Archive for September, 2011

The deficit: it’s double or quits all round

27/09/2011, 08:42:08 AM

by Jonathan Todd

The politics of the deficit has had two phases. The exposure on the FT’s front page last Monday (19 September) of a £12bn hole in public finances means we are entering a third.

The June 2010 budget divided the first and second stages. Up until then, and throughout the general election, the debate focused on whether to cut in 2010. Labour and the Liberal Democrats warned that Conservative plans to do so were reckless. Then we lost the election and the Liberal Democrats helped the Conservatives implement these cuts.

The debate that was long needed – how to approach the deficit beyond 2010 – didn’t open up until the June 2010 budget. The imprecision of Labour’s plans kept a lid on this debate until then. George Osborne lifted this lid with all the force of a dominatrix once he had the bully pulpit of the treasury. The message that Labour had mismanaged public finances and that Osborne would fix this over this parliament was incessant. It is, however, starting to become clear that Osborne won’t be able to do this.

The third stage of the deficit debate is about acknowledging this failure. The £12bn hole in public finances is a consequence of growth not keeping pace with that anticipated by Osborne. Anaemic growth produces shrivelled tax returns, which are the stuff of public finance holes. There is some debate about whether the holes are really so. But, short of sudden improvement in our growth, there will be inarguable holes before too long.

All parties face choices.


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Leader’s speech preview II: holding our breath

26/09/2011, 01:00:05 PM

by Rob Marchant

Let’s get things straight. This is not a make-or-break speech (very few are, as John Rentoul recently pointed out). Only a small number of people, apart from the political media and the usual political anoraks, may even pay this speech much attention, for reasons which are, to be fair, not Ed’s fault at all.

To wit: we are a quarter-way through a now-stable electoral cycle; all three main leaders and the government look secure. Labour is highly unlikely to form a government before 2015 and quite conceivably not even then. Many journalists, in the unusual situation of coalition, perceive that the Lib Dems are providing as much of an opposition function within government as Labour are without it, and often pay more attention to their words (as they are more likely to have a direct effect on outcomes) than those of Labour.

Oh, and there’s the little thing of a major European and world economic crisis occupying the news bulletins.

So, what is the real significance of this speech? First, it’s Ed’s first “proper” conference speech as leader – it’s clear that last year’s didn’t count, being all of two days after his election as leader, except as a thank you and a rough statement of intent – and this time people will expect him to set out his stall. Second, and more importantly, as Paul Richards points out over at Progress, the issue overshadowing this conference is that not just Europe’s economy, but the world’s economy, is looking distinctly vulnerable. So everything will be viewed through that prism and it is important to be wise to that.


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Message to the gathered comrades: West Wing was a fiction, not a documentary

26/09/2011, 08:13:21 AM

by John Woodcock

In this time of iconoclasm on the centre-left, there is one political leader who remains untouched.

We may have signalled the need to move on from Blair and Brown and highlighted lessons from the days of New Labour in government. But there is a continued, unquestioning reverence for a small band of smart, dedicated change-makers gathered around a charismatic leader who shone a beacon for progressive values, no matter how hostile the political landscape. Mulling
over intractable problems, a surprising number of political types have been known openly to make reference to the tactics and strategy that these people deployed in government. And even if they don’t say it out loud, you know that many are thinking about the example they set as they work out what to do.

I am talking, of course, about the Bartlet White House. It is time to cut down to size the influence of the West Wing on the British Labour party.

Stating this instantly runs the risk both of permanently alienating the many West Wing nuts and leaving everyone else wondering why an American drama series that ended in 2006 is remotely relevant to Labour conference this week.


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The Sunday preview: Ed Miliband’s conference speech

25/09/2011, 02:30:53 PM

by Anthony Painter

Something isn’t quite gelling between Ed Miliband and the country. He’s taken over a brand for which people have an affection but feel it has lost its way – think Marks and Spencer before Stuart Rose. We’re not talking toxicity here. Many are sticking with it for now – though sales have slumped – but they are not going to do so indefinitely. The question is how the new CEO can convince people that things are really going to change.

Miliband’s problem is not that he is necessarily wrong in his analysis. The problem is that he is right- in many respects. And yet, despite this, people are not saying: “I think that Mr Miliband has it right on inequality, the squeezed middle and responsibility”.

And maybe that’s part of the problem – people just don’t think and talk in that way. People generally have a short attention span when it comes to politics and easily switch off on the occasions they tune in. It they hear think-tank-esque gobbledygook when they do, they just tune out again. It’s fine for resolution foundation to churn out stacks of graphs on rising inequality and static median incomes – they do it extremely well – but it doesn’t make for great political communication. And if you want to make a point about responsibility in society, don’t talk about the causes of riots being “complex”, because most people aren’t going to listen. The responsibility prospectus has to be painted in primary colours, not pastels.

There is even something to be said for Ed’s argument that the centre ground has shifted. It has. People are offended and angry about wealth without responsibility at the top of society. They know that we are not all in this together and feel mocked by a prime minister who claims that we are.

The mistake in the analysis is to assume that the centre ground has become intrinsically social democratic. It’s more complex than that. It was such an assumption in the face of the global financial crisis that led Labour to make a social democratic argument for re-election. With Which only 29% of the electorate agreed.


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In times of austerity, people stick rather than twist

25/09/2011, 10:25:40 AM

by Stella Creasy

In times of economic fear, the political pendulum swings firmly to the purse. A public concerned about losing their job or rising prices wants a government that understands what matters is how their bills are paid. It is a politics not of public services but personal futures. Any party seeming profligate is given short shrift.

The consequences of this government’s debt fixation are now obvious: growth draining from our economy; unemployment pouring in. If this carries on, by 2015 inequality will have worsened and public services could be in tatters. Against such a backdrop, it is tempting to imagine the pendulum swinging back, returning Labour to office to pick up the pieces. Yet in such circumstances, people stick rather than twist. They may know Conservatives are more interested in the bottom line than the front line, but have little faith in any alternative. In this age of austerity, Labour has to rebuild confidence in our economic approach, so that we can redefine the case for progressive politics.

We should acknowledge our past as we plan for our future. Many have chewed over Labour’s fiscal policy – but this is only half the story. As a member of the public accounts committee, it is a privilege and a provocation to analyse how the previous government changed lives. There will be more pupils learning maths and sciences. We built a series of children’s centres of which earlier generations of progressives could only dream. The youth justice board reformed Britain’s capacity to tackle youth offending.

We must also be willing to learn from the difficulties we faced – whether within healthcare, defence contracting or transport infrastructure management. Our opposition is quick to argue that these reflect poor policy. But, as they are discovering, ideas are not the same as implementation. Already our committee has highlighted that their proposals for healthcare, PFI and the future jobs fund do not stand the test of value for money.


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New source documents attached to Mandelson new ebook

24/09/2011, 12:56:17 PM

On Monday the world will be told (by publishers, Harper Collins) about the ebook version of Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man, which includes copies of original letters and minutes, audio commentary and video footage. Political memoirs and signings are the standard fare of conference season. But the new and improved The Third Man ebook is not standard. It is deluxe. Or, at least, many of the source materials have genuine curiosity value.

The Dark Lord’s actual handwriting, as those historic events swirled around us, is almost enough, at times, to send a shiver.

In one handwritten note, to Tony Blair on 3 May 1997, simply entitled “my job” he writes “I just beg you to set me up in a job in which I am neither an ornament not a cork bobbing, misinformed and ineffective, in the government machine”. [Memo to TB on position in new government]

Later in the same memo, he asks that in the job he is given he should “support Alistair, and front for him, but (that) I am not portrayed in any way as a “spin doctor”.

And in another note, written between Christmas and New Year of 1995, reflecting on the death of John Smith he writes:

“It was assumed that one of the modernisers, Brown or Blair, would become leader and it was clear from Gordon’s tone which one he thought it would be”.

He, Blair and Brown, he says “were like the three musketeers”. [John Smith’s death and leadership contest]

And we see the famous lines: “We were elected as New Labour and will govern as New Labour. TB to see. Line to take”, dated 2 May 1997. [Final campaign note to Tony Blair]

Uncut understands that Peter Mandelson will be available to sign your kindle or iPad in the lobby of the Jury’s Inn on Tuesday afternoon. He’s behind you.

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Peter Wheeler’s alternative conference guide

24/09/2011, 10:46:57 AM

Conference wouldn’t be conference without Peter Wheeler’s gonzo guide to surviving the week – get your fill of the best boozers, events and eateries Liverpool has to offer. And keep an eye out for Peter on your travels.

PW Conf Guide 2011a

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They may be an idiotic rabble: but they’re still family – sort of

24/09/2011, 09:00:26 AM

by Kevin Meagher

THE late Roy Jenkins, grand-daddy of “the radical centre” must be turning in his grave. That’s assuming, of course, that the late and never knowingly under-lunched apostle of Lib-Labbery has room to manoeuvre.

His abiding belief was that the schism between socialists and liberals at the start of the twentieth century needlessly gifted decades of political hegemony to the Conservatives. As a former chancellor, his maths were spot-on. The Tories governed for seven decades out of ten. The forces of the centre-left were divided and impotent for two-thirds of the last century.

There are grand theories about why this happened. But here is an altogether simpler explanation. If you turned on your television this week you would have seen them in all their glory. The loons, crackpots and pedants of the Liberal Democrat party. How on earth could we ever work with these people? (more…)

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Foundations for future defence

23/09/2011, 02:30:09 PM

by Jim Murphy and Michael Dugher

Yesterday Labour launched a report into defence procurement, which we commissioned last year to come up with radical ideas for the future.  This is an independent report to the shadow defence team, which we will carefully consider as part of our policy review, which reports to Ed Miliband in 2012.

During a 10 month consultation our review team met with dozens of companies and with countless officials, politicians, trade unions and academics, including taking evidence from overseas. It has been extensive, open and ambitious and is precisely the sort of exercise Labour should engage with in order to reconnect with the country and develop bold proposals for future policy.

Our starting point of this exercise was simple: defence is vital for our nation and effective procurement is essential for our defence. It helps ensure that our forces have the equipment they need when they need it, able to carry out the tasks required of them.

We know that Labour made huge strides in government – the equipment programme was advanced and our personnel were better cared for. We know also that the reforms we introduced to procurement did not lead to lasting change and tackle the systemic problems which built up over different governments’ terms in office.

The review’s focus was to look at how the system could be improved to ensure equipment matches need, planning is effective, procurement is aligned to UK industrial, science and technology policies, and that equipment is delivered on time and to budget. The report meets both benchmarks of success – honest in its analysis and hard-headed in its proposals.

The review proposes taking on the “conspiracy of optimism” – perpetual and consensual under-estimation of cost and time projections in order to agree contracts – by introducing a system whereby projects are cancelled if time and budget estimations are exceeded by 20%. This requires preparedness to invest early to make savings later.

Several proposals begin to shape a new defence industrial strategy. Identifying which capabilities should be based in the UK and which purchased overseas in defence reviews would provide clarity and certainty for industry. It is suggested also that we should apply a new “UK control test” to imports, so we only purchase abroad what we can maintain in the UK, making maintenance cheaper and boosting our industrial base.

Procurement is in essence the process by which frontline need is met, and procurement systems must provide for 100% of frontline requirements without any compromise. Sometimes, however, additional requirements to those needed are added, pushing back delivery dates. The search for the “exquisite” can delay deployment of the excellent and a necessary culture change where design is to cost is a significant insight from the Team.

These are just some of the proposals recommended which we will study carefully as we form our comprehensive review of defence policy.  It is notable, however, that in commissioning the review we are now leading this debate.  Consider the Tory position.  After nearly a year and a half in office, decision after decision has made it strikingly apparent that this Government has no real industrial strategy.  Whether it’s on Sheffield forge masters, Bombardier train manufacturing in Derby, the government has given up at home.  In their green paper equipment, support and technology for UK defence and security, published last December, their complete lack of ambition was laid bare for all when it stated: “our default position is to use open competition in the global market, to buy off-the-shelf where we can”.

The government says they want to see a private-sector led recovery – we all do – but our real fear is that the government’s laissez-faire approach, and Liam Fox’s almost dogmatic devotion to buying off-the-shelf, could see one of our best performing manufacturing sectors wither on the vine. This comes after an SDSR which has uncosted efficiency savings and has left gaps in both the budget and the equipment programme.

Labour knows that if we are to sustain world-class capabilities at home we need to provide the conditions that support a strong, sustainable defence industry.  And why is this so important? Defence manufacturing plays a vital part in our economy and the UK is a world leader in this field. Over 100,000 people (including 25,000 graduates) are employed directly by the defence industry. If you add indirect employment down the supply chain, this number grows to over three hundred thousand, accounting for over 10 per cent of our whole manufacturing base.  The industry is also a massive wealth creator for our economy. In 2010 alone, it registered 22.1 billion pounds in turnover and export sales amounted to 9.5 billion pounds – some 43 per cent of total export revenues.

If you were to design, from scratch, an industry-of-the-future that offered large numbers of well-paid, highly-skilled jobs, with large numbers of apprenticeships and huge opportunities for young graduates – an industry that contributed greatly to our export wealth and our national income – you would come up with something that looks very much like our defence industry.

In short, effective and efficient defence procurement is essential for the UK’s security and economy. Failures in the system are organisational not political, but now there is one political party getting to grips with the issues. A strong defence posture is necessary for Britain to be a secure and influential nation. The proposals are in yesterday’s report are an indispensable contribution to the debate about how that is achieved. Labour is listening and learning and is once again a party of ideas. We are facing up to the problems of the past, but looking forward to the future. That is what this defence procurement report was all about.

Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, a shadow defence minister and parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband

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The undead Nick Clegg starts to stir…

23/09/2011, 12:00:41 PM

by Dan Hodges

Ed Miliband has a nightmare. Forget the sleep apnoea;  this is what really keeps him awake at night.

He is walking along the corridor of a dark, abandoned castle. He turns a corner into an imposing room. Like the rest of the castle, the room has been ransacked by  angry villagers determined to wreak revenge for the evil that once dwelt amongst them. All that is left is a large black table. Upon the table sits a coffin, lid open.

Ed inches closer, torch flickering. He peers in. Inside there is a pale figure, eyes closed, dressed in a dark morning suit. It wears a gold tie.

Ed is initially gripped by fear. But as the moments pass the fear recedes; replaced by a strange feeling of empathy. Then sympathy.

Poor Nick Clegg. What he did was wrong. So very, very wrong. But he has paid the price. The price exacted from all politicians when their public turns upon them. Now, at last, he has found peace…

“Hello, Ed. I’ve been waiting for you”.

Dear God, he’s alive! He’s sitting up! He’s…

“You’ll find it’s not so bad in there. You have time to stop and think. To come to understand where it all went wrong”.

Ed turns, tries to run. But his feet are like clay. Clegg is out of the coffin now advancing towards him, cape spread wide. He can see razor-sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight; a cold, piercing stare reaching out from dark, empty eyes.

And somewhere in the distance he hears a laugh. A cruel laugh. He knows that laugh. It is David Cameron’s. Then there is silence.


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