Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What kind of year has it been?

The Chinese have a curse – may you live in interesting times.

Gordon is certainly living in those at the moment.

We kicked off the year with Tony spiralling downwards towards his well-signalled departure and then the relatively swift leadership campaign, with the deputy leadership sideshow playing on one of the smaller stages at this festival of party politics. Despite a run of problems – foot and mouth, terrorist attacks – Gordon sailed serenely on, getting rave reviews for his statesmanlike demeanour and putting the lie to the Tories’ promises that he’d be a disaster as PM. Davey-C was on the ropes throughout the summer, as Labour regained ground in the polls and we went into our conference with a renewed confidence and hope. The troops were marched up to the top of the hill and then…

…. then the wheels came off and we’ve been careering downhill ever since, entirely at the mercy of a series of unfortunate events. Northern Wreck hit the headlines, the victim of a dodgy business plan, but it had to be thrown a life line and towed to safety for fear of damaging the rest of the banking fleet. Whenever someone whinges about the government bailing it out, remember that if it hadn’t, confidence in the entire British banking system could have faltered and there were rumours of another, even bigger, name facing serious problems. We’ve had junior clerks in the Inland Revenue mislaying vital CDs and another scandal-in-a-teacup over party funding – although Dave wasn’t immune himself, as it was revealed that his own constituency party had had to hand over some £25,000 in donations to the Electoral Commission.

Cameron hasn’t had a bad year overall – although the summer was distinctly rocky for him and there were rumblings from within the party about the need for him to shape up swiftly. Despite a professed desire to move away from the Punch and Judy style of politics, he’s shown no wish to step away from the puppets at PMQs and has been by turns smug and offensive. While I always play down the importance of PMQs in electoral terms, they do set a tone and although Cameron has scored some hits, I wonder if he just looks too much like a clever schoolboy who is far too pleased with himself, rather than a serious political contender.

And then the Lib Dems. They enjoyed our leadership contest so much, they decided to hold another one of their own, which is fast turning into an annual event. They just can’t wait to try their new knives out on their new leader, can they? After an exciting contest last year – with more dirty laundry on display than in the Walford laundrette, they hit back with one of the most soporific electoral contests in history – there was more excitement over the Labour leadership non-contest than over the Lib Dem race. It came down to the party choosing which Westminster and Oxford-educated former MEP they wanted. In the end they chose the younger one. You know. Whatshisname. No, not thingummy. The other one. That’s him. Better hair. You know who I mean….

For the year ahead – us political geeks will be gazing westwards at our colonial cousins as they spend months in intensive care with election fever. But more on that later.

I'll be interested to see where Clegg takes the Lib Dems. It was interesting that Gordon made several references to seeking common ground with the party on issues where our policies coincide - perhaps it is time to be nicer to the Liberal Democrats.

The Tories can be derailed. Remind people of the split personalities of their policies. One day, Cameron pops up demanding tougher steps to deal with rapists - perfectly sensible - and then within a matter of weeks, Vulcan Redwood argues that date rape is less serious than rape by a stranger. Cameron promises to oppose every hospital closure, but then Andrew Lansley assures us that they won't oppose closures that make sense or would improve service. Is the Tory agenda to make sure that they say something to please everyone?

Gordon has to be himself. He has to restore the authority and competence of those early days and dump the Mr Bean image gifted to him by Vince 'Low Voltage' Cable. There's nothing more dangerous to a politician than ridicule - they can be loved or hated, but if all they are is an object of fun, then they are finished in the game. It can be done, but it means a focus on avoiding banana skins and dealing with problems in a calm and effective manner. The 60th anniversary of the founding of the NHS should be a cause for great celebration of a Labour initiative that has fundamentally changed this country for the better - and for a reminder of how it was only a decade ago. As I never cease to remind doubters, ten years ago, John Major's Patients' Charter promised us treatment within eighteen months of seeing our GP. After a decade of reform - imperfect, I accept, but effective nonetheless - patients will soon be able to expect treatment within eighteen weeks and referrals for clinically urgent issues like cancer are rather faster.

Now, more than ever, we need to rediscover our narrative and our competence. This will be a difficult year economically, but we should be well-placed to ride out the worst of the international storm. Issues like public sector pay will be difficult, but it is important that the MPs show restraint and leadership by not voting themselves an above-inflation pay rise - Gordon's made all the right noises in this direction and it will be a good issue to drive a wedge between the Tories and Labour, as long as Labour MPs can remain disciplined and vote accordingly.

We need to get used to politics as normal - we've had it relatively easy for most of the past decade as the Tories haven't looked even remotely electable. Partly, they look attractive because people are a little tired of Labour, much as they were tired of the Conservatives at the start of the 90s. Gordon didn't get much of a honeymoon period, so we need to get into the habit of grafting for our political success and reminding the public of where things have gone right.

Winning the fourth term will be the next big challenge for us. It won't be done this year - unless things go exceptionally well, but 2009 is a definite possibility. Unless Gordon and the rest of the Cabinet get back on top of their game quickly, it might be lost irrecoverably this year, but I'm an optimist. It can be done, although it will be a mountain to climb. But then, nobody goes into politics for an easy life. Do they?

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