Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Meagher’

Moderation and competence – the building blocks of political credibility

02/06/2015, 09:43:42 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Asked to sum-up his personal credo, the late political theorist Bernard Crick described himself as a moderate socialist. “Small ‘m’ capital ‘S’.  Clever and apt, especially as moderation has always been a useful ally for the democratic socialist.

All the more so given the sceptical British distrust political grandiosity and anything that sounds too fancy, which is why Lord Woolton, the post-war Conservative party chairman, insisted on referring to Labour as “the socialists” during the 1950s in order to make the party seem alien and doctrinaire.

Yet here we are again, with Labour cast as dirigiste meddlers with their price freezes, rent controls and nationalisation in an era where people are, broadly, comfortable with consumer choice and free enterprise. Tread softly if you are to venture into this field. Alas, clod-hopping Labour chose to insert its size 12s into the bear trap clearly marked “anti-business”. It is a crude charge for a party, which, on closer examination, is equally committed to “maintaining the most competitive Corporation Tax rate in the G7,” but such characterisations are the stuff of election campaigns and the party should have known better.

Allied with the desirability for political moderation is the need to be credible. If Labour has spent the past five years carelessly forfeiting its reputation for prudence and restraint, it was actively reckless in disregarding the need to be seen as basically competent and trustworthy.‘Don’t Do Stupid S***, warns Barack Obama, yet the party did. Repeatedly.

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As usual, the Blairites bring a knife to a gunfight

20/05/2015, 05:44:50 PM

by Kevin Meagher

It’s not fair. That seems to be the message from Blairite veterans at how the nascent Labour leadership contest is shaping up. A seemingly co-ordinated attempt to appeal for offside is underway, with complaints about the leading candidates’ campaigning efforts and the role of the trade unions in the process.

Former health secretary, Alan Milburn, was at it on Newsnight the other day, saying that for “one or two candidates being assumed to be the font of all wisdom in this race is just not right.” He wants an open field, which is code for anyone but Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper.

Lady Sally Morgan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, also weighed in, claiming it’s both “arrogant and plain wrong” for there to be only two candidates in the frame.

Barry Sheerman, the Huddersfield sage, has come over all Inspector Renault and is shocked – shocked – that “Unite’s merry men” have the temerity, as an affiliated organisation for the past 100 years, to have their say in the process.

Meanwhile John Hutton, former DWP secretary, is equally sniffy about union involvement, pointing out that only a  ”tiny proportion of the population are in trade unions.” (Not, though, in the Barrow shipyard he used to represent in Parliament, presumably?)

Moaning that Labour MPs – who are free to back whomsoever they wish –  are currently breaking cover in greater numbers for either Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham is like complaining that rain is wet. Indeed, for a wing of the party committed to consumer choice, it’s a strange gripe to have.

The Blairites – if, indeed, such a description still has any coherence – should perhaps have been better prepared for the possibility that Labour might have ended-up having a leadership contest in the latter half of 2015.

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Burnham the healer casts himself as ‘someone people can relate to’

13/05/2015, 10:39:30 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Andy Burnham has become the third candidate to launch a bid for the Labour leadership in a video message released this evening.

In a noticeably slicker message than the one Chuka Ummuna used to launch his campaign earlier this week, Burnham said last week’s election result had seen Labour lose “its emotional connection with millions of people.”

“The way to get it back,” he said, “can’t possibly be to choose one group of voters over another – to speak only to people on zero-hours contracts or only to shoppers at John Lewis.”

This was a dig at potential rival Tristram Hunt who earlier this week said the party needed to appeal to people who shop at the upmarket retailer.

“Our challenge,” Burnham claimed, “is not to go left or right, to focus on one part of the country above another, but to rediscover the beating heart of Labour.”

He argued that the party needed to meet “the aspirations of everyone, speaking to them like we did in 1997.”

He defined aspiration – quickly becoming the buzz phrase de jour of this nascent campaign – as “the dream of a better life.”

He added that it was about “helping all of our businesses, small and large, to get on and grow.”

Casting himself as a unifier with broad appeal, Burnham argued that Labour wins “when it speaks to everyone and for the whole country, for Middle England but also Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

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Will Labour survive a drawn-out leadership contest?

13/05/2015, 10:22:55 AM

by Kevin Meagher

The inside of the Labour party is beginning to feel like a tense family funeral, just before the point when everyone starts drinking.

There’s a lot of unreconciled psychological baggage as we await the National Executive Committee’s decision about whether it will institute a short leadership process, or stretch it out to the September party conference, or, indeed, beyond.

The problem is that years’ worth of sleights, rivalries, anguish, antagonisms and things that have been left unsaid have all built up. If invited to have a drawn-out discussion about why the party lost, it is inevitable that this will lead to family members’ pulling each other’s hair out as they send Granddad’s ashes flying.

In its soul, Labour is a party of deep divisions (personal and social as well as in terms of emphasis and priority). When a colleague remarked that Herbert Morrison was “his own worst enemy” Ernest Bevin famously snarled, “not while I’m alive he ain’t.” The decade-long drama between Blair and Brown (“the TB, GBs”) was merely symptomatic of this same psychosis.

These tensions are usually capped by the affected manners and superficial pleasantries of the party’s generals. Everyone is nice to each other’s face. Get behind that carapace, however, and it’s a different story.

During a Labour leadership contest, it is not enough for candidates to put themselves forward and explain what they would do, they also need to define themselves against their opponents.

So while your candidacy may represent The Last Hope, the only possible choice of any sentient adult; your opponents are, in contrast, sell-outs, lickspittles, lightweights, too associated with the past, too untested, too naïve, too unpopular, too Blairite, or not Blairite enough, et cetera, ad infinitum.

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Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3…

11/05/2015, 07:00:37 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Of course, it would be pretty difficult to pen a piece entitled: ’10 reasons it’s not as bad as it seems for Labour,’ but as the dust settles on last Thursday’s calamitous result, there is cause for optimism – cautious optimism – that the task of rebuilding Labour’s position is not as hopeless as many assume.

  1. Policy isn’t a mess

First off, the party’s positioning in terms of its policy offer is actually pretty good. The manifesto was not “the longest suicide note in history” as 1983’s version was famously described. Sure, there’s work to do in dialling-down some of the rhetoric that has made it so easy to characterise the party as anti-business, but Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s policy supremo, must have had an eye on the long term because there is a lot here to salvage (apart from that wretched headstone).

By way of illustration, there was no real moment during the campaign where a Labour policy unravelled under scrutiny, or different shadow ministers found themselves saying different things. That’s what commonly used to happen in the 1980s.

And for those pointing out that, electorally, Labour is now 100 seats behind the Tories, just as it was in 1987, consider that, back then, the party was committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Ed Miliband was promising to renew Trident. There is no massive internecine struggle in prospect in order to get policy in the right place.

  1. SNP and UKIP insurgencies will fade

Nicola Sturgeon and the unresigned Nigel Farage, now have it all to prove. Both parties haven’t so much evolved as exploded out of the test tube.

Both have benefitted from charismatic leaders exploiting their (relative) outsiderness and a (temporary) decline in the fortunes of the mainstream parties.

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Miliband should learn from Irish Labour’s pains

07/12/2014, 09:10:51 PM

by Kevin Meagher

The dangers of being a junior coalition partner are obvious enough – ask Nick Clegg – but across the Irish Sea, the example is, if anything, even starker.

The Irish Labour party has been the junior coalition partner to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael since 2011; administering painful austerity measures as Ireland grapples with the horrendous aftermath of its banking and property bubble explosion.

Now, the party has plummeted to just six per cent in the latest poll for the Irish Times, down from a high of 35 per cent in September 2010 before it went into government.

Along the way, Labour has lost one leader, Eamon Gilmore, a former Marxist turned moderate, who resigned as party leader, Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and minister for foreign affairs and trade, following disastrous local election results earlier this year, narrowly escaping a no confidence motion from his own grassroots.

In a Sir Humphreyish back-handed compliment, Taoiseach Enda Kenney praised the Labour party for being “courageous” in pushing through painful economic reforms, which now include household water charges. This seems to be the measure that has now galvanised the country against austerity.

So much so, that Labour’s new leader, Joan Burton, was trapped in her car for three hours last month, surrounded by slogan-chanting protestors. In echoes of the poll tax in Britain, today’s opinion poll also shows less than half the Irish public (48 per cent) intend to actually pay the charge.

All this has been grist to the mill for Sinn Fein, topping today’s poll as Ireland’s most popular political party, with Gerry Adams also the most popular politician in the republic. The Shinners are now well-placed to form part of the next government at the 2016 general election.

But the Irish Labour party’s problems are not cyclical. A pincer movement between Sinn Fein and left-wing independents has squeezed the electoral life out of them.  Even the Irish Independent, known for its aggressive propagandising against Sinn Fein, warns today that Labour “continues to struggle to avoid a…meltdown” as it loses ground in all directions.

But as Labour lies dead in the water, its coalition partner, Fine Gael, is still deemed to be the best party for managing Ireland’s relations with the EU, growing the economy and keeping spending under control.

The lesson for Ed Miliband is obvious enough: implementing austerity measures kills centre-left parties. So how does he avoid a similar fate? As he peers beyond May 2015, he needs to take a lesson from Enda Kenny instead.

He is navigating a political course through austerity by managing expectations and being realistic about the scale of the task at hand. By setting the ground early that there are no easy choices to be made, Kenny is showing that amid the howls of protest, it is at least possible to avoid cries of betrayal.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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Scrapping RDAs has made Osborne’s task harder

06/12/2014, 07:27:27 PM

By Kevin Meagher

As the Tories’ main political strategist, George Osborne knows only too well that winning the next election means convincing people they’re getting better off, or soon will be. In the next six months, his task is to make sure the warm rays of economic prosperity are felt across all parts of the country.

Yet as the dust settles on the Autumn Statement, recovery remains stubbornly uneven and tackling Britain’s asymmetric economy, split between a galloping London and South East and, at best, a cantering North and Midlands, looks as forlorn a prospect as it has for the past three decades.

Yet the bodies set up by Labour in 1998 to narrow these deep economic disparities – the nine English regional development agencies – were in coalition ministers’ crosshairs from day one. To Conservative eyes, RDAs were quintessentially old Labour. The state getting involved in promoting economic growth.

While the concept of “regions” was an unwelcome affectation, dreamt up by John Prescott in all his pomp running the sprawling Department of Environment, Transport and Regions.

In fact, David Cameron used his first major speech as prime minister to herald a different approach to driving local growth. It mattered little that the boards of the RDAs were private sector-led. Or that there was strong business support for retaining the northern agencies in particular. Or, indeed, that they were actually succeeding in their task of boosting growth. (In 2009, PriceWaterhouse Coopers calculated that the economic value they generated was equivalent to £4.50 for every £1 of public money invested).

But the RDAs fate was sealed because the Lib Dems didn’t think much of them either. Business secretary Vince Cable suggested scrapping them himself in a paper for the Reform think tank before the 2010 election. So when the “bonfire of the quangos” was lit, the English RDAs were the Guy Fawkes effigy placed right at the top of the pyre.

Since then, ministers have created a total of 39 local enterprise partnerships – effectively mini-RDAs but without the budgets – or the experienced staff – to drive local growth. This disjointed, stop-start approach, just as the economy was going through the bumpy 2010-12 period, was one of the more politically indulgent things the government has done.

And, potentially, one of the more politically costly.

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Saint and sinner. Genius and villain. The many aspects of Gordon Brown

02/12/2014, 02:35:22 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Much has and will be written about Gordon Brown and about how he divides opinion both in British politics and, not least, in the party he once led. The many contradictions of his complex personality are already well chronicled.

A “moral compass” awkwardly spliced with low cunning. Big-hearted compassion for the poor matched with unrelenting brutality towards opponents. An expansive intellect married to occasional political stupidity.

At the root of it all, however, he was an outstanding social democrat, one of a select few Labour ministers – Bevan and Crosland spring to mind – who have left an indelible mark on British society.

He was undoubtedly Labour’s finest chancellor, using the role to rehydrate key public services, trebling spending on the NHS and doubling it for education. This alone will see his impact echo. But he also, for a time, brought about full employment and presided over the longest continuous period of growth since records began in the late 18th Century. Even his later failings to manage spending, against the vortex of the global banking crisis, will pale against his many achievements.

He was certainly our most political chancellor, using the office to pursue an unrelenting social democratic agenda in a way none of his Labour predecessors ever managed. Snowden, Dalton, Cripps, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Jenkins and Healy. Each of them found themselves at the mercy of events, implementing austerity measures in failing governments, dashing dreams and triggering internecine feuding in the process. Brown, for a good while at least, seemed to have mastered political alchemy.

“No more boom and bust” may seem a hollow boast now, but not when he used to make it. He made the whole of British politics believe it too. His intellectual dominance was, for most of his decade-long tenure as Chancellor, total. This explains why his Conservative opponents hated him so intensely, while admiring Blair.

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Sorry Emily, you had to go

28/11/2014, 12:05:00 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Emily Thornberry is a week late with her spin.

In an interview with the Islington Tribune, her “truck-driving, builder brother,” Ben, refutes accusations that his sister is a snob after infamously tweeting a photograph of a house displaying England flags with a white van in the drive, blaming her demise on “cut-throat and dirty politics”.

Really, when in a hole, stop digging.

Now she has brought her brother into the equation, Ms Thornberry has given license to any national newspaper to crawl around and see if, indeed, Ben Thornberry, is a tradesman (implied but not actually stated in the piece). “Builder” can cover anything from semi-skilled scaffolder, through to millionaire property developer. Expect to find out more in the Mail on Sunday or The Sun.

But none if this alters the fact most people aren’t ex-barristers living in three million pound houses married to high court judges with honorary titles. Moreover, unlike Lady Nugee, most people’s dads don’t go on to become the assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.  She should have known better than to sneer at the voters for her lofty perch.

So, Ed Miliband was entirely right to be furious with her for that stupid tweet. It allowed the government to wriggle off the hook on the day it lost a safe seat in a by-election. It should have been open season on David Cameron. Instead, Labour spent three days defending its credentials as the party of hard-working people.

Emily Thornberry made an unforced error and in this age of political professionalism it was right she got the sack for making it.

The lesson for other Labour MPs is that they should try knocking on doors rather than photographing them.

And if you’re going to display your proletarian credentials, better make sure they’re fireproof.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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How does Miliband respond to UKIP? By embracing Blue Labour

27/11/2014, 05:02:39 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Ed Miliband was probably right to junk his “One Nation” theme from his last Labour conference speech. We aren’t one nation in any meaningful sense. The disintegrative effects of devolution over the past 15 years – most recently the near miss in the Scottish referendum – have massive implications for British politics, which we’re only just beginning to process.

Most obviously, these include the declining share of the vote for the two big parties and the rise of UKIP, the Greens and the SNP. Indeed, as people begin to articulate differing – and sometimes contradictory – demands, the established parties struggle to provide a wrap-around offer that pleases everyone.

In this Brave New World, the elasticity of our two main parties is being sorely tested. It’s right there under our noses. Scottish Labour is looking left to reconnect with lost voters, with Jim Murphy promising to reinstate a 50p top tax rate. In stark contrast, the London party is moving right as MPs like Tessa Jowell – hoping to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor – refuse to back the Mansion Tax, in case it sends the wrong message to aspirational voters.

Then there’s the problem with the base. How does Labour stop its heartlands falling to UKIP? As Michael Merrick argued the other day, “in all too many places it [Labour] has failed to hold its voice at the heart of the communities from which it originally sprung”. He concludes the party is in “no position” to fight UKIP in many of its seats, or even “to speak with authenticity to that social and cultural angst from which UKIP is siphoning support.”

His solution is for Ed Miliband to embrace the Blue Labour agenda, or at least to find space for it in the overall approach. After all, it speaks to a broad constituency of both working-class and middle -voters who cleave to a small ‘c’ conservatism that the liberal-left doesn’t really understand, less still, want to engage with. It’s a politics that values tradition, respect, family, reciprocity, community and has a powerful sense of place.

In his ‘relaunch speech’ the other week, Ed Miliband hit a bum note by scorning UKIP for appealing to precisely these people. Indeed, for many young, liberal-left professionals – rootless, urban modernists with no children – this is all a bit puzzling, backward even.

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