Confessions of a Political Animal

June 21, 2010

Time for the street-fighting council

On May 6th 2010, Labour won by a small landslide.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Because as the party fell to defeat in parliamentary seats across the country, it swept to power in London borough after London borough. Before the elections, of 32 London boroughs, Labour had majority control of just 7, running a further one in a coalition and one more as a result of having the elected mayor. By the evening of Friday 7th May, Labour had overall control of 17 boroughs, running one more as a minority administration. In 9 of the remaining 14 boroughs, Labour increased its number of seats. Eighteen months before the elections, I suggested that if the general and local elections were to coincide, this might prove to be to Labour’s benefit. So it turned out, but the results were far beyond what I predicted in that post. There is something more than just an increased turnout behind these very good results; and I believe that it has a direct bearing on how Labour councils in London, both newly-elected and returned, should conduct themselves over the next four years.

The easy answer to ‘Why did Labour do so well in London’ is that the party’s core vote turned out. But the core vote cannot deliver 18 boroughs – in reality (as was tested in 2006), it can be guaranteed to deliver about 5 boroughs. What turned out across London on May 6th was what I will describe as the ‘Core+’, a coalition of broadly progressive forces more akin to that which delivered two Livingstone victories than to that behind the 1997 landslide. With a Conservative victory nationally seen as certain, voters with personal or political reasons to fear the onset of Osbornomics (the radical, ideology-driven downsizing of the state using deficit reduction as a pretext) turned out, only partially in hope of preventing this, but equally to try to ensure that savage cuts would be opposed at a local level. For better or worse, this coalition of forces overwhelmingly saw Labour as the party best placed to deliver that opposition.  (more…)

May 24, 2010

A Job Description

This is a joint post by Political Animal and Lost Lucan

The brave new world has dawned, and in the hard cold morning following the battle we can survey the wreckage: the promise of retrenchment with a nasty twist. Cuts, and a re-pointing of the welfare state to the benefit of the better off, with a hike in VAT rather than employer’s National Insurance being used to fill the Treasury’s coffers. From amidst the dust and rubble we rise, clutching the few belongings remaining to us, to start again down the road to government.

And so who will lead us down the twisting path ahead? In some respects it matters not: the hats already thrown into the ring, and those promised to follow adorn the heads of a talented bunch, all of whom could make a decent stab at the task. We are fortunate in having an acting leader who is more than capable of setting the tone for the months and years ahead. No, what matters more is what policies we choose to pursue, around what principles we rally.

The government we face will be nasty, brutish and, sadly, not quite so short. In these times, it is imperative that we offer our new members and the electorate a distinct and decent platform, that we provide a strong voice for employees, the less well off and everyone else who does not fit into the Cameron mould and who would otherwise comprise the great ignored.  To that end, we believe that a successful Labour leader must pursue a progressive set of policies which promote not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome, with an acceptance that the structural causes of poverty outweigh any impacts of so-called agency in preventing social mobility.

The Whigs had four policy areas to all but sacrifice upon the altar of ambition. We also propose four areas which, in our view, a successful candidate for the Labour leadership should  pursue. They are by no means the only important ones, but they strike at our core values, values which should not be offered up for any price. (more…)

February 5, 2010

Living in an Alternative (Vote) London

But who? And how?

The Prime Minister’s proposals for electoral reform are too limited and too late. But despite that I support them.

Not only because I believe the introduction of Alternative Vote is a key step on the way towards the introduction of a genuinely proportion (and more psephologically interesting) electoral system but also because the rabid response of the right has convinced me that Brown must be on to something. This has ranged from Cameron’s none-too-subtle barbs about rigging the electoral system at PMQs, through to the ill-advised playing of the Mugabe card by Reading East Tory Rob Wilson MP*.

As I like to give all politicians the benefit of the doubt (stop sniggering at the back, there) I’m prepared to be convinced that if we weren’t 100 days from a general election then the response would be a bit more considered. Because if this is an attempt to rig the electoral system, it would be an astoundingly cack-handed way of doing it. Alternative Vote makes no significant amendment to the UK’s constitutional settlement, it is highly unlikely to break the dominance of the two major parties and will leave the vast majority of seats in the same hands as currently, albeit with a little more legitimacy for the sitting MP.

Whether the AV transition is likely to happen this time round or not is a moot point. But I remain convinced in some degree of historical inevitability of electoral reform in the UK, and AV seems a very likely first step whenever it comes around. So what would it mean? I don’t have the time or inclination to go through each of the UK’s 650 constituencies, but I thought I’d have a run through the London region: not only because it’s my home, but also because we have some experience of this sort of system. The Supplementary Vote system used for electing the Mayor is a hybridised form of AV, in which the voter is limited to expressing two preferences, rather than being able to number all the way down the ballot paper. So there is a bit of evidence, albeit somewhat unwieldy, as to how voters might react to a preferential system. (more…)

January 13, 2010

European Leftwatch: The year to come

Ivo Josipović, the new Social Democrat president of Croatia

With 2010 now well underway, and with one election under it’s belt already, it is high time for a quick look ahead at the prospects for the Socialist International‘s member parties over the course of the next 12 months (an overview of what European Leftwatch is about can be found here).

2009 was a pretty mixed bag for the democratic socialist and social democratic parties of Europe, who for a variety of reasons have failed in many cases to reap any significant rewards from the continuing crisis of laissez-faire capitalism. The biggest story was, of course, the disastrous showing for the SPD in Germany, ending the grand coalition and ushering in (an already rather tarnished looking) right-wing coalition. The centre left was also heavily defeated in Bulgaria and Macedonia and failed to break out of opposition in Albania. Positives included victories in Greece and Iceland at the expense of incumbent centre-right governments (although both new leftist governments may well be seeing their victories as poisoned chalices by now) and the Partido Socialista’s re-election in Portugal.

With the centre left firmly out of power for the foreseeable future in France, Germany and Italy, that leaves only Britain and Spain of the major EU powers in Socialist International hands (and if you want to add Poland to the list of major powers, that shows no signs of shifting left any time soon). I don’t think the vast majority of readers of this blog are going to need reminding of the prospects for the British social democrats during 201o; basically, it seems highly unlikely that 2010 is going to be a vintage year for the European left. Below, we take a quick skim over national elections that either will or are likely to be held during the course of the next twelve months, starting with a calendar of those with fixed dates, then moving on to those with flexible term lengths. (more…)

October 5, 2009

European Left Watch: Gaining Greece

President of the Socialist International, George Papandreou Jnr, into the office of Prime Minister on his third attempt.

Vouli ton Ellinon, Athens
Vouli ton Ellinon, Athens

Whilst most of Europe’s attention was focused on voting in a small country at one end of the EU over the weekend, at the opposite end of the continent another country, Greece, was electing a new government. And, whilst barely compensating for the loss of any left influence in the governance of one of Europe’s economic powerhouses last week, the result will help to ensure the retention of a reasonable sized left-leaning bloc on the Council of Ministers. It has also catapulted the 

Greece has been governed by the centre-right Néa Dēmokratía(New Democracy – ND) and Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis since 2004, following an eleven year period under Panellinio Sosialistikó Kínima (Panhellenic Socialist Movement – PASOK). Since the early 1980s, PASOK has very much been the default party of government – helped by its birth in the struggle against the dictatorship of the Generals – with brief intervening periods of ND rule. Yesterday’s results suggest that this may not be about to change.

The five year government of Karamanlis has been a relatively unhappy period for Greece, beginning with a failure to capitalise on the legacy of the 2004 Athens Olympics, a poor government responseto the series of devastating summer fires, through to the violent rioting of last December. Despite being elected on a promise to clean up Greek politics, entrenched issues of corruption, graft and cronyism seem, if anything, to have got worse during the lifetime of Karamanlis’ government. On top of this have come the inevitable effects of the global recession: 2009 is expected to be the first year of negative economic growth for decades and government debt is touching 100% of GDP. (more…)

September 28, 2009

European Left Watch: Germany & Portugal

BundestagOne weekend, two elections. And two rather differing stories for the European centre left.

Germany: After what was, by all accounts, a dull campaign, Germany went to the polls for elections to the Bundestag on Sunday. This could perhaps be described as a two headline election. The first was already written well before this week: the centre-right CDU‘s Angela Merkel would win a second term in office as Chancellor. The second part was more interesting: who would she be governing with? Merkel and the CDU made no secret throughout the campaign (and well before) that it wanted to end the grand coalition with the centre-left SPD it was reluctantly forced into following the tight 2005 election. The CDU’s choice of partner was quite clear – the economically liberal FDP (who for some reason always get described in the British media as ‘pro-business’, as if the CDU and SPD weren’t), the longstanding king-makers of post-war German politics.

The SPD, going into the election trailing heavily in the polls under the grand coalition Foreign Secretary Frank-Walter Steinmeier was less clear about its preferred outcome, guessing perhaps that beggars weren’t in the best of positions to be choosers. Having, foolishly to my mind, ruled out a coalition government with Oskar Lafontaine’s Die Linke party – which the opinion polls briefly suggested could take power as part of an SPD-Green-Linke coalition, they appeared to go through the campaign seeing a forced continuation of the grand coalition as their only hope of retaining power. At no point did it look like the SPD and their Schröder-era coaliton partners in the Greens would by themselves be able to command a majority.

Fan or not of his heavily reformist brand of social democrat politics, it has become increasingly clear that the SPD is still suffering from being deprived of two term chancellor Gerhard Schröder. On two occasions he bought the SPD back from seeming certain defeat: to a narrow victory in 2002 and to a defeat so narrow in 2005 that it gave some of his colleagues four more years in ministerial Mercedes. Equally, it is clear that Merkel (or someone else in CDU high command) drove a great bargain in demanding that Schröder should play no part in the CDU-SPD government. (more…)

July 29, 2009

What a load of Phibbs

conservative-homeIn many ways I admire ConservativeHome. It’s an attractive, reasonably open and user-friendly site that does genuinely appear to seek to engage with the Party’s grass-roots activists and supporters.

It has a problem though – serving as it does as a bit of a shop window for the Tories, it does with some regularity highlight to the outside world the more, ahem, interesting points of view and personalities within the Party. You know, the sort any party would want to keep a little under wraps – it’s not a partisan thing, every party has them. However, ConservativeHome sometimes seems to go out of its way to highlight them. Take, for example, the innocuous sounding statement ‘Cllr Harry Phibbs edits ConservativeHome’s Local Government page‘. I don’t know a huge amount about said Cllr Phibbs, but I’m learning – largely through his own teachings. And the more I learn, the more I feel that an equivalent statement would be ‘Margaret Moran MP edits LabourHome’s Probity in Public Life page’.

Cllr Phibbs represents the Ravenscourt Park ward in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, flagship council of the Tory right since they took control in 2006 – tax-cutting, service-slashing, employee-bullying, homeless-bashing. The council’s most recent brush with the media spotlight has surrounded the intriguing views of Leader Stephen Greenhalgh about exactly for whom and where social housing should be provided. Some have intimated that his policies are almost Porter-esque. The Animal is saying nothing for fear of the libel courts. (more…)

July 14, 2009

European Left Watch: Bulgaria, Albania…and Henin-Beaumont

Bulgarian Parliament, Sofia

Bulgarian Parliament, Sofia

What Harold Macmillan would describe as ‘events, dear boy, events’ have prevented me from catching up on two European parliamentary elections held in the past couple of weeks. One was disastrous for the European centre left, the other mildly encouraging.

Bulgaria went to the polls on 5th July to elect its 240-seat National Assembly, with 87% of the seats being awarded nationally through a new proportional system. The remaining seats are elected through plurality rule.

Until the elections, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) headed a coalition government with the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) under Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev. In common with many avowedly centre-left governments in the former Soviet bloc, the actual programme of the coalition took a decidedly rightwards slant, including the introduction of a 10% flat tax rate. Throughout its four-year term of office, Stanishev’s government was mired in allegations of corruption and entered the election very much on the back foot, trailing the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria(GERB) grouping – itself founded as recently as 2006 and led by Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov. (more…)

June 10, 2009

Party like it’s 2008 – sort of.

London Boroughs Euro Labour

Note: I have published my data sheet for the London European election results with borough-by-borough breakdowns here. I am missing the exact breakdown of independent candidate votes in Hillingdon and the results for the City of London (unless the latter are included in a neighbouring borough). If anyone has access to these, please could they leave me a note? Thanks! UPDATE: data now complete thanks to Nick in comments.

If the patterns emerging on the map above (apologies for the atrocious reproduction quality) look slightly familiar, it’s probably because, like me, you spent some time last year poring over maps like this or thiswhich showed clearly the inner/outer London divide in voting in the Mayoral elections. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that last week’s European elections produced similar results – voting patterns aren’t likely to change that much in 13 months – but they are evidence of the re-emerging political disconnect between the ‘two Londons’. The dominance of New Labour did much to smooth over that disconnect. It may be the case that its death throes are widening the gap further than ever before.

There’s no getting around the fact that the European Election results were very, very bad for Labour, but as Dave Hill has pointed out, what was calamitous in the rest of the country was merely dismal in London. Whilst Labour’s vote dropped 7% nationally compared to 2004, it fell by only half of that in the London region; the Tory increase was smaller even than the limited national figure (+0.6% in London, compared to +1% nationally), whilst UKIP, surging into second place across Britain registered a 1.9% vote decrease in London, narrowly falling into fifth place behind the Greens. (more…)

June 4, 2009

Dear Hazel

blearsDear Comrade,

I thought about writing this last night. I didn’t, because it’s generally a good rule that when you want to write something really angry, you should wait twenty four hours and see if you’re still just as angry then. Also, I didn’t want to leave myself open to accusations of hypocrisy by effectively acting in the same way as you have. However insignificant I am in this Party of ours (and believe me, that’s insignificant), I do not bear my responsibility towards it lightly. I did not want to publish this before polls closed.

We have never met. I am a party member of ten years standing, hardly active enough to be called an ‘activist’. I’ve delivered a few leaflets, served in a few branch positions, occasionally written vaguely supportive things on this blog. I’m extremely happy that for the past six years of my professional life I have worked alongside Labour politicians from every wing of the Party, all genuinely committed to helping the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. There are real and deep ideological debates within our Party and we debate those forcefully, but we are united in the knowledge of a common aim and a common enemy. We do not, as a rule, engage in public character assassination. However, comrade, by your despicable actions yesterday, you have – in the eyes of many members – forfeited that protection.

Those of us who sat through hustings meetings in the last deputy leadership contest (no fewer than three in my case – I know I’m sad, but I enjoy elections) will have had the pleasure of hearing you harangue the audience, and indeed several of the other candidates, on the duty of loyalty that we owe to the party and its leadership. This, indeed, was very much your USP. I did not and do not share your hardline views on cracking down on ‘dissent’ within the Party. Slavish loyalty to the Party leadership is destructive and dangerous. But in the position you held until yesterday, there was one very distinct duty of loyalty that you held. (more…)

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