A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Martin Kettle does his bit for Labour (not)

Usually Martin Kettle is one of the few relatively sensible voices at the Guardian.

This week, after the extraordinary but in-character personal treachery of Polly Toynbee attacking Brown, the man she has been ramping for PM for years, we have Mr Kettle just being really very, very unhelpful to the Labour Party.

He makes some fair points about the current polls but doesn't offer a solution.

This is rather like the stance being taken by Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn. Undermine Brown but to what purpose?

There is only any point the ultra Blairites (as opposed to common or garden or lesser spotted Blairites - the about 90% of us who are determined to be as loyal to the next PM as we have been to this one) or commentators like Kettle continuing to talk down Brown's prospects of reviving Labour in the polls if they are going to run a credible candidate against him - not just as a spoiler to take the shine off his win, but to actually win.

But that candidature doesn't exist.

It ain't Alan Milburn who would struggle to get nominated. It ain't John Hutton who the public are largely unaware of. It ain't Clarke whose opposition to Trident replacement makes him completely unfit to hold any foreign policy-orientated high office again. It ain't David Miliband who is too young and untested and says he doesn't want the job. It ain't Alan Johnson, who is a great asset to the Party but whose speech at party conference was not that of a future PM.

There was a brief window immediately after last year's Labour Conference when a credible challenge by John Reid, the only person in the Cabinet who can match Brown in gravitas and experience, and the only one with the political courage to run, looked possible. But unless I have totally misread the situation, Reid has made his peace with Brown and has no intention to run - he certainly wouldn't want to run to please Clarke, as the two appear to have utter contempt for each other.

So without a mainstream non-Brown candidate, talking down Brown just damages the next Labour PM and damages Labour.

Whether it is politicians or Labour-supporting commentators doing it they need to put a sock in it because otherwise their gloom-mongering will become a sell-fulfilling prophesy.

The truth is:
- we don't actually know how the public will react to Brown as PM, but chances are the polls can only go up because we are already bumping along at the lowest base of Labour support
- the current malaise in the polls isn't about Iraq - we already fought a General Election and won it when Iraq was a far more resonant issue for the public
- the fundamentals of the economy and public services remain good - we deserve to get re-elected
- Cameron has put the Tories ahead but not that far ahead - he is a good performer but he isn't Blair or JFK - he's an Old Etonian posh boy with some good basic PR training, a nice manner, and no discernable political philosophy
- we don't know what policy initiatives Brown has up his sleeve - and they may be the kind of defining popular policies (like the Minimum Wage in the first term) that will unite the party and inspire the electorate - certainly I don't expect him to focus as obsessively as Blair on the distraction of "public service reform", which has failed to catch the imagination of either the party or voters
- it's the mid-term - of course we are behind in the polls - the anomaly was that we weren't 10% behind in 1999 and 2003 - in government you do the difficult stuff at this stage in the cycle, then it plays electoral dividends come the General Election
- we know how to win elections, we just won three, one only 2 years ago, so why the doom and gloom?
- the fundamental rules of British electoral behaviour have not changed - people still want a competent government that is broadly moderate socialist/social democratic and caring domestically but looks after their security with regard to crime, immigration and defence and doesn't tax them excessively

Labour's task is to push as hard as it can without alienating people on the domestic social democratic agenda of strong public services and redistribution and equality, without driving people into the arms of the Tories by advocating deal-breakers on crime, tax or defence.

I think Brown understands that - that there is some room for manoeuvre to the left on domestic policy (but in a modern way, not reheating the ideas of 20 years ago) as long as people are reassured on the crime/tax/defence triangle.

Instead of undermining Brown without putting forward an alternative candidate or alternative policies Kettle and commentators and politicians indulging in this game should accept that he's going to be the next PM and start generating popular policy ideas that his team can pick up and run with over the next two years.

It isn't by backing Brown as its next Leader that Labour, is as Kettle puts it, "is beginning to look like it actually wants to lose". The exhibition of "beginning to look like it actually wants to lose" is by Labour-supporting commentators like Kettle and some politicians of the Clarke/Milburn variety who are talking down Brown before he has even got to No10 - how can we expect the public to come back to Labour if we don't all, and I mean all - every Party member - actually sell the Government's successes and potential successes ourselves?


Anonymous Andrea said...

The Guardian seems to have taken an anti-GB line recently.
When DC will be in Downing Street, they'll probably cry wolf tears...whilst drinking champagne in Hamsptead (since in the end they won't be the ones hurted by a Con government)

4:46 pm, March 24, 2007

Anonymous Andrea said...

"they'll probably cry wolf tears"

ops, I meant crocodile tears...wrong animal....

5:33 pm, March 24, 2007

Anonymous Adam Gray said...

Luke, I've been having this argument with a mutual friend of ours today.

The problem with your argument is that it's circular: don't criticise Brown because there's no alternative - but no alternative will pluck up the courage to face up to 'Bully Brown' if this charade of unity is maintained.

In a week when Brown has been attacked - fairly or not - for Stalinism, you're guilty of a similar trait: demanding absolute devotion to a flawed candidate at just the time when it is right to be discussing his suitability to lead our country (not just the Labour Party, remember): election time.

It is legitimate - and I'd actually say a duty - to have an upfront, honest debate about this person. The reason why the comments focus relentlessly on Brown's shortcomings, and not on a positive platform for our country's future (aside from the fact he doesn't seem to feel the need to tell us about it) is because there isn't a candidate, not because there isn't a suitable candidate. The answer is not to cut off the debate - it's to push a strong candidate into running: something that actually helps Labour and Brown because until resolved, done right the news media will be full of Labour ideas rather than Tory gimmicks.

All Martin Kettle, myself and others can be accused of is pointing out the blindingly obvious: that the emperor has no clothes, and doesn't look good without them.

If you think that's disloyal, then with all due respect, you have a warped view of loyalty. I suggest views like that are actually part of the problem - because it stems from defeatism: you believe Labour can't win whoever is in charge - so lets shut up and minimise the loss.

Sorry, but that's a lamentable view: Labour can win - but not with Brown for a whole array of reasons.

You then (reasonably) come back with "what's the alternative" - for me it is David Miliband. You say "but he won't stand" and we're back in the circular argument you've set; he won't stand if he can't see that Brown's beatable - he won't see that he's beatable until more in the party stand up and say "yes he is".

Wanting a real choice in an election isn't a betrayal - and the only reason those of us on the margins are having to make the argument is because the party has either been bullied or deluded into believing there isn't one through outlooks like yours.

6:33 pm, March 24, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

If David Miliband is the alternative then I will be campaigning for Brown against him. I'm sure he's an able, clever and nice guy but he's just not gritty enough for me. He obviously has a good record in policy development and as a minister but a party leader needs to be a fighter who can demolish both his opponents in the party and in the Tories and Lib Dems - I don't see that as Miliband's style.

I certainly wouldn't accuse you of disloyalty for wanting a different leader. I just think the timing is wrong - there was an opportunity to open up a leadership contest just after conference - when people were muttering about Brown vs. Reid vs. Johnson. I was arguing in favour of a contest then. People didn't step up to the plate then and I think the moment has passed and Brown's constructive behaviour since then, his support for Trident replacement and an excellent Budget merit him getting the job.

My belief is the opposite of what you accuse me of "Labour can't win whoever is in charge" - I believe Labour can win under any half-way decent leader if their politics are sensible. It was Blair's politics that won 3 elections -his personality was a bonus, not the key factor.

We've had 10 years of back-biting between the Blair and Brown camps, not much of which was about politics. We should use this election to draw a line under that and say that if your politics are broadly similar you should not be bickering - pushing for an unnecessary leadership fight will give us another ten years of bitterness.

7:51 pm, March 24, 2007

Anonymous Adam Gray said...

Luke, I worry that your attitude is typical of the 'control freakery' that has done a lot of damage to the party.

Why do you see an open contest as "bickering"? And if you're right, what does that say about the state of the Labour Party?

You have a point that a viable candidate can only come from broadly the same wing of the party as Gordon Brown.

But Gordon's problems extend far beyond just policy - they are presentational and generational.

Lets take presentation. Why is reaction to the Budget as negative as it has been? Are people just too stupid to grasp the political genius of what Brown has done; or is there something much more fundamental here?

I think it's because the very first "spin" issue was not Iraq - it was when Brown pretended that he had allocated even more money to public services in (I think) his second Budget and it turned out he'd simply double counted money he'd announced in his first. Everyone was thrilled - and then everyone started to feel cheated; a feeling that rightly or wrongly has never dissipated.

Last week, he committed exactly the same sin: claiming as a massive income tax cut what was in reality a revenue neutral tinker that only served to hurt the invisible poor - those just above the tax credit threshold; while rewarding the very affluent and big business (at the expense of small - so much for helping middle England!). I'm sorry, but at the risk of sounding like an old Trot, by no measure was this good politics or good governance.

Brown cannot escape the legacy of spin because he is one of its creators: for perfectly understandable reasons, in 1997 the party needed to convince people that it wouldn't raise income tax - and so while pledging not to, came up with its stealth tax agenda; necessary to raise the revenue needed to fund our agenda, but damaging to trust.

Hence the argument for a change of leader - to move on from the perceived shortcomings of the Blair decade - simply cannot be accomplished by a change to Brown.

The other problem is generational: just as David Cameron changed perceptions of the Conservatives simply by being of a different era to the previous regime; Brown - of all the cabinet - is least able to be presented as a change from Labour's decade. Whether you're a fan of Blair (and for the record I am) or not, to get the public to take a fresh look we need a fresh face and a fresh approach.

David Miliband is the only candidate not of that generation in the cabinet. But you're right: that's not enough.

I actually like David for precisely the reasons you've listed for not backing him: he doesn't come across as a thug/shouter/big hitter - he comes across as affable, reasonable, courteous, intelligent and an ordinary bloke: someone who listens to the person they're speaking to and doesn't just trot out trite soundbites a la Ed Balls.

His ability to run rings round a typically aggressive Paxman last week on Newsnight is evidence that you don't need to be hostile, defensive and evasive to be a good leader and get a message across.

It's always said that people are tired of yah-boo politics/politics as usual and our system is designed to provoke confrontation - but they genuinely are and we don't have to comply with the system just because it's there.

I'm perfectly relaxed if you don't feel able to vote for David - that'd be your right if Labour ever did something as radical as offer up a serious contest - though I'd hope others might be more open in a contest when I suspect he'd be the Cameron to Gordon Brown's David Davis.

I'm just arguing for you to have the opportunity to exercise that right. It's not an unaffordable luxury: it's a duty incumbent upon a party of government when denying the voters ultimate say before entering No.10.

You shouldn't fear a contest. Have more faith in your fellow members and in the public, rather than treating both with what can only be perceived as contempt, albeit that I accept this isn't your intent.

2:48 am, March 25, 2007

Anonymous observer's mate said...

I think it is extremely unfair for Adam Gray to bring up the issue of poor people being worse off as a result of GB's budget.

Adam said...
"Last week, he committed exactly the same sin: claiming as a massive income tax cut what was in reality a revenue neutral tinker that only served to hurt the invisible poor - those just above the tax credit threshold; while rewarding the very affluent and big business (at the expense of small - so much for helping middle England!). I'm sorry, but at the risk of sounding like an old Trot, by no measure was this good politics or good governance."

Adam (and other correspondents) should have noted that Luke isn't making any comments on this particular subject for two reasons (three actually).

a) he is above this income bracket (very well above, actually),
b) he co-habits and has a child
c) he doesn't really care one iota about poor single people.

Hence, he chose to ignore the comments below - left on an earlier blog entry.

So please, don't embarrass Luke by raising this subject again. He's obviously got nothing to say on the matter.

anonymous said...
I am neither lucky enough to have a family anymore nor lucky enough to earn more than 17,000 quid. The calculators tell me that, following the Budget, Brown will take 200 quid a year from me and give it to his rich friends. Tell me Mr Akehurst, how do you think I should economise? I think I'll start by saving 36 quid a year on membership fees to a party that ignores the plight of the poor and benefits the rich. Do you agree?

susan calder valley said...
I agree entirely, anonymous. Luie seems to have gone rather quiet.

Anonymous said...
Absolutely. Supporting families is great but we should not be penalising young single people on low incomes.

Do you have an answer Luke?


Err, obviously ... he doesn't!

3:24 am, March 25, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...


a) I am a control freak and proud of it - discipline is the difference between winning and losing

b) Miliband has as many "presentational and generational" problems as Brown. To me he comes across as awkward, geeky, and very middle class. Generationally he is both too young to have actually been through anything character-forming enough to prepare him for the premiership, and is unable to distance himself from the last 10 years because he wrote the last 3 manifestoes and ran Blair's policy unit.

The only time I've seen him speak was at last year's spring conference where he was wooden beyond belief.

I'm sure he has a great contribution to make in the future but the idea that he is ready to run the country now is a joke.

Why would more experienced and proven "Blairite" Ministers like Reid and Johnson stand aside in favour of someone who was still a special adviser when in Reid's case he was already a
Minister of State?

What does this guy actually stand for?

What members, trade unions or MPs would back his leadership bid?

The 2p tax cut helps everyone on below £17k with a family and everyone between £17k and £43k - i.e. everyone on an around average income.

The corporation tax cut will businesses expand and take on more staff and pay their existing staff more.

12:15 pm, March 25, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Observer's mate,

I thought from previous comments posted that you were entirely dependent on state benefits. Do you pay any tax at all?

12:45 pm, March 25, 2007

Anonymous Duncan said...

I've read Adam Gray's contribution and can't see anything political in it.

I fundamentally think there should be a contest (the first time me and Peter Mandelson have agreed on anything, I suspect!) - as such, I support John McDonnell's bid for the leadership.

I want that contest to take place because it will involve a fundamental debate about real policies. Now I'm sure some on here will dismiss that debate as marginal, but I don't really care about that dismissal: what would be the POLITICAL argument between Brown and Miliband? What would Miliband bring to the debate that Brown isn't already saying?

I've no objection to more candidates from other traditions of the party emerging - there's no reason why my argument with the Brown/Blair position should be the only one. But what is Miliband (or Adam)'s argument?

3:00 pm, March 25, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

I agree with Duncan.

A soft left challenge from Denham would provide a clearer choice and debate, whilst keeping the right of the party united, which is my main priority.

3:06 pm, March 25, 2007

Anonymous Adam Gray said...

I think the Party really needs to move on from the tired caricature that the only debate is between the "old left" and new Labour.

It's entirely possible for there to be an open honest discussion between those who would regard themselves as new Labour without it being disloyal or undisciplined.

It's the personality-fuelled bitching that needs discipline Luke - the one area it's been lacking over the past decade!

I think Luke is woefully misguided if he thinks that the vitriol which has been soaking the higher levels of the party for the past fourteen years can just be lanced by handing the crown as of right to Gordon Brown - and to be brutally frank, even if it could I think it's too high a price to pay.

The whole problem with this debate is that the party's talking to itself: Luke's principal concern is maintaining this charade of party (or new Labour) unity irrespective of the calibre of the person he's quite happy to saddle the country with; irrespective of what the public thinks of that person, irrespective of how sick the country has become of Brown's style of politics that was necessary in 1997 but is so off-putting in 2007.

Hence, while Luke denies it - as he must, I maintain that this whole debate is couched in defeatism: that we'll lose whoever is elected leader, so let's give it to Brown because at least then the Blairite/Brownite split will - we hope - be put behind us.

But Duncan asked for specifics. Here are a few examples of where I as someone who doesn't really like being labelled, but who'd never be described as a left-winger, have some real issues with new Labour.

Let's start with council tax. it does not follow in London that the occupant of a Band G property is wealthy. In my part of London - Fulham - there are (still) huge numbers of working class, life-long residents living in homes that in the 1970s were just low cost workers cottages now 'worth' substantially over half a million, through no 'fault' of their occupants.

These are proud people who absolutely hate even contemplating having to seek state benefits or credits - and are usually just above the benefit threshold anyway - people who are quite happy to pay their way but have been saddled with higher council tax bills, higher service charges, and high council tax bands. Labour has done nothing to help these people: natural Labour voters.

End-level services have in no way reflected the taxes they now pay, and while I don't subscribe to the theory that everyone should see equivalent service improvements for increased tax contributions, I do believe everyone who pays tax should see some improvements to services they personally experience.

We need the government to recognise not just that incomes are higher in London but that costs are massively higher too.

Second, let's look at the big justification Luke touted over the abolition of the 10p rate: that anyone who loses out will get most of that loss back in tax credit. I fundamentally dislike putting people on benefits (whether they're called credits or not) to boost their incomes: I prefer lifting people out of tax to keeping them on benefit. Brown believes the opposite: that it's not only legitimate but desirable for the State to subsidise people.

Take another group; one the left typically have relatively little interest in: young professionals. Largely single (so either clobbered or ignored by Brown Budgets), not especially political, well-off by national standards but unable to access the housing market without encumbering themselves with crippling mortgages, who are saddled with unacceptable, inflation-busting tube fare hikes thanks to Livingstone, don't feel especially safe because young people are the most common victims of crime in London despite the increased spending on police; don't live in especially clean environments; and just see their taxes going up (the Mayor's precept being out of control). No wonder they've been flooding to the Tories in recent elections, costing us London seats and London councils with it.

Or how about what is traditionally considered a more left-wing area: Labour's approach on housing. In London, we've got a massive housing problem, yet after a decade of government, we've somehow got stuck between largely unregulated housing associations building very few homes to rent, or Tory councils doing deals with private developers to bolt on a few "shared ownership" (aka "slightly less unaffordable homes") to groteque overdeveloped penthouse developments.

And the most recent new announcement: that new affordable housing developments should contain some private housing too! Yes, absolutely, but that works both ways: we should be building affordable homes in affluent districts of London too - reinventing compulsory purchase; stating loudly that there's actually nothing to be ashamed with in renting a home rather than owning it. In short, a massive missed opportunity to be bold and instead the impression that Labour "has it in for" affordable housing.

My political interest has always been the environment: I could talk about how the current debate in both main parties on this critical issue is risible: all about gesture politics rather than substantive and practical policy to make a difference - and that's actually one of the reasons I respect Miliband: because his "policy wonkishness" is far more likely to put us back on track on this issue and win back support we should never have lost on it, rather than Brown's "let's create even more new taxes to spend on everything but the environment" approach.

One last point: Luke keeps harking back to Miliband being unimpressive at the set piece events; Martin Kettle made this point perfectly for me - the party hacks love great debaters, people who can put down their opponents, or who make clever little in-jokes at the dispatch box or at conferences the hacks flock to but no-one in the real world watches. The public hate this: and they hate it more and more yet the politicians keep on and on with this same old style, egged on by the partisans on both sides. That Miliband isn't like this; that he doesn't come over especially well on stage isn't a shortcoming.

But heck, I guess you can all go on talking to yourselves, telling yourselves that the polls are wrong, that the Budget's a stroke of genius, that Brown's the salvation not the problem, playing your own irrelevant, smug little in-house political games. And when you do lose, say "well it was inevitable anyway - we've had a good run, with luck we'll be back in four years".

The best possible argument for Miliband is one that Kettle made in an earlier article - it is that he can choose to be Prime Minister now or Leader of the Opposition in a few years time.

Personally, I wouldn't support him at that point because he lacked the courage or integrity to stand when we needed him to do so; as such he would be an unsuitable candidate for leadership.

6:54 pm, March 26, 2007

Blogger Chris Paul said...

Toynbee was back to projecting and protecting Brown on Head to Head with Gove I saw last night.

4:20 pm, March 27, 2007


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