Kendrick Meek, Ken Livingstone and the Tea Party

All politics is, to some extent, tactical. It would be nice to think campaigns could be run, elections could be won and things got done on the basis of ideology alone.

 But as Nick Clegg could probably point out, power invariably involves settling.

America goes to the polls this week, to choose a third of its senators and all of its congressmen. Two years after Barack “the Messiah” Obama swept into the White House, the Democrats are set for major losses and a likely return to a Republican majority in the House.

This is not actually as bad as it seems; it’s astonishingly rare for the incumbent party to come out of the mid-terms with more seats than they had (when Clinton did in 1998 it was the exception, and more a reaction against Republican machinations than the start of a new political tradition). Still, it’s not great that the Democrats are going to go kaput, especially when you consider that a good number of losses are likely to be at the hands of Tea Party loyalists like Christine the not-so-teenage-witch O ‘Donnell.

Still, given the polls and predictions, it’s surprising to see that efforts to secure a non Tea Party outcome in Florida have failed so miserably – and even more so that a Democrat is the one responsible.

The situation is this; Until a year or so, Governor Charlie Crist was something of a golden boy in the Republican, even tipped as a potential 2012 contender. But his support of such abomination as the stimulus, plus an Obama shaped hug, led to a challenge from the right by Tea Party king Marco Rubio and Crist striking out as an independent.

Mr Rubio is an unreconstructed right-winger, fond of soundbites like this one: “The problem is that when government controls the economy, those who can influence government keep winning, and everybody else just stays the same.”

Paranoid? Him?

Of course, there’s still a Democrat hoping to steal the crown, the wonderfully American named Kendrick Meek (can you imagine, President Meek…it’s like a bad spoof film). Meek is drawing about 15 per cent in the polls, Crist around 35 per cent and spades ahead is Rubio, with 42 per cent.

So the choice is this – moderate voters can go for a Democrat with very little chance, or an independent with not much more. Whether the former or the latter, the likelihood is that Mr Rubio will be off to the Senate.

Unless, of course, tactical voting comes into it. I’m no mathematician, but the combined moderate vote is more than a match for the Tea Party support. Surely, it would make sense for one of Mr Crist or Mr Meek to step aside so that, in Chuchillian terms, the best-worst candidate can prevail.

Makes sense, right? Good tactics? Bill Clinton certainly thought so, which is why he tried to broker a deal to get the undeniably weaker of the two, Meek, to do the gentlemanly thing and depart the race. Allegedly there were promises of a good DC job for Meek in return for giving up on a dream that has no chance of being realised anyway.

But while politics is about tactics, politicians are often more about ego. Ergo, Meek refused. Meek, indeed.

Madness. Meek must know that by refusing a deal he boosts Rubio immeasurably, when having Crist in the seat would do far more to prevent the Republicans blocking Obama’s legislative programme in the next two years.

Maybe two years ago, in the giddy rush of “Yes we can”, principle could come first. But Obama’s approval ratings are plummeting, and the prognosis for the next two years isn’t good. What a shame Meek couldn’t act tactically, just this once.

Not that I’m suggesting he should have actively campaigned for his opponent. Supporting another party above your own. That would be absurd, certainly not acceptable behaviour for, say, Labour’s mayoral candidate for 2012.

Oh, but wait. Apparently that’s exactly the sort of behaviour one can expect from Ken Livingstone, who was spotted on the stump for new Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman last week – despite the presence of one Helal Abbas, Labour’s candidate.

Yes, politicians should be pragmatic and tactical. But while Mr Meek doing the gracious thing would have had a purpose, Livingstone’s support of a Respect-backed politician had no such point.

It’s ironic to think, then, that tactical “anyone but Ken” voting was so key in Boris’ victory last time.


Conference season via Twitter

I’m not at the Labour party conference, although at the risk of exposing just how much of a politics nerd I am, I really wish I were.

But even though, physically, I am in London not Manchester, I’ve still felt far more engaged with the proceedings this year than in the past. And it’s not because of the Miliband-drama – although that hasn’t hurt – because the same was true during the Lib Dem get together last week.

Why? Simple, really. With the help of Twitter, I’ve enjoyed a step-by-step guide to the conferences.

Whether it has been snippets from speeches, snarky observations about what people are wearing or overexcited MP sightings, the hash tag #Lab10 has kept me more than up to date.

I’ve felt the excitement as the new leader arrived on stage for his speech, read otherwise unreported comments from fringe meetings, and laughed at various off-the-wall offerings. It may not be first hand exactly, but it’s not bad.

Live blogs are great, video footage brings a speech into your TV room. But with Twitter it feels like you are part of it, involved in the discussion and debate.

I’d love to be there in person one year. Still, this serves as another reminder that social networking is far from being a useless and self-indulgent tool. Because democracy is about participation, and Twitter provides a pretty good way of getting involved.

Nice Balls and a dull campaign


The leadership hopefuls (photo: J Lipman)

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what a difference a campaign can make.

Reading Anne McElvoy’s interview with Ed Balls in today’s Evening Standard, I had to pinch myself to remember that her subject was the same man who spent years as Labour’s comedy bully.

Ed Balls was the unreconstructed Labour man, the union champion, Brown’s enthusiastic and angry number two.

But lo, here he is after a summer seeking the leadership, and he appears articulate, thoughtful and even rather human. Anecdotes about novelty cake and his marriage abound from this “Newly Nice Ed”.

Shame, because he’s not going to win. A metamorphosis for nothing, though he’d probably be happy enough in the chancellor’s seat – and he’s certainly got the best economic credentials out of the gang of five vying for the top spot.

But it’s funny isn’t it. I went to a debate at the beginning of it all, the day Diane Abbott joined in. None of what was said was particularly remarkable; what I took out of the event most of all was the animosity between the Ed’s – patronising replies, furious glances across the podium. This would be a campaign of tension, anger, drama. With Balls around, surely somebody would get into a fight.

But it hasn’t and they haven’t – and any Labour friction has been entirely New in its making, courtesy of Mandy and Blair.

It’s been the campaign that wasn’t.

Sure we’ve had some sniping between the brothers, but beyond a few manufactured media stories that’s been pretty minimal. Diane Abbott has restricted herself to some low-level grumbling from the sidelines, and Andy Burnham – well, he was always going to be nice, wasn’t he.

Can it be that the New Labour drama really is over? If you can’t even rely on an election with five high-profile contenders, including Ed Balls, for a fuss, then maybe so. The party seems to have grown up.

Which, one the one hand is great for Labour’s political rehabilitation.

But on the other, well, it doesn’t exactly make for a nailbiting contest, does it?

What a difference a date makes

As the Conservatives are well aware, 18 years have passed since the party won a general election.

Interestingly, it has also been 18 years since an election was fought in an even-numbered calendar year.

 And all three of new Labours victories occurred in odd ones.

 One of the beauties of our lack of fixed term parliaments is that elections can take place in any calendar year.

 Given that we are currently in the neatly numbered 2010, what does that spell for the polls next week?

 Well, of the 17 national votes since 1945 (including the 1974 double whammy) ten took place in odd years.

 The bad news for the Conservatives is that historically they have not done well in even years, triumphing only in 1970 and 1992. Thatcher won her hat trick in odd-year votes, following a similar three-election run in the (odd) votes of the 1950s and 1960s.

 Meanwhile, on balance Labour fare better in even numbered years, although it’s a close one at five even wins to four odd wins since 1945.

 But that’s only half the story. Labour may win more often in even years, but they don’t do so decisively.

 Only one even election – Harold Macmillan’s win in 1966 – saw Labour come out with a strong majority, compared with the sweeping victories of the Clement Atlee and Tony Blair odd year elections.

 Not that even years give the Conservatives a decisive victory either. Both Ted Heath in 1970 and John Major in 1992 just scraped in with the largest share of seats.

So do even balanced years favour balanced parliaments? Keen observers may already have noticed that the last time Britain elected a hung parliament was in 1974.

 Another even-numbered year.

Doubly damned if you didn’t but now you did

Damned if you, damned if you don’t and doubly damned if you didn’t but now you did.

 No, not a new tongue twister. 

Just my response to the inevitable media sniggering that has accompanied the news that, owing to extreme public outrage, Brown et al probably won’t be scrapping childcare vouchers any more.  U-Turn, the Sunday Times cried at me across the breakfast table.   Others sneered about a government ‘climb down’

But what exactly is so wrong with the government changing their mind after 81,000 people signed their names to a petition on the subject? 

Surely that is what democracy is all about – leaders listening to our opinions and reacting to them? 

Why else would you set up a petition, except to encourage change.  No one lobbies politicians just to make a point; you place pressure in order to get a result. 

Ideally they might get it right first time, but i’d still rather a government who were responsive to popular sentiment.  Of course they are doing it because they have calculated the ‘mum and dad vote’ is rather crucial to prevent a Conservative landslide come May, but so what!

Isn’t it better for them to ‘climb down’ on an issue they have apparently got it wrong with, than remain stubborn and defiant just to prevent accusations of flip-flopping. 

Just imagine how different world history could have been, if only leaders were a little more willing to contradict themselves. 

Does Labour’s pain really mean Tory gain?

So I survived another Yom Kippur without any dramatic fainting! of course, this might have had something to do with staying in bed for the whole of the morning services – made getting through the afternoon and evening all that bit easier.

Also gave me time to read the newspapers pretty thoroughly.  Summary from The Times; people are mad that M&S are only allowing a 35 day return window (because really, with all the many things wrong in the world, only having 35 days to return that shapeless and misguided Marks & Sparks version of catwalk, is the real travesty).  Oh, and Gordon Brown and Labour are doing really, really badly at the polls, worse than the Tories were doing before they lost power in 97.

So its all doom and gloom for the Labour Party, unless one of the young heirs to the throne stages some kind of coup and gets rid of the not-so-dear leader.  Which would be news, except that we’ve been hearing the story of Labour about to collapse for a good few party conference seasons.

It’s no secret that Labour are having all sorts of problems, internal squabbles, lack of direction, low voter confidence, blah blah blah.  What is being kept a secret, apparently, is why we’d be so much better of with anyone else other than Brown in power.  Maybe I’m the only person left in Britain with an ounce of sympathy for Gordon Brown, but does anyone seriously think the Conservatives make for a credible alternative?

Under Cameron, they’ve been better at presenting a united front, sure, and much more media savvy.  But in terms of new ideas, or real solutions, they are curiously quiet.  We hear them say how bad the government are all the time, there’s an awful lot of criticism going on, but very few new and feasible ideas being put about.  Rather than saying how bad Labour’s plans for the economy, public services, education or whatever it is, are, why don’t they construct a better alternative?  They are tipped to win the next election, but it says less about them having a viable manifesto than it does about a media-fuelled anti-Labour bandwagon. 

Perhaps we’ll hear something from the Conservatives at their conference.  In the meantime, lets give Labour and Brown the benefit of the doubt, because as Harold Wilson said, ‘a year is a long time in politics’.  The election hasn’t happened yet. 

Lets stop talking about the result and start listening to what the candidates have to say.