The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”. The sentiment was spot on. New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.
Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum. 100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham. The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content. The gist was:
- they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
- This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF. It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
- To help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
- they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
- They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
- They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..
It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that: It took an hour and half. The irony in launching something to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost. It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session. I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’ – as a flavour she was asked: “who elected the regional co-ordinators? Who elected the forum council? Who elected you Madam Chairman? Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”. Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role. Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.
Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF. He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job. Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it. The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then. Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative. He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”). For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:
- Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
- Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
- Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
- Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
- >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
- Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
- Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
- Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
- Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’
I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking. It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.
Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF. It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash. The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party. We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.
Let’s face it: Ed Balls was to Gordon Brown as Laurel was to Hardy. His return will no doubt lead to ‘another fine mess’. This surprise reshuffle does change the calculus of Labour’s electability. When Ed Milliband decided not to appoint Balls to the role in October it was a deliberate and calculated move. It was possibly the only truly leader-like think young Ed has done since he got the gig. The reasoning at the time was surely:
- You would not want someone so intimately connected with the entire economic calamity facing this country back on point for economic policy
- You could not want someone who has had an insider view (and leading role) in using the office of Chancellor to undermine and oust a previous leader, sitting there ready for another metaphoric stab.
Well, nothings changed. Those reasons still stand. Yet here Balls is. He’s got the job he craved from the moment he realised he was out-of-the game for the last leadership shot, and young Ed will be feeling his breath on his neck from here-on-in.
To give him his due Balls is a bruiser. A political big-beast. From today George Osborne will be looking forward to his turns in Parliament with a tummy rumble. Balls knows his stats and figures and will not be easy to trip up. Worse, he’s more than capable of scoring some points through sheer statistical battery. But that’s all just fluff in the Westminster village. Balls fundamentally is the living, breathing embodiment of the leftish or centre-leftish vision of Big Government/Big State/Spend and Tax Labour. As Shadow Chancellor he will push them more so. Even with all the current national woes, when push comes to shove that positioning is simply electoral poison. The ‘squeezed middle’ – the people who count – the very people who switched to Labour in 97 and switched away from them in 2010 – those floating voters just don’t drift in that direction.
And that is the reel rub for Labour. The one man on the Labour front bench who could appeal to that ‘thinking middle’ was Alan Johnson. He was simply impossible to dislike. Even though he was struggling to catch-up with his brief, even though he talked rot – people, even me, warmed to him. For a politician that curious ‘nice bloke’ charisma is the X-factor stuff. It is priceless political alchemy. Blair had it. Johnson had it. Brown didn’t. Balls doesn’t. And so the Labour party is a weaker party this evening.
As I say, for reasons I cannot put my finger on I like Alan Johnson despite his politics. I have no idea why he has stepped down. I wish him well and sincerely hope that whatever the personal issues are they are the kind that can be put right and have a happy ending by making this move.
So that’s that then*. A solid result for Labour. A hold with an increased majority. I think the result was about as expected – you could, I suppose, argue the Tories did slightly worse and Lib Dems slightly better than expected – if that is correct then it is a function of:
- The Conservative CCHQ seemed to do no more than the bare minimum to support their candidate – there is suspicion that a tactical decision was taken not to allow a result that would undermine Clegg and this meant not fighting too hard. I’m sure there will be some angst between the grass-roots and the tacticians in the Party about this over the coming weeks.
- Partly as a result of the above, and partly regardless, many Tories will have tactically voted Lib Dem this time around. Clearly not enough to compensate those switching Lib Dem to Labour.
- The turnout was down but I would expect this to be spread evenly between the parties.
All in – no real news. Easily a good enough result to keep Ed knockers in the party on the leash, but not quite good enough that they wont still be straining on it. As by-election swings go it is pretty undramatic.
*Full Result: Labour: 14,718 (42.1%) Lib Dems: 11,160 (31.9%) Conservatives: 4,481 (12.8%) UKIP: 2,029 (5.8%) BNP: 1,560 (4.5%) Green Party: 530 (1.5%) Monster Raving Loony Party: 145 (0.4%) English Democrats: 144 (0.4%) Pirate Party: 96 (0.2%) Bus Pass Elvis Party: 67 (0.1%)
Happy New Year. Or is it? The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country. Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up. The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in. Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker. Things will get worse before they get better. We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services, the VAT rise will trickle to the till, we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago. Health and education reforms will spook the Unions. Protest will spread.
The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve. It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term. It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless. The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one. The challenge now is to be competent in delivery. The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery. If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015. Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.
Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government. We’re not. It is their choices, it is their fault” This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier. Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument. The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.
The lessons are there in History. Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today. For the whole period between of 80 and 82 it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power. Nerve was held. The budget worked. Britain, after the pain, prospered. Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands. But we must also learn from that period. Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again. That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program – but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver . This is the year to get moving. It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests. Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.
So on that dour note, I say again: Happy New Year. Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.