Thursday, 20 September 2012

Nick Clegg: if you want to really apologise, withdraw from the coalition

Yesterday, we had an example of the worst sort of political apology. Nick Clegg has apologised for his pledge not to raise university tuition fees, but not the actual act of doing so. The same from Vince Cable. It’s one of those occasions in politics where I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What does Clegg expect? A pat on the back for being honest enough to say that he shouldn’t have made this pledge? A round of applause for admitting when he’s made a mistake? Or is this a plea to left-of-centre/liberal voters everywhere to remind them that he’s still one of them, and not Tory-lite?

On these pages, Neil Monnery, a Lib Dem, does his best at defending Clegg’s apology. He makes a good point that rather than hoping voters flock back to his ailing party, this is primarily aimed at disillusioned Lib Dems wanting to feel good about their own party again. Wanting to be able to trust them again. Which seems fair enough.
Except, I’m afraid, for me, it doesn’t wash. Call me a harsh, unforgiving, so and so, but in my opinion, this apology further weakens the standing of Nick Clegg, Deputy PM. The apology changes nothing. It doesn’t help the first cohort of students starting university this month saddled with £27,000 debt, before we even get in to cost of living and accommodation. It’s an apology that says: “I shouldn’t have promised not to do it, but I did, and anyway, I’m glad the policy got enacted because it was, and still is, the right thing to have done.”

Expect opprobrium to rain down from the Labour ranks. Higher top up fees is probably third down on the list of awful policies that the Lib Dems in government have voted through. The selling off and destruction of our NHS, and unfailing commitment to stick to damaging austerity make up the top three.
Clegg may get a Conference boost, a larger audience for his Conference speech. The Lib Dems may inch up one or two percentage points in the polls. But, that’ll be it. It’ll be short lived and long forgotten come election day. After all, the policy stands and has his unconditional support. The only thing Clegg can do to satisfy his sternest critics is to withdraw from the coalition, forcing the possibility of a general election. Except, this won’t happen. This ‘apology’ guarantees what I’ve felt from day one: that the coalition will go the distance.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Thursday 20th September 2012

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Labour must be ready for a Tory onslaught

Labour beware. The Tory high command are poised to unleash the attack dogs. The party has been given a free ride these past few months, coasting on the back of its double digit lead in the polls, a government forever on the defensive, and gobby backbenchers on the Tory Right doing their best to nibble away at David Cameron’s authority.

But the Tories are now ready to pounce and hone in on their number one target: Ed Miliband. So says Tim Montgomerie, the indispensable voice of the Tory grassroots, in his column for The Times this week. When the onslaught will come is uncertain, but when it does Labour needs to be ready and prepared with its own fight back.

According to Montgomerie the one thing that has kept Cameron and his aides going is their belief that in Miliband they have found their whipping boy. And not just Miliband but other members of the Shadow Cabinet too. Whenever there are concerns about the state of the economy, worries about defections to UKIP, the top brass reassure themselves they’ll always have Ed Miliband.
Montgomerie notes that party strategists have been using this time for information gathering:

“While until this moment the Tory guns have been silent, Tory operators have not been idle. They have been carefully researching Labour’s weaknesses. Lessons have been learnt from the 1996 and 1997 period when the Conservative Party never settled on a consistent critique of Tony Blair. There’ll be no return to the counter-productive demon eyes campaign. There will just be three endlessly repeated messages and they’ll be delivered whenever possible by trusted surrogates.”

Picking out Labour’s opposition to the government’s deficit reduction strategy remains high up on a list, along with their stance against caps on benefits and immigration, something Labour must know leaves them trailing public opinion on.
But the real prize remains the Labour leader. Whilst the party lingers around 40 odd percent in the polls, the public’s view of Miliband on the critical qualities of being ‘decisive,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘a natural leader,’ remains obdurately poor. Expect this to be exploited in the coming months. And yet for a sitting PM Cameron’s own ratings are hardly much to write home about. His descent has been rapid and dramatic.

It is also worth mentioning that Miliband scores well when it comes to being seen as on the side of ordinary people. Four times more so than Cameron. A PM also has an obvious advantage and the scope to display the traits that he beats the Labour leader on. When it’s mattered, Miliband has taken aim and put the government on the back foot on many of the big issues of the last 12 months.

So, how should Labour respond? At this stage, fixing the public’s attention on policy might be its best bet. The NHS must take centre stage. The effects of this year’s Health and Social Care Bill are yet to be felt. When they are, Labour must be ready to act. Of all Labour’s proudest achievements in office the huge improvements in the NHS stand out.
No law is irreversible, but Labour must spend time spelling out just how these changes will alter the NHS as we know it, and why it aims to reverse them should it retake power. The NHS is a beloved, cherished, institution which unites people of all political stripes. If the public see in practice what opponents have warned about, a full on backlash could carry Labour all the way to 2015.
Polling over the last year or so has given off a confusing picture. Labour leads, but not by nearly enough. Miliband isn’t seen as prime ministerial and yet the figures show he may well become PM. Are the public convinced by Labour or just not overly enamoured with the Tories? Something tells me that there are still a significant number of people ready to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt. Even disgruntled right wingers in his own party. Better to moan in power than in opposition. Remember, all it takes is a big crisis or incident, whether at home or abroad, and a commanding response, for the PM’s ratings to shoot up again.

I’m guessing those Tory schemers know this, which is why they will be praying for a rejuvenated Cameron, ready to fight the next election, and why Labour won’t be too upset if things remain as they are.  
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Tuesday 18th September 2012