Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ten reasons why Jeremy Corbyn should be the next Labour leader

It may shock some but I think there are some good reasons why I think Jeremy Corbyn should be elected Labour leader:
  1. Age. If elected Corbyn will become leader at the age of 66, the oldest person to become a leader of a major UK wide party since Michael Foot at 67 for Labour and Neville Chamberlain at 68 for the Conservatives & Unionists (and he was almost the last senior figure for whom the full name was critical). A Corbyn leadership would be a marvellous antidote to the obsession with youth in certain quarters of politics and broaden the field for consideration in other parties.
  2. The beard. Beards have been out of fashion in politics in recent decades with New Labour especially practising a virulent degree of pogonophobia. To find a significant leader with a beard (well on their face) you have to go back to the Edwardian era when Lord Salisbury and Keir Hardie were the last leaders of their respective parties to sport them. By making Corbyn their leader, Labour would help bring beards back into the mainstream.
  3. The cap. Headgear is often absent in politics with only George Galloway's distinctive fedora (which now seems to have been surgically attached) and Paddy Ashdown's meals getting much comment lately. But Corbyn has a wonderfully distinct cap - I believe it's called a Breton Cap - that's a gift for the cartoonists. It's time to expand the range of caps and hats in politics.
  4. Clothes. Corbyn is a functional practical dresser. A tale is told of how burglars broke into his house and actually turned down his red blazer. Not for him the ridiculously expensive tailored suits worn by some Labour politicians. If he were leader the image consultants would have a nightmare - and that's no bad thing.
  5. Cycling. Boris Johnson's term as Mayor is coming to an end in less than a year and he'll either drop into a lower profile or end up in a more security conscious ministerial post of the kind that discourages such open access. There'll be an opening for the position of most prominent cyclist in politics. As Leader of the Opposition Corbyn would be perfectly placed to fill it.
  6. The polls. It can't be much fun being an opinion pollster at the moment. Everyone keeps bringing up the general election and won't listen to explanations about the difference between opinion polls and exit polls. Even away from politics "What would you know?" is a constant response and there's not much opportunity to rebuild reputations before the elections next year. A Corbyn victory would allow opinion polls a chance to get something right this year.
  7. Bookies. It's a sign of just how much the Corbyn bid has surged that initially he odds as low as 100 to 1 or even 200 to 1. If he becomes leader a lot of bookmakers are going to have to pay out rather more on this contest than they were expecting.
  8. Parliament. There is a long history of hardline socialist MPs having a greater impact outside Parliament rather than within it. They tend to go round the country making the most memorable speeches at rallies and protests instead of within the Commons. It's high time to change that and have the case for socialism made in the Commons, and from the despatch box to boot, where the immediate audience will be more diverse and where the arguments can be responded to directly.
  9. Islington. This borough has a reputation for metropolitan liberal chattering class politics practised by those sitting around at trendy dinner parties and looking down with undisguised contempt on the hard working classes. This reputation has not been helped by a number of political developments, including the borough's other MP being Emily Thornberry, and has even led to Newsnight investigations as to why the country is so out of touch with Islington (erm shouldn't that be the other way round?). But whatever else you can say about Corbyn his brand of socialism is not the chattering class dinner party champagne socialist style and his leadership would allow the borough to show it's more diverse than that.
  10. Taking leadership elections seriously. Corbyn was nominated because a bunch of Labour MPs felt it was important to have a debate with the hard left of the party and give it a ritualistic slaughter. They expect Corbyn to do about as well as Diane Abbott in 2010. (They also forgot that Abbott's candidacy attracted members to vote who would otherwise have not bothered and it was their transfers that ultimately gave Ed Miliband the edge.) They never expected a great surge to the point there are now groups organising around a simple Anyone-But-Corbyn line. Nobody expected the supporter option to attract all those #ToriesForCorbyn or #TrotsForCorbyn (and there are even Conservatives trying to sign up Trots for Corbyn). To a Conservative this looks bizarre - when we have our next leadership election nobody is going to think the process is somehow incomplete without the presence of an Edward Leigh, Philip Davies or Nadine Dories on the ballot paper. A Corbyn victory will be a wake-up call to take things seriously and only nominate candidates you actually want to see as leader.
So go on Labour, make him your next leader!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Lib Dems - Lambs to the slaughter or just Pointless?

The Liberal Democrat leadership election hasn't really taken the country by storm. There hasn't been a particularly bizarre candidate nominated solely in the hope that a thrashing by the members will shut them and their followers up. There hasn't been an unresignation by Nick Clegg. There doesn't seem to have been much debate about actual policy or attempting to determine what is the Liberal Democrat answer to the questions of the day.

In fact all I've really noticed are:
  • Norman Lamb has drifted into being the classic candidate for whom nearly every speech could be summed up as "Noun, verb, [Single subject]". Yes mental health is important and yes he was an outstanding minister at the Department of Health, but one almost wants to ask "So Norman, apart from mental health...". Is he just playing one bit of his record or something else? It reminds me a bit of Chris Huhne's leadership bid in 2006 when at times it seemed he was really seeking the Environment portolio (in the days before Climate Change was split off) at least until scandals and performance doubts engulfed all his rivals. But if Lamb wants to be the party's Health spokesperson then surely the post would be his for the asking?
  • Tim Farron seems to have spent the campaign alternating between an over-enthusiastic self-righteous type (well he is seeking a post first held by Paddy Ashdown) and going all defensive about his faith and voting record. There are people of faith in all parties but the Lib Dems have a particularly strong secularist tendency that is unforgiving of voting records on certain issues. But also Farron seems to be wriggling on technicalities when his voting record was being brought up as early as 2010 when he first stood for the deputy leadership and then the party presidency.
  • For the most part Lamb is backed by ex-ministers and party grandees whilst Farron is mainly backed by MPs who were on the backbenches in the Coalition (including all the ones still in the Commons) and various left-leaning liberals although there are some exceptions in both camps.
  • And there was an incident with some Lamb supporters employing "push polling" techniques to spread attacks on Farron to members. Lamb had no awareness of this but as a key criteria for a leader is the ability to keep control of one's supporters it doesn't reflect well on him.
And that's mainly it. But there are some potential jokes for whichever is elected leader. Lamb has already made one about his wife Mary and their children - "Mary had a little Lamb". If he's elected leader then we'll get lots of lamb jokes.

Tim Farron may be either praising or cursing an edition of Pointless from a couple of years ago. One of the rounds was on Lib Dem MPs elected in 2010 and 100 members of the public had one minute to name as many as possible. This unscientific process found that even Vince Cable was named by less than one in five. But many MPs fared worse (I don't know how Lamb did) with Tim Farron being named by nobody at all. Yes Tim Farron was Pointless.

(Being unknown during the Coalition may be an advantage or not. On the one hand they would be a fresh face. On the other hand having rebelled on something unpopular the party did is more useful when people noticed you doing it at the time.)

Soon we'll find out who the new leader is and where they'll try to go.

The problems of the Lib Dems

With the Liberal Democrats declaring their new leader today, it's time to take a look at the mess they're in.

Five years ago, I asked "Nick Clegg - Sir John Simon or Sir Herbert Samuel?" It is now possible to provide an answer. And it is neither, though more Samuel than Simon.

In one regard, Nick Clegg has succeeded incredibly by holding his party together. There were a total of 58 MPs in the last Parliament - 57 elected in 2010 and a replacement in a by-election. At this past general election just one of those MPs stood as a non-Lib Dem - Mike Hancock who was expelled in a scandal and whose re-election bid was unrelated to a coalition split. A scandal also accounted for the only Lib Dem MP to resign mid-Parliament, Chris Huhne. Ten MPs stood down at the election, mostly long standing and/or elderly members, though Sarah Teather's retirement on political grounds was a sign that all was not well.

This is an impressive achievement compared to previous coalitions that saw the Liberals shed MPs either through defections to non-government parties (this happened even during the Churchill coalition in the Second World War) or due the party's departure failing to take all its members with them. There was no grand split with MPs forming an anti-coalition faction around someone like Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or Charles Kennedy. In this regard, Nick Clegg succeeded better than all his predecessors.

However, in nearly every other regard Clegg has taken the Lib Dems to a catastrophic failure.

(In one though, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Lib Dems. He had an ambition to make the Lib Dems like the German Free Democrats. The FDP have since been wiped out of the Bundestag.)

Many explanations have been put forward but the fundamental problem is simple - the Liberal Democrats do not have a clearly identified distinctive raison d'être and a core vote based on that. I know someone will start posting the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, but such position statements are fairly generic and in any case the preamble is not exactly widely known.

Over the years the Lib Dems have been all over the place, ranging from asserting a centrist position on the political spectrum to being to the left of Labour to radical free marketers. At a local level the situation is even worse with the party's trumpeted "localism" manifesting as a "whatever gets your vote gov" approach that has meant the party has become even more incoherent, with Lib Dems varying wildly across the country and sometimes even in the same district. Tristram Hunt is clearly biased but his piece from six years ago The Lib Dem power failure reflects how many from other parties look on in utter bewilderment as to what the Liberal Democrat vision in local government is.

And then there are two tactics that yes they are used by all parties but which the Lib Dems have turned into a fine art form. There's the demonisation of rival candidates for being insufficiently local, even when the Lib Dem candidate's own local credentials are questionable (e.g. a councillor from the far end of the borough from the constituency claiming to be more local than the sitting London Assembly Member). And there's the resort to tactical pleas with the whole "can't win here" that have squeezed rival parties. Both may deliver in the short term but neither have really converted the voters into long term Lib Dem supporters.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in the long term (and many in other parties hope they don't) they need to articulate a clear vision of what their party stands for to the public at large and grow a core vote around this vision. Their new leader has to start somewhere...

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How many leadership elections?

I've recently been asked a few questions about leadership elections by people from other parties and none. They seemed to assume as a Conservative I would know a lot about them.

But let's remember the record on all this. The last Conservative leadership election was in 2005. In the time since the other parties in the Commons have had leadership elections as follows: [1]
  • Labour are now onto their third leadership election.
  • The Liberal Democrats are also on their third leadership election.
  • Ukip have had three leadership elections plus the unresignation of Nigel Farage.
  • The English & Welsh Greens didn't even have a post of leader in 2005 but have since created one and had two leadership elections.
  • The Ulster Unionist Party have had also had two leadership elections.
  • So too have the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
  • The Scottish National Party have had one leadership election.
  • As has the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • Plaid Cymru have had one leadership election plus a set of rule changes to work out who the leader is. [2]
  • Even the sole Independent MP, Sylvia Hermon, has sort of had one as she left the UUP to go independent in 2010.
  • Only Sinn Féin have had a longer period without a leadership contest and they don't even take their seats.
It's a remarkable change from the period 1995-2005.

[1] I've excluded formal re-elections of the incumbent unopposed as each party has different rules and this would skew things.
[2] Plaid Cymru didn't have a clear position of "leader" until 2006 and this became a problem when Ieuan Wyn Jones stood down as party President in 2003 with none of his colleagues in the Welsh parliament standing for the position, creating a separate election for group leader which he won. This led to a period of confusion about who was the "leader" of Plaid until 2006 when a constitutional change made the Sennedd group leader the overall party leader.


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