Archive for September, 2012

US campaign diary: the real story with Romney’s video is his reaction – the Republicans have shifted to a base strategy

18/09/2012, 03:07:16 PM

by Nikhil Dyundi

Wow. Just wow. No Democrat could have dared hope that Mitt Romney would have crashed his campaign so spectacularly.

It was already exhibiting disturbing warning signs.

Insiders had broken ranks and started briefing journalists on what was going wrong, pushing out blame in a vain attempt to escape the eventual wreckage with their consulting careers intact.

The polls were tilting against Romney and down ballot Republicans and the media consensus on the superiority of Obama’s campaign was hardening.

But still, there was time. Not much, but there was some space left to change the dynamic in the race. Then the video surfaced and it turns out the wall was a lot closer than anyone imagined.

The reaction in the US media has been unanimous – this is likely a campaign ending moment for Romney.

Sure, he will keep touring the country, the debates will still happen and hundreds of millions of dollars of Romney ads will be dumped on voters.

But in terms of this being a competitive race, the contest is over.

The video reinforces too many of the negatives about Romney and the Republicans at a critical juncture in the election. Even with unlimited funds, there are too few voters that can be persuaded in the little time remaining to switch from undecided to Romney.

The campaign strategy Romney sets out in the video – appealing exclusively to the undecided 10% who voted for Obama last time  but now aren’t sure – seems to be no longer viable.

That’s what the media think, along with the vast majority of political consultants. Some Republican talking heads have kept the faith on air and a few might even believe it.

You would expect the majority of this latter group to be closely involved with the campaign. One of the golden rules of politics is that you’ve got to believe there’s a shot at victory. No matter how narrow the path, its existence is what keeps politicians and campaigners going.

But here’s the kicker: judging by their reaction to the video, the Romney campaign is in full agreement that their strategy is a bust.

We know this because when Mitt Romney got up in front of the media at his scrambled press conference in California he didn’t do what Mitt Romney normally does. He didn’t obfuscate in too excruciating a manner, parse more than normal or even use the magic words, “I misspoke”.

Instead , he basically stood by his remarks.

The press conference has been written up as yet another gaffe in a catastrophic twenty-four hours. But this is unfair. The word gaffe implies an unintended mistake. Everything Romney said at his presser he meant.

It was the surest sign that they have fundamentally junked their old strategy with just weeks to go before the election.

In standing by the video, Romney is writing off the undecided centrist swing-voters who will likely be repelled by his words. And he certainly won’t be reaching out to convert any confirmed Obama voters.

No, the sole audience for the Romney campaign is now the Republican base.


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Hugh Grant owns up: I fancy Paul Farrelly more than Louise Mensch

18/09/2012, 09:32:10 AM

Yes it’s true. Last night Hugh Grant went public with his affection for Labour’s twinkle-eyed MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme in a speech, admitting, “I fancy Paul a lot more than Louise Mensch”.

The occasion was the launch of Everybody’s Hacked Off by Brian Cathcart at the House of Commons.  The book sets the scene for the publication of the Leveson report, giving a coruscating view of past failed attempts at press regulation, the issues that directly led to the inquiry and the horrors uncovered over the course of its progress.

Hugh Grant wrote the introduction and will have had a chance to get up close and personal with both Farrelly and Mensch, members of the culture, media and sport select committee, through his work with the crusading Hacked Off campaign.

Some of those present interpreted Grant’s comments as reflecting more on his feelings towards Ms Mensch rather than a burgeoning attraction towards Farrelly.

Earlier this year, Mensch was accused of tabling amendments to the culture, media and sport select committee report that would have “exonerated” James Murdoch. She subsequently criticised the committee’s report, which was harshly critical of News International and Rupert Murdoch, as “partisan.”

But Paul Farrelly had certainly put his best foot forward in his speech preceding Grant’s turn. He described himself in alluring terms as, “the slightly thinner one on the TV sitting next to Tom Watson on the culture, media and sport select committee.”

If this wasn’t enough to set hearts fluttering, he went on,

“I’m also not the one tweeting with Louise Mensch…I’ve never sent a tweet in my life.”

Farrelly’s combination of physical conditioning with retro anti-tech chic certainly distinguished  him from the throng of MPs present.

Who could blame Hugh?

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Ed Miliband’s money problem

17/09/2012, 09:40:20 AM

by Atul Hatwal

There he goes again. In Ed Miliband’s interview with the Telegraph on Saturday, the Labour leader was at it once more, opining on the right, and wrong, sort of wealth. Answering the question, is it good to be rich, his answer was “yes, if you make it the hard way.”

This instinctive response is revealing. Ed Miliband did not preface his response with some words celebrating ambition, or empathising with peoples’ aspiration to earn more, he cut straight to verdict.

His phraseology framed the conditions where the Labour leader found wealth to be tolerable. This does not suggest an intrinsic comfort with making money – something quite important to most voters.

Miliband sensed the dissonant note and moved to contextualise his statement in the interview: “It’s not for me to pass moral judgment. It’s the Jimmy Carr point; what are the rules?”

The clarification at least shifts the focus from moral judgement on the behaviour of wealthy individuals who have not broken any law. But the benefit of this refinement was then wasted when Miliband did not elaborate on which rules are to be changed.

Without defining the positive action that the party will take, Miliband’s, and so Labour’s position, is one of impotent moralising about the system.

We might as well just be blaming “the man.”


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The Sunday review: Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools by Andrew Adonis

16/09/2012, 07:00:06 AM

by Anthony Painter

There are many peculiarities in our politics. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of current political debates centres on education policy. The Conservatives, relying on a single international and heavily caveated measure of relative educational performance, seek to discredit Labour’s period in office. Simultaneously, they have basically adopted Labour’s approach to structural reform of secondary education. Academies and their close relative, free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs), studio schools, the Teach First initiative, are all initiatives supported by or initiated by the Labour government. It’s too easy to forget.

At the same time, Labour is almost embarrassed to be associated with this reform programme. While it ums and ahs, Michael Gove will take full credit for the improvements the academy movement is likely to bring. Shy reformers lose their voice. So Labour’s interventions in the education debate are suddenly sotto voce. Andrew Adonis, the architect of these reforms, is looking to raise the volume once more.

In Education, education, education – part memoir, part “how to do reform” manual, part education reform history, part ministerial diary, part manifesto – Adonis reminds us that Labour consistently drove reform in office. The end point of these reforms is inevitably “an academised system.” Quite why Labour should resist is perplexing.

Adonis is generous – rightly so – to Conservative reformers of the system and Lord Baker in particular. City Technology Colleges were the precursor of the academy programme as was local management of achools. The introduction of the GCSE is also identified as a key educational reform, opening pathways for the majority. Lord Baker is now the driving force behind the UTC movement. At the same time, a number of Labour figures are given a less than rosy assessment. Tony Crosland who set out on a mission to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England” is served particularly poorly by subsequent developments. As “secondary modern comprehensives” – Adonis’s phrase – resulted from educational reforms on the 1960s and 1970s, so the majority were ill-served. Margaret Thatcher, of course, went along with all this in the early 1970s.

So both parties have their heroes and villains. Adonis is clear about wanting to take the politics out of education so this is perhaps not surprising. If there is a default setting then the left has a tendency to support the status quo and producer interest over innovation and the consumer – kids and parents. The right too often sees educational advancement in a social Darwinian fashion – useful only for a minority beyond a certain level. Yet, despite the noise surrounding the debate, reform has been consistent for two decades or more now. There seems to be a critical mass of reformism; a radical centre of educational improvement.


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The unions are gunning for Ed Balls

14/09/2012, 05:00:37 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Something very important for Labour happened earlier this week.  At the TUC conference on Monday, Ed Balls was challenged during a Q&A session about his support for a public sector pay freeze.

He gave a robust response,

“When you are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, you cannot say the first priority is more pay for public sector workers. That is the reality because of the government’s failure on the economy. We have always said let us put jobs first.”

The resulting boos gave reporters their headlines and the situation was mildly uncomfortable for the shadow chancellor.

In one sense, there’s not much new here. Balls was merely re-iterating a position from earlier this year and Labour politicians are often jeered by angry union delegates.

But this exchange has brought an underlying divide within Labour much nearer to an explicit schism.

Although issues such as redundancies, cuts in facilities and the lack of investment in public services are important for the unions, public sector pay is what really animates members and their union leadership.

Public sector workers make up 61% of the trade union movement. As damaging as redundancies are, the majority of public sector workers are not going to be sacked.  But what will hit all of them is the pay freeze.

The unions’ ability to defend their members’ pay levels is at the heart of their raison d’être. One union insider speaking to Uncut was blunt about their priorities,

“Forget the grandstanding on capitalism and economics. That’s an ego trip for the leaders and trots. What our members want from us is protect their jobs, and most of important all, their pay.”

In the past, commitments to restricted spending on public sector pay by future Labour governments could be sold to union leaders as central to winning back office and ejecting the Tories, who were, after all, the real enemy.

But times change.

Three factors have transformed the Labour’s relationship with the unions in a way that mean, following Ed Balls’ answer at the TUC Q&A, an almighty bust up between the shadow chancellor and the unions is now inevitable.

First there are the unions’ commitments to their members on public sector pay, second, the new politics of the union movement and third, the impending major union merger.

In terms of their rhetoric to members and the media, union leaders have been uncompromising on public sector pay.


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Whip’s Notebook: Cameron may have reshuffled the pack but his troops aren’t happy

14/09/2012, 07:00:48 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Number 10 may begin regretting reinstating the September sitting. While we have had an important and moving statement from the prime minister on Hillsborough, the remainder of government business in the Commons has – as usual – been patchy.

Last week’s reshuffle seems only to have caused further friction for the prime minister with his backbenchers and has left many wondering what on earth is going on with the PM’s political operation.

Even Labour MPs find it hard to fathom why seemingly competent and popular ministers such as (now Sir) Edward Garnier and Charles Hendry got the chop. What’s more it’s extraordinary that sacked men got knighthoods but, as Labour’s Ann McKechin pointed out, there was nothing like a dame for sacked women

Instead friends of Cameron, Osborne and Eric Pickles seem to be the ones who’ve won promotion in the reshuffle such as the elevation of the chancellor’s right hand man Matt Hancock.

Mr Hancock has been a junior minister in the business department for barely a week and already he is comparing himself to Churchill and Disraeli.

Over in the Pickles’ department for communities the hitherto relatively unknown MP for Great Yarmouth, Brandon Lewis, was promoted from backbenches in place of the generally liked Bob Neil.  It turns out this new minister’s qualification for the job is that he once used to present a radio show with Eric Pickles on Brentwood’s Phoenix FM.

The government whips office was more or less cleared out with surprising names returning to the backbenches such Shailesh Vara.  Whereas most of the dumped ex-whip just have to settle for being backbench MPs again, the new Tory whips are doing their best to sweeten the bitter pill for the prime minister’s old Eton chum and sacked ex-whip Bill Wiggin by trying to get him installed as the (remunerated) chair of committee of selection.

In so doing they are trying to push out the current chair and Cotswold MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown who also happens to have been a Lords rebel. This move by Tory whips was causing much annoyance in the tearoom this week.


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Archbishop Tutu is wrong, Tony Blair showed true moral leadership over Iraq

13/09/2012, 07:00:37 AM

by Peter Watt

There has been an awful lot of noise again recently about Iraq.  This followed on from an article that Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in the Observer about his decision to publicly “spurn” Tony Blair by not appearing at an event that they were both due at in South Africa.  Archbishop Tutu said:

“The immorality of the United States and Great Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.

Instead of recognising that the world we lived in, with increasingly sophisticated communications, transportations and weapons systems necessitated sophisticated leadership that would bring the global family together, the then-leaders of the US and UK fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart. They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand – with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us.

If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?”

This then spawned a wave of articles from clever and eminent people who explained exactly why international law made it clear that Tony Blair was guilty of war crimes and should be dragged to the Hague.

Others wrote articles saying why this was nonsense and that international law said no such thing.

I read many of these articles with interest and increasing disquiet; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

And then I realised what was bothering me.  In all of this very clever argument and counter-argument there was one thing missing.

Those who wrote saying “Bliar” was a war criminal did so because they passionately felt that the war was wrong.  They felt a sense of moral outrage that shone through their demands that international law is invoked.

Conversely, those arguing that international laws were not an issue tended to argue in purely legal terms.  Their arguments somehow lacked the passion or moral outrage of Archbishop Tutu for instance in his Observer article.

The overall sense was that in deciding to commit British forces in the second Iraq war Tony Blair had unquestionably committed a grossly immoral act that might or might not be illegal.

And that was it, the thing that bothered me: the absence of the moral case for freeing Iraq.

I passionately believe that the decision made by Tony Blair was the right and moral response to the circumstances we faced.  It must have been an incredibly difficult decision and one that took huge amounts of leadership – and I respect him hugely for it.


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Vince Cable’s plans for a British investment bank are a joke but Chuka’s aren’t much better

12/09/2012, 02:00:29 PM

by Paul Crowe

Oh dear. Yesterday was Vince Cable’s big day: the launch of his industrial strategy with a new state backed business investment bank at its heart. This bank is meant to plug the lending gap for small businesses and help drive economic growth. Pretty important stuff. News of the bank was the mainstay of the briefing to the media and had top billing in his speech.

Except that Vince didn’t actually announce the establishment of a new bank.

Instead he talked about how he would quite like one. Much as my four year old son tells me how he would quite like a light sabre.

The nearest we got to a commitment was Cable’s explanation that he was working with George Osborne on “how big it should be, how it should operate, and what the sectors it services should be.”

Over two years in government as secretary of state for business and Vince Cable has managed to confirm not a single detail of his flagship policy. Well done.

Chuka Umunna was justifiably scathing.

“Ministers need to come clean on whether they are proposing a proper British Investment Bank, which Ed Miliband has led calls for since last year, or merely a rebranding exercise of schemes which already exist and are not doing enough to help business.”

It is almost beyond belief that after so long in office there is no clear plan to deliver what is meant to be the centre-piece of the government’s industrial strategy.

But Labour cannot afford to be smug. If Vince Cable’s plans are a joke, then Labour’s alternative raises a smile in anyone who has worked in finance.

A few weeks ago Labour published, “The Case for a British Investment Bank”. It was written by Nicholas Tott, a former partner in corporate law firm, Herbert Smith.

Tott is a PFI expert and understands banking. He is a serious man, but his report is part of a political process and reads as such.

The critical passage is in the conclusion,

“The key principle for any British Investment Bank is that it must operate in a commercial manner to ensure that investments and interventions are made on a rational basis, only to support viable businesses with a proper analysis and pricing of risk.”

At the moment we have a banking sector that is palpably failing to provide small business with the finance it needs. It is a sector that is working in a commercial manner, making judgements on the riskiness of investments and viability of proposals in line with market norms.

Yet Labour’s report is calling for a British investment bank to operate exactly in the commercial manner that has consistently failed business.


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Salma Yaqoob: so do we welcome her in or slam the door in her face?

12/09/2012, 07:00:55 AM

by Kevin Meagher

In the old days it used to be so easy. You joined a political party and stuck with it. There may have been tough times and periods when you disagreed or despaired at the direction it went in, but the thought of leaving? Never.

When news broke last night that Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect party, had quit, not only as leader, but the party altogether, Twitter was quickly alive with talk that she is now set to join Labour.

Not that it is wise to trust the instant pontificatorate on Twitter, but you can see why the rumours spread. Yaqoob’s previous public utterances about Labour have been carefully calibrated to leave the door ajar. In an interview with The Guardian back in April she was asked how to describe her politics: “I would characterise them as what people think the Labour party should stand for: social justice, and foreign policy about peace, not war.”

There are no references to George Galloway in her resignation statement, but there didn’t need to be. Following Kate Hudson’s withdrawal as the party’s candidate in the forthcoming Manchester Central by-election over Galloway’s careless remarks about rape, the ruptures within Respect are all too apparent. Rather than feign surprise, it is reasonable to ask what took Hudson and now Yaqoob so long?

In citing a breakdown of “trust and collaborative working” in her statement, Yaqoob makes it sound like she’s leaving a band rather than a national political party that she led until yesterday evening. She was no mere fellow traveller and it is right that she is held accountable for Respect’s noxious brand of politics.


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Cameron needs to put some stick about

11/09/2012, 07:00:57 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Is he a “man or mouse” asked Tory MP Tim Yeo of his own leader and Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago, questioning whether David Cameron has the cojones to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow.

“Mouse” seems to be the answer judging by how our beleaguered PM is weakly responding to attacks from his own side at the moment – both real and surreal.

This weekend we were treated to the frankly bizarre tale of Zac Goldsmith, the maverick nimby Tory MP for leafy Richmond Park, openly plotting to inveigle Boris Johnson back into the House of Commons by threatening to resign his seat and trigger a by-election if David Cameron ends up supporting that third runway.

Then there’s the tale of Tory backbencher Bob Stewart who admits he was approached by a couple of fellow MPs this summer to act as a “stalking horse” challenger against the Prime Minister – a modern day Sir Anthony Meyer.

Perhaps most significantly is a report yesterday by Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel Four News. He reckons there is a “grouping” of Tory MPs that regularly meets “in the office of a Tory former minister and privy councillor” with the aim of one of its number becoming a “challenger” to Cameron, perhaps after next May’s local elections.

What’s going wrong? The prime minister’s troops – and indeed his officer class – are lining up to attack him in a way that would have been utterly unthinkable under any previous Tory Leader. We have clearly come a long way since Lord Kilmuir intoned that “loyalty is the Conservative Party’s secret weapon”.

But loyal to what? There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. By dabbling across the ideological divide – a support for gay marriage here, a bash the welfare scroungers there, David Cameron ends up trusted by no-one.


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