Tuesday, 31 August 2010

When family and politics mix

One of the most interesting features of the current Labour leadership election is the fact that two of the candidates (the front runners no less) are brothers. At the start of the leadership election, David and Ed Miliband assured the media (and their mother) that 'brotherly love' was stronger than politics. However, in the last few days things have become somewhat more acrimonious.

In an interview with Eddie Mair on PM two weeks ago, Ed Miliband was asked if he had the courage to sack his brother. He refused to answer the question, saying he didn't want to answer hypothetical questions. When David was asked the same question two days later, he simply said 'yes'. Both the brothers have written newspaper articles and given speeches which have been interpreted as attacking their respective sibling.

Perhaps this behaviour is natural between the front runners in a close race. Normally however, after an election, the candidates are able to move on from the electoral battle. Even in the most hostile contests, at worst a friendship might come to an end, but this election might split a family.

Of course, there have been other political families. The Churchills in the UK, the Kennedys and the Bushs in the US, the Nehrus and Gandhis in India and the Bhuttos in Pakistan. The difference with the Milibands is they're not working together, they're fighting against each other - John, Robert and Edward Kennedy all ran for President of the United States, but not in the same year.

In the next few days Labour and Union members will be receiving ballot papers for the leadership election. The polls suggest that Mr. Miliband will be the winner, though which Mr. Miliband is still in doubt. Perhaps, after the election is over, the wounds will heal and the brothers, no matter which one (if any) is leader, will be able to move on. That's certainly what their mother will be hoping!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Beyond Blighty: Hung parliament down under

There was an element of schadenfreude watching the Australian election this morning. The incumbent Labor party (which went into the election with an unelected Prime Minister) lost its majority, although the opposition couldn't get enough seats to claim victory, meaning there was a hung parliament. It all felt very familiar.

Of cource, there are a many differences between what happened in the UK in May. For example, there is no Australian equivalent of the Liberal Democrats for the two main parties to negotiate with as the remaining seats, which will determine the next government of Australia, are not held by a single political party but a collection of independents, each with very different agendas.

Just a few months ago it was all very different. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was far ahead in the polls and it looked like he would easily lead the Australian Labor Party into a second term. Meanwhile, the opposition was in a certain amount of disarray having changed its leader three times in as many years, the latest one being Tony Abbott, born in London, who was seen as something of a joke by the media.

It all changed very quickly when Labor's poll numbers began to dip. Just eight weeks ago, Mr. Rudd was forced into a sudden leadership contest which he lost in a shock defeat to his own Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The insinuation was that Ms. Gillard, who was born in Wales, had been planning the coup against Kevin Rudd for years and was just waiting for the perfect time to strike.

So it was Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia's first woman PM, who led Labor into this election and its surprisingly bad result. It seems the government lost support for many reasons, but a big one was that the Australian public didn't like the way Mr. Rudd had been treated by his party. Another problem for Labor was that they were unable to run on their relatively good record in government as the first question would have been "if you were doing so well, why did you ditch your Prime Minister?"

Michael Heseltine famously said "he who wields the dagger never wears the crown". Ms. Gillard appears to have wielded the dagger against Mr. Rudd, and she wears the crown, for now, but how much longer?

It is going to be an interesting few days in Australia and there could be a change in government and another new PM in the form of Tony Abbott, or maybe Julia Gillard will become Australia's first elected woman PM. Negotiations on government forming will start soon.

As is often the case with Australia, it's very far away but somehow seems very close to home.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The first 99 days

For some reason the first 100 days in office is now seen by the media as a crucial point to measure the results and progress of a government. The accuracy of this gauge is questionable. How well could the government of Margret Thatcher be judged in August 1979? What were the merits of Tony Blair's time in office in August 1997?

Also, although David Cameron has been Prime Minister for 100 days, for the first few hours of his Premiership he led a minority Conservative government. The Liberal Democrats only formally agreed to the Coalition deal after midnight – meaning the Coalition's 100th day is tomorrow. In any case, the new government has done a lot in its first 99 days in power, although no one has really felt the benefits or pain of it yet.

The really interesting question, which has been asked since the start, is how long will it last? If it does break apart, the first cracks in the Coalition won't come from the Cabinet, most of them have found that they like their colleagues from the other party and are enthusiastic about being in government. If it happens, descent will come from the backbenchers, the 1922 Committee or disgruntled Liberal Democrat MPs, who can and will stand up to their leadership. One thing both Coalition parties have in common is a proclivity for regicide, unlike Labour.

There is a sense of limbo in British politics at the moment, partly because there currently isn't a Labour leader, but also because a coalition in the UK still feels strange, especially one between such unlikely bedfellows. In time, as policies are implemented and the novelty fades, things will change, but on the 99th day it's impossible to say how or when.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Queen of second preference?

Almost exactly five years ago the Westminster village was gripped by the Conservative Leadership election. There was a real sense that the winner of that contest would go on to become Prime Minister, a sense that was proved to be correct. The 2005 Conservative leadership election, won by David Cameron, had an excitement to it that is very much lacking in the current Labour leadership election.

Oddly, as I have said previously, the next leader of the Labour party has a much better chance of becoming PM than David Cameron did in 2005. Despite this, even I, a self confessed political nerd, couldn't bring myself to watch the last televised hustings. I knew what all the candidates would say – it's what they've said in every other such meeting. So why does Labour's contest lack energy?

In the Conservative party, leadership elections go through several rounds before the final vote. The MPs each vote in runoff ballots over a period of several days until only two candidates remain, then the ordinary members of the party choose from those two. It was this successive election process that was exciting in 2005 as it showed the gradual and unexpected rise of David Cameron. Similarly, the primaries and caucuses of the 2008 US presidential election, in which Barack Obama rose to prominence, made that vote all the more exiting.

In Labour's leadership elections however, after the initial nominations, there is only one vote. Also, AV elections are notoriously difficult for pollsters to measure, so there is little interest in the opinion polls. This means it is hard to know what is happening in the country and which candidates are doing well or badly.

All the excitement will come on Saturday 25th September when the result is announced. As described in a previous blog, the tactics of the second preference vote is crucial. The Miliband brothers will most likely top the first round, but after that things may get more interesting. A look at what happened in the 2007 deputy leadership election indicates what AV can produce. Supporters of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott are not likely to vote for a Miliband for fear it will knock out their candidate in the second round. So to whom will they give their second preference? It will probably be someone who is liked but perceived not to be a threat. Could Diane Abbott be that person?