Political elites running on empty as fuel crisis engulfs government
IT has been a disastrous week for the Tories and Labour with events pointing to a nation disillusioned with political elites
FINALLY, on Friday afternoon, the queues began to shorten. “It has got a lot quieter during the day,” said Douglas Robertson, head of the Scottish Motor Trade Association, who had spent the day out on a recce in Edinburgh. An explicit statement by the Unite union, ruling out a strike of fuel tanker drivers before the Easter break, had restored a measure of calm to petrol station forecourts around the country.
Downing Street staffers were beginning to breathe a little easier. But they were still responding curtly to any mention of the phrase “jerry can”.
“Don’t go there,” said one, in reference to the comment by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that people should keep such a can topped up at home. News had filtered down from York that a woman had suffered 40 per cent burns after petrol she had been decanting into a glass jug in her kitchen ignited.
Ed Balls accused Maude and David Cameron of having deliberately caused the panic over a strike as part of a “political game” aimed at distracting the public’s attention away from the donation scandal and the poor reception to the Budget the week before. “I think the Prime Minister woke up on Monday morning and thought: ‘It’s been the worst weekend I’ve had in government so why don’t I try to divert attention?’ So suddenly, out of the blue, we had government ministers talking up a strike which wasn’t even called.”
There were further claims yesterday that the warnings had been deliberately sent out by Tory ministers to get people to stockpile fuel so that the government could then weather the coming strike, and beat the Unite union. The strategy was reportedly drawn from Lady Thatcher’s own decision to stockpile coal prior to the miners’ strike. If this was indeed the plan, it entirely backfired. In 2000, the then impregnable Blair government had come unstuck when tanker drivers had similarly threatened to go out on strike, triggering panic buying across the country and leaving Labour, for the first time since coming to power, trailing the Conservatives. Now, history was repeating itself.
With tanks filled up this weekend, and ministers minding their Ps and Qs, David Cameron will be hoping that a truly ghastly few days for his government can be forgotten. First, there was the calamity of the Budget and the “granny tax”. The Prime Minister was said to be livid in the days afterwards over the failure of the normally efficient Treasury to have ensured some good news on the day of the announcement, with all of it having previously been leaked. Then, there was the toxic video of (now ex) party treasurer Peter Cruddas telling undercover reporters that a £250,000 donation to the Tories might earn them a private dinner with Dave and Samantha.
Things then turned faintly ridiculous as the “pasty tax” row exploded. It saw Cameron – addressing reporters on Tuesday alongside Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee – explain why exactly his government had decided Britain’s economic plight demanded the raising of VAT on the sale of hot pastries. The farce was completed later that evening when Cameron’s chief spokesman, Craig Oliver, contacted Newsnight, to insist angrily that, as the Prime Minister had insisted, he had indeed recently eaten a pasty on a visit to Liverpool.
“The question of competence has really surfaced,” said one senior Labour figure of the Cameron operation. Over at Labour, Ed Miliband was greatly enjoying Cameron’s problems, inviting the camera crews to picture him and Balls tucking into a cheese pasty at an outlet of Greggs. The pasty tax row had given Labour the chance to do what they love best: play class politics with the posh Tories.
MP John Mann had got the ball rolling: asking an embarrassed George Osborne at the start of the week when was the last time he had bought a pasty. He followed it up by inviting Osborne and Cameron to join him on a holiday in a static caravan – another “normal aspect of British life” that the Chancellor had decided to slap VAT upon.
Those Labour MPs who had decided to do some campaigning in Bradford West were reporting back that all was well: a seat they had held since 1974 was going to stay that way. Then, on Friday morning, the roof caved in. Defeat for Labour when it came, unexpected and emphatic, bore similarities with the horror show of last May in Scotland when, similarly, smiling red rosetted candidates had watched their expectations turn to dust as a hidden wave of support sent them packing. Labour’s share of the vote had tanked 20 percentage points. Gorgeous George Galloway won a staggering 59 per cent of the entire vote.
The defeat in Bradford has wiped any smile off Labour’s face this weekend. The only satisfaction, if it can be called that, is that their collapse in the vote was fractionally lower than that which hit the Tories. Both are facing inward, licking their wounds. And the voice ringing in both their ears, is that of Galloway. “I think there’s a well of dissatisfaction about the political class and the political system,” the new Bradford West MP said on Friday night as he sought to explain his victory. “Most people have dropped out of it. Most people have long ago ceased to join political parties. Nowadays, it is a kind of virtual politics for the minority of the electorate. But there’s a big well out there for that dissatisfaction and if someone comes along to make the case for the alienated then they are ready to respond – especially young people.”
At the end of a week in which both main parties have taken knockabout politics to absurd heights, with petrol, pasties and pie-in-the-sky donations exposing the Westminster game in all its full glory, is Galloway right? And if this is the way people think of Westminster, how is that impacting the politics of Scotland?
Among the Westminster classes themselves, there is little disagreement. Post-Iraq, post-expenses, they remain in the dog house. Tory backbencher Douglas Carswell notes: “After Bradford West, does anyone still think that this anti-politics mood is just a passing phase? Anyone still dispute that the established political brands are losing market share?” The market share for the three main parties in Bradford, Ed Miliband noted, was just four out of ten voters.
Senior Labour figures agree that the “anti-politics” mood is still strong. They also believe that, even though they are now in opposition, they get hit by it just as badly as the Conservatives. One MP notes: “The sense that Labour was in power for a long time is still quite powerful. I suspect the donor row last weekend harmed us, even though it was to do with the Tories. It just reminded people about Westminster politics and helped the anti-politics mood”.
Stephen Tall, writing on the Liberal Democrat Voice website, summed it up: “This has been a week where political news appeared to eat itself. While the Westminster media led a patronising focus on so-called “pastygate”, with Westminster politicians fighting for a photo op in Greggs to show how “of-the-people” they are, the public in Bradford West were casting their votes based on issues that mattered much more to them.”
That is how Galloway would like to paint it. Certainly, the anyone-but-Westminster mood in the seat appears to have had an effect; it was reported last week that one of the former Glasgow Hillhead MP’s campaign managers switched from Labour two weeks before the election, declaring himself fed up with the way his former party was “bypassing democracy” in the seat.
Galloway also attacked the culture of “bradree” – an Urdu word referring to clan politics – in Bradford which, he said, had infected the local Labour Party. It was, he said, responsible for “second and third-rate politicians being elected to the city council on the basis not of ability, not of ideas, not on records of experience, but on whether their father came from the same village as someone else’s father 50 or 60 years ago”. “Bradree”, critics might argue, is not just applicable within Asian circles when it comes to Labour.
The Westminster parties may have identified their problem; quite what they do about it is a different matter. For some, the problem is leadership – or lack of. Within the Conservatives, both Cameron’s No 10 operation and Osborne’s supposed strategic genius are being questioned like never before. Over at Labour, the concern continues to focus on Miliband’s ability to shape up as a potential PM.
Another prominent MP said: “When you are leader of the opposition, you want to bring people with you. You want to make people feel part of an insurgency. Tony Blair did it between 1994 and 1997 and if you look at the by-election results then, they were just astonishing because people wanted to be part of it. There was a real excitement behind the party. There is no such thing now. Ed Miliband isn’t seen as a potential PM, nobody thinks he is going to be PM, so people are thinking: ‘What is the point of piling in behind him?’ ” The same MP also notes that the problem with Miliband, Cameron, Balls and all the rest is that they are seen as “too slick”.
As the Labour post-mortem began on Friday, the parallels with Galloway’s stunning victory in Bradford, and the SNP’s equally huge win last year were being made. On the Labour Uncut website, editor Atul Hatwal noted: “This isn’t the first time that a feeling has taken hold in a formerly Labour supporting electorate that the party is no longer up to leading or even interested in the local community. What just happened in Bradford now happens in Scotland as a matter of course. For Alex Salmond read George Galloway.”
Galloway, of course, failed in his bid to become an MSP last year, when voters in Glasgow spurned his overtures. The reason? The SNP argue it is because, north of the Border, they now offer the alternative to the out-of-favour Westminster model. Or as one senior SNP source put it: “On Bradford, it underlines the difference between politics in Scotland and England – George Galloway did badly in the Holyrood election last year because in Scotland there is a positive alternative. The problem with mainstream politics in England is that none of the major parties offer a positive alternative.”
One remarkable finding taken in the authoritative Scottish Election Study last year bears the SNP out. The study asked Scottish voters whether their standard of living had risen or fallen – and then asked them who should get the credit of blame, the UK or Scottish governments.
Those who thought their standard of living had risen credited the Scottish Government over the UK government by an overwhelming proportion. Those who thought their standard of living had fallen blamed the UK government over the Scottish Government by a similar amount.
For now, there may be little that the Westminster elite can do but wait out the time in the dog house until the mood passes. In Scotland, Labour MPs and MSPs are hoping that some of the buyer’s remorse that still harms their own chances, will soon apply to the SNP “now that they run most things in Scotland”. Perhaps then it will be the SNP’s turn to feel the harshness of disappointed voters. But, as both the Big Two parties are finding this weekend, when the headlines are filled with dodgy donors, high-tax pasties and queues at the pumps, both lose – while others win. «
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North