Wednesday 29 September 2010

Lessons across the Irish Sea from Ed Balls

Good conference rabble rouser there from Ed Balls, defeated in the leadership race but well placed to be rewarded with a top job - shadow chancellor is what he wants -in the shadow cabinet.

Education was his brief in the speech but he ranged across the Lib Dems, the disappointment of Michael Gove and, he couldn't help himself, the economy. After all, this was basically a job application and love letter to the leader, but it was a good speech.

There was an interesting passage about Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, which was being held up to Scotland not so long ago as the model of economic growth an independent nation should follow.

Here's what Balls said:

"We don’t need to go back to the history books to see the warning signs
over George Osborne’s economic policy - we only need to look across the
Irish Sea.

Two years ago, the Irish Government convinced itself they had to slash
public services and cut child benefits to get their deficit down as fast as
possible and reassure the money markets.

The IMF praised the Irish government for its "sense of urgency".

And what has happened since?

Recession turned to slump, unemployment at a 16-year high, 19 consecutive
months of deflation, consumer spending and tax revenues plummeting, and the
deficit worse now than when they started.

The Irish Economist David McWilliams said this week:

"It is like watching a slow car crash. The more they cut, the more the
economy will continue to stagnate.”

George Osborne used to say that Ireland has so much to teach us, if only we
were willing to learn.

Now he's the one ignoring the lessons.

Just imagine if Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown had listened to David
Cameron and George Osborne in 2008 – and not nationalised the banks, not
cut VAT, not invested in a new jobs programme – recession would have turned
to depression and unemployment would be much higher today."

A tartan-free Labour front bench?

Have you noticed how New Generation Labour has a new postcode? Ed Miliband is a north London boy, Hariet Harman tooks afer the Del Boys of Peckham, Sadiq Khan is Tooting's popular front and Ken Livingstone is old father Thames himself.

For almost two decades the Labour front bench looked like the Earl of Bute's cabinet - it was dominated by Scots. Now there is the prospect of the top of the party being what one MP described to me today as "a tartan free zone".

The list of shadow cabinet nominees will be out today at 5pm. The Scottish runners so far are Douglas Alexander, Jum Murphy, Ann McKechin, Tom Harris and Eric Jocye. Others may decide to put their name into the hat.

My veteran Labour MP, who remembers shadow cabinet elections of the past, knows what a complete lottery the whole thing is. "Some very senior ex-Ministers may find themselves very surprised," he said darkly.

Let me translate: he means that Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander - the main organisers of the David Miliband campaign - might find themselves being blamed for the failure to win.

Alexander is used to getting blamed for things he's not responsible for - like the November 2007 election that never was, and can look after himself. Murphy is too light of foot to be caught in the falling rubble of David Miliband's career.

Ed Miliband will need at least one Scot in the shadow cabinet, or be in the embarrassing position of having to co-opt someone to be the Shadow Scottish Secretary.

Ann McKechin's name has already been linked to the post but hopefully the leader will be spoiled for choice come October 7th. Even if all five Scots, or more (lets not forget people like Pat McFadyen), make it the top table it's undeniable that Labour's centre of gravity has moved south.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The conference speech - still the measure of the man

There comes a stage in the conference season, four long weeks from the TUC to the Tories, when you run out of toothpaste, you look at the greying spectre the shaving mirror and think your body has had enough punishment for one year.

Then your realise your task is no more onerous that reporting the most important speech of someone's life, not actually having to make it. Ed Miliband, the address all typed and dusted we're told, has to put in the performance of a lifetime today, no exaggeration.

It is fascinating that even in the short snap attention span of the wifi age, the measure of a politician is a how good they can convey themselves, their ideas and their policies in front of a live audience. A sermon to the congregation is still the most important communication tool the modern politician has to master.

If you wanted to know the difference that 1.3 per cent makes, you should have been in the hall for what felt like David Miliband's swansong yesterday.

Gone was the clumsy, awkward style of the past that was marked down as a weakness while he was a putative challenger to Brown. He spoke unscripted for 20 minutes, reminding Labour and the country what it has now missed out on.

The speech was so well received in the hall that he nearly had the Labour conference cheering for the British Intelligence Service. He didn't quite manage that, but roused them on the rebound with a reference to Oxfam.

He set the bar high but Ed Miliband is the family's great orator, much better than his brother.

And this is the big moment, when he truely does step out of the shadow of his brother David, and introduces himself to Britain. The hall will be behind him, hoping with bated breat that he can prove their collective decision was the right one.

In danger of overshadowing the whole event, in fact the talking point of this strange, subdued week in Manchester, is the Jacob and Esau struggle over the Miliband birthright.

It is just dawning on this conference, in the reflected light of the shaving mirror, the extent and the depth of the family and political schism that has been created by brother setting himself against brother.

The political ramifications have still not been worked through, and they will not end with a great performance this afternoon, or if David Miliband walks away from the shadow cabinet tomorrow, as he may well do.

As Isaac said to Esau, when he lost his birthright to his brother: "yet it shall be that when you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck".

Saturday 25 September 2010

The Elder shall serve the younger

My brother points out that, as usual, the Bible has all the answers. Romans 9, v 12:"The elder shall serve the younger".

Saturday evening audiences are now used to live votes and the elimination of deserving candidates but the Labour party took reality television to a cruel new height this afternoon.

In the hall it was an incredibly tense and exciting count, going down to the wire and one percentage point in the end. "You couldn't make it up could you," one Scottish MP said to me. Neither, in the immediate aftermath, can you make a judgement but the next part of the script is already being written.

The victory speech, for an orator like Ed Miliband, was slightly underwhelming. We got the message about brotherly love and the torch being passed to a new generation but that won't be the narrative that the media or the Conservatives will be writing tomorrow morning.

They will be busy pointing out that David Miliband won the majority of the MPs, the majority of the membership, but lost 60% to 40% among the union affiliates - the "Red Ed" nightmare scenario.

Labour starts the fightback on the backfoot in the press, but hey, it would have been that way anyway. Opinion polling puts the party neck and neck with the Tories before the cuts have begun but the bookies (they called this one right) have immediately lengthened the odds on a Labour general election victory.

Brendan Barber warned that action against the cuts agenda could only happen with the support of the public. But impatient trade unionists could take action before then. Can Ed Miliband persuade the public that he is on their side, that's the most pressing question. One of his first showdowns, after he's cleared the air with his brother, might have to be with the unions.

The conference hall didn't have any measurable sense of elation after the result. It had been a long afternoon and the event, like the victory speech might have left them underwhelmed.

They say every political leader needs several shots of tremendous luck as well as skill and tenacity. On that result I suspect David Cameron was given a large dollop of good fortune this afternoon, out of all proportion to the one per centage point that separated two brothers.

Friday 24 September 2010

Red Ken is back - is it a sign for Manchester?

Labour Death Wish I is how some commentators are already describing the successful nomination of Ken Livingstone for the London mayor candidacy, which makes you wonder how they would have categorised the nomination of his rival Oona King?

Presumably the same people are lining up an Ed Miliband victory tomorrow as Death Wish II. The leadership race is so close and so complicated that no one can really call the result until the caravan draws to a halt in Manchester. All we know is that the media machine is ready with its "Red Ed" and "Heir to Blair" labels depending on which of the Miliband brothers wins.

Both can expect a great deal of doom mongering from the losing side, never mind their political opponents, but remember that there will be plenty time for a new leader to establish himself.

It's also a wee bit early to be dismissing a Ken Livingstone comeback in time for the 2012 Olympics. All the party strategists agree that 2012 is when the real pain from the coalition cuts will kick in and when the Conservatives and Lib Dems will begin to feel the electoral pinch. Ken, the man who brought the Olympics to London, might be able to capitalise on that although Boris, I hear, is working wonders in convincing the Treasury that London is a special case and should be exempt from the harshest cuts.

In that sense next year's Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly elections will take place in a phoney war atmosphere, the deepest of the cuts won't have kicked in during the campaign and the winners will the the ones taking the blame the following year.

Thursday 23 September 2010

CalMac II - the empire strikes back

George Robertson - "We are not well served by this monolith that eats up taxpayers money."

Little did I know when I rattled off a quick blog on "Bob Crow vs The Lords of the Isles" how prescient the headline would be. The Lords of the Isles, or one of them at least, just hit back - against Crow, and me.

Baron Roberston of Port Ellen - better known to most of us as the former Labour Defence Minister George Robertson MP who became Secretary General of Nato - has called to take issue with my blithe suggestion that breaking up Caledonian MacBrayne is "logistical and economic madness".

Quite the opposite, says Lord Robertson down the phone, as he puts me right on why Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited(CMAL) – the part of ferry operation which owns all the ships and piers – should be turned into a new, private not-for-profit company.

The Scottish Government is quite right to look at part-privatising CMAL, thinks Robertson, but he would go much further. He wants the entire CalMac operation examined to see if it can be done better and, if necessary, all the routes opened out to tender .(The story broke in the (paywall) Times but Hamish McDonnell has a good background piece here on the Caledonian Mercury site.)

Robertson declares an interest as a non-executive director of Western Ferries, the private company that competes with Cal Mac on the Gourock-Dunoon route, but he is also a proud Islay man (an Illeach) and thinks that CalMac has always focused on its own needs rather than the communities it sails to.

"We are not well served by this monolith that eats up taxpayers money when all over the world private ferry services are provided efficiently and at profit," says Robertson.

"The subsidy to CalMac is in the region of £130m a year and the company do not make a profit on a single route on the west coast. It is difficult to believe that on the Stornoway and Oban routes that ferry services could not make a profit. Why? Because the producer is put first, not the customer. Every route taken off them would relieve the taxpayer of that subsidy."

Properly regulated private companies can provide the service, he argues and indeed demonstrates on the Gourock to Dunoon route.

As deputy chairman of TNK-BP, the Moscow-based gas and oil joint venture, Robertson has influence that runs from the Urals to the Rinns of Islay. That scope takes in the Scottish Labour party and opinion formers along the west coast with whom he is already pressing his case.

With parties of all hues looking for any savings they can find over the next few years this might be the window of opportunity for Robertson’s radical suggestion that every route be tendered for.

This time saving CalMac might not be the kind of straightforward fight against "sell-off" that Bob Crow would relish.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Comrade Cable - in office and in opposition too

We were all assuming that Comrade Vince Cable's assault on capitalism this morning is an oh so clever ruse to show that the Lib Dems can be in government but still have their own voice. After all, the Treasury and Downing Street have seen and approved the speech he's due to give to the Lib Dem conference so the Tories don't mind him going out on a limb to prove his Liberal credentials.

It's not quite that crass, Cable has long thought that untrammeled corporate greed often works against the long term interest of company shareholders and society. He wanted to take action when he was in opposition and now he has the chance to do it. How much of his rhetoric and the bold move to launch a "consultation" turns into hard policy remains to be seen.

The boss class have described his speech as "odd" and "emotional" in advance and it's been left to the trade unions to ride to his rescue. Labour say it's time to decide Vince - are you in government or opposition?

We've just had the one hour advance copy dropped into our in-boxes and it looks like a very humorous and clever speech, possibly the turn of the week and worth staying on in Liverpool to hear.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Bob Crow vs The Lords of the Isles

Not content with raising the barricades against the ConDem government's planned assault on public spending Bob Crow, the RMT's fiery general secretary, has decided to take on Caledonian MacBrayne.

Crow, a union leader so militant that the right-wing press would have to invent him if he did not already exist, has called on the Scottish government to end speculation that CalMac will be split up and some routes privatised.

Breaking up the state-owned ferry service that runs to 24 west coast ports would be logistical and economic madness. Not only are the ships and routes interdependent and able to substitute each other in the event of breakdown or maintenance, many of the lifeline services do not make a bean of money and would be left to wither on the vine as high volume routes are picked off. Twice before attempts to break up the company and privatise it - an idea on no one's political agenda except civil servants in the Scottish Government - have been seen off.

This time Crow is onboard and although he divides opinion there is no doubt about his determination to defend the pay and conditions of his union members.

The RMT, a maritime union as well, will be stepping up the pressure to save Scottish ferries at a public meeting tonight at 6.30pm at the Oban Royal Hotel.

Ahead of the rally Crow said: “The CalMac Hebridean and Clyde Ferries are a vital part of the transport infrastructure of Scotland and we are asking for an absolute assurance from the Scottish Executive that there will be no cuts on any of the routes currently operated."

“We know that cuts and privatisation are top of the political agenda as we move into the autumn and we are sending out a clear warning that any attempts to axe or sell off CalMac services will meet with fierce resistance from RMT and the wider labour and trade union movement in Scotland."

Fighting talk, as usual, but taking on the government or London Underground is not the same as taking on CalMac. Remember Bob, that little sung verse from Psalm 24:

"Unto the Lord belongs the Earth
And all that it contains
Except the Kyles and Western Isles
For they belong to MacBraynes"

Monday 20 September 2010

Scottish Lib Dems go toe to toe with Tories

The Scottish contingent of Lib Dems, who had their reception with Nick Clegg last night, seem to be in fine fettle in Liverpool.

Sure, Holyrood leader Tavish Scott (the man most likely to be deputy First Minister in a few month's time) had to put some clear yellow water between himself and the Tories in his speech yesterday. He smothered Charles Kennedy in respect by echoing his call for a considered approach to cuts in Scotland.

Scott explained afterwards that he meant while cuts are inevitable, we all accept that, the Scottish parliament has considerable scope to determine how they will be executed.

Despite their natural Grimmond Liberal reservations about an alliance with the Tories and a realignment to the right they are loving it that their party is in government.

Think about it, until last May the Scottish Labour Party virtually was the Westminster government. From Alexander to Darling and Brown and Murphy - the frontbench was a Scottish artery into the heart of government.

Now it's the Scottish Lib Dems who have all the access to Westminster power and decision making. If a Lib Dem MSP now has a Westminster bone to pick, he or she could pick up the phone to Dover House, where their pointman Michael Moore is Secretary of State for Scotland. Or they could call Alistair Carmichael, the government's deputy chief whip to organise face time with a Minister. If they're really stuck the Scots Lib Dems could call the Treasury and ask to be put through to Danny Alexander.

This kind of "working in government" theme is what you can expect the Scottish Lib Dems to develop as the Holyrood election approaches. They have their people in Whitehall, plugged into the decision-making process, they'll say.

These Scots cabinet Ministers will be paraded as the Lib Dems next year, although that could flip the other way if the Westminster coalition becomes deeply unpopular as the cuts come in.

Either way, they seem to be settling in to what the coalition offers them just now. They'll keep that arms length distance from the Tories, like school hall pupils learning to ceilidh dance, and pump up the role their own Scots in the cabinet for all they are worth.

You know Lib Dems are being taken seriously when...

As I left my conference hotel last night to pound the sodium-washed, rainsoaked sidewalks of Liverpool the bar was filling up with a veritable rogues gallery of lobbyists and PR people.

There's the BaE representatives, is that a senior PR for Marks and Sparks? You know people are taking the Lib Dems seriously when the big industry lobbyists send their panzer divisions into town.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Clegg looks across Mersey to a Promised Land

William Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme, philanthropist, industrialist, Liberal. He set up Port Sunlight as a social experiment.

Yesterday in Port Sunlight they celebrated the birthday of Lord Leverhulme, the 20th century industrialist who tried to build a utopia on the banks of the Mersey.

His model village for workers producing Lux and Lifebuoy in the Sunlight soap factory was an early experiment in a new kind of social and political system.
This afternoon, on the other side of the river in the Liverpool Echo Arena, Nick Clegg will have to work hard to persuade sceptical Lib Dems that his political experiment in powersharing with the Tories has been a good idea.

His leader’s speech - the first of this conference season in a completely altered political landscape - is going to be a balance between pride and persuasion.

He will thank delegates for holding their nerve during the coalition talks, he will plead with his followers to keep the faith, and urge them to keep their eyes on the far horizon.

In other words, it will be the usual Moses and the Promised Land stuff that party leaders lean on when they know they are facing a long journey through an electoral desert.

Clegg sees the coalition deal as a long game and holds out the prospect of rewards for his party if they see through the cuts agenda, wipe out the deficit and take the British economy to the sunny uplands by 2015.

He will argue that the Lib Dems were right to go into power with the Tories as voters would not take them seriously if they had turned down the opportunity. There is, he will tell his party, no other direction to go in except to march with the Tories into this valley of unpopularity and through to the other side. In fact there are several forks in the road on this long march.

One of the big waypoints will come with the election of a new Labour leader in Manchester this Saturday. It will be the political fulcrum on which the conference season and the rest of the political year will swing on. Depending on who the Opposition leader is Lib Dems will be offered an alternative prospectus, perhaps even a tempting offer, to walk on the other side.

Next May will be the all-important referendum on AV voting, which is Nick Clegg's to lose given that many of his coalition allies and large elements of the Labour party will be campaigning against a yes vote. It will also be the beginning of a new financial year of stringency not seen before in peacetime Britain.

The cuts process may have picked off some stragglers by then but next year will mark the point of no return, when the Lib Dems know there can be no retreat, that their fate is bound to the Tories.

It will also be the first litmus test of coalition politics with the Scottish Lib Dems facing the voters in the Holyrood elections, just as the cuts start to bite. Some of the long marchers may be lost then too, although I suspect the Lib Dem MSPs are quite resilient.

So it will be next year, not after today's speech, or this week's conference that we’ll know if Clegg’s high risk experiment with his party is working.

William Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme, a lifelong Liberal, might have been impressed with Clegg's the bold move. There may even be a lesson from across the Mersey.

After all, when Lever built Port Sunlight he merged with another company to form Unilever, the modern multinational that is still selling us soap today.

NIck Clegg underpants a big hit in Liverpool

The Lib Dems have started arriving in Liverpool for their first conference in government and security is far tighter than most delegates have been accustomed to in the past.

This poor chap I met on Crosby beach last night was stripped to his Nick Clegg underpants to get past the barriers as quickly as possible. (The armbands are because they're still learning to swim in government)

Saturday 18 September 2010

Kennedy scores against Treasury

In Liverpool for the opening of the Lib Dem conference. Nick Clegg is due to address a rally on AV reform in an hour or two. Among the invited guests will be Charles Kennedy, the former leader who earlier this week called on the coalition to put the brakes on spending cuts.

That's not likely with the war talk coming from fellow Highland MP and Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander in interviews today, and a pre-brief of his speech for Sunday.

At least Kennedy scored a result against the Treasury this afternoon in Inverness. In the Camanachd Cup Final it was Fort William (Charlie's home shinty team) 3 Kingussie (Danny's constituents) 2. Sin thu fhein a' Thearlaich.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Highland Lib Dems get their collars felt

Just in case Charles Kennedy thinks he's done enough to placate his constituents by murmuring discontent about the coalition cuts agenda the other day there's a cracking editorial in the West Highland Free Press to remind him how much more he must do to oppose the government.

Focusing on the plans to privatise the Royal Mail the Free Press rails that a private company "will be free to charge 20 or 30 pence for a letter delivered within Glasgow or London, two, three or four times that amount for delivery from Glasgow to Kyle of Lochalsh". In short it is " a disgraceful initiative" says the Free Press, which seems to be atoning for giving Kennedy such an easy ride at the general election.

In its leader page the paper points both barrels at all the Highland Lib Dems, claiming it can hear Gladstone birling in his grave as they auction their Liberalism on the alter of Tory cuts. Take it away, Rog..

"If you refute that principle in so basic an amenity as the mail, where do you stop? Or rather, where next do you start - by surcharging the west Highlands for health, for policing, for education?

Interestingly, this is purely a Liberal Democrat proposal. It is not, like so many others, a Tory policy with Danny the LibDem lapdog trotting along behind. It comes from the office of the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, Mr Vince Cable.

Twickenham is unlikely to suffer from the abolition of the uniform postal charge. But no fewer than five of Mr Cable’s colleagues - nine per cent of his party’s parliamentary strength - represent the Scottish Highlands, which will be hurt more than anywhere else in Britain by Vince Cable’s big idea.

Vince Cable’s fellow LibDem MPs dominate the north and west. From Badenoch to Dunvegan Head in Skye, from the Mull of Kintyre to the northern tip of Unst in Shetland, with the single exception of the Western Isles we are represented at Westminster by Liberal Democrat MPs. They are all we have.

They now need to ask themselves some serious questions. They campaigned for election on a platform of protecting services in this region. They vigorously opposed privatisation of the Royal Mail, and even more furiously condemned the idea of variable charging.

We know that Danny Alexander of Inverness and Alistair Carmichael of Orkney and Shetland have sold their souls for position. We do not know if much goes on in the heads of John Thurso of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross or Alan Reid of Argyll and Bute.

But like much of the rest of the country, we are waiting anxiously for Charles Kennedy of Ross, Skye and Lochaber to stop bleating, climb down from his elaborately contructed fence and oppose government measures which he knows to be both unnecessary and uniquely damaging to his constituents.

Are you - Kennedy, Alexander, Carmichael, Thurso and Reid - going to sit tight in the name of some unholy union with the Tories, while the people you represent are singled out for surcharging simply because of where we live? Gladstone will be turning in his grave."

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Hands off 'wur Airfix aircraft carriers

Well, Ian Davidson MP did ask for two aircraft carriers, "and none of your foreign rubbish", for his birthday last week at Prime Minister's Question Time. It now looks as if his wish, or at least half of it, has been fulfilled by Shadow Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy.

The campaigning pair were on College green earlier today with the Airfix solution to the Defence Spending Review which threatens the £5bn carrier contract.

The issue was raised at PMQs again this week, by new MP Tom Greatrex, who asked for a meeting on concerns that the carriers contract will be cut or axed all together.

Cameron batted that one to the MoD - "a snub" shouted Labour - and Michael Moore, the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary, went and spoke to Defence Secretary Liam Fox (another Scot) about the defence industry.

There's going to be a lot of dancing around these carriers over the next few weeks until the Defence Review is published.

The carriers are something of a cause celebre for Davidson. When the Herald's Mike Settle, sketched last week that the Glasgow MP must go to sleep in his aircraft carrier pyjamas, reading aircraft carrier weekly, he couldn't have imagined how close to he was to the truth. Someone only went out and bought the MP carrier patterned pjs - or so he claims anyway.

Personally I'd need the proof. I think we have to see a picture of Davidson doing a jig in his carrier bedwear when he finally saves the two carriers for the Clyde.

UPDATE: Davidson does have two aircraft carriers. The other model is kept in his constituency office because, as he said today, after Pearl Harbour no two aircraft carriers should be moored in one port ever again. Still no news on the pyjamas though.

It has to be Dave, say pollsters and bookies

The bookies William Hill say 80% of bets since the weekend have gone on Ed Miliband which has helped shorted the odds on him becoming Labour leader to 7/4.

It's an old tactic, to put a big wodge of money on your candidate to change the odds as the race comes to an end. If you win, you win big, and if you lose, well, the tears get lost in the rain.

Behind the hype David Miliband is still 2/5 on to win the race and the former Foreign Secretary is the Labour voters’ choice to become the next leader of the Labour Party, according to a ComRes survey for the Independent.

He is more than twice as popular than his nearest rival, his younger brother Ed, when voters are asked to name their preferred candidate; who would make the best leader of the opposition; the best prime minister and have the best chance of leading Labour back to power.

The poll, conducted amongst more than 1,500 people who have voted Labour at least once since 1992, found that David Miliband was also the most likely of the five Labour leadership candidates to win over wavering voters and people who backed Labour in 2005 but switched to the Liberal Democrats or Conservative Party this year.

The poll evidence was a strong counter to claims by Ed Miliband’s team that they “felt” the election moving their man’s way as the race entered the final stage. There was no sign of that apart from reports that some Labour MPs had shifted their vote to Ed without telling Dave, and without telling us either.

True or not the cold stats from Comres show David Miliband is the preferred choice of 26 per cent of Labour voters, compared to 11 per cent for his brother; 8 per cent for Diane Abbott; 7 per cent for Ed Balls and 5 per cent for Andy Burnham. Some 44 per cent replied “don’t know.”

The former Foreign Secretary enjoyed a bigger lead when people were asked who would make the most effective leader of the opposition. Thirty per cent said David Miliband; 12 per cent Ed Miliband; 7 per cent Ed Balls; 5 per cent Diane Abbott and 4 per cent Andy Burnham.

According to ComRes, David Miliband is by far the most popular candidate among people who voted Labour this year.

He is the preferred choice of 31 per cent of them, while 12 per cent opt for his brother; 8 per cent for Abbott and Ed Balls and 5 per cent Andy Burnham. Significantly, 40 per cent of people who voted Labour this year believe David Miliband is most likely to get Labour elected to Government, well ahead of his brother on 11 per cent.

The result of the vote will be announced on Saturday 25th September at the beginning of the Labour conference in Manchester.

ComRes interviewed 1,569 Labour voters online between September 3-10, 2010. Respondents were UK adults who have voted for the Labour Party at least once at a general election in the last 20 years.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Leadership latest - Tories back Ed the Younger

Almost everyone's mind is made up on the Labour leadership but when the five candidates appeared at the TUC last night for another hustings it was standing room only.'Elf and Safety monitors blocked your correspondent from attending.

More interesting than what any of the famous five had to say is what Tory high command is praying for a week Saturday. Philip Stephens, writing in the FT, offers an insight into Conservative thinking.

He writes: "Ed, the younger Miliband, who could yet win as everybody's second choice, has offered mostly mush – policies and promises calculated to make the party feel good about itself and about his candidacy. Few of the voters who deserted Labour at the election will be persuaded by a declaration that he was against the Iraq war ...

"By choosing David Miliband, Labour would be saying it wanted to win back England's aspirant classes – that it was still serious about power. But the party's heart could yet rule its head. Mr Clegg – and Mr Cameron – are cheering on the younger of the two brothers."

As Dennis Skinner said, it's David the Tories fear.

Charles Kennedy starts cracking the coalition

The first public signs of the strain the coalition deal is placing on the Lib Dems came this morning with Charles Kennedy MP speaking out against the proposed cuts in public spending.

It is a first move, though significant enough to merit the front page of the Daily Record. (Which in turn led to the paper getting a mention on the Today programme -how often does that happen?)

In parliament yesterday fellow Lib Dem Bob Russell chastised George Osborne for "unethical" cuts to the welfare budget. These are cracks in the vase, the opening shots in what will become the battle for the soul of the Liberal Democrat party.

I don't expect there will be blood on the carpet at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool next week. A bit like the TUC here in Manchester it will probably have a phoney war feel to it. The serious stuff comes when the cuts start biting next year.

Despite his personal life leading the headlines of late Kennedy remains a substantial political figure and a key player in determining the future of the Lib Dems.

Kennedy says he is reluctant to become an irritant, sniping at the government from the sidelines. But with Cameroonian outriders like Tory MP Nicholas Boles already calling for an electoral pact between the parties, the Highland MP may be stirred to defend his Jo Grimmond, left-of-centre, Liberalism from appropriation

Kennedy has lots of experience of party mergers, remember he started in the SDP and was one of the first movers for the creation of the Liberal Democrats.

It should also be remembered that it was during his time as leader that the party managed to gain a record 62 MPs and 22% of the vote, much more than Nick Clegg achieved on the back of his TV debate exposure.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Pensions and poverty powderkeg issues for TUC

Not even Bob Crow, the media's favourite left-wing militant, was going to take the bait on questions about a general strike against government cuts today, although that didn't stop us all from asking.

The line from all the union leaders, as we settled into Manchester and the TUC conference with a day of press briefings, was that general strikes against government policy is illegal but woe betide the coalition if government policy comes looking for trade unionists.

The preferred euphemism for union resistance to the cuts is "co-ordinated action" and the tinderkeg issue, that could see several public sector unions simultaneously, is reform to public sector pensions.

That's what took French workers onto the the streets in their thousands last week and the unions made it clear that any challenge to British pension rights could have the same effect. So far, all that is agreed is a national demonstration sometime befoe next March, but other work is ongoing.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, the civil service union, said that co-ordinated strike action with other unions like Unison was already being planned on issues like cuts in public sector pensions.

Serwotka said: “If the government announces a big hike in our pension contributions and a cut in our pensions scheme we are absolutely clear that every union affected should ballot for action together. You have a better chance of defending yourself like that.“

He added: “I think that industrial action on a large scale is inevitable unless the government changes direction.”

This is the first TUC since the new government came in and the mood seems serious. But the unions are holding back a lot of their fire until the October spending review and meanwhile emphasising their role as defenders of the poor and the vulnerable and going some way to countering the myth that cuts are "unavoidable" and somehow all the fault of the previous government.

Brendan Barber highlighted research showing how the planned spending cuts will make Britain more unequal, hitting the poorest 13 times harder than the rich.

But it was Serwotka, again, who showed the passion. He said: "The tone of the debate is actually disgusting. Millionaires lecture us on 'lifestyle choices' about living out of work - they are living in a bubble of privilege."

"It is not a lifestyle choice it is a depressingly real for them when there are 500,000 vacancies and 2.5 m out of work it is a bleak reality."

"To blame them is one of the worst things. We want to defend members, yes, but we also want to defend and stand with the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled who deserve better than they get and could not bear the brunt of some vicious cutbacks.”

“The militants in all of this are the right wing ideologues who are attacking the welfare state.”

Yes, that scraping noise you heard was the sound of battlelines being drawn.

TUC attack on Academics (subs pls chk)

Just what is it that the TUC has against university lecturers?

I suspect stall 49 at the TUC conference in Manchester will become the Anti-Academies Alliance by the time it opens for business tomorrow morning. If not it will be terribly embarrassing for the National Union of Teachers on the next door stall>

Darling toasts Blair and warms his own memoirs

Alistair Darling's review of Tony Blair's Journey in Saturday's Guardian turns out to the be the calmest and most even handed reaction to the tome yet.

He disagrees, very politely, with Blair over the need to cut the deficit immediately and suggests that his critique of Labour's response to the financial crisis is off-beam.

Darling writes: "He is wrong to suggest that those of us who supported a Keynesian response to the economic crisis thought "the state was back in vogue". It is an incontrovertible fact that in times of such crisis only the government can step into the breach. That is quite a different thing from suggesting that the state should do everything. Some may take that view, but many of us don't. And to characterise Gordon as having taken that view is wrong."

Well, Darling should know - he was there for the banking crisis and Blair wasn't. All of which just whets the appetite for the Edinburgh MP's own account of that momentous journey begun in the autumn of 2008 when he predicted the worst financial crisis in 60 years.

Darling said last week that after 23 years on the frontline of politics he was going to take a year out and is expected to stand down from the shadow cabinet. Pity, over the summer only he and Ed Balls have made a fist of defending the party's record in office and countering the Tory/Lib Dem narrative that the deficit is a result of the Labour government's decisions rather than the biggest economic crisis in a generation.

Still, if he gives us a good book, I suppose we can excuse him duties for a while.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Davidson steals PMQs from defensive Clegg

Happy Birthday to Ian Davidson MP and congratulations on bringing some wit and cheer to what was in danger of becoming a sombre and dull Prime Minister's Questions.

The Glasgow South West MP encapsulated his favourite themes - defence jobs in Govan, his renowned anti-Europeanism and his own cheeky self - in a great off the cuff question to Nick Clegg, who stood in for David Cameron while the Prime Minister attends his ailing father.

Davidson raised an immediate laugh when he asked if the Deputy Prime Minister was aware that today was his birthday.

He went on: "Would he agree to give me a present of a couple of aircraft carriers. None of your foreign rubbish, I want British ones, and I don't want to have to share them with some French bloke. If he had it Monday to Wednesday and I had Thursday to Saturday and we share weekends we'd have to get the permission of the Child Support Agency if we wanted to make any change to that."

He finished with a flourish: "All of this could be paid by cutting our contribution to the European Union."

The Lib Dems, anxious about the performance of their golden boy, and even the grouchiest of Tories had a laugh at that.

Clegg was happy to give him a gift but not quite in the size or shape he had requested.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Stornoway - the brand, not the band.

A blog I drafted on holiday but didn't have the know how to post until now

I'm in H&M, in Marseille as it happens, and an over-familiar song that I don't quite recognise comes over the sound system. As I am at an age when trends pass with the speed of the French TGV train that took me here, I'm about as familiar with pop music as the stock of fashion stores. So, it's no surprise that I can't name that tune.

There's something oddly persistent about the melody though, something personal that I can't quite put my finger on. Then, third verse in, it dawns on me why the music feels so hardwired - I'm listening to Stornoway, not the place, but the Oxford indy band who've gone to the verge of being very big by trading on the name of my home town.

The band has no association with the place, apparently they just liked the
name and it worked for them. "I saw you blink", the track I heard, is a fairly harmless piece of balladeering.It was the memorable power of the name that made me recall the performers.

And as I stray out of the shop along the quays and alleyways of this port city I start to wonder if we've done enough with Stornoway, the name, as a brand.

Stornoway - it's easy to pronounce, delightfully so, memorable, familiar from the top left corner of every weather report. And, rather like Marseille, it carries an echo of maritime heritage and seafaring romance across the oceans as a global waymark and a safe harbour.

For us maws, who grew up beyond the pale, it's hard to think of "Coatbridge on Sea" as the Mercedes Benz of the Hebrides, and for some it has associatoons with presbyterianim and nothing else, but marketing men would pay good money for the kind of product associations that the name Stornoway can stir.

The band, who've decorated their album in suitably oceanographic iconography, aren't the only people to stumble across the marketable quality of the town. You can have your Landrover Freelander in "Stornoway Grey" (silver really), and though it's ankle-biting cut isn't for me there is a Stornoway suit in Derick Walker's Harris Tweed collection. The famous Stornoway black pudding has already blazed a culinary path and is heading for EU protected status. There's branding to build on.

If it sounds daft to try and create a quality image on the back of a harbour name remember the luxury cachet of Dunhill began by being associated with humble car covers.

So, perhaps it is time to think again before stamping everything out of the Western Isles with Outer Hebrides, Innse Gall, Na Eilean Siar or suchlike when a far more powerful brand, albeit not an entirely Gaelic one, lies dormant at our doorstep.

Footnote: Check out Jay Rayner's review of Digby Chick in last Sunday's Observer which compares the Stornoway restaurant to an outpost of Islington. One day, maybe.

Meanwhile I hear that the Criterion, Stornoway's best bar which is two doors along from Digby Chick, is for sale. It wouldn't take much to turn it into an understated outpost of, er, Stornoway. A fireplace, an upstairs lounge, and some Hebridean tapas is all it needs.

Monday 6 September 2010

Coulson - bad news when the spin doctor becomes the story

Back at Westminster for a two week period that will see the bill on AV voting and constituency reform pushed through the Commons, and probably ambushed in the Lords.

The Scottish angle isn't just that the proposed referendum will be held on the same day as the Holyrood elections. The equalisation of constituencies without public appeal could see up to eight Scottish seats disappear, most of them in urban, Labour held areas.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland have been guaranteed by the deputy Prime Minister that they will continue as distinctive and tiny constituencies.

Cameron is breaking of paternity leave to cast his vote on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill tonight but, hey, why should we worry about policy today.

Most of the parliamentary drama will be around Home Office Questions and an emergency question tabled by Alan Johnson over the ongoing News of the World phone-tapping scandal.

Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's Communications director, was really the only subject raised at today's parliamentary lobby. The Prime Minister's Spokesman was asked if Mr Cameron "entirely believed" Andy Coulson's denials that he knew nothing about phone-tapping at the NoW while he was editor.

The Prime Minister should worry, as someone asked at lobby, that Coulson "has become the story". Survivability comes to down to whether there are further revelations and any moves against Coulson from either the Lib Dems or the Tories. Either way the Prime Minister's judgement is called into question for taking Coulson across the threshold of 10 Downing Street.