.”

So it should come as no great surprise that Mr Cameron, in his call for a Tory-Lib alliance to topple Gordon Brown, is now trying to purloin the label “progressive,” which has, in British politics at least, traditionally belonged to the centre-left.

I seem to recall there was some discussion about using the word “progressive” in the title of this blog, but the common consensus was that it’s a word that’s more readily abused even than “liberal.” If so, Mr Cameron’s initiative seems to show we probably made the right decision.

Dictionary definitions are no great help. Among those listed by the Free Dictionary are:

  • Moving forward; advancing.
  • Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
  • Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.

By this token, “progressive” is about as meaningful as that irritating and vacuous piece of management consultancy jargon that is now heard in offices up and down the land – “going forward.”

The dictionary also lists definition for “progressive” in the context of taxation, namely:

  • A tax that takes a larger percentage from the income of high-income people than it does from low-income people.

This is more helpful in terms of defining a centre-left agenda, but then again David Cameron probably claims he believes in this as well, in the sense that we already have a progressive taxation system, and he isn’t seeking to make it any less progressive.

Is progressive a word worth fighting over – or should its definition forthwith be restricted to a form of rock music involving long guitar solos, mellotrons and metaphysical imagery?

The real scandal of the New Labour years

by Paul Linford     December 13, 2007 at 6:54 pm

Harold Wilson once said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. Despite the focus of the last few weeks, I have long believed that the real scandal of the Blair-Brown years is not Sleaze, nor Iraq, nor even the fact that they managed to employ Alastair Campbell. It is the fact that a Labour Government – a Labour Government as Neil Kinnock would have put it – has managed to preside over an increase in inequality.

Today’s report by the Sutton Trust provides further hard evidence of this catastrophic policy failure for a party of the centre-left.

Of course it wasn’t Labour that started it. The decline in social mobility and emergence of a British underclass over the past 30 years is first and foremost the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. But the fact that the gap has continued to widen in the past ten years is proof, if ever it were needed, that the role of New Labour has essentially been to perpetuate the Thatcherite settlement rather than challenge or overturn it.

Some people will point to the demise of the Grammar Schools as a factor in preventing children moving out of deprived backgrounds. Others will blame house prices. Others will fatalistically conclude that the establishment always reasserts itself, and that the effortless superiority learned at public school will always be worth more in the job market than countless A-grades.

Either way, the political upside is that there is a challenge here for Gordon Brown which, if he can grasp it, might even yet give his government the moral purpose it currently lacks, and a way back from the political malaise in which it finds itself.

There is also, if his pride will permit, an old adversary who could help in that task – former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, who was warning about this as long ago as 2003.

Back then Milburn wrote: “Getting Britain socially moving demands a new front in the battle for equal life chances. The most substantial inequalities are not simply between income groups but between those who own shares, pensions and housing and those who rely solely on wages or benefits.”

It was designed as a possible prosepctus for the third term. Four years on, is it too much to be hoped that such ideas could yet form the basis of Labour’s programe for a fourth term in power?

Should liberal-lefties back Sir Ian Blair?

by Paul Linford     November 9, 2007 at 2:30 pm

As the row over the findings of the De Menezes inquiry rumble on, it is clear that most of the support for Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair remaining in his job is coming from the left. While the right and centre are at one in their calls for him to quit, the Labour establishment, from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to London Mayor Ken Livingstone, is adamant he should not.

Why is this? I am as convinced as I can be it is less down how they view the merits of the case and more down to tribal loyalties. Sir Ian is seen as “Labour’s man,” and more generally as a force for “modernisation” and “reform” in a force that, not so long ago, was found to be institutionally racist. Therefore he must not be allowed to be forced out by nasty reactionary elements.

Clearly Sir Ian himself seems to view things in this light. It’s almost as if he sees the case as less about whether anyone should be seen to take responsibility for the tragic death of an innocent man and the systemic failures in the Metropolitan Police which led to it, and more about a much bigger battle between the forces of conservatism and the forces of liberalism, a battle in which he sees himself as being on the side of the angels.

But in my view, both he and and his supporters are wrong. To base one’s view of this matter on the internal political ramifications for the Met, or even on the ramifications for policing in London, is to lose sight of a much more important issue of principle – the fact that restoring trust in public life requires that those at the top start taking responsiblity for their actions.

Sir Ian Blair’s removal – and in my view it’s a matter of when, not if – may well result in him being replaced by a more conservative figure – a “copper’s copper” as they are known in the shorthand. But if that helps restore a culture of accountability to our public life, it will ultimately be a larger victory for the liberal-left.

Does Gordon need a Big Vision?

by Paul Linford     November 7, 2007 at 9:42 am

I’ve already given my initial reaction to yesterday’s Queen’s Speech on my own blog, pointing out that while there are some very good things in the package from a progressive or liberal-left point of view, politically the whole thing suffers from the lack of a single “Big Idea” or connecting narrative which would enable Gordon Brown to regain the initiative he lost by not calling an election.

I’m not about to depart from that view. While ideas like giving all parents the right to request flexible working hours are extremely welcome, it is not the kind of thing that is going to stuff the Tories, particularly when they are claiming they thought of it first. By contrast scrapping ID cards, or announcing a Speaker’s Conference on proportional representation, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of this autumn’s non-election debacle, would have done.

However Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian has a slightly different take on it. While acknowledging that Brown effectively stitched himself up by promising to set out his “vision” when he made his election announcement, he argues that in fact it was the wrong word, and that what Brown can really offer the nation is a programme – “something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list.”

Is he right? Does Brown need a new over-arching vision or narrative to renew Labour in office, or is the country sick of all that kind of stuff after ten years of Blair? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question, but I think it will provide a good talking point for this blog!

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