Iain Dale: Perhaps one day I’ll get involved in an election again. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Super Thursday’s results…

7 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is the first time for some years that I haven’t been able to host a live election night show on LBC. Because of Covid, many local authorities decided they wouldn’t count overnight. And since I don’t have a show on Friday or at the weekends, I feel as if I’m being silenced!

Like most of you, I suspect, I love elections. I well remember my first election day back in 1983 in Norwich. I was designated to be a teller and work in the Committee Room. I’ve always loved lists and can remember the thrill of crossing off all the people who had voted on the electoral roll boards.

Sitting outside the polling station was great fun, and was probably the thing I loved doing most. I enjoyed the banter with the tellers from the other parties and with people who were voting. The winks, the furtive smiles. Or growls. I’d have happily done it all day.

And then I remember when I was a candidate in various local elections, and then a general election, touring the polling stations and talking to the election officials. This was quite a challenge in North Norfolk in 2005, where there were, if I recall correctly, more than 100 polling stations.

Still, it kept me out of mischief on polling day, and took my mind off the disaster I knew was ahead of me at the count! The last time I was involved in an election day as a party activist was in 2009. I can hardly believe it was so long ago. Since then I’ve always been on the radio, or preparing for an overnight show. But I’ll always remember the thrill I got out of being involved. And who knows, one day I may be again.

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Second preferences are a weird thing. You’re voting for a candidate or a party you really don’t want to win, but they’re the least-worst option. By definition it’s a negative vote. In the PCC election I’m afraid I just could bring myself to tick a box at all.

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“You’ve broken the law, Iain,” said a Twitter follower. He had heard my For the Many podcast in which I revealed how I had voted (by post) in the local elections, both in Norfolk and Kent. “You can’t vote twice,” he maintained.

Luckily I know my electoral law better than he did. If you have properties in two different council areas you are, indeed, entitled to cast your vote in each of them in local elections. However, that does not apply in general elections. I patiently explained this to him.

His reply was amusing. “So you’re telling me I’ve missed out on voting twice for the 17 years I’ve had a second home?” Yup, I said. “Bugger,” he replied.

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So here are my predictions for the results of the various elections…

Scotland: SNP to get a majority of seats. Conservatives remain the main opposition. Greens gain an extra one or two MSPs. Alex Salmond is elected with one or two others.

Wales: Conservatives add seats, but Labour remains largest party. Plaid gain a few seats. Lib Dems disappear completely. Mark Drakeford to lose his seat.

London: Sadiq Khan walks it. Shaun Bailey gets 25-30 per cent of first preferences. Greens get around 10 per cent.

West Midlands: Andy Street wins.

Hartlepool by-election: Conservatives to take it.

English County & District Councils: Lib Dems do better in these than any of the other elections. Labour lose seats, Conservatives gains. Greens add to their seat count too. Minor parties squeezed.

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Jacqui Smith and I will be recording an Election Special For the Many podcast for release on Monday morning, analysing all the results.

Whatever they bring, there is bound to be a new bout of reshuffle speculation. However, if the results turn out as I predict above, if I were the PM I’d be tempted to leave any reshuffle until a bit later in the year – either before the summer recess or in the autumn.

The same is not true for Keir Starmer, though. Having had an impressive first eight months as leader of the Labour Party, 2021 has so far proved to be disastrous.

To be fair, it’s not all down to him, as few of his shadow cabinet have managed to cut through at all. Anneliese Dodds is copping a lot of criticism, but to be fair to her, she’s not alone in failing to make much of a mark. The consensus among pundits is he needs to bring Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn into his top team. But what if they don’t wish to return?

Cooper seems to enjoy chairing her select committee and Benn may well feel he’s done his bit. Do a search among other Labour MPs who have a bit of experience, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. Starmer’s position at the moment is far from enviable.

Iain Dale: Ofcom was right to revoke the license of CGTN. It shouldn’t stop there, though.

5 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Keir Starmer hasn’t had a good week.

He had to apologise for saying at PMQs that he had never argued we should remain within the orbit of the European Medicines Agency.

Footage then emerged of him saying he would like to abolish the monarchy.

Then The Guardian got hold of a leaked strategy report which suggested Labour should wrap itself in the Union flag, Starmer should get off the fence and the party’s spokespeople should dress more smartly.

And then Wednesday was rounded off with an opinion poll showing a Tory lead of seven points.

Oh, and I forgot Stephen Bush’s excoriating article for The New Statesman in which he courageously reckoned that there are plenty of people doubting if the Labour leader was up to it.

I’ve written before that I thought Starmer had a very good first few months as Labour leader.

He inherited the job right at the beginning of the first lockdown, but made a good fist of leading his party out of the darkness of the Corbyn era.

He looked the part, supported the Government when necessary and put in some sharp Commons performances, especially at PMQs.

He assembled a team, which initially looked as if it could take the fight to the Government.

However, since Christmas he seems to have lost his way.

There are growing rumblings that he’s not “opposing” enough and appears too wishy-washy.

His reputation as “Captain Hindsight” has been placed firmly in the minds of the voter, and his front bench team appears unable to do anything except accuse the Government of doing “too little, too late” or remain in a state of “perma outrage”.

Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor is a good example of this.

A transparently nice woman, she seems unable to articulate a Labour vision of how Labour would handle things better except to say she’d spend more money than the Conservatives and do it quicker.

My For the Many podcast colleague Jacqui Smith maintains Dodds is doing a lot behind the scenes to develop policy.

Well, maybe that’s the case, but in terms of putting over the Labour case on the airwaves, both she and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet need to up their game.

I wonder if a reshuffle might be on the way, in which some of the missing big beasts of the Labour jungle might be brought in, like Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper.

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Talking of the Conservatives’ seven-point lead…

I wonder how much of this is due to a “vaccine bounce”. People have very short memories.

Assuming the vaccine rollout continues to go well, it may well be that it’s this which sticks in the minds of voters rather than the handling of the PPE, care home and schools fiascos.

Johnson can but hope.

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I write this a few minutes after learning that Ofcom has revoked the license of the Chinese broadcaster CGTN.

I’ve no idea why it took it so long.

Each time I have dipped into CGTN – and admittedly it’s only been on a few occasions – what I have noticed is that is a heady mix of perfectly well reported stories interspersed with utter propaganda, disguised as reputable journalism.

It has clearly modelled itself on RT, the Kremlin-funded channel.

CGTN even hired former Ofcom board member and head of Sky News Nick Pollard to make sure it stayed just within the boundaries of acceptability, but he eventually saw the light and resigned over its coverage of the Hong Kong protests last year.

Quite how any British journalist had the front to take jobs with CGTN (or RT for that matter) is obviously something they will have to answer for in any future job interviews.

Were I ever in a position to be hiring anyone, I would just throw their CVs in the bin. I hope GB News and the new News UK station will bear this in mind, given that they’re both hiring presenters and producers at the moment.

Ofcom should not stop with CGTN, though. Quite how they have allowed RT to continue broadcasting its propaganda on the Sky platform is anyone’s guess. I hope they’re next to feel the iron fist of the Ofcom banning unit.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The Chancellor brings a mysterious poetry to his numbers

25 Nov

“Numbers alone can ring hollow,” Rishi Sunak said at the end of his statement. But in his mouth, numbers did not ring hollow.

He brought a mysterious poetry to these figures. We are borrowing and spending far more than we can afford, or expected only a few months ago, and have also suffered “the largest fall in output for over 300 years”.

The Chancellor avowed that the debt we are accumulating is “clearly unsustainable over the medium term”.

And yet his transcendent lucidity and preternatural calm made the whole situation seem sustainable, the recovery just a matter of remaining as clear-headed and unflustered as Sunak.

Many Chancellors sound bored by the figures they read out to the House, or at least make those figures sound boring to the less numerate Members of Parliament.

Sunak somehow conveyed his love of spreadsheets in a way that Philip Hammond, his predecessor but one, never managed to do. There was a music of the spheres in all those noughts.

Lord Chesterfield said that Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721-42, when addressing MPs was

“So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”

Sunak has the same gift. And just as Walpole was trusted to clear up after the South Sea Bubble of 1720, so Sunak is trusted, at least for now, to clear up after the pandemic.

His lustrous black hair contains more streaks of grey than it did when he started in February, but otherwise he seems unaffected by the burden he bears.

In a level tone he announced “a new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion” from which any local area will be allowed to bid for projects which will have a noticeable impact and be “delivered within this Parliament”.

Sunak does not wish those Labour voters who turned Conservative last December to feel in 2024 that the Chancellor has let them down.

Nor does he wish anyone to suppose he is an unfeeling technocrat, who thinks only the figures matter. He ended by saying that the spending he had announced was “secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindness and creativity it unleashes”.

We are united in a moral mission, “a common endeavour”. Anneliese Dodds, replying for the Labour Party, was left with nothing much to say, and could not be blamed for that. She is a great improvement on her predecessor, but could not spoil Sunak’s day.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the Chancellor’s vision

8 Jul

Rishi Sunak belongs in a Spy cartoon. He should be drawn in profile, thin, alert, dark-haired, immaculate in a sombre suit and white shirt, leaning forward slightly at the Dispatch Box, like a batsman about to play an elegant cover drive.

Behind the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the end of the Treasury Bench, sat his captain, Boris Johnson, round, rumpled, genial, his own knockabout innings at PMQs just over, now content to watch his star player make some runs.

The Speaker, or umpire, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, decreed a three-minute pause between the end of PMQs and the start of Sunak’s statement, so the House could rearrange itself while obeying the laws of social distancing.

The Prime Minister held good-natured exchanges with passing backbenchers, a smile put on the face of each of his fielders, a smile on his face too. One felt one was watching a team who enjoy doing things together: an impression the media would consider it unprofessional to convey, for there the talk is always of splits, and Sunak is seldom mentioned without the suggestion that he will soon take Johnson’s job.

The Chancellor began by announcing that the Government is “unencumbered by dogma”, and motivated by “the simple desire to do what is right”.

The Prime Minister looked on with approval. He has a dog, but will never allow himself to become encumbered by dogma.

Sunak said that to extend the furlough scheme indefinitely would be “irresponsible”, for it would “give people false hope”. He instead announced “the kickstart scheme”, which will provide traineeships for “kickstarters”, defined as 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment.

One can kick start a motorcycle, but whether the same applies to 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment is not yet clear.

The Chancellor observed that the longer one is out of work, the harder it is to return to work, so he hopes to see “hundreds of thousands of new kickstarters”.

After this, his statement sagged a bit. Versions of the Green Homes Grant have been announced every year for decades.

As if recognising this, Sunak promised that his final measure has never been tried before. Members of the public who go out to eat at a restaurant, cafe or pub in August will be entitled to a discount of 50 per cent off, up to a maximum of £10 per head, including children.

The Prime Minister flushed with pleasure, patted his hand on the back of the Treasury Bench, jigged his knee up and down and nodded enthusiastically.

The Chancellor had put a smile on his captain’s face. Here was a Merry England gimmick, cheering everyone up.

Not that Sunak wanted to get carried away. “I believe in the nobility of work,” he added. There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the modern Conservative Party.

The Shadow Chancellor, Annaliese Dodds, is a vast improvement on her tricksy, self-satisfied predecessor, John McDonnell. During her reply, she communicated complete honesty of intention as she reproached the Government for failing to overcome fear of the pandemic, which is what most damages the economy.

According to Dodds, Johnson has claimed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt because he wants to avoid being compared to FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, whose desk bore the famous sign, “The buck stops here”.

She claimed Johnson’s motto is “The buck stops anywhere but here”.

Here is Labour’s attack on the Prime Minister: that he wriggles out of responsibility for the grievous mistakes made in the official response to the pandemic.

Incidentally, Truman’s desk carried another, less well-known sign, quoting some words of Mark Twain: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”