‘As Nicola Sturgeon demands more powers, is a second Scottish independence vote inevitable? Yes.’, CityAM, 18 May 2015

The genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste out of the tube. Pick whichever metaphor you like, but be sure of one thing: it’s a case of “when”, not “if”. The SNP is simply biding its time, waiting for its chance. As soon as Nicola Sturgeon thinks that she stands a decent chance of another crack at independence, she’ll go for it – especially if she can claim a mandate after elections to Holyrood next year. Obviously, it’s not totally up to her. Whoever is in Number Ten at the time will have to consent to it. What choice will they have? Scotland’s right to self-determination has already been established by David Cameron agreeing to hold last year’s referendum. Attempting to deny Scots a second bite at the cherry, or even just trying to delay things, would simply boost the Yes campaign when another vote is eventually held. It will happen – and maybe sooner rather than later.

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‘It’s the economy, stupid: time to regain credibility?’, Progress, 19 May 2015

Restoring Labour’s reputation for economic competence – or perhaps I should say resuscitating or even raising it from the dead – has to be the number one task for whoever becomes its new leader.  It may sound, and it may well be, a lot less sexy than, say, holding endless seminars on how to win back the so-called working class.  But, with all due respect to Blue Labour devotees who argue (not unreasonably, I should add) that identity politics matters too, it is the sine qua non of doing precisely that – indeed, of winning back voters of all classes and none.

There has been a lot of talk over the last week or so of the parallels between 1992 and 2010 – not all of them depressing for those on the centre-left.  After all, John Major’s Tory government, re-elected after unexpectedly crushing Neil Kinnock’s Labour ended up tearing itself apart over Europe and then going down just five years later to one of its biggest ever defeats.

But this forgets one big thing.  Europe may, indeed, have messed mightily with Major’s majority, but what really did for him was Black Wednesday. Britain’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism blew the Conservatives’ hard-earned reputation for competence almost overnight – a political catastrophe that not even Ken Clarke’s near-textbook stewardship of the economy between 1993 and 1997 could do anything about.

Obviously, Black Wednesday was also something of a black swan – an event with massive impact that almost no-one saw coming.  By definition, then, it is not impossible that an economic shock that none of us can imagine right now could come along and do exactly the same to Cameron’s government as Black Wednesday did to Major’s.  But, for the moment it looks unlikely.

That means that Labour’s recovery of its reputation for economic competence is going to be a matter of blood, toil, tears and sweat – a war of attrition than one of movement.

Whether Labour can win that war depends partly, of course, on whether it can capitalise on the government’s failings.  It is easy to forget that Blair and Brown did not reduce the Major’s Tory rabble to rubble just by offering the country what Jon Cruddas would call a more convincing ‘national story’, but by pounding them day-in-and-day-out with relentlessly negative attacks.  By the same token, it was not simply the ‘white heat of technology’ that won it for Wilson.  It was his merciless pillorying of a prime minister who had once been unwise enough to make a self-deprecating joke about needing matchsticks to help him get his head around tricky economic problems.

Attack will only get Labour so far, however.  Ultimately, restoring its reputation will depend on its own offer.  Quite what that is, and how it differs from Ed Miliband’s, will need working out.  But, whatever it is, it needs to be worked out quickly.  Fearing hostages to fortune, and wanting to keep as much of the labour movement as possible on board for as long as possible, the two Eds only came up with something vaguely coherent a year or so out from May 2015.  It turned out to be way too little – and, just as importantly, way too late.

Nor was the two Eds’ offer, or indeed their critique of what the Conservatives were doing, ever couched in words that made easy, common sense to most voters.  Where, for instance, was the Labour equivalent of George Osborne’s masterly ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’?  And what could it be between now and 2020?

Finally, whoever becomes leader needs to decide what he or she is going to do and say about the accusation which that phrase so cruelly embodies.

It is not easy: it is clearly economically illiterate, and also politically risky, to admit that the last Labour government ’overspent’ and somehow got us into the mess that in reality was caused by a global financial crisis and the need to avert what might otherwise have been a full-blown depression.

Sadly, however, that is what far too many voters now believe.  And the chances of getting them to believe anything else at this stage seem remote in the extreme.  Trying to do so is tantamount to telling them that they are wrong and you are right – never a great way to win elections.

Maybe, then, to quote Blair’s public opinion guru, Philip Gould, it is time to ‘concede and move on’.  There cannot be many of us who, in order to repair a relationship we really care about, have never said sorry even though we weren’t really sure that we were ever really in the wrong.

For those who can’t bear the thought of reducing high politics to the way we conduct our private lives, we should end by returning to the prime minister who first coined the phrase ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’.

Winston Churchill, addressing the Commons after taking on the top job after the debacle in Norway in May 1940, went on to say something that, seventy-five years later, should resonate with every member of the Labour Party. ‘You ask’, he intoned, ‘what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror.  Victory, however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.’

[Originally published at http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2015/05/19/its-the-economy-stupid-time-to-regain-credibility/]

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‘What should Cameron do next’, Conservative Home, 17 May 2015

‘The problems of victory’, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in November 1942, ‘are more agreeable than the problems of defeat, but they are no less difficult.’

As a pragmatist and a realist, David Cameron almost certainly realises this is the case. May 7th was a triumph – a vindication even. But the majority he won was narrow. And it doesn’t simply wash away all his problems. Indeed it makes some of them even worse.

The parliamentary party, for instance, may be easier to manage because jobs can be given to Tories rather than Lib Dems. But gratitude is one of politics’ most perishable commodities. And many Conservative ultras are about to discover that the reason they can’t get what they want (on climate change and energy policy, on welfare cuts, on immigration, on terrorism, on human rights, on grammar schools, on trade union reforms, and on EVEL/Scotland) has far less to do with their former coalition partners than it does with parliamentary, legal, international, and electoral realities.

The PM, one suspects, hardly needs anyone to tell him this. Or to remind him that his mandate is too small and shaky for him to hare off in the direction that some of his more zealous supporters (not least those who were busy sharpening their knives for him before his stunning victory) will demand. Whatever modernisation meant, it meant not departing too far, rhetorically at least, from the centre-ground.

With that in mind, what Mr Cameron needs to do now is to work out what, in his heart of hearts, he really wants as his legacy and then focus, laser-like, on that. It speaks volumes that so many of us still aren’t entirely sure what that ‘that’ actually is. Tell us, Prime Minister. Then get cracking. The clock’s already ticking.

[Originally published at http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2015/05/we-ask-our-panel-what-should-cameron-do-next.html]

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Where did it go wrong for Ed Miliband, New Statesman, 12 May 2015

So Ed Miliband has joined the roster of Labour leaders never to have become Prime Minister, and already plenty of people have been more than happy to tell anyone who’ll listen that they always knew he was a loser.

Many of those people have defaulted straight to the idea that Labour picked ‘the wrong Miliband’ in the first place.  This is counterfactual nonsense.  Out of a field seemingly dominated by fortysomething Oxbridge graduates who looked to most voters like they’d never done a proper day’s work outside politics in their lives, the party (surprise, surprise) picked the Miliband who’d taken the trouble to work out how best to win over those doing the picking – the Miliband who’d bothered to build good working relationships with the unions and to chat to his parliamentary colleagues regardless of their rank.  The latter, along with the fact that ‘Team Ed’ ruthlessly framed the contest as one between their ‘change-candidate’ and an opponent all-too-easily cast as a Blairite throwback, proved vital when that contest came down to a handful of MPs’ second preferences.

Ed’s critics also risk forgetting three more, equally sobering truths.  First, he took over after Labour had gone down to a defeat every bit as bad (at least outside Scotland) as the one it suffered last week: the chances of turning that around in one term were always tiny.  Second, the difficulties faced by Labour in appealing to a more fragmented electorate, much of which is as concerned by immigration as it is about the economy and public services, and important parts of which do not feel sufficiently inspired to actually vote (assuming they are registered at all), are shared by social democrats across Europe.  Third, Ed was facing political opponents who are past masters (and much better than their Labour counterparts) at using office to alter the terms of political debate and who, at least when it came to personalised attacks, were prepared to stoop lower than they have ever stooped before in order to win.

And yet, as Ed was honest enough to admit in his resignation speech on the morning after the night before, he cannot escape a large measure of responsibility for the failure of his five-year mission.

Leaving aside his failure to see Scotland coming, Ed’s biggest mistake, after winning the leadership by appealing not just to those who wanted to move on from New Labour  but to those who regarded it as some sort of neo-liberal/colonialist aberration, was failing to head immediately and noisily for the centre-ground. Inasmuch as it happened – and on immigration, on welfare, and (by the end) on tax and spend, it did happen – it came about too late, and too stealthily, to make much difference.

True, one could argue that there was some method in this madness – a superficial logic in delaying in order to lock in left-wing voters disgusted with Nick Clegg’s deal with David Cameron before turning to make a play for those who’d voted Tory.  It was also possible to believe (just) that the initial left-populist pitch might appeal to a bunch of people – mainly working people (and how many times did we hear that term during the election campaign?) – who’d become detached from Labour since 1997 and, like many younger ‘voters’, dropped out of politics altogether.  Not straying too far or too early outside the social democratic comfort-zone helped preserved party unity – no small thing in an organisation that traditionally descended into electorally suicidal civil war after a big defeat.

But the opportunity cost turned out to be massive.  Segmenting the electoral market may have seemed sensible, but it risked blotting out the basic truth that any party hoping to win elections has to win over a more nebulous, but ultimately far bigger bunch of voters –the archetypal residents of middle England who simply want to get on in life, who like a bit of leadership, and who value public services but worry about others ripping them off.

Virtually nothing Ed did during his leadership was counter-intuitive and therefore capable of cutting through to these voters in a way that might have led them to re-evaluate either him or his party.  In particular, waiting far too long before publicly committing his party to fiscal consolidation – and failing once he’d done so to adopt measures that might have made a few eyes water and therefore commanded attention and respect (cancelling HS2 and going back on his absurd early commitment to reduce tuition fees are only the most obvious examples) – meant Ed was simply unable ever to persuade people that he really meant it.  Refusing to admit either that Labour had overspent in government or else defend its record against all-comers only made things worse.

Yet just as Ed cannot escape responsibility for his defeat, neither can the Labour Party as a whole.  Ed put himself up for election but it didn’t have to choose him.  And, having chosen him, it didn’t have to stick with him when it became patently obvious that the public (rightly or wrongly) didn’t think he was up to the job – something that could all-too-easily happen this time, too, if it once again goes for a leader with a gilded glide path from Oxbridge to Labour’s frontbench via a think tank and/or a job as a special adviser.

Since it now looks likely that whoever emerges may well come from such a background, then Labour had better make damn sure that it’s the candidate best able both to connect with the public and to tell the party what it needs (as opposed to what it wants) to hear.  And if it gets it wrong first time, it should have the courage this time to dump them if they turn out to be a dud.  If not, the party will have nobody to blame but itself if loses every bit as badly in five years’ time as it did last week.

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‘The Conservatives: what happened and what next?’, QMUL Post-election Breakfast Briefing, Westminster, 11 May 2015

David Cameron is the first PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to increase the number of Tory MPs in parliament from one election to the next, and the first Tory PM since Anthony Eden in 1955 to increase the party’s share of the vote.  The Tories won 330 seats (51% of the total) on a vote-share of 37% (just under one percentage point up from 2010).  Their performance in Scotland, at 15% was their worst ever, although they still held onto one seat.  They got 27% of the vote in Wales, garnering 11 seats, up three from 2010. Just as encouragingly, albeit under the radar, the Tories picked up around 500 additional local councillors and assumed control of 30 more councils: this may help revive their party at local level. They will also be advantaged by boundary reform, although this will not now be accompanied by a reduction of the number of seats in parliament, demand for which has (unsurprisingly perhaps) died. For portraits of the new intake see here.

The Conservatives’ improved performance was down in no small measure to what I call ‘the black widow effect’: after mating with their Lib Dem coalition partners, they killed and then ate them, taking 26 of their seats. They lost only 2 seats net to Labour.  They were helped in this by an incumbency effect favouring MPs who won their seats in 2010, and by being well ahead of Labour when it came to economic competence and leadership.  Much like the Better Together campaign in Scotland, it wasn’t pretty but it was effective, and its growing emphasis on the ‘chaos’ inherent in some sort of Labour-SNP ‘deal’ may well have persuaded some waverers (back) into the Tory camp.  Possibly (although only partially) as a result, UKIP did as much if not more damage to Labour in the marginals than it did to the Conservatives.

The Conservative benches in the Commons now contain the party’s highest ever proportion of women, the 68 female MPs who will sit there making up 21% of the Tory total.  Some 48% of Tory MPs went to independent schools (with 34% having been to comprehensives and 18% to grammars): this is a drop from 54% in 2010 and continues a long-term trend toward there being more state-educated Tory MPs.  34% of Conservatives in the Commons were educated at Oxford or Cambridge.

Cameron’s 12-seat overall majority may represent his ‘sweetest victory’ but it is nonetheless slim – less than the 21 seat majority won by John Major (on 42% of the vote) back in 1992.  Anyone old enough to remember will recall that that victory soon turned to custard.  And while it is difficult to foresee anything on the horizon that could do as much swift or fatal damage to the Tories’ reputation for economic competence, there is one obvious parallel with the early 1990s: Europe. The number of Conservative MPs who will actively work for, or at the very least lean towards, Brexit runs to around a third of the parliamentary party. The problem for Cameron is that there may a big difference between what his backbenchers (and, indeed, some of his front-bench colleagues) want and what his EU partners are prepared to give him by way of a deal that he can present as reason to stay in the union: Eurosceptic demands, for instance, for an opt-out from the free movement principle and/or the right to veto any unsatisfactory law made in Brussels cannot be met. As long, however, as Cameron does not allow himself to be forced into making such demands from other member states (which would be refused and thereby reduce him to recommending the UK leave the EU) he should be OK. The package he renegotiates may not satisfy many in his own party, but it will probably persuade the public to support a cross-party recommendation to stay in.

Cameron can then depart the scene, triggering a leadership contest which, in sometimes barely-supressed form, will already have been going on for 2 years. By then Boris may have made a hash of things and others may have moved into the frame.

The parliamentary party may be easier to manage because jobs can be given to Tories rather than Lib Dems.  Also, the narrowness of the majority may (on balance) improve discipline, especially if combined with a more inclusive approach by a PM enjoying a degree of goodwill after winning, and sensible management from Chris Grayling – a Leader of the House who will be trusted by the right – and Chief Whip, Mark Harper, who surely cannot make as many mistakes in that job as Michael Gove. That said, many right wingers and free-market ultras will now discover that the reason they can’t get what they want (for example, on climate change and energy policy, welfare cuts, immigration, surveillance, human rights, planning restrictions, grammar schools, trade union reforms, and EVEL/Scotland) has less to do with those pesky Lib Dems and more to do with even more pesky parliamentary, legal, international, and electoral realities.

Just as problematic for Cameron will be the campaign promises he made, in an era where both the birth rate and the elderly population is rising, to protect health and, to a lesser extent, education spending. Unless he and George Osborne really have discovered a magic money tree in the Downing Street back garden, then, given their promise not to raise a number of key taxes, resources will either have to be diverted from other budgets – including welfare, science, research and public-sector payrolls – or conjured up by generating additional revenues, such as higher university tuition fees, non-dom taxes, or higher property taxes. The Tories also have to fund higher rail subsidies and measures to boost childcare and home ownership. The obvious solution, as it was from 2012 onwards, is to slow the pace of deficit reduction.

This, plus, the party will hope, a fairly smooth leadership transition, may well help it to a third victory in 2020.  But long term problems remain, not least the party’s difficulty in appealing to younger, better-educated and ethnic minority voters – all growing proportions of the electorate (although not necessarily the electorate who actually turn out and vote).

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‘Behind the Political Masks’, Financial Times, 4 May 2015

It’s been a no-surprises campaign — or so runs the conventional wisdom. Yet, almost in spite of themselves, nearly all the party leaders have told us something worth knowing.

From Natalie Bennett, we’ve learned that the Greens have picked a leader who promotes policies far removed from current realities. They remain, in German Greens parlance, fundis rather than realos. Polls suggest there is a market for their left-libertarian identity politics. But that niche still seems too small to persuade other parties into following their lead.

Ukip, of course, has had exactly that effect on the Conservatives over the past five years, even if the past five weeks have seen the Tories trying hard not to talk too much about immigration and Europe — Nigel Farage’s signature issues.

What we’ve learned about Farage is that, for all the talk of his party eating into Labour’s northern heartlands, his main focus remains those voters who no longer believe the Tories have the backbone to resist the tide of foreigners and political correctness supposedly threatening to engulf the country they grew up in. He is also desperate to win a seat in the Commons.

The fact that Ukip, and maybe even some Tories, see the Scots as part of that hostile tide is testimony to the performance of the SNP and its leader Nicola Sturgeon. The star of the campaign, she has managed not just to defend but extend her party’s lead over Labour north of the border, at the same time as impressing — or scaring the living daylights out of — English voters.

She has also managed, with supreme sleight of hand and breathtaking chutzpah, to enter into an unspoken alliance with the Conservatives — one that massively overstates her likely influence over a putative Labour minority government. This is in the hope that, by helping David Cameron to secure a second term, an SNP victory in 2016 and a second independence referendum will become more likely.

In the early stages of the campaign especially, Cameron failed to impress. He was almost always on message but he was hardly ever on fire — never close to crashing, yet seemingly unable to pull away from the pack and put sufficient distance between his party and its main opponent.

Polling suggests voters think he looks the part, yet doubt he understands the needs of ordinary people. They are not convinced that his party represents the many, as opposed to the few.

That said, his performance in front of a tough crowd during the BBC’s Question Time last week suggested he might be a strong finisher and there are a few signs that the Conservatives’ claim to stand for competence rather than chaos might yet see them home.

Ed Miliband did not do so well in front of the same tough crowd, although it remains undeniable that he has exceeded the low expectations many voters had of him. The Labour leader has been buoyed by some well-judged performances at the outset of the campaign and helped by the clarity brought to Labour’s messaging by advisers bought in from the Obama operation.

As a result, Miliband, who many assumed would be played off the park, has managed to keep himself, and his party, in the game. This does not, however, preclude Labour going down to defeat in the dying minutes.

Such morbid talk brings us, finally, to Nick Clegg. Like his party, he has struggled to gain visibility, let alone traction, in the campaign. For all that, predictions of his personal demise in Sheffield Hallam are probably premature. And given how pivotal the Lib Dems will be in almost every post-election scenario, they are likely to survive the near-death experience they may face on May 7 — with or without their leader.

[Originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/855f8216-f182-11e4-98c5-00144feab7de.html]

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‘The guys who crashed the car: why Labour is still in a mess over spending’, New Statesman, 1 May 2015

When it comes to being interrogated on live television by members of the public, as they were on the BBC’s Question Time last night, most politicians, even the most testosterone-fuelled, tend to follow the advice of Estravan, the androgynous lead in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, recently dramatized on Radio 4.  “To learn which questions are unanswerable,” he/she observes, “and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

But it doesn’t always work – not in Yorkshire anyway.  Although most of the headlines this morning were dominated by Ed Miliband ruling out  ‘a deal’ with the SNP – albeit in a way that will still mean it can support a minority Labour government taking over from David Cameron if the arithmetic works out – his most awkward moment (apart from tripping off the stage) came as he was asked point blank whether he accepted, when Labour was last in power, that it overspent.  “No, I don’t, and I know you may not agree with that,” he replied.  Sadly for him, judging from the audience’s reaction at least, he was dead right.

But this was nothing new. Ed has had five years to come up with an answer to that question and neither he, nor anyone else in his party, has managed it.  Right from the start he and Ed Balls have been prepared to admit that not everything New Labour did on the economy was perfect. But their apologies – if that’s what they were – have always been qualified, limited to Labour’s failure to properly regulate the City, to reduce the country’s reliance on the financial sector, and to be clearer, following the banking crisis, about the need to reduce the deficit and to do so by making spending cuts. Moreover, thosemea culpas have always been immediately mitigated by the insistence that it was that crisis, rather than any excessive debt-fuelled spending, which blew a hole in the nation’s balance sheet.

Factually, that interpretation has a lot to be said for it – one important reason why neither of the two Eds, both of whom set great store in such things, can forget it.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t what the public believed any more – not after being told again and again by George Osborne, while Labour was distracted by its leadership contest, that it had ‘maxed out the nation’s credit card’ and ‘failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining’. Moreover, the likelihood that people could then be persuaded to change their minds again was vanishingly small.

It might, perhaps, have been different had Ed and Ed been more determined, once the dust of a contest in which every candidate (even David Miliband) distanced themselves from New Labour, to defend its record in government. But they weren’t. Quite understandably, they wanted to talk more about the present and the future than the past. But, if they were going to pursue that course, then perhaps they should have gone the whole hog.

The whole hog, however, would have involved them taking the advice of Tony Blair’s most candid friend and ardent admirer, Philip Gould. Writing in The Unfinished Revolution – New Labour’s bible-cum-playbook – Gould declared that, if you’ve have lost the argument with the public, then, even if you still suspect you might be right, you nevertheless concede and move on. Only then can you truly leave history behind and talk about what you want to do – and do differently – in the here and now.

Being more open about Blair and Brown’s mistakes, and in particular their willingness to borrow even in the good times, might have allowed Labour’s leader to recall their achievements more easily. Certainly his difficulty, and by extension the party’s difficulty, in doing just that has been amazing – and a source of some frustration among its MPs – considering how real those achievements arguably were. It might also have provided a more solid foundation of credibility from which to present what Labour is offering voters at this election.

On the other hand, it’s never easy to confess to a crime that you don’t think you’ve committed.  And perhaps, in the end, it’s not really that sensible either. Any apology for racking up the deficit would undoubtedly have been used by the Tories as a stick with which to beat its main opponent not just at this election but for years, if not decades.  As the political commentator, Steve Richards, who might easily have become Ed’s media chief, put it a few years ago “Sorry we screwed up the economy – Vote Labour” is hardly a winning slogan.

[Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/05/guys-who-crashed-car-why-labour-still-mess-over-spending]

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