Monday, May 02, 2005

Who let the dog out?

I now have my first election wound: a small nick on my right ankle, put there by an irate (Tory?) Yorkshire Terrier who took exception to my delivery-round of Lib Dem leaflets in the nearby hamlet of Llanigon. I happily admit to a 'Big dog, no leaflet' policy, but this bastard looked small enough to ignore. How wrong I was.

Such was my return to the electoral coalface, after slightly more glamorous engagements in Cambridge and Birmingham. For the former, I was part of a 4-person panel with top novelist Alison Pearson, top political scientist Kieron O'Hara (whose book After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher is recommended without qualification, even in hardback), and top Tory frontbencher Andrew Lansley. AL seemed like a nice chap, an impression only furthered by the fact that he voted against attacking Iraq on account of a staunch belief in International Law. He did, however, talk the usual twaddle about the need to marketise the public services, and attempted to claim that M.Howard's lovely policy announcements on screening immigrants for disease were born out of a sincere concern for 'public health issues'.

In vain, I suggested that behind every policy initiative lurks a calculation: who will this play well with? And the answer here, surely, was: 'Nasty bigots who equate foreigners with dirt and illness.' He denied it for the best part of 10 minutes, though looked distinctly uneasy when doing so.

In B'ham, I made a fleeting contribution to the regional bit of the Politics Show, standing on a canal bank next to a branded BBC barge, watched by lunching families and BMX youths. I was talking about Iraq and its possible role in what top presenter Adrian Goldberg called 'the multicultural Midlands'. And off I went: 'Trust... Birmingham Yardley... last year's byelections... Gisela Stuart...the tories have no room to talk, oh no.' Might have sold me some books, I suppose. And though I only found out later, the prog went out on a big screen near Central Library.

After such glamour, it was good to get back on the campaign trail. It was even nicer to watch at least 2 people actually reading their 4-page Lib Dem 'newspapers', seemingly disguised so the gullible might believe they've been handed a genuine local rag. The one in the constituency of Hereford is called Hereford Matters, and contains such headlines as 'Kennedy family baby joy'; across the border in Brecon & Radnorshire, I hand out the Brecon & Radnorshire Post - whose splashes include 'Roger Williams applauds new innovative police initiative' and 'Ambulance cover inadequate, says Roger Williams'.

Now I want 'Rampant Yorkshire Terriers deserve ASBOs, says Roger Williams'.

While I'm here, we have but three days until the political equivalent of Christmas. We want to keep the site running, in some form, and invite your comments and suggestions as part of a very New Labour Consulation process. Only ours may actually count for something.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Birmingham, Birmingham

This comes from an internet caff in the West Midlands, where there are but 22 minutes left on the clock. I'm here to do a book event at the local Borders, where (I hope) disillusioned Labourites will drink Starbucks, and nod sagely as I tell them what they probably already know. One ace, however, has fallen into my lap: the sudden entry of Iraq into the campaign, which at least provides me with an opportunity to imply that something exciting has happened, as opposed to the council tax/jamie oliver/speed humps 'debates' of the last few weeks.

Oh, and I'll also probably give it some about the Tories' myopic campaign on Immigration, the focus of a bit of mild rucking at cambridge on Saturday, where I discussed the looming election as part of a panel that also included Tory frontbencher Andrew Lansley. I'll write more about this tomorrow.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

On Tour (Express)

(First, a word of explanation: I recently moved from London W12 to the Welsh/English borders, where hickory smoke wafts over smallholdings, and the Trumpton clock rings out the quiet passage of whole years)

At last: the doorbell rings, and it is the local Lib Dems, gamely defending their 800-vote majority over the Tories (their local site is here). We have two Orange Posters in the window, and I'm zealously gung-ho about assisting their leaflet deliveries. This feels more than a little strange, given the serial occasions in my youth when canvassing for Labour would be punctuated by encounters with LDs who could only sneer and stare at the floor, but what the hell: it feels like a kind of developed version of Tactical Voting. Just about.

And apparently, they sorely need us - not so much in my local seat of Brecon & Radnorshire, but just over the border. This is a key Tory target seat, where being nasty towards foreigners is playing well - by way of proving how seriously the Cons are taking it, Sandra Howard was up the other day. Duly terrified, I intend to stop by the LDs office this afternoon, and receive instructions to brave big dogs/quad-bikes/you name it and get out on the stump in the village of Cusop.

(NB: Last time I was politically active, I was handing out leaflets for K.Livingstone outside Shepherd's Bush tube. I think this may be less fun.)

The Lib Dem visit came mere hours after I'd come back from a big old election trip, taking in the North West, London and Cardiff. First, we were making a film for the BBC about tactical voting, flipping around Cheadle (Lib Dem/Tory marginal, held by 33 (!) votes), Oldham East & Saddleworth (Labour/Lib Dem) and Altrincham & Sale West (Tory/Labour). It was an instructive experience, proving 1)that the public are a little more sophisticated than they're given credit for, and 2)For all the good cheer provided by the polls, Iraq is still causing Labour trouble.

In Cheadle, we had no problem finding natural Labour voters who were tactically switching, for fear of a Tory revival. Saturday morning shoppers seemed long used to the tactical idea, and the imperative of using it to (as one lifelong Labour fella put it) "stop the people who ran the country for 18 years and ruined it". Similarly, an hour's stop in the Pennine village of Delph found plenty of Tories who were thinking of voting Lib Dem to unseat Phil Woolas MP. But!!!

In Altrincham, people who had once supported New Labour in the service of attempting to get rid of the Tory MP could no longer be persuaded: Iraq had got to them, and they were sticking with the Lib Dems. Such was the theory of Tactical Unwind, manifested outside Rackham's Department Store.

Then I went to London, to debate the future of the Labour Party and the issues at stake in the campaign with the venerable David Aaronovitch, soon to cease yelling at the liberal middle classes over their All Bran and depart The Observer for The Times. This may not be much of a revelation, but his debating technique recurrently consists of reducing his opponent's position to an ugly caricature and then piling in (but I can take it). I take comfort from an e-mail sent the next day from a friend, which described DA as a "centrist tankie, all hard edges and strut", while I was "more left - but more discursive and open". The volume of Joe 90 glasses and nice suits initially suggested I was being hurled to the Blairite lions, but no: hats off in particular to the young man & woman who so enthusiastically agreed with my contention that no-one under 25 would join the Labour Party until it had lanced the Iraq boil.

Were DA to blog his take on what happened, he would doubtless make reference to several occasions on which he got one over, so I will spare you much of that and describe only one: when this self-styled scourge of Dinner Party lefties said health policy was best based on the idea that people - like him - wanted "to decide how their individual health spend was allocated" (or similar). This, I said, sounded like exactly the kind of sentiment you only hear in close proximity to Shiraz, Angels On Horseback etc.

And then to Cardiff for a 10pm-1am endurance test on 5 Live involving saxophones, Charlotte Church's mum, and a Plaid Cymru health spokesman who was something of an advert for the precise opposite.

I returned home knackered, inevitably. And now I must go and get my leaflets.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Holding your nerve

I did an online Q&A for The Times yesterday (it's here). In answer to a point about the Brown/Blair wars and whether they were reflective of the cliched Old/New Labour dichotomy, I advised the questioner to forget about all that and focus instead on the supposedly most crucial debate within the Labour Party: the one between those advocating "a modernised social democracy in which the non-market, collectivist basis of the public services is enhanced and updated and we finally address the UK's deep-seated social inequality", and people like TB and Milburn who seem to favour "a society in which choice and competition define just about our whole experience, and inequality worsens under the see-through guise of 'meritocracy'.

I wrote what I had to say early that morning, a bit before I'd had chance to digest the upshot of Labour's Weakest Link-esque manifesto launch. I will admit that, in a spirit of slightly credulous optimism, I intended the bit about modernised social democracy to at least obliquely refer to the more rose-tinted perceptions of Gordon Brown and his followers. And then came his contribution to yesterday's bunfight, offering up ringing endorsements of increased private involvement in the public services (along with their marketisation) and underlining Labour's refusal to up the top rate of tax. Perhaps this was mere positioning: a public statement of agreement of some of Tony Blair's more objectionable ideas so as TB can at least save face, before a Brown leadership commences at least a partial rethink. But maybe (probably?!) not.

Before New Labour's new-found friendlines towards the party's one-time support base (witness Monday's hype on their developing world agenda) works us into a misplaced spirit of reconciliation, consider what the manifesto says about exactly the kind of domestic policies to which may of us take such exception:

- On schools: 'Where new educational providers can help boost standards and opportunities in a locality, we will welcome them... We support the Academies movement.' Ergo a restatement of belief in state schools run by the likes of the Vardy Foundation and Dixon's, and continued neglect of the fact that Academies are the very embodiment of a two-tier schools system.

- On hospitals: 'Expansion in the capacity of the NHS will come from both within the health service... as well as from the independent and voluntary sector.' Defenders of the government are wont to make much of John Reid's suggested ceiling of 15% on private provision. Yesterday, Mr Blair said that represented an 'arbitrary limit'. One question: are there any long-term safeguards against private providers eventually going the way of dentists and offering two levels of service: basic NHS, and souped-up treatment for those who can afford it?

And note: the idea of setting schools and hospitals in competition with one another remains. There is still no answer of what will happen to the poor-performing S&Hs that thereby fall by the wayside.

So - I think I feel as anxious about a third Blair landslide as ever. And if this manifesto counts for much, a Brown takeover mightn't hugely reduce my dread.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

I wonder should I get up and fix myself a drink...No no no

After a busy old week spent bouncing between a phone interview with Nick Clarke done at Swindon station, lecturing a group of academics on the deep-pile genius of The Smiths and then assisting in the inputting of a new chunk of constituencies, I am now pausing for a drink and a cough. A proper posting will go up tomorrow. In the meantime, readers might like to have a look at a piece about the washed-out nature of the Election Campaign that I wrote for this week's New Statesman. It's at:

Speak to you tomorrow, kind of thing.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Luton South, Peter Hain and these crazy times

The other day, a Labour Party contact told me a friend had run into Peter Hain, just back from a trip around a slew of marginal constituencies. He apparently seemed rather shaken, perhaps fearing losses that the national polls couldn’t even begin to predict. Hence, we can only assume, PH’s recent article(s) warning of the apocalyptic consequences of not voting Labour, lest it results in a Tory government.

I mention this for two reasons. 1)The majority of people who use this site would argue that our choices at the election are not nearly as desiccated/binary as Hain makes out: you can protest-vote in all kinds of Labour seats without any fear of letting a Tory in, and 2)There are a run of marginal(ish) seats in which a Progressive alternative to the sitting Labour MP or candidate is a realistic prospect. Admittedly, there aren’t nearly as many of these as some of us would like, but they’ll assume a totemic importance if any them go the right way.

Interestingly, some of these seats seem to have jumped from nowhere: look at the contest between ex-minister Barbara Roche and a Lib Dem challenger in Hornsey & Wood Green, for example (see for an impressionistic take on it, and have a look at the SNWDWVF H&WG forum).

Elsewhere, as I scan the relevant statistics, seats that look halfway safe for Labour can begin to seem shaky. On the Constituency Info bit of the Open Forum, for example, there’s a kind of pre-emptive post about Luton South, where the 2001 stats were as follows:

Margaret Moran, Labour 21,719 55.2%
Gordon Henderson, Conservative 11,586 29.4%
Rabi Martins, Liberal Democrat 4,292 10.9%
Marc Scheimann, Green Party 798 2.0%
Charles Lawman, UK Independence Party 578 1.5%
Joe Hearne, Socialist Alliance 271 0.7%

Moran, needless to say, does not seem to represent the forces of anti-Blairism. The regular poster named Carlton thus writes: “Margaret Moran no longer deserves her job. And so it is better that she should go, even if a Tory should get in.” I disagree with the sentiment, of course, but forget about the crude swingometer maths that suggests the Tories need a 12.5% surge to take this - victory may be easier than it appears. This is reductive arithmetic, but...

Suppose, fired up by the war (among other factors), 10,000 Labour voters go elsewhere. The Lib Dems, entirely justifiably, get 8,000 of them, while 2,000 go for the Michael Howard line on crime, immigration, speed humps etc. and jump ship to the Tories. Suddenly, we’re in a 3-way marginal - and the Tories narrowly take it with 13,000-odd votes. Given the size of the Muslim community in Luton, I dare say a scenario like this one could come to pass. Factor in the possibility of large-scale abstention by ex-Labour voters, and who knows what will happen?

So, no wonder Mr Hain was looking so rattled. There are a lot of seats with numbers like this.

And, just to round things off, hats off to Kit for responding to the argument that anti-Blairites should effectively embrace Tory successes in seats like this as follows: “I’m not convinced that New Labour will look at seat-losses to the Tories as chips away at their progressive flank. Political commentators may view it that way if that’s what the actual figures suggest, but Blair will just see the need to triangulate further.”

This argument will roll on...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Goodbye - as Paul Weller once put it - "Uncle Jimmy"

Farewell then, Jim Callaghan - the only other Labour Prime Minister of whom I have memories, albeit very vague: the lights snapping off on winter afternoons, shortages of toilet roll and potatoes (I think), the evening in 1979 when my Dad reacted to the late news on the radio with the dejected acknowledgement that the other side had done it. I skimmed through a Dictionary Of Quotations in search of a Callaghan pronouncement that might shine light on the modern world, but couldn’t find much of any use, aside from this:

“A lie can be half-way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

... Which is 1)Rather banal, and 2)Unwittingly, a little Goebbels-esque. Anyway, let us also remind ourselves that Callaghan attempted to institute Scots and Welsh devolution, to no avail; presided over a Labour Party that, in response to his government’s failings, began the lurch into unelectability that would mark the 1980s; and hung on until 1979, rather than calling an election in 1978 that he may well have won. Counterfactual history is a pretty pointless game, but that possibility throws up an alternative eighties - and ‘90s, and “noughties” - that I could talk about for hours (and probably will).

However, given the obligation to accentuate the dead’s positives, let us also remind ourselves of a historical fact: using the EU definition, poverty in the UK rose from 4.4m in 1979 to 10.4m in 1989, and to 12.5 million in 2003. In other words, JC presided over a society that was, by the standards of the Thatcher, Major and Blair eras, heartwarmingly egalitarian. Perhaps we should remember that.