Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fun With the Fabians

Earlier this evening I was part of a Question Time style panel at a Fabian Society fringe meeting titled CAN LABOUR WIN? Chaired the the Observer's Gaby Hinsliff, the meeting also heard from Ed Balls, Caroline Flint, Caroline Lucas and Sunder Katwala, the director of the Fabian Society.

Naturally Balls and Flint both thought that the answer to the question was yes. Big surprise. Flint, however, was slightly more candid in her analysis of Labour's problems and accused the government of trying to do too many things at once, something I agree was a danger - I termed it 'initiative-itis'. Balls's answer was incredibly complacent. There was no vision, just a ritualistic attack on the Tories, something he did in every single answer he gave. In my answer I quoted Tim Montgomerie's blogpost about the comparison between Labour now and the Tories in 1996. I reckoned there were five aspects to Labour's chances of winning in 2010...

  • Their ability to unite - people don't vote for disunited parties. It's all very well Prescott saying Stop Complaining, Get Campaigning, when he himself launches an attack on Harriet Harman.
  • The party leadership and activists have actually got to believe they CAN win and have some self belief. No Labour MP or activist I talk to thinks the party can, or will, win.
  • Changing the leader would be no panacea. It may save at most thirty seats. Labour's top brass should get behind their existing leader rather than positioning themselves to be the next one.
  • The economy - It won't get better in time for people to believe it is better in advance of the election. Unemployment will still be rising, and tax rises will come in in April. For that reason the election is unlikely to be at the beginning of May.
  • Events - no one knows what can happen in politics. There could be some earth shattering event which changes everything. It's probably Labour's best hope.
The second question was about whether there should be a referendum on PR on the same day as the general election. Caroline Flint was adamantly opposed both to a referendum and PR itself. Ed Balls was slightly more equivocal, but not much. I said that if there is to be a debate about PR, let's have it, but not mix it up with the general election. Quite a few of the audience seemed to agree. Caroline Lucas, needless to say, was all in favour.

The next question was about the Conservative policy on marriage. I ended up having a bit of a ding dong with Ed Balls who launched into a bitter attack on David Cameron for supposedly creating a two tier society. I quoted Tom Harris's writings on this subject and explained that if we as a society believe that marriage is important and good for society there was no reason why this should not be reflected in the tax system. I spoke about the importance of a male presence in the lives of children and that the main priority for us all should be to encourage stable, loving and committed relationships, no matter what the form. I related an argument I had had with Ann Widdecombe on the subject, but the less said about that here the better :).

The discussion then moved on to a question on whether taxes should go up. Ed Balls tried to create some more of his artificial dividing lines by asserting that the Tories would abolish universal child benefit. I responded that this was utter tripe. Balls had tried to imply that the Taxpayers' Alliance and the IOD were Tory Party stooges and they were setting policy for the Tories. If only, some might say. I said it was ludicrous that people earning £55,000 were receiving tax credits and that this should no longer happen. I was then portrayed as a wicked Tory. I agreed that a sensible Tory government could not rule out tax rises and that Tory governments had had to put up taxes in 1981 and in the early 1990s. The key to our economic future lay in getting the balance right between controlling pubic spending and borrowing, and getting our tax system right.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable debate. Sunder Katwala, the director of the Fabian Society is a very impressive thinker, with a great ability to speak engagingly about policy wonkery. If the Labour Party is in opposition after the next election I foresee a big role for him. I hope he changes his mind and tries for Parliament. I may not agree with him on everything but he is totally genuine and an original thinker. Parliament needs people like him far more than it needs the partisan hackery of career politicians like Ed Balls.

I also felt that Caroline Flint had changed. In government she behaved like a talking robot, always happy to trot out a party line, no matter how ridiculous it made her sound. Tonight, she seemed to have matured into someone whose judgement may well be called upon by her party after the next election.

Caroline Lucas, who I used to find a rather inspirational figure in some ways, didn't spark at all. Her answers were formulaic and lacked warmth. I could predict virtually everything she said. I had a real go at her when she asserted the Tories would gerrymander seat boundaries after the next election. It's exactly that sort of talk which is corrosive and encourages cynicism about politics. She knows as well as me that the Boundaries Commission is not susceptible to political influence. Why is it that under a Tory government it redrew the boundaries to give Labour a huge advantage? She didn't have an answer to that.

I have to admit to finding Ed Balls a fascinating enigma. He has quite a good sense of humour, but seems devoid of the ability to connect with an audience. Many of his answers were so predictable that people were almost mouthing his answers before he had uttered them. His default answer to any questions was to mount an attack on what he alleged to be a Tory position, but was really a position he wished the Tories would take. He kept on about wanting an honest debate about tax and spend, but I really got the impression that the concept of an honest debate was totally alien to him if he continually created artificial dividing lines. Judging from some of the tweets I have seen from the event, people in the audience clearly felt we hated each other. Certainly not true in my case - I won't speak for him - but I think I want to continue the debate with Mr Balls. I feel a Total Politics IN CONVERSATION coming on...

UPDATE: Next Left have a report on the disagreement between Ed Balls and myself over Tax and Spend.


Cardiff Blogger said...

The sooner he gets out of politics the better...Ed Balls that is. Total waste of space and an embarrassment. Let's hope the next Labour leader realises this and sends him to the backbenches where he belongs.

The Grim Reaper said...

Oh, how I hate Ed Balls so very much. He's the sort of man who you'd want to throw things at if you saw him in the street.

Anonymous said...

When looking up the Labour website, it seems funny how it has suddenly changed featuring talk of economic recovery. Then when one looks at the jobs, surely some mistake has been made? These jobs have been up less than a week yet one of them has already expired!

Is someone spinning nonsense?

What could possibly happen this week that would require the deployment of this?

Anonymous said...

on change of leadership: if the speakers felt it would save 30 seats that both implies they would be lost with the current leader and secured with another (reducing any Tory majority) so what is the logic of getting behind he current leader and losing 30 seats (and so 60 over Labour...). I say this as a Labour party member...oh and campaigner in case John Prescott is looking at this.

Working Class Tory said...

Interesting that you contrast the career politician Ed Balls with the "wonkery" and thinking of Sunder Katwala - arguably there is a thin line between think-tankery, party research departments and career politics.

Johnny Norfolk said...

I think someone like Mr Balls tells you all that is wrong with the Labour party.He is devoid of anything other than attacking Tories.Labour the negative party.

Anonymous said...

Balls is of that generation of socialists who hate all Tories, personally and bitterly. He cannot get past that.

Personally, I don't hate socialists, I pity them. I hate socialism, because it kills peoples' hopes and aspirations and leaves us all worse off.

Anonymous said...

Ed Balls.....The Thinking Mans Trumpet.

Willsteed said...

I was watching the Brown/Marr interview, and Brown seems to be desperately seeking to create phoney dividing lines.

Like Balls he just goes on and on like a machine.

I'd have thought that the politician's stock is low enough, that they'd have realised that this style is a positive turn-off.

I mean if for many people the default position is to presume everything said is a blatant lie, what's the point in saying it?

Anonymous said...

Was the whole debate recorded at all? I'd love to hear it.

moorlandhunter said...

I know it’s all about debate and keeping civil to each other, but how on earth can you be in the same room as Balls listening to his tripe without punching him in the eye?
Is it because you have been in politics for years, so are used to dealing with trolls like this or is it just will power?

Nigel said...

>>Changing the leader would be no panacea. It may save at most thirty seats.<<

Many of us have the impression that any serious political party would happily slaughter its collective firstborn for the possibility of an extra thirty seats.

Deposing a deeply unpopular leader for that possibility ought to be a no-brainer.

John Willman said...

I completely agree with you about Caroline Lucas, Iain. She seems a really attractive politician on TV, but in the flesh is peevish, lacks charm and robotically parrots arguments without engagement. There's a real debate to be had over green politics, but she just mouths certainties.

Jane said...

I've posted about this before, and it's slightly off-topic, but I spent the first six months of this year emailing Ed Balls every day to ask for confirmation that the Aiming High for Disabled Children money was safe until 2011, in light of the current economic mess.

Then I went to my local (Cons) MP who tried several times to raise it as a question in the House of Commons, but it never got through.

I rang his office countless times - even got hung up on once - to explain that I wasn't just on a on-man trouble-making crusade, I was actually from a charity which represents about 700 families in my area.

Still nothing!

After writing to him several times, asking for a personal commitment to this money being safe, my MP finally got a rather bald little response saying 'there were no plans to reduce the funding'.

Considering families are changing their whole lives based on this funding - getting jobs, having more kids, employing carers etc. you'd think he might have bothered to respond sooner.

He simply does not care and fwiw, the Labour Party has lost votes from families with disabled children simply because of that, in this area.

True Belle said...

Ed Balls is so mechanical in his responses that I can almost smell the castrol fumes !

Newmania said...

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable debate. Sunder Katwala, the director of the Fabian Society is a very impressive thinker, with a great ability to speak engagingly about policy wonkery. If the Labour Party is in opposition after the next election I foresee a big role for him

Likeable if a tad long winded and a bit clunky onoccassion .Overall I like his stuff look out for it and read it with interest
What I cannot help thinking is that if he is such a big cheese I I ought to have a go .....

In another life maybe

Unsworth said...

Yep it's all this bollox about what the Conservatives 'would do'. Never any discussion about what the Labour Party/Government is doing or is going to do in any real practical terms.

Mandelson stands up and declares the most minute activity as major world-shaking news, when most people fully understand that he's just rearranging the furniture.

Brown is almost a political irrelevance now. Everyone knows that he's not in charge of anything - the government, his temper or his bowels.

As usual there's no strategic leadership, no long term view, and no tactical responses to immediate crisis. They have, simply, run out of energy, ideas, and even any hope.

Anonymous said...

Iain, regarding the accusations of planned gerrymandering, it is all very well talking about the impartiality of the Electoral Commission but Cameron has announced his intention to slash its funding - while at the same time enforcing a massive reorganisation of boundaries by cutting the number of seats by 10%.

You can hardly blame people if they put 2 and 2 together and come up with 4!

Roger Thornhill said...

Sunder is a Fabian, so no matter how "nice" he is, he still wants to subvert and operate as a fifth column "in plain sight". He still wants to use coercion, control and force of law to collectivise us against our will.

How nice.

Sir Edward Heath said...

This is what I like about you Iain - cool, calm, collected, consensual and constructive. None of this swivel eyed loon stuff that one now associates with UKIP. For supporters of UKIP are often best described with another word beginning with 'c'. Crazy. Being a One Nation Heathite, I hope Dave does not let me down on Europe.

Newmania said...

Interesting post Iain , personally I`d like to see more "Debate!" of issues on this blog.

Reminds me that I very much wanted to see you in Parliament.

Anonymous said...

@Sir Edward Heath

Being a One Nation Heathite, I hope Dave does not let me down on Europe.

This would be the same Dave that voluntarily walked away from the centre-right mainstream in Europe to align himself with a ragbag of anti-semites, homophobes and gypsy-hating nationalists? And then expelled his most experienced MEP for daring to stand against one of said ragbag for the post of vice-president of the European Parliament?

In the letting-you-down stakes it's hard to see how much further he could go!

Chris Paul said...

The very act of redrawing boundaries to less constituencies probably favours the Tories without any active bias.

Sir Edward Heath said...

Anonymous (1:21 PM).

I will admit to you that I do have my doubts and some concerns about David's recent gestures on Europe.

However, the fact remains, that David Cameron has not committed the Party to pulling out of Europe entirely. That was my point above. Particularly about these UKippers.

Indeed, the Conservatives bizarre attitude towards Europe has been one of the reasons (not the only one) that I have sat on my hands since General Election 1992. For I have been very naughty too - even supporting other parties. That is why, I guess, I am "floating voter man" and not "a Party idiot man".

Indeed, apart from my concerns on Europe, the modern Conservative Party is a Party that I feel at home in. A perfect fit. For I've always been a conservative - since I was at school - but with this liberal small 'c'. It is a tragedy then that, for most of my adult life, The Conservative Party has been a bit of a basket case - until now. For David has done a marvellous job and, despite my initial doubts, has proven he is up to the job of being my PM. He is One Nationish. I'd vote for him and judge him on his first five years. I have my doubts, I admit, but they are more about his, at times, crackers Party. (If you were about 1993 to 1997, you'd understand.) General Election tomorrow, I'd give Dave a try.

An Activist President said...

I am enjoying the irony of those attacking the negative Ed Balls, whilst not ignoring the irony of their attacks on the 'socialist' Ed Balls.