A Week IS a Long Time in Politics

As you may have gathered from my twitter and Facebook I have fortunately been slightly pre occupied over the last week with the Parliamentary Rugby World Cup. Ironically the event got me onto the Daily Politics Programme when they did a light hearted piece on Friday.

However, with over 300 Parliamentarians from across the globe conversation inevitably drifted to politics very quickly and because the Commons & Lords is an All-party Rugby Team I have been talking with Lib Dem Peers & an MP, Tory MPs and Labour backbenchers. I was at an event on the Integrity of Sport in the Lords too which I chaired mid-week and again the walk from the tube through the Commons & Lords brings me into regular contact with many old colleagues from all sides of the House willing to share their news and views. My ‘friends’ extend right across the political spectrum from very old red Labour to Tory MPs many expected to defect to UKIP! 

Of course there was lots to talk about this week – about 99% of it about Corbyn and the effect it will have on British politics. The conversations centred around; what does it mean for the realignment of politics, how will the Tories react, what will it mean for the Lib Dems (one offer to defect and one “You’d be mad”), ‘what a shambles’, How long will he last, why didn’t he sing the national anthem etc. 

Each of these topics probably deserves a blog of its own and I have been catching up over the weekend on some great articles from a variety of commentators. So let’s start with what went wrong and why Corbyn let himself be defined in his first week because he wasn’t organised. The Corbynites must have known for some time he was on for victory. I was told even before I went on holiday by one camp that they were going to lose to him. Through most of September there was no doubt (despite me being told off for daring to suggest this would happen). So why on earth did the first 48 hours look like it was all a surprise and nobody had a plan what to do? Surely somebody has a ‘First 100 Days’ playbook somewhere in his team or are they all so anti-media and spin that they REALLY do think they can win the next election via twitter and town hall meetings? I was pleased to see even Owen Jones in the New Statesman pointing out the danger of such a strategy. It is a recipe for disaster. So in the first week we have the sight of a Shadow Cabinet being formed without any leadership and with MPs distancing themselves and even making it clear when they took jobs on what terms they had agreed to serve. Corbyn actually has a Shadow cabinet with more women than men, from a pretty wide spectrum of the party yet even this was turned into a PR disaster by the non-appointment of a woman to one of the ‘top’ jobs and the appointment of the much disliked John McDonnell to Shadow Chancellor. I see a number of astute appointments have been made but I fear it may be a little too late to try and sell Corbyn via the media to the public.

For me the above examples from the first week confirm my greatest fear. At no point during the campaign did anybody really test the ‘leadership’ qualities of the candidates. The least qualified of the candidates to offer leadership or even management (the two are different) was of course Corbyn. It may seem strange to those outside politics that we seem to choose the most like our political prejudices rather than the best placed to lead and win elections. Since Blair we seem to have decided we don’t like the idea of wining, as it means compromise. 

Following this slightly inauspicious start we then had the sight of a non-singing leader of the Opposition at an official WW2 event. Poor old Jeremy would have been damned as a sell-out if he had suddenly started singing the national anthem and equally lambasted as we found out if he stuck to his guns and stayed silent. The coverage was way over the top but welcome to modern day journalism! I will admit to being a republican too and in my student days I didn’t sing the anthem. I started singing when I represented my country in sport and the anthems were used. I realised that whilst I didn’t necessarily want God to save the Queen we had stumbled upon this awful song as our sporting anthem too and I had better get used to it. Equally funny in recent years has been having to work with a Royal or two through my sports links. I am pretty open that I would prefer not to see our Head of State chosen by the accident of birth but whilst there is some minor constitutional link I am happy to be polite and work with them to achieve common goals – like more sport being played. If their patronage opens doors to help then it is worth working with them rather than ignoring them and waiting for the day we abolish the monarchy. The position Corbyn now holds is to represent the entire Labour party and official Opposition at these events, so he may need to put aside some personal student politics!

On the positive side I have written about the change in mood he created at PMQs. I am sure there will be some positive feelings about party democracy in future as members will feel more included in the decision making inside the party. So all is not bad. But the important test now is to see how Jeremy starts talking to the country and what reaction people outside the party have for him and his policies.

This brings me to the conversations with political opponents who seem slightly uncertain what this might all mean for them. Having just elected a left leaning leader for the Lib Dems they are now wondering exactly how to position themselves and whether they like to call it centrist or not, the possibility of them being the sensible left leaning party seems possible. For some time they positioned themselves to the Left of Labour (in Northern seats at least) whilst being soft Tories in the South. In 2015 they were found out under Clegg and almost need to start again. For those I have spoken to they see themselves as a home for sensible social democrats if Labour continues to drift further left leaving the centre ground. Most of the Tories I spoke to were more certain this was good news for them but with a heavy note of caution added on top. Their fear is that it allows the Tories to take the centre ground for granted now that Labour has abandoned it and all those who had fought hard to modernise the party and reject their ‘nasty right wing’ label are going to have to fight this all over again. They are also wary of a populist creating more hope and optimism than they care to admit. They are of course delighted that Corbyn won because they think it gives them the 2020 election already, but they are wary it allows their own ranks to descend back into the old rivalries over Europe and other defining issues that gave them a civil war for 20 years. Without a serious opposition there is a danger that it may be created from within, especially with the European Referendum looming in 2017. 

I don’t see the possibility of the immediate re-establishment of the Lib Dems as a political force. Their defeat in 2015 was so deep and painful. I can’t see the Tories completely imploding over Europe either. So this leaves the other two rumps of voter’s choice – UKIP and the SNP. 

I have not seen much about the impact on UKIP yet – especially from a Labour perspective. As we know UKIP gained large votes in many Labour held seats and prevented us winning some marginals. Two years ago UKIP was a Tory problem but it is equally a Labour problem now. Many left because they didn’t recognise that Labour stood up for them or didn’t speak for them now. I don’t think many of those that left over issues like immigration and welfare will be won back by the Corbyn position on these two issues. But again we will have to see. As for the SNP, there are many Corbyn supporters who believe our path back to power lies through telling SNP voters they can have a left wing labour party again. Having spent time talking to defeated Labour candidates and party workers north of the border I don’t think it as simple as this. The SNP surge is much more complex than this simple analysis suggests. 

Where does all this leave us? We have a Labour leader who is unable to control the positions taken by his MPs and Shadow Cabinet who are currently still working and speaking up on positions taken prior to the Corbyn victory. They have all agreed to take positions after being given assurances about some key issues like NATO and Europe. We have the daily sight of Shadow cabinet members contradicting positions taken by Corbyn and certainly not quite enthusing about the likelihood of a Corbyn win in 2020. We are told this is all very refreshing and great to see open debate. The problem is that the electorate also hate seeing divided parties and there is a fine line between open debate and open warfare!

There is still a lot of settling down to be seen. The build up to conference will be really enlightening and we await to see more details from the Leader and his Office about how they plan to take forward policy making and who will control this process. I can’t see Shadow SoS really staying if the Party decrees they have to take an untenable position on some key issues. 

Finally I wonder how long it will be before people decide if Corbyn is actually up to the job of leading an opposition political party. I ask this in all seriousness. There has been little sign of these qualities so far. They are not the qualities I want or expect of Corbyn. His strengths have always been elsewhere. He is a good constituency MP determined to pick unfashionable political fights. That is great and there is a role for MPs like this. It is the sort of role I would like to have carved out if I had 32 years in politics! It is a nice place to be. Leadership is difficult and a long hard slog. It means daily attention to the job and whilst it is great that Corbyn is fulfilling some constituency engagements and surgeries he can’t neglect the official invites he is getting as Leader of the Labour Party and Official Opposition. It is a full time job, not a drop in when you can part time chair role!

For me the jury is still out about how long he can last. If we lose in May 2016 in London, Scotland, Wales & in Local Govt surely the knives will be out. So until then let’s allow him time and space to get this shambolic start behind him and give him the opportunity to show some leadership.

Leadership Election Veteran – So Seeking YOUR vote..

Until I sat down to write this I hadn’t realised how many Labour Party leadership elections I had been through. Like a lot of things in life I still regard myself as a beginner and struggle with the concept that I am grown up and people want me to mentor them!

Don’t panic – the headline does not suggest I am running or want your vote for myself – but I would love to hear from all my non-labour supporting friends about the qualities of the leadership candidates before I cast my vote.

Having joined the Party in the 1980s my first experience was seeing Michael Foot beaten up metaphorically by the media. We changed to what we considered a moderniser – Neil Kinnock. And he was. We needed somebody who could change the fortunes of the Party after 1983. Our focus was inward looking. Kinnock of course was a great orator from the platform, but we had entered the television age. We were slightly behind the curve. We gave him the chance for one last heave after our 1987 defeat! We know where that ended in 1992. I remember clearly all those articles about whether Labour could ever win again after 1987. By the defeat in 1992 even I was starting to wonder. But by 1997 I was an MP in a Labour government with a 144 seat majority and then the talk became whether the Tories could ever win again!

In the period after 1992 I has become part of the John Smith Leadership campaign team. I was responsible to Robin Cook for the East Midlands CLPs. We made sure they nominated and then voted for John. When we look back at our 94% vote we like to think we did a good job. But this is when I first got my teeth stuck into realising in the Party we like to show our ideological purity – not elect the right person. In today’s currency, even John Smith would be called the Blairite candidate. We get really stuck in labels that mean plenty to us but nothing to the electorate.

So whilst I will eventually make my decision about who to vote for – my single vote – I want to do things differently this time. I don’t want to listen to an internal party debate about who is a Blairite or Brownite. I don’t want to know which tribal wing of the party they come from. I put this aside in 2010 and voted for David Miliband because although my personal politics were closer to Ed’s I had represented or been a candidate in a marginal  constituency for over 20 years and knew what makes swing voters tick. And guess what. They are not the same things that get the average Labour Party member out of bed on  a cold rainy weekend to go leafleting and canvassing.

Take the reaction to Liz Kendall talking about Free Schools. The reaction from many was that she should just join the Tory Party now. Don’t get me wrong I think Free Schools are a dangerous gimmick and create havoc for local planning. But now they exist it it hard to convince people who don’t engage in politics that getting rid of them is not about reducing ‘choice’. Most people don’t care about the NUT, old LEAs and what the local Labour party thinks. If some of the ‘aspirants’ we need to get to vote for us see we always against their choice agenda they will see us as statist and backward looking. So these issues need to be addressed with more maturity than simply shouting down anybody who dare say this.

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I get the idea that we are electing somebody to lead the Labour Party. But I hope we are doing much more than that. I hope we are electing somebody we can feel confident we can put in front of a modern electorate and they will feel they can look at them and think – yes I can see them as Prime Minister.  I am afraid that was never going to happen for Ed however much we wished it be true. I learned this lesson with Gordon Brown in 2010. Once the electorate has made up its mind it is almost impossible to shift in the short campaign.

So this is where you come in. I will create a poll on this site, my facebook, linkedin and website at http://www.sajeimpact.net for you to have your say. With over 3500 facebook friends, 5000 twitter followers and 2000 on Linkedin I think there is an interesting sample.

Which (if any ) of the candidates looks like they could be PM

Which of them seem to be speaking sense.

The candidates for the Leadership are:

Andy Burnham MP

Liz Kendall MP

Mary Creagh MP

Yvette Cooper MP

I will do a similar exercise for the Deputy Leadership when all the runner and riders have been decided. I am guessing this will be a smaller sample as most of the MPs running will be poeple very few of us will have even heard of!

Parliament Returns – but not for All

In a social media age my timeline this week was filled with new MPs ‘selfie’ photos of them swearing into the new Parliament. Clearly they were ‘official’ selfies from some of the new camera angles that seem to have been installed. I guess seeing the photos and claims from new MPs  to be ‘looking forward to serving constituents of x y or z’ are better than the last 2 years of “great labour doorstep” session selfies on Twitter.

I have to admit that for most of the time I feel comfortable that I have moved on from my 13 years in parliament and 20 as a parliamentary candidate. I believe life has its seasons and in 2010 my season in front line politics came to an end. But at little moments like the swearing-in I do feel a slight disappointment not to be there. Understandinly I miss the chance to represent people in our parliament. This is why I was happy to talk last week to the Radio 4 Today programme on life after politics when they called. They felt I had managed to create a new life after parliament and wondered how I had done this. 

  
There is alwas a danger of doing these interviews and then R4 tweeting the story on their website. You don’t go on radio to seek any sympathy – indeed far from it. But you know there will be a backlash from trolls who love to be abusive about any MP – even former MPs!  I agreed to do it because I wanted to bust some of the myths that surround our demise and to remind listeners that most MPs are relatively normal people who suffer personally when they lose their job and way of life. They suffer as all other people do by feeling a sense of rejection. They are not special people or superhuman. The Commons is full of people you will never hear of like me. We are humble back benchers ho don’t seek the limelight or Ministerial office. We don’t walk into highly paid jobs. This is not special pleading as I coped pretty well with losing but I know MPs from all sides of the House who have found it tough. I only mean as tough as anybody losing their job – but in a post 2010 world being an MP is no longer all the glamour it was cracked up to be!

Many of the myths that have built up are worth dispelling. I was quite shocked how little people understood about the life of an MP and just how little the ending was equally misunderstood. I was asked so many questions that I thought it worth writing up at the time.

As you leave the election count you are effectively given your P45. In front of public gaze you are made redundant. You are described daily in TV, radio and print as a/the  loser. There is little escape locally. I didn’t want to lose but had worked out that unless something dramatic turned up I was going to lose. So at least I was mentally prepared. I even had a line from the West Wing in mind – in Politics sometimes the other guy wins. I know lots of former collagues who hadn’t prepared themselves for defeat. It is harder for them. I know others in other jobs who have lost their  work through redundnacy who assumed they would be ok do take it much harder. 

Of course for days afterwards people approach you and say they couldn’t understand how you lost. They and everybody they knew wanted you to win! On my Facebook timeline people were adding their comments to my result with expressions almost bordering on grief. After about 36 hours somebody did post – He hasn’t died you know! 

Indeed I was quite surprised how much of a sense of relief I felt on the Friday morning knowing my fate had bee sealed. It was as though a burden had been lifted. The time in Parliament from 2008-2010 had been tough. Lots of colleagues had been exposed by the MPs Expenses scandal – my close colleague David Taylor had died of a heart attack, probably caused by the press stress, only weeks before. The global banking recession had been a tough time tyring to put our economy back on track and seeing the fall out as many people’s lives were turned upside down. So I guess adding my name to the unemployment figures was not a shock and something hundreds of thousands had been through. Unemployment happens and quite rightly in a democracy it should happen to MPs too. In fact it should happen to more & more often.

I got my first job offer on Saturday morning. I popped into Bradley’s, our local village shop, and Paul the owner asked if I wanted to do the Sunday Paper Round as they were short of a couple of deliverers! I was also struck at my new found freedom. A former constituent asked me some question about the voting process in Sheffield (there had been queues at 10pm if I recall correctly). I was able to say – “I don’t know about it, I don’t really care and guess what – it is nothing to do with me anymore” It was a liberating feeling. Suddenly not every situation around the world was resting on my shoulders.

However, on Monday the hard work started. I now had a staff team to make redundant and close down an office I had run for 20 years in Loughborough. We had over 22,000 case files of individuals and desks, office leases and employment law to deal with. Being an MP was always like runing a small business. This was the toughest part. As any employer will agree letting people go – destroying their lives – is hard. I see the media still lump the resettlement grant into the headlines about MPs expenses. The reality is that an MP like me gets 6 months redundancy pay after 13 years of service. I realise this is not ungenerous. However, compared to many other professionals I know it was not too wild! Especially as I have to ‘work’ the period in question closing down my office and my life as an MP. I was surprised how much there was to do. But for the media to pretend we get £100K+ of expenses is so misleading. They use the word expenses so pejoratively.  None of us get to see that money. It is staff salaries and statutory redundancy pay, Office rent and end of lease payments for office equipment and even professional shredding services.

I was fortunate that I didn’t need to sign on. I decided quite quickly that I should move on from the political front line. This is important . You need to decide if you are going back or forward with your life. I created a lifestyle business at Saje Impact (www.sajeimpact.net) which used my passions in life to eek out a living and volunteer for numerous charities. I was not typical I found out later. I bumped into other former MPs who had received no paid work for over two years  Others – the high profile ones – of course got lucrative NEDs. But these are the minority. Yet the public assumes that’s what all MPs do. It isn’t. Many struggle. We have an amazing set of skills but not that they are always obvious. 

The other great myth is about the pensions and employment situation People I meet assume I am on my pension. I am not and can’t receieve this until I am 65. I still have 14.6 years to go! The other is an assumption that you simply go into opposition in the constiteuncy and are somehow ’employed’. There is no role of opposition in a constituency.  I can assure you there are no employed candidates. Indeed it costs time, effort and a lot of money or a forgiving family to become a candidate. This is increasingly a problem for our democratic system as I have written about before. It reduces the pool of people willing or able to put themsleves forward to be candidates. It is helping to create a political class. I couldn’t afford to think abou being a candidate again as I had no job or income and a family to house & feed.

Finally I wanted to emphasise none of the interview was looking for sympathy. I knew the risks. I took the hit. But I was fed up with some of the myths continually going unchecked.  Being an MP is not just a job – it is a way of life. It is a 24-7, 365 days a year public service position. I know my fello interviewee described the process as like grief and in one sense I agree. It is a ‘grieving process’  In the same way that it makes the ‘job’ very special it also means it takes a great deal of readjustment. I would say in the same way as people from military backgrounds struggle to adjust to civvy life. There are just some jobs which are more difficult to adjust. Again I am looking for no sympathy for me or those others who lost their roles, but understand the problems and at least be pleasant to these human beings! I am also not claiming being an MP is the same stress as being in the Military but it is true of some jobs being bigger than the person and becoming a full way of life – not just a job

 My simpe ask is that MPs who lost this time are at least treated as human beings at a vulnerbale time in their life. Just don’t kick them whilst they are down however much you disagreed with their politics.  
You can see from http://www.sajeimpact.net or my twitter @andyjreed_obe what I now do with my life and how I now feel I am able to make a positive impact on the world away from front line politics. I hope I have been able to show it is possible to move on. But it has never been as easy as I would like to think. MPs don’t deserve your sympathy but they should be treated as vulnerable human beings. If they accept their defeat in grace they should be treated with a little respect and some understanding. No more – no less. 

It’s all about the narrative

I have posted on a regular basis my observations about political discourse and the book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Having just read another round of articles in the press from former colleagues it has never seemed more relevant. 

  
To summarise the auhor George Lakoff points out that people think in ‘Frames’ and the lesson for the Democrats in the 90s was that the Republicans got this. The Democrats, like Labour last week, hoped a list of policies which the electorate said they supported (even when blind tested) would be enough to get them into government. The problem as Lakoff points out is that most people don’t follow politics to the same degree as MPs and the commentariat. This means in an election people vote on the basis of their big picture Framed ideas and who suits those frmaes best. I will use this word only once but this is where the aspirational politics piece fits in. Individually  as I say people liked the Labour policies but the Tories had successfully framed this election long before the short campiagn and the alleged progress Ed and Labour made by having a ‘good campaign’. I know thet Douglas Alexander got all this. We have chatted about Lakoff and framing. He knew the book inside out. So I am not sure where our lack of narrative came from. 

The election was decided on – Ed Miliband, the economy, Scotland & the SNP(& immigration for UKIP swichers)  In each of these areas the instinct of people won them over to stick with the Tories. No long list of policies that didn’t add up to an alternative narrative was going to break this hold over the big picture of this campaign. Sometimes this was raised as an issue – about creating a positive vision for the future. It is certainly a theme that is starting to be raised in the Leadership debate. It is not enough to list a series of new paltitudes – about being for aspiration or about unity. What do these mean? We need a much better articulation of the vision for the country and what sort of country we wil be governing in 2020? I bang on about this a great deal. Party leaflets that say Councillor X or Y wants cleaner and safer streets. Meaningless. When was the last time anybody proposed dirtier and unsafe streets…?

So whilst the number of articles being written at the moment from the party are often old ‘big beasts’ settling old grudges from an era of Blairites v Brown v New Labour v Old Labour, the electorate don’t care about this. These are internal battles that are only even fought by a fraction of the 220,00 Labour Party members. 

Once all the leadership an deputy leadership contenders have anounced I will be running my thoughts across what they have to say. I am fortunate that I know their personal qualities and know them well from inside the party. But for me none of this matters. My sole test will be who can create a vision, a narrative that undersands and appeals to the electorate that will win seats like Loughborough again. If we ever want a working majority in the Commons my old seat needs winning back. There is no point creating even safer majorities in our ‘safe seats’ it is all about creating the One Nation Ed started to articulate a couple of years ago. 

I am looking forward to the ongoing debate. It is healthy to discuss what we are for. It’s uncomfortable to do it from such a poor position in opposition but in the long term a refresh might help to win another generation of governing. 

The Journey to 2020


Like most commentators I was spectacularly wrong about the outcome of the election last week, so it would seem very foolish to start to speculate about the outcome of the 2020 election already. So clearly I won’t even try. But I did enjoy the experience of trying to make sense of the election campaign for ‘friends’ & ‘followers’.  So much so that I intend to log the journey to 2020 here on this political blog. I may not be able to keep up a daily blog but certainly I hope to capture each week what has been happening and why!

Of course this will be a Labour biased commentary but I will be looking at the big picture and commenting on the tactics and positioning taking place. The announcements from the Tory government have already been very political and planning ahead (as far as you can) to position themselves for the dividing lines in 2020. One of the reasons for Labour losing in 2010 was the Tories pinning a global recession onto the last Labour government. ‘Labour’s economic mess’ was allowed to stick. How many people realise economic growth was stronger in 2010 than it was in 2015?

I am guessing many of the early posts will be about why Labour lost and the Labour leadership election, which will be concluded by September. As I don’t believe all the candidates have declared yet (and Chuka has thrown in the towel already) I have not declared my support. In 2010 my choice for David Miliband was an obvious choice for me – even though all the candidates were friends. The fact that I have no immediate enthusiasm for any of the candidates is worrying. But more of this and an analysis of each candidate as we journey to September. I may find myself enthused as the feeling of fighting back returns!

In the meantime we can sit back and watch the comedy being given to us by Nigel Farage and UKIP. What an amazing soap opera. He managed to not be the Great Leader for about 48 hours! There are clear splits in the personnel but I am hoping this runs much deeper. As Lynton Crosby has predicted in The Telegraph today this might have been the political high point for UKIP. In a post Euro Referendum world what is the point?

And that of course will be the massive distraction of this government. The next 2 years could be dominated by a Referendum campaign on our membership of the EU. I will be campaigning for us to stay IN Europe. I know that this will be hard sell. It is always easier to be against things!

So hopefully this blog will be of some use to me if nothing else in plotting the journey back to power for a progressive government.