Wednesday 30 September 2009

You "chumps", Mandy tells The Sun

Much debate on what Britain’s best-loved vaudeville star - Peter Mandelson - made of The Sun’s decision to dump Gordon Brown.

Rumour was that he’d used the c-word at the News International reception when Rebeckah Brooks broke the news to him. Lord Mandelson, tongue firmly in cheek, clarified his reaction to reporters this lunchtime.

“I said to them last night, when Rebekah told me, that they’d been a bunch of chumps,” said a smiling Mandy.

“I think their readers don’t expect to start paying for a Tory fanzine, they expect a proper newspaper that is balanced and objective.”

Dog bites man - woman bites back

Harriet Harman's big day at Labour conference is the wrap up speech tomorrow so she might be keeping her best gags for then. I hope there will have to be some overnight work in the joke dpeartment , that joke about the Tory diversity night was soo lame.

She showed some sparkle at the beginning of her speech in the equality debate though, laying into the Sun for picking on her best friend Gordon.

"I am speaking to you this morning about something the Sun knows absolutely nothing about - equality," she told conference. "The nearest their political analysis gets to women's rights is Page 3's News in Briefs.

"We are all angry about the Sun this morning, but I say to you: don't get bitter, get better. Don't get outraged, get out there. Don't get mad, get mobilised.

"Yes, we may be the underdog, but we will not be bullied. This underdog is biting back."

Brown, the frown and the Current Bun

I was running in to the conference hall early this morning to do some political punditry for BBC Radio nan Gaidheal when word went around that the Prime Minister had come within an inch of exploding in front of Sky's Adam Boulton and had "stormed off" after a BBC interview.

By the time I came out of one radio studio he was in another, sounding tired and fed up with the whole process, conceding to Jim Naughtie that he'd come to a decision on an leaders TV debate but wouldn't let us in on the conclusion.

It had the makings of another bad day for Brown in medialand where his personality and not his policies dominate the agenda. It didn't start well with The Current Bun dropping its support for him, though not whole heartedly embracing David Cameron.

Plenty other stuff out the blogosphere about that turn around which Number Ten is spinning as something that doesn't really matter any more. The Sun always pretends to lead public opinion but really it just uses the old trick of following the public mood and then proclaiming it as it's own.

Alastair (why must he mash the Gaelic (Alasdair) and English (Alistair) spelling?) Campbell has blogged the same line but for the story behind the story, so to speak, it's worth digging out a piece Polly Toynbee wrote in July about the promises David Cameron has already made to Rupert Murdoch. Very perceptive. Read it here.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Brown to Labour: "think big, fight hard" and what all these pledges mean for Scotland

First draw - that was a solid speech, freighted with pledges, plenty for Labour to promise Britain radical "change" at the next election but probably not enough to persuade anyone to change their mind about Gordon Brown.

I score Brown low on performance, he is not a great platform speaker, but feel the weight of that speech when it came to policy.

People wanted to count the number of times he said change, about 50 is an estimate, to distinguish himself from the Tories. Forget that, count the number of promises (but bear in mind that we have to check now that they haven't been announced beforehand).

No compulsory ID cards - at first sight a huge U turn, symbolic and economic and will delight libertarians, but Alan Johnson said as much back in June.

Beating cancer in a generation. Resources to fund cancer research. A pledge to have diagnostic results within a week, an England and Wales pledge only. Don't see how Scotland can't match the same level of care.

Referendum on Alternative Voting system for Westminster - radical but not truly proportional representation. Would maintain the constituency link.

An elected second chamber replacing the Lords

A right to recall MPs , a Lib Dem idea, if they break the law.

A National Care Service for the elderly, out in a green paper on care reform and will only apply in England

Free personal care, not universal as in Scotland, for those with the highest needs.

Recreating the Post Office as a bank in the community.

Continued investment in schools, England again. (When I write England there will be Barnett consequentials for Scotland that the parliament can spend how it chooses).

Continued rises in the National Minimum wage

Legal restrictions on the banking industry.

Supervised homes for single teenage mothers (England only, Labour wants the same in Scotland).

Drink banning orders (England only, SNP trying to tackle this with minimum pricing)

He may not have changed people’s opinions of Gordon Brown with that speech - when it came to rhetoric it was only average. But Gordon Brown gave the Labour party something to fight the election with, a reason to go on.

“Think big and fight hard,” is what he said. That was a virtual manifesto he delivered so the thinking bit is done. The fight for all that change is, as he said himself, against the odds.

It ain't over until...

The Labour conference is a bit flat after the “We heart Mandy” moment yesterday. All the talk is about whether Gordon Brown’s speech is “pre-mortem” or “dead man walking” or whether he will be introduced by a fat lady singing.

Alan Johnson and Jack Straw spoke before lunch, not bad speeches with the old wardog Straw edging it in this “contest of the caretakers”.

Straw drew on his greybeard reputation. “I’ve been around for a long time and all my experience tells me - you never write Labour off.”

No idea what Brown’s speech gimmick is going to be - talk of a televised debate has been walked up and down the seafront and is not now in the speech, according to Charlie Whelan.

Anyway in the hall they’ll love it, out there it might make no difference, but one thing seems certain after all these paeans of praise from the cabinet. - Brown is leader until election day or whenever he decides to go. As one of his most loyal supporters told me last night: “We’re stuck with him”.

Have to join the queues of delegates waiting to get into the hall now.

Monday 28 September 2009

Labour's new "fighter not a quitter" logo

The delegates had not sat down after their ovation of Peter Mandelson when this neat new graphic hit the Labour conference.

It's the work of Chris McShane at, a Glasgow boy and former member of the Number 10 media monitoring team. Before you ask Mandy's missing a tooth because he's "a fighter not a..."

You can get a postcard or, better still, as cute mustard-coloured, i-phone sack. Without one you're no one as Labour basks in the afterglow of a Mandelson lovebomb.

Gray - good until he mentioned the R word

Just out from the Scottish report to Labour conference with Iain Gray, Jim Murphy and Willie Bain, the Glasgow North East Labour candidate making speeches. My quick report card - Bain seems like a likely candidate, emphasising his local roots, Iain Gray actually gave a good speech and Jim Murphy gave a poor one.

Gray, Labour’s Holyrood leader, hasn’t been getting good reviews lately but he found some passion and meter in his attacks on the SNP.

“Alex Salmond is not taking my country forward, he is dragging it back, that's what happens when Labour loses power...Alex Salmond is not lifting my country up he is dragging it down, that's what happens when Labour loses power.” It was not bad but he managed to tie himself up in knots over the question of a referendum.

“The day may well come when the people of Scotland want a referendum to settle their constitutional future once and for all. But not now, in the midst of a recession. And not on a question rigged and fixed by the SNP,” he said.

Why he bothered with a reference to the referendum I don’t know because the ambiguity of it raised eyebrows us on the press benches and led to this exchange with reporters afterwards:

You left an intriguing question hanging there on the timing of a referendum?

Gray: “You cannot say in politics this question should never be asked. Wendy said have a referendum now, and I supported her, on a straight question and Salmond ran way from that. They are interested in is a rigged referendum, a timetable to suit them, and they are pursuing that in the middle of a recession when they should be focusing on getting Scotland through the recession.”

So, on which day do you want a referendum?

Gray: “I’m saying to you there may well be a time, certainly not in the middle of a recession. What they have just now is a referendum bill opposed by all three opposition parties so the prospect of getting that through is remote in the extreme.”

Would you call a referendum if you were returned as First Minister?

Gray: “That would depend on the circumstances at the time. If we had been able to get this question out of the way that would have been a good thing. The business people I speak to think this is a distraction.”

Your position then is bring it on, but not until after the recession?

“My position is this - if there is ever major constitutional change that has to be endorsed in a referendum. But we’re in the middle of a recession, all the evidence shows that support for independence is low and falling, and so this is the time of the Scottish government and politicians of all stripes to be focusing on what we can do to get through the recession and to take advantage of the upturn when it comes. That's the most important question in Scottish politics today.”

I suspect that within the hour the SNP will beg to differ.

Portrait of Gordon Brown - after Landseer

Day one of the Labour party conference as seen in the Herald sketch

It’s official - “Operation Fightback” starts here. It sound like a the title for an episode of the A-Team but it’s actually a slogan to save the Labour party.

Above the podium on Brighton the message in written on big white letters against a moving cloud background. Ad Men think clouds send out a subliminally aspirational message. I’m from the Hebrides where they are portents of a gathering storm, or at least a downpour.

Yesterday afternoon, after one Labour leader announced his resignation (Wasn’t so hard, was it Rhodri?) we were introduced to the fightback troops. These are the new candidates who will be standing at election for the first, perhaps the last time. As they filed on stage they became progressively younger, like we were viewing a strobe photo sequence of one person walking backwards through time.

The clapping ran out before the last, by now teenaged, figure came onto the podium. Half-hearted delegates had to be urged to renew their applause.

There were a number of ways a Labour activist might have spent a sunny afternoon on the south coast of England, joining a huge demonstration outside the conference about cuts in public services might have been one example. Sitting in the glorious sunshine on the beach might have been another.

But no, they listened to wannabes asking anodyne question and Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown congratulating each other on being the best politician in the world, or on equality policy or whatever.

The Prime Minister, fighting for his life and his reputation, said that they were being tested. “What is being tested, and why we should be angry and determined to fight about Conservative policies that are wrong; what is being tested is our belief that we do not walk on by and the Conservative belief that you just let the market take its way.”

It carried on until the Prime Minister’s voice croaked and he admitted, after an hour, that he had talked too much.

Poor man, he certainly is being tested, and not just in agonisingly boring forums like this.

No one asked a hard question, that had been dealt with in the morning when Andrew Marr made Brighton choke on its collective toothpaste by asking the Prime Minister if he was a chemist shop junkie.

That might be a “fair question” in from a “blutter” (a gutterpress blogger, a term I just invented for this situation) but coming from the BBC it was a shocker.

Brown’s physical response was the political personification of Edwin Landseer’s “Stag at bay” - defiant, contemptuous, standing proud, fighting back. Just out of frame the hounds of hell are snapping at his heels.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Hain praises Rhodri, pass the guacamole Bethan

These Welsh, they don’t go in for sentimentality much. Peter Hain, back in office as Welsh Secretary, looking, I have to say, older after the ordeal of having to step to clear his name in a financial scandal, opened the Welsh Report. He delivered the first of many ‘stand up and fight’ speeches that we’ll be hearing from Labour ministers in Brighton this week.

He introduced Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh Assembly First Minister, as the “peoples choice”, not mentioning that he ran two campaigns (Ron Davies and Alun Michael) against him.

Morgan gave a heartfelt and grateful conference address as he confirmed, for about the third time, that he will not be Labour leader in Wales next year and will step down sometime after his 70th birthday, which is on Tuesday.

Who replaces Rhodri is an important sideboard debate at this year’s conference because if Labour lose in Westminster First Minister of Wales might be the highest office in the land that the Labour Party is left occupying.

Check out Betsan Powys and Tomos Livingstone’s 07.25 to Paddington if you want to follow the machinations in detail.

One part of Rhodri’s speech is a contender for quote of the day, as he acknowledged Labour’s poll standing:

I know that we are in difficulty now. We have temporarily mislaid that magic recipe for blending the mushy peas of old Labour with the guacamole of new Labour, “ he said. “We will find that recipe again soon.”

Final note: from a Scottish perspective, you couldn't listen to Rhodri's speech in the hall, leaving the stage after ten years as the "grandfather of devolution", without a poignant thought about how Donald Dewar's life was cut short.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Another side to the understated Mr Darling

I interviewed the Chancellor Alistair Darling at the Treasury earlier in the week. The normally reserved Edinburgh Central MP come out passionately in defence of Labour values and was pretty harsh on colleagues who already appear to have given up. He looked healthier and more relaxed than at any time in the last year, and what a year it's been for him.

He slipped up, once, by admitting with typical frankness that Alex Salmond has not faced much opposition in the last two years.
On the tripwires of political journalism that's an implicit criticism of his own former special adviser, Iain Gray. That's politics, that's journalism, but other than that he seemed to be on top of his game and, of course, now unassailable as Chancellor.

From the
Herald 26/09/09

Outside the Treasury someone is clearly taking the mickey. A red Ferrari has been driven up and down Horse Guards Road, which separates the Whitehall building from St James Park, twice in the last five minutes. It could be a City banker sending a metaphorical two-fingered message to the Chancellor that the can’t mess with his bonus.

A year ago, when Alistair Darling looked out from an Atlantic beach and predicted the worst economic storm in 60 years, he was pilloried but proved right in a month. In the roller coaster ride that was the global crash the understated Scotsman saved the banks, slashed VAT, and probably stopped a recession becoming a depression.

Yet little of the credit has come his or the government’s way. He heads from the Pittsburgh G20 to his party conference in Brighton with Labour 14 points behind in the polls.

"Politicians shouldn’t expect gratitude. We’ve got months before the next general election, this is our chance to set out what we stand for, what our values are and to convince the public of it. If we don’t go at this full throttle, we’ll regret it," says Mr Darling, sitting on a sofa that is slightly better upholstered than most of the Treasury’s shabby furnishings. A John Bellany painting on the office wall lends the large room some aesthetic, Scottish dignity.

This is an uncharacteristically passionate Alistair Darling, whose ministerial career has been about turning understatement into an artform - even that 60 year storm warning wasn’t an exaggeration.

But refreshed and inevitably weatherbeaten after his annual Hebridean holiday, he delivers an uncompromising rallying call to parliamentary colleagues who have given up the ghost on the next election.

"I say to them if you curl up in a corner, people will walk on by. I well remember the late 1970s when people got themselves into a mind that it was all terrible and it was all someone else’s fault. Well it isn’t, it’s our responsibility together. I think the Labour party has a good vision of what this country can be - a fair country, where we can look after people, where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential."

He admits that the government has got things wrong but will not accept the narrative behind the flatlining poll ratings is the upopularity of Gordon Brown. "I just don’t have time for people who say ‘if only it was someone else’. I have worked closely with Gordon for a very long time and I believe the only way we can win the next election is if we concentrate on what actually matters, the difference we can make to people’s lives."

The next election will not be, as the media already characterise it, a race to cut public services. It will come down to an ideological differences says the man in charge of the nation’s purse, not just debt management,

"Deficits matter but you have got to deal with it in a sensible way. It doesn’t mean you lurch from well-run public services to some sort of Arctic night where you switch off all the lights and everything goes to hell," says Mr Darling. "Reducing debt drastically will have severe consequences on other things you need to do to keep the country going. I don’t know many sensible commentators who think that a deficit reduction plan of more than half of four years would be sensible thing to do, just as there are only a few people who think that we shouldn’t be supporting the economy just now. The British Tory party are alone in that."

He characterises his Tory shadow, George Osborne, as someone "with a tendency to play at politics rather than address serious economic problems" who will be rumbled by the electorate. "The difference is that I think the government has responsibility to help people and give them the opportunity they need. The Tories want to do less, want the government to retreat and frankly step back from their responsibilities. I think Osborne made the wrong call 12 months ago, he would not have supported the economy and it would have had disastrous consequences."

Turning to other enemies he dismisses the SNP’s complaint that Scotland will face £500M of cuts next year but he slips up in acknowledging that Alex Salmond has been given a free run by Labour at Holyrood.

"The nationalists have had two years where they have not been exposed to particular criticism or questioning in many cases but I think people can see for themselves that its very tempting to blame someone else," says Mr Darling, in an implicit criticism of Labour under Wendy Alexander and his own former special adviser, Iain Gray.

"Okay, people voted by one seat to change the administration two years ago but the idea that a separate Scotland breaking away from its largest neighbour makes any sense in today’s world is just nonsense."

After a a turbulent year he can do little about the red Ferrari outside or criticisms that he has not done enough to rein in the bonus culture outside the banks he controls, but Mr Darling has faith in the electorate being ahead of the political curve. "The public know full well what’s been happening over the last few years and they want to see a choice. I hope we help people get through this and that people will accept, no matter what the difficulties, we took the right course."

Thursday 24 September 2009

Sharpen your nails for a by-election.

Hot news - the SNP has secured premises as an HQ for the party's Glasgow North East by-election campaign. I hear it's a shop that was once used as a beautician's parlour which means (oh no) the SNP press office will claim it's another "nail" in the coffin for Labour in Glasgow.

Trident - how will the French and Germans react?

The French, you ask? Yes, I say. Gordon Brown's pledge to put Britain's Trident missiles on the negotiating table at the UN is all very well but domestically cancelling one submarine saves relatively little money in a multi-billion budget (it was part of the original consideration in 2006). Internationally it matters not a jot to the Russians or the Chinese, or the Iranians come to think of it.

Britain's real brinkmanship in this game of nuclear disrobement is with the French. When Alec Douglas Hume approved Britain's development of the H-bomb after WWII he recognised it wasn't for its deterrent capacity that he gave the go ahead. He approved it simply "to put us above the salt at the top table".

Without nuclear weapons Britain's seat as a permanent member of the UN Security council along with France, Russia, the US and China would be in question.

Britain can't start disarming with serious intent - and there is no word on the number of warheads there will be on the remaining submarines - without that being matched not by an old Cold War enemy but by an ally, France.

Both countries have reduced the number of warheads they target at (where?) in the last decade but both still posture as nuclear powers because of the place it gives them on the global stage. Morality aside, tinkering with the number of nuclear weapons begins to unpick the diplomatic make up of the Security Council, which is due a big re-think anyway.

The wider European picture involves Germany as well as France and an eventual EU seat on the Security Council. But then the idea of David Cameron or for that matter any Labour PM, giving up the UK seat is laughable.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Obama to UN: time for a new world order.

That was one hell of a speech for a President of the United States to make to the United Nations.
Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric, his liberal vision for peace, for nuclear disarmament, for the environment and for the global economy left me gasping in the scale of his ambition. I dare say it left many American Republicans spluttering too, but they are not the masters now.
His speech buried the Bush legacy, the Neocon plan for an American Century, and isolationism that abuse that the US dealt out to the United Nations in the last decade. Here is one of the key passages. Could the world have asked for any more?
"No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.

"The time has come to realize that the old habits and arguments are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals that they claim to pursue, and to vote - often in this body - against the interests of their own people.

"They build up walls between us and the future that our people seek, and the time has come for those walls to come down. Together, we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides - coalitions of different faiths and creeds; of north and south, east and west; black, white, and brown.

"The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, and failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for. Or, we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations."

"That is the future America wants - a future of peace and prosperity that we can only reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of international cooperation."

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Brown's bad week and it's only Tuesday

Gordon Brown is "leavin' on a jet plane" this morning for the UN in New York where he will bestride the world stage along with other global leaders like, er, Colonel Gaddafi.

It will be the Libyan leader's first visit to the US since he came to power in a coup 40 years ago. He will undoubtedly be paraded as the face of nuclear non-proliferation as he agreed to abandon his weapons research programme. I 've written about the tightrope Brown has to walk in today's Herald, which I've tried to link to below in an imaginative style. (Forgive me oh grand designer).

He leaves behind a bit of a mess - a hasty mini-reshuffle that doesn't include the dismissal of Baroness Scotland as Attorney General for breaking the law when she hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. Number 10 is attempting to brazen this one out but the right wing blogosphere and the prints will be howling like wolves all day and all night for her.

Back in to government comes Margaret Hodge as Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. She replaces Barbara Follett who is being moved to Communities and Local Government and takes on the the post left vacant by Sarah McCarthy-Fry MP, who moved to HM Treasury in June.

None of this affects Scotland, the nation, but it's not over for Baroness Scotland by any means. Mr Brown is satisfied that the Ministerial code has not been broken and there have been profuse apologies from the Baroness but this will now become a battle of wills between Downing St and the opposition, along with the press. Just how long can the Prime Minister have a chief law officer who has broken the law?

At the morning lobby briefing we were told there was nothing new to report on troop numbers in Afghanistan, even though the Times reports that there will be a request for 1000 more UK soldiers for the General McChrystyal troop surge. Climate change and the economy might be the theme of the speech in the UN but you can guess what will be talked about on the sidelines. It's never quiet here.

The Herald
22 Sep 2009

Saturday 19 September 2009

Rust never sleeps on the Lewis scrap cult

Greenheart Oak decking plank from a 19th century shipwreck serving as a straining post in our croft.

Lots of hits and several comments on the Jonathan Meades blog and the Isle of Rust. Do click through the links in the last posting to watch the programme on i-player and read the comments which, contrary to instinct, I've allowed to be posted as "anonymous".

Feel free to add your own comments and submit any pictures you might have of the scrap cult. I thought I had an image of wrecked bus lying around somewhere on the desktop but can't find it just now. This image of ship nails driven through a decking plank that serves as a straining post on our croft will have to do.

I'm not exactly sure about the provenance of the decking. I know it's Greenheart Oak, the hardest wood in the world, and according to my late father, it came from the deck of the "Ile Channaidh", a ship that wrecked on the rocks off Swordale sometime in the 19th century.

All I can say with certainty is that the post, one of several Greenhearts in our croft, is over 100 years old and has withstood everything that time has thrown at it, including an IDP fencing grant.

I know that's setting the bar high but if anyone can provide a better, older, harder, more upcycled example of the Lewis Scrap Cult I'll give a prize of the the axle from the Bedford van we used to use as a teahut in the peats, as that is all that is left of the Bedford van.

Do I hear that someone with more time and talent than me is setting up a Flikr site homage to the Isle of Rust? Someone ought to.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Jonathan Meades and the Isle of Rust

Our contribution to to the scrap cult, an old Co-op van on the croft. It served as an excellent sheep shelter for years.

Was last night's Off Kilter, with Jonathan Meades wandering around the Isle of Rust, the best television I have ever seen about Lewis - or the worst? I just can't decide.

Architecture critic and iconoclast Meades was brutally anti-religious and patronising at times, but that aside, his main thesis was a homage to the wrecked cars and rusty sheds that litter the Lewis landscape. It amounts to what he called a scrap cult.

Meades is the first since Gus Wylie to recognise the bleak grandeur of all this wreckage in paradise. I'm a little envious because it was the kind of imagery I'd want to infuse any film set on the islands instead of the candied scenery we serve up to ourselves.

For Meades the corrugated iron sheds - a whole sub-category of scrap in themselves - were temples of abstract art, the abandoned cars previews of the future of mankind . It was all very tongue in cheek and when he described some examples of modern architecture as pretentious you had to laugh out loud at his gall.

But when Meades asked how you get a Ford Transit van without wheels into a peat bog metres from the road or why a red Mini Metro should be left upside down in the moor he missed the whole point of the scrap cult.

The real reason wrecked vehicles are left randomly in the landscape was perfectly captured by a deeply ironic Randan sketch some years ago.

The scene is an Anglo-sounding couple surveying the Lewis landscape. She says: "Oh Ralph, I thought this was going to be island for us to move to but there are just so many wrecked cars ruining the landscape. Let's go to Orkney instead."

A boiler-suited crofter is listening and watches the potential incomers depart. "Aye, I knew that old Marina would come in handy one day, " he muses.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Ed Miliband steps out of his brother's shadow

There's a joke going around the TUC conference about union leader Dave Prentice giving a confused greeting to Ed Miliband this morning. The Unison boss slapped the Climate Change Minister on the shoulder and said: "David, sorry I confused you with Ed earlier on."

Well, after his passionate address to the conference today no trade unionist will be confusing Miliband the Younger with his "no cojones" sibling any longer.

It's hard to evoke the class war when talking about loft insulation but Ed Miliband managed to get applause out of that in what was the best political speech of the conference.

Half way through it looked as if his address would be hi-jacked by the sacked Vestas windfarm workers from the Isle of Wight, who received a standing ovation when he acknowledged their presence in the hall and their problems.

He recovered well from that though. Why, he asked, did Vestas not have enough orders for windfarms in the UK? Because Tory councils turn down 60% of windfarm applications on their patch.

He continued on his theme of how climate change presented a great opportunity for jobs not just a challenge for old industries.

It was political speaking a la mode - that means Cameron style, pacing around the stage in shirt sleeves although the text has been thoroughly memorised beforehand. He had an effective and engaging style that made yestersday's Brown look like Brezhnev.

"It's not green to put a windfarm on your roof when time after time, wind farm applications are turned down by Tory councils," said Miliband tearing into David Cameron. "It's not green to visit the Arctic circle, but when you're in Europe to pal around the fringes with climate change deniers. it's not green to ride your bike to the House of Commons to vote against investment in green industries."

It all went down well, especially when he compared the Tory idea of public services to the Ryanair model - lots of queuing and the many making do on the bare minimum, the few paying extra for a better service. "It works for an airline but it's no way to run a care home or a hospital."

Since becoming Climate Change Minister Miliband has made decisions he didn't necessarily have to take if he wanted a quieter life. He brought forward the 2050 targets for carbon reduction and included air travel in the equation, for example. He seems capable of making a bold decision and that distinguishes him from his brother in the eyes of some trade union leaders.

As this December's Copenhagen Environment Summit approaches his public profile will increase and so will his chances of one day becoming Labour leader.

Labour high command might be decapitated at the election but it's unlikely that Doncaster North will change hands. Ed and David Miliband may be among the last men standing to compete for the leadership. On today's performance young Ed has pushed himself ahead as one of the men most likely to.

Osborne - is he really the weakest link?

Just when you thought George Osborne had been exposed as David Cameron's weakest link by nominating three defence projects as ripe for cutting he bounces right back into the ring this morning with leaked Treasury documents showing across the board plans for Labour cuts.

When Gordon Brown made vague commitments to defending public services at the TUC yesterday and George Osborne suggested that the super carrier contracts at Rosyth and the Clyde could be broken Labour thought their strategy was working.

The Labour high command think that Osborne is brittle and gaffe prone and he is set to be singled out for a sustained attack in the run-up to the General Election, The Herald has been told. (See Michael Settle's story here.)

But Osborne is nothing if not mercurial. After annoying his own spin doctors with his naivety yesterday he comes back with that opposition coup - leaked government documents showing nearly 10% cuts across the board.

Broadly this is what the institute of Fiscal Studies has been saying about Treasury spending plans but not what Mr Brown has been telling the Commons, Mr Osborne points out. We'll see how the day plays out but it looks like Mr Osborne has turned the tables and skewered the Prime Minister on cuts.

Osborne - carriers may be sunk by cuts

My dispatch for today's Herald from the TUC in Liverpool. This is news which will not go down well in Glasgow were "wurr super-carriers", as Ian Davidson MP would have it, are being built.

Thousands of defence jobs in Scotland are under threat as the first victims of the looming political battle over cuts in public sector spending.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown took the symbolic step of admitting to the TUC conference that he would cut "lower priority budgets" but protect vital public services the Shadow chancellor in contrast said an incoming Conservative government would hold an immediate budget to rein in the government deficit.

In a speech to rival Mr Brown’s address to the TUC in Liverpool, George Osborne did not provide any fresh details of proposed Tory cuts. But asked whether he could identify specific savings for a snap budget he highlighted major defence projects, including the £4bn Royal Navy super carriers being built on the Clyde and Rosyth.

“I do not know the details of some of the major defence projects which have been the subject of speculation in the newspapers,” said Mr Osborne. “I simply do not know what the break clauses are in the Eurofighter programme or the A400M or the aircraft carriers.”

While Mr Osborne signalled that defence would be one of the areas ripe for cutting the Labour Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth also hinted at "major shifts" in defence spending as the government prioritises resources for the war in Afghanistan.

The Defence secretary urged a "wide-ranging" debate about future priorities but did not say what might be squeezed.

Despite the reprieve delivered for the Benbecula missile range by Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy yesterday it now seems inevitable that the defence industry in Scotland will suffer hard in under what all parties now accept would be a period of stringent cuts.

Harry Donaldson, the general secretary of the GMB union in Scotland, said cancellation of the carrier contract would represent a death blow to British shipbuilding.

“We need to remind ourselves that 10,000 jobs are secure on this project over six years. The Tories now threaten the very viability of the UK shipbuilding sector,” said Mr Donaldson.

“If this threat is carried out it would leave a major gap and lead to job losses all across the UK and in particular Rosyth, Scotstoun, Govan and VT Portsmouth.”

The Shadow Chancellor revealed the plans for a snap Budget after insisting that cutting public spending would not choke off a recovery.

Mr Osborne said that Gordon Brown’s admission that cuts were inevitable amounted to a white flag and claimed that the Tories had “comprehensively" won the spending argument.

The Prime Minister though believes that he will be able to draw the Tories into exposing their cuts agenda and present himself as the leader who rode out the recession and can protect the public sector from Conservative excesses in the future.

“When our plans are published in the coming months, people will see that Labour will not support cuts in vital frontline services on which people depend,” Mr Brown told trade unionists.

“Labour will not put the recovery at risk, protect and improve your frontline services first and make the right choices for low and middle income families in the country."

Brown claimed his government "faced the Tories down – and we have been shown to have done the right thing by hardworking British families" by spending during the recession.

“There is a fundamental difference between the parties as to how to come through this recession and avoid it being deeper, longer and more damaging," said Mr Brown.

“It was not the much heralded speech promising cuts in public spending,” said Paul Kenny,GMB general secretary at the Liverpool gathering. “Instead he promised investment and he guaranteed frontline services. This is in stark contrast to what the Tories are saying.”

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Liverpool's Iron Men

It's not all beer and sandwiches on the docks at this year's TUC in Liverpool. A few of us made it out to Crosby beach, north of the city, last night to wander along the sand through Antony Gormley's Another Place.

The 100 iron casts of the artist's own body, staggered along 3km of the beach, some of them half covered by the tide or caked in barnacles, is the eeriest and most strangely moving pieces of public art I've ever come across.

The rejuvenation of Liverpool as cultural city has been quite incredible - there's a Tate gallery here on the docks and the Museum of Liverpool going up next to the Liver Building is going to be a cracker.

But the journey here is worth it just to walk among the iron men in Crosby as the sun goes down and the tide runs out. Every Atlantic beach should have at least one iron man.

Man in the white suit on South Africa safari

I know people who move to the Highlands are given the derogatory "white settler" label but when Charlie Whelan walked into the TUC media pen wearing a cream linen suit I thought he was taking things a bit too far.

Mr Whelan, once GB's voice on earth now his arm-wrencher in the unions, lives close to the Spey where he takes delight in landing salmon from rain-swollen Highland rivers.

When I had a dig about the white suit quick as a flash he proved he hadn't lost any of his old spin doctoring skills. "Don't write about that, write about my South African tie. It's where I'm going on holiday next summer, won't see many Scots there." Ouch, I think that makes it White Fisherman 1 - Native Pine -0.

Monday 14 September 2009

Murphy saves Benbecula jobs for now

The immediate threat to 125 jobs at the Benbecula missile range has been lifted and Defence Minister Quentin Davies will give further consideration to the future of the facility in the Hebrides, the Herald understands.

In what will be seen as a major victory for a local taskforce that fought a rearguard campaign to reverse the closure decision Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy will travel to Benbecula today to brief staff on their future.

Mr Murphy won the Whitehall battle based on the strategic and technical issues assembled by the local taskforce which persuaded the Ministry of Defence that the issue of automated control of the range, proposed by private operators Qintetiq, ought to be re-examined.

The facility had come under threat to save £50m but it is expected that Mr Murphy's announcement today will emphasis the strategic importance of the base as well as the socio-economic impact it has on the islands economy.

Mr Murphy fought tooth and nail to reverse the closure recommendation after being persuaded of the case by the island taskforce which assembled arguments from consultants at Jane's Defence.

Mr Davies, who is proving to be a maverick Minister who knows his own mind, was persuaded that Qinetiq had not made a proper case for running down what is seen as a major defence asset for the UK.

Trade Union Generals saddle up

The old warhorses have been reined in, the generals have saddled up and like all old warriors they are ready to fight the last battle again, not the next one.

Six leading trade union leaders shared a platform at the TUC conference yesterday to rally their troops for the forthcoming election campaign, to line themselves firmly behind Gordon Brown and to tell the Labour party it had to retrench itself behind the true values of the left.

Foremost amongst these burnishing Mr Brown as a white knight, calling for him to find a voice that resonated with core Labour voters, was Derek Simpson, a battle-hardened veteran of political wars - some of them against his own side.

Mr Simpson, the Unite leader and bete noire of New Labour, is not a man given to fawning at feet of Labour Prime Ministers. It is a sign of how deep the trade union fear is of a Tory victory that he spent his lunchtime praising Gordon Brown and not burying him.

“We’re probably eight months from a Tory government and all the havoc they will wreak on our movement. Now’s the time to wake up and smell the coffee,” said Mr Simpson, addressing a half-full fringe meeting of the liaison committee for the defence of trade unions

Mr Simpson was one of the “Chequers balti set” of trade union leaders who met with the Prime Minister at his official country residence last Friday for a curry lunch.

Given the press stories about the Mr Simpson’s own £800,000 “mansion for life” in Hertfordshire he complained that he found the Chequers rooms “a little cramped”. But his advice for the Mr Brown didn’t stop at interior decoration.

“We told him we don’t just want him to be Prime Minister of a Labour government up to the next election, we want him to be Prime Minister after the next election,” said Mr Simpson, spilling details of the lunch menu.

“Change is what we need but not change of party or leader but a change of policy, attitude and approach. We want a government that is not terrified of doing something constructive, that might actually be called socialism. We want a government telling these millions of voters we’ve lost that they’re on their side, that they’re not the soft Tory option.”

He dismissed loose talk, and some serious discussion in the trade union movement, about fielding candidates against Labour ministers or withdrawing funding from the party.

“I’ll take any bet now that no one will win the next election but the Tories if Labour don’t. If you don’t want a Tory government there’s only one thing you can do and that’s get Labour in,” said Mr Simpson.

“So to hell with all this let’s not give them money, or let’s start a new party because if you do any of that you might as well just go and vote Tory.”

He did not believe the looming election to be already lost, an easy thing to convince yourself of when locked away in a war conference with like-minded people.

“Our message to Gordon is this: give us the tools, say the things that need to be said, say it like you mean them and let’s overturn that Labour disillusionment.”

Save General Election night

Hats of to David McLetchie and the Scottish Conservatives for their valiant but perhaps futile campaign to save the drama of General Election night.

There are fears that a large number of local authorities will opt to carry out election counts on the day after the ballot, to save money, and not throughout the night.

David McLetchie MSP, Scottish Conservative Chief Whip, says that the long established tradition of the late night count in British politics shouldn’t be allowed to disappear.

“Overnight counting has yielded some memorable political moments from ‘did you stay up for Portillo?’ in 1997 to the moment we realised the Conservatives had won the 1992 election, when we held Basildon,” says McLetchie.

“Election night is full of drama and excitement, which is exactly what we need when there is so much public disenchantment with politics, “ says the former Scottish leader.

I agree with him but there is another aspect of 24/7 news coverage that is undermining the theatre of an election count.

It’s been evident from the last couple of by-elections - starting with John Mason’s triumphant entrance to the Glasgow East count half an hour before the result was officially announced - that the role of the returning officer has been completely compromised by e-mail, tweet, the mobile and plain old Chinese whispers.

In the old days the result is usually known at a count some time before the declaration. It was only agents and candidates who were given the figures and sworn to secrecy until the declaration was made. Now the result is known far and wide before the candidates even come to the town hall.

The technological sprint to be first with the news has already wounded the theatre of election counts and now financial strictures might deliver the knock out punch . Ach, sad day we left the Olivetti.

Brendan Barber speech at TUC - first take.

Just out from the Brendan Barber speech on the opening day of the TUC in Liverpool. The contents were well trailed over the weekend with warnings that the recession won’t be over until there is a return to full employment.

But a large part of his speech was an attack on the return of the bonus culture in banking and industry. The front page of the Guardian today showed how executive pay went up by 10% during the worst performing year of the FTSE ever.

The task for Barber and the TUC this week is to break the link all parties have made between the national deficit and the need for cuts in public services.

While bankers went back to “bonuses as usual” the Westminster consensus is that the public sector deficit is the big problem said Barber.

“Bumper bonuses are an obscene joke when it was our money that rescued the banks, and it is our public services that are now being told that they will have to face the consequence,” said Barber.

“We have to take that argument head on. A public sector deficit is inevitable in a recession. It’s a symptom - not a cause. A symptom...of the £1.3 trillion of taxpayer money now propping up the banks. The biggest case of market failure in history.”

Barber received his first applause for calling for the abolition of ID cards and the abandonment of Trident. Interestingly enough that echoes what Peter Mandelson said on Radio 4 in the morning when he said that all government spending would be reviewed.

Mandelson is giving a speech later today which is said to mark the beginning of the fightback against the Tories. In Liverpool, where they’re already in the trenches defending public services, the trade unionists will be listening carefully.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Sand, sardines and Stieg Larsson

And I'm back...from my Grand Tour of the Iberian peninsula and onto the "never ending tour" or party political conferences, starting with this early morning train ride to the TUC in Liverpool and finishing in Manchester in a month or so with the Conservatives. Do pity me.

I spent a large part of the break grilling sardines, scrunching sand and reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium thrillers. I've never really had a holiday like that before so I finished it off with some grueling walks in the Pyrennes to restore my presbyterian batteries.

The first two Larsson books are a five hotel floors above your standard thriller and I'd read them now before the third one is released and the film hits the screens.

The tragic story behind the author's posthumous success is well known now but Nick Cohen in the Observer adds some great detail about this best-selling socialist militant. Will the brothers and sisters at the TUC be as erudite and enthralling, I wonder?

Oh, here comes Wigan North West - all change for Liverpool.