23 May 2008


The Crewe and Nantwich defeat is the worst Labour by-election result since the dog days of the early 1980s. It's not time to panic, but Brown must go before very long. He has lost the plot.

20 May 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 May 2008

So, farewell then, Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, as Private Eye's resident poet E. J. Thribb would have it (though only if Mullin had died, which of course he hasn't).

Last week the former Tribune editor – that's Mullin not Thribb – told the Sunderland Echo: "After careful thought, I have reluctantly concluded that my useful life in parliament is over. I will not, therefore, be a candidate at the next election."

Mullin will be missed. He held only junior ministerial office, from 1999 to 2001 and 2003 to 2005. But – like Gwyneth Dunwoody, who has died – he played a crucial role in fearlessly chairing a select committee, in his case home affairs from 1997 to 1999 and 2001 to 2003. He has been one of the most effective backbench MPs of the past two decades and parliament will be the poorer without him.

But that's enough elegiac fawning – ed. Or maybe not, because another admirable thing about Mullin is that he's decided that it's time to quit after carefully considering how much he could achieve by staying.

As such, he's unusual among Labour MPs. There are now 351 of them sitting in the House of Commons. I have not kept a record of who is stepping down in 2010 – we can safely assume the election date, I think – but the pollster Anthony Wells has, on his excellent UK Polling Report website, which lists 26 Labour MPs as having announced that they are retiring at the end of this parliament.

If you add Mullin and Clare Short, who was elected as Labour but resigned the whip, the figure comes up to 28, but so what. The point is that very few Labour MPs have said that they are bowing out, and most of those that have are either very old or represent seats that will be abolished through boundary changes – or both.

It's true that the election is two years away. It's also true that on past form quite a few veteran Labour MPs will hang on until the last moment before announcing their retirements – a course of action that has historically been a good way of securing a peerage, because it allows the grateful Labour leadership to parachute favoured candidates into safe seats irrespective of the wishes of local Labour Party members.

Arise, I suspect, Lords Mitchell of Haddock and Chips, Skinner of Legover in a Baseball Hat and Meacher of Mad Conspiracy Theory.

All the same, the small number of announced retirements is noteworthy, even though it's easy enough to explain without reference to where we are in the electoral cycle or the cynicism of might/might-not retirees.

Labour won a landslide in 1997, in which no fewer than 178 of its 418 MPs were elected for the first time, and more than a third of the 240 others elected that distant glorious day have retired, died or been defeated since, most of them replaced by Labour members despite the losses of 2001 and 2005. I've not worked out the precise numbers, but the Parliamentary Labour Party now has a large majority of MPs first elected in 1992 or after. And those MPs think, some with justification, that they still have a way to go before they pass their sell-by dates.

But it's easy to get sell-by dates wrong. Labour's problem right now is that it is as appetising as the steak-and-kidney pie you discover at the back of the deep-freeze labelled "Best before July 2007". It might be safe to eat, but do you take the risk or make your supper from the stuff Sainsbury's delivered this morning?

It's most critical at the top: if Gordon Brown fails to turn round his and Labour's dismal opinion poll ratings before the autumn, he should take a deep breath, admit he isn't the man for the job and resign to let someone new – let's say David Miliband – take over before the next general election.

But it's not just Gordon who should be thinking he's not as fresh as he could be. There are several cabinet ministers with nothing left to give: Jack Straw springs immediately to mind, but there are others. And there are dozens of Labour MPs elected in 1987, 1992 and 1997 who have done a lot less in their time in parliament than Chris Mullin and who have no prospect of making any difference if they hang on.

Of course, getting new people in isn't a panacea. Rejuvenating Labour is much more a matter of new ideas, of which we've heard virtually nothing, than it is of new people. But people matter. The lot we've got are not, on the whole, very impressive, and very few of them would be missed. And in the worst-case scenario we'd be better-off losing with a bunch of hungry youngsters than going down with battling old pros.

8 May 2008


The decision to reclassify cannabis is utterly cretinous. It won't stop anyone smoking it, and it won't deal with the problem of kids becoming psychotic from getting stoned too much.

The reason more of them are getting wasted today than 20 years ago (even though overall cannabis consumption seems to have gone down) is that the dope is stronger. The skunk that has being doing the rounds the past seven or eight years – probably longer, my memory is shot to hell – bears the same relationship to the red Leb or even the Afghan black of the 1970s as whisky does to beer.

But why is the dope stronger? Er, skunk's dominance of the market is the result of clamping down on smuggling of milder cannabis resins from warmer climes. Raising ultra-strong homegrown under lights in a cellar or a loft or a business unit in Stoke-on-Trent is a lot less risky than coming into Los Angeles bringing in a couple of keys. And it takes a bit more work and money to extract the resin than it does to dry out the plants.

The answer is to legalise the lot, make them all available in premises licensed to sell them – they don't have to be licensed for consumption – and make sure the taxation system dissuades the punters from the strong stuff. You could even introduce tax breaks or an appellation d’origine contrôlée system for producers who maintain traditional techniques for making classic hash. Just about anything would be better than threatening people who use Britain's fourth-most-favoured recreational drug – after caffeine, alcohol and nicotine – with tough policing and serious gaol sentences.

And, like, man – the working class smokes too these days. It isn't the dog-whistle to "Labour's natural supporters" that it probably was in 1967.


I have just received a joke from a Labour Party comrade.

Q. What's the difference between Gordon Brown and the first world war?

A. The first world war wasn't finished by Xmas.

3 May 2008


Labour's disaster at the polls on Thursday was so massive it's only now really sinking in. This is not mid-term blues: it is worse than meltdown. Labour has lost it with the voters and will lose the next general election unless it changes course and does it soon.

The architect of Labour's catastrophe is easy to identify: Gordon Brown, whose smart-arse last budget and utterly incompetent premiership over the past six months have left Labour staring into the abyss not only in comfortable middle England but in its northern and Welsh heartlands.

He is not up to the job and should never have got it. That he did was down to Tony Blair's idiotic agreement back in 1994 that Brown would be his preferred successor — a deal that guaranteed that no one else in 10 years of government came close to growing into a contender.

For 10 years in office, Brown played his cards with one intention, to shaft potential rivals for the top job when Tony eventually decided to go — and Blair acquiesced. By the time Brown's half-wit supporters in the parliamentary Labour Party made their move to force Blair's resignation in autumn 2006 there was no one left standing to take Brown on. Robin Cook was dead, and the rest of the would-be contenders, most importantly Charles Clarke, were busted flushes — at least in terms of their government careers.

So we ended up with Gordon, nem con apart from a handful of diehard Trots.

But we don't need to keep him. Thanks, paradoxically, to his promotion of assorted youngsters to cabinet in order to refresh the government's image, there are now credible alternatives as there were not 18 months ago. David Miliband in particular stands out as everything Brown is not: telegenic, dynamic, engaged.

Of course, changing leader is not a panacea: Labour needs more than a different face at the top, most of all a credible narrative about how Britain would be better as a more equal society. But leadership matters all the same. Brown should recognise that his time has been and gone, and retire inside the next nine months. It does not need to be a dramatic resignation: he could discover a prostate problem as Harold Macmillan did or calmly announce that he has had enough of the strains of high office after all these years. But go he must.