Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ed Miliband lacks the political maturity to be Prime Minister

It started off pretty well. It even made him sound prime ministerial. Ed Miliband began by paying tribute to the captured British hostage from Salford, Alan Henning.

It was a mature and unexpected start to a conference speech, and one that should be praised.

It was also one of the rare occasions where there was some maturity on display during Miliband’s hour long (mercifully, shorter than the 80 minutes billed) speech. 25 minutes into it I was already beginning to despair. He’d gone into Ed the storyteller mode. Anecdote after anecdote, brief encounter after brief encounter. At times, it felt like Jackanory.

We got the usual mish-mash of ideas, the obligatory ode to the NHS, some Tory bashing and not much on the deficit. In fact none. It’s now transpired that Ed Miliband simply forgot this section in his speech. Which tells you all you need to know about Ed Miliband. Big on vision, big on restructuring the state, small on that rather crucial fundamental: how you’re going to pay for it all with a nasty financial black hole staring you in the face.

It’s not that many of Labour’s policies aren’t popular: mansion tax, energy price freeze, cap on payday lenders. It’s that under Miliband it’s always tried to run before it can walk. It’s spent four years getting ahead of itself, getting bogged down in too much policy and not getting the basics right. First, convince the public you can be trusted with the economy and go from there.

Miliband has consistently failed in this vital area, which explains why despite support for some of his ideas, this doesn’t translate into personal support. Voters like the policies but don’t trust the guy to be entrusted with putting them into practice.

After last year’s conference speech I wrote that Ed Miliband was staking all on his core vote. Earlier this year I also wrote that Tory bashing and academic waffle were the limits of his leadership. Nothing he said yesterday undermines either argument.

What got the biggest cheer of the hour? The NHS of course, and a pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, although this has been Labour policy for a while now. And it’s a policy I’m behind.

I have deep concerns at the direction of the NHS under this government. I don’t mind a bit of private sector involvement if it helps speed up the time we wait for operations, for example. But too much private sector means efficiency savings, which means smaller ops that don’t bring in the big bucks postponed for the bigger ones.

The NHS is Labour’s raison d’être. It’s on safe ground saying nice things about our health service. This is what’s expected. This is what its delegates expect to hear. And therein lies Ed Miliband’s biggest weakness as leader.

The media have obsessed about his image problem. He’s joked about his image problem. He looks and sounds odd etc. But, this isn’t his biggest problem. And it never has been. His biggest problem is that time and again he fails to challenge his party’s activists. He gives them exactly what they want to hear.

It’d be inaccurate to say that he’s too afraid of taking on vested interests. He’s picked fights with some of the country’s biggest beasts. When it comes to his own supporters, he just can’t do it.

Anyone who’s ever attended a Labour meeting, be it at city or constituency level, will be able to testify that you are surrounded by people way to the left of voters on almost every issue. Anger at welfare reform, fury at any negativity (no matter how mild) about the NHS, is what gets these activists going. They don’t want to see reform. Of any sort. Most would increase benefits, not see them cut.

They are a terrible bellwether for public opinion. And yet they dominate Miliband’s thoughts whenever he comes out to deliver a major speech. How else to explain why Ed Balls does all the dirty work, putting a dampener of things, whilst Ed M’s job is to reassure and mollify?

Labour activists don’t want to hear about austerity. Miliband never used the word once yesterday. They don’t want to hear about cuts to public services. Not mentioned. Yet every serious observer knows that both will have to continue for another decade at least.

These are the things that wavering voters are looking out for. Is this leader of the opposition prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions, even if it means alienating allies? The soft Conservatives, not the diehards. The swing voters who want to sit back and be convinced. Ed Miliband doesn’t give them a second’s thought.

A potential future prime minister needs to show he can be a leader on the world stage. Ed Miliband’s support for UK airstrikes on ISIS could be described as lukewarm at best. Asking that it have UN authorisation screams delaying tactic or that he’s not really fully behind it. He must know full well Russia will never consent.

The lamest and quite frankly most cringeworthy part of his speech came when talking about Israel and Palestine. It’s so bad, so amateurish, that it needs to be quoted in full:

“I’m determined that as Prime Minister, I promote our values all round the world and one of the things that that means friends is seeking a solution to a problem that we know in our hearts is one of the biggest problems our world faces and that is issues in the Middle East and Israel and Palestine.

I tell you, I will fight with every fibre of my being to get the two state solution, two states for two people, Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side, that will be a very, very important task of the next Labour government, friends.”

It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear at a school sixth form debate. By two of the school’s low achievers. What does it mean? It’s so anodyne as to be laughable. It says precisely nothing, and bear in mind that this comes off the back of another brutal and bloody conflict there, is some achievement. Really, Ed, if you’ve got nothing worthwhile to say, don’t say anything.

If there’s one thing that this speech should do is sound the death knell for “I met a man/woman called Bob/Alfie/Rosy/Gill” type anecdotes. Done to show that leaders meet real people, they’re now so overused as to sound almost absurd, and rather comical.

And the poor sods in the story are then usually tracked down by the tabloids within minutes where they reveal that 1. X leader was a bit odd, and 2. That they don’t vote for their party anyway. Guess what? They don’t vote for anyone. They’re all the same aren’t they?

Enough. It’s desperation politics. It’s trying too hard.

So there we have it. The big make or break speech for Ed Miliband was neither make nor break. Nothing he said yesterday would have convinced the undecideds to vote for him, or those hostile to him to have changed their minds, or Labour voters to not be Labour voters come what (next) May.

After four years as Labour leader, it’s as you were for the party. Neither in the doldrums or on the brink of power, but with its core still intact.

And you know what, I think they quite like it that way. Nothing too challenging, nothing too uncomfortable. So, how does another five years in opposition suit you?

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 24th September 2014

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The David Ruffley case is another blow to victims of domestic abuse

The case of David Ruffley leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. The Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds will stand down at the next election after pressure grew on him to resign when it was revealed that he had received a police caution for assaulting his ex-girlfriend earlier this year.

As is the way these days, when the incident came to light, we got the usual emotionless, legal-speak, type of statement, from Ruffley:

“In March this year, an incident occurred between me and my former partner, resulting in inappropriate action on my part, which I deeply regret."

Only the entitled and the privileged would dare describe a case of domestic violence as something ‘inappropriate.’

The key intervention that moved this episode on seems to have come from the dean of the constituency cathedral the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward. Her letter to Ruffley, picked up by Guido Fawkes, is damning.

In it, she states her view that his position as their MP has become untenable. Most tellingly, she also questions his version of events as to what took place in March, in particular his claim to her that ‘there was blame on both sides.’

Dr Ward describes how when she visited Ruffley’s ex-partner and greeted her with a customary hug, the latter ‘winced in obvious pain.’ According to Dr Ward, the ex-partner speaks of being frightened by [Ruffley’s] ‘rage and violent behaviour.’

Dr Ward brushed aside Ruffley’s attempts to play down events that evening as nothing more than a ‘little local incident.’ Furthermore, in the letter she advises he gets professional help for his behaviour. Indeed, one of the reasons Ruffley’s ex-partner has decided against speaking out was due to concerns as to what he might do to himself.

The letter seems to have been written (sent with the blessing of Ruffley’s ex-partner) as a result of the reverend and other people’s feelings that events in March had impacted on the MP’s ability to do his job. He had in effect lost the support of his constituents. And this without going into the effect all this must have had, and is probably still having, on his ex-partner.

Although not all constituents have been so ready to turn their back on their MP. Most pointedly, his local association chairman, denying that what took place ‘in any way qualifies as domestic abuse,’ instead choosing to attack those who did see it this way as ‘the opposition and minority feminist groups.’ A claim refuted by Jenny Antill, a Conservative councillor in a nearby ward.

Antill hit back, asking:

“Do you agree that David Ruffley accepted a police caution for common assault on his then partner at his London flat earlier this year? If so, in what way does this not constitute domestic abuse?”

A member of the Bury St-Edmunds Conservative Association and supporter of Ruffley told the BBC that assaulting one’s partner shouldn’t preclude someone from being an MP, adding that ‘there are very few people in life who haven't done something they subsequently regret.’ He also took a pop at ‘odd female organisations that look for equality.’

Another tipping point seems to have been a letter leaked to Guido Fawkes, ready to be sent to today’s Times from dozens of women affiliated with the Conservative Party which states;

“We consider it unacceptable that a man has accepted a caution for assaulting his partner should continue in his position.

“This Conservative-led government has a proud record of acting to prevent domestic violence.

“The public has the right to be served by representatives who abide by the legislation that they pass through parliament.”

Guido also makes the astonishing claim that certain MPs ‘emotionally blackmailed and even threatened their female staff with disciplinary measures if they signed this letter.’

Two things come to mind from this whole unsavoury affair. The first is that too many people, including, and most worryingly, those in positions of power, continue to play down the severity of domestic violence. For some it’s purely a private matter best resolved behind closed doors, rather than an issue to be brought in to the public domain by some pesky feminists.

For the perpetrator, in this case a sitting MP, it wasn’t deemed to be sufficient grounds for resigning. At least not until external pressure was applied.

Dr Ward’s letter brings up a number of issues, many of them common in cases of domestic abuse: denial by the perpetrator that they were solely to blame for their actions. The trivialisation of the offence. One apparently so trivial that it still required the police to be called and left the victim wincing in pain. And finally, despite being on the receiving end of the assault, the victim’s unwillingness to speak out against their partner for fear of what it might do to their partner’s reputation as well as their mental and physical wellbeing.

The second thing that this case highlights is the urgent need for a proper right to recall bill. Not the heavily diluted, limp, MPs get to decide first, cop out version currently being proposed. But one which does what reformers have been championing for years. One which allows constituents to have the ultimate say over the behaviour of discredited MPs.

David Ruffley has resigned but in fact he hasn’t really because he’s still free to continue in his job until next May, and with it free to claim his handsome salary and other parliamentary perks that come with his privileged position.

As one commentator rightly points out:

“Money aside, his constituents in Suffolk will for the next ten months be represented by a man who committed an act of domestic violence against a woman. A man whose actions were deemed so inappropriate that he accepted he had to leave politics.

“Where does this leave women in Bury St Edmunds who need the help of their Member of Parliament? Knowing what we know now, would a woman with a deeply personal issue feel comfortable attending a private meeting with Ruffley to discuss her problem? To put it bluntly, if a woman in Bury St Edmunds was suffering from domestic violence and needed the help of her MP, would she feel able to come to Ruffley for support?”

“Ruffley's resignation letter is a de facto admission of guilt, or to be specific an admission that he should no longer remain as a representative of the electorate. This seems part of a growing trend among politicians who have been found to have done something wrong, whereby they accept that they have to go, but refuse to do so immediately.”

Every prejudice that the public have about politicians laid bare. Not above the law, but not exactly living by the rules applied to the rest of us. Answerable, but answerable on their terms.

Domestic abuse remains a scourge which afflicts people of all classes. Our response to it underlines why it remains so. Neither the perpetrator nor the chairman of his constituency Conservative association were able or willing to properly admit what had taken place in March. It was only once the victim’s friend intervened, someone in the position of influence, have we had justice. Justice of sorts that is.

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 30th July 2014

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Axing of Gove: Cameron at his most cowardly

They got their man in the end. Every teacher up and down the country has been rejoicing. Or so we’re led to believe.

Which has always been part of Michael Gove’s problem. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of teachers (they’re usually the head teachers) who have publically backed him and his reforms. Groupthink acts as a natural disinfectant to any would be dissenters.

It would be disingenuous to excuse Gove from some of the opprobrium that has come his way over the past four years.

Pushing through wide-ranging changes is one thing. Selling them to an already sceptical and weary profession is quite another. Gove’s method of flogging his reforms was to go on the attack. Vilifying those who didn’t support them, getting people’s backs up whenever he spoke. He often gave the impression of a man who didn’t care what people thought of him because he was so sure about what he was trying to do.

This obviously didn’t go down well with teachers or many left-leaning public sector types. He has become the pantomime Tory villain. The man who contaminates what’s left of his party’s modernisation project. Not even George Osborne has faced such sustained criticism.

Which is all the more frustrating because Gove has been right from the start in what he’s been doing. And already we can see the benefits.

His vision for education is anything but reactionary. The reactionaries are those who have spent years, even decades, resisting wholesale change to their profession. Content to trudge on as we were, leaving our schools mired in mediocrity, left behind by the Asian powerhouses.

It would be too simplistic and dangerously naïve to believe Gove has been punished more for his delivery than his content. Yes, he could have been a little softer in making his case, trying to win over hearts and minds, but then this isn’t the kind of politician he is. It may not have made much difference either way.

The teaching unions don’t take kindly to any Education Secretary meddling around on their turf. Has there ever been a Secretary of State for Education in recent memory that hasn’t been jeered at the unions’ annual conference? And the spite and anger reserved for a Tory Education Secretary is unique.

Which brings us on to David Cameron and his cowardly decision to demote him. Three explanations have been offered. The first is that Gove simply made far too many enemies. As one of his key allies, Toby Young, put it:

“The reason he has so many enemies is because he's achieved so much. There's no great mystery surrounding why Education Secretaries usually achieve so little and why so few ambitious politicians have coveted the role until now. You're ranged against a vast array of vested interest who will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo. If you try and wrest control of our public education system from them, they're naturally going to do everything in their power to destroy you and, until now, few senior politicians have been willing to take that risk.”

Michael Gove is that type of a politician. A convictionist with a long term vision for where he wants our education system to be in 20 years from now. And conviction politicians tend to get people’s backs up. Our system rewards those who quietly get on with their business, not making a fuss, not causing a scene, whilst issuing bland statements on the way. Quite simply, Gove was in the news far too often for Cameron’s liking.

The second explanation is the fallout from the Trojan Horse affair. It seemed at the time that Theresa May had been damaged more by having her special adviser take the bullet, whilst Gove got away with an apology and a public reprimand. This very public spat, between two of the PM’s biggest hitters, couldn’t have gone down well at number 10. Maybe the embarrassment was the final straw.

A final explanation points to Downing Street’s private polling. It had revealed that Gove had become a liability, in particular, surprise surprise, among teachers.

According to The Times (£) he had become a very public liability:

“In all the focus groups and surveys, Mr Gove achieved the unwanted double of being recognised and disliked by the public. One recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the public could correctly identify him as education secretary, but that 55 per cent thought he was doing badly at the job.

“The picture that emerged of polling in marginal seats was said to be even starker, especially in areas with high numbers of public sector workers.

“By association, the education reforms that were once seen as an electoral asset were becoming “toxic”, according to one senior Conservative.”

What we have is politics at its most cynical. At its most short-termist and poll-obsessed. Never mind what Gove had achieved, never mind what he was going to achieve. The numbers have spoken.

The government needs all the votes it can get. Some have suggested this reshuffle shows Cameron in confident mood ahead of next year. I’d argue it shows the opposite. It shows a man desperately scrambling around for every vote he can get, knowing how close it’s going to be. If it means sacrificing his best minister, so be it.

Yesterday, David Cameron spouted the usual platitudes about what a remarkable politician his friend is, who’ll be doing an important job as Chief Whip.

Cameron is often accused of believing in nothing. We now know that’s not the case. He believes in the findings of a few focus groups who have told him that people who aren’t known for being natural Tories feel a bit affronted.

Where Gove showed conviction, Cameron has shown cowardice. Today, England’s schoolchildren will be worse off.

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 16th July 2014

Friday, 20 June 2014

Don’t blame the players. Don’t blame the manager. Blame the Premier League.

I’m not angry. I’m not disappointed, I’m certainly not surprised. To say I was surprised would be to admit that I thought England would get very far in this World Cup. Although I was expecting a quarter-final appearance at least. It looks like we won’t even get out of the group stage.

So, who’s to blame? There has to be someone to blame. There always is. Every tournament we get bundled out of there’s always a fall guy. The player who ballooned his penalty over the bar? Take your pick over the years. The guy who got himself sent off and let the team down. Let his country down.

What about the coach with all that passion, who wore his heart on his sleeve, one of us, but was found out to be tactically naïve? Or the foreign coach who didn’t show enough passion? The cold and detached one. There’s always the wally with the brolly for a laugh.

This time around it has to be Wayne Rooney, surely? Expect he finally got his first World Cup goal so he’s absolved of blame. The defence were weak, but Gary Cahill played well. We should have picked Ashley Cole over Leighton Baines. Baines was horribly exposed down the left against Italy. Let’s blame him.

Steven Gerrard: he slipped at the crucial moment against Chelsea and threw away Liverpool’s chance for glory. Last night he was at fault for both goals. Rejoice! The nation has its fall guy. Our scapegoat. We’re world champions at having a scapegoat.

Except he’s not the one to blame. Nor are the other players. Nor the coach. None of them are.
The glitzy, over-hyped, beast that is the Premier League. That’s what we should be blaming. Not the product itself. And I’m not talking about blaming the foreign players.

On its own it’s a dazzling and intoxicating competition. It attracts supporters from every corner of the globe. The football is high tempo, end to end stuff.

What we rarely ask is whether the quality’s any good. Not whether the games are entertaining, we know they are. Last season was one of the best and most exciting in recent memory.

Matches are played at 100 miles an hour. And therein lies the problem. There’s no time to breathe. Players rarely have time on the ball to look up and think three or four passes ahead. They’re immediately closed down and harried. And they expect this which is why they get rid of it almost instantly.

If you want to see why time and time again England fail miserably at the major tournaments, take a look at the Premier League. England’s style of football mirrors that which takes place week in week out at the likes of St Mary’s to St James’ Park.

Watching England is like being at a Premier League match involving two mediocre sides. It’s frenetic. It’s breathless. It’s scrappy. The defending is non-existent. Players excel at getting stuck in. Not keeping hold of the ball and patiently working it from one end to the other.

The same frailties are exposed in every World Cup and in every European Championship.

England cannot pass the ball. They look uncomfortable in possession. It’s rare to see more than four passes strung together before one goes astray. Against teams that excel at possession football they wear themselves out trying to get hold of the ball, running around like headless chickens.

England’s game is not a patient one. The players lack the technical ability to stroke the ball around for several minutes at a time without panicking that they haven’t scored.

They know possession football isn’t their game so they’re reduced to speculative long range shots. It’s their default setting when things aren’t going their way. There’s little subtlety in their play. England always looked rushed.

Watching them is wholly predictable. These guys can do it the Premier League where everyone else is playing the same sort of game. Against international opposition they come unstuck. England have some very good players, a couple would even come under the world class banner.

After an encouraging performance against Italy (which they still lost) there was some hope that they could pull off the high-tempo stuff and get their passing game going. Last night they couldn’t do either. So they reverted to type.

England’s defence is so porous because defending isn’t a crucial component of winning a Premier League match. None of the teams can defend so the mentality of sides is if we concede a goal we’ll just go racing up the pitch and score two. It doesn’t work like than at a World Cup.

The solution to England’s shortcomings won’t be found in the Premier League. The latter is merely the end product of a culture which values blood and guts and getting stuck in over being technically sound.

It’ll start at the very beginning with the academies. Children taught not to be afraid of keeping hold of the ball. Taught that it’s okay if it takes time to reach the opponents goal, rather than feeling rushed after three passes and hoofing the ball into the penalty area.

All these years we’ve eulogised our Premier League. And we’ve been right to. It really is the best league in the world. If you want to be entertained. Not if you want it to produce a successful England team.

That bit has to be done away from the cameras. It’s a lot less glamorous and it’ll cost a lot less than Man City’s squad.

But if we ever want to see England challenging (let alone winning) for a trophy again this is what needs to be done. Because the suits who run the Premier League won’t be offering the England team a helping hand any time soon.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 20th June 2014.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Ofsted: the latest useful idiots in the battle against cultural relativism

Won’t somebody please think of the children? Because if recent evidence is anything to go by, it won’t be Ofsted.

Their handling of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair has reduced them to a laughing stock. Five of the 21 Birmingham schools at the centre of it had recently been rated good or outstanding, only to be put into special measures months later.

In the run up to Ofsted’s report this week the media had been preoccupied with the Michael Gove-Theresa May spat. After publication, attention turned to the Schools’ Inspectorate and its woefully inadequate system for inspection.

In March, the think tank Policy Exchange branded the judgement of inspectors so unreliable that ‘you would be better off flipping a coin.’

The shocking findings in Birmingham have somewhat diluted the criticisms Ofsted should be facing. They now acknowledge things must change.

And then you open up this morning’s Times (£), and a story that Ofsted has ordered its inspectors not to criticise segregation amongst boys and girls in Muslim schools. It states that segregation does not amount to discrimination but is line with Islamic requirements. Girls having to wear the hijab do so as part of their identity. Music and art may be restricted, the paper says.

Quoting Ofsted advice when inspecting Muslim schools, The Times reports that:

“Boys and girls may well be taught or seated separately according to the specific context, particularly during collective acts of worship. This should not be taken as a sign of inequality between genders.”

“Girls will cover their head with the ‘hijab’ or scarf. On occasions this is not a requirement of the school but at the pupil’s own request. Inspectors should be mindful to not misinterpret this as a sign of repression but instead to understand that Muslim females see this as a part of their identity and a commitment to their beliefs within Islam.”

The Times adds that learning music may occur in a religious context:

“Inspectors may find evidence of music being taught through religious worship sessions: the tajweed (recitation of the Koran), the singing of Arabic songs (nasheed), the playing of the duff (drums) and the call to prayer (adhan). Pupils are taught these from an early age.”

The findings from Trojan Horse focused entirely on non-faith based schools, but ones with predominantly Muslim pupils. Cue a wave of comment pieces attacking faith schools on the grounds that the narrow faith-based ideology being practiced at certain secular schools in Birmingham is what’s currently legitimised at actual faith schools.

There is something profoundly depressing and disturbing in equal measure at the contents of today’s Times piece. Rather than challenging values and beliefs that are anathema to British society, Ofsted are now complicit in them.

The usual derision was heaped upon the government when it announced that schools would now be forced to teach British values. Whilst it may not be obvious to say what these values are, it’s certainly a lot more obvious to identity what they’re not: the very things Ofsted instructs its inspectors to turn a blind eye to.

According to its warped mindset, it is not the responsibility of the body charged with overseeing our schools to pick up on instances of misogyny. So who’s looking out for the girls told from a very young age that it’s their duty to cover up? Who’s helping to counteract the damaging assertion that girls as young as five be forced to view themselves as sexual objects?

You’d think they’d get protection from this sort of nonsense at school. Instead they’re coming to school to have this reaffirmed.

None of this is remotely surprising in a Muslim school. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is exactly the type of behaviour condemned by the Trojan Horse findings.

Until last week, I’d always been rather reluctant to support the abolition of faith schools, partly on the grounds that so many get such excellent results, but also partly because they give parents an additional option when their nearest comp isn’t good enough. And I went to a Jewish school so would feel rather hypocritical disowning the education I was privileged to have received.

But, today’s story is the final straw. It’s inevitable that dividing children according to religion will create divisions, intended or not. Whether this is more of an issue in Muslim schools is very hard to know. Why should we be shocked when a faith school tells its pupils that its set of values trumps all others?

The encroaching influence of hardliners can only be a bad thing for our children. And yes, these are our children we’re talking about. Muslim children are as British as any other children, and yet people like Ofsted are happy for them to be at the mercy of distinctly non-British values.

When we think of gender segregation we think of standard practice in Islamist states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. This sort of behaviour should not be tolerated in British schools. And yet this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in a faith school.

Children go to school to be enlightened. To learn to think for themselves and to learn about other cultures. To mix with children from diverse backgrounds. Faith schools or the newly created faith-based free schools are taking us backwards.

Ofsted may think it’s not doing any harm with its non-judgemental approach. It is doing the very opposite.

It is failing to protect our most vulnerable: our children. Cultural relativism is misguided at best, and pernicious at worst. Not for the first time in recent months, those at the top have let down those who most need our help.

This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 12th June 2014

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ukip voters reject modernity. That’s all politicians need to understand about them.

What David Cameron would do to ward off those pesky Ukip types. Encroaching on his turf, threatening to deny him the majority he craves. Now they’ve got Labour scrambling around in a frenzy, wondering how best to counteract this motley crew.

Everything was okay when it was just the Tories being wounded. But these irritants continue to sprout, eating into Labour’s core support in both local and European elections; picking up votes from protesters of the status-quo, when surely they should be the beneficiaries of any protest vote, being the party of opposition and all that.
Taking a hard line or a harder line on immigration is seen as one response. Spouting platitudes about voters feeling angry at the political class, using the latest elections to send a message, is another response. Calling for the EU to reform and give us some powers back is yet another.

Politicians could spend every day until the general election fretting about Ukip (and they probably will), commissioning dozens of focus groups, whilst striving to find that elusive common touch that Nigel Farage seems blessed with.
They should stop right now. Because it won’t make any difference.

Labour and the Conservatives can sound as tough and as concerned and as angry about immigration as the average Ukip councillor but it won’t work.
They will never be able to find a line as hard on immigration as Ukip. Nor should they want to, although that won’t stop some from trying. Do they plan to match the demands of what half of all Ukip voters want: that immigrants and their children, including those who were born here, be encouraged to leave Britain?

The answer to Ukip continually fails to understand why people vote Ukip in the first place.

No need for any more polls, the groundwork’s already been done. Yes, Ukipppers loathe the EU, but it’s certainly not why they vote Ukip. Yes, they want the mother of all crackdowns on immigration. It’s the issue that gets them hot and bothered more than any other, but even this doesn’t explain why Ukippers feel the way they do.
They are a section of the population bitter about modern Britain. They don’t much like how our (or ‘their’) country has turned out. They’re the kind of people you’d hear regularly talk about things ‘going to the dogs.’ They are nostalgic for a different decade. They feel uncomfortable about the Britain they live in. And it’s not just because of immigrants.

Still the best piece of research done on Ukip supporters and Ukip ‘considerers’ comes from Lord Ashcroft’s weighty poll of some 20,000 of the above.
His summary tells you all anyone needs to know. Here are the key (and lengthy) passages that require most attention:

“The single biggest misconception about the UKIP phenomenon is that it is all about policies: that potential UKIP voters are dissatisfied with another party’s policy in a particular area (usually Europe or immigration), prefer UKIP’s policy instead, and would return to their original party if only its original policy changed.

“In fact, in the mix of things that attract voters to UKIP, policies are secondary. It is much more to do with outlook.

“Certainly, those who are attracted to UKIP are more preoccupied than most with immigration, and will occasionally complain about Britain’s contribution to the EU or the international aid budget. But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.

“All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by UKIP voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.

“UKIP, for those who are attracted to it, may be the party that wants to leave the EU or toughen immigration policy but its primary attraction is that it will “say things that need to be said but others are scared to say.” Analysis of our poll found the biggest predictor of whether a voter will consider UKIP is that they agree the party is “on the side of people like me.

“These voters think Britain is changing for the worse. They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. UKIP, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them.”
Essentially, what you have are a list of grievances (if you can call them that) that are impossible to legislate on. Many of them are myths based on scare stories found in the right wing press. They sound like the kind of thing you’d overhear down your local boozer. Not a coincidence then Farage chooses the pub as his default HQ.  

Most crucially, as Lord Ashcroft notes, it’s not policies that draw people to Ukip, but outlook. The party says things other wouldn’t dare. Or wouldn’t waste time saying.
It has skilfully tapped into people’s most minor and trivial complaints and made them into something bigger than they really are. They specialise in the mundane because they don’t have a manifesto for government. And don’t pretend to have one. Their voters know they’re not voting for a future government but for a party which will let them vent their spleen. And then proclaim to understand where they’re coming from.  

It’s no surprise where they draw the bulk of their support from. Never mind Mondeo Man or Worcester Woman. Meet Grumpy Old Man. Almost three-quarters of Ukip supporters are over the age of 70. Just 15% are under 40. Most are men. The Sun/Express/Mail are their newspapers of choice.
Immigrants are their scapegoats, but if it wasn’t immigrants it’d be someone or something else.

Quite amusingly, over the weekend, The Times reported that Ukip voters were most reluctant to try foreign foods. A survey had also found them:

“Less likely to follow fashion, to list books as their interests or to be curious about other cultures.”
When you read the findings from Lord Ashcroft’s poll, none of this should come as a surprise.

An academic study into Ukip found:

This “left behind” group could once rely on their numerical strength to ensure a voice in the two biggest parties, but the growth of the highly-educated middle class led both Labour and the Tories to “regard winning support from middle class swing voters as more important.”
In other words, politicians aren’t really interested in people like them. Or to put it another way, the People’s Army aren’t really interested in people like us.

Life has moved on, society has diversified. For Ukip’s supporters it’s all happened far too quickly. They want to jump off the nearest exit and head back to a time they understood. For the rest of us, we’ve never known any different.

Politicians may claim they know why people vote Ukip, but if they’re being totally honest with themselves, they’d also acknowledge that most of their concerns are impossible to allay. How do you satisfy a group of people who reject much of modernity? The answer is you can’t.  
This was first published by Speaker's Chair on Thursday 5th June 2014

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

One year to go: prepare for another Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition

A year to go before the so-called experts eat humble pie.

The prevailing view (for which read: the fall into line/ afraid to dissent view) is that Labour will benefit from a voting system heavily biased in their favour, thus putting them on course to sweep to power. They’ve been consistently ahead in the polls month after month. The Conservatives need to do a lot better than Labour to secure an overall majority. Labour only needs to do a little bit better than the Conservatives for things to go their way.
Failing that, commentators fall back on the prediction that Labour will at least be the largest party, forced to go into coalition with the Lib Dems, however much they currently protest. I note how few Leftist pundits now refer to it as a ‘progressive’ coalition.

Some believe we’ll end up with another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition (yours truly, included). Although The Guardian confidently brushes this option aside, putting the odds on this happening at a miniscule 5%.
Another way of interpreting the prevailing view is to see it as the safe conservative view.

It seems most commentators are prisoners of day to day opinion polls, ignoring historical polls or trends. Few are willing to stick their necks out and look beyond a Labour victory. Of some sort.
The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges has been almost a lone voice in predicting a Tory majority. What’s more, this brave soul has stuck by this view pretty much from the moment this parliament began. Going with the herd has never been his style, and political commentary is richer for it.

Here’s my take on what I believe will happen next year.
In short, I can’t see past another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Failing that, I’d bet on an overall majority for the Conservatives.

What I definitely can’t see happening is a Labour win. In fact, whichever way I look at it (as does most of the country), I’m afraid I just cannot see Ed Miliband in number 10. Whether alone or in coalition.
Labour’s lead has been squeezed from double figures to around 3-5 points. The Conservatives have nudged up to about 33 or 34%. Even with Ukip on an unsustainable 14%, or more.

We know that Labour’s strategy has centred around their core vote and the exiled Lib Dems. A strategy that will prove to be their undoing.
I don’t envisage Labour doing that much better than the 29% they polled in 2010.

Ed Miliband still lags behind the popularity of his party. Osborne and Cameron are pulling away in terms of which partnership the electorate most trusts to manage the economy.
Cameron wins the head to head. The qualities that Miliband leads on are not those people tend to want in their PM. Cameron is seen as stronger and more relied upon to make the difficult decisions. Miliband wins on the softer skills.

It’s fair to say that the public made their mind up that they weren’t too bowled over by Ed Miliband quite a while back. And there’s nothing the party can do about it.
Labour stubbornly and naively overestimate how many 2010 Lib Dems will stick by them. The reality is that some will stay, but enough will either return home, or more likely vote for one of the minor parties, such as the Greens or even Ukip. Many won’t bother to vote.

The public sector middle class liberals, furious with Blair over Iraq, who may have switched to the Lib Dems last time around but won’t dare back them again, are the ones Labour aren’t convincing. These are the people who vote. And not enough of them are willing to endorse Miliband.
This is why I wouldn’t be surprised if Labour polled something between 31-33%. I’d say 33% is the very best they can hope for.

What the pundits barely comment on is how well the Tory vote has held up.
Every major speech has had cuts at the centre of it. The theme of this parliament has been about getting through the tough bits for better times ahead. And on the whole, the public have swallowed this message. In this context, amidst all the doom and gloom, to be getting 34% a year before a general election is quite astonishing.  

I think that the Tories will break with recent historical precedent (of the incumbent increasing its share of the vote) and outperform their 36% in 2010. I doubt they (or any party in the short to medium term future) will be getting 40%, but wouldn’t be surprised if they managed 38% of the vote. In fact, I don’t believe they’ll get less than they got in 2010.
I predict they’ll poll something in the range of 36-38%.

The Lib Dems are probably looking forward to the next year like a hole in the head. I bet they’ll want it to be done with it so they can regroup and work out which direction they should be heading in. Are they a party which is naturally allied to Labour, or one more at home with the Conservatives? Or will they, in true Lib Dem fashion, be a bit of both, depending on circumstance? Considering I expect coalitions to dominate British politics for some time, they’ll have to get used to the traitor and/or hypocrisy charge.   
My feeling is that despite the misery they’ve had to put up with this parliament, things won’t turn out as bad as many were predicting even a year ago. Yes, they’ll be damaged. No, they’re unlikely to be rewarded for any of the good bits that have come out of the coalition. But, I don’t think it’ll be as bloody as Labour supporters are hoping.

The Eastleigh by-election is a glimpse of how resilient the party is. Expect the footsoldiers to be working their socks off trying to protect as many seats as possible.
Lib Dem gains are out of the window, but retaining 30 (out of 57) MPs should be seen as the smallest of small victories. The price you pay for being the minor party in a coalition. But also for a party adjusting to life in the big time.

Being in power means making unpopular decisions. Lib Dem voters can either seek a return to life pre-coalition, where they were everyone’s favourite protest party, or they can accept the huge role they are likely to play in future elections.
I can see them winning enough seats to be partners in government once again. Their impressive showing in 2010 actually resulted in fewer seats, such are the vagaries of our voting system.

A minimum of 12% and a maximum of 15% would be my estimate. Winning back much of their old support may be impossible. More likely, the party will have to reinvent itself and appeal to Tory voters wary of a lurch to the right. A very real possibility if/when Cameron once again fails to secure a majority.
Which leaves us with Ukip. Bored of bashing Europe, they’ve revealed themselves for what they are: an anti-immigrant, anti-immigration party. It’ll work for the European elections, when voters aren’t choosing a government, but put people off in droves come 2015.

Ukip will not be getting anything close to mid-teens in terms of their share of the vote. But, they’ll do enough to thwart the Conservatives.
A sizeable chunk will stick by them, but about half of what the polls say they’re on will jump ship. Of that half, most will return to the Tories. The rest won’t vote at all. Which leaves them on anything between 6-8%.

I very much doubt they’ll see their first MP elected, although a dogged and exhausting fight by Nigel Farage may pay off for him, it’ll do little for the rest of his party. It’ll probably be counter-productive in the long term, highlighting the fact that Ukip are a one man band. Without Farage, there is no Ukip.   
The biggest impact Ukip will have will be in the Tory-Labour marginals, with Labour the main beneficiaries. It won’t be enough however to sway the result decisively in their favour.

Overall, if I were to be pinned down and forced to predict the exact result of the 2015 general election, I’d say it’ll look like this:
Conservatives: 38%; Labour 32%; Lib Dems 14%. Ukip 7%.

This will see the Conservatives come agonisingly close to winning an outright majority, but it won’t be close enough. It’ll leave them about 10 seats (give or take a couple) short.
Some bonus predictions: Cameron will be in for a rough ride almost from the moment the bloody-thirsty right wingers in his party discover they’ll be lumbered with the Liberals again.

I therefore don’t expect him to see out a second term. More likely, he’ll bow out half way through the next parliament, paving the way for a return to what the Tories excel at: infighting.
Leaving Labour to resurrect the ghosts of New Labour. To a time when they won elections. 

This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 7th May 2014