Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Tory fumbles put Labour back in the race

As I wrote my last piece a week ago, things were looking pretty rocky for Labour. But, as if to give me a bit of come-uppance, we immediately proceeded to have a very good week.

First there was a poll which, in the wake of the TV debates, saw Miliband’s personal polling jump from -49% a couple of months before, to +3%, a quite extraordinary recovery and above Cameron’s for the first time. Given that leadership (of which I guess this is some kind of crude measure) was one of Labour’s two big weaknesses, the other being the economy, this is very encouraging news. Also Labour’s party polling has nudged a little higher, although probably not enough to be significant.

Second, the Tory campaign, aided and abetted by the Tory press, has been in disastrous form. After being forced to defend Britain’s anomalous “non-dom” tax status for rich people in a nifty bit of political footwork by Labour, they then proceeded to unleash a set of personal attacks on Miliband. However, so clumsy and inept were the attacks, that they seem to have had an entirely counterproductive effect. Most spectacularly useless was the Daily Mail, which splashed on Miliband’s ex-girlfriends, thereby converting Miliband from wonkish nerd into an unlikely "lad"; or, as my friend Anthony Painter put it, from "being Wallace to James Bond”.*

Finally, its Millbank HQ panicked, and started releasing all kinds of uncosted spending pledges, notably £8bn for the NHS, on which Labour politicians and indepdendent-minded journalists alike gleefully seized, thus painting the party of supposed fiscal rectitude briefly, at least, as the party of fiscal idiocy.

All in all, a terrible week for the party for whom the election was really theirs to lose. Good.

A few words of caution, however:

1. It’s by no means over, and this welcome burst of strength may well not be enough to tip the scales. Bear in mind a large part of it is down to Tory failure.

2. Cameron has come 
right back this week with a trap on “right to buy” council houses, which Labour looks extremely likely to fall into, thereby setting itself (yet again) against the aspirational classes.

3. 1992 should still be borne in mind. The then phenomenon of “shy Tories” – people who vote Tory but refuse to disclose this to pollsters – could yet confound Labour’s expectations that polls will carry through to parliamentary seats.

4. We should not forget that, as my friend John Rentoul is fond of pointing out, Cameron is the “essay crisis prime minister”. He gets too relaxed at times, but also has a habit of performing well when the pressure is truly on. It now is.

5. Scottish Labour is still facing a meltdown.

Labour is back in the race, but that race is still far too close too call.

*Wallace of "Wallace and Gromit" fame, of course.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Labour: on the verge of a historic victory, or partying like it’s 1992?

Carter USM's 1992 album - at least one
good thing that happened that year.
The short campaign has finally kicked off. Not that that usually makes much difference, and particularly not when we have all known the date of the election for the last four years. Perhaps fittingly, no party’s campaign has so far exactly knocked Britain off its feet.

In polling, Tories and Labour have been showing as neck and neck for some time, with each main party in turn delighted when a poll says it is a couple of points ahead. But within any measure of what statisticians call “standard error”, these polls tell us little.

In other words, any difference of this size – a few per cent – could just as easily be explained by the inaccuracy of polling as a predictor per se, as by a meaningful trend. In this strange, Alice-in-Wonderland world where the tossed coin seems to land on its side, we have to make our judgements using less obvious, but no less compelling, means.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Horse-trading in Halifax

Union money: “the cleanest in politics”, as some Labourites are fond of describing it, a little misty-eyed. To be fair, sometimes it is. There are decent unions who donate money because they actually want a Labour government. On the other hand, the cliché is that business donations always come with strings attached.

Let’s decide which of the two the following is.

Exhibit A: the Halifax selection, where Len McCluskey’s friend Karie Murphy was working hard, with the backing of the considerable weight of Britain’s largest union, to be its MP. The Sunday Times (£) wrote a couple of weeks ago that her place on the shortlist was being horse-traded for a previously-pledged donation of £1.5m 
(£) to Labour’s election fund. Surely not?

After her failure to be shortlisted by the party’s Special Selections Panel, there were two possible outcomes: that Unite’s donation would then be delivered, and that it would not be delivered. Naturally, the outcome couldn’t possibly related to the Halifax selection. We’re talking about the cleanest money in politics, after all.

Oddly, the Telegraph reported last week that “a senior Unite figure said the union could withhold any further funding for final two months of the campaign and demand Miss Murphy is allowed to run for another seat this election.”

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Falkirk, the sequel: Halifax

Last weekend, an interesting news item came up in the Sunday Times (£): the comeback as parliamentary candidate of one Karie Murphy, office manager for Tom Watson MP (and "friend", or possibly former friend) to Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Britain's largest union (see Centre Lefts passim).

You may remember that Murphy was suspended from the party and later reinstated after serious allegations of fixing in the selection process in Falkirk.

Murphy, it seems, has now set her sights on becoming the next MP for Halifax and, to this end, has applied to be on the shortlist for Halifax. 

For those not familiar with Labour's selection process, this close to an election the process changes, for very good reasons. The party cannot afford a long drawn-out process prejudicing the outcome, therefore a Special Selections Panel (comprised of members of the party's NEC) decides the shortlist, the local party votes on the shortlist and, hey, presto: a candidate is chosen. This of course give the national party more say than usual in who gets on the shortlist.

The big question now, of course, is: will Murphy be on the shortlist or not? The Sunday Times reports that Unite is putting in question whether or not it will make good on its pledge to make a £1.5m donation to Labour, depending on whether Murphy makes it onto the shortlist; meanwhile Ed Miliband is, to his great credit, reportedly resisting such a grubby deal, despite the potential hit to Labour's finances.

It is pretty astonishing that, less than a year after Unite's actions triggered perhaps the greatest shake-up ever in Labour's relationship with its affiliated unions, that it should have apparently learned so little from the Falkirk fiasco, and been so brazen in trying to strong-arm Labour.

But let's apply a little logic to the situation - the Sunday Times could be wrong, after all. There are three realistic scenarios:

1. If Murphy is selected and the donation is made, it is difficult not to conclude (given his reported resistance and previous stance on Falkirk) that Miliband has buckled. The Unite-pledged donation, for reference, is estimated to make up just under one-fifth of Labour's entire general election war-chest.

2. If Murphy is not selected and the clearly-pledged donation is not made, it will then be obvious that a threat was not only made but carried out. Yuk.

3. The only scenario in which Unite comes out with its reputation intact would be if Murphy is not selected and the donation is still made.

Let's see which of those happens. At the moment there seems to be a standoff, but if I were a betting man, I'd wager it won't be 3.

UPDATE 16 MAR: According to the NS, Murphy has not made the shortlist. So it is option 2 or 3. Let's see which one it turns out to be.

Oh yes, and Channel 4's Michael Crick quotes a Unite source as saying of Harriet Harman, the panel's senior member: "She'll have to answer for her actions in due course."

Knowing Unite's well-documented propensity for turning up with flash-mobs at people's houses in order to intimidate them, one wonders what this might signal.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Six reasons why Labour should rule out an SNP deal

There is a rule in electoral pact-making, and pretty much any card game, which is fairly universal: don’t show your hand to the other players.

That is, don’t rule anything in and don’t rule it out. You have nothing to gain (you can fritter away your negotiation leverage when agreeing the pact) and everything to lose, in the event that you find yourself in a different situation from that expected and have to eat your words. Obvious, really. Wait until the moment comes and deal with things when you have all the information.

But it could also be argued that there one sensible exception to that rule: if the mere hint of a pact with another party could be damaging to yours even before the election. Especially when things are balanced on a knife-edge and almost anything could affect the result.

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