Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Meagher’

If Johnson and Darling return to Labour’s frontbench, two other men are out

18/08/2014, 03:33:16 PM

by Kevin Meagher

The continuing chatter about whether Alan Johnson should return to the shadow cabinet prompts the intriguing question: where would Ed Miliband put him?

In government, Johnson held a number of senior roles including stints as secretary of state for work and pensions, education, health and a final stint as home secretary. As one of Labour’s best known faces, he would surely command a decent perch.

None of his previous postings, however, looks a likely bet. Rising stars Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt are making inroads in the welfare and education briefs while Andy Burnham at health and Yvette Cooper at home affairs are too powerful to move without causing Ed Miliband a major headache. Both are solid performers and harbour leadership hopes if Miliband doesn’t manage to cross the threshold of Number Ten next May.

The remaining top roles, shadowing the Treasury and the Foreign Office, are filled by Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander. And they aren’t going anywhere.

Miliband may calculate that he can move anyone he likes in the interests of bringing back a popular figure like Johnson to add weight to his team ahead of the general election. Of course, the dilemma will be doubled if Alastair Darling also returns – assuming the ‘No’ campaign he is leading in Scotland prevails next month.

Johnson’s attributes are obvious enough. A natural communicator, his easy-going, man-in-the-street style contrasts sharply with the crafted but stilted approach of most of the rest of the shadow cabinet. No-one describes him as weird or boring.

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When it comes to minorities, woo, don’t appease

13/08/2014, 04:31:32 PM

by Kevin Meagher

How far should a political party go in trying to win over ethnic minority voters? Baroness Warsi is clear that the Conservatives can’t win next year’s general election without more of them, while senior Labour figures like Sadiq Khan and David Lammy have raised the prospect of all-minority shortlists for parliamentary selections.

If nothing else, demography suggests it is smart politics for all parties to win a commanding share of what is now a growing market. The 2011 Census shows that around eight million people – 14 per cent of the population – are now non-White, (with half of that total – 7.5 per cent – being Asian/ Asian British). Academics at Leeds University reckon this figure will rise to 20 per cent of the UK population by 2051 while the Policy Exchange think tank reckons the figure will be nearer to a third.

But politicians need to be clear that they don’t succumb to a conceptual fallacy. When they talk of “making politics look more like the electorate” they are speaking in code for promoting candidates because of their skin colour. This is hopelessly naïve and horribly tokenistic.

Minority ethnic communities are not simply ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’. Indeed, the impact of large-scale European immigration over the past decade makes that a nonsense. As does the growth in people from mixed-race backgrounds, who are now said to make up the second largest minority ethnic group.

Instead of descending into gesture politics with the promotion of ethnic-only shortlists, or treating minorities like electoral blocs, parties should focus on providing a fair and transparent policy offer to woo them instead.

Despite the diversity, there are often common issues of concern. Take public health. We know that South Asians have a higher propensity towards Type Two diabetes and that Afro-Carribbean people are three to five times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. Meanwhile the Irish, a predominantly White ethnic group (and, arguably, the UK’s largest), suffer from a higher preponderance to genetic conditions like coeliac disease and haemochromatosis.

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Our MPs are deeply unhappy people. Mark Simmonds just did something about it

12/08/2014, 03:15:46 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Ever since Norman Fowler resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family (although he didn’t quite use that phrase) resigning from ministerial office for reasons other than sexual exposure, financial corruption or manifest incompetence has been something of a curiosity in Westminster.

Yesterday, foreign office minister Mark Simmonds “did a Fowler,” quitting the government in the pursuit of a happier life. At just 50 and with a desirable job and safe seat (from which he had previously announced he was retiring at the next election), Simmonds seemed to have it all going for him. Yet his farewell to politics is evidence that he does not have it all; certainly not the balanced existence he craves.

For him, the ephemeral buzz of high office gave way to the practicalities of family life. Explaining his move, Simmonds said:

“The allowances that enable Members of Parliament to stay in London while they are away from their families – my family lives in Lincolnshire in my constituency – does not allow me to rent a flat which can accommodate my family, so I very rarely see my family and I have to put family life first.”

“Mr Simmonds” reported the BBC “said the idea of spending another five years rarely seeing his children and staying in a different hotel room each night “’fills me with horror’”.

It’s easy to mock his decision – 90k minister can’t rent a plush London crash pad – but Simmonds has exposed an unsayable aspect at the heart of life in Westminster – that so many MPs, on all sides, are deeply unhappy people.

Many feel they are trying to juggle an important job that doesn’t pay particularly well (sorry, it doesn’t) while clinging on to some kind of a family life and, usually, running two homes (or, in Simmonds’s case a home and a procession of hotel rooms). To this add in the perennial demands of constituents, party workers, and whips, the nagging worry of electoral defeat and the glare of unrelenting media scrutiny.

Of course, MPs will never say any of this for two perfectly understandable reasons. The first is that a hundred other people would happily crawl across broken glass (and much worse besides) to replace them. The second is that the public simply doesn’t give a stuff about how miserable their MPs are. In fact, the more disconsolate they are, the better.

Forget about work-life balance; the political life is all-consuming. It’s a wonder that any MPs’ marriages hold together or that there kids even recognise them. This is why so many compensate by having spouses and children work for them. (This, in turn, earns them a bucket of ordure for milking the expenses system and turning their office into a family business).

Sunday’s Observer reported that 15 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party will resign at next year’s election – twice the rate that retired before Labour’s 1997 landslide. There will of course be a range of individual reasons, but more and more MPs seem to be realising that the all-too-common experience of resentful partners and distant children are sacrifices that are not, in the final analysis, worth making.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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If we can’t access GPs, do we really have a health service at all?

11/08/2014, 10:54:08 AM

by Kevin Meagher

As I sit here nursing a nasty chest infection that I can’t seem to shake off, the crisis in the NHS is brought home to me all too clearly. I can’t get an appointment to see my GP before the end of next week, begging the question that if I cannot access basic healthcare at the point of need, do we in fact have a National Health Service in any meaningful sense at all?

As Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has pointed out, the slump in service standards “is more marked in general practice than anywhere else in the NHS: in 2009/10, four out of five people said they saw a GP within 48 hours; now it is just two in five.”

And it’s set to get worse. A recent poll of GPs suggests average waiting times for a basic appointment are going to stretch to 13 days by next April. Apparently, I should have had the forethought to make an appointment after the first cough.

In response, the government’s NHS Choices website (“Your health, your choices”) suggests that people like me should “consider the alternatives” before bothering their GP. Thankfully, this is just a range of staggeringly inane and nannying ‘advice’ rather than an invitation to seek out a consultation with the village wise woman or medicine man.

Instead of seeing the doctor, “[t]he pharmacist behind the counter at your local chemist may be able to give you the help you need, so you won’t have to spend time waiting for an appointment.” Discussing your medical history within earshot of the queue in Boots certainly offers an interesting approach to patient confidentiality.

If, however, you feel compelled to seek out the kind of informed medical support that we pay our taxes to access when we are ill, the advice is not to forget your manners, especially to the support staff. “Be polite to receptionists. They are busy people who often have to deal with unhappy patients. Being polite to them will encourage them to help you.”

What is the corollary of this extraordinary statement? Patients are not busy people and if some receptionist does not consider a patient to be sufficiently ‘polite’ they will not help them?

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More fizzle than sizzle, Obama is yesterday’s man

23/07/2014, 04:37:40 PM

by Kevin Meagher

The central assumption underpinning Ed Miliband’s 25 minute meeting with Barack Obama the other day is that an audience with the US President makes a British politician walk taller in the eyes of the voters.

Indeed, it sometimes works the other way too. When candidate Obama was seeking to burnish his credentials as a nascent international statesman he met with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Tony Blair. He is later said to have described, Brown as having “substance”, while Cameron was all “sizzle” but Blair was “sizzle and substance”.

But Obama himself has turned out to be more fizzle than sizzle. The 44th US president is now a busted flush. A let-down. A talker, not a do-er. Even his flagship achievement in office – state-subsidised healthcare – hit the legal buffers yesterday.

It may be recoverable, but the failure to implement Obamacare effectively is just the latest in a string of flops that have bedevilled his presidency. His famous campaign mantra of “yes we can” has been reduced to, “no we can’t”. Certainly when it comes to closing down Guantanamo Bay, making headway in the Middle East, protecting Christians from Genocide in Iraq and Syria or even, nearer to home, raising US living standards. Obama simply hasn’t delivered.

In fact, if Ed Miliband wanted to visit a world leader to learn about paying the price of promising big and delivering small, then he could have taken the Eurostar to Paris and met with Francois Hollande and saved himself the air fare to Washington.

The most maddening aspect about Obama – habitué of the golf course these days – is that he is content to just coast along, a second term bed-blocker. Like his infamous drones, he seems to operate on auto-pilot, presiding over an unprecedented retrenchment in US influence around the globe and a sluggish economy at home. (Indeed, a brutal editorial in this week’s Economist describes him as the least business-friendly president in decades).

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Harriet should know better. Loose lips sink ships – and election prospects

17/07/2014, 09:51:16 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Is Harriet Harman the victim of an unfair Tory attack for seeming to suggesting that middle-income earners should pay more tax?

No, she is not. Neither, for that matter, has she been misquoted. She did say that middle-income earners should pay more tax. Labour’s deputy leader was guilty of a clumsy circumlocution, telling LBC radio on Monday that:

 “I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes”.

Let’s be clear, if she was making a general point about the desirability of a progressive taxation system, then fine. Indeed, she seems to have meant:

“I think people on middle incomes should contribute through their taxes”.

But that’s not what she said. She is guilty of committing an unforced error, using unforgivably loose terminology in a broadcast interview. For a senior frontbencher of her experience it was an amateurish thing to do and has played straight into the Tories’ gleeful hands.

Last night she wrote to David Cameron accusing him of telling fibs:

“You claimed at Prime Minister’s Questions today that ‘yesterday Labour announced – in an important announcement – that it is now their policy to put up taxes on middle income people’. This is not true. It is a lie.”

Tory party chairman Grant Schapps has also been busy. He has written to everyone he has an email address for, launching a poster campaign that the Tories must have been itching to release.

Tory poster

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Has Cameron passed the peace pipe to teachers, or raised the white flag?

15/07/2014, 02:15:11 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Last night the big news was William Hague’s exit as foreign secretary, but the real significance of this reshuffle is Michael Gove being moved out of education.

Gove is a bell-weather for the Government’s intellectual self-confidence in a way Hague isn’t. It is in schools policy where the Tories have been truly radical (for good or ill, depending on preference).

Free schools and the acceleration of the academies programme were totemic for Cameron in opposition, providing a solid direction of travel in an area of policy where the Tories struggle to convince people they are on their side.

But Gove’s central problem is that he governs like he’s still a newspaper columnist; dividing opinion with something approaching reckless abandon. Little wonder, then, that in term of teachers’ voting intentions, Labour leads the Conservatives by 43 per cent to 12.

This figure is actually not bad for the government given that a YouGov poll found that just 6 per cent of teachers think that academies and free schools are taking education in ‘the right direction’.

David Cameron may be belatedly recognising that the teaching profession is an area where he can quickly mend fences after Michael Gove has – perhaps too gleefully – spent four years kicking them down. With his education reforms embedded in the system, the scope is there to now pass the peace pipe to the profession and narrow the gap with Labour.

One thing will be certain, his new chief whip will be watching to make sure his boss doesn’t instead wave the white flag on his cherished reforms.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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In bashing trade unions, the Tories are looking a gift horse in the mouth

10/07/2014, 01:54:18 PM

by Kevin Meagher

As part of his efforts in opposition to detoxify the Tories’ brand, David Cameron appointed a turncoat former Labour MEP, Richard Balfe, to build bridges with the trade union movement. There was even feverish talk of a “Clause Four moment” with the hope that Cameron might address the annual conference of the TUC – the only Tory leader in 144 to do so.

It never came to pass and Balfe is long forgotten; but in government, Cameron has pretty much left alone the settlement bequeathed by Labour. There is no love for trade unions, but there has been no return to the malicious nonsense of the 1980s, when trade unionists were dismissed as “the enemy within” and staff at GCHQ were banned from even joining a union.

However, writing in today’s Daily Express, Tory Party Chairman, Grant Schapps, retreats to old habits, scolding “trade union barons” for using today’s one-day stoppage to “disrupt families and schools whenever and wherever they feel like it.” And in a bid to throw red meat to his core vote, Cameron is now floating the idea of applying turnout thresholds to trade union strike ballots.

If fewer than half of union members vote to strike, then it cannot go ahead. To be sure, this is generated by regular RMT action on London Underground which invariably sees a relatively low turnout in strike ballots. (Boris Johnson, in particular, has been rattling his sabre on this issue for ages).

Of course, the double standard – hypocrisy – of a coalition government admonishing trade unions for not achieving a 50 per cent threshold for industrial action, is obvious enough. (For that matter, hardly a single councillor in the UK would be able to take up their seat).

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Sorry Harriet, you weren’t entitled to become Deputy PM

09/07/2014, 07:05:44 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Was Gordon Brown a sexist for not making Harriet Harman deputy prime minister? Harriet seems to think so.  Last night, in a well-trailed speech about sexism in Westminster,she said:

“The truth is that even getting to the top of the political structures is no guarantee of equality. Imagine my surprise when having won a hard-fought election to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader of the Labour party, I discovered that I was not to succeed him as deputy prime minister.

“If one of the men had won the deputy leadership would that have happened? Would they have put up with it?”

It’s hard for this line of argument not to sound self-serving – and indeed it is. However way you stack it up, this is a case of special pleading.

There is no constitutional convention or Labour party rule that means the deputy leader of the party should automatically become deputy prime minister. Indeed, Harriet Harman was not even serving as a cabinet minister before she became deputy leader.

Would it not have been wiser, therefore, for her to have focused her speech on the lack of working-class and ethnic minority women among Labour’s ranks and offer some practical remedy? There was precious little of that in the sections of her speech she leaked to the press yesterday.

Jon Cruddas, the first round ballot winner in the 2007 deputy leadership contest (and who, under first past the post, would currently serve as deputy leader, not Harman) actually stood on a platform of rejecting a cabinet seat so he could instead devote his time to party development.

Of Labour’s sixteen deputy leaders since the role was created in 1922, only two, Herbert Morrison and John Prescott, have actually become deputy prime minister. Prescott is instructive because he is the precedent that Harman cites.

But the comparison is unwarranted.

Prescott had a Unique Selling Point, bringing balance to Labour’s top team as a working-class Northener to Tony Blair’s middle-class Southener. Between them, they provided, respectively, an offer to Labour’s heartland voters and the Middle England ‘enemy territory’ the party needed to occupy in order to win.

It is less clear who Harman represents. Clearly her gender adds some balance to the higher echelons of politics which are still male-dominated. But as the privately-educated daughter of a Harley Street consultant and niece of a hereditary peer, she hardly came up the hard way.

So it wasn’t sexism. The reason Harriet wasn’t made deputy PM is that, unlike Prescott, she simply didn’t serve a useful enough purpose.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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Hyperbole is becoming a bad habit for our political class

30/06/2014, 07:29:35 AM

by Kevin Meagher

If the Scottish referendum on independence is ‘lost’ in September it may be a tad late to reflect that apocalyptic warnings of Caledonia dystopia didn’t exactly help win the case.

Claims in February that Scotland wouldn’t be able to keep the pound – a “masterstroke” concocted by the three main Westminster parties’ frontbenches – were silly enough, leaving the electorate unmoved while playing into the SNP’s hands, showing-up the Westminster elite up as a cosy club.

Last week, however, the ‘hyper’ was well and truly put into ‘hyperbole’ when Ed Miliband floated the idea of border checkpoints if Scots opt for independence. The supplementary question are obvious enough.

Will these checkpoints come with watch towers and Alsatians? Will we see miles of unfurled razorwire stretched across the countryside, just like in The Great Escape?

Hell, why not just rebuild Hadrian’s Wall.

Why can’t we treat the Scots as rational adults?

“Sorry you’re thinking of going. We’ll miss you. There’s nothing at all wrong in embracing your nationhood, but there are a few serious practical downsides. We’ll respect your wishes, but, out of friendship, we want to discuss these and try to persuade you to stay.”

Surely that’s better than threatening them with Checkpoint Charlie?

Alas, too many Westminster politicians, schooled in that ghastly student union habit of painting debates into tiny corners in order to make broader points, think this is how you shape public opinion.

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