A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Get rid of pointless Labour

Britain's Labour government has taken another blow to their attempts to seize the next election, this time by civil service workers. First Division Association has blasted Brown's leadership as dysfunctional; Jonathan Baume, of First Division Association (FDA), told the Guardian No 10 was seen as a "blockage" because of indecision from the prime minister. Some ministers had "given up" and civil servants were starting to informally prepare for a Tory government, he said. A Cabinet Office spokesman told the paper it generally got its role right. The FDA represents 18,000 senior civil servants, policy advisers, diplomats and government economists. Mr Baume, who has been FDA general secretary since 1997, told the newspaper the dysfunction he perceives is partly political and organisational. "No-one is clear how the Treasury, the prime minister's office and the Cabinet Office actually loop together and come up with a coherent policy initiative." he said. "When Gordon Brown became prime minister, no clear direction ever emerged from him." He said there was a "government by announcement", with new policies unveiled without a clear indication of how they would be funded at a time when departmental chiefs were looking at how budgets could be cut by 17%.

There was a sense of malaise at the political level, with some ministers already focusing on what would happen after the election. A Cabinet Office spokesman told the Guardian the role of the centre of government was to set the strategic direction, provide co-ordination and maintain the standards across government, while departments take leadership on specific issues. There is always room for improvement, but we believe we generally get the balance right," he said. The mood for rebellion clings to the political atmosphere, with both Labour and Tories set to slash public sector jobs dramatically. The institute's report is full of civil service speak – things such as "silos", "cross-cutting agreements" and "strategic capacity". It even discusses what the well-bred mandarin should do when faced with a "trilemma". But it is outstandingly well-informed and correct in many of its judgments. It is in essence a plea for long-term focus and clarity at the top of government. As Mr Watt's book shows, these are impossible to achieve when politicians or officials fall out. Unless the people at the top can agree what they want, they will fail. There are lessons for both Mr Brown and David Cameron in that.

The unavoidable starting point must be to accept two related facts: that Gordon Brown will (barring some unforeseen cataclysm) be the party's leader on election day and that whatever his private promises he will not change a jot. The awkward Brown who served as chancellor, the timid Brown who hesitated before calling an election in 2007, the commanding Brown who took charge in the financial crisis and the stubborn Brown who has faced down three inept coup attempts are all the same complex man. His party and the country know his weaknesses. Now Labour had better dig out some confidence in his strengths. Labour's days of importance may be ending. Soon the party may be able to fight as many battles over personality as it likes, in the obscurity of opposition. For now it should concentrate on making a case for re-election. It has done this badly so far, which is partly Mr Brown's fault and one of the reasons people wanted to get rid of him. But the failure is wider: an argument based more on horror of the Tories than anything positive. Even on the public services, which might be a strong card, the party veers erratically between matching the opposition on cuts and promising unbelievable (and imprudent) new schemes and spending increases.

Yet the economy could be a strength. It may even lie behind Labour's real but modest recovery in the polls. There was no great depression. Unemployment is much lower than had been expected. Growth will surely return when the GDP figures come out in a fortnight. These things matter more outside Westminster than Wednesday's 12-hour political snowstorm. The government is evasive about the implications of cutting debt; it needs better answers to the overheated Tory charge that Britain is going bankrupt. But it certainly has a case to make about the past and present. What it needs now is one about the future. Every Labour MP should ask him or herself what they think is wrong with Britain and what they can do to help fix it. Securing the recovery, the current ambition, will remain simply a phrase unless it is connected to some idea of how spending can be cut, and economic growth achieved, in the decade to come. Peter Mandelson attempted this on Wednesday, but his speech was lost in the plot. Ministers insist that the government is not short of ideas. But they struggle to pull them together. They have a few months left in which to do it - otherwise Labour will enter the election heading for defeat, and deserving to lose.

I personally can't wait for the day this lying, tax raising and wasting, lacklustre government of the talentless with its 'stuff the workers, support the shirkers' mentality finally achieves the obscurity in politics it so richly deserves. Never in the history of politcs has so much been fiscally squandered by so few for the benefit of people who simply don't deserve it. And that also goes for the super-rich allowed to add more to their coffers whilst failing to give a second thought to the less fortunate. Ever since Blair changed the Labour Party constitution it has become a rudderless, morally defunct wreck drifting around with no direction, crewed by gutless, trough feeding suits and opportunists seeking power for only what they could make out of it. At least with the Tories we know what their philosophy is, for the rich and priveleged by the rich and priveleged. What amazes me is how the same has occured under Labour, and how they can both con so many working and middle class voters into electing them. The good has been hopelessly intermingled with the bad, so that transformational improvements in funding for the NHS have been accompanied by meddling micro-management and ideologically-driven privatisations.

Much of the New Labour hierarchy has been singing from an essentially Tory hymnsheet for so long (with the rank and file membership bound and gagged in a cupboard somewhere) that it's no wonder the party has lost its own authentic voice. Wooing the voters with vacuous ideologies and empty promises has become the premise of both Labour and Tories over the last decade or so; many voters I've talked to have pledged not to vote at all, and I don't blame them a jot. Let's be blunt and get to the core issue. The expenses scandal hot on the heels of Brown's crass disposal of the dreadful Blair, and then his assorted boom/bust and referendum lies proved beyond all doubt that most MPs are utterly unprincipled pygmies on the make. They grab as much cash as they possibly can whilst in the Commons, and then expect to sit back on some EU sinecure or other, or wallow in the Lords or head up a quango or two. Not to say that life will be any better under a Tory government, in fact I fear it could well be the same. Or possibly even worse though I have to raise doubts about how they can top Labour in barrel-scraping ineptitude in running the country competently.

The overidding issue we all face is the state of the public finances after a decade of gross mismanagement by Labour. How is the country ­going to cope? After the first two weeks of the election campaign, a general weariness sets in. Another five months, and there won't be problems of overcrowding in Britain; come election day the voting stations will be empty because most people will have fled. The root problem is that even in a democracy, we yearn for leadership; and we are really getting none. Gordon Brown would protest that he's taking "big decisions" and is unpopular because he doesn't duck them. David Cameron's claim to be a big "L" leader is highlighted in thousands of new Conservative posters in which his airbrushed, pink balloon face smiles out from road junctions and in shopping centres. So why this empty, tired feeling of mild, headachey despair? Oddly, given how different they are in background, age and temperament, Brown and Cameron share some leadership traits. The first is a gap between how they try to appear in public, and their real selves. If there is a word which Brown would choose to describe himself it would be "brave" or perhaps "decisive". Yet the more we learn, most recently in the resign-and-tell memoirs of the former Labour general secretary Peter Watt, the more we see a narrative of indecision and dither.

Cameron, meanwhile, would like us to see him as frank. He never stops talking about how open and honest he is, how ready to confront us with difficult choices. Yet when you drill down a bit, when it comes to the big-ticket spending cuts, he disappears into an amiable mist of imprecision. With his PR gurus, polling, focus groups and smoothie-chops advisers, he is constantly positioning. The second trait is a problem with team leadership. That is most obvious on the Labour side, with the rancorously bad relations between Brown and his colleagues. He has fallen out with so many that it is clear the problem is him, not them. Only his own weakness after the latest botched coup has ensured that Labour has something like a team again – with Mandelson, Harman and Darling the obvious winners. But the confusion about exactly who is running the election will return, it always does. On the Tory side, there's a similar problem. Cameron is not a team player. He has a cabal, a cluster of friends, with whom he feels comfortable. The echoes of early Blair are obvious. A wider range of Tory voices, including senior people like William Hague and Ken Clarke, aren't really in the loop. As with Brown's attempts to create a bigger tent, those approached by Cameron ask themselves whether they'd have real influence; and often conclude they wouldn't.

Cliques around leaders are hardly new; nor is the jealousy they inspire. Think of Harold Wilson with his kitchen cabinet, with Kagan and Marcia and co. Think of Margaret Thatcher with hers, including the Saatchis, Tim Bell and Alan Walters. But in the past this tendency has been kept in check, and challenged, by parliamentary politics. There have been big figures and groups in the Commons whose word counted. Wilson and Callaghan had a stream of ministers – Jenkins, Crosland, Castle – with their own parliamentary base. Thatcher destroyed the wets, but she could never dismiss the popularity of Heseltine, and took care to visit the tearoom. Major faced the power of the Tory Eurosceptics, and even Blair struggled with Iraq war dissent. Today, by contrast, we have a hollowed out, demoralised and politically vacant Commons scene. Labour's organised groups have all but disappeared. None of Brown's rivals has serious support among MPs. After the expenses scandal, Conservatives, like Labour, are more often thinking about retirement or a new career. One under-reported consequence of duck houses and flipped homes is that the party leaderships have almost free rein. Compare the ease with which Cameron ditches inconvenient commitments – with barely a squeak from the Tories – to the trouble Blair had in the mid-1990s as he was creating New Labour. Even with a huge majority he ran into opposition from the left of the party and the unions.

So we have uncertain leaders, relying on background advisers and a shattered legislature, whose discredited members no longer challenge them. The result is a lack of real argument on big issues. We are back to the timing and precise size of deficit reduction, to parties all saying they want to preserve frontline services and spend more on conventional military. After the failure of Copenhagen, there has been no call to arms over climate change, no mainstream debate about how lifestyles must change. Where are the big figures calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan? Who is making the case for further taxes to protect the welfare state? With Europe put to sleep as an issue, where's the discussion about a referendum, and who's making the case for the euro? Without wading into any of these issues, surely the point stands that they should be at the centre of our politics; ­instead we get brittle, trivial and very boring election positioning. This minister is up, this one down; Steve Hilton swore at a man in a railway station; Brown was grumpy at a dinner party; maybe Cameron has been airbrushed. And it's going to go on, and on.

We have to remind ourselves that it can often feel this way at the fag end of a long-lived administration. The election will bring an unprecedented clear-out of MPs. Their replacements will have the energy and authority of the freshly elected. I hope plenty have strong views, and the self-confidence that comes of having done another job, reasonably well, before entering politics. Labour will be shaken up from head to toe, and may have to contemplate some kind of alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The party desperately needs a big, many-sided and lengthy leadership contest that is mostly about ideas – strategy, but political philosophy too. And the Tories? They will have a hard time, even with a working majority. Cameron is good on television, and in press conferences. He has what it takes to win an election. But does he have what it takes to govern in turbulent times – being genuinely unpopular, yet making people want to work for him? I am much less sure, but I think we will find out. By June at the latest, the world will look very different. All we have to do is somehow get from here to there. Now … where was that passport?

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