John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for January, 2015

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No wonder Miliband wants distance from ex-Blairites on the NHS | John Harris

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Former ministers urging the break-up of public services while filling their boots from it embody the blighted New Labour legacy

Never mind that Ed Miliband and his senior colleagues all cut their political teeth during the New Labour years: just as kids eventually leave home and parents must leave them to it, so he and his allies claim to be in the midst of a new era. The Iraq war was a terrible mistake, inequality is a much bigger issue than the ancien régime ever understood, and look! Labour has rediscovered its belief in the glories of a public NHS. As Andy Burnham’s somewhat testing interview on last night’s Newsnight showed, this effort at political escapology is not the easiest of tricks, but still: to quote one of Tony Blair’s more ludicrous outbursts, new, new, everything is new (or, in the sense of Labour trying to rediscover its pre-1990s values, old – but you get the general idea).

Given the cynicism and anger about Labour’s record out there in the real world – some of it unfair, but there we are – this quest to distance the party from parts of its own record may not be the daftest of ideas. But Labour’s former big hitters refuse to bow out gracefully and leave Miliband to it. To add to his other skills, Blair has become a maestro at the passive-aggressive putdown: his latest observation on Miliband’s leadership, was the militantly pro-Ed observation: “I’m not sure he has a problem. That will be for the people to choose.” And now, just as Labour tries to big up its plans for the NHS and thereby regain the political advantage, along come two of Blair’s former allies, set on giving the impression that the party is still rattling out the internal battles of the 1990s, and handing the newspapers yet another set of anti-Miliband headlines.

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The big swing: voters who are changing lanes

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

‘I used to be a Lib Dem. This year, I’m voting Tory’: meet the voters changing their political stripes and what it means for the 2015 general election

Alex Beaton is a 22-year-old philosophy and economics undergraduate with a bushy beard, a blue stud in the lobe of his left ear and a gentle sense of the absurd. You might think of his politics as post-ideological – or, if you were being slightly less intellectual, absolutely all over the place. At the 2010 general election, he voted for the Liberal Democrats. He has very little time for either Labour or Ukip. And though he’d vote Green in an ideal world, he’s actually about to give his support to the Conservatives.

On a freezing cold Thursday afternoon, I meet Beaton in his home town of Warrington. We spend an hour chatting in a cafe, and I get a sharp sense of how politics works for someone for whom Margaret Thatcher is a figure from period dramas, and who remembers the Iraq war as something that happened just as he started secondary school.

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Do you want people bullied off benefits? Because that’s what’s happening | John Harris

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

The DWP denies it has targets, but the fact is that cruelty in the form of sanctions is visited on thousands of claimants a week

“A Ukip parliamentary candidate named Lynton Yates this week suggested banning benefit claimants from driving: “Why do they have the privilege to spend the tax payers [sic] hard earned money on a car, when those in work are struggling to keep their own car on the road?” Ukip’s communications people said that Yates’s suggestions were “not Ukip policies and they will not form part of the Ukip manifesto”, and the media rejoiced in the week’s example of the party’s supposed fruitcakery – though at the time of writing, Mr Yates was still Ukip’s choice for the East Midlands seat of Charnwood.

But the problem isn’t his, or Ukip’s, alone. After all, in the sense that he proposed stripping “benefit claimants” of something most people take for granted, Yates’s plans merely sat on the outer edge of what now passes for mainstream thinking. When the state makes it clear that the poor and unfortunate are not to have spare bedrooms, and embraces the idea of stopping them buying booze and fags and shredding their entitlements if they have more than two kids, is it really such a leap to deny them non-public transport too? For all its inanity, there is a sadism at the heart of the Yates idea that is not a million miles away from the cruelties increasingly built into the benefits system: cruelties most of us would not put up with for a minute, but which are visited on thousands of people every week.

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The Green surge: is this the party that will decide the election?

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

The Green party is not just riding high in the opinion polls – it has signed up 13,000 new members in one week. If it keeps growing at this rate, it will be bigger than Labour by May. Is it really on the verge of a breakthrough?

Olivia Cropper is a 34-year‑old mother of one who lives in Hove, and works in the complaints department of one of the big banks. “I’m not particularly leftwing,” she says, and she is probably right: up until 2010, she tended to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Last Thursday, she filled in an online membership form, handed over £31 and joined the Green party, chiefly thanks to a nagging sense of injustice. “I read something – I think it was on Twitter – about how Green membership was increasing exponentially, day by day,” she tells me, “and how the total Green membership was now bigger than Ukip’s, and that would be significant when people were deciding who was going to be included in the TV election debates. I thought, ‘If I can add my name to that, it’ll add even more weight to that argument.’ The Greens are more popular now than the Lib Dems, and if a small party like Ukip is going to get in on the act, I think they should too.”

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Lucy Powell, Ed Miliband’s election guru: ‘You’ve just got to get on with the job’

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

As Labour’s campaign chief, Lucy Powell has a lot on her plate. And it doesn’t help when one of your own side is ‘probably’ out to get you

Lucy Powell has vivid recollections of just about all the general elections of the last 30-odd years, but two in particular stick out. In 1983, when the Labour party led by Michael Foot was all but crushed, she spent polling day with her Labour activist dad, on official party duty in her native south Manchester. “I was nine,” she says. “My Dad gave me a £1 note to sit outside the polling station and collect people’s numbers. He said I was the best polling teller he’d ever had.”

By 1992, when Neil Kinnock had raised his party’s expectations to the point that victory seemed to be within its grasp, she was at sixth-form college, where she stood in the obligatory mock election. “Obviously, I was the Labour candidate,” she says. “And I beat the other main parties, but an independent won it.” She smiles. “It was my first flavour of a Nigel Farage-type figure. He was quite charismatic, as I recall. And he offered all sorts of goodies to the student council.”

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