Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is this Brown's Darlington?

Older readers will remember how in 1983 Labour's unexpectedly good result in the Darlington by-election extinguished any threat to Michael Foot's leadership, leaving him free to lead the party to its disastrous general election defeat in the same year.

The broadly positive reaction to Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour conference in Manchester might just about have saved his skin too - although Ruth Kelly's resignation won't help Brown.

As with 1983, the problem now is both about the leader and the party - changing leaders now might do some good but not much. Back then, if Dennis Healey had taken over as leader, he might have saved a few Labour seats, but not much more. The scale of the Foot disaster probably helped to make the more sensible members of the party realise that things had to change.

I note that back in 2006 this blog pointed out the many negative precedents for lieutenants taking over from long-serving and electorally-successful party leaders. Rosebery, Balfour and James Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Hume all led their parties to catastrophic defeats, Neville Chamberlain never got as far as a general election. Anthony Eden and John Major who did win general elections are hardly happy precedents either.

So the odds were always against a successful Brown premiership. Let's face it, if Brown had been good enough, he would have been chosen ahead of Blair in 2004 - he was older, more experienced and had greater intellectual depth. The fact that those who dreamed of New Labour New Britain went for Blair not Brown was an unequivocal vote of no confidence. Elevating Brown to the top job was a bit like a football team replacing a top striker with a dependable centre half.

The problem, however, is not just one of leadership. Despite fears among the political classes about the fickleness of the electorate, in fact at five of the last six general elections they have re-elected the governing party. This, too, is unprecedented. In the previous six elections, the incumbent government won just twice, and these - 1966 and October 1974 were snap elections called while Labour were still in honeymoon periods.

Of course, for much of the last 30 years the party in power has faced an official opposition that looked unconvincing, if not impossible, as a party of government. If we return to a period when both Labour and the Conservatives inspire doubt and confidence in equal measure then we are likely to see changes of power happen more regularly.

So Labour are probably best advised to stick with the devil they know. Brown has probably earned the right on the basis of past service to lead the party into the next election. One can't help feeling that the electoral tide has now turned against Labour and they will have to accept their coming defeat with dignity and try to regroup in opposition.

At least, that's what I would probably conclude were I a member of the Labour party. But of course I'm not, but rather a Lib Dem campaigner in a marginal seat where we are hoping to unseat a Labour MP. So instead, I will hope for the anti-Brown campaign to gather pace, a messy act of regicide, continuing bitterness and bad feeling, leading to catastrophic defeat and the ultimate replacement of Labour by the Lib Dems as the main alternative to the Tories.

Whichever way, it's time to get delivering those leaflets.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A lament for the end of Julian Clary's column in the New Statesman

Recently Jonathan Calder joked about expecting dismissal as New Statesman online columnist for being spotted by the editor carrying a copy of the Daily Mail at conference.

At least I assumed it was a joke. But now I wonder. For I read in this week's magazine that Julian Clary has been relieved of his column (that sounds uncomfortably close to a double entendre) by the Staggers' powers that be. Of course since his piece is humourous, it could be a joke and Clary has just decided he's had enough. But my antennae are always twitching as to whether the NS will retain its sense of humour.

Back in the 1980s it was virtually unreadable - a steady diet of left-wing politics, unleavened by humour or light relief of any kind. So, despite its right-wing leanings, I became a Spectator reader.

A few years ago, however, I changed loyalties and took out a subscription to the Staggers having begun to find the Spectator too conventional in its right-wingery, while the NS seemed to have rediscovered its lighter side, stopped taking itself too seriously and engaged an eclectic range of contributors. Not everyone liked its use of comedians as columnists (This Week - Kelly Monteith on the US Presidential Elections), but both Julian Clary has really been very good at doing humour for a serious readership (as has Shazia Mirza whose column appeared on alternate weeks from Clary's).

Now I'm worried that the humourous bits of the magazine will be given over to worthy articles by Polly Toynbee or Jackie Ashley and their like and the magazine will become unbearable for all who don't spend their whole lives dreaming up schemes to organise the poor. Fortunately, if that does turn out to be the case, my subscription is due shortly and I can always decide not to renew. But let's hope not! I have got to like the Staggers over the years and feel that reading it is a kind of insurance policy against developing excessively right-wing views as I advance further into middle age.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Frank Luntz - an apology

Liberal Democrat bloggers may have in the past given the impression that they consider American pollster Frank Luntz as a wholly inappropriate person to be used by the BBC because of his clear right-wing bias.

In fact we now realise that Mr Luntz is a wholly impartial expert, with an unrivalled insight into the popular appeal of political leaders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gerry Rafferty missing

Catching up with emails after returning from conference I found myself listening to City to City by Gerry Rafferty.

Out of curiosity I check on Wikipedia to see what he is up to these days, and was surprised to read that he is missing, having checked out of St Thomas's Hospital on 11 August leaving his belongings behind. Strangely, though there is hardly anything on the major news websites about it.

This seems odd, since although Rafferty is hardly an A-list celebrity these days, both 'Baker Street' and 'Stuck in the middle with you' are very famous songs, so you would expect his sudden and unexplained disappearance to be more widely reported.

There is a brief report here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lib Dems still in thrall to anti-GM superstition

I get these regular email briefings from Cowley Street on various topical issues. In general, I tend to ignore them, partly because as a non-parliamentary candidate they don’t apply to me, but perhaps more in case they plunge me into a gloom because the party line differs from my own view.

But curiosity led me to open the suggested response to enquiries on GM-food, drafted by Roger Williams MP, who is apparently our agriculture spokesman. I hoped our line might have softened since the days when Donnachadh McCarthy used to propose a seemingly annual anti-GM motion at party conference.

My hopes have been raised by the knowledge that some voices – most notably Evan Harris and Dick Taverne – have been raised in favour of a more balanced policy. But clearly there is a way still to go as the Roger Williams' line appears implacable in its hostility.

Perhaps most depressing is the statement that: ‘Liberal Democrats oppose commercial growing of Genetically Modified crops until it is known that they are environmentally safe.’ This amounts to a ruling out of GM food for ever and all time. For it will never be possible to prove that they are environmentally safe. All that can be proved is that there is no evidence of it causing harm. The problem with the anti-GM lobby is that their position has become a matter of faith such that there is no evidence at all that could convince them of the merits of GM-technology. Clearly there is some way to go before the party sees sense on this.