Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wounded at Dunfermline

Labour got hammered in the Dunfermline and West Fyfe by-election. The safe Labour seat went Liberal Democrat, despite that party’s problems over the last few weeks and despite the close involvement of premier to be Gordon Brown. All are surprised, and the parties and pundits are grappling to discern the significance of the result. It’s a by-election, so nearly all explanations are valid: local factors; low turnout; voters knowing they wouldn’t change the government but wanting to protest and so on. In all of this some things are clear: people did want to protest and Gordon Brown is not the overwhelming force that Blair was at his height. Otherwise local difficulties could have been swept away by Labour chosen political message of government success now, and in the future with Gordon.

The problem for the government is two fold. In the short term bad by-elections make MPs nervous for their own electoral prospects. Now couple that with crunch votes in the commons on ID Cards and Terrorism this week and there is at least a small chance of a crisis. The longer term problem is Brown as Labour’s Plan A after Blair. Dunfermline might mean they need a Plan B.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Brown's Flag

A cohesive nation needs a national identity. It cannot be a collection of separate communities, each with their own completely separate values and beliefs. This is, or should be, common sense. Of course, it hasn’t been. Britain has had a cultural cringe that led to our own national flag being appropriated by the Far Right without anyone batting an eyelid. The good news is that attitudes are changing. The bad news is that the government is making a hash of it. They seem to be trying to build national identity while simultaneously restricting the freedom of speech, and thought. The idea seems to be that if no group can offend any other group then somehow they will all come together. Or at least glower at each other in silence.

Amid all of this Gordon Brown wraps himself in the Union Flag. His motives, at least, are clear. He is Scottish, very Scottish in fact. He is going to have an electoral problem in England, especially now that there is a Scottish parliament. The Saltaire and the Cross of St. George are no good to him. He needs the Union Jack.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Kennedy, truth at last

Charles Kennedy has finally come clean. He's an alcoholic. The dramatic announcement was designed to pre-empt the press, so it wasn't an unprompted bout of honesty. It also means that Kennedy has systematically lied to a very wide range of people on the subject for years, including many of his own colleagues. His announcement was coupled with defiance on the leadership question, with a leadership election involving all of the party membership in the offing.

Will it all work? Kennedy calculates that he will win a ballot of the entire membership, as opposed to the MPs where the result would be in doubt. He also calculates that his admission will elicit sympathy from many people. I am not so sure about his mathematics. Many of his MPs will be furious, and he had major problems there already. His serial dishonesty about drinking will wreck his credibility with the media and the press will probably not be kind. Both pressures could yet force him out. The nightmare for the Liberal Democrats though might be that he is right. Suppose he wins a ballot of Liberal Democrat members? Much of the parliamentary party does not support him. Ask the Tories what it is like if the members pick a leader the MPs cannot work with.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

If not Brown then who?

When Blair steps down then Gordon Brown will smoothly assume the leadership of the Labour party and the prime ministership, at least that is the assumption. Things might not be so simple though. On a basic political level it is no longer clear that Labour would get a boost from a Brown leadership. In fact at least one poll has suggested that they would slip a few points. Back bench Labour MPs sitting on marginal seats do pay attention to such things. Then there is the actual leadership process itself. Would Gordon Brown be the only candidate? Hardly likely, at least there would be a candidate from the left and then there is a contest, not a coronation. Would the number of contestants stay at two? Hardly likely, unless Brown was clearly an overwhelming electoral asset, and he isn’t. Finally there is the worst kept secret in British politics, that Blair and Brown can’t stand each other. Tony Blair hands over the highest office in the land to Gordon Brown? Hardly likely.

If not Brown, then who? This is the question. Blair’s cabinet are a pretty undistinguished bunch or at least cabinet discipline had prevented members distinguishing themselves. If any one of them is serious about succeeding Blair they will have to start organising at some point, and standing out from their colleagues. More likely Blair’s successor isn’t in the Cabinet, but in the junior ministerial ranks, today a comparative unknown. After all, there is a recent precedent for a younger, lesser-known candidate unexpectedly getting the top job.