The tyranny of the majorities

Two recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic argue that losing their majorities could boost the leadership of the US President and our Prime Minister.

This week’s New York Times magazine has an interesting feature on how losing his Senate majority could actually boost Barack Obama and help him to appear more statesmanlike – brokering deals rather than being expected to ram his aims through Congress at the speed of sound. He’ll benefit from reduced expectations and not be held to ransom by his own party, drunk on its own power. Indeed, the writer says that “a dialogue between Obama and a more powerful Republican minority on health care, for instance, might yield a bill that included deeper cost cuts and some kind of meaningful malpractice reform. And if a bill like that received more support from independent voters, moderate Republicans would be reluctant to oppose it.”

Back in the UK there’s a story in the Sunday Times that says that losing the next election could boost the Brownites’ hold over the Labour party. I remember reading not so long ago an interesting blog post by Harvard prof Pippa Norris who noted that when a party is defeated, it becomes less electable because it often loses its centre-ground representatives and keeps the hardliners in the safer seats – who are less able to identify what’s popular with the electorate¹. If Labour lose the next general election, Blairite rivals would be weakened because the party would swing towards its core base. Couple this with the fact that many of Brown’s rivals are standing down at the election and it’s perfectly plausible that Brownites could retain hold over their party.

¹ Near the bottom, she says: “The recent obdurate behavior of the GOP over the stimulus bill is extremely similar to that of the British Conservative party when it experienced a resounding defeat, following Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. Blair, like President Obama’s search for bipartisan solutions, sought to govern by straddling the middle ground. The Conservatives had been in power for eighteen years, and they had become increasingly out of touch with public opinion, which progressively shifted away from a Thatcherite philosophy of ever more tax cuts towards favoring management of better public services. Moreover the 1997 and 2001 elections led to the loss of the more moderate Conservatives, holding marginal seats, reducing the party to a rump of ideological true believers.

Downsian theory assumes that major opposition parties with ambitions for government will move towards the median voter in the pursuit of votes and therefore office. But any successful strategy of casting for votes requires that politicians can identify where these are located. The Conservatives thought that they were articulating popular polices against Blair, but they were stranded far from reality due to errors of selective perception. It took the experience of several resounding election defeats to bring new blood into the opposition party, moving the Conservatives in a more moderate direction under fresh leadership, and bringing a restoration in their viability in the opinion polls.”

Isn’t he doing well?

Nick Clegg has won his campaign to get Gordon Brown to appear before the Iraq Inquiry before the next election. Technically it’s a Tory effort too but like with the Gurkhas, Clegg’s been putting in the leg work at PMQs and the Tories have coasted in behind. Not only has he achieved this, him and his deputy Vince Cable are doing well at getting their message across from bank regulation to training for young people. Why? Mr Clegg is benefiting from the unofficial start to the parties’ election campaigns.

There’s an election coming up, everyone knows it. Parties know it, voters know it, and the media knows it – and they’re especially important here because they’ve got a duty to be balanced. Lib Dems always benefit in the polls when an election is called because they get more coverage – they’ve not yet got a poll bounce but they’re getting more coverage.

There isn’t an official election campaign and the official date isn’t yet known, but Labour and the Tories both started their campaigns at the turn of the new year. The media has recognised this and you can see that channels and stations are making a conscious effort to be as balanced as possible.

It’s ironic that both Labour and the Tories haven’t done so well out of their election campaign starts. The Tories have been pressured on the marriage policy, which has been given the increased scrutiny that election coverage requires. Labour had a last wobble about whether they wanted Brown as their leader and have now backpeddled on the line they were going to take into the election: Labour investment vs Tory cuts.

The Labour party doesn’t really have a strategy at the moment. Balls and Brown have been forced to express their admiration for the middle classes, but because Harriet Harman was able to barter a stronger position out of the attempt to remove Brown, she’s being given more coverage for her class agenda. The party is between two solid bedrocks of policy and instead is deciding to tread water in a gully between them. The problem this presents is that the position is too weak to build any kind of solid manifesto upon it and they’ve not got much time: there’s an election coming up don’t you know.

“Brazenly elitist”: when soundbites go wrong?

Tomorrow’s Telegraph will lead with the news that David Cameron is to announce plans to make the selection of teachers more rigorous and increase the standard of grades required to train. It’s an appealing idea, but the soundbite he’s chosen to sell it isn’t.

Mr Cameron will promise a “brazenly elitist” approach, which brings up all the wrong associations for the former Etonian. The Conservative leader dislikes his background being used as an attack against him yet for some reason has chosen here to bring it up in the minds of those who hear his soundbite.

Of course it’s hugely unlikely that Team Cameron wouldn’t have thought of that. Perhaps this is their attempt to neutralise the term and give Tory elitism a new spin. Tory staffers will have been analysing the ’08 US election campaign in the run up to the general election later this year – Barack Obama suffered from being labelled elitist first by Hilary Clinton and then by Sarah Palin. This wasn’t because of his background but because he was keen to utilise as much academic opinion in formulating his policies, a stark contrast to the previous regime and something alien to those Americans concerned with God and guns, who perhaps would have preferred policy formulated on the basis of gut instinct not empirical data. Ivy League elitism is something the Tories would have no problem being associated with.

Yet elitism draws attention to the British elite, and given that we have a monarchy, our elite therefore isn’t that of the Ivy League and academic Ivory towers but of fox hunting, private school educated aristocrats. It’s odd that David Cameron would use the image, especially in relation to schools, and I don’t think it works. Do you?

Calling the BNP “far right” or “far left” ignores its real nature

Every month or so, someone on the right will protest that the BNP aren’t a “far right” party, they’re a “far left” party. This isn’t wrong, sometimes the BNP are a far left party but it’s rather beside the point. They flit between the ideological spectrum because they only have one firm belief: racism.

The BNP are deemed to be on the right wing because right wing parties generally hold ideas of nationhood as important, whereas the left traditionally identify more with class and particular groups which are discriminated against. The BNP’s form of nationalism – discriminating against those who it spuriously defines as “unBritish” (such as English footballer Ashley Cole) – is too extreme to warrant it being called a right wing party like the Conservatives so they are dubbed “far right”.  To call both merely right-wing would be akin to grouping the IRA with Westminster Cathedral Choir School as faith groups.

Yet calling the BNP “far right” still irritates conservatives because it still associates them with the virulent racism of the BNP. They seek to distance themselves from the BNP by calling them a “far left” group, which if you look solely at the socialist element of the BNP’s national socialism, also applies.

We reach a problem that, mostly because of political point scoring, we can’t identify the BNP without irritating upstanding people on either the left or the right. There is an answer: call them “extremist” instead.  To do otherwise tries to pin the BNP down into a spectrum only useful when examining more regular political groupings.

Labelling the BNP on anything other than their racism is a misnomer as they frequently change and adapt their other policy positions to whatever they think is most politically expedient. Only their racism is a constant, and so only a label such as extremist applies. Anything else is beside the point.

Four articles worth a gander

A blogger for Reuters says “don’t give money to Haiti“. Seems shocking, but actually, the post itself is quite reasonable. He says that instead of giving money to say MSF’s Haiti project, donate to MSF. This is because these organisations are already getting enough donations to make a difference in Haiti, but won’t be able to move the excess to other worthy projects throughout the world. It’s an interesting perspective.

President Obama has written the cover story for next week’s Newsweek. He sets out why America must help Haiti, and also adds an interesting coda to the Obama doctrine he first set out when he won a Nobel prize. “But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do.”

Nick Clegg wrote for the FT on Friday trying to reassure financial markets that, in the event of a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t do anything to risk Britain’s financial reputation. What’s interesting is that he defines his plans more by what they aren’t: Labour and Tory plans, rather than putting forwards his own positive agenda first. If you contrast this with Charles Kennedy – who was the most successful Liberal leader since Lloyd George – you can see that Kennedy put forwards a radical agenda of his own, rather than seeking to constantly be in the middle of the other two parties. Clegg constantly summarises his agenda as that of “fairness”, a bland buzzword that’ll most likely be ignored.

Whilst there’s seemingly no escape from the man, Rory Stewart has written in the New York Review of Books backing Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. It’s excellent, as would befit an independent-minded expert on Afghanistan. This is his strength, but over the last few weeks there’s been a whole host of pieces trying to focus on his personal life or tedious stunts such as walking across his constituency. It’s good for him, for now, as it raises his profile but the more prominent he becomes, the more of a potential problem he becomes for the Conservative leadership. Perhaps many of the media are building him up merely to cause trouble, his criticism of previous Afghan strategy riled General Sir David Richards for one. He has the opportunity to become an irritating “character” but his ability means that he should be seen as an important commentator (at least for now).

Peter Mandelson for Foreign Secretary?

Lord Mandelson has long coveted the post of Foreign Secretary, and the current incumbent isn’t completely safe. Perhaps now is his moment?

Lord M says he instructed Cabinet ministers not to overplay Hoon and Hewitt’s plan but instead to let things blow over. David Miliband took this to extremes by taking an exceptionally long time to give a statement that didn’t actually express support for the PM.

Consequently, Miliband is unpopular because he appeared to be disloyal. Mandelson himself surely could have ended the plot earlier had he been more emphatic in his statement but he let the plot blow through and then wheeled in behind Brown on Newsnight.

Thus Mandelson remains the loyal ally and Miliband needlessly exposed himself. Lord Mandelson insists that he didn’t arm twist or persuade anyone, but if he had have, David Miliband wouldn’t have looked weak and disloyal but may have backed Brown earlier. Will the PM reward Lord Mandelson and punish David Miliband? Did allowing Miliband to stay silent benefit Brown, or was the strategy designed for something else?

This is totally unfounded, of course, but it’s fun and certainly plausible. After all, why did Lord Mandelson release such a weak statement? Why would he suggest that ministers not immediately act to quell the plot? Why didn’t he act immediately to keep Miliband on board, just as he did when James Purnell resigned last June?

Move on, quickly

That’s what the Cabinet are trying to do, it’s what Downing Street will try and do, and it’s what Labour activists desperately want their party to do.

Yet undoubtedly there will be the desire to pick through what happened yesterday. Was Nick Robinson right by saying that six Cabinet ministers pledged to give Gordon the boot, was Eric Joyce right suggesting it was two, or were they all behind the PM as Lord Mandelson suggested (it didn’t appear that way)?

And what did Darling say in his one-on-one meeting with Brown, did he really ask him to go? Iain Martin of the Wall Street Journal says yes, Sky News’ Niall Paterson quotes an aide telling him it is “categorically, unequivocally not true”.

Every journalist in Whitehall will be digging, and probably many MPs will be too. Without any other big news story, this will dominate this week and coverage could continue into next week up to a demoralising PMQs. It’s not the initial story that causes damage to the party but how long it runs. The Cabinet took too long to try to kill it and even then didn’t really so it will be very tough to “get on with the job” for a while.

The Tories will want to keep the pressure on this and will probably steer clear of any big announcements of their own. The Liberal Democrats struggle to gain coverage anyhow, and given that yesterday Nick Clegg’s Mumsnet grilling was booted into touch, I can’t see how they could distract from this story even if they wanted to.

Now that tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting has been snowed off too, it’ll be next week before they’re all together. So each will stew and pick over the events of the last 24 hours. Two weeks of an election campaign and Jack Straw says that there are only, in his guess, fourteen more weeks to go. Will Cabinet colleagues now be able to work closely together or will this issue be lurking in the back of their minds throughout that campaign – each instead concentrating on their own campaigns to be Labour leader after the election?

The coup is over, but the recriminations aren’t. Meanwhile, Labour activists will be holding their heads in the hands as their party has needlessly thrown away a strong start to the general election campaign.

PS. Not only did a YouGov poll for today’s Sun find that gap between Labour and the Tories narrowing, it concluded that the majority of voters did not think a change of leader would change their vote. And Andrew Neil today points out news that indicates that the UK has climbed out of recession. This could have been a good week for Labour, will the Cabinet now be able to cope with the bad ones?