The Coalition wrong-foots Labour on its (lack of) NHS policy

Labour’s plan for winning the General Election in May has a special NHSplace for the NHS. They are seeking to “weaponise” it, and promote themselves as the only party that can be trusted to run this great British institution. And yet their NHS policy has deep flaws. Now the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government has come up with a plan to integrate health and social care budgets in Greater Manchester. To maintain the warlike metaphor, this looks like surgical strike on Labour. In fact the story arose from a leak in the negotiation process, and seems to be the brainchild of Simon Stevens, the politically neutral head of NHS England. But the policy poses serious questions for Labour.

The details of yesterday’s news are a little vague. The Coalition had already announced plans to devolve more powers to Greater Manchester, working through the local councils (mainly Labour, but with Conservative and Lib Dem ones too) and an elected Mayor. And integration is everybody’s favourite reform idea for the NHS. It refers to merging the health budget with that of social care (currently controlled by local authorities), so that the policies for the two can be coordinated properly. This is important because one of the main problems at NHS hospitals is that they cannot release patients to social care beds. Integration of this sort is already being piloted in such places as Torbay. This looks like a pilot on a grander scale.

As a reform idea, the Manchester proposal looks entirely sensible. Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP who is a doctor, and no government stooge, offered a knowledgeable and effective advocacy on Radio 4 yesterday lunchtime. Integration has been one of Labour’s big ideas. But Labour can’t bear to give the government any credit for policy on the NHS – as this undermines their weaponisation plan. So their spokesman, Andy Burham, rubbished the idea. He attacked it as undermining the “National” in the NHS, because it was a localised solution rather than being dropped from a great height from Westminster. He also suggested it would be another “top-down reform”, which the government had promised not to do.

And yet both these lines of attack expose weaknesses in Labour’s own NHS policy. In the first place, if they are serious about promoting NHS integration, how on earth are they planning to do it? The quid-pro-quo of an integration plan is surely more local devolution – otherwise you simply create a monstrous bureaucracy, and a feeding frenzy of large consultancy firms proposing over-engineered implementation plans (er, like the last Labour government’s reform of NHS commissioning). And secondly, are Labour or are they not planning a top-down reform all of their own? Their proposal to scrap the government’s Health and Social Care Act suggests just that. And if they intend to  implement integration across the whole country at once… well, that just proves it, doesn’t it?

Which highlights the real problem for Labour. Their plan is to ride the tide of anger amongst NHS insiders over the government’s record on the NHS. They headline attempts to outsource some services as an NHS “sell-off” or privatisation. This is vastly exaggerated – no major hospitals are being outsourced (private businesses would be mad to take them on) and GP surgeries, er, have always been private businesses (a fact that confused the hell out of a save-the NHS campaigner that called on me a couple of months ago). But any plan to reform the NHS in any serious way involves taking on these insiders. The idea of integration to insiders is popular probably because it is seen as a way of hitting the ball into the long grass: the setting up of some toothless committees of professionals who purr about “collaboration not competition” and achieve very little except requests for yet more money. The more serious and specific Labour gets about reforms that promote efficiency, the more dissent they will get from their core supporters, and especially the trade unions. The hard fact is that Labourare proposing to dismantle the Coalition’s health reforms at the moment they are starting to show some promising results, like this devolution initiative.

Now the public probably don’t think much of the Coalition’s record on the NHS, but they surely accept that reforms will be needed to make the organisation more efficient. And if Labour appear not to be serious about that, then their line on the NHS is undermined, and their line on tax-and-spend, already weak, gets shot through. With enough pressure this weakness will become more and more apparent – and there will be a greater and greater risk of dissent in Labour ranks. They are offering just bluster. Far from trying to avoid the NHS as a campaigning issue, the coalition parties have the opportunity of a devastating counterattack, especially if Labour persists in opposing the Greater Manchester plan.

All of which shows how fatally bad is Ed Miliband’s leadership. He has valued party unity over making serious political choices. He has chosen sound and fury over policy substance. He hoped to craft clever policy positions that cover the cracks in his own party while providing credible ideas for saving the country. Alas serious policies mean taking on vested interests in your own ranks, not just the usual villains. The unity of silence in Labour ranks  is not a token of assent – it is a token of denial. Labour’s most vocal supporters, and the providers of the bulk of their funding, do not think that Labour is serious about public sector reform and austerity. As Labour is pressured by the coalition parties the greater it is in danger of falling apart just when unity is most important. It is a political strategy put together by policy wonks and campaign tacticians – and not those with serious nous about taking on political responsibility.

The Coalition parties have their own weaknesses of course. These may yet save Labour. But a meltdown for Labour cannot be ruled out on this form.

Labour should be taking credit for the coalition’s economic policy, not whingeing about it

“Too far, too fast.” Remember that criticism of the British coalition government’s economic policies? It was repeated incessantly by Labour politicians in the first years of the government. And, it appears, the government was listening. The actual trajectory of progress on the country’s massive fiscal deficit is close to what Labour were recommending. And economic growth has returned. So what are Labour saying now? They are vilifying the government for going not going far enough and doing it too slowly!

It is, in fact, quite hard to understand Labour’s political strategy on the economy right now. The party lacks credibility, according to opinion polls. It is natural for them to try and change the subject, to more comfortable topics like public services, but foolish to think that they can avoid talking about it. Following yesterday’s Autumn Statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the biggest noise from the party was about the coalition’s broken promises. And indeed, back in 2010 the coalition’s plan was to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015; instead, it seems to be generally agreed, they will only be half way there. Progress is, in fact, more or less what was envisaged by Labour’s alternative plan. This sounds like criticising the government for following Labour policy.

It’s not a first. Labour were equally scathing about the government’s record on immigration, after its pledge to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 was spectacularly missed. And yet Labour was not advocating any policies that would have made this promise more achievable. Indeed it is not at all clear whether Labour would have done much different.

And there is a ready explanation for why both the government’s promises were not met. World events. Economic growth in the rest of the world, and especially elsewhere in Europe, has been below expectations. You can get only so far by rowing against the tide – and if you do on the economy, net migration goes against you. Of course neither promise should have been made (if indeed the deficit reduction plan can even be called a promise). They were dependent on matters outside the government’s control. This is obvious, and it is to grossly underestimate public intelligence to suggest that the anybody thought that the numbers were written in stone. What matters to the public is what the government should have been doing differently. And here there is no clear message coming from Labour benches.

What we get instead is a flood of expressions of discontent. Pay has not kept up with inflation (“the cost of living crisis”); the rich have been let off; we don’t like the public service and benefit cuts.  It’s all like the children’s complaint “it’s not fair!”. And the weary response of the public to this complaining is surely that of the child’s parent. It’s a difficult world. Could you manage any better?

What is the purpose of Labour’s relentless negativity? It is a poor way to attract votes to itself. Perhaps they just want to reduce turnout, or encourage Conservative voters to support Ukip? Perhaps they plan to flourish Labour’s vision of hope a bit closer to next year’s election? But the last time Labour won from opposition, in 1997, the message of optimism was clearly apparent by this stage. Labour seems to have an ambition to win a majority in Parliament with the smallest ever number of votes, by splitting opposition votes and persuading people to stay at home. What sort of a vision is that?

But I don’t Labour’s negative and confusing rhetoric is part of a cunning plan. It is a reflection of confusion that goes deep into Labour thinking, especially about the economy. The party has not admitted that it made major mistakes in handling the economy in the years up to 2007, at which point the economy collapsed. They mumble something about being a bit to easy on bankers. They also say that they should have been tougher on immigration, though exactly how, and whether this would have helped the British economy, is very unclear. Instead, in private, they complain that the criticism of their record is unfair, and that the public is wrong to blame them. It was the world banking crisis that did for them; and the government was not as profligate as it is made out.

There is an element of truth to these complaints. Few criticised the government’s record at the time, after all. But the party has to confront some difficult facts. First is that the party was clearly guilty of hubris before 2007. There most memorable slogan was “no more boom and bust”, which they shouted out at the height of a boom, and just before one of the most spectacular busts in British economic history. Shrugging it off and saying it was somebody else’s fault does not pass muster. And second is that the level of government services and benefits that prevailed at 2007 was unsustainable. It may have looked OK according to the size of the economy at the time (though that is debatable), but a lot of that economy was built on air.

What Labour needed to say back on 2010 and 2011, after having chosen their new leader, Ed Miliband, was that Labour had messed things up badly. They were honest mistakes, made from the best of intentions, and following the best advice, perhaps. But they were mistakes and the party must learn from them. But instead Mr Miliband fudged the issue, preferring not to provoke a big argument in his own ranks. At the time he wished to ride a wave of anger at austerity, and it was necessary to leave unchallenged the fiction that public service cuts were unnecessary.

It is too late for that confession now. But it can be no wonder than the party’s credibility on the economy is so weak. As one columnist said in this morning’s FT, you can think that the coalition economic policy is disappointing, a mess even, and still think that Labour would be even worse.

The Emily Thornberry resignation is political correctness gone mad

Last night the Labour MP Emily Thornberry was forced to resign Strood 2from her role as a front-bench spokesman for her party. It is difficult to have any sympathy for her as a person – leading Labour politicians are utterly ruthless with their political rivals. But I still find the episode shocking.

Her offence was to send out the tweet illustrated here. It was a picture from the streets of Rochester and Strood (Strood, in fact), where there was a by-election yesterday – won for Ukip by Conservative defector Mark Reckless. There was no comment – but because it combined two icons of white working class chauvinism – the St George Cross flag and a white van – it was judged to be snobbish – a chuckle at the expense of Britain’s white working class voters. Britain’s “raucous”  (as its sinister political motivation is euphemised) press was certainly taking that view, as it suits their agenda to make trouble for the Labour party. Rather than contest this, Ms Thornberry  resigned, apparently at the instigation of the Labour Leader Ed Miliband who was supposed to be “angry”.  Sadly, this was almost certainly a wise decision. It was the quickest way of killing a story that could have gone on for weeks with the same end result and much more damage to the party. And this meek surrender can even be portrayed as firm leadership by Mr Miliband – as one Labour MP was claiming on the radio this morning. A more abject demonstration of his weakness cannot be imagined.

There’s an irony here. One of the main complaints of tabloid commentators and  the Ukip insurgency is that “political correctness” has crimped freedom of expression. By this they mean the expression of views that might be construed as racist, misogynist or offensive to people with disabilities. But what is this episode if it is is an acute outbreak of political correctness? Pity Labour campaigners! The old norms of political correctness remain as firm as ever, but the list of people they are not supposed to offend, even tangentially, grows ever longer.

This presents a dark picture of our society indeed. People are quick to claim offence, and we are not supposed to have a quiet chuckle at any of our fellow citizens, unless they are rich, aristocratic, a politician or a “celebrity” – in which case we can be as offensive as we like, regardless of any sense of fairness. A society at ease with itself can laugh at itself. What we have is a society of victims and wonton verbal cruelty.

It also shows how Britain’s tabloid press remain in control of the news agenda. Readership may be falling, and people may rely on other media for information, but they still set the tone. Television and radio, including the BBC, meekly follow where they lead. Social media simply promote instant outrage rather than any sense of proportion or justice. A depressing picture indeed.


Sliced bread, beer and politics. We must embrace pluralism

mothers prideSometimes I still hear the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”. This refers to the 1960s revolution in bread production, whose leading brand was Mothers Pride (missing apostrophes were another aspect of 1960s modernity). This was not just a matter of slicing the bread, but the invention of new baking processes that made the bread last longer. What was not to like about the new, modern stuff? It lasted longer and you did not have the hassle of cutting it. Sandwiches and toast became a doddle; the daily trip to the baker was no longer needed. And it was much cheaper, being mass produced in big factories. The new bread swept all before it, and traditional high street bakers disappeared.

But my mother hated the stuff, which she referred to as “cotton wool”. Mothers Pride was banned from the Green household. Eventually we resorted to baking our own bread. But in this, as in so many other things, hers was a lonely voice, to be sniggered at behind her back. But she was right. Bread consumption started to fall, and then to collapse. The new invention had solved many problems, but it had compromised its core values – taste and texture. Bread became pointless. Eventually craft bakeries sprang up as the middle classes, at least, were prepared to pay extra for something like the old product.

This is a pattern that repeats in the modern world. Another exampleHeineken is beer. Traditional beer is tricky to produce. But our industrial behemoths succeeded in creating bland, gassy and cheaper products. And then they set their marketers and advertisers onto the task of selling the stuff (a process that also happened to bread). There was more resistance at first. But the advertisers won through with lager. Clever, funny advertisements, like those for Heineken (“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”) hit the zeitgeist, and traditionally made beers fell into rapid decline. Advertisers loved lager. They regarded it is a pure marketing product. It sold only through the strength of marketing, which had nothing to do with how it tasted. Indeed, researchers found that the blander it tasted, the faster, and more, people drank. The brewers adjusted their products accordingly.

And now the brewers are in crisis, in developed markets anyway. Beer drinking is in decline. All the momentum is with craft brewers, who produce small quantities of the stuff using more traditional methods – and which taste of something.

And so to politics. Politics used to be a labour intensive business. Political party membership would run to millions, and it was an essential part of social fabric. You won elections by knocking on doors, putting on public meetings and other events. Election literature was mainly a local affair. But the professionals got hold of this. They wanted something much more productive, with a wider impact. They pulled apart campaign messages and reconstructed something better crafted to the process of winning elections, using mass media to promote it (mainly a politically aligned press in Britain). This strategy, in essence, was to demonise the opposition with negative campaigning, while toning down your own offer to cause minimum offence. And persuasive effort was focused on a minority of swing voters. The message to more reliable supporters was was simply: I know you aren’t keen on a lot of what we are saying, but please come out and vote to stop the other lot. This required lots of money, but fewer people. These modern techniques worked. No modern mainstream political party would be without its professional advisers, armed with polling, focus groups, target voter analysis, and an array of modern marketing techniques.

And sure enough, public engagement in politics has declined. Voter turnout has steadily fallen. This bothered the professionals little, apart from some token public handwringing. What mattered was winning elections, after all. But now the political equivalent of craft breweries are on the rise. Smaller, tightly focused but distinctly unprofessional political parties. In Britain the winning political party would usually get over 40% of the votes cast (and in the 1950s about 50%). Now polling shows both main parties bobbing along at about 30%, even as the third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats, languishes at about 7% when it used to reach two to three times that level at this point in the cycle. At the European elections earlier this year, the only national elections held under proportional representation, voters were confronted with a bewildering array of political parties, many brand-new. Few of these make much headway, but three “craft brewer” parties are making seeing success: Ukip, who won that election,  the Greens, who won more seats than the Lib Dems, and the SNP are sweeping all before them in Scotland (and who I would not accuse of being “distinctly unprofessional”).

This phenomenon is not unique to Britain. In America there are few in the way of craft parties – but there are distinct craft elements within the main parties, especially the Republican Tea Party groups. In Europe an array of fringe parties are doing well, as establishment parties take a diminishing share of the vote.

Can this decline of mainstream parties be reversed? Occasionally a charismatic leader can reverse the fortunes of mainstream parties. Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe in Japan; Tony Blair in Britain; Matteo Renzi, perhaps, in Italy. There is an interesting common feature in with all these politicians. They set themselves up as taking on their own party’s establishment, and picked fights with the conservatives on their own side. But the instincts of Britain’s current main party leaders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, are to paper over the cracks in their parties and not to pick fights. Perhaps, unlike Japan and Italy, there is not enough wrong in the British establishment to make such a battle credible. Tony Blair’s fight with the Labour left was spectacular, but his electoral platform reached new heights in blandness.

What to do? Personally I think that the fragmentation of British politics is a good thing, and that our electoral systems should be changed to facilitate it. This would turn politics into a squabble between smaller parties. In due course something more coherent would emerge. The idea that a single political party can encompass enough of a national consensus to have a mandate to govern belongs to the past. The choice of bread and beer in Britain is steadily improving now that the big businesses have been pushed back. It is perhaps the best it has ever been. Pluralism is not failure.

As the Tories implode, will Ed Miliband sieze the moment? Or will Labour follow Hollande not Renzi?

The two-party architecture of Britain’s political system is disintegrating, as both Labour and the Conservatives struggle with the Ukip insurgency and an energised SNP in Scotland. The Conservatives were the first to lose their nerve and are on the verge of implosion. There is now an opportunity for Labour and its leader, Ed Miliband, to seize the initiative and secure a decisive advantage at next year’s election. But that would mean turning against the sort of small-minded, tactical political leadership that got both parties into this mess in the first place. So I will be surprised if it happens.

Last week I posted on how David Cameron’s Conservatives are moving beyond respectable politics in a bid to buy off defections to Ukip. They are making the fatal mistake of addressing the symptoms of their weakness, not its causes. This is as much because the leadership has lost control of the party as any misjudgement from the top. Not a day goes by without a Tory popping up on Radio 4 (my main source of daily news) proposing something that goes well beyond the boundaries of sensible political discourse. They are playing up ill-informed public opinions on immigration, the European Union, human rights and climate change. They advocate policies that will address these fears directly (controlling EU freedom of movement; repatriating powers from the EU or leaving it all together, and so on), but which are incapable of addressing the root causes of public anxiety. These are not sensible, workable policies, and this is becoming more and more obvious. The leadership is being dragged along in order to prevent a fatal break-up. The rise of Ukip is the proximate cause of this trouble – and yet its popularity simply rises as the Tories appease it, while Tory poll ratings languish. At some point the party’s more sensible components, which give the party the respectability it needs for credibility, will start to desert it. When that happens it is Game Over for the Conservatives as a serious contender for government.

Labour are better disciplined and its leader has held his nerve, if that is what to call it, for longer. Ed Miliband has made some rather silly left-wing noises – the craziest being to propose a freeze of energy prices that will interrupt, at best, badly needed investment in the country’s energy infrastructure. But this is far from the lurch to the left that some commentators portray. He does not launch into diatribes against failed “neoliberalism” or promise to reverse government’s austerity policies, except in a few token places. Extra taxes on the rich would once have been regarded as loony left, but they are now part of the sensible centre. The untapped wealth of the wealthy is draining the life out of developed world economies.

So far, so good. But this is not leadership; it is the party keeping its mouth shut. It has not properly engaged with the surge of populist discontent, that also includes support for Scottish independence. This lack of leadership has had its benefits. Many Labour politicians praise Mr Miliband for holding the party together at a time of challenge. But there are cracks. The party’s leader in Scotland, Johann Lamont, resigned last week, complaining that the party’s Westminster leadership had failed to understand the implications of Scotland’s referendum vote. This seems well-grounded. The political mood and landscape has changed decisively north of the border, following unprecedented political engagement in the referendum. And yet Mr Miliband’s response has been token at best; he simply resumed his underwhelming attack on the national coalition  government as if nothing had changed. His only concession was to call for a constitutional convention – but in the manner of one who wants to bat such issues into the long grass, so that serious change can be sabotaged in the way Labour already has the reform of the electoral system, campaign finance and the House of Lords in this parliament.

But what the country now cries out for is proper leadership. This means tackling the populism and ignorance head on. Pointing out that public fears on immigration, the EU and human rights are misplaced, and that the obvious countermeasures will make things worse, not better. Instead the British government should press ahead with a programme of serious political reform (devolution and electoral reform) and economic investment (education and infrastructure), that will draw more people back into political engagement, and prepare the country better for the future. The Conservatives have irretrievably cut themselves off from leading such a programme. Labour has not.

Such a course would be brave. It would mean taking on the tabloid press, and the many conservatives in Labour’s own ranks, who oppose political reform, or serious reform of any sort. But the public can surely spot leadership when the see it. Labour should be inspired by Italy’s Matteo Renzi. He has adopted a bold programme of political and economic reform, upsetting many of his party’s traditional supporters, and he has reversed the anti-politician tide in Italy as a result.

Alas, instead Labour seems to be following France’s Francois Hollande. Mr Hollande secured a massive electoral victory in 2012. Labour’s strategists seem to want to follow the strategy that secured that victory – by playing on his opponents’ weakness. The centre-right was being fatally undermined by the populist right of Marine Le Pen. It was a victory by default. Mr Hollande offered various bones to his left-wing supporters, but no convincing programme to address France’s pressing problems.

Such a strategy might yet succeed for Labour. But it is a recipe for implosion once the party assumes government, as has indeed happened to Mr Hollande in France. Or it could fail, as the populist right eats into Labour’s own core vote.

It’s better to be brave. And it’s not too late for Mr Miliband to surprise us all.

David Cameron is winning the race to the bottom. Is he the Michael Foot of the right?

The British electorate is being offered a choice between bad leadership and weak leadership, if they choose between the two biggest parties at the General Election in May 2015.  This is a turn-up for Labour’s Ed Miliband. While he still appears weak, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, had been seen as a sensible and competent leader. But Mr Cameron is now putting that at risk.

Mr Cameron, over the last month or so has put his name to a series highly unstatesmanlike moves. Let’s list them:

  1. He offered the public about £8bn of tax cuts in the next parliament, while at the same time closing the budget deficit. The only way this works is through savage cuts to benefits and public services. Most observers think it is completely infeasible. He has also through in the prospect of cutting Inheritance Tax, a tax which must be one of the most economically efficient.
  2. He, or rather his party, launched an attack on the Human Rights Act, which amongst other things, makes decisions by British courts and Parliament open to challenge by the European Court on Human Rights. This is more headline grabbing, and an attack on a perfectly sensible piece of legislation. This was supported by a suggestion that the basic human rights set out in the European Declaration were subject to some unspecified “responsibilities” – which shows a complete failure to understand what this declaration is trying to do.  Many Conservatives were horrified.
  3. As soon as the referendum on Scottish independence was declared, he launch a bid for “English Votes for English Laws”, a suggestion that there was some sort of quick fix that would prevent Scottish MPs from voting on matters that affected just England. This was another stunt, designed to deflect calls for a more considered approach to UK’s fraying constitution, through a constitutional convention. Many serious commentators feel that this direction of travel could only lead to the breakup of the UK.
  4. More recently Mr Cameron has suggested that he can renegotiate the country’s membership of the European Union so as to limit the level of immigration from EU countries into the UK. This means unpicking the core treaties that form the EU, and implementation would surely mean referendums in other EU countries and opening a Pandora’s Box. It is far from clear that excessive immigration from other EU countries is a serious problem for the UK – though there are abuses, which are open to less drastic solutions. This looks like another undeliverable promise, which takes the country one step closer to leaving the EU.

What do these ideas have in common, apart from being reckless political stunts? They play well to the agenda promoted by right-wing tabloid newspapers, like the working-class Sun and the middle-class Daily Mail. And they also play well amongst voters who are tempted to vote for Ukip, the insurgent populist party that is polling so well currently. Ukip have taken one seat off the Tories, Clacton, in a by-election following a defection, with an overwhelming margin. The Tories face a much tighter contest from another defector in Rochester and Strood – where polls still put Ukip in the lead.

So Mr Cameron is facing up to the clear threat from Ukip by appeasing their sympathisers. This stands in clear contrast to Mr Miliband and Labour. Labour have their own problems from Ukip, who are popular amongst white blue-collar voters, that used be part of Labour’s bedrock. Indeed the party came within a whisker of losing their own by-election to Ukip in Heywood & Middleton, in Greater Manchester. Their response to each of the four challenges by Mr Cameron has been muted. But they have stood firm – and not followed Mr Cameron’s race to the bottom. Labour politicians even offered some robust defence of the Human Rights Act. Perhaps they sense an opportunity. Labour are not exactly squaring up to Ukip, but they aren’t appeasing them either, apart from offering an  apology for allowing Polish migrants in in the early , which is at best insincere and at worst economically illiterate.

Over the past couple of years Ukip have hijacked the political agenda, with a constant focus on immigration and the EU in the news media. They have had a good run, topping the poll in May’s elections to the European Parliament, held under proportional representation. But this may be provoking a backlash. Polls tracking whether Britons would vote to leave the EU in a referendum have showing a growing proportion of people preferring to stay in, and they are now a comfortable majority. Perhaps people will tire too of the arguments over immigration, as they start to appreciate its complexities. The Economist published an interesting article suggesting that Ukip’s credibility is weak. Amongst other evidence it published a poll showing that more than 50% of people agreeing with the statement that “Ukip are a protest party with no realistic policies”, while 20% disagreed. Mr Cameron is fishing in a smaller pool than many in the press suppose.

If Labour spy an opportunity, it is that the public remains concerned about the standard of public services, and especially about the NHS. It could be that the Conservative promise of tax cuts will come back to haunt them. Today Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England, said that the NHS needed an extra £8bn of funding on top of inflation. Now Mr Stevens is no trade-union appointee, and is promoting radical reform of the NHS, including the openness to private and third sector providers that is being viciously attacked by the left. His plea for more funding is surely incompatible with the Tory promise on tax cuts. And yet it looks like the sensible centre, not the usual left wing ranting.

And here is the Conservative weakness. They are abandoning the political centre for a strain of populism that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Protest politics is not a viable route to power. As sensible, politically uncommitted commentators point out the flaws in Conservative plans, opinion-formers will turn against the party. And then some of its own members will voice doubts. Those of us with long memories remember something like this happening to the Labour Party in 1983. Its then leader, Michael Foot, pandered to a surge of left-wing populism in his party. Its manifesto in the election of that year was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”, and resulted in the party’s worst election performance in living memory. Are the Conservatives going down the same path?

This seems fanciful. After all politics is much more professional these days, based on extensive polling, and carefully chosen “wedge” issues. And Mr Cameron’s core stance on Europe remains a popular one – those polls showing increased support for the EU do not undermine what he is trying to do there. But the real reason that Mr Cameron is veering off to the populist right is because that is what most of his own party wants. It isn’t a careful piece of political triangulation, it is force of political circumstance. To do anything else would cause a fatal backlash in his own ranks. That is a predicament he shares with Michael Foot in 1983.

Ed Miliband is Labour’s John Major. Short term success presages long term disaster

Britain’s two big party conferences are over, setting out the battle lines for next year’s general election. I keep seeing parallels with the 1992 election, which the Conservatives won unexpectedly. In the past I have drawn direct parallels between the two main parties then and now. But in interesting ways the Labour party resembles the Conservatives in 1992: pulling off an unexpected victory, leading five years later to its worst ever defeat.

The Labour conference was shocking. This was supposed to be a party with its blood up, ready for a battle to crush those hated Tories and despised Lib Dems. Instead we witnessed a subdued Labour Party, simply hoping that the other side would lose. The plan is to win the General Election in May 2015 by default. There are three elements to this plan. First hang on to the hard core of voters that were loyal at their low point at the last election in 2010. Second, snaffle up an extra 5-10% of voters who voted Lib Dem last time and are fed up with that party. Third: allow Ukip to eat into the Tory vote. Labour strategists think that these three things will be enough to give Labour an overall majority. The party does not have to spell out a clear policy vision, just create some mood music by talking tough about the nation’s finances, and “saving” the NHS.

It could work. This kind of strategy reminds me a lot of John Major’s strategy for the Conservative Party that he led from 1990 to 1997: visionless, and relying on its opponents’ weaknesses. This led Mr Major to that spectacular and unexpected victory in the 1992 election, followed by the Tory party’s worst ever defeat in 1997. Something like the same fate awaits Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. At Labour’s conference he failed to address doubts about his leadership. His speech was a disaster. It was an overlong, rambling, whinge-fest, full of speechmaking clichés. His act of not using a script and teleprompt drew much praise the last time he tried it. This time it meant that he forgot to include some vital messages on the deficit and immigration, passages that it is hardly surprising his subconscious suppressed.

Over the four years or so of Mr Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party has proved remarkably united, and in London at least, its local organisation looks in good shape. After three terms in power, this is a remarkable achievement, considering what happened to the Tories after they finally ended 18 years of power in 1997. But this achievement looks more like Mr Major’s clinging on to power after Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990. It comes at cost of not resolving conflicts within the party. In particular much, if not most, of the party’s grassroots thinks that austerity is the malicious pursuit of class warfare by the rich, and that capitalism is an utter failure. They are egged on by a collection of intellectuals untroubled by the responsibilities of ever having run anything. But the party’s leaders, who have genuine ambitions to govern, realise that this is mainly nonsense. Though they have been clear about this in their speeches (when they remember to mention it), there is no sign that their followers have actually taken it on board, such is their detestation of the current government.

And that’s not Labour’s only faultline. Labour are under attack in their working class strongholds. Ukip are taking votes from the party in northern towns, where the party is not used to being challenged. The SNP made a very successful appeal to the working class voters in Labour’s stronghold in Glasgow in Scotland’s referendum. Labour’s leaders are being urged to respond to this by sounding “tougher” on such touchstone issues as immigration and human rights, which is taken as meaning undeserved privileges to migrants, terrorists and criminals. Labour have made some mealy mouthed concessions, especially on immigration. In particular they suggest that the Labour government was mistaken in allowing free immigration of east European migrants after their countries entered the EU. This is very muddled. The tension between liberals and working class conservatives is palpable.

For now Labour are papering over the cracks. Even if they hold together until the election, there is sure to be an explosion after it. If they win, a Labour government will be utterly unable to reconcile the conflicting ideas of their supporters. They will simply pick up where the last, deeply unpopular, Labour government left off. If they lose, their supporters will be unable to understand why, given what they see as the self-evident failures of the coalition years. And if the party is forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems (if that party does better than expected), or a grand coalition with the Conservatives, the reactions of Labour’s supporters can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are sharpening their knives. This party’s divisions are even greater than those that Labour is troubled with. But their leader, David Cameron, delivered a strong conference speech, setting out a very clear strategy for undermining Labour’s passive electoral hopes. This is the familiar “two-horse race” theme, so that Mr Cameron’s leadership skills can be compared favourably with Mr Miliband’s. And then there is tax. Labour’s ambivalence over reforming the public sector and benefits can be linked to the prospect of higher taxes for the majority.  Interestingly the Conservatives are making no attempt to woo middle of the road liberals, attacking the Lib Dems for stopping their illiberal ideas on civil liberties. This is no doubt part of their strategy to woo back Ukip defectors. But they may also calculate that raising the liberal credentials of their coalition partners may help the Lib Dems win back some of their defectors to Labour. This vigorous Conservative attack on Labour will put the latter under severe strain – though it is difficult to see how the Tories can win outright.

The outlook looks dire for Labour. Things are no better for the Tories. It is difficult not to think that Britain’s traditional two party politics is on its last legs.

The post-referendum Hall of Shame: Cameron, Salmond, Farage, Miliband

Normal politics has been on hold for the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, as nobody from south of the border wanted to rock the boat. But that phoney war is well and truly over, as the party leaders and their followers have pitched in with a free-for-all on the previously little discussed subject of the UK constitution. It is a pretty unedifying spectacle, which demonstrates why politicians in Westminster (and Holyrood for that matter) aren’t trusted by the public. But some are behaving much worse than others.

First place in my Hall of Shame goes to our Prime Minister, the Conservative leader David Cameron. The ballot papers had not been fully counted before he launched into a manoeuvre designed with little other purpose than to embarrass the Labour party, and to protect the more controversial parts of the Coalition government’s reforms. He, along with the other party leaders, has committed to the rapid transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament – having been arm-twisted into doing so by his predecessor as PM, Gordon Brown – who was the star of the No campaign. He then suggested that that the English should get the same rights as the Scots, on the same timetable.

There are three ways in which this is mendacious. Firstly he does not mean giving English people the same rights as the Scots. That would mean a separate English parliament and executive (or perhaps a number of regional ones). It turns out what he means is stopping Scottish MPs from voting on laws in the UK Parliament that only affect England. This may be a good idea in itself, but it falls far short of any idea of devolution of power, or, as I prefer to look at it, the empowerment of voters and intermediate levels of government. Secondly, it is well-known that this is not as simple as it sounds. There is no recognised constitutional distinction between English laws and UK ones, something which becomes particularly difficult when it comes to financing. Which taxes are English, and which are general? This problem has defeated many great minds, so any attempt to ram changes through on a tight timetable is going to end badly. Thirdly, what the Scots have been afforded is many years of deliberation, and a number of referendums, about the sort of government that they want, leading up to the independence referendum, which secured a very high level of political engagement. Mr Cameron has no intention of offering the English any equivalent level of engagement. It’s just a stunt.

What Mr Cameron is trying to do is to highlight Labour’s plan to use their Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to unpick a number of Coalition reforms on English public services, most notably the NHS. That really is all he seems to care about. We should expect more from the holder of such a high and responsible office. But with a bit of luck he will be sabotaged by his own backbenchers, who, on the whole, are more principled, even though they generally scare me.

Second place in my Hall of Shame must go to another holder of an important public office: the Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. He has announced that he is stepping down, but he as eschewed this opportunity to show any kind of statesmanship. He has accused the Westminster political leaders of backsliding on their promise to devolve more powers to Scotland. This is a very tendentious reading of a very proper argument between the Conservative and Labour leaders over English devolution and the wider UK constitution. Neither have suggested that Scots devolution should be delayed – there is just a concern that these wider issues might delay things. During the campaign Mr Salmond had suggested that if the Scots had voted for independence, then the English political leaders would accept the result with good grace, and enter negotiations with a spirit of peace and light. If that’s what he expects of them, he should apply that standard to his own conduct. It is right an proper that politicians from other parts of the UK should ask how extra Scots devolution affects them. And, indeed, Scottish political leaders should take an active interest in how the UK constitution as a whole works. Scotland is a fully participating member of the UK, and not some foreign power. The First Minister should show some concern that over-hasty constitutional change will affect Scottish interests, and should be demanding a seat at the table – and not acting as if all that mattered was a few extra powers for his government. But, of course, he has no interest in a stable UK constitution, and just wants to exploit the situation to keep discontent amongst Scottish voters bubbling away.

Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond are by some distance the worst culprits. They have responsible public offices and yet are acting like immature student politicians. My next entrant in the Hall of Shame is Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader. He wants to make mischief by stoking up discontent and resentment in England over the role of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament. After a highly divisive referendum, responsible politicians should be promoting reconciliation, and not stoking up resentment. But to his credit Mr Farage is at least advocating the correct way forward, unlike Messrs Cameron and Salmond, which is a UK-wide constitutional convention to promote a measure of agreement on the the shape of the constitution.

To his credit, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is also promoting a constitutional convention, and one with a wide enough scope to tackle broader issues, like the House of Lords. But he needs to overcome a huge legacy of cynicism when it comes to Labour’s record on constitutional reform. In this parliament Mr Miliband talked the talk on reform of the electoral system and the House of Lords, but behind the scenes he has sabotaged both initiatives based on short-term politics. Voters may well feel that he has no more interest in promoting a fair constitutional settlement for the UK than Vladimir Putin has in promoting peace and reconciliation in Ukraine. To bridge this gap of trust he needs to give a clearer picture of the reforms Labour want, and to go along with shorter term initiatives to deal with the question of Scottish MPs. He should call Mr Cameron’s bluff, and not just try to kick the whole issue into the long grass.

But above all Mr Miliband needs to give a clear timetable for his proposed convention, and  promise a referendum on its outcome by a specific date. He must make a promise that would be hard to quietly bury. But instead he wants to change the subject and hope that all this talk of constitutional change will blow over. The Labour Party is intent on pushing ahead with the media plan that accompanies its party conference, evidently planned before its Westminster elite had an inkling that the Scottish referendum might set the political agenda. Therefore he enters the Hall of Shame behind Mr Farage.

And so we come to the last of the main party leaders, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister. I have been highly critical of his record to date on constitutional matters, which been misjudged and piecemeal. He has now set out his views on the Constitution. And they are very creditable. He makes it clear, as Mr Cameron does not, that dealing with wider constitutional matters should not be tangled with the issue of further Scottish devolution: it should be a parallel track, with reforms not dependent on each other. On the matter of Scottish MPs he sensibly suggests following the McKay report, which the Coalition commissioned earlier in the government, only for it to be kicked into the long grass. He correctly points out that devolution in England means devolution from Westminster – and suggests a bottom up process for achieving this (by giving local councils the right to demand powers). Finally, and greatly to my relief, he agrees with the idea of a constitutional convention – which should secure directly public participation as far as it can – he suggests a citizen’s jury. This points to an credible way forward: allowing progress on the most urgent issues, while not losing sight of the big picture. So putting him in my Hall of Shame at all would be harsh. If he belongs there it is for not being clearer about all this a lot earlier. Alas, his real problem is a lack of political clout, though. The Libs Dems are facing a number of years in the political wilderness, though I firmly believe that they will be back.

The referendum on Scotland was a near-death experience for the UK. It would be becoming for the politicians from Britain’s mainstream parties to come together with a plan for updating Britain’s constitution, and consulting its citizens as it does so. Instead the Tories are being blatantly opportunist and Labour is pretending that nothing has changed. Only the darker forces of British politics, Ukip and the SNP in particular, will benefit from this.

Would a Miliband victory be good for the Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?

To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.

The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.

Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.

Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.

Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.

So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s  ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.

But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.

You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip – this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female – a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.

What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.

Interesting times indeed!

Politics is not about policies. Why the politicians are failing.

Today the FT’s excellent Janan Ganesh writes on how the British Conservatives are failing to get the ethnic minority vote (£). Also this morning two opinion polls showed that the Labour Party had lost its poll lead to the Conservatives. We can add the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to the list of underperforming political parties in Britain, leaving the field clear for the insurgent Ukip. Mr Ganesh points to a reason for the Conservatives’ failure, that applies just as much to others (except the Greens perhaps).

Mr Ganesh says that the problem is that politicians “…think politics is about policy.” And yet voters hardly know what policies the particular parties stand for. The Conservatives note that conservative values and fear of immigration are at least as prevalent in ethnic minorities as elsewhere. So they freely talk about immigration being excessive and about the need for stronger controls. And yet all this heightens voters’ suspicions that the party is not inclusive. The Conservatives have been here before. In the 2001 election they went down to a catastrophic defeat after pushing policies (on Europe in particular, as well as immigration) that seemed to play well with voters, and yet heightened their reputation as the most toxic brand in politics. They fared little better in 2005, when they tried similar “dog whistle” tactics. Their fortunes only changed when David Cameron went to prodigious efforts to de-toxify the Tory brand by advocating policies (environmentalism, gay marriage, and so on) that could distinguish the party from their former selves. Unfortunately for them, this change did not go deep enough into the party’s inner being, and it is wearing thin.

Labour seem to be in a similar fix. They have used a lot of clever researchers to fix on a series of populist policies. These include fixing energy prices and controlling private rents. All these policies, apparently, play well with focus groups. Also they have chosen “the cost of living crisis” as their overarching theme – since many voters feel hard done by in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis. And yet their poll ratings are fading. The policies are popular but they are damaging the Labour brand – or at least doing nothing to strengthen it.

The Lib Dems find themselves in a not dissimilar predicament. Most people seem to think that their influence on the coalition government is for the good. They are associated with some popular policies, such as raising tax thresholds. And yet their poll ratings languish around the 10% mark. They are perceived as politicians no different from the others in moral fibre, who enjoy being in power a bit too much.

The paradox is that British politics has never had more sophisticated advice. Each party leader is surrounded by clever people with access to the latest evidence-based theories. and yet they are all failing – and the height of ambition seems to be to fail at a slower pace than the others. What is needed is a bit more old-fashioned nous.

The last really successful party leader in this country was Labour’s Tony Blair. He employed a lot of sophistication as well, but the secret of his success was that he understood political brand building. The rise of Labour in the 1990s under his leadership was nearly a policy-free zone. So much so that when he won in 1997, his government lacked momentum because it did not have a clear idea about what to do.

What Mr Blair realised is that to build voters’ trust you have to do things that are hard. In Mr Blair’s case, he took on the Labour left, overturning all their sacred policy shibboleths, and changing Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. It was a process of destroying polices, rather than making them. To be fair on Mr Cameron, his rebuilding of the Tory brand involved some hard things – but he chose not to be quite as radical, and left the conservatives in his party silent but undefeated.

For the Liberal Democrats, their time in government might in time come to be seen as courageous rather than self-indulgent. Their leader Nick Clegg’s firm stand on Europe is a clear step in the right direction – though as yet there is no sign of a poll boost. Petulant rows within the coalition, such as this weekend’s on schools, are probably not helpful though. Proper rebuilding of their party’s brand will have come after next year’s General Election.

That applies to Labour too. It is too late for Ed Miliband to resolve the tensions within his party, and so give voters a clear picture of what the party stands for, beyond its headline grabbling policies and slogans. For all party’s difficulties with ethnic minorities, it is perhaps the Conservatives that have least reason for discomfort, once the European elections next week are out of the way. They are failing more slowly than the others, and if they don’t panic they will recover a lot of the ground they have lost to Ukip, unlike Labour. It probably won’t be enough to win them a majority, because they failed to reform the electoral system in their favour, in spite of clear opportunity having been presented – through a combination of the Alternative Vote and boundary changes.

So here’s what I predict for 2015. The Conservatives gain some seats but fall short of a majority. The Lib Dems lose 10-20 seats, but still leaving a substantial voting block in Parliament. Labour make few advances. Ukip will pile up 10% or more of the vote, perhaps surpassing the Lib Dems,but get one seat at most – they will take most of their votes from Labour. The Conservatives will attempt a minority government.