Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Young people don't realise they are being fleeced

So are dead Scots are subsidising the increased incomes of English pensioners? Well, that’s what the SNP think. I paraphrase, of course, but it’s more or less what Nicola Sturgeon was getting at when she said that the retirement age in Scotland should not be raised because Scots die younger than the English.

Now, of course, it is true that in 20 Scottish postcodes, a majority don’t reach the existing retirement age of 65, let alone the new one of 68. The average life expectancy in some Glasgow constituencies is less than sixty years. Those poor sods have contributed to pensions they never receive.

However, it is a fallacy to suggest that in some way that the dying Scots are being conned by the long-lived English. In any universal system there will be losers. Afro-Carib beans tend to die younger than white people, but you wouldn’t argue for a lower pension age for them. Many London postcodes have statistics as bad as ours.

Moreover, those English people who are working till they are 68 will be contributing a lot more in taxes and national insurance than Scots who pop their clogs at 58. Granted, if Scotland were independent, then it could set its own retirement age. But we would have to do without the UK NHS which pays disproportionately to Scots because we are so unhealthy.

No, the people I really feel sorry for are not the Glaswegian living dead with their suicidal lifestyles, but the hard-working Scots (and English) under 27 years of age who are getting a seriously raw deal from the government's new pensions policy.

Today's twenty-somethings are already burdened with five figure debts from university and they can’t afford a home because they are occupied by wealthy fifty-somethings. But it is the young who will have to pay for the increased pensions enjoyed by their parents from 2012, when the link between pension increases and average earnings is restored. The under 27s will have to work until they are 68.

And they will be denied the final-salary schemes pension schemes of their parent’s generation, because they are all being wound up. And they will have to pay increased taxes to support the huge increase in the numbers of old people as the baby boom generation retires. By 2050, the proportion of the population over 65 will double. Gordon Brown says that the package is revenue neutral - but very few people believe that the ageing population will be tax free.

There is a serious issue political issue here which we have hardly begun to address. We are dumping a very great responsibility onto people who are just entering the jobs market. There is a real danger of the intergenerational social contract being broken. Many young people may come to feel they are being screwed by the grey hairs, who had all the benefits of the welfare state and now want to maintain their privileges in their dotage.

The baby boom generation, borne in the decade after the Second World War, really did have it all. Free higher education, comfortable and secure careers, free health care and houses like slot machine which only pay out jack-pots. They inherited the sexual liberation and the greater intellectual and spiritual freedom of the 1960s - he decade which discovered youth. But not only did they invent youth culture, they kept hold of it throughout adulthood.

The over fifties are the generation that never grew up, never had to fight a war, never had to suffer material hardship. It’s no accident that this is the first generation to make pensions a key political issue. Pensioner poverty was far worse in the last century, but because the baby boomers were too young to think about it, nothing was done. Now they are in their fifties, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, pensions are suddenly top of the political pops.

Of course, the pension reforms are just and overdue. They will give older people a share in rising national wealth, curb the worst excesses of means-testing and give people an incentive to save. However, with an ageing population, someone is going to have to pay. But today’s twenty year olds don’t quite seem to quite realise that it’s them.

Unfortunately, younger people have largely opted out of the public realm. They don’t seem to discuss politics much - except for single issues. Older people read newspapers, know what’s going on, aren’t afraid to lobby MPs. Politicians are responding to the grey vote because there are so many of them and because they are twice as likely to vote in elections as the under 24s.

Young people have turned away from the ballot box because they think, rightly, that politicians are all the same. But that doesn’t mean politicians always act the same. They respond to political pressure, to public opinion, and right now older people are having a very real impact - especially in Scotland.

Just look at what older people have gained from devolution. They can travel by bus for nothing across the whole country; get free central heating; get free personal medical care and a suite of other carers provided by social services. Pretty soon council tax may be abolished, which disproportionately affects older people, in favour of local income tax, which hits younger people in work.

The very least that the government could do is address the housing problem faced by young people. The average age of a first time buyer in Scotland is 37 and many of them will still be paying mortgages when they retire. There’s no secret about what needs to be done: the government needs to incentivise house building. But Gordon Brown doesn’t want a housing boom because it would reduce the inflated value of the houses occupied by, yes, the over fifties.

And another thing. History may judge that it was today’s over fifties who destroyed the climate by their profligate energy policies and their obsession with private transport and big houses that cost the earth to heat. And who will pay the price for global warming? Yes, those same 27 year olds who are entering the world of work. They will somehow have to clean up the biggest mess in history and suffer the privations and anxiety of living in a corrupted ecosystem. Today’s older people said they wanted to die before they got old. They may be about to take the planet with them.

One wonders how young people will react once they finally realise they are being given the fluffy end of the lollypop. We know how the over fifties would have responded to inter-generational inequality - violently. Many of today’s older people were student radicals in their youth, and even those who weren’t have political activism written into their DNA. They would’ve been on the streets demonstrating against the scourge of gerontocracy. Occupying old peoples’ homes, organising mortgage strikes, defacing SAGA adverts.

But somehow I don’t see it from today’s docile wage-slaves. Old people deserve everything they get because being old is no joke. However, they are getting the last laugh at the expense of the young.

Could we really send people back to be tortured?

Tony Blair said something remarkable last week, so remarkable that I still can’t quite believe he said it. At Prime Minister’s Question Time he announced that he was going to change the law so that foreign nationals released from prison: “would be deported irrespective of any claim they have that the country to which they are going back may not be safe".

Did he really mean that he would be prepared to send foreign nationals, even refugees from persecution, back to the countries from which they came even if this meant they would be liable to be tortured there? Well, I can’t see any other way of reading it, though the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, tried to argue on BBC’s Question Time that Blair was confused by the bear pit atmosphere of the Commons and that he meant only to say that he wanted to tighten up the rules.

That might have washed had she been talking of a less competent parliamentary performer - John Prescott perhaps whose mangled syntax often defies rational understanding - but not with the PM. Tony Blair is the most sure-footed and clear speaker in parliament. He says exactly what he means. And what he means is that he intends to legislate so that Britain derogates from our international obligations to combat terrorist regimes which threaten their own citizens.

The irony clearly escapes the PM that one of the reasons we invaded Iraq (according to him) was that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who used torture against his own people. Well, under Tony Blair’s new edict, refugees from Baathist Iraq would automatically have been forced to return if they had committed an imprisonable offence in Britain. Number Ten has not sought to qualify or resile from the PM’s words on Wednesday. It is yet another notch on the authoritarian ratchet. Another attempt to solve short term political difficulties with legislative changes that could fundamentally alter the climate of civil liberties in this country.

The presumption of deportation has already replaced the presumption of innocence in our judicial system. We were told that after the hapless former Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, discovered that over a thousand foreign prisoners had been released into the community without being assessed for deportation. In future, thee need be no assessment - they'll be out on their ears.

This is, in itself, highly questionable in law. The implication is that we are more at risk from foreigners who have been released from jail than we are from British citizens who have served their time. Of course, in some cases this may well be the case - terrorists perhaps, or international drug dealers - but the Home Secretary already has the power to deport people on grounds of public safety. Assuming that every foreigner released from prison is a threat to society is something new.

Under our criminal justice system, people who have served their time are supposed to leave prison with the slate clean. They are seen to have paid their debt to society. Not any more. if you are black (and let?s face it, that?s who we're really talking about here) it you have to pay your debts twice over because you will be summarily deported to another country, where you might have to pay with your life. Indeed, merely being deported is itself a punishment, since the disruption involved breaks up families and destroys careers.

But is an American-born businessman who has been convicted for drink-driving to be deported on the grounds that he is a threat to the public? Or an Italian prosecuted for football hooliganism? Or Ernesto Leal, the Chilean arts promoter - in Scotland for thirty years - who served 18 months in prison for a pub brawl? He was re-arrested three weeks ago in Edinburgh and is to be deported to, of all places.

It is now possible that people who have lived here for most of their lives could be forcibly removed for committing relatively trivial crimes which happen to carry a prison sentence - like possession of certain drugs, shop-lifting and even traffic offences. It's possible too that people could be deported who have committed no crime at all, if they are unfortunate enough to have found themselves accused of paedophilia or under age sex and been placed on a register.

The Prime Minister insists that such people will have the right to appeal. A presumption of deportation doesn't mean inevitable deportation. Perhaps, but it does certainly add a new dimension to the existing legal status of immigrants. For the first time they are being condemned as a class for constituting a collective threat to public safety. This is hard law based on bad cases.

Now, of course, many people will say that we shouldn't take any chances. Better to send them home to where they came from. A majority will probably re-offend. True, but so will a majority of British nationals who are sent to prison for serious offences. Surely the logic of this is that we should deport all criminals upon release - and if there isn't anywhere we can send them, shouldn't we keep them under lock and key here just to be on the safe side.

I hesitate event to suggest something so draconian in case it finds its way into the Prime Minister’s next missive. He is clearly determined to challenge every liberal presumption, every cherished freedom, every civilised convention of British civil society. He wants Britain to abandon the Human Rights Convention, which has been the foundation of civil society in Europe since the Second World War and which was ratified by Winston Churchill in 1951.

Tony Blair is out of control. Last week’s row over illegal immigration was another unnecessary panic. Of course we don’t know how many illegal immigrants there are living in Britain. If we did they wouldn’t be illegal. Some of them have even been cleaning the Home Office. But the Prime Minister, and the new Home Secretary, John Reid, seem content to allow this panic to grow if only to feed the demand for new repressive legislation.

Tony Blair said that only identity cards and tougher border controls could stem the influx of illegals. But weren’t we told that ID cards were supposed to be about combating identity theft, and not terrorism or immigration?

Identity cards in European countries like France and Spain haven’t made the slightest difference to the problem of illegal immigration. Anyway, the Home Office has admitted losing hundreds of passports, so what makes anyone think it could manage something as complex as the world’s first biometric identity card?

The government may believe it is only responding to public demand. Many ministers, like the immigration minister Tony McNulty, evidently believe that Britain can remain a liberal country even with a Prime Minister who seems to take his lead from editorials in The Sun. We are told by such as Harriet Harman not to pay too much attention to the PM’s rantings in parliament because he doesn’t really mean it.

But even if he doesn’t, setting the dogs of war loose does have an effect. After the July London bombings Tony Blair announced a twelve point plan for dealing with domestic terrorism through bringing back 14th Century treason laws, introducing detention without trial for three months and outlawing the glorification of terrorism. The treason laws were not re-enacted and nor was ninety day detention. But glorification of terrorism is on the the statute book, and suspects can now be detained for a month without any charge, longer than in any other European country.

Words matter - especially if they are uttered by Number Ten. It is time that Labour MPs in parliament opened their ears and listened.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Brown will do when he takes over

Everyone’s been waiting for the tipping point. Well, last week it finally tipped as Tony Blair admitted he cannot serve a full term. Everyone now accepts that the PM will go sometime around May 2007, after his tenth anniversary. So, the clock has started ticking. Time for columnists to start penning nostalgic obituaries for the PM and saying that he wasn’t as bad as all that, really. Even though he was.

But if we are in a new world - and we are - what is life going to be like with Gordon Brown in Number Ten? We don’t really know because the Chancellor has been pretty reluctant to tell us - presumably in case Tony Blair steals his best ideas.
However, there are hints. In his Today interview on the morning after the English local elections, Brown talked of the need to address the challenges of “globalisation, the life/work balance and climate change”. It all sounded a bit grim, as if Brown’s Britain will be an environmentally friendly work camp, full of employed mothers working flexi shifts and drinking Fair Trade coffee.

We all know about Brown’s commitment to the work ethic - his own and other peoples’. The Left may be shocked to discover how determined he is to get the millions on incapacity benefits back to work or into training. As he confirmed again on his visit to his old school, Kirkcaldy High on Friday, education will become a national obsession as Brown seeks to counter the job-destroying impact of globalisation.

However, the Chancellor is a defender of the comprehensive principle, so most of the Prime Minister’s attempts to restore selection will almost certainly wither. The English educational environment will start to look more like the Scottish one. The Blairite health reforms will also be stalled, if only to halt hospital closures. The Chancellor always opposed foundation hospitals.

But Brown will be just as market-oriented as Tony Blair, perhaps more so. This is the man who brought us PFI, after all. Indeed, because Brown is thought to be more social democratic, and is more trusted on public services, he may be able to carry through market reforms which Blair could not. Patients might find themselves paying ‘hotel’ costs to meet the rising cost of medical care.

Early in his administration, Brown will want to make an impact with some dramatic headline-grabbing initiatives - like making the Bank of England independent in 1997. Looking at the state of the economic landscape today there is one thing that stands out above everything: houses, or rather the lack of them. An entire generation of families has been locked out of the housing market. In Scotland, the age of the average first time buyer is now 37. In Barking and Dagenham, one important reason for the local switch to the BNP was frustration among former Labour voters at the lack of affordable housing.

Tinkering with shared equity schemes and tax breaks cannot meet the scale of the problem. Re-housing the nation is going to need a supply solution - perhaps even a return to mass house building on the scale of the 1950s. Mobilising the public and private economy to build for Britain could be doubly useful. It would deliver votes from the new generation of middle class householders, and it could also boost employment just at the moment when Brown is cutting in spending - and therefore hiring - in the public sector.

What else? Well the Chancellor has now apparently struck a bargain with Tony Blair about restoring the earnings link to pensions, but he hasn’t given any commitments about restoring the true value of the state pension, which has been steadily eroding for the last 25 years. The Chancellor insists that a Citizens Pension is too costly. But Prime Minister Brown may find ingenious means of making it affordable, through things like rolling up SERPS. The National Savings Scheme, under which the state would effectively nationalise the pensions industry, could be an epic project. But after it, Brown will be able to say that he has abolished penury and insecurity in old age.

Solving the pensions crisis is too good an opportunity to miss. Just think of the gratitude from all those millions of baby boomers who are coming up for retirement: grey-hairs who are twice as likely to vote as the feckless under-24s who’ll ultimately have to pay for it all. Brown’s resistance hitherto may simply have been because he wanted his name on this, not Tony Blair’s.

What else could be in the Brownite in-tray? Well, another long-standing drag on Britain’s economy has been the transport system. It doesn’t work. We have no high speed rail links (except to the Channel Tunnel) and our cities are choked with traffic. I think Brown may try to bring Britain together by taking up Network Rail’s plan for a new high-speed rail link from Edinburgh to London. It would fit well with his avowed unionism to cut the distance from Scotland to the South East.

Now that the Conservatives are led by a bicycling politician (even if his chauffeur-driven limo follows behind) Prime Minister Brown would be in a position to tackle urban congestion and car use and claim cross party agreement. Brown could use road pricing extensively as a revenue earner, a means of meeting climate change targets and for changing the climate of cities, making them much more family-friendly.

Brown will try to make Britain a model of an environmental country, reviving the Kyoto process and seeking to exploit Scotland’s renewable energy. But I expect he will also build replacements for some of Britain’s nuclear power stations and extend the life of others (even the Greens will accept this). But Brown has no illusions about nuclear power and knows how ruinously expensive it can be, so he will present this as ‘building a bridge’ to renewable future.

According to the Sun last week, Blair has also locked Brown into keeping Britain’s “independent” nuclear deterrent. But that’s surely something would do anyway, if only to maintain British membership of the nuclear club that runs the UN Security Council. However, Brown is also acutely conscious of the waste involved in building a system which can never be used and the dangers of nuclear proliferation, so expect him to use his authority on the international stage to promote further disarmament. He will assuredly rule out nuclear strikes on Iran. Brown will remain resolutely pro-American, but that doesn’t mean he has to follow Republican neo-imperialism.

Children will of course figure very prominently in Brown’s Britain, and there may be incentives to have more of them. I fully expect Brown to adopt the new “happiness” agenda being promoted by such as Professor Richard Leyard and our own Carol Craig of the Centre for Confidence and Well being. The radical ginger group “Compass’ is heavily into the well-being agenda and it would be a relatively easy way for Brown to curry favour with the new Left. Brown wants to change our moral universe; leaving behind the get-rich Blair years.

He has also promised renewal of parliament. Expect a new honours system in which good works are rewarded rather than secret loans to the Labour Party. Lords reform is a done deal. Brown opposes electoral reform, but fair voting in elections is the only way to restore parliamentary democracy and end the elective dictatorship which took us into Iraq. If it looks like the Liberal Democrats will have to be kept on board, then Brown may accept proportional voting. Coalition, on the Scottish model, could lock the Tories out indefinitely and entrench progressive politics.

And finally? Of course, Brown’s biggest and boldest moves are known only to him. No one expected the Bank of England and the only thing we can be certain of is that whatever Brown does, it won’t be boring. And we won’t have to wait much longer.

Why not just castrate drug addicts?

Speaking personally, I’d cut their goolies off. It’s the only language these people understand. I mean why should they be allowed to continue having children when they are a burden on the state? Haven’t they caused enough trouble as it is without inflicting their offspring on society, creating another generation of damaged sociopaths.

Yes, it’s time to stop Labour MSPs like Duncan McNeil from reproducing. They should have contraceptives introduced into their beer. Or their wives’ beer, or whatever they drink nowadays in Greenock and Inverclyde. It’s time to start playing hardball - or no balls at all. If oral contraception doesn’t work, castration has the great merit of being 100% effective. I rest my case.

Duncan McNeil’s plan for dosing the methadone of heroin addicts with contraceptives may have been loopy, but there was political method in the madness. Labour wants to convince voters that it is tough on smack in time for the next Holyrood elections. The squeals from social workers and liberal lawyers that compulsory contraception would be a cruel breach of human rights were just what they wanted.

After the toddler Derek Doran died last year after drinking the methadone prescribed for his mother, Jack McConnell gave the green light to his backbenchers to think the unthinkable. They've been only too willing to oblige.

Howevere, a number of practical and ethical problems are presented by Mr McNeil’s plan: what about Catholic drug parents? Would they be forced to consume contraceptives, which the Church insists is an offence against the law of God and a grave sin? And why should it only be women who are targeted? Surely the Labour sisterhood should demand equal treatment for male drug addicts. How about a dash of bromide in the methodone, or better still chemical castration, which is painlessly administered to some paedophiles in the more enlightened US jails. It would stop them impregnating eleven year old girls into the bargain.

And if we are to stop drug addicts breeding, why not alcoholics? Surely they too should be prevented from commiting random acts of procreation. You can’t rely on brewer’s droop. Then there is the criminal population in general, We don’t want all those foreign murderers and rapists released into the community by Charles Clarke to start families.

Asylum seekers could be given contraceptives in their tea. Then there are people with disabilities. You know, eugenics isn’t all bad - biomedical racial hygiene just got a little out of hand under the Nazis.

Of course, the Scottish Executive has distanced itself from Mr McNeil’s proposals. But it is looking seriously at other other ways of dealing with the children of drug addicts which are almost as alarming. The First Minister has made clear that he wants to see the children of drug parents taken into care, en masse if necessary. Presumably, this is so that they can be properly trained in the ways of hard drugs, for, of course, children in care are far more likely to end up using drugs than children who live with their natural parents.

The recent changes to the rules on adoption, allowing same sex couples to adopt on the same basis as heterosexuals, was partly inspired by the expected demand for care as the FM’s child snatch squads sweep the housing estates to liberate the offspring of crack-heads. But I’m not so sure that gay couples are all that keen to take on the responsibilities for eleven year old addicts.

So, the state will inevitably become the parent of last resort. There are around fifty thousand children who live in families where at least one adult is misusing drugs. That’s an awful lot of childrens homes he’ll be opening. And with the shortage of rehabilitation places for heroin addicts, we can only expect Scotland’s hard drug community to grow.

Perhaps, McConnell could enlist the help of the private sector. I’m sure that Premier Prisons, who run Kilmarnock jail so efficiently, could open up new age secure units for drug children at very reasonable cost. Private sponsers could be encouraged to fund these establishments, which could be called ‘homes of ambition’.

But why stop there? Surely the children of alcoholics should also be taken into preventive care, on the grounds that they are just as likely to be damaged and abused as the children of drug takers. There could be compulsory alcohol tests for parents. Anyone found drinking more than twenty five units a week would be expected to hand their children over to the nearest correctional facility

Now, of course, this is a serious problem, and we shouldn’t make light of it. But the Scottish Executive isn’t making a lot of sense right now, and Labour MSPs like Duncan McNeil are positively inviting derision. The FM seems to be untroubled with the criticism from childrens organisations and from the Child Commissioner for Scotland, Kathleen Marshall, that “yo-yoing” children in and out of care only makes this problem worse. Anyway, there aren't enough social workers to go round.

But last week, McConnell announced the “Hidden Harm - Next Steps” programme which includes a new fostering agency to look afer the new charges of the state. The FM said that “chaotic” drug abuse was incompatible with effective parenting. But what about orderly drug taking? Perhaps if the addled parents were on regular prescription doses of heroin, their children might be in less obvious danger.

Contrary to popular belief, people can survive perfectly well on heroin for many years and behave quite normally. A study last year by Glasgow Caledon University found that many were holding down normal jobs and relationships and passing exams. And I’m assured that the sample didn’t all come from the university itself.

It may be difficult to envisage the state taking over the drugs trade and providing a regular supply of narcotics to Scotland’s 40-60,000 addicts. On the other hand, it would keep them off the streets, and cut crime pretty dramatically. The police admit themselves that the war against drugs is being lost, and some officers in Strathclyde have even been suggesting that drugs should be legalised, even hard drugs like heroin.

There’s no guarantee that returning to the policies of the 1960s, when heroin was prescribed to addicts by doctors, will stop the drugs trade in its tracks. But one thing is certain: if we go on as we are today, the numbers of people on drugs will only increase as will the danger to children. And with MSPs like Duncan McNeil on the loose, there’s no knowing where it will end up.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jack needs a Tory revival - he isn't getting it

The best thing for Jack McConnell right now would be a Conservative revival in Scotland. That’s the message of the English local elections. The voters are in an ugly mood and want to give Labour a kicking for a whole range of Westminster misdemeanours. But the maths look particularly bad for Scottish Labour because of the failure of the David Cameron effect north of the border.

In England, the onward march of the Liberal Democrats has been halted by the new improved Tory party. It left the new Liberal leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, struggling to explain why his party failed to win many seats when Labour was in such disarray.

In Scotland, by contrast, the Conservative vote collapsed in the Moray and Dunfermline by elections, and seems to be going equally to the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. They are now breathing heavily down the back of Jack McConnell’s neck. The Scottish Labour Party’s own internal polls, revealed in the Times last week, suggest that McConnell could lose twelve Holyrood seats next May. That means Labour is firmly in the danger zone and risks losing office to a Nat/Lib/Green popular front.

At times like these, when the voters have lost confidence in and respect for an administration, they look to kick the most obvious target. In London in was the Brents and Lambeths. And the next backside to present itself will be Jack McConnell’s in exactly twelve months’ time.

London Labour has been deeply hurt by the loss of some of its showcase local councils, like Camden, Ealing. Hammersmith and Fulham. How dare the voters kick us when we are up, they say? Don’t they realise that these are some of the best performing local authorities in England? Perhaps, but politics isn’t fair.

So, how does Jack McConnell avoid being swept away with the tide of resentment that is flowing so rapidly against Tony Blair’s regime in Westminster? Well, Labour ministers can be forgiven for saying: what haven’t they done? If they’re going to be turfed out now, when the Scottish Executive is performing better than at any time since 1999, there really is no justice. At least, that’s how they see it.

Certainly, the Executive and McConnell are getting a better press than at any time I can remember. This may partly be down to changes in the structure and ownership of the Scottish media which has drained some of the poison out of its coverage of Scottish politics. But it is also because the Executive has - in a very real sense - managed to get its act together.

There hasn’t been a scandal of any significance in the Scottish Parliament for a whole eighteen months - if you exclude the Tory leader David McLetchie’s taxi chits - since McConnell’s holiday chez Kirsty Wark’s, which wasn’t a scandal at all. McConnell’s challenge to MSPs who might be using their living allowance to speculate on Edinburgh property is a sign of his new confidence. Labour is losing its desperate fear of the press that so marked the early years and gave McConnell a reputation as a shallow populist only interested in appeasing the media.

McConnell has been standing up for himself and Scotland over prisoner release, and he even faced down Gordon Brown when the Chancellor tried to bounce him into ruling out congestion charging on the Forth Road Bridge. The smoking ban was a considerable achievement; the moves to improve nutritional standards in schools has also won widespread praise, and even attracted representatives of the French education ministry to Scotland to see how it is done. The NHS is improving, population decline has been halted, for now, and Scottish economic growth has improved.

So, the FM has cause to feel aggrieved that he’s not getting obvious political benefit from all this. But there’s no point in moaning about the electoral weather - you just have to deal with it. So,again, what can he do? Well, Gordon Brown’s verdict on Friday morning is instructive. He said that Labour had to seek “renewal”; had to show that it was capable of addressing the pressing issues of today, not the issues of a decade ago. This is what McConnell must now do in Holyrood.

Ten years ago, devolution was all about keeping the nationalists out of power. That has, in a sense, already been achieved, in that the SNP is no longer a separatist party in the traditional sense (though it remains a potent electoral threat). Nor is there any doubt about the permanence of devolution. There is no indication that the Scottish voters want the Scotland Act revoked. Rather, they want a more effective Scottish democracy than what has been on offer for the last seven years.

Somehow, Labour must come to terms with this new phase, “devolution 2.0”, and develop policies accordingly. At a presentational level, McConnell has tried to do this by branding himself as more distinctively Scottish, through the global Scot initiative and the campaign for the 2014 Commonwealth Game. But he has to do more than wrap himself in the Saltire. McConnell needs address the deficiencies in the Scottish democracy, the sections of the Scotland Act which were designed as a unionist fail-safe against nationalism. The Scottish Parliament must find its own revenue base and be seen to raise more of the money it spends.

This is hardly revolutionary. The leader of the conservative CDU in Lower Saxony, David McAllister, was in the Scottish Parliament last week explaining the various taxes raised by the regional laender government in Germany, including a proportion of income tax and VAT. Lower Saxony also has a beer tax, which might make sense in Scotland, where damage from alcohol remains one of our most serious health problems.

The Scottish parliament also needs to wrest control of policies like energy policy, immigration and broadcasting from Westminster. In each of these areas, Scotland faces a very different set of issues. We need policies which promote renewable energy and easier immigration, rather than nuclear power and border controls. BBC Scotland risks being lost in the new British Broadband Corporation being fashioned by the DG Mark Thompson.

There is no reverse gear - devolution can only go forward. And if it doesn’t? The figures conform what this column has been arguing for some time: that the logic of coalitions is that, sooner or later, they have to change. Labour has no divine right to rule in Scotland and, even if it remains the largest party next May, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Greens have every justification in trying to lock them out. Time is short. And McConnell can’t expect the flat-lining Conservatives to ride to his rescue.

How Labour can win the next election.

To call it rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is an insult to deck chairs. Tony Blair’s most radical reshuffle since he came to office was supposed to show who was in charge, restore confidence, give the government a new and dynamic face. Instead it made the Prime Minister look faintly ridiculous.

It exposed him as a leader who has lost touch and run out of options. Is this really the best he can do, after nine long years? The unimpressive Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary - a politician who has built a career out of just being there - is now all that stands between us and a third gulf war.

The peripatetic John Reid, “Mr stop-gap”, in his eighth ministerial post, takes over as Home Secretary a week after cannabis was found in his Lanarkshire Home. This pugnacious Scot, whose ministerial style has been described as “Glasgow kiss”, will now be in charge of a dysfunctional department which should be in intensive care.

And then there is John Prescott, “two shags” as the Deputy Prime Minister will forever be known, being stripped of everything but his grand titles, his six figure salary and his grace and favour residences. He'll now be free to pursue those extramarital affairs, for which he is so famous, free from the distractions of ministerial responsibility. “ Now Prezza screws us all”, as the Sun put it.

Government is a serious matter, but this is one government that just cannot be taken seriously anymore. Tony Blair scattered ministers around the table like confetti. Moving Jack Straw, Ruth Kelly, Geof Hoon, David Miliband to no obvious purpose’ - random ministers in random posts. This is now a cabinet which is less than the sum of its parts. There was neither new blood, nor recognition of ministerial achievement. It looked as if the PM was simply changing the names for the sake of it.

MPs were asking why didn’t he move John Prescott to the role of Party chairman, where his skills as a political bruiser, with a hotline to the working class soul of the movement, might have been put to good use. Instead, the egregious Hazel Blears, a woman whose loyalty to the Blairite cause is excruciating, will now try to persuade Labour activists that the party is being put back into their hands.

Geof Hoon, the former Leader of the House, may be an insipid politicians without obvious talent, but why make him Europe minister only then to tell him he wasn’t actually in the cabinet any more. Jack Straw may have been a flaky, wittering and vain Foreign Secretary - a “tart” as the PM is said to call him - but he’s been knocking around the diplomatic circuit for some time. You only replace people like that if you have someone better to fill the job. Similarly, John Reid is the ultimate square peg, a man who never stays long enough to pick up the pieces. He replaces Charles Clarke who at least had “bottom”, a ton of it, and was a diligent, thoughtful and thorough minister.

So, this is not a cabinet to restore confidence, it is a ministerial team which will have difficulty having confidence in itself. The PM has had a terrible press and these ministers know he is living on borrowed time. Their main tasks in office will be to avoid doing anything that might antagonise their next boss, Gordon Brown. They will be rightly wary of carrying out Blair’s wishes too assiduously in case they mark themselves out as too Blairite. That’s no recipe for efficient and effective government.

And if this botched and inconsequential reshuffle was intended to silence the growing clamour on the Labour benches for the Prime Minister’s early departure, it manifestly failed. Labour MPs - like ex ministers Andrew Smith and Nick Raynesford - were queuing up outside the BBC’s Westminster studios on Friday waiting to speak out, demanding that Blair should set a time table. Make a date!

And they are right. The only thing that can save this government now is if the Prime Minister comes to terms with his own political mortality. Blair can salvage something from the wreckage of his third term, but only if he listens. Forget the public service reform agenda, Blair’s best bet for a legacy is to effect an orderly transition of power within the Labour government and ensure that he bequeaths an historic fourth election victory.

It is possible; and here’s how: Blair should get up at the Labour conference in September and tell the party that he intends to go in May 2007, by which time he will have served ten years as PM. 'Long enough for anyone.... time to end the speculation... owe it to the country...Cherie and the children etc..' There could then be a leadership contest in the Spring of next year between Brown, Charles Clarke and John Reid. Gordon Brown, assuming he wins, would then be installed as leader at the party conference in autumn 2007.

The new PM could then use the next six months to set out his stall - unveil the policies which will renew Labour and address those issues the Chancellor identified in his “Today” interview on Friday morning: globalisation, the work-life balance, the environment, and restoring trust and confidence in parliamentary democracy. Brown could then go confidently to a general election in May 2008 as a new broom with a good chance of winning a popular mandate and leading a fourth Labour government.

The virtue of this arrangement would be that it allows Labour to effect the kind of power transfer that normally only happens through a general election. Instead, the election would be an affirmation of a change which has already taken place at the top. It would also allow Labour to dominate political coverage for fully two years.

As soon as Blair made his announcement in September, media attention would focus on Brown’s likely alternative government. The leadership election in 2007 would keep the press busy for months of speculation. And after Brown was installed, his new policy agenda would then dominate the Westminster village until the launch of next general election campaign. IN other words, Labour could spin out its renewal over two sessions of parliament. It could marginalise the Liberal Democrats, under Sir Menzies Campbell and eclipse David Cameron.

The alternative is two years of mishap and scandal as Tony Blair’s administration disintegrates into rancour and scandal. The reshuffle has demonstrated just how far the government’s authority has collapsed. The Tories have just had their best election result since 1992, in the English elections, and David Cameron could pose a serious threat in future if Labour’s rot continues and the voters’ dissatisfaction with this government hardens into contempt.

Gordon Brown has the virtue of not being part of the metropolitan elite. He is happily married and doesn’t spend his time soliciting secret loans from rich men. He was largely untainted by the Iraq war, has a genuine record of achievement as Chancellor and is respected, if not exactly loved, by voters grateful for his management of the economy. He is Labour’s best and only hope.

Moreover, Blair’s last-gasp reshuffle is actually quite a good one from a Brown point of view. It means that when takes over he can swiftly remove ‘dead wood’ like Beckett and Reid, and give his first administration a youthful face, by promoting the likes of David Milliband, Douglas Alexander and Ed Balls, with Scots like Des Browne and Alastair Darling lending experience at defence and the treasury. He could even bring back Charles Clarke.

So, all is not lost for Labour. But it could be if it continues to be led by a deluded leader who sits in his bunker, issuing futile orders to imaginary armies in a war everyone knows he has lost. Except him.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Those party election expenses in full ( from 25/4/06)

I’m sure that the country will find it immensely reassuring to learn that our great political parties retain a sense of humour at election time. What cheese-paring skinflint would deny a few hundred pounds for Dr Spock outfits for Labour’s attacks on the extra-terrestiral Tory MP, John Redwood? Or the three and a half grand spent by the Tories on groundhog suits - to underline the repetitive quality of Labour’s election promises? And is there a voter so mirthless that they would think #1400 too much for the Tories’ diverting “Whack-a-Mole” video?

But look, seriously, as a political culture we really have to grow up, live in the real world, get sense of proportion. Cherie Blair may have revealed herself to be Labour’s answer to Imelda Marcos, in her ability to spend #7,700 on daily hairstyling. But surely the public want their leaders’ spouses to look their best? I mean, the Tory leader, Michael Howard, spent #3,683 on make-up alone - it’s dog eat dog out there.

I’m confident that all those Labour Party activists who give their services to the party for nothing, those Labour members who loyally pay their annual subs, those pensioners who’ve donated their pennies to the cause, will have raised a silent cheer upon learning that their cash has been well spent. That Cherie, who scrapes by on a lawyers pittance of #250,000 a year, will not have to go tousled into the campaign lights. #275 a day is the least the Labour Party could do for its First Lady.

You see, it’s important that Labour politicians, and their fragrant wives, don’t feel like second class citizens when they go touting for cash among the nation’s super-rich. New Labour, new frocks. Holding fund-raising dinners at Lord Levy’s house doesn’t come cheap. Tony Blair has standards to keep up, and with that #3.6 million mortgage on his Connaught Street retirement home, you can’t expect him to shell out for Cherie.

And we don’t want self-styled media moralists challenging Labour’s right to spend whatever it takes to get elected. This is surely what democracy is all about. In a free society, it is the duty of all politicians seeking electoral office to solicit millions in secret donations so that they can afford the very latest propaganda techniques and commercial psychology to bamboozle the voters. Focus groups, misleading statistics and emotive advertising works well for junk food manufacturers and drinks companies - so why not for political parties?

Of course, there will be quibblers who would deny the former Labour spin-doctor, Alastair Campell his ten grand a month for advising Tony Blair on how best to lie to the media. But a capacity for untruth is an essential part of any modern politician’s electoral repertoire - and it doesn’t come cheap. To lie effectively takes years of experience and close personal coaching from people who have spent a lifetime in the trade of deception.

The results were there for all to see: Tony Blair was re-elected despite having taken Britain into an illegal war in Iraq, without the promised second UN resolution, or any of the WMD he said was going to be used against Britain. Yes, in electoral terms, this was money well spent.

Similarly, importing the Australian spin-doctor Lynton Crosby to sell the message of the Tory leader, Michael Howard, was cheap at the price - and that price was around half a million pounds, according to the Electoral Commission. Mr Crosby has a unique ability to tap into the mind of the ordinary voter, there to exploit dark and irrational fears of foreigners taking over the country and asylum seekers raping young white women. Under Mr Crosby’s guidance, the Tories spent #900,000 on direct mail shots on immigration alone.

Yes, this political sage from down-under knows just how to take political debate into the gutter where it belongs. It takes immense reserves of cynicism and irresponsibility which you simply cannot find in Britain. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking” he said. You may be thinking that this is one immigrant who should be sent back where he came from. But you aren’t the UK Conservative Party.

As for John Prescott’s bus - well, really, what do people expect Labour to do with the Deputy Prime Minister at election time? You couldn’t have him answering questions on policy - no one can understand a word he says - or debating with members of the general public. Mr Prescott is liable to punch them in the head, as he did famously in the 2001 general election.

Nothing wrong with a bit of fisticuffs, of course - shows that Prescott is a true Brit who know how to handle himself. But in the interests of public safety it was clearly wise to send him off to the rougher, remoter parts of the realm, where working folk are more accustomed to speaking with their fists. It was Labour's duty to send Mr Prescott on a wide-ranging and extensive bus tour of the provinces where he would do as little harm as possible. The cost really is irrelevant at a mere #264,000 plus #75,000 in makeovers. Mr Prescott’s cage alone could have cost half of that.

Now, as a member of the press, I feel I should declare an interest here since I may well have been among those who benefited from the #360 spent by Gordon Brown’s team on coffee ands biscuits during his rally in Edinburgh. I don’t recall helping Charles Kennedy get through his bar bill of #101 in forty eight hours, at the Liberal Democrat campaign launch, but then I don’t expect he can either.

No wonder the Liberal Democrat leader needed those six new suits - the others probably had to be disposed of as a fire hazard. But, look, at #5,000. that’s less than a grand per tin flute - a ridiculously small sum of money for a politician’s working wear. We can’t expect them to go to T K Maxx. Taxis, helicopters, chauffeur-driven limousines it all costs, you know, to take democracy to the voters. The Tories spent #57,000 on mouse mats and mugs alone.

The breakdown of the parties' 2005 general election expenses was released by the Electoral Commission and has provoked widespread coverage in the UK press. Though Herald readers may recall that the details of the Conservative Party’s expenses were originally revealed six weeks ago by the Sunday Herald’s political editor, Paul Hutcheon, after a query under the Freedom of Information Act . All of which confirms that democracy in Britain is in rude good health and the London media can be relied upon to keep an alert eye on what’s going on in our name, provided it is handed to them on a plate.

But, look, we don’t want politics to be about boring things like policies and promises. We want our politicians to have a sense of humour, of the absurd. Why, the biggest joke of all is that - in future - they actually expect the taxpayer to fund this rubbish.

The Scottish Executive can't be blamed for prisoner release, but that doesn't mean it won't be.

Last week, Jack McConnell finally gave up any pretence that he's collectively responsible for what takes place in UK government departments. Charles Clarke may be a minister in the same administration, but McConnell made no attempt to apologise or minimise the prisoner release scandal.

He told MSPs at Question Time that he was ?angry and disappointed? about the danger to public safety in Scotland from dangerous criminals, who should have been deported, walking the streets. Let loose, er, by a Labour ministerial colleague.

But there's no love lost between the Scottish Executive and the Home Office. Charles Clarke's rebuff to McConnell's Fresh Talent initiative and the practice of dawn raids on Scottish asylum seekers like the Vucaj family had created tensions between the two departments of state. But there's been nothing like this before. Prisoner release is the most serious breach of trust between Edinburgh and Westminster since devolution, and it will not be forgotten.

The fact that the Home Office hadn?t informed the Scottish Prison Service about the cock up when it came to light last Summer has infuriated ministers. Their inability, still, to get any coherent answers from the Home Office about what is going on now has left aides to the FM fuming. ?There?s no way this could happen here?, said one senior source. ?Scottish ministers are too hands on?.

There?s feeling in the Scottish Executive that UK ministers spend too much of their time lunching with journalists and getting involved in PR exercises and presentational politics, like anti-terrorism initiatives. They lose touch with the practical business of ensuring that their departments do the job they are supposed to do.

I?m not entirely sure that?s fair - the FM is no stranger to media driven politics - and the Scottish Executive is quite capable of losing prisoners - just think of the prisoner transfer scheme and Reliance. But they may have a point about being closer to the action, as it were, in Scotland and more able to keep in closer touch with what's going on in their departments. Certainly, bureaucratic behemoths like the Home Office seem to be suffering from more than a "systemic crisis" as Charles Clarke put it. More like a loss of the will to live.

Scottish MSPs and officials seemed genuinely amazed at how the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND ) managed to ?lose? over a thousand dangerous foreign prisoners, many of whom should have been deported on their release from jail. You would have thought, given the rows over asylum seekers and illegal immigration, that the HOme Office would have gone to any lengths to prevent it appearing as if dangerous foreign criminals, even those who had served their time, were walking the streets when they should have been sent to their countries of origin. What better propaganda for the BNP?

At least the IND knew where these particular foreigners were when they were released from prison. The courts make a point of identifying them and recommending their deportation when they are sentenced. How could they mislay them? It seems that the IND was informed by the prison authorities, but simply failed to meet its obligation to assess these murderers, rapists and drug dealers for deportation. Moreover, even after this failure came to light nearly a year ago, the IND continued to lose track of them and 288 were released into the community.

Immigration is, of course, a Westminster responsibility and the Scottish Executive is not under criticism here. The Scottish prison service was able to confirm that all of the 188 such prisoners released last year were processed and 26 deported. But they could give no assurances that some of those released in England hadn?t made their way north. And the trouble for the Executive is that this creates an impression in Scotland of incompetence which is not their fault.

And it's not the only area of government activity in which there has been spillover to Scotland. Any Schadenfreude among Scottish ministers at the discomfort of the UK Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt last week, is tempered by worry that the voters will fail to differentiate between the Scottish and English NHS reforms.

Scottish ministers believe they have been vindicated in not importing the new internal market. The upheaval in England should have given the Scottish NHS a breathing space to push ahead with its own reforms and try to show that the ?collaborative approach? is indeed preferable to a market free-for-all. But over the next couple of years, the English media will be dominated by NHS job losses and hospital closures and the voters may not understand the difference. Anyway, as we've seen in Glasgow and now Lanarkshire, problems over hospital closures continue north of the border.

Then there is sleaze. The cash for peerages scandal, like cash for access and the loans scandal has caused huge damage to Labour and politics in general. Yet, the Scottish Parliament is the lease sleazy executive in the democratic world. Holyrood scandals - like Henry McLeish?s constituency allowance muddle and David McLetchie's taxi expenses - are trivial compared with millions of secret loans to Tony Blair?s election fund, or the award of honours for services to city academies. But the Labour Party in Scotland can?t help being damaged by the scandals that fill the papers and BBC news bulletins which are read and seen in Scotland.

Jack McConnell tried to seize the initiative last week by calling time on the regime which allows MSPs to profit from the capital gain on houses bought with their living allowances. It won him few friends in any party, but he was right to make a principled stand on the issue. In London, MPs have made fortunes out of house price inflation, and some of them have practically become virtual property developers with strings of flats financed by the public purse.

At a time when young families cannot afford to buy houses it is simply unacceptable for elected politicians to be making windfall profits out of this. But Labour may derive little political benefit from this. Politics is a rough old game, and public opinion doesn't deal in fairness.

The fact is that Labour in Scotland is becoming associated in the public mind with scandal and incompetence. The collapse of the Labour vote in Dunfermline, and now in the Moray by-election, shows the real danger that Jack McConnell faces next May when Holyrood goes up for election. The voting public is becoming phobic about Labour, and isn?t seemingly in any mind to give the Scottish Labour Party credit, even where it is due.

A year ago a biography of McConnell was published calling him @lucky Jack@". It seems to have run out.

Blair really is like John Major

So, was it really Tony Blair’s “Black Wednesday”? Were the tragi-comic events of last week, which left half the cabinet making grovelling apologies for various forms of misconduct, really as serious as the events of Black Wednesday 1992 which destroyed the credibility of the Conservatives under John Major?

Well, not surprisingly, Labour ministers are keen to reject any such comparisons. Bedroom antics, ministerial barracking and even the failure to deport serious criminals are not, they say, as politically damaging as the ejection of the pound from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, when interest rates rose to 15%.. Britain in 1992 was in the depths of recession, with real unemployment at nearly three million and millions of people facing repossession after the collapse in house prices. Anyway, back then, Labour were far ahead of the governing Tories in the opinion polls. David Cameron isn’t.

All this is true. However, I think the comparison with the Major years is actually quite instructive, if you change the dates. What people forget is that John Major was re-elected in 1992, against all the odds and to the dismay of Labour, who thought their day had finally come. It was the years after that, 1993-5 that really destroyed the Conservatives as the most effective political party in British electoral history.

My own recollection of the early nineties in Westminster, where I watched the disintegration of the Tories at close hand, is that there were remarkable similarities to what is happening to Labour today. That sense of drift, of draining authority, of nothing working. Once the spell of government is broken - that mysterious quality of legitimacy - ministers lose the plot and things just go wrong. It was the toxic combination of ridicule and incompetence that did for Major, and it is doing much the same for Blair.

Tony Blair and John Major are very different political operators but in both cases the rot started at the top, with a collapse of confidence in the PM of the day. The difference is that the roots of Tony Blair’s crisis of legitimacy are not economic, but military. Blair’s Black Wednesday was March 2003, when he allowed Britain to be dragged into the Iraq morass in pursuit of illusory weapons of mass destruction. That was Blair’s equivalent of the ERM. His credibility never recovered. Many believe he actively lied about WMD to bounce Britain into an illegal war led by his Republican friend, George W. Bush.

The problems Labour is experiencing now are the backdraft from that initial monumental failure of leadership. The “huge issue of trust” which the PM’s former press spokesman, Alastair Campbell, identified in his diary as the legacy of Iraq has rotted the fibres of this administration, and undermined its moral legitimacy to govern.

Look at the parallels. Back in the mid nineties, John Major’s government became a joke - ministers stopped trying, civil servants sat on their hands and the voters lost respect for a government mired in sleaze. Not just sexual peccadilloes - the torrent of ministerial resignations that followed Major’s ill-judged ‘back to basics’ speech in 1993- but the general collapsed moral standing of the party. Tories like Neil Hamilton and Michael Mates were caught in compromising relationships with businessmen like Mohammed al Fayed and Azil Nadir. John Major condemned what he himself called the “hiring fair” of Tory MPs who were selling their services to outside private interests.

Tony Blair's sleaze problem is, if anything, worse than John Major’s - at least Major tried to do something about it, setting up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life which held remarkable public hearings throughout 94 and 95. Tony Blair promised to be “cleaner than clean”, yet he seems unable to recognise the mud on his own boots.

Cash-for-peerages, cash-for-access, cash-for-honours. The police are investigating the funding of city academies, and nearly fourteen million pounds of secret loans to Labour made by wealthy businessmen some of whom were nominated for seats in the House of Lords. The PM insists he’s done nothing wrong, even though he has promised to change the law so that he cannot do it again.

As Major lost control of his party in parliament, the Tory backbenches were riven with divisions over Europe and the Maastricht Treaty. It led to late night rebellions and lost divisions, rather like Tony Blair’s defeats over 90 day detention and education. At one point Major described his own eurosceptic backbenchers as “bastards”. Blair regards them, according to the former spin-doctor Lance Price as "f---ing bastards".

Now, Labour MPs are talking openly about it being time for Tony Blair to go, that he has lost the moral right to lead. Many are highly critical of the assault on civil liberties - compulsory identity cards, detention without trial, “glorification of terrorism; ever more draconian anti-terrorism legislation - which can even be used against 82 year old hecklers at a Labour conference. Walter Wolfgang’s ejection from the Labour conference is surely one of the enduring images of the fall of Tony Blair.

As was the case ten years ago, nothing seems to work in the Labour government: dangerous prisoners go undeported, the health reforms go awry, the Deputy Prime Minister is caught using official residences to conduct illicit sexual affairs. Administrative failures crowd the agenda: the tax credit fiasco, the pensions crisis, the child support agency meltdown, the city academy mess.

The government becomes faintly ridiculous, a soap opera. Tessa Jowell’s husband apparently taking cash from Berlusconi; David Blunkett’s “love child” and Kimberly Fortier; Cherie Blair’s #7,000 hairdressing bill, Prescott’s shirt buttons, the cannabis found in Dr John Reid's home.

Ministers come and go with alarming regularity. Tony Blair’s New Labour allies have been the main casualties: Mandelson, Milburn, Byers, Blunkett etc all had to resign over scandal and failure. Patricia Hewitt clings on at health, despite having lost the confidence of much of the NHS; Charles Clarke is likely to go sooner or later over the prisoner release affair; Ruth Kelly, another prime ministerial favourite, nearly lost her job over the paedophile register and is still faced with problems getting the Labour backbench to accept the English education reforms.

So, what is to be done? Could the Tories have avoided political oblivion a decade ago? Well, it’s fantasy politics of course, but if the charismatic Michael Heseltine - who brought down Thatcher - had been installed as Tory leader, it is possible that the Conservatives could have recovered in time to win the 1997 general election. Heseltine possessed the authority and the ‘magic’ to turn things around, to give a new sense of purpose, make civil servants toe the line and put ministers on their mettle. He could have ridden the upswing in the economy, drawn a line under Thatcherism, and begun the modernisation of the Tories that is only being conducted today.

For all the chaos, John Major actually achieved a degree of unacknowledged success in those years. The economy turned round rather rapidly under the second Major government; his national lottery was controversial but certainly raised a lot of cash for environmental improvements; and the Downing St Declaration of 1994 was the beginning of the end of the civil war in Northern Ireland. By 1996 the overall impression was of a government which had simply lost the plot and a leader who could no longer command respect. Some Tories hoped that the charismatic Michael Heseltine might take over and save them. But his attempt to topple Thatcher in 1990 had divided the party and undermined "Tarzan's" appeal.

Labour today faces the same dilemma. Do they stick with a busted leader, or change horses and perhaps stay the course? Gordon Brown, aka ‘the last man standing’, could rebuild the government’s credibility. As things stand, disaster looms, not just in the English local elections but the next general election, where Labour is likely to lose its majority, or worse. Time is running out. History could be about to repeat itself.