Archive for November, 2010

Don’t call her babe: Dan Hodges interviews Hazel Blears

30/11/2010, 02:04:17 PM

“Hazel Blears? Good luck mate. She’s the most on message politician I’ve ever met”.

“Hazel is a robot. ‘Tony good. Labour good. Tony good. Labour good’. Scratch the surface and you just find another surface underneath”.

"I was asked to go and defend the government in some circumstances when no one else wanted to"

Hmmm. Uncut arrives at our meeting with the woman described by one Labour MP as the bionic Blairite with some trepidation. We like discipline and loyalty – in moderation. But we also like a peek behind the curtain. Will we be able to uncover what makes the bionic Blairite tick?

Let’s kick off with Ed Miliband. She voted for him fourth, behind Andy, David and Ed. According to reports, he offered her a job and she turned it down, although Ed’s office officially denies this. Hazel confirms that she had a meeting with Ed and told him she wanted some time out on the back benches. So what does she think of the new leader?

“I would characterise Ed’s leadership as calm, measured, steady, and actually, a surprise to people. I don’t think you have to come out as a brand new leader with fireworks and pazzaz. When Ed won, a lot of people said ‘Ed’s a blank page’. Well in a lot of ways that’s not bad for us, because we need to reflect on why we got the worst result since 1983. I don’t mind a bit of reflection”.

No fireworks. No pazzaz. This could be a long haul.

“But, if we don’t defend our record nobody will. If you walk round my city, it’s not paradise, it’s not nirvana, but it’s a damn sight better than it was. This narrative the Tories are getting traction with, that it was all a disaster, we bust the bank, spent all the money; it’s at our peril that we let that just be the story. People may accuse me of wearing rose tinted glasses, being gung ho; well sorry I’m not going to be snivelling and apologising for what I think in many ways was a damn fine government”.

A flash of passion. Not synthesised. Real, “I’ll see you out side”, anger. (more…)

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Being seriously green means being honest about fuel taxes

30/11/2010, 10:16:08 AM

by David Mentiply

The idea that central government can influence the behaviour of its citizens via taxation still holds sway in most democracies across the world.

When government becomes dependent on the revenues from a specific tax, however, an obvious conflict of interest emerges.

Vehicle excise duty and road fuel duties, for instance, raise in excess of £20 billion for the treasury each year – but where does the money go? Public opinion seems to regard such taxes as pure revenue-raising by Whitehall. People do not believe that the money goes towards investment in alternative transport infrastructure. In part, this is due to a failure of consecutive governments to communicate to the public how and where they have invested the revenues from road and vehicle duties. In the main, however, public perceptions have been spot on. The revenues raised from the above taxes have swelled the coffers of the treasury and have not been used to offset carbon emissions. Indeed, in spite of the relatively high duty levels in the UK, compared, for instance with the US, the investment in and development of alternatives to petrol and diesel fuel has been minimal.

Here is where the Labour party must now be radical. It must recognise that the old model of taxation has been limited in improving our transport infrastructure and environment. (more…)

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Tuesday News Review

30/11/2010, 08:11:09 AM

Opposition debate tempts Lib Dems

Ructions in the government over plans to raise university fees will be forced into the open today when Labour triggers a vote in the House of Commons that could bring about the first rebellion of the coalition. MPs will debate the plan to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year asstudents stage their third and largest national demonstration against the plans. Last night the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, wrote to the head of the National Union of Students appealing to students not to distort the debate over fees, saying that many believe wrongly that they will have to pay fees immediately instead of when they graduate. Clegg warned of potentially “tragic” consequences whereby the poorest would be put off applying at all. Coalition MPs are under a three-line whip to attend the opposition day debate on a Labour-authored motion that falls short of opposing higher fees, but calls for the white paper on the future of universities to properly explain the plans before the Commons votes on the fee cap. – The Guardian

Nick Clegg has urged students to reflect on the “true picture” about government plans to raise tuition fees. Ahead of further expected protests on Tuesday, the deputy prime minister said graduates in England on lower incomes would be better off than they are now. It was “crucial” people realised there will be no upfront fees and repayments will begin at £21,000, he told the National Union of Students. Meanwhile, fellow Lib Dem Jenny Willott said she would vote against the plans. Ms Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, said she could not support plans to allow English universities to charge £6,000, almost double the current £3,290 cap, and up to £9,000 under certain conditions. - BBC

Mr Clegg appealed to the NUS to help ensure that those taking part in protests understood “the true picture” of the proposed reforms, which he insisted were fairer than the current system. “All of us involved in this debate have a greater responsibility to ensure that we do not let our genuinely-held disagreements over policy mean that we sabotage an aim that we all share – to encourage people from poorer backgrounds to go to university,” said the Liberal Democrat leader. The NUS has launched a “right to recall” campaign to force by-elections in seats held by Liberal Democrat MPs – including Mr Clegg – who signed a pledge to oppose increases in fees before the general election. Liberal Democrats secured a provision in the agreement forming the coalition Government that their MPs can abstain in the vote to increase fees, though it remains unclear whether the party’s ministers will do so. But Lib Dems are expected to vote against a Labour motion in the Commons on Tuesday which calls on ministers to delay legislation on the fees hike until after they have published a White Paper spelling out their vision of the future of higher education. – PA (more…)

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The Lib Dems are in a race to destruction – with the church of England

29/11/2010, 03:00:07 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Poor old Rowan Williams. He is a decent man who deserves a break. Instead, all he gets is to see the Church of England fall apart on his watch. Last week’s general synod saw yet further attempts to bandage the gaping wounds in the Anglican communion. They go deep: divisions over fundamental points of theology; a pervasive sense that they have lost their way and are on the cusp of being eaten up by a larger rival.

Nick Clegg, the cherubic but rather less devout leader of the Liberal Democrats, faces parallel problems: simmering internal discord and an existential crisis about his party’s future. But Clegg does not deserve a break. He is the architect of the afflictions that beset his tribe.

Just as women bishops were inevitable once the general synod voted to allow the ordination of women clergy back in 1992, so, too, it should be a short journey of logic for the Lib Dems to realise that supporting a right-wing Tory government leads to VAT hikes, benefit cuts and scorched earth public services.

Despite the pervasive threats to his organisation, Rowan Williams’ emollient circumlocutions keep the show on the road. Clegg’s line to his own party, however, is now much tougher: welcome to coalition politics. Compromise is now a way of life. Deal with it.?And for hitherto allies on the left, Clegg is equally disabusing. He used his recent Hugo Young Memorial Lecture to slam the door in the face of Labour ecumenists. “Old progressives” he opined, “emphasise the power and spending of the central state”. In contrast, shiny “new progressives” focus on “the power and freedom of citizens”. (more…)

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There’s no crisis and no division, just a duty to oppose

29/11/2010, 11:30:20 AM

by Michael Dugher

Only the Labour Party, on attracting 40,000 new members and going five-points ahead in the opinion polls – for the first time in what felt like living memory – could be written up as being in real difficulty. The (mainly Conservative-supporting) newspapers have talked of “growing rumblings” about the Labour leadership and “mounting criticisms”. Ed Miliband’s speech to the national policy forum was described by yesterday’s Sunday papers as a “fightback”’ and a “relaunch”, and even a move “to avert a leadership crisis”, according to the Mail on Sunday.

But we can’t just blame the journalists for this mischief. They are just filing copy, filling space in the paper, doing what they are paid to do.  Too often, the negative stories are the result of “friendly fire” from our own side – ill-judged remarks (if you are feeling forgiving), “public diplomacy” (if you are feeling cynical). Or they come from the whingeing briefings and bar-room gossip that are all part of the trade.

Commentators, too, have been quick to say where we are going wrong. Our own Dan Hodges, contributing editor of Labour Uncut, is usually a saint of reason. He offers both insight and wisdom. But his recent piece in the New Statesman that Labour is on the brink of a “new civil war” was as wild as the jungle. Some stories are written to generate more stories, and this Hodges piece unfortunately read as such. (more…)

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The odd couple: Blears and Cruddas join forces to fight Cameron

29/11/2010, 09:00:20 AM

Hazel Blears and Jon Cruddas are joining forces to wrest the “big society” from the Tories. The two senior back benchers have established the “social action forum”, a committee of MPs and stakeholders tasked with taking the fight to David Cameron over his flagship policy.

The inaugural meeting will take place in the House of Commons this Wednesday, with Ms Blears expected to be elected chair of the new grouping. The Labour leadership has been consulted over the formation of the committee, and has given it the seal of approval, including authorisation to extend membership to representatives beyond the PLP.

Speaking at Saturday’s Labour policy forum, Ed Miliband urged the party to “take back” the big society from the government. “It sticks in our throat when David Cameron tries to claim he’s the man for the big society because he has an old fashioned view about the big society. His is essentially a view that says look, if government gets out of the way then society will prosper. None of us believe that”, he told delegates.

“We were slow off the mark in appreciating the dangers of the big society agenda”, Hazel Blears told Uncut.

“It’s more than just a cynical cover for cuts. It’s a much more fundamental realignment of public services, and of Tory politics. This is a very clever piece of rebranding. If you have a big society that says to your right wing ‘you can have a smaller state’, it’s nice blue meat to them. But it also says to the Liberals, “what we want is more people being involved. There is such a thing as society”. So what it does in one easy way, in just two words, is continue that detoxification of their brand which was a key foundation of them getting into power. And now is part of the realignment of politics. It’s a very big strategy”.

She concedes that Jon Cruddas and herself represent unlikely political soul mates, but believes this will add political ballast to the committee.

“One of the best bits of the last six months for me is discovering that Jon and I have got far more in common than a lot of people might have thought. We’ve always chatted and talked, but when you come to think about it we come from a similar background. Ordinary families, represent similar working class constituencies, he has a very strong family background, so do I, and were both Labour, Labour, Labour. It will confound some people, but we’ve increasingly discovered when we talked, and we talked at length, is that wherever you are on the party’s spectrum there are some issues that transcend where people would traditionally place themselves”.

Hazel Blears’ first major political interview since resigning from the Brown government will appear on Uncut tomorrow.

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Monday News Review

29/11/2010, 08:09:03 AM

Wikileaks release US cables

Britain’s politicians and diplomats are waiting to discover what their US counterparts really think of the special relationship. Over 250,000 classified cables from US embassies are to be released by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks over the next fortnight. They are already sending diplomatic shockwaves around the world. Pressure from Arab states urging military action against Iran and instructions for US officials to spy on UN leaders are among the most significant revelations.Concerns about the stability of the coalition government and criticisms of David Cameron’s premiership could be among the revelations which prove most significant in Westminster. – Politics.co.uk

The “revelations” in the latest download from WikiLeaks strike me as surprisingly dull. You would have thought that, in 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables, there would be insights that were a bit more startling than the suggestions that Angela Merkel is cautious, Silvio Berlusconi is vain, Nicolas Sarkozy is thin-skinned and David Cameron is a bit of a lightweight. Tell me something, I didn’t know. – The FT

Is it justified? Should a newspaper disclose virtually all a nation’s secret diplomatic communication, illegally downloaded by one of its citizens? The reporting in the Guardian of the first of a selection of 250,000 US state department cables marks a recasting of modern diplomacy. Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces. – The Guardian

Vince “personally committed” to fees increase

Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable is “personally committed” to plans to raise university tuition fees, a Tory colleague has said. Higher education minister David Willetts said he was “confident” Mr Cable would back the measure in a Commons vote next month. Before the election the Lib Dems signed a pledge not to support any rise in fees, currently set at £3,290 a year. But Mr Cable’s department is overseeing an increase to as much as £9,000. Students at several universities are continuing sit-in protests against the plans. Twelve occupations reportedly on-going on Sunday included those at Plymouth, Leeds, Cambridge, Newcastle, Edinburgh and University College London. – BBC (more…)

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We must reach out: An NEC member reports from Gillingham

28/11/2010, 05:03:32 PM

by Johanna Baxter

One of the main reasons I stood for the NEC was to try to ensure that members have a bigger voice in our policy making structures.  So, having taken up my seat after Oona’s elevation to the Lords, I was pleased that I hadn’t missed the first meeting of the National Policy Forum since conference.

I would have preferred the opportunity to have consulted members about the key topics for discussion prior to attending but, being a newcomer to the NEC, I didn’t receive my paperwork until Friday afternoon which left no meaningful opportunity for me to be able to do so.

Feeling somewhat underprepared I braved the freezing weather and headed out to Gillingham early yesterday morning.    My nerves were calmed slightly after bumping into the NEC’s Vice-Chair, Michael Cashman MEP, at Gillingham station who, even in our brief discussion, couldn’t have been more welcoming.

I had been struck by how little time was devoted in the agenda to debating policy – just two hours out of a seven hour day.  There were five workshops in all – constitutional reform, the economy, the funding of higher education, the NHS and welfare reform – with representatives invited to attend up to two.  I selected to attend the discussions on the economy and welfare reform.

The business plenary, introduced by NEC chair, Norma Stephenson, kicked off the day.  This short five minutes was devoted to the election of the NPF Chair (Peter Hain) and Vice Chairs (Affiliates; Billy Hayes, CLP & Regions; Simon Burgess, Elected Reps; Kate Green).

In his opening speech Peter said the agenda was more reflective of what representatives wanted: fewer plenary sessions and more workshops than in the past.  Peter also acknowledged that there needed to be more resources for NPF representatives (he was considering an NPF intranet on which information could be shared and policy positions discussed), and more information, and responsibility, for party members.  He announced that fellow NEC member, Ellie Reeves, had been appointed Vice Chair of the review into our policy making process, confirmed that there was no pre-set agenda for the review and that all contributions would be considered.

Next up Harriet Harman introduced Ed Miliband and spoke of the 45,803 new members who have joined the party since the general election. (more…)

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We need to oppose, as well as to review

28/11/2010, 12:00:05 PM

by Tom Keeley

This weekend Ed Miliband launched a major policy review. Starting with a blank piece of paper, the big thinkers in the party will now take two years coordinating the biggest review of policy since 1994. The party needs it.

The 2010 general election showed a party which had stopped thinking, stopped improving and had little to say. If it had not been for the economic crisis, the dividing lines between us and the Tories would have been slight. When a Labour party can’t state a long list of differences with the Tories, you know there is trouble.

This review needs to put Labour back as the progressive party in this country. A party to ensure that liberty is not at the cost of security. To ensure the poor provision of housing never again fuels racial tensions. A party to champion schools that serve the poorest, health care that heals the sickest and social security that treats the most unfortunate in our society with respect and deference. This will serve the electorate well in two years time. They will have the choice to elect a truly progressive party.

However, the Labour party has a more immediate responsibility. Opposition. While Miliband described opposition as “crap” (and he might be right), it is the most important job in the country at the moment. This government is rolling out the most regressive series of policies and doing it early in the anticipation that the electorate will forget by 2015. Frontline police are being cut. The NHS is being turned upside down. And, soon, teachers will be let go, when the economic independence that came with the academies bill, turns out to be a noose around the necks of the schools.

The press will report numbers: the manpower lost, the waiting lists and the crime stats. But the Labour party should remember that this is about people’s lives. This is about another generation of children growing up in homes where no parent works and young people going to school in classrooms that are falling apart. It is about families breaking under the stress of mortgage repayments and lost incomes; about people dying on the waiting list for cancer treatments. The Labour party has a responsibility to stand up for these lives now, not in two years time. The most important job in the country is the opposition of this government’s policies.

While the policy review is vital for our party, a responsible, rigorous and careful opposition is vital for the country. If we fail to provide this now, the electorate will look back on these years and see an indulgent, introspective party. A party that failed them. Until the policy review is complete, our priority must be coherent and effective opposition.

Tom Keeley is a member of Birmingham Edgbaston CLP.

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Ed sets out his stall: an NPF member reports from Gillingham

28/11/2010, 10:00:52 AM

by Richard Costello

Labour’s national policy forum met yesterday at Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium for the first time since it was elected at its Manchester conference. More importantly, it was the first time since Ed Miliband was elected leader. Rather less importantly, it was also the first meeting since I was elected as the West Midland’s youth representative.

As I entered the conference venue and collected my credentials I was greeted by a pile of reports and banners entitled “New politics. Fresh ideas”. In contrast to the message of the day, however, was evidence of the same old petty disputes and dissent from the usual suspects during the opening exchanges of the day’s first plenary. Following the rubber-stamping of Peter Hain as chair of the NPF, there was a hint of disunity during the election of vice chair. Simon Burgess and left winger George McManus were both nominated from the floor and a decision on who to elect was due to be made until in dramatic fashion McManus withdrew due to the chair’s (Norma Stephenson’s) insistence that there not be a secret ballot, but a show of hands instead. I guess some things never change.

Peter Hain sought to allay the fears of members in his opening remarks as chair by declaring that “there would be more influence for party members” and that the NPF would be “more transparent”, before introducing the main event, Ed Miliband’s keynote address.

The speech had been built up as Ed’s chance to renew the party and define his leadership. I thought he delivered on both.

Ed began the meat of his speech by declaring that “the next election is as much about us as it is about them (the government)”. He told us that the Labour party must reform itself before it can ask the country to vote for it again. As the country and the way in which we do politics have changed, so must the Labour party to match this. Ed seemed to get this and while today wasn’t quite a clause IV moment, it was still a very important step on the journey back to power. In Ed’s own words “the party hasn’t renewed itself since 1994” and today was “an opportunity to do so”. By referencing 1994, Ed elicited images of Blair and his great reforms of the nineties, parallels which would continue later in his address.

The opportunity Ed mentioned was seized upon. His determination to re-connect Labour with the people as an engaging movement “rooted in people’s lives” was clear to see. As well as understanding that Labour must be a party which reaches out to the public, he tackled probably the biggest elephant in the room, and tackled it head-on: the system which elected him as leader. Boldly, Ed discredited the system by saying that it “should be a thing of the past for people to have more than one vote in the leadership election”. In doing so, Ed showed that he is a leader not afraid to make difficult decisions.

Today wasn’t a day for detail, but Ed did give us a flavour a different Labour party, a Labour party more concerned with civil liberties, climate change and the excesses of the City. In short, this was Ed’s pitch to the public and his attempt at defining himself and moulding the party around that image.

He finished his speech by evoking memories of Blair and that famous speech outside the Royal Festival Hall by echoing the former Prime Minister’s declaration that Labour once again is “the people’s party”. One can only hope that Ed’s words match up to Blair’s actions in reforming us as a movement ready to govern again.

The questions and comments from the floor which followed the speech were remarkably positive. It was a friendly audience. One of the speakers from the floor was the midwife who delivered his new child Samuel.

Aside from Ed Miliband and Peter Hain, today had one other important character, Liam Byrne. Liam is leading the party’s policy review, a process which Ed’s renewal programme relies on for so much. Liam described the policy review as “a wake-up call” and seemed to signal change by saying that the “public don’t want a New Labour groundhog day”. In making such remarks, Liam showed that he understood the significance of the day and clearly signalled a new pluralistic era in Labour politics.

There does seem to be a genuine will to make the NPF and indeed the party as a whole more transparent and open. The discussions and seminars with shadow ministers that followed the speeches seemed to be genuine two-way exchanges. Whether things continue that way, only time will tell.

Miliband’s leadership will only succeed if those high ideals are realised. Ed has set his stall out and now he must deliver.

Richard Costello is a member of the national policy forum. He writes in a personal capacity.

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