Monthly Archives: September 2013

Jim Pickard

If there is one persistent theme throughout the Tory conference it is the over-use of the word “hard-working” to describe the general public. Or rather “hardworking”, with no hyphen.

The phrase is not entirely new: Tony Blair was a big advocate as early as 1994 as he sought to redefine Labour as a centre ground party.

But here the word is being flogged to within an inch of its life. In its relentless, over-powering, repeated use one can detect the hand of Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist/lobbyist who has sharpened the Tory message in recent months.

Take Owen Paterson, environment secretary, who promised to support “hardworking rural communities”. He had struck a deal with insurers over flood protection that would “help with the cost of living, enabling hardworking people to access insurance,” he claimed.

Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, sprayed the phrase around at least four times. Under Labour “hardworking people didn’t stop travelling”, he said. “Ask those hardworking people whose trips to work are quicker and smoother already.” And he would Read more

Jim Pickard

Labour has been convulsed with in-fighting after Lord Mandelson criticised Ed Miliband’s new policies such as the plan to freeze energy prices for 20 months after the election.

The influential peer, who was one of the founders of New Labour, told the Guardian that the public perception of Labour was “in danger of being taken backwards”.

He urged the leadership to return to his “industrial activism” approach to working with companies.

But Caroline Flint, the shadow energy minister, defended the energy freeze – the most controversial element of Labour’s new package of policies.

Ms Flint, who is seen as one of the few Blairites in the shadow cabinet, also took issue with Read more

Jim Pickard

An American tech entrepreneur who survived a double lung transplant is the brains behind a new software tool which is being increasingly used by British political parties as they seek to harness the internet to win elections.

Just as the internet has transformed the way people work and shop and interact, it is now changing the way that politicians court the public for their votes.

Electoral software based on vast databases have slowly replacing the chaotic old system of strips of paper with names of voters typed out in long lines.

And the latest models are combining social media with electoral data to allow candidates to reach thousands of voters – and know whether they are genuine supporters – with more ease than ever before.

Los Angeles-based NationBuilder – set up by Jim Gilliam, whose unusual medical operation took place six years ago – is a technology start-up which hopes to become the Read more

Ed Miliband’s comments on energy in his Labour party conference speech on Tuesday have profound implications for policy. The immediate focus will be on the suggestion of a price freeze lasting until 2017. The industry will no doubt focus on the implications of cutting profits and the question of what happens if world prices rise. Some might also suggest that a hard freeze will not only deter new investment, but also lead to some companies exiting the business with the net effect of reducing competition. Mr Miliband clearly believes there is profiteering but he has not published the evidence. The Labour leader should and there needs to be a full competition inquiry. It may well be that if there

 Read more

Jim Pickard

While Labour’s promised freeze in business rates will help many small companies in April 2015 – and plenty of large ones as well – the move will not exactly be transformational for struggling companies.

The idea that the saving (estimated at around £400) does not exactly seem enough to make a small firm take on a new member of staff on its own; contrary to briefings by Labour.

The big change that many tenants have instead been demanding is a revaluation of business rates to reflect the post-recession landscape.

The last valuation of commercial properties was at the height of the boom, since when there has been a major divergence of fortunes across the country.

Rental levels have stayed roughly the same in affluent areas – such as Mayfair retail – Read more

Kiran Stacey

Ed Miliband made one of his earliest passages in today’s conference speech a paean to the green economy. Having reportedly forgotten to mention it in last year’s similar no-note speech, the Labour leader made sure he got it in early this time.

He told the conference:

You see some people say, including George Osborne that we can’t afford to have an environmental commitment at a time like this. He’s wrong, we can’t afford not to have an environmental commitment at a time like this.

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Elizabeth Rigby

There may have been 180 MPs at the Conservative party’s away day at Chipping Norton’s Crowne Plaza but even the most mischievous of them were in lockdown over the event, instructed by the pugnacious Lynton Crosby not to reveal anything about the polling information or campaigning tips discussed at the heavily guarded event on Thursday.

The attendees were not even allowed to talk about their smart casual dress; the pasta and Caesar salad lunch; the game of football on the lawn. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick CleggOne of the interesting things about the new fixed-term parliamentary system is that it gives leaders a time period of several years in which to frame a narrative. Before 2010, parties existed on a constant war-footing, ready to go to the polls at any time if the circumstances dictated it.

Now, those both in opposition and government know that the election is years away and they can wait before going into election mode. That, coupled with the fact that most of the coalition’s central policy platform is now under way, gave Nick Clegg a rare chance to be circumspect today.

We were told that the Lib Dem leader’s conference speech would be “his most personal ever” – usually words that make the stomach turn. But for once, this part of his speech was handled well, if a little too lengthily. He told the hall: Read more

By John McDermott

Nick Clegg wants all primary school children in England to receive free school meals. On Wednesday, the deputy prime minister will announce that from September 2014 an additional 1.5m kids will be eligible for free food. He would eventually like it if all school children aged 11 or under were eligible.

The policy is being viewed as a response to the “cost of living”, a refrain that will become familiar throughout the party conference season. Of course, there is politics involved; a common occurrence in political speeches. But to see free school meals only through the prism of living standards is simplistic. Quite a lot of policy announcements concern living standards.

 Read more

Elizabeth Rigby

Most of the political class have spent the past few days watching a Vince Cable and Nick Clegg battle for position at the Lib Dem conference. But when they return to Westminster tomorrow they will find another fight underway over who becomes deputy speaker of the House of Commons.

The post, vacated by Nigel Evans after he was charged with a series of alleged sex offences
against last week, must be filled by a fellow Tory. Those poised to throw their hats in the ring include Brian Binley, a right-winger and leading light in the 1922 backbench committee; Sir Roger Gale, a grandee who has spent three decades on the benches as MP for Thanet North; and Eleanor Laing, Downing Street’s preferred choice. (Also Nadine Dorries is said to be interested.) Read more

Kiran Stacey

David Laws stood up this morning and reminded the Lib Dem conference about the first party conference he went to, in 1994. That gathering was quite a bit more turbulent than the last week has been, he reminded delegates:

Some of you may well remember it : a debate on legalising drugs, then another backing provision of state regulated brothels; followed shortly by a row over plans to abolish the monarchy, all culminating in Paddy Ashdown doing what the media called “storming off the stage.”.

This week has been characterised more by a series of set-piece showdowns between Nick Clegg and either his members or Vince Cable, almost all of which he has won. One interpretation of this is that the Lib Dem leader has moved his party decisively to the right, and that they are now a serious party of government willing to accept the compromises that the leadership says come with that. Read more

Elizabeth Rigby

Just to pour a bit more controversy over the Conservative Renewal conference (where Tim Loughton made his comments about Sarah Teather) Robert McLean, the chair of the Windsor Conservative Association, was also forced to put out a curious statement. In this he disavowed comments from George Bathhurst, Windsor councillor and a organiser of the conference.

Robert McLean, Chairman of the Windsor Conservative Association, said:

Windsor Conservative Association (‘WCA’) wishes to make clear that it wholly dissociates itself from recent comments made by George Bathurst in relation to the Conservative Renewal conference that do not reflect the views of WCA nor our member of parliament.

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Elizabeth Rigby

Tim Loughton on Saturday made an astonishing attack on Sarah Teather, accusing the former families minister of not “really believing in family” as he remarked that she “certainly didn’t produce one of her own”.

Mr Loughton, who worked with Ms Teather in the education department before they both lost their jobs in last year’s reshuffle, made the remarks in a debate on promoting the family at the Conservative Renewal Conference in Windsor.

He told the audience that Ms Teather, who has announced she is stepping down as a MP in the next election, was a “huge disappointment” in office.

“The person who was actually in charge of family policy amongst the ministerial team at the DfE was Sarah Teather. Which was a bit difficult because she doesn’t really believe in family. She certainly didn’t produce one of her own. So it became a bit of a family-free zone. I think that is a huge disappointment,” he said.

One Lib Dem minister on Monday described his remarks as “shocking”.

Mr Loughton made the remark as he was discussing the problems he had promoting marriage and family within coalition government, clearly annoyed at the Lib Dems opposition to marriage tax breaks — a policy that his party has finally got the government to back in return for getting the gay marriage bill through parliament.

His remarks in a session on “marriage and the family –how do we hold onto the family, in Read more

Jim Pickard

Britain has spent more than £33bn on military campaigns overseas over the last 20 years according to the government’s own data – with the vast majority of that money spent on the Afghan intervention.

The debate over what to do in Syria in recent weeks has focused mainly on the human and political costs: both of intervening and not intervening. More than 600 British troops have died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Advocates of action have argued that it would have saved countless Syrian lives.

But with Britain in the grip of fiscal “austerity” – and more spending cuts seen as inevitable in the coming years – the cost of further military actions would be relevant.

The public have been consistently opposed to Syrian intervention, with fewer than one in five voters believing Britain should join the US in strikes according to ICM.

David Cameron, in the August 29 Syria debate, said he was aware of the “deep public scepticism” about war, saying it was “linked to the difficult economic times people have had to deal with.”

Ministers have never put any figure on how much an intervention in Syria might have cost. Past guidance by governments on military action have often been an under-estimate.

Francis Tusa, editor of Defence Analysis, says there is usually a “conspiracy of optimism” Read more

Kiran Stacey

“Given his tendency to treat rebellion like a reluctant bather inching his way into the sea at Skegness, it made sense to push him right in at the outset, on the grounds that he’d run straight back to his towel, and not try again for at least six months.”

These words were written by Damien McBride, the Gordon Brown spinner, about David Miliband. (I would link to his blog but he’s taken it down – almost as if he has a book coming out.)

But they could easily have been written by anyone from team Clegg about Vince Cable, who this morning backed down from his overnight threat to rebel against the leadership on the economic motion that has just been debated at Lib Dem conference. Read more

Kiran Stacey

As we head towards next week’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, the party’s big beasts are making themselves visible, lining up to point out the great Lib Dems successes of the last three years, and more importantly, to attack their opponents.

One thing that is worth watching is who is attacking which opponent. Over the last two days, two prominent Lib Dems have given very different interviews to the New Statesman which help crystallise a battle that might yet determine which government we have in 2015.

In the left corner (as it were), there is Tim Farron, who told George Eaton thisRead more

Kiran Stacey

David Cameron

This brief stint when parliament returns from its summer break only to depart again two weeks later for party conferences is a slightly strange innovation. Its main purpose is to help the government get through its agenda (the lobbying bill is being pushed through parliament at the moment, for example), but it also helps set the mood of all three parties as they head towards their annual get-togethers.

For a leader who has enjoyed a relatively good summer, it is a chance to use that as a rallying point and gain extra momentum before conference. For one who has had a difficult one, the emphasis must be on scoring a couple of quick hits to give the troops some hope at least.

Ed Miliband has had a difficult summer, as a complete lack of direction from Labour HQ saw the government dominate the news agenda. But he was given a reprieve in the form of the prime minister’s botched Syria vote, which made it appear briefly that Miliband was more influential in forming foreign policy than the prime minister. Read more

Jim Pickard

Labour and the Tories are both already taking some credit for the fast-evolving situation at the United Nations, where Russia is seeking an initiative to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

The rapid diplomacy in New York has seen the US put on hold plans to take military action in response to the chemical weapons attack last month that Washington claims killed more than 1,400 people.

So, presuming that Syria does go ahead and hand in its chemical weapons – which is a big if – whose position is vindicated: David Cameron or Ed Miliband?

(The negotiations are still on a tripwire with Moscow and Washington disagreeing over whether to maintain the threat of military action against Damascus.)

Don’t be surprised if the counter-arguments come into sharp focus at prime minister’s questions today.

David Cameron will claim that only the threat of military strikes against the Assad regime Read more

Jim Pickard

Unions are likely to keep their substantial voting powers in internal Labour decisions indefinitely after Ed Miliband’s spokesman played down the idea that these reforms were ever likely to take place.

Mr Miliband is currently pushing through reforms which will end the automatic affiliation of 3m union members to Labour, instead inviting them to sign up to the party individually.

That reform is likely to see a plunge in the number of union members paying small subscription fees to Labour every year.

As a result some party insiders had raised the prospect of a reduction in the 33 per cent Read more

Jim Pickard

The unions seem very angry at Ed Miliband’s proposed funding reforms. Why would Labour want to alienate its comrades?

Ed Miliband won the leadership as a direct result of the votes of union members, heavily encouraged by their general secretaries. Proving that he is not “Red Ed” is seen by some aides as a tactical necessity. Read more