Archive for September, 2011« Older Entries |
Thursday, September 29th, 2011
Join our columnists to debate the issues arising from the Labour gathering’s fourth day, where crime and justice are on the agenda. We’ll highlight your best questions and comments from the thread throughout the conference
• Labour party conference, day three: rolling comment
• Labour party conference, day two: rolling comment
9.23am: Welcome to our rolling comment coverage of the fourth day of the Labour party conference. This morning we’ll have a look at the fallout from Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday, which has divided our regular columnist: Seumas Milne has suggested it might be “the most radical speech delivered by a Labour leader in a generation”, while Jonathan Freedland fears that Ed’s speech will do “precisely nothing to improve the prospects of either Miliband or Labour”.
9:39am: We published this towards the end of the day yesterday, so some of you might have missed it. In the build-up to Ed Miliband’s speech there was the usual short promo film to rouse the faithful, including tributes to the Labour party from Aung San Suu Kyi and to its leader from Alex Ferguson. But only one person got a huge ovation for simply appearing on screen: new darling of Labour, Tom Watson MP. Earlier, Martin Argles took this picture of Tom Watson MP – as is habitual, on his phone. In case anyone is worried we’ve hacked into it, even blowing up the image doesn’t seem to reveal who he’s contacting … any guesses what a text this afternoon might say? LibDemNeverAgain thinks he knows: “David, are you on the plane yet?”
9.45am: Here’s Tom Clark with a review of today’s papers – with Ed Miliband’s speech on some front pages, but notably not on others:
On the Wildean principle that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, Ed Miliband will not be too chuffed by this morning’s front pages. Less-than-breaking news about Michael Jackson having died edges Labour off the front page of the Sun, while the Daily Mail splashes on the latest painkiller panic. Seeing as these two titles have half the market sewn up between them, and seeing as the best-selling quality, The Daily Telegraph, relegates Labour to the very bottom of its front page, very many newspaper readers will work their way right through their cornflakes without realising anything about Reddish Ed’s new moral economy.
Among the papers that are interested, however, there is agreement that – for better or worse – Miliband’s declaration of “war against ‘fast-buck’ Britain” (The Guardian) is a Big Deal, a daring departure from what The Times (paywall) calls “30 years of … economic orthodoxy”. While, again in the Times’s words, there is agreement that the speech was “long on idealism and short on detail”, the mere fact that Miliband was hurling words like “predatory” at the undeserving rich has grabbed attention, because it would have been unimaginable for Tony Blair to say such a thing. The Independent wraps this together with Mr Miliband’s promise to be his own man, and headlines with “I’ll do it
my way”. That won’t do the little-known Mr Miliband any harm in terms of the Character Thing, and nor will the ubiquitous pictures of him stood with his newly-wed partner, Justine Thornton, just a few days after he rocked up in Liverpool with his young children.
Much less welcome will be the FT’s front-page side-column –
it reminds readers how difficult it can be for politicians to keep their distance from “bad” businessmen, by highlighting his party’s negotiations over a pledged £1m from Andrew Rosenfeld, a tax exile who has been criticised for ducking responsibility during bankruptcies in the past.
Moving to the inside pages, the (minority) contingent in the Labour hall who yesterday jeered at the mention of Blair’s name provide Conservative commentators with all the evidence they need to declare a wild veer to the Left. Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph, for example, announces that “a cock crowed” at this “time-stopping” political moment, pointing out how unthinkable it would be for a Conservative audience to jeer at Margaret Thatcher’s name. While insisting Miliband “had the chance to [bring] fresh and
radical thinking to the centre-Left” the Telegraph’s editorial in the end condemns him for looking beyond the sound-money mantras of the coalition and the New Labour old guard. The Sun leader takes much the same course, but couples this to a punishing new political test – “Did anyone go into a pub last night and say: Anybody hear Ed Miliband today? Wasn’t he fantastic”. Assuming (as it seems fair to) that David Cameron also struggles to pass this threshold next week, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Sun picks him up for
By contrast the Times – perhaps keen to demonstrates its editorial independence by being even-handed towards the man who helped push Wapping into crisis this summer – went out of its way to say that Miliband had “found a good theme” in setting himself with the producers and against the predators. Ultimately, however, it finds the reasons it needs to flip its thumbs down, in the speech’s lack of polish and the absence of detail. Even would-be believers seem nervous about the political risks Mr Miliband is running: the Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian hears “unfortuante echoes of the Brownite refrain circa 2007″, and a generally warm editorial in the same paper notes it is “touching” that the Labour leader appears to believe the voters share his values. It is left to Steve Richards in the Independent and our own Polly Toynbee to provide more upbeat accounts.
From the Mail’s leader columns, amid much grumbling about a return to Old Labour, there was at least acknowledgement that Miliband had picked up on popular anger against the ill-gotten gains of some of the rich. The toughest questions of the lot are raised by the Financial Times which hammers home how hard it will be to separate predators from producers in the law and tax codes. More hearteningly, one of the resident brainboxes of the pink pages, John Kay, has written an
interesting piece explaining the many and varied intellectual influences on the labour leader. The verdict of this morning’s papers is that he will need to draw on the full pantheon of these great minds if he is to translate a daring
speech into a workable programme for government.
10.29am: The keynote speech in the main hall today will be Yvette Cooper on crime and policing. Last night she spoke to Andrew Rawnsley at an Observer fringe event – we’ll have Philip Oltermann’s impressions of that soon. Also coming up is Polly Toynbee on the Daily Mail’s Ed Miliband coverage and John Harris on the new kind of party member at conference, and more.
10.43am: A tip comes our way from photographer Martin Argles, who stumbled on an agitated BBC inquest into the embarrassing cut in transmission of the leader’s speech yesterday. The suspicion is falling on a team of riggers from an outside broadcast van who took the opportunity to plug in a kettle for a tea break, overloading the power supply at the critical moment. (And the idea of Rupert Murdoch just cutting the cables sounded so much more fun…)
11.04am: Here is John Harris, who’s been out and about making some fabulous films in his Harris’s fringe series, and talking to all kinds of conference attendees. And he’s found a discouraging trait in many of the younger ones:
We’re told that in the wake of last year’s election defeat, 65,000 people have joined the Labour Party. One assumes that includes plenty of returners who walked because of the disappointments of the Blair/Brown years, but it also includes thousands of newbies, some of whom are here in Liverpool. Given that it’s my job to repeatedly ask conference attendees for their opinions, I’ve run into plenty of them.
So, an observation. It’s one of the stranger aspects of modern politics that very often, when you speak to a party activist under 25, they compose themselves, smooth down their hair, and issue the kind of measured, inoffensive statements that you usually expect from cabinet (or shadow cabinet) ministers. I spoke to a Labour high-up about this the other night, and he blamed the media: even a teenage unknown, he reckoned, would be wary of bucking the party line for fear of negative coverage.
Well, phooey to that. This syndrome strikes me as cultural. So professionalised and blanded-out has politics become, perhaps, that its lower ranks are brimming with people who have already settled on the Westminster life as a career choice, and are effectively in the early stages of training. Time was, the Labour Party drew on the left’s culture of protest and radical ideas, and found such talent as, say, that one-time anti-apartheid crusader Peter Hain; now, it seems to have created a university-age microcosm of its upper ranks, destined to provide us with yet more of the kind of efficient-but-dull
technocrats who so dominate the modern political game.
The strange thing is, though she might be horrified at me saying so, there’s a continuum you could just about draw between the basic message of Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday and the kind of incendiary voice one associates with, say, Laurie Penny. But with good reason, her kind don’t tend to bother with the Labour Party any more. The result: even in the midst of such seismic global events, a conference once again full of people who’d rather perfect the art of being sensible than get worked about much at all.
11.23am: Reader Swan17 comments below that we seem to have ignored the Daily Mail article questioning the credentials of Rory Weal, the 16-year-old who stole the show at conference before Ed Balls’s speech on Monday.
So the ‘poster-boy’ from the conference seems to have ’stretched the truth’ a little. Come on, the Tories might do such things but Labour definately should not!
Read this before you have a go at Rory Weal RT @Claire_Phipps: Nice take-down of Mail’s attack on 16yo Rory Weal
11.57am: While the Mail is in full-on attack mode against much of Labour, 16-year-olds included, there were relatively warm words for Ed Miliband in its leader column. But as Polly Toynbee explains here, this isn’t necessarily as curious as it sounds – Ed, beware:
Here’s a warning to Ed Miliband. The Daily Mail is a strange beast, so full of internal contradictions that it ties itself up in knots of unreason. Deconstructing it does your head in. That’s the reason why editor Paul Dacre never ever gives interviews, never apologises, never explains his inexplicable world view.
Today the Mail’s take on Ed’s speech is all too predictable, in a two page spread dominated by Simon Heffer: “Trust him with the economy? Dream on.” And Quentin Letts, who says he’s an improvement on Gordon Brown but “his attacks on closed circles are plainly absurd from a geeky insider.”
But the Mail likes to offer a tantalising hope to Labour leaders that it might, just might support them after all. So the editorial holds out a little patronising praise: “After a decade of New Labour’s profligate welfarism and smooching to fast-buck millionaires, the Mail welcomes the new leader’s about-turn … Yes, the government should break up the cosy cartel of energy firms” and it welcomes Miliband’s break from “his party’s catastrophic obsession with the super-rich at the expense of the truly deserving”. Oddest of all was praise for his assault on the “something for nothing of celebrity culture”. Really? From a paper that markets itself online exclusively as a mega Hello celebrity hall of lunatic gossip and malicious studies of stars’ wrinkles and cellulite.
Let Ed not be seduced. The most dismal of all Gordon Brown’s craven failings was his wooing of Paul Dacre, who pretended for a while to admire the dour Scot’s old world moral values – before walloping him at the election. Here’s the worst of it: on the eve of the disastrous Glasgow East byelection, where was Brown? At David Tennant’s Hamlet in Stratford with Dacre. Who did he invite to the tragic funeral of his baby daughter? Yes, I’m afraid it was Dacre.
So Ed, stand firm against the enemy press. They will always kick Labour in the teeth. The Mail has an odd schtick about obscene high pay, pretending to be on the side of its own warped vision of 1950’s “middle England”, yet still wants the 50p tax abolished (see their top salaries!). The Mail may pretend to praise Ed’s authentic moral voice – but I’m sure he’s wise enough to stand well back in any dealings with them.
12.20pm: There is a general consensus among columnists we’ve spoken to here this morning that Ed Miliband’s performance on Radio 4’s Today programme came across much better than the speech – much more human, and more his way of communicating. You can read the main points of what he said here at Andrew Sparrow’s live politics blog.
12.45pm: Yvette Cooper is back from visiting the Kellingley colliery and is now addressing the main hall. Last night, she spoke to Andrew Rawnsley in an Observer interview, the highlights of which you can watch here. Below, Philip Oltermann gives his thoughts from watching Cooper at last night’s event (and he’s impressed).
Should Yvette Cooper be playing a more prominent role in Labour’s current front-bench line-up? Watching Andrew Rawnsley’s in-depth interview with the shadow home secretary, one struggled to shake off the feeling that the party is missing a trick.
Some, like commenter Mercurey, have suggested that Cooper would make a less divisive chancellor than her husband Ed Balls: having worked for such different figures on the left as John Smith, John Prescott and Bill Clinton, she holds the promise of being able to unite traditionalists and modernists in the party. She confessed to having a bit of a temper – “I can get frustrated if we don’t get to the heart of things fast enough. I shout” – and you certainly felt she’d pull her weight when squaring up to the current Labour leader. In fact, she did so when the two of them first met back in their student drama days: “apparently I shouted at Ed”. Tellingly, Miliband still remembers that first encounter – she doesn’t.
Cooper performed a typical politicians’ shuffle when asked some of the more critical questions posed by our readers. On the Atos disaster, she said she had been right to “have reforms that help get people back into work”, but also admitted that “there are clearly problems”. She admitted that Brown had “ended up playing the fear card” back at the 2010 election, but didn’t go as far as calling him a liability, remarking that “it would be reassuring to have Gordon’s global leadership” in the current economic climate. It was the usual rhetorical manoeuvring you’d expect from a politician, but she managed to sound genuine nonetheless. Just before the start of the interview, news arrived of an accident in a colliery in her North Yorkshire constituency, and Cooper choked when she was asked about her own mother’s mining heritage. Here was a glimpse of the charisma and authenticity that some had missed in Miliband’s speech earlier.
She also confessed that Balls had said “he thought I ought to stand” for the Labour leadership last year. Maybe he should have pushed her a bit harder.
1.40pm: A couple of below-the-line commenters, including HelenWilsonMK and iruka, are saying that watching this year’s Labour conference makes them want to vote Green. Interestingly, green issues have been notable for their absence from this year’s programme. Environment editor Damian Carrington has a hunch why that might be:
Opposition is hard. Apologising for past policies, trying come up with shiny new ones. And a rather lovely example of the internal conflicts raging is given by Medway Council in Kent, which by geographical chance has found itself at the epicentre of both national energy and aviation policy. The Isle of Grain, on the banks of the Thames estuary, is home not only to the controversial Kingsnorth coal-powered power station, but also to the proposed “Boris Island” airport.
Kingsnorth was the focus of green protesters, who opposed a new coal plant. The local Labour group supported it. But the Labour government eventually killed it by pledging there would be no future coal stations unless the carbon emissions where captured and buried. But then Kingsnorth’s owner’s E.on pulled out of a competition to test that carbon capture technology. Keeping up?
Now there’s the multi-billion estuary airport proposal, seen as so much pie in London Mayor Boris Johnson’s sky by some, but not by Medway councillor Tris Osborne or his constituents. “It’s the number one issue for my constituents. They are very much opposed.” But Labour backed new runways in government, such as the third runway at Heathrow. But Ed Miliband, then climate change secretary, opposed it in cabinet at the time. Now he’s leader, Labour are against it. But Ed was always careful not to demand people flew less.
So more runways and if so where? More CCS and if so where? I said opposition was hard.
2.25pm: Housing is one of the hot political issues Ed Miliband tried to address yesterday, but the Guardian’s social affairs editor Randeep Ramesh says he looks to be going about it in the wrong way:
Of all Ed Miliband’s worthwhile attempts to graft social equity onto Labour’s DNA, his policy on housing should be roundly rejected. By announcing that councils under a Miliband Labour government “should recognise the contribution that people are making” to their community in allocating social housing, he is making a bid to show values matter in an everyday democracy.
Unfortunately the policy amounts to a “homes for community organisers” policy that does not attack the vested interest which has caused the housing crisis: the Landlord lobby. The shortage of housing is about a lot of things – not enough building, restrictive planning and a lack of cash. But it is also about those who are aggregating wealth and power through buying up assets – holding the whip hand over the renting population.
The politics of housing is hard: landlordism has become a matter of electoral calculations. Some experts estimate that one in 38 voters are landlords. They are often found in marginal seats.
Landlords are not just corporates or fast buck merchants milking honest working folk. They are not just the landlords who rake in housing benefit windfalls. They are also the double income no kid couples who find themselves with two flats after they get together to live in one. They are the pensioners who supplement their income with a buy to let mortgage.
But by investing in assets in they benefit from rising house prices while renters face spiralling rents. A policy of privileging community workers for social homes won’t address the problem. It may build a vote bank. Maybe it is about creating a tradition and consensus without being radical and confrontational. But that is not the right politics for a leader who wants to rebuild his party on the right values.
3.25pm: Some of the more arcane procedural motions that get voted on at conference are all too easy to ignore, but Martin Kettle has had his eye on one rule change that might have more significance to Labour than any speech this week:
There’s not much likelihood of Liverpool 2011 going down in the history books as one of the pivotal Labour party conferences. Yet in one rather specialist sense this actually is a historic Labour conference. This week the delegates have nodded through a set of changes to Labour rules which really will shape the dynamics of Scottish politics over the next few years. And these changes don’t just matter to Labour in Scotland. They may also help to determine Labour’s future as a party of UK government.
The context for this week’s changes to the rules of the Scottish Labour party was its traumatic defeat by Alex Salmond’s rampant Scottish National Party in the Holyrood elections in May. The SNP gave Labour an absolute drubbing, becoming the first single-party majority government in devolved Scotland’s history. Salmond’s party is now set on translating that mandate into a referendum victory on Scottish independence by the next Holyrood election in 2016.
Even Labour’s outgoing leader Iain Gray admitted this week that May was a “terrible” result for his party. With only 32% of the vote in the constituency section of the Scottish election and a dire 25% in the list section, Labour has currently lost any claims to be the natural party of government in Scotland. If the SNP juggernaut is to be halted, though, Labour remains crucial. As Tory and Liberal Democrat voters defect in droves to the SNP, Scotland is increasingly becoming a two-party nation.
Labour’s response, following a report conducted by shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and Sarah Boyack MSP, is to create what will be, in effect, a separate Scottish Labour party, which can pick its own leader, set its own policies on all devolved issues, and reorganise itself along Scottish parliamentary boundary lines, not the current Westminster boundaries. In Liverpool, the conference voted to allow them to press ahead. At the end of October the Scottish party will adopt the new rules and by the end of the year, Scottish Labour will have its own leader.
This may sound rather nerdy stuff, but it is a traumatic break with Labour’s long past. Historically, Labour in Scotland had its feet north of the border but its eyes on Westminster. It was part of an essentially unionist view of Scottish politics, in which Labour governments in Westminster would deliver for Scotland. Now that era is over. The Scottish Labour party will now become an increasingly Scottish-based ally of the Miliband-led Labour party in London, not a subsidiary of it as in the past. Think the relationship between the Bavarian CSU and the wider CDU in German politics, or the relationship between the Catalan socialists and the Spanish socialists: strong allies, but not the same party.
Here’s why this matters. First, because the new more thoroughly devolved Scottish Labour party hopes to equip itself much more effectively as a truly Scottish alternative to the SNP. But, second, it matters because Scottish Labour needs to succeed if Labour in the UK is to continue to be a viable alternative government. Without Scottish seats at Westminster, which would disappear after independence, Ed Miliband’s chances of becoming PM will become even more distant. Labour’s road to Downing Street starts in rebuilding in Scotland. That’s why these otherwise rather obscure rule changes are actually a make-or-break moment.
4.12pm: The debates in the main hall now are on education – Andy Burnham is about to speak (we’ll have more from education correspondent Jeevan Vasagar later). At various fringe events Labour’s new stance on tuition fees (pushing for a £6k cap) has been debated, not altogether sympathetically.
Ed Balls, previous education secretary, was the main draw at a Labour Youth event earlier this afternoon, where some in the audience told of their problems with the new jobseekers’ rules in a time of mass unemployment. One young man articulately related how a private firm conducting his jobseekers’ assessment wanted him to conduct a literacy test and questioned why he hadn’t found work. His answer – “Do they think there is a spontaneous outbreak of fecklessness among 2.5 million of us?” – had Balls in stitches: it could be a line we hear again.
4.44pm: Andy Burnham was welcomed to the platform by a headteacher from Speke, Yvonne Sharples, in a short speech that got a great ovation from the floor.
One is more than enough, but the phrase “the new Katharine Birbalsingh?” has been heard uttered more than once since. Here she gives her “hero” (her words, not ours) a massive smooch (picture from Martin Argles).
5.20pm: And here is education editor Jeevan Vasagar’s verdict on that Burnham address to the hall:
Andy Burnham echoed Blair’s “education, education, education” mantra in his conference speech. Because of the foundations laid by Blair, Labour could now go further, he said, towards: “aspiration, aspiration, aspiration”. But he is in danger of ceding that aspirational ground to the Conservatives.
He caricatured Michael Gove’s English baccalaureate, which recognises pupils who achieve good GCSE passes in a set of traditional subjects. Gove was “promoting Latin and Ancient Greek over Engineering, ICT, and business studies,” Burnham declared.
But the English bacc subjects are also those preferred at A-level by the most selective universities. They are essential for children who want to break into the “closed circles” that Ed Miliband described yesterday.
Burnham proposed a UCAS system for apprenticeships which would give “all children hope and a goal in life”. Vocational education is important. But the vast majority of parents hope their children will get into university.
6.15pm: While the Daily Mail’s leader column has taken a surprising liking to Miliband’s speech, some commentators on the left have come down hard on Red Ed Revisited. At the New Statesman, Dan Hodges thinks the Labour leader has shot himself in the foot:
Watching Ed Miliband has been like watching someone pick up a hammer, hit themselves in the head and then cry out in surprise, “Oh my god, that hurt me!”.
At LabourList, Anthony Painter is even more critical:
It is not clear where things go from here. The centreground has been vacated – Cameron punishes the anxious middle; Miliband has now vacated the space. British politics as a whole is becoming a democratic failure. For Miliband, there is now a need for some deep reflection. Does he feel comfortable with a party that insouciantly discards its electorally most successful leader? Can he now see that this empty moralising does nothing for him? Can he understand that his friends don’t appear to take him to where he needs to be? Is he now going to sort out his operation – one that fell very short on the quality control front?
Guardian features writer Stephen Moss isn’t impressed by their arguments:
The Blairite bloggers are going a bit crazy today with their attacks on Ed. They can’t seem to accept that their day is done
There are at least two other rightwing parties they can migrate to if they’re really uncomfortable with a mildly leftwing drift
6.33pm: That’s it from us for today. We’ll be back at 9:30 with more comment and opinion on the last day of the conference, including a special treat from Steve Bell …
Thursday, September 29th, 2011
John Harris leaves the Labour conference to see if anyone is listening in West Kirby and the Tory-Labour marginal seat of Wirral West
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
Is Britain facing a crisis of capitalism – or is it just a bit of turbulence? John Harris tracks down the shadow chancellor at the Labour party conference in Liverpool
Monday, September 26th, 2011
John Harris and John Domokos: From looming strikes to the debate over the deficit, John Harris takes the initial temperature at Labour’s Liverpool conference, with the help of shadow ministers, activists – and The Beatles
Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
The Lib Dems are worried about rising public anger over the lack of growth in Britain’s economy. John Harris asks the people of Birmingham for their views of the coalition government
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