Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Culture Wars… and the future of New Labour

(this piece was supposed to be about why Patricia Hewitt gets on my nerves. Instead it turned into a dissertation on the younger Labour MP's. Go figure)

One of the defining battles in the Conservative party over the last 40 years was the clash between the landed gentry, the middle class aspirants and in the Thatcher period, the working class Tories and traders. Picture the differences between Eden, Heath and Tebbitt and you have the political transformation of the post-war Tories in a nutshell.

Those divides were easy to spot, but the comparable analysis of the Labour cultural vanguard is less easily examined. Who are the younger generation of Labour MP's? What shaped them? What are their priorities? What do they represent?

At first glance, this is a very diverse group. There are young female MP's, young ethnic minority MP's, young MP's with strong regional ties. Yet this cohort of MP's is in one sense, almost entirely homogenous.

The common theme for most Labour politicians under 40 is that they have all been involved on politics since the age of 18. Claire Ward (Watford) was a member of Labour's national executive in her early twenties. Stephen Twigg (Enfield Southgate), Lorna Fitzsimmons (Rochdale), and Jim Murphy (Eastwood) were consecutive presidents of the NUS, at a time when Tom Watson (West Bromwich West) was heading up Labour's student wing. Even the exceptions prove the rule, David Miliband (South Shields) may not have been a figure in student politics, but he studied PPE, did a master's in political science and then worked for a left wing think-tank. Andy Burnham (Leigh) was Tessa Jowell's researcher. Sion Simon (Erdington) spent two years at Guinness after university before becoming… an MP's researcher. Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) left university to work at Labour HQ, before joining Downing Street. Chris Leslie (Shipley) was Gordon Brown's office administrator before 1997.

There aren't many exceptions to this mono-cultural grouping. Oona King (Bethnal green and Bow) was a trade union organiser, as was Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) and John Mann (Bassetlaw). David Lammy was a practising barrister for about a year (between Harvard and becoming a member of the London Assembly). However, being a trade union organiser in these terms is more like being a regional politician than a representative of the horny handed sons of toil. Tom Watson, for example, was Political officer of the AEEU, a role that was far more to do with ensuring AEEU candidates were selected to parliament than the minimum wage.

There are some important points to make here. The first should be obvious. The commitment of these people to politics from an early age should just as easily be held to their credit as against them. Many passed up far better paid jobs to work for peanuts as MP's researchers and the like. Don't condemn them for commitment to a cause they believe in.

Second, don't assume that this early political ambition means slavish, braindead loyalty to the PM today. Oona King and Jon Cruddas have both spoken out against the government and Dhanda voted against the war. Watson is known for his intense dislike of some of the slicker, metropolitan elements of New Labour. Miliband, though loyal, is an engaging and intellectually curious minister.

Finally, it's probably not too surprising that those who make it to parliament early are those that focus on politics early. Top young ad executives tend to join the business at 21. Why should we be surprised if the career structure for MP's is similar?

Yet there are important lessons here for politics watchers. This is a cohort of MP's shaped by battling trotskyites, supporting the Kinnock reforms and backing the Blair/Brown takeover of the party. They rose as the functionaries and menials of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson leadership team. They know each other, their leaders and to be frank, not too much else.

They are, on the whole, committed to the New Labour project and sharply aware that their own progress is dependent on its success. What if they should disagree with their leaders, or if New Labour should falter? Then they would face very tough times.

Some, like Cruddas and Watson, have other sources of support to draw on. Others, like King, might decide to give up on significant power and relish the backbenches. Others still, like Leslie, would seem to need other patrons to continue their ascent.

As New Labour enters tougher times, it will be extremely interesting to see how this young guard, who have prospered so mightily with new Labour, react to the prospect of suffering with it. It would be unfair to compare this group of able, committed, passionate politicians to rats. But if new Labour is in real trouble, they are the ones who might have to scurry quickly.

These are political professionals, committed to making Labour in Power work. They represent the careerisation of politics and as such they know that what really matters is power. They're not wrong and to critique them for this commitment to effectiveness is to miss the point. As long as they retain their focus they will be incredibly effective politicians. At the same time, will they be able when their time comes, to craft a political message that goes beyond the merely competent and efficient and enters the realms of inspiration and vision?

One thing is certain. If they can't, someone else will.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The pain of loss...

Today I read Paul Richards article for Progress on the impact of losses at the next general election on the internal political make up of the PLP. Some bloggers and guardian dirists may sneer at paul, but this piece is a more cogent explanation of why Labour strategists like Douglas Alexander are focussed on maintaining their majority and nervous of even small losses than anything I've read elsewhere.

Here's the crucial paragraph- Paul is discussing what happens if Labour loses 50 seats at the next election.

"What does such a swing (of 5%) do to the loyalist/rebel balance of forces inside the PLP? Twenty-one of the 50-odd losers would be MPs who are currently on the 'payroll vote': ministers, whips, or PPSs. These are solid Blair loyalists. A further eight are loyalist backbenchers, who backed the government on the crucial higher education vote.

So about 30 Blair loyalists would be polishing up their CVs on a five percent swing. There are only four members of the Socialist Campaign Group - the so-called 'hard left' (hardcore serial rebels) who would be joining them: Philip Sawford, John Cryer, Robert Marshall-Andrews and Ann Cryer. Inside the PLP, the swing is towards those willing to vote against the government and away from those who support it."

Which means government defeats.

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Monday, March 01, 2004

Why do the Tories hate America?

George Osborne is rather open about Tory MP's attitude to George Bush- a fact that perhaps some enterprising Democrats will find interesting:

" 'George Bush scares the hell out of me,' said one MP. 'Bush is a man who might wail at the Moon — I don't feel comfortable with him, unlike Kerry,' said another. 'I take exception to the way Bush trashed Kyoto' was what a Tory frontbencher told me. 'Personally, I would vote for Bush but I think Anglo-American relations would be better if Kerry won' was the assessment of another. "

Or how about this as grist for Labour's "Tories are opportunists" mill

"the great majority of Tory MPs ended up casting their vote for war; but like Senator Kerry too, they now want to get at the truth and (let’s be honest) try to exploit the uncomfortable position Tony Blair and George Bush find themselves in."

Especially interesting in view of Howard's half baked attempt to get the Tories off the Butler enquiry.

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Choppy waters.

To summarise: The government is being accused of spying on the UN , of forcing the attorney general to change his mind, It's MP's are variously drunkards, sex pests or possess an interesting new definition of climbing the greasy pole.

Thing's aren’t exactly going well are they?

But none of this really matters (although the Jane Griffith's allegations are titillating). The battle lines have been fixed and it would take something truly spectacular to change them.

So what's the likelihood of something spectacular? Some reporters are saying the Prime Minister may be a leak away from resignation, but that's a little like saying someone is a fatal car crash away from certain death. It's always true, but it doesn't give you much of a guide on how likely it is.

So let's look at this again: in order for the current wave of interest to be sustained we would have to discover the following; That the Attorney General originally did not see any legal justification for going to war and wrote this down; that the Prime Minister then forced him to change his mind (possibly beating up behind the bike-sheds) and that the Attorney General then came to cabinet to recant like a repentant member of the politburo during Stalin's terror.

Forgive me if I find this sequence rather far fetched. I've no doubt that Goldsmith received advice that going to war was illegal from somewhere in Government- after all the fact that a legal adviser resigned over the issue is pretty conclusive evidence. But he'd have to be pretty spectacularly dim to commit himself to a "no war without the UN" position in advance of the vote. There's no evidence he did so, and indeed, no reason for him to do so- As Marcus over at Harry's place points out his case holds up well. It's not as if it was a case being pulled out of thin air ., we'd used resolutions 677 and 678 to justify military action in Iraq without specific UN authorisation before.

So what next? My prediction is for a week of slowly dissipating frenzy, then a lull before Clare Short makes another allegation against the government.

SPINS BAR TALK: Someone comes up to you and tells you the war was an illegal disgrace and you are a moral fraud for supporting a war without UN support? Want to shut them up quickly whilst not leaving the moral high ground?

Simply use Bob's line " Vietnam invades Cambodia, Tanzania invades Uganda, and the coalition invades Iraq. All three were regime change, all three had no UN resolution, all three removed dictators, but only one is 'illegal'…"

"What actually is sad is that under international law you can kill as many people in your own country and nobody can remove you by force unless you attack another country"

You put them in a wonderful quandary. Either they admit that you can invade without UN approval in which case you get to talk about the morality of Saddam's Iraq, or they deny you can in which case they'd allow the Khmer Rouge and Idi Amin to remain in power.

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