Friday, April 11, 2003

The Times on the local elections

Interesting article on the local elections, focusing mostly on the horse race aspect of the elections. Interestingly, the Tory bar is set very low, to my mind. For them to gain only 150-200 seats, after the months Labour's had, would represent flatlining in extremis. Even more interestingly, they clearly can't decide whether to keep talking the 30 gains number. In my view, they should do, as the lower the expectatins the better. Even the 200-300 number quoted by CCO is smaller than their gain of last year, when there were fewer seats up for election.

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Thursday, April 10, 2003

Paul Routledge gets it horribly wrong.. and yet right..

Paul Routledge, veteran left wing political correspondant, is renowned for his loathing of Tony Blair and Blairites in general and his near hero worship of Gordon Brown. Well, you can't deny a fellow his opinions. Sometimes though, his desire to advocate his champions cause slips over into fantasy. A case in point is his column in this weeks New Statesman (subscription required, so no link) when he reports a rumour about the next cabinet reshuffle, in which he predicts Blunkett to be demoted and Milburn to be sacked. To which your correspondants amused response is.. eh? Did charlie Whelan tell Paul his last fantasy? I;m willing to stake all I've got that this will not come to pass. It's so ludicrous, that one has to wonder why Routledge even bothers to write it down. I mean, it;s not as if he's taken seriously on this sort of thing any more.

However, he's right about one thing, when he says that David Miliband is a good long shot bet for next Labour leader. Miliband (who I have had the chance to hear speak a few times, as he is MP for South Shields) is a class act. Clearly bright, clearly an interesting, decent person, he seems to be likeable, human, friendly and very, very, able. The only question that could be asked about him is whether, in his mid-thirties, he has the toughness needed to elbow his way to the top. He's obviously no pushover, but I think he probably needs someone to be the hard man at his side.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I was in London today on business..

and happened to be walking past Westminster. Outside the Houses of Parliament are a permanent set of demonstrators against the war. I had spent part of the day, like everyone else, watching the scenes of jubilation in Baghdad. I couldn't help but be reminded about an old story about Lyndon Johnson. Every day after the eruption of violence in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, there was a picket outside the Whitehouse calling for civil rights in the South. Anyway, Lyndon Johnson left the Whitehouse in 1965 to deliver a speech. This speech. As far as I am concerned it is the most moving address ever by a US President. What he said was:

"But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation...

...but even if we pass this bill (The voting rights act which LBJ was submitting to congress) the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed--more than 100 years--since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than 100 years ago that Abraham Lincoln--a great President of another party--signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact."

The point of the story, and why I raise it now is that when LBJ returned to the Whitehouse that night, the protestors had simply lain down their placards and gone home.

I hope that soon those protestors outside Parliament will be able to lay down their placards and go home.

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Some thoughts on the local elections (cont.)

So now that we've discussed the background to these elections, let us consider the narratives the main players will attempt to impose on the election. I will also consider the narrative I suspect the media will pursue, as that meta-narrative is the one all the other players will try and influence.

Labour has both the hardest and easiest job. The easy part is that the narrative they won;t want to focus on is the one that is likely to play best for them. The last thing Labour want to go into these elections talking about is the war. As we all know, this issue has caused massive issues for the party internally, this divide cleaves the party right down to it's lowest level. At the same time, if things continue as they are today (and that is the biggest if possible), it would enable them to go into the election with a hugely enhanced reputation for foresight, vision et al. There will, quite understandably, be a sense of vindication at the parties highest level, and even some glances t the polls that say that over half the electorate supported the war once it started and a inquisitiveness about how to translate this vision and support into votes.

Electorally speaking, though, a free Iraq butters no parsnips, or more accurately, clears up no local rubbish. While there must be a temptation to try and turn the election into a post war referendum on Tony Blair (I can see the poster now. A gritty Blair, above the single word, LEADERSHIP, with a discreet Labour in the corner), this will not happen. Labour will have to focus on bread and butter issues for two reasons. First, they know that these are the issues that will decide the next General Election. George W. Bush isn't the only one to have learnt lessons from the fate of his father, you know. Second, The scottish and Welsh elections will not work on this level. There, Labour want to turn the debate away from the tricky world of international affairs to proving that they should be re-elected on the basis of their record and programme (this may not be entirely wise, but can you imagine telling the First Minister of Scotland, to ah, ignore Scottish issues?).

So Labour will try and talk about crimenschoolsnhospitals, and getting that onto the agenda will be hard indeed. I mean, Labour's message essential boils down to "things are going OK and they're going to get better". Well, I can see the red tops going wild over that. Still, it;s an effective ground war message, and if labour are smart enough to try and get it in the Manchester Evening News every day, and not in the Daily Mail, it might work.

The Tories, interestingly, have a very clear, simple local election message. They will go into the election saying two things. Your council tax is going through the roof and it's Labours fault, and crime is bad and that's Labours fault too. The first of these messages is stunningly intellectually dishonest, but since when did that make a political message ineffective?

What has happened is that the government has changed the basis for doleing out funds to local councils, and basically given a greater share to more deprived areas (read deprived=poor=Labour). Now, every council has had an increase well above inflation, but poorer councils have had a bigger increase. At the same time Labour has removed Council Tax capping, so councils can increase taxes by as much as they wish. Unsurprisingly then, Some Tory Councils have piled in, an under the claim that labour is taking sackvilles of cash out of Chipping Norton and handed out to the godless heathens of the far north, have piled on the Tax increases. This is, more or less the reverse of what Labour councils did in the Eighties, by the way. So perhaps there's some karmic thing going on here.

The second issue is standard issue election fare, but is particularly relevant. All polling suggests that Crime has ben climbing the issues ladder for some time, and is now at or near the top.

This message has the virtues of fitting in with peoples existing preconceptions (Labour raises taxes but not cutting crime round here) being simple (Taxes and crime are up because Labours sending money to the yahoo's) and actually you know, being about local issues.

As an aside, I think we need to make a correction on the often made remark "40% of people vote on local issues in local elections" what we should really say, is that "40% of people vote on local issues, but only because they think the local council has really f***d things up." When a local council is decent, they tend to vote on the national message. The other point I want to make while we're on asides, is that I suspect that one of the reasons crime is climbing the issues ladder is that health and education are no longer such huge messages. When a problem goes away (whether it be Labour disputes under Thatcher or Unemployment under Labour) people don't tend to say well, I really have to hand it to X, they said they would sort Y out and they did. Well done" Nope, they say "Well Look here, Z is a right mess. Why haven;t those buggersin government sorted it out?). I call it the Spin "voters are bastards" theory.

Now, the LIberals have an interesting dilemma, similar in kind to the Labour dilemma. They don;t want to mention the war, but it;s been the biggest driver of their poll success. However they have an easier solution, in that Ground war campaigning (or grass roots/pavement politics) is their metier, so they can always push back on that. Their overall message about Council Tax is almost laughably irrelevant (vote LibDem and we'll replace Council Tax with something we haven;t quite worked out yet.) But their real strength is in getting an incredibly localised message out. They will, if they are wise try to convert this into a momentum story, which will appeal to the horse race element of the Media pack. They'll have a good media election, I expect, though Kennedy may be forced to explain his war stance to some sceptical punters if all continues to go well. (As a final aside, there is a thesis to be written about the way that all the other parties, from Labour dnd the Tories to the BNP have stolen, I mean adapted the Libdem campaigning techniques for local elections)

The Media, will be on the look out for four stories. The first is Lbaour falling apart on the ground (the new Labour/Old Labour stroy redux, my friends. It'll never die). The second is will IDS begin to gain, and then jabbing pointy sticks at him when they decide he won't really (or if he does, saluting the tactical genius of focessing on Council tax). Third is the growth of the LibDems as a result of the war/disillusionment/campaigning on the ground. The Final Story is the the one NIck Barlow allude to in hic comments to my previous post. The rise of disillusion. This will, be primarily exposed to us all via the BNP, who will once again be given Media coverage far in excess to their importance, Turn-out will also factor and so will the fortunes of various independents, local parties and odd and sods. Actually, In Scotland this will really be a big story, as the Scottish Socialists and Greens could make big gains. But that's the next post.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Some thoughts on the local elections.

This is the first of a series of posts on this topic…. those with a low boredom threshold look away now.

We are less than 4 weeks away from the biggest elections outside a General election. Scotland and Wales are having general elections, and some 300 local councils are holding elections. Outside of London, this is the closest Britain ever gets to mid-terms.

Before we get to the analysis, let us look at the background.

First of all, the great imponderable- war. This time last, analysis would have focussed on whether a long battle for Iraq would damage Labour. Now, just as prematurely, one hears talk of whether there will be a “Baghdad Bounce” for Labour. All of this is ludicrous. However, there are a few conclusion can be drawn.

Second, The remarkable relative resilience of Labour’s rating. Whether one admires New labour or not, it is a pretty stunning feat that in 6 years of government, only the Fuel crisis broke Labours hold of the lead in polls. Even at the height of the anti-war mood, when Tony Blair was (wrongly) thought be under serious threat, Labour still held a narrow lead. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that these ratings will improve somewhat, now that the barrage of criticism will abate.

Third, this polling resilience might not translate into actual elections. This is for two “natural” reasons and one special reason. First, differential turnout. If Labour voters stay at home and Tories and Libdems vote, Labour could easily lose on the night in terms of National vote share. (Though the Scottish and Welsh elections will make this almost meaningless anyway). This happens to all governing parties to a greater or lesser extent (cf the 1999 Euro elections) unless other special circumstances overwhelm it *.

The second natural reason is that you have to look at the councils up for election. Broadly speaking this year is the year of the District council elections. District councils tend to more rural, wealthier and more conservative than any other form of council. So Labour will suffer on that count

The “special reason” is of course, the war. There can be no doubt that some Labour voters will stay at home or vote LibDem because of the war. The level of this vote will depend on what is happening in the war. At the moment, you have to dial down the impact, but this could change radically.

For the Conservatives, this should be the year when some significant gains are made. We are halfway through the Parliament, tax rises are kicking in, Council Tax bills are rising heavily and according to Iain Duncan Smith’s master plan, last year was when the base camp was secured. Add to this the fact that many of their marginal seats are electing councillors, and this is a big test.

However, despite everything, their polls are still flatlining- and talk of 30- or even the more recent 100-200 gains, is almost ludicrously low (there are, for perspective, some 10,000 seats up for grabs). The Tories have been pushing up their estimates in recent weeks, but still, I’d argue that since the Tories picked up 357 more councillors last year (when only just over 6000 were elected), they need to at least double that to even realistically claim they are moving forward.
For the LibDems, this is a huge opportunity. They will be expecting to pick up a lot of disillusioned Labour voters, especially in the white collar suburbs surrounding cities where council tax, NI increases and the war, give them a triple whammy of easy hits. However, if the war goes well, they may lose some of their more conservative support, and even lose ground in some areas to the Tories in the South. It will be an interesting night for the LibDems, as they will make gains, but will be almost as important for them to understand whether those gains are coming in the “right” places for Westminster.

For Labour, “Baghdad Bounce” notwithstanding these elections represent their probable low water mark, for all the reasons outlined. (As well as Scotland, as which more at a later date) However, there are some bright spots for the Party to look forward too. It is possible that Labour will gain ground in Wales- and even gain the two seats they need to gain an overall majority of the assembly. They will also hope to hold onto a number of Flagship councils, such as Birmingham.

So that’s the background. The next post will discuss the electoral narratives the Parties will be looking to project- and whether they will make any difference.

* Such as, for example, losing a General election a month before the locals as happened in 1992, when Labour got beaten, at least in some places, because it’s activists were too depressed to do any work!

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Monday, April 07, 2003

Galloway- Let's make him the British Trent Lott

Harry Hatchet has the goods on George Galloway. Let's be upfront about this. George Galloway is a Labour MP, I am a strong and vocal and committed supporter of the Labour party. However, I do not want a man like that in my party. His presence on our benches gives his posturing a spurious credibility that leads people to think he speaks for many in my Party. For example, in his web chat today he repeatedly refers to the "millions" he speaks for. really? do those decent people who went on the anti-War march want a man who consorts with dictators, condemns the "jingo press" while earning tousands from them and has shady business and charity dealings, as their spokesman?

Look, Don't take my word for it, This is Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, a Brigadier-General in Iraq's brutal security service, the Mukhabarat, talking about Galloway's trips to Iraq "'We had to show his trips had been successful,' al-Qurairy said. 'We mobilised all types of associations, including women's unions, students and trade unions, to go on the streets and greet him.'

Few of the hundreds of thousands made to turn out would have done so voluntarily, he said. 'The people are struggling to find the money for their dinner. The last thing on anyone's mind is to greet Galloway. His visits are like Saddam's birthday because everyone must come out.'

Asked what would have happened to those who defied the Mukhabarat's invitation, al-Qurairy said: 'Whoever it was would have to have a death-wish.' said that in Iraq, Galloway was seen as 'both a friend of Iraq and of the regime'. He said that, since the mid-Nineties, he had been asked to make security and other arrangements for Galloway's visits, and to have him treated in a style normally reserved for foreign heads of state."

Let me be clear. I want Galloway expelled. I don't care if we lose the new Glasgow Central constituency. I don't care if it causes us political difficulties in the short term (though, as I've said before I think tactically it is a smart move, anyway). There are some things which a political party should not tolerate, and pandering to dictators, calling our government something close to murderers and criminals, and pretending to oppose the Iraqi regime while calling for every measure that would uphold it's authority are three of them. In the 1950's Labour had many decent and honourable people who supported CND. We also ahd a few fellow travellers. We did ourselves great credit when we expelled the fellow travellers.

I don't want to let this go in another news cycle. I don't want him to get away with it. I think that in the long term there is a price to be paid for idiocy, fellow travelling and stupidity. I want George Galloway to pay it himself, not the rest of the party. A man who can say this: "I helped persuade the Iraqi regime to admit the UN arms inspectors, and I now regret doing so. Iraq was destroying its missile defences hours before Bush and Blair invaded. " Has no place in British politics. He is clearly saying he prefers Saddam's regime to the Democraticly elected leadership of his party.

Until recently, I thought, like many others, that galloway was a harmless fool. A primping preening politician. Norman Lamont's looks, Jonathan Aitken's morals and Sir Bufton Tufton's talent, but only a backbencher, so who cares (sorry Tom!). But these are serious times. Galloway and his ilk can use legitimate concern over dangerous and tough decisions to seriously damage politics in this country. He appears to believe that Britain is in the grip of fascist fellow travellers, who he has variously compared to wolves, hijackers, murderers and criminals. All the time he does this, he tolerates the funder of hifackers, the murder of civilians, the true fascists. If we allow this to stand, we cannot blame our voters for thinking he might be credible. If we do not expose him for a fraud and a charlatan we give him credibility. If we do not expel him, we tolerate him, both in fact and in perception.

I have heard rumours that the Labour party is unlikely to act unless forced. Thay are afraid of the control freak charge, they don't want to give him credit as a disident, they have concerns about th Scottish election, they have more important thinks to do. These are all legitimate reasons to have concerns about expelling Galloway, but I think those making that argument are wrong tactically and, loathe thugh I am to admit it is more important, wrong morally.

I do not want the party I love to tolerate this man.

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