Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ed's premiership quality performance!

Ed Miliband not only passed the third test he had to face since becoming leader, he did so with flying colours. He had David Cameron floundering around looking for answers to Ed Miliband's questions. Indeed, he was so bereft he decided his best tactic would be to ask his own, to which EM's reply was, "Naught out of two on straight answers," which is odd for the man who prided himself on being straight, and as was pointed out, was proud of his Cameron Direct meetings.

This came back to haunt Mr. Cameron when Ed Miliband, giving not only his quote that child benefit would be safe as a universal benefit under him, but the precise date and location, allowing no wriggle room. After Cameron's lacklustre reply, the leader of the opposition retorted, "I agree with the Prime Minister, why doesn't he?"

This was a startlingly good first PMQ's from Ed Miliband, and as many of us have said, it would be dangerous for Cameron to underestimate him. You don't win a long and arduous campaign to lead your party without something, whatever the inadequacies of the electoral college system.

No doubt next week will see Cameron up his game, and Ed will have to do his, as he won't have the open goal that child benefit affords him. But like a striker, you need to score all your open goals. Since Ed Miliband's promotion to the political premier league he has been impressing more and more people with his ability to rise to the challenges before him.

His leader's speech at the party conference raised some eyebrows, but set out he was a tough man, who wouldn't be held hostage to any faction. Although his appointments to the Shadow Cabinet have caused some surprises, he more than made up for that with second and third rank appointments, really bringing in the 'New Generation.' Then he follows it up with today's brillaint performance, which the vast majority, including leading Tory bloggers like Tim Montgomerie, see as a big win for Ed.

So, as we await the biggest test yet, the spending review a week taday, Ed is the one who has grabbed the headlines, or at least those not taken up by the Chilean mine rescue, and seized the initiative on the child benefit debate, Now he needs to hammer that home, be as ruthless with the government, as he was with his own brother.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Chilean Joy!

Like many people, I am watching the Chilean mine rescue on the BBC News channel. After a long period, the miners trapped since August will emerge one by one over the next couple of days. Their families have waited patiently, setting up a camp, and another one for the world's media.

This is a good news story to shine a little light in all the gloom the news is constantly filled with these days. A great feat of engineering, and of human will. The Chilean authorities have played this brilliantly, and the President Sebastien Pinera has played a blinder, having visited the site three times before they realised the miners were alive.

The foreman Luis Urzua will emerge as the hero, holding it all together, and will deserve all the plaudits coming to him. Some might say he's just doing his job, but when the supreme test came, he was more than equipped for the task.

The inquiries will look into whether it could have been avoided, but for now let's celevrate with the Chilean people a magnificent feat of engineering and endurance.

AV confusion!

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill committee starts today in the House of Commons. The first day's debate is centered on the date is set as the 5th May 2011, the same day as local elections in England, and Assembly elections in Scotland and Wales. There are many arguments over whether holding these on the same dates will create confusion and mean that either the Assembly elections are minimised by the publicity, or vice versa.

There are also counter arguments which are that not only will it save a lot of money by holding the referendum on the same day, it will increase turn out for local and Assembly elections. Which of these is true is impossible to tell until, or unless, the referendum is held. The Electoral Commission has asked for the question to be altered to make it clearer, for those not as well versed in politics.

However, it is not these arguments I intend to address here, but to clear up some confusion. There are a lot of people, who seem unable to understand that the referendum, although included with the proposals to change constituency boundaries, they are separate issues.

The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has committed himself to campaigning for the alternative vote in the referendum. However, they will possibly, still vote against the bill. This is because we do not support the way the coalition seeks to go about the process of boundary changes. They intend to impose a shortened period, which means that local people will have no say in the changes, and they will ignore historic and geographical boundaries. This process is designed purely and simply to ensure it is as difficult as possible for any party other than the Conservatives to be the biggest party.

In the end, if the Liberal Democrats support the bill it will pass, which will mean that the boundary changes will go ahead. This will not be affected by whether people support changing the electoral system or not.

The confusion seems to be, that people think that by voting no in the referendum they will stop the boundary review. This will not be the case, when the bill passes, that will be a fait accompli, so AV supporters who vote against thinking they can stop this, will be, to use a well worn cliche, 'cutting off their noses to spite their faces.'

If you wish to vote no in the referendum, because you either wish to keep the first past the post system, or like Douglas Carswell, believe in a more proportional system, but aren't convinced that AV is a step on the road, then that is your prerogative, and both are perfectly legitimate.

So the important thing is education, and this is, to my mind, the strongest argument against holding the referendum on the same day as the various elections. Both sides will want to be able to put their case as clearly as possible, and both could well lose if the arguments cannot be clearly made.

The Yes camp because they will want to explain clearly the reasons why they think a change is important, if only on the path to a more proportional system. But the NO camp will also want the opportunity to explain their reasoning. The public mood seems to be for change, even if they aren't always clear what that means, and may be tempted to vote for a new system, because they hope it will lead to changes in politics.

Education is therefore the key, and one of the reasons why I support the teaching of politics at secondary schools. The political process is a complicated one, but the better the voting public understand it, the better the judgements will be as they will be able to understand the arguments.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The New Generation's first steps!

The Condem's have tried to make much of Ed Miliband's 'New generation' saying that the Shadow Cabinet was a collection of just the same old faces. But the senior positions were always going to go to previously serving cabinet ministers. However, only ten previous cabinet ministers, including the leader and deputy, have now been given shadow cabinet jobs, but Ed Miliband has been fairly imaginative in how he's distributed the jobs.

I still have doubts about Alan Johnson's appointment as Chancellor, but Yvette Cooper's and Ed Balls' promotions are well deserved. The previous Secretaries of State have all been given jobs they haven't had before, but will be bringing a wealth of experience to their new briefs. What is refreshing, however, is that a number of the top jobs have gone to new entrants. John Healey at Health, Angela Eagle as Chief Secretary and Caroline Flint at Communities. The temptation must have been to give all these to tried and trusted former cabinet ministers, but all these showed talent at ministerial level, and deserve their chance.

It is in the second tier that Ed Miliband has really struck a chord, bringing seven of the new intake into leading roles, shadowing departments. So the government ministers will have to make up their minds which attack they want, do they say that our front bench lacks experience, or that it is the same old faces? They can't have it both ways!

Following her spirited performance during the leadership campaign it is good to see Diane Abbott follow through and accept a number two role at Health. This will give her a real opportunity, and indicate Ed is selecting from across the spectrum of the Labour PLP.

There are a number of other MPs who have been members for a few years, but have been unable to advance, and a number, such as Stephen Twigg, who were ministers when previously members of parlaiment.

In total 22 members elected in 2010 have been appointed to prominent positions, as either minsterial shadows, or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. These work closely with a Shadow Cabinet appointee, and is often the first step on the parliamentary ladder. I am pleased to see Chumma Umanna given a role working directly for the leader, and Gavin Shukar, MP for Luton South as PPS to Sadiq Khan.

So, the new leader has carried through on his promise to create a 'New Generation,' which compares so well to the already tired looking coalition front bench. David Cameron made great play of appointing those who had shadowed to their cabinet positions, but it has backfired. The freshness you'd expect from a new government doesn't exist, and the Liberal Democrats are struggling more and more to justify policies they worked to defeat in May, and they will look even more so compared a new and enthused Labour Party.

When Ed Miliband first announced his Shadow Cabinet, I gave it a C, I now feel I can confidently upgrade that to a B. he has injected new life into the lower ranks, and expect a revitalised PLP.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The cabinet of Dr. Miliband!

I am still stunned from the announcement that Alan Johnson is to be Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. The only reason I can see for this is as a sop to the David Miliband supporters. The rumours were that Ed had offered David the Shadow Chancellor's position if he wanted it. Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls were considered to be vying for this job, and seemed untouchable. Both have solid economic backgrounds, and have impressed recently in this area.

Yet, Ed Miliband seems to have fluffed it. I hate having to say this, but it can only be a political appointment. I know Osborne isn't very impressive, but I can see champagne corks being popped in No.11 on hearing this news. With the greatest respect to Alan Johnson who in the main has been effective in his previous cabinet positions, he's not an economist. Being a 'safe pair of hands' is not a sufficient criterion for selecting your Chancellor when you have such an abundance of talent available it seems, frankly, stupid to not make use of it. On an economic front, Alan Johnson's best card was probably his view on the deficit. He has stated time and again that he supported the Alistair Darling plan, and as time goes on that plan is looking more and more sensible.

Other than that the only reasons I can see for doing it is as a sop to the David Miliband supporters, ten of whom got elected to the cabinet, but with the top four positions going to supporters of other candidates, Cooper, Healey and Balls, who supported Ed Balls, and Andy Burnham, he must have felt a David supporter should be in one of the big positions, and Johnson was the most substantial David Miliband supporter elected.

It does, however, mean that two big hitting former Cabinet ministers, are free to take on two of the best and most effective government ministers. Whether you agree with the reforms or not, Theresa May has so far been a pretty safe pair of hands at the Home Office, and Ed Balls is just the man to take her on over the reforms to the police that she envisages. I can imagine looking forward to Home Office questions, as two big beasts go toe to toe.

William Hague should be Prime Minister, if you have to have a Tory led government, then you want the best available. Unlike Conservatives, who seem unable to appreciate the abilities of others, something which will lead to them looking daft time and time again, I can recognise that Hague is supremely gifted, and has hitherto been a very good Foreign Secretary.

Yvette Cooper (my original pick for leader) is in the same position of being supremely gifted. It is disappointing that she will not be Chancellor, but this will give her a real opportunity to gain an international reputation, and to be honest, I don't see her and Hague disagreeing fundamentally on foreign policy. This will raise Yvette Cooper's profile considerably in the public eye, as the superb job she did at Work and pensions, in government and opposition, has been largely confined to the political spectrum.

When it comes to the lesser positions, Harriet Harman has been ill-served with International Development, as although an important portfolio, her performance as acting leader earned her a much higher profile position. Andy Burnham's moving to education is interesting, as health and education are both areas of high priority for the coalition to ruin...sorry reform. Perhaps it will come out over the next few days, but it is possible Andy Burnham was asked if he wanted to stay, or move to education, and wished to prove himself in a different portfolio.

On all the other appointments, we will just have to wait and see how they perform. Caroline Flint will want to do well at Communities, in order to prove she's not just 'window dressing,' and being up against Eric the red will give her ample opportunity. John Denham is very experienced, and will be a good foil for Cable at Business, whilst John Healey who rather surprisingly came second in the poll, has been thrown in at the deep end at health. Mind you, probably the most sensible decision was to tuck Liam Byrne away in the cabinet office, as his note on leaving office, a very bad joke, will follow him for some time.

So overall, has Ed Miliband passed his second test, taking into account the hand that was given him? A C is the best I can manage at the moment, with a re-mark up or down as an option depending on how he, and his appointees perform. It is very early days, and reasons will become clearer over the next few days, but I think the government will be a bit puzzled, but not exactly quaking in theri boots at the moment, and that Hague and May, will be looking forward to being severely tested.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cameron's Plea to the faithful!

Speeches come in many guises. Some are aimed at the watching public, as was Ed Miliband's at the Labour conference. he needed to reassure the public that he was someone who could be a creidible leader of the opposition, lay some ghosts, and dispel some rumours.

David Cameron, like Nick Clegg a coupe of weeks ago, was speaking to the party faithful. They both felt the need to justify the decision they had taken, and Cameron today, spent the first section of his speech, attempting to do just that. But it came across as more of a plea, as though he had to ask for more time, in order to get things right.

There have been a lot of problems over the last few weeks, indeed over the first months of the coalition. It started with BSF, and ended with the rows over defence spending, and child benefit cuts. Yet no mention was made of this whatsoever, although you wouldn't expect him to normally, but with the row over child benefit that has erupted, you'd expect him to at least repeat his apology, stating it wasn't in the manifesto. It was also interesting that he brushed over the marriage tax break, yet another policy that many of the Tory faithful are unhappy with.

Before the election many leading Tories, such as Osborne and Philip Hammond (who lost out as Chief Secretary to whichever Lib Dem wasn't caught cheating on expenses), were saying that things like child benefit, winter fuel payments and free TV licences were safe, because they were so valued by many. Yet today Mr. Cameron said, 'A system that taxes people at high rates only to give it back in child benefit is very difficult to justify at a time like this.' He might have been able to get away with this, if it wasn't for the noises he made about balancing it with extending the marriage tax break to higher earners.

So, just moving the money around, to play to the Tory crowd. As Nick Robinson said on today's Daily Politics, Cameron wobbled. When the pressure was on, instead of standing up for it, he tried to get out of it.

Then there was the 'Big Society,' this idea is little understood because it hasn't been clearly defined, and he needs to persuade the faithful that it is the big thing for this parliament. This is the transforming policy, that will stamp the Tories term in office in the early 21st century

Which is why this speech was for internal consumption, he had to justify to his members going into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something which many of them are unhappy about in reality. He needs them stomping the streets of Britain next May, trying to get Tory councillors elected. But, if they introduce too much that even Tories can't accept, they might well do so, but not with enthusiasm.

This is why he particularly mentioned the AV referendum. Conservatives are naturally against this, and it plays into their reactionary instincts. It is too progressive for their taste. He used it to raise the nearest he managed to a rallying cry, as he implored them to go out and fight against change (I seem to remember he talked a lot about that in the election), keep things the same, don't risk trusting the electorate to decide who they want to work together.

In order to continue playing to the crowd there was absolutely no mention of the much vaunted green agenda, because although Cameron himself has accepted much of the argument, there are a large number of Conservative members who are sceptics, and he didn't want to have more negative mumblings.

David Cameron did not make the great speech he would have liked, he wasn't able to be triumphant. It was a safety first speech, attack Labour, play to the gallery, lots of empty rhetoric about individuals, and aspiration, without any explanation of how this would come about. Where was the growth? Where was the vision for the future? Where was the carrot, to balance the stick? Matthew Parris said that Ed Miliband had grabbed the optimist agenda, and Cameron has given that up with a whimper.

The man who goes under the title of Prime Minister is already on the defensive. He has nothing to offer accept tears and blood, it is austerity without affirmation, pain without progress and coalition without cause.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Benefit Fraud!

Chancellor George Osborne must have one of the most original views of fairness I have ever come across. Today he has announced major changes to child benefit, that seem set to penalise a large proportion of families in this country, especially those who would consider themselves middle class citizens.

His first decision is to remove entitlement at the level at which people start to pay the higher rate of tax, which after allowances works out at around £44,000 a year. At first glance this sounds fine, you are talking about a weekly amount of £846, and even after tax, you would still be left with a healthy salary.

Yet, whilst allowing that there are always winners and losers on the margins when benefits are not universal, this means a lot of people both above and below the threshold will lose out.

This is because the change is being brought in in an absolutist way. So if you have one earner only on £44,001 a year, you will lose, whereas two on £43,999 will still get their child benefit. Okay, this is at the extreme end, but a family with a total income of £60,000 would still get the allowance.

Indeed, the Think Tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which was established by Iain Duncan Smith, has asked Osborne to rethink the proposal, and saying that alternatives should be explored more thoroughly first. I wonder if this is IDS using a sideways method, to say he's not overly happy, without directly challenging the treasury?

There is also another aspect, which many people perhaps won't have thought of.The benefits agency will have access to everybody's records, whether working or not, which would mean that records would be more accessible to people, who aren't entitled to see them.

The second element, which will cause even more controversy, is to cap the amount of benefits a single family can claim. This is to be set at the supposedly average income of £26,000 (and it sounds to me to contradict the first element on here. After all, how can you set a cap, whilst allowing those below £44,000 to claim child benefit?).

£26,000 is not a lot of money, and a lot of people earn much less. It is not the real average in Britain, it might be in the south and south-east, but in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Corwall and many parts of the north, they would love to earn £26,000 a year.

The cap would also include befnefits such as carer's allowance and industrial injuries disablement benefit. So in effect, people in this position would be being penalised, as they would lose things like housing and council tax benefit.

This is the big problem with this cap! By restricting it to a certain amount, it means that people will have to start paying housing and council tax, out of the cash allowance they get. With the VAT increase, and inflation, as well as any increases being fixed against CPI, which is expected to fall, as opposed to RPI, many will find themselves in poverty.

The governemtn say they are trying to make it so that no one has a better standard of living on benefits, than in work. But they are aiming for the lowest common denominator, and it is those at the bottom once again who will suffer the most. In the next year or so, a lot of people are going to lose jobs, and unless new ones are created quickly for people to fill, then a lot of families will be in dire positions.

No one is asying reform of the system is not needed, but these changes are ill thought out, and if you are going to means test, then it is best to do it properly. As it seems here, they will means test child benefit, but not whether the cap comes too low for some people. These proposals fail the fairness task massively, and the government urgently needs to rethink.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tory triumph postponed!

The Conservative party conference starting tomorrow, will probably be the biggest test of David Cameron's premiership to date. You might wonder why that should be? After all, he is the leader of the country, and his party is in government for the first time since 1997. Indeed, the conference should be a celebration, and the atmosphere should be triumphant.

The Conservatives did not win the large majority many in the party expected. They failed to gain one at all, and the arithmetic forced them into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something that has upset many Tories, and Lib Dems. Which is exactly why it will be hard! The delegates may well be in a party mood, but the leadership will be well aware of the difficulties laying in store. The government is not a Tory one, or not a completely Tory one anyway. It is a coalition, and coalitions, no matter how tightly crafted they may seem, have inherent dangers.

Liberal Democrats who see no hope of front bench positions at any stage are speaking out against coalition policy. Even members inside the cabinet have made noises which counter official policy, particularly Vince Cable on immigration.

Liberal Democrat unhappiness to a certain extent could be expected, they ran on different manifestos during the election, and the Lib Dems, made a centre of their campaign a warning that a Tory government would raise VAT. So concerned indeed were they, that many, including Nick Clegg, were inviting people to vote Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out.

But there is another danger lurking and that is Tory backbenchers, especially those who thought they might be in line for government jobs, suddenly finding them going to Liberal Democrats. There is also another breed of backbencher, those who would rather a Tory minority, or even another election to try and obtain a majority. I spoke to Conservative councillors in May, who would rather the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Labour, than give anything on electoral reform.

It is this issue that could cause Cameron his biggest headache of the week. It is strange really, when there are arguments going on between the treasury and departments over budgets, including a big one brewing with Defence Secretary Liam Fox, which I blogged on yesterday

There are also suspicions that Fox may kick up a fuss, though if rumours are correct, Iain Duncan Smith appears to have won his battle for funding in Work and pensions. But this is part of the reason why the Conservatives cannot afford to be triumphant, and Cameron knows this.

Electoral reform seems such a minor issue compared to things like cuts in welfare, police, education, health etc, yet it is something that really exorcises the grassroots. So, if the subject is brought up, than expect almost no support whatsoever, not even for Cameron's line of voting for the referendum in parliament, then campaigning against it in the country. This becomes even more important now that the new Labour leader Ed Miliband has confirmed that if it goes ahead, he officially be campaigning in favour of AV, along with the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, as with Europe in the past, the leadership may seek to sideline the debate in conference, so as to try and present a united front to the public.

I do not intend here to debate the justification for the depth of the cuts, but what Cameron does know, is that there will be a great deal of unhappiness in the country over what will happen. He will be looking to tell his party to stay strong in the face of what is to come, because, he believes, it will pay off in the long run.

As David Cameron faces this three pronged attack; unhappy Tory ministers, backbenchers and members, Liberal Democrat MPs, cabinet members and members, and the general public who face losing jobs and services, he will have to not only be realistic about the challenges, he says, they face, but also to get his delegates to realise that now is not the time for triumphalism, that will have to wait. They will need to see if the coalition lasts the full term, if the policies they've implemented have been successful, and they win the next election. Then they can celebrate!

Friday, 1 October 2010

Fox hot to trot?

All governments have internal rows, which is a normal part of the process. There are always conflicting interests, financial, personal or political. Therefore, the disagreements that have arisen between Ian Duncan Smith at Work and pensions, or Vince Cable at Business, are part of the regular to and fro you'd expect between departments and the treasury.

However, the dispute that has arisen between Liam Fox at defence and David Cameron, seems to have elements of all three. There are two elements to the financial aspects, firstly the decision by the treasury that the funding for trident should come out of the defence budget, whilst Fox feels it should come out of central funds, which is the normal procedure in these cases.

The second is found in the letter leaked earlier this week and published in the Telegraph. Fox states;

"Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war."

Now it is possible to see absolutely nothing sinister in this letter, as it comes over as a senior cabinet minister defending his department against proposed cuts.
However, when linked to the political and personal aspects, a larger picture emerges.

He is placed very much on the right of the Conservative Party, with an attitude that makes fewer concessions to modern society that David Cameron is prepared to. Indeed, it is amusing reading this article from 2005, that Cameron does not feature at all

Liam Fox has since then been antagonistic to Cameron, who emerged from nowhere to snatch the leadership in 2005. He felt that he was amongst the big three, along with David Davis and Ken Clarke, one of whom the crown would fall on. But he was forced aside and has felt more and more sidelined ever since. There were rumours that he might not even become Defence Secretary following the formation of the coalition, and so he may always feel he is on borrowed time. he may think David Cameron is just waiting for a decent interval before demoting him, or moving him out of the cabinet altogether.

So we have there a combination of the political and the personal which cannot be separated. It seems unlikely to me, however, that Cameron would sack Fox as he would be both a martyr for the right, and it would not look good to sack ministers defending their departments against cuts.

It could all erupt at next week's Tory party Conference in Birmingham, and if Fox feels he has nothing to lose, he may well use it to not only speak up for his department, but to launch a coded attack on the way he feels that Cameron has taken the party.

As the negotiations were underway, Fox, who wasn't a member of the team, was taking a much less conciliatory line, on electoral reform especially, and may well feel that the Tories have given too much to the Liberal Democrats, with Trident being a key issue;

The way the funding has been changed, is a way of delaying the system, without saying do expressly, and therefore lessening chances of arguments with the Lib Dems over the issue.

So, if Fox believes he has the support of many of the grassroots, who are unhappy about the concessions made in the coalition agreement, could this be the start of a fightback by the right of the party, and he sees himself as the man to lead it?

This though would almost certainly be a mistake, because whatever the form, David Cameron has returned the Conservatives to government, and they are the senior partner. To risk that for purely personal reasons would show that any doubts Cameron has about Fox are confirmed, and he would show himself up, as he has in the past, to suffer severely from lack of judgement.

Now a dance is now underway, and will be more interesting than anything on Strictly Come Dancing which returns this weekend. Perhaps, if he is forced to resign, Dr Fox will be a competitor, and we can see if his actual foxtrot, is better than his political one.

Ed on the BBC strike!

Ed Miliband has today urged BBC staff planning strikes, not to do so during the Conservative Party conference, especially over the day when David Cameron will make his speech.

He is right to do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is right that the BBC's reputation for impartiality be maintained, as this would be seen as a blatantly political motivation. There are elements in the coalition who think the licence fee should be abolished, and politically motivated actions by staff, even if only the perception if not the realituy, will add grist to the mill.

Secondly, Ed Miliband is new to the job as Labour leader, and needs to make an impact quickly. By speaking out in favour of fairness, and also being seen to criticise the timing of a union's proposed actions, it might help promote a positive image in the public mind.