Saturday, 27 September 2014

How Cameron could neuter UKIP and win the general election

Obviously the fact that Britain has decided it's time to go out bombing again is the bigger news story, but the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP is still a major problem for David Cameron. It's really not a good look when your own MPs decide to abandon you, particularly on the eve of your conference.

On the other hand, it being the eve of conference means that Cameron has the opportunity next week to make a grand statement against UKIP in an attempt to stop the rot (in all senses).

But there's no point in imagining that dog-whistles on immigration and multiculturalism will be sufficient. That's territory that UKIP are always going to claim as their own. Instead, the real weak link in UKIP's armour is, oddly enough, Europe itself. Most people don't care much about the issue, but some do, they care very much indeed and - from a Conservative perspective - they're a worryingly significant minority. Cameron's offer of a referendum gained him a little time, but by now the UKIP response has clawed back some of the initiative; you can't trust his promises, goes the argument, look at the betrayal over the Lisbon Treaty.

So Cameron should take the opportunity at conference to do the one thing that only he, and not Nigel Farage, can do: announce the exact date on which the referendum will be held.

He's already said that it'll be before the end of 2017, but that's still too vague. There is a round of local elections due on Thursday 4 May 2017. That'd be a good date to choose.

Announce now that, in the event of a Tory, or Tory-led, government, an In/Out referendum will be held on that specific date, and suddenly the airy promise becomes concrete reality. He'd seize the initiative entirely. Every front-page would have a graphic of a calendar showing 4 May 2017. Eurosceptic commentators and Tory backbenchers would be delighted; Europhiles would reluctantly have to accept the concept of democracy.

It would leave Cameron no wriggle-room, of course, but the reality is that he can't afford the luxury of wriggle-room anymore; the UKIP threat is too great. He needs to squash comprehensively the impression that somehow he'll twist and turn and renege on his promise.

For those Tory voters tempted to desert because of Europe, there would no longer be any incentive to their votes elsewhere. Farage isn't, and never will be, able to match such a pledge. As long as it's credible, it would trump any card UKIP can possibly play. Which would leave UKIP to carry on making inroads into the Labour vote, where its appeal isn't rooted in the European issue in the first place.

Obviously there will still be disgruntled Tories, but their real bone of contention is with having a pro-European leader in the first place. And if they want to change that, they need to mount a more efficient challenge. Which they would undoubtedly lose, because there is no plausible Eurosceptic alternative to Cameron, and they've already tried - with Iain Duncan Smith - having an implausible one. Much good that did them.

I'm also fairly certain that in such a referendum, Britain would vote to remain in the EU. And since that's the result the EU would want, it will swiftly get over its cries of outrage and start working to ensure that some concessions - however cosmetic - are made in order to strengthen Cameron's hand.

In the (unlikely) event that Cameron does not emerge from the general election as prime minister, the referendum presumably wouldn't happen. And that in itself would be a nice legacy for Cameron's successor. S/he can still make a big deal of 4 May 2017, using it as a rallying-point against Ed Miliband's by-then beleaguered government. The Day That Democracy Forgot would make a nice slogan.

It'd be a big step for Cameron, who isn't a notably adventurous politician. But things are getting tight and it's time for a bold move. Played right - with sufficient statesmanlike gravitas - it could be decisive. It would lose him no support whatsoever and would bring sufficient numbers of disaffected Tory votes back into the fold to ensure victory in the general election.

I've got to be a macho man

For the third year running, Ed Miliband delivered his speech to the Labour Party conference this week without notes. This has attracted a great deal of adverse comment, but none more odd than a claim that it was 'macho'. That was the charge laid by both Janet Street-Porter on BBC One's Question Time on Thursday and then again by David Mellor on LBC this morning. 'Very few women would do that,' sneered Mr Street-Porter.

It's difficult to know how to take this. I mean, there are many things one can say about Ed Miliband and about his tenure as Labour leader, but macho? It's not really the first adjective to spring to mind, is it?

In fact, surely one of the attributes that Miliband has going for him is the fact that he so obviously isn't macho. Because there are enough genuinely macho politicians around already and they seldom do us much good. I'm reminded of another Labour leader, Michael Foot, speaking to the conference in 1983, when he mocked David Owen's tough stance on nuclear weapons and quoted the words of Zsa Zsa Gabor: 'Macho isn't mucho.'

Mind you, it's probably not good that Miliband should prompt thoughts of Foot, particularly in 1983. That conference was held in the wake of a general election when Labour secured the support of just 27.6 per cent of the vote, or, to put it another way, just one in five of the registered electorate. That's the back-marker that Miliband has to beat if he's not going to be remembered as the most disastrous Labour leader since George Lansbury.

But anyway Street-Porter is simply wrong, as he so often is. The modern fashion for paperless speeches was established by a woman. Here's an extract from my book A Classless Society:

'Following her character assassination of Michael Howard, [Ann] Widdecombe became shadow health spokesperson and took the 1998 party conference by storm. Speaking without notes, and roaming the stage in a manner that would one day become associated with David Cameron, she earned a huge standing ovation with a speech that combined passion and humour in a way not seen since the great days of Michael Heseltine. Mocking the Labour health minister Tessa Jowell, whose picture appeared thirty-two times in an eighteen-page booklet designed to promote public health policies, Widdecombe shrugged: "Now I could understand it if she had my good looks . . ." She became the Conservative equivalent of John Prescott – the butt of media jokes, but seen by the rank and file membership as their plain-speaking representative at high table.'

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

London mansions

The Labour Party's proposal for an additional property tax on houses worth more than two million pounds has, according to the New Statesman, been rejected by most of the party's potential candidates for the London mayoralty.

The details are a bit vague (to be polite), but Labour is briefing that there are around 100,000 such houses in the country. And of those, some 90 per cent are in London. That's 90,000 properties. Assuming two voters in each, that'd make 180,000 people with a fairly substantial interest in not voting Labour.

And, to put that in context, the only time that a Labour candidate won a mayoral election, Ken Livingstone beat Steven Norris in the second round in 2004 with a majority of just over 160,000.

Many of the properties that would be affected aren't actually occupied by anyone on the electoral register in Britain. And many of those who are part of the electorate are probably much not inclined towards Labour. But some are. And so are some of those who live in properties not far off those prices. It's an odd place like that, London. And although Labour are hot favourites to win back the mayoralty in 2016, there's not much margin for error.

Apart from all of which, the mansion tax proposal is still a poor substitute for adding, say, another five bands at the top of council tax.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scottish referedum results

There have now been three referendums in Scotland over devolution and independence. In 1979 a proposal to institute a Scottish Assembly was not passed; in 1997 a proposal to create a Scottish Parliament was passed; now a proposal for full independence was rejected. Here are the figures for the Yes campaign in the three cases:

1979: 1,230,937 votes
1997: 1,775,045 votes
2014: 1,617,989 votes

Despite a hugely increased turnout, the number supporting independence was lower than the number who supported devolution in 1997.

Or one could look at the results in terms of the share of the electorate; again these are the results for the Yes campaigns:

1979: 32.9 per cent
1997: 44.7 per cent
2014: 37.8 per cent

I'm not sure quite what that tells me, except that it helps me to keep a sense of perspective when I read, for example, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, saying: 'yesterday 45% voted to repudiate British sovereignty, to end this arrangement once and for all. When close to half the population of a nation inside a union wants to break away, the state of that union is not strong. It is fragile.'

Well, maybe. But in thirty-five years the growth in support from devolution to independence has amounted to just under five percentage points.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The day after the Day of Destiny

Following the defeat of the independence proposal in the Scottish referendum, the haggling starts over the constitutional settlement that will result. So here's an extract from my book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s about the last time the government chickened out on this issue:

All the really difficult issues associated with devolution were similarly shelved. Tam Dalyell’s 1978 query – dubbed by Enoch Powell the West Lothian Question – still remained: Why should Scottish MPs sitting in Westminster be able to pass laws that affected people in England but not their own constituents? ‘It was a perfectly sensible question,’ concluded Blair, ‘and an interesting example of a problem in politics to which there is no logical answer.’

There was a logical answer, of course: an English parliament, or even a committee of the House of Commons, comprising all those elected as MPs for constituencies in England, which would be responsible for decisions related specifically and solely to English matters. This would have created two tiers of MP, with a steep reduction in influence for the lower tier; MPs for Scottish constituencies would have even less responsibility than they already did, since so much domestic policy was devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The official government response to the proposal was to reject it because ‘at a practical level, there is no room in the precincts large enough to accommodate all 582 members sitting for English seats’. Teresa Gorman voiced an alternative interpretation: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the English are denied a referendum and its own parliament; England is where most Conservative voters are to be found.’

Likewise there was no attempt to address the matter of the disproportionately high number of Scottish and Welsh MPs who sat in the House. Nor was there any amendment to the Barnett Formula, the stop-gap system introduced in the 1970s which provided Scotland and Wales with high levels of government spending, and which had remained untouched ever since. David Blunkett did argue for a change in early 2001, but Gordon Brown told him: ‘I can’t do anything about the Barnett Formula before the election.’ Blunkett’s response was at least honest: ‘No, I don’t expect you can. I want to win seats in Scotland and Wales as well.’

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Day of Destiny (copyright all media outlets)

On the day of Scotland's independence referendum, here's an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? remembering the 1979 referendums in Scotland and Wales:

The issue of devolution dominated the last period of James Callaghan's administration. Support for some form of separate legislatures in Scotland and Wales was by now running too high for the Labour government to ignore, while there was pressure too from its parliamentary partners in the Liberal Party, who were long-standing supporters: ‘Unlike the other two parties,’ Jeremy Thorpe had pledged in the 1970 election campaign, ‘I would see that Scotland and Wales had their own parliaments, running all domestic affairs.’

Even the Conservatives, while opposing devolution, were wary of sensibilities north of the border. Back in 1973, in the days of Edward Heath, a proposed set of stamps commemorating great Britons had been amended at the last minute to remove Edward I (‘the Hammer of the Scots’) and to replace him with Henry V; to be on the safe side, Robert the Bruce was also included. And behind the scenes was the fear of another Ulster if some sort of concession were not made. ‘I don’t want them to turn to violence, of course,’ said Michael Foot, ‘but I think it’s quite likely.’

And so the Scotland Act and the Wales Act of 1978 were passed, allowing for the creation of assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff that would take over the functions of the appropriate Whitehall departments, but only when and if referendums in the territories concerned showed a clear majority in favour. And, controversially, that was defined as entailing not simply a majority of those voting, but also the expressed support of 40 per cent of the entire electorate.

This requirement, this one final hurdle for the nationalists to overcome, was not of the government’s making. Desperate to stay in office, Callaghan was keen to appease the MPs of the SNP and Plaid Cymru and to see the devolution proposals through with as few quibbles as possible, but there was considerable disquiet amongst his own backbenchers. In Wales Neil Kinnock, a rising star of Labour, became known for his vociferous denunciations of nationalism, even claiming that there was a ‘linguistic racism’ operating in the principality against non-Welsh-speaking children.

Since the language question was of paramount importance to Plaid – the party’s first manifesto, written in 1925 by John Saunders Lewis, had insisted ‘We can aim at nothing less than to do away with the English language in Wales’ – it was not surprising that he became the target of nationalist attacks, including a 1977 pamphlet titled ‘Neil Kinnock and the Anti-Taffy League’.

A more subtle approach to linguistic sensitivity was displayed in 1974 when Selwyn Lloyd, as speaker of the House of Commons, allowed the two Plaid MPs to swear their oaths of allegiance in Welsh, so long as they also did so in English: ‘I thought that the two members concerned were slightly disappointed that I had deprived them of the chance of a public protest on behalf of the Welsh language,’ he chuckled.

Also opposed to devolution was Tam Dalyell, who, as Labour MP for West Lothian, raised what Enoch Powell promptly dubbed the West Lothian Question: How could it be right to propose that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs sitting in a Westminster Parliament should be able to pass laws affecting the population of England but not their own constituents? And, as a corollary, what was the point of him representing a Scottish constituency if he couldn’t have any influence over domestic affairs there?

When therefore an amendment was placed before Parliament calling for a mandate of 40 per cent of the electorate, there were many Labour MPs inclined to support the idea, seeing it as a reasonable prerequisite for such a major constitutional change, as well as being a way of snatching victory from the jaws of the nationalists. Thirty-four joined the Conservatives in the voting lobbies and ensured that the requirement was passed into law, despite the opposition of their own government. It was to prove a crucial decision in determining the subsequent fate of the Callaghan premiership, though the assumption was still that some form of devolution was probably inevitable and even perhaps, in some quarters, desirable.

‘Thank God they’re going independent,’ reflected Regan in The Sweeney. ‘We’ll be able to put that wall up again.’

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Sir Edward, Sir Cyril and Sir Jimmy

I've been watching some old episodes of Till Death Us Do Part. Here's a quote from an episode first broadcast in January 1974, where writer Johnny Speight seems to be tying some names together for our edification. Rita, Alf Garnett’s daughter (played by Una Stubbs), is attacking the prime minister of the time Edward Heath, before launching into other people she doesn’t like:

‘Heath makes me sick every time I see him on there with his great porky face wobbling with fat. And that other one, that other fatty – Cyril Smith MP. Have you seen him? You’d think they’d make themselves look decent before they go on the telly, wouldn’t you? You’d think they’d go to one of those health farms or something, wouldn’t you? Did you see it with Jimmy Savile the other day? Did you see them? And they were eating those lamb chops, with grease running down their faces.’

Thursday, 4 September 2014

It's (not) the real thing

The Telegraph is running a great story from the Press Association today, warning that e-cigarettes will turn you into a coke fiend:

'In mice, nicotine was found to alter brain biochemistry and prime the animals to develop a need for cocaine.'

And to think that I've been labouring under the misapprehension that no one actually needs cocaine.

Biba's golden anniversary

It's the fiftieth anniversary of Biba, the fashion label and shop founded by Barbara Hulanicki in 1964.

When I first started approaching publishers, at the beginning of this century, with the idea for a book on Biba, the dismissive response was: Who cares about a shop in West London that closed thirty years ago?

I'd already done enough research to know that there was a good answer to that question, that there were thousands of people who'd bought into the Biba aesthetic in the 1960s and '70s who still felt bereft by its abrupt closing in 1975 and who still cherished their memories. Many of them still had their treasured pieces, many still found themselves adopting Biba colour schemes when they decorated their homes.

When we did eventually publish the book ten years ago, however, what took me by surprise was the interest shown by younger people, by those who weren't even born when Biba existed. Sometimes this was because the imagery and even the clothes had been passed down from mother to daughter. But sometimes it was because the story was so perfect and so captivating.

Starting as a tiny boutique in an unfashionable part of London, Biba grew within a decade to become a fully fledged department-store, without ever losing sight of its ethos and its style. That was determined solely by Barbara Hulanicki. In an era before focus groups and market research, Biba represented the individualist creativity of the Sixties. Hulanicki trusted her own instincts and taste, assumed that others would want to join her.

As Biba expanded, so did her vision. Biba pioneered the concept of lifestyle, expanding from fashion out into home decoration, furnishing, household goods, food - every item personally approved by Hulanicki, the whole thing stamped with a single concept of making style available and affordable to anyone who wanted to participate. And it was all sold in an environment that matched the fantasy: this was the theatre of retail.

At the peak of the dream, there were plans for a Biba car and a Biba cinema. Sadly those didn't materialise, lost in the property crash that hit Britain in 1974-75.

The sudden closure was heart-breaking for many, including Hulanicki herself, but it ensured the survival of the legend. There was no steady decline, no sliding into dated irrelevance. One moment it was there - a seven-storey celebration of style and decadence; the next, it was gone forever. It lived fast and it died young. Just like the Sixties.

Its legacy is the example it left of an alternative approach to business, where the emphasis was on the creative rather than the corporate. In an increasingly homogenised world, such individualism remains inspiring. Even to those who weren't there at the time.