26 July 2008


OK, I know Glasgow East was a very bad result for Labour, but can we have a bit of perspective, please? It is not unprecedented for a governing party to suffer spectacular mid-term by-election defeats in apparently safe seats – and then go on to win general elections.

Most recently, Labour managed it in 2005 after the 2003 Brent East by-election, which the Lib Dems won with a swing nearly 30 per cent from Labour. And the Tories pulled off a similar trick in 1992 after the disasters (for them) of the Mid-Staffs, Eastbourne and Ribble Valley by-elections, in March 1990, October 1990 and March 1991 respectively, in all of which there were swings of more than 20 per cent from Tory to Labour (Mid Staffs) or Lib Dem (the other two).

Which is not to say that Gordon Brown should stay or that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds for Labour. But now is a time for keeping your head when all around are losing theirs – and working out how Gordon can be persuaded to go quietly some time next year.

Update I notice I chose the same headline for this post on Glasgow East as Luke Akehurst chose for his. Which goes to show either that great minds think alike or that no one can resist an obvious cliche.

25 July 2008


Bah, the fishheids beat us. It means rather more than previous Glasgow SNP by-election victories because the tartan Tories are now in charge in Holyrood, it says a lot about how general disillusionment with the government has spread – and it speaks volumes of the hopelessly complacent organisation of the Labour Party in its supposed Scottish heartlands.

The last is hardly new: I remember reports of safe Labour constituencies in Glasgow with tiny inactive Labour parties 30 years ago. The story of the sitting MP who tells the keen raw recruit: "Don't worry about canvassing round here, laddie. We put out an election statement then I do a tour on polling day in a loudspeaker car," might well be apocryphal, but it's not far from the truth as it has been for several decades: Labour's desperate high-profile campaigning efforts in Glasgow East were notable largely because they contrasted so dramatically with the norm.

In two years, the success of the SNP in one of the seemingly strongest of Labour strongholds might in retrospect be seen as a seismic shift, a pivotal moment in Labour's decline and fall in Scotland - mix your metaphors as you like. As for what it means for Gordon Brown right now, however, I don't think it makes a lot of difference. A Labour win would have done him good, but the narrow defeat after a recount is hardly a massive humiliation. I could be wrong, but Glasgow East suggests a lot of scenarios for the next two or three years, not many for the next couple of months. Unfortunately.

23 July 2008


The Guardian ran a great piece by Ed Vulliamy this morning, reminding us that Radovan Karadzic was considered sole legitimate representative of the Bosnian Serb people by Britain and France at the height of his powers. The Times, meanwhile, treated us to the thoughts of David Owen, one of the guilty men in the Karadzic appeasement disgrace. The Times does not for some reason seem proud of its scoop in getting Owen to write on Karadzic's arrest: at some point today his article disappeared from the paper's comment menu.

13 July 2008


Glasgow East is mainly Glasgow Shettleston, which was an Independent Labour Party stronghold for nearly 40 years, represented by John Wheatley (MP 1922-30) and then John McGovern (MP 1930-59). Wheatley was an extraordinary character, the one successful minister of Ramsay MacDonald's first administration and the man who got the Catholics of Glasgow to vote left. McGovern was a lesser figure, but still notable for his stands in the 1930s against the Stalin show-trials and for the revolutionaries in Spain (even though he went off the rails at the end of his life). Since his demise, however, it's been downhill all the way. The MP from 1959 to 1979, Myer Galpern, was an old ILPer more interested in the ermine than the workers, and his successor, David Marshall, spent nearly 30 years representing the constituency without anyone noticing. Now Labour is on track to lose or come close to losing the by-election caused by Marshall's resignation on grounds of health. OK, the place has changed rather a lot since 1922. But this is potentially seismic.

10 July 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 July 2008

Forget the Henley by-election, 42 days detention, the resignation of Wendy Alexander and whatsisname’s no-show at the Glasgow East selection – the worst news of the past few weeks for Labour is the economy, stupid.

Any hopes the government had three months ago that the worst of the credit crunch was over now seem certain to be dashed. With property prices in free-fall, the housing market has seized up. Construction companies are laying off workers. Retailers report that the buoyant consumer demand of the early months of the year has evaporated. Britain looks to be heading for recession just as soaring commodity prices, most noticeably oil and food, have introduced a nasty dose of inflation into the economy – which effectively rules out the obvious monetary policy response to the threat of recession, interest rate cuts.

So the government is in a tight spot. Voters have been hit by hikes in food, gas, electricity and petrol bills (and in many cases mortgage payments) just as the value of their homes has plummeted and the chances of losing their jobs have increased. Unsurprisingly, they are angry – and most blame the government.

This is a bit unfair. It is not the government’s fault that the US house price bubble burst last year, leading large numbers of Americans to default on their mortgages, which in turn led to banks everywhere refusing to lend to one another because no one knew how exposed anyone else was to “sub-prime” loans, which in turn caused the general credit crunch that burst the UK housing bubble. Nor is it the government’s fault that the rapid growth of India and China has increased global oil and gas demand or that there have been bad harvests in much of the world in the past year.

But it’s no good Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling pleading they are the victims of unforeseen circumstances beyond their control. For a start, it’s not the whole truth. The government allowed the UK housing bubble to grow as big as it did, and plenty of people had predicted it would burst, even if no one identified the mechanism. The vulnerability of the UK economy to the rampant oil price speaks volumes of Labour’s failure to invest in rail, renewables and nuclear energy. And, most important in terms of public opinion, it is the government that introduced income tax changes that hit the poorest hardest and the government that is blithely exacerbating the pain of petrol-price increases with new taxes.

There is little point, however, in wondering what might have been: the question is what the government can do now to rescue the situation. Its credibility on economic management has been severely damaged, it has less than two years before the next election – and the indications are that things are not going to get better for some time whatever it does.

But the position is not hopeless. With a clear strategy and a little luck, the government could yet haul itself out of the mire.

The first thing it needs to do is make amends for its recent faux pas on tax to make the tax regime more equitable. That means apologising for the 10p starting rate fiasco and ditching the planned motoring taxes, then reforming the whole tax system to ensure that the rich rather than the poor pay. The devil is in the detail here: the last thing Labour needs is to frighten middle-class voters. But there are all sorts of possibilities: increased personal allowances paid for with a 60 per cent top rate on incomes above, say, £200,000 and ending the upper earnings limit on national insurance; or maybe abolition of council tax bands so the contribution of those living in palaces is not capped. Redistribution from rich to poor makes sense in tough times. The poor spend their cash locally, which means more jobs and spending in the UK; the rich go on holiday in the Bahamas and import yachts. OK, I’m exaggerating – and it’s less of a no-brainer than it used to be because of the globalisation of industrial production – but you get the principle.

The second pillar of Labour’s anti-recession campaign should be a major public works programme to take up the slack left by withering consumer demand. This should not be paid for by an overall increase in taxation, which would be counter-productive, but by borrowing, both directly by the state and – insofar as they remain viable post-credit-crunch – private finance initiatives. There is no shortage of projects worthy of support: a high-speed rail network; dedicated cycle routes in every city; expansion of wind, wave, tidal, hydro and nuclear electricity generation; social housing; et cetera … Yes, it would bust Gordon’s rules on borrowing – or would it? – but needs must.

New Labour it ain’t, but sensibly countercyclical and social democratic it is. Actually, it’s straight John Maynard Keynes circa 1930. Anyone got a better idea?