Labour will not “learn the lessons” of Glasgow East

Labour’s loss of Glasgow East has come after the start of the long Parliamentary recess. It means John Mason will have to wait eleven weeks before he can take his seat, eleven weeks before he can say anything in Parliament about why he won and why the electors of Glasgow are so fed up with Labour. It also means Gordon Brown is spared analysis and hysteria about the result around the tea room tables in the Commons. His MPs are already well dispersed and some no doubt busy with other things.

As one who had thought the polls and pundits would be right in predicting a very narrow Labour victory, it does make a difference that they could not even cling on to their 3rd safest seat in Scotland. The turn out was respectable for a by election – some Labour voters were angry enough to go to the polls and vote for a different party.
Labour in the form of Mr Alexander tells us they “will learn the lessons”. We heard that after Crewe and after Henley as well, in the measured tones of an undertaker addressing the bereaved family.

I doubt that very much. To those who say the problem is Gordon Brown – his appearance, his tone of voice, his approach to people – I say he has changed himself a lot. He can now tie his tie tidily, he sports a much better hair cut, he has bought some new suits, and has adopted a much softer and less aggressive tone of voice. I was pleasantly surprised by the way he responded to my last question to him in the House on Tuesday. Instead of asking him a question as I often do to seek to move the debate on, I asked him a highly political question. I asked if he was intending to persuade Obama he was wrong to both want early withdrawal from Iraq and to want more troops and more commitment to Afghanistan, in contradiction to present US/UK policy. He responded in a measured and thoughtful tone, and answered half the issue I put to him. He has changed a lot and become more Prime Ministerial, accepting people’s right to put difficult issues before him. He understood that it would not be good to allow a rift to open up between himself and Obama, but he also has to stay loyal to the current UK/US line.

The problem is not Gordon Brown today. The problem is the mess Blair/Brown made of the economy in the period 2001-2006. The problem is the inflation they have unleashed, and the sharp slowdown they have now generated. That is why I do not think Labour have begun to learn the lessons, because they still cling to the view that the problem is of foreign origin, and that the UK is well placed to deal with it. As readers of this site will know, I concur with neither of those premises.

If they really wish to show they have learned the lessons of Crewe, of Henley and of Glasgow, or for that matter of the last local and mayoral elections, they would take action to alleviate our pain. Just reciting the mantra they “understand how difficult things are” whilst blaming foreigners at every turn will not do. Jetting off to lecture the Saudis about the price of oil, whilst ignoring the EU over the price of food will not do.

They should take action including the following:

1. Impose a staff freeze on the public sector staff (other than teachers, nurses, doctors, police and troops and other important front line personnel). Stop the flood of spending on computers, consultancies, new logos, spin doctors, and all the other paraphernalia of the quango state. Get public spending under control.
2. Cut fuel duty so oil taxation is back on budget, helping cut inflation.
3. Cut interest rates to 2.5%
4. Reduce taxation on new exploration and development of oil and gas in the UK
5. Cut the Corporation Tax rate to attract more business to the UK
6. Announce decisions on privately financed infrastructure projects in energy, transport and water to offer work to the hard pressed construction industry.
7. Speed CAP reform to allow more agricultural activity in the UK and to give us full access to world markets for food.

If they did this theywould tackle the twin evils of inflation and slow down. They might offer people some hope that their family bills will come under some control, and offer those who fear job losses that the government wants to limit the fall in the economy. I see no signs of them doing much of this anytime soon. I have to conclude they still do not get it, as they mouth their soundbites about a foreign crisis and tell us they share our pain on their six figure Ministerial salaries.


  1. APL
    July 25, 2008

    JR: "it does make a difference that they could not even cling on to their 3rd safest seat in Scotland."

    And what a difference, *NO* labour party! Expect the Labour party to get a huge hard on for proportinal representation and state funding of political parties before the next election.

    And the Tory party really really REALLY needs to be very particular about the prospective candidates it selects for the next General election. We do not want to find ourselves with the Labour wing of the Tory party, do we?

  2. Freeborn John
    July 25, 2008

    I noticed that on several blog posts you have suggested that state spending on 'computers' (and other technology) should be cut. It seems to me that the public sector already uses technology much less than the private sector and that this is part of its productivity problem. The difference between the world of 2008 and 1988 or 1908 is largely one of technology, which has been the primary driver for productivity growth (and therefore the rise in living standards) in the world since the industrial revolution. Adjustments in interest rates or taxes can certainly have a beneficial short-term moderating effect on the economy but cannot in themselves improve productivity. Even a permanent cut in public sector staff can at best have a one-time effect in raising productivity. Only changes in how work is done can lead to sustained productivity improvements and typically it is technology that allows us to find these new and better ways of working. Therefore I feel that a far-sighted policy would actually be to bring the public sector use of technology up to that of the private sector by increasing spending (which is truly an investment) in this area.

    (It may be that you feel that technology projects in the public sector do not go that well, but if they go less well that in the private sector there must be reasons for this unrelated to the technology itself.)

    Reply: I agree we need good use of technology in the public sector, but there are spectacular examples of grandiose computer projects that we do not need and are badly managed -e.g. the identity database.

  3. Neil Craig
    July 25, 2008

    I think the lesson of Glasgow East is not about policy or presentation but about party organisation. The turnout in the middle of the Glasgow Fair when much of the population is awy, should have been abysmal. Instead it was only slightly down on the general election, though bu-elections are alwys considerably lower. What that means is that somebody got their vote out. The constituency was hoaching with SNP workers (& posters) while Labour workers were thin on the ground & a high proportion ofv them were MPs. This in the centre of Labour's Glasgow heartland were Labour activism used to be almost a tribal rite.

    Like a large company which increases its profits by getting rid of its workers & hiring Chinese & eventually finds it is nothing but a brand name, Labour, over the last 11 years has hollowed out its support & is now little but a brand name. The SNP's victory is a triumph for old fashioned party workers knocking on doors. As such it is a very good thing for democracy even though I disagree with their main policy.

    John I agree with your economic programme. Only suggestion I would make is on #5. Not only should corporation tax be cut but a promise should be made that the "take" from it will not be allowed to rise. If the Laffer Curve kicks in & growth means the revenue rises CT will be cut further to Irish rates (eventually also business rates). Such a promise costs nothing but would improve business confidence & long term investment rates.

  4. David morris
    July 25, 2008

    Actually I think you underestimate the level of disrespect many people have for Mr Brown across the country, even for people who still follow the myth that he was a very good Chancellor.

    But if you anyone thinks this government, or PM, are capable of learning lessons then this morning's platitudes about "getting on with the job ", "GLOBAL, I said GLOBAL crisis" and "Having already steered us through 2 economic downturns (Yep I don't know either ask Des Browne) Gordon remains the most qualified person in the UK to see us through this one".

    In one article you have outlined 7 possible actions to address today's problems, whether they would work or , indeed, whether they would even be implemented under a Conservative Government at least these are 7 more real ideas than we here from Golden Brown and his more of the same. I only hope that there is something salvagable after another two years with the Unions sensing blood and seeing the opportunity to call the shots.

  5. Serf
    July 25, 2008

    1. Impose a staff freeze on the public sector staff

    How about impose a NET Staff freeze. For every worker that is taken on, one must go elsewhere. That way we could swap some of the non value added, for those that voters really want.

  6. Nick
    July 25, 2008

    Most of your tax changes are tinkering.

    Until government gets its head round the idea that taxing people on minimum wage is stupid, you are going to change a thing.

    Most people on benefits are there because they have calculated they are better off.

    Change it.

    No tax if you earn minimum wage. If you earn above minimum wage, no benefits.

    The second thing is that you need to turn the benefits system into a safety net. If you earn more than min wage, you have to save a percentage. Once you have saved more than a certain amount, you get to spend the excess. However, if unemployed, you have to eat into your savings first, then you get help from the rest of us.

    That way, there is no argument about people not paying in first (immigrants etc), because they, like the Brits, have to earn it first


  7. Things To Do In Glas
    July 25, 2008

    They started singing bye, bye…….

  8. Matthew
    July 25, 2008

    3. Cut interest rates to 2.5%

    Wouldn't this require the Chancellor to assume control of setting interest rates again?

    Reply: Or use his influence with the MPC who will get the idea sooner or later that they have to fight recession.

  9. haddock
    July 25, 2008

    John, The economy is a factor in this but perhaps not as great as you think it is. The poor generally are fairly well used to being poor and can be a bit poorer without rioting. The ordinary voter, given a choice between an economy that gave a gain in living standards or having control of their own lives returned to them, will vote for the latter. We, and I speak as one of the poor, are fed up to the back teeth with being told what to do, the ban on smoking has lost Labour many more votes than the economy; uncontrolled immigration has lost them more votes that the 10p tax rate change. We are all fed up with councils, police, parliament and the EU trying to control every minute of our life.
    The English People will put up with hardship, if they can see a better future.
    That better future is just not economic, perhaps it is to be allowed to be English again.
    A Conservative Party that pledged to give us a say on the EU and to take a scythe to legislation that restricts our freedom of speech or freedom to enjoy our pleasures will garner more votes than just another party banging on about interest rates.
    (I still cannot see how making money cheaper to borrow so that it can be spent on imports can help the economy, but then, I'm just a voter.)

  10. alan
    July 25, 2008

    John. Yours is a thoughtful article, which is extremely sound.

    You make the point that the Glasgow East By Election will escape the analysis of the Tea Room etc. in the House of Commons. That is undoubtably correct. Yet I believe it will be the stuff of so many articles within the press over this weekend and the next weeks and months. That must be very good news for the Tories. It will mean that Brown will be on the back foot all the time, whatever initiative he attempts!

    Whilst I agree with your analysis of what Brown should do. He will not. On point 1. The Unions will not allow him. 2-6 Fall because of 1. 7 Would Upset the French!

    He has to be the most unpopular prime minister I have lived under.

    You did not comment on the Lib Dems and the fact that they fell behind the Tories in Glasgow. Has Clegg's bubble burst?

    Reply: Yes, the Lib Dems are struggling. Elections are 2 horse races, and they are squeezed. When they are the 2nd horse, as in Henley, they flounder.

  11. Derek
    July 25, 2008


    Following the Conservatives dismal performance in Glasgow East, I've paraphrased the opening paragraph of your piece 11.7.08 'The English Democrats get it wrong again':

    'The Tories get it wrong again'

    'What is it about the Tories that they revel in almost losing their deposit in a Scottish by election? Why on earth did they stand in the by-election, only to be hammered again?'

    The Tories haven't a cat in hells chance of getting any serious representation in Scotland and yet your leader continues to pander to Scottish voters. When it comes to England he backtracks on the promise to take the WLQ seriously. Ken Clarke's proposals are an insult and yet DC seems to go along with them. I am mystified.

    Reply: Silly comment. The Conservatives do win seats, the EDs don't.

  12. mikestallard
    July 25, 2008

    It was not always like this.
    Mrs Thatcher did a runaway with the Conservatives who virtually destroyed Labour. This lasted until in 1997, the charismatic Blair destroyed the Conservatives. Now, it seems, the Labour are on the ropes and about to be annihilated.
    What worries me is this: parliament must be the loser. Without an effective opposition, surely the government (whatever colour it has) is bound to get slack and fat and complacent.
    Even worse, Scotland seems to be firmly anti-Conservative; England to be firmly Conservative, at least in the South. In the North, there are firm cities for Labour, and country areas where Conservatism thrives. Nevertheless, things, to my mind, are getting very regional.
    I think that both of these two things play into the hands of those who are poised to take us over: regionalism and lack of healthy parliamentary debate.

  13. Nick
    July 25, 2008

    Parliamentary debate is a joke. It is irrelvant. You have the clown act that PMQ. The rest is ignored anyway, because MPs are whipped into voting the way the cabinet vote. Even there, not many buck the PM.

    That's why people are pissed off with politics, and give politicians quite rightly a kicking on the few occasions they are asked. Particularly when politicians are lining their own pockets, and incompetant.

    This is the main reason why things have moved to special interest groups.


  14. DiscoveredJoys
    July 25, 2008

    Those that live by the sound-bite, die by the sound-bite. When things are going well any fool can claim success, irrespective of their contribution. But when things go badly you need more than spin.

    I would love to see a Prime Minister or Cabinet member brave enough to say to the press "Yes we do have policies and plans to deal with the situation – and these will be put before Parliament shortly. Until then I will not give you any details."

    Put the government back into Government if you wish to be taken seriously. I would sooner support a party with concrete plans I don't fully agree with (remember Thatcher!) than a party with glib words but no idea.

    Yes, I do like your plans for getting GB out of the hole. I suspect that hospitals and GPs do need to computerise more (for the patients benefit, not the organisation) but do not need an interlinked all-singing all-dancing system. There is plenty of off-the-shelf software available – it just does only 90% of what is wanted. But better to get 90% cheaply now, than 100% expensively, much, much later.

  15. Tim
    July 25, 2008

    I think the big issue for Brown is that people are ceasing to listen to him at all.

    I think the expression in office but out of power sums up the impression of Brown and his administration.

  16. wrinkled weasel
    July 26, 2008

    I am going to plead ignorance on most of what I say because I am not an economist and largely do not understand how the economy works.

    Having said that, I was mildly surprised by some of your options.

    Firstly the issue of private finance of infrastructure projects. In my personal experience this is licensed theft. Taxpayers are already paying £500 million p.a. in rent for Hospitals, to private companies. Now, in itself, this is nothing bad. What is bad is that these hospitals are built like portakabins and run by cowboy concessions. We will still be paying for them when they are being pulled down. Believe me, Mrs Weasel (Dr Weasel, if you must) works in one.

    Secondly, your recommendation that interest rates should be cut to 2.5%. Are you seriously trying to ruin my continental holiday?

    I also wonder if these measures are a bit short-termist. Whilst encouraging businesses by cutting tax is tempting, surely it would merely lead to recklessness. Wouldn't a better solution be to encourage research and development and proper apprenticeships? These are necessarily long-term fixes, but I am sure you know as well as I do that the problems we have in the economy are down to the government's policies of changing the goalposts every five minutes for business. We can't pull the economy out of this in a year, or two or three. I believe that the way to deal with our economic problems is long term and ideological, rather than short-term and political.

    These are only the ramblings of a credulous bystander, but it's the best I can do.

    Reply: Thanks for the comments. I am not recommending private finance for public projects – I am recommending private projects where the risk is taken by the private sector. Additional roads should be toll motorways paid for and run by the private sector. New power stations will be private sector assets, where the risks are run by the shareholders. I agree about the dangers of some PFI/PPP approaches.
    Interest rates have to come down. The housing and mortgage markets are killed by the current combination of high rates and weak balance sheets. You do not have to keep your money in sterling if you think other currencies will do better.

  17. William B.
    July 26, 2008

    There are many predictions of a Conservative landslide at the next general election. To my mind these predictions give undue weight to current nationwide opinion poll results and give too little weight to the strength of the SNP.

    Although there are many things going against Mr Brown there are three big hurdles for the Conservatives: (i) they require a big swing to gain power, (ii) the SNP are the most likely beneficiaries of an anti-government mood in many Scottish constituencies and (iii) David Cameron is young and untested in government.

    The second factor affects the first and the third affects the second. A seat gained by the SNP from Labour must be balanced by an additional gain by the Conservatives elsewhere in order for the net effect to be a gain for Mr Cameron. It is inevitable that some seats which might have turned blue had the SNP been weak will instead turn yellow.

    The youth and inexperience of Mr Cameron might contrast well with a jaded and broken Prime Minister but it does not play so well against a vigorous and tactically astute Alec Salmond. Mr Salmond can and will continue to play the anti-Westminster card to great effect, thereby increasing further the likelihood of former Labour voters turning to his party.

    It should not be overlooked that Mr Salmond is promising "money for nothing" in his stated desire to grab as much as he can from North Sea oil. I believe the economics of this to be nonsensical but it is a great vote-winner especially among those who previously supported Labour.

    In addition to the economic lesson Mr Brown should learn from Glasgow East (and I agree fundamentally with your analysis) he must also learn that the mood in Scotland appears to be far to the left of his current economic policy. Were he to learn the economic lesson he should not expect it to reap dividends north of the border.

  18. Neil Craig
    July 26, 2008

    Regarding computerisation the problem is not the software but the jellyware. For a century & a half the future leaders of the civil service have been recruited from students doing classics at Oxbridge on the grounds that only they are fully rounded people. Whatever the merits of that in the 1850s it means that almost nobody running things has much knowledge of enginering, accountancy or computerisation (the MPs average no better) which obviously makes efficient running of things difficult & leads to billions being wasted on, for example, computer systems unnecesarily.

    Regarding Scotland's inherent socialism: Reform has, over the years, done many regional opinion polls & it turns out that the Scots average about 3% to the left of the UK with the interesting exception of whether cutting business taxes would stimulate growth where we are more supportive. 3% is both small & explicable by the fact that we are a bit poorer. The business tax is explicable because we take more notice of what goes on in Ireland. Most English & indeed most Scots think we are more leftist purely because of the destructive influence of the FPTP electoral system which gives the impression that we all vote Labour merely because only Labour MP get in while everybody in the south of England is assumed to be Tory for the same reason.

  19. Derek W. Buxton
    July 26, 2008

    I do admire your postings but I must comment on the seven measures you suggest. Some make great sense but others questionable;

    "Cut interesrt rate to 2.5%", so sterling plummets, costs rise again and up goes inflation. In addition, we have huge debts, government and private, low interest will only make this bad situation worse.

    "Reform CAP"; This is an EU competance and we cannot alter it, the French, Germans, Italians and Spanish will not hear of taking their easy living away from them. It was, after all brought in to give French and German farmers the chance to scupper British farming, it worked too.

    Keep up the good work though.

  20. Derek
    July 26, 2008

    I agree, the Tories do win seats John. Unfortunatly for them, it would would seem, no longer in Scotland.
    It will be interesting to compare notes after the next general election. I suspect that 'nil pointe' might well be the result from the Scottish judges.
    I've always been a supporter of the Conservatives (since the 1970 GE when I first voted) but I'm having serious doubts about DC.
    My only hope is electoral wipe out north of the border at the next GE with a win in England. Then maybe the Tories will start to take English support seriously and cause them to give serious attention to the democratic deficit and make government democratically accountable to the electorate once more. Just to keep repeating parrot fashion 'an English Parliament would destroy the Union' and coming up with no other acceptable proposals is not good enough.

  21. mikestallard
    July 26, 2008

    Are you really saying that most politicians and civil servants are classicists? As a classicist myself, I have watched my subjects crash over the past thirty years. Think of any politician – except Boris Johnson – and ask yourself – would they understand the perfect passive?

    Also, are you really saying that the Scots are half Tory?

  22. Puncheon
    July 26, 2008

    As a both classisists and ex-civil servant I feel obliged to join this debate. People like me have been forced out of central government over the past 12 years or so and is the country any the better for it? My generation were taught to offer objective and non-partisan advice on how political objectives could best be met and implemented. Under Blair we were pushed aside by a system of government by press release – ministers would simply announce a policy and we would be told to get on with implementing it. Very soon the more savvy and ambitious civil servants realised that it was better to be involved in drafting the press release than implementing the (usually duff) policies. The conscientious among us just left, one way or another. This goes some way to explaining the mess we are in today. On computerisation, I agree that there have been some spectacular failures in the public sector, but this has usually been due to Ministerial incompetence, eg merging Customs and Excise and Inland Revenue. Also, there have been some successes, eg the DVLC and NSI websites are two of the best interactive service site around, in my view. But I agree that generally the public sector performance has been dire, although the private sector is not without its catastrophes.

    Reply: How right you are – the changes to the professional civil service have weakened it.

  23. nick
    July 26, 2008

    There is an easy way of dealing with with the EU and UK organisations.

    Pass a law that says no taxpayer's money goes to organisations that have not passed an official audit.

    The second part of the law, is to make it illegal to allow this to go on when it involves UK tax payers money.

    If the EU complains about it, we just start extraditing them under the European extradition treaty. Jailing a few EU commissioners, Kinnock springs to mind, head of the CAP being another, will quickly bring about a resolution

  24. Neil Craig
    July 26, 2008

    I believe that almost all civil servants at the top got degrees in classics or arts. Very few politicians studied any form of science – a plurality, in some cases a majority being lawyers. By comparison almost everybody in the Chinese Presidium is an engineer.

    As regards the Scots – the Tories don't get half the votes anywhere, neither do Labour & both are relying on a bit over 40% to get a majority of seats. The SNP have undoubtedly picked up a lot of votes which elsewhere would be Conservative now but though the party has managed to alienate itself from most of the people that does not mean that on isues we differ much from the English. In my opinion the proportional system in the Scottish Parliament gives an opportunity for the Scots Tories to establish a strong, though not majority, position by adopting less consensual policies than Mr Cameron finds necessary. Particularly since the other 3 parties share a big government social democratic agenda. They have not done so.

    As a historical note the Conservatives are the only party to have had over 50% in Scotland since the war, in the 1950s. The last peacetime government to have had over 50% in the UK as a whole was the National government of the 1930s.

  25. John
    July 27, 2008

    Oh dear! Who would have thought it.

    "Gordon Brown answered my question in a measured and thoughtful way."

    John, how could you be so gullible. It is obvious to anyone that he has, no doubt very expensive, advisors and coaches to try to improve his image. You have fallen for it. Our PM is a cunning inept politician who is not fit to run anything let alone a country.
    Get a grip.

  26. nick
    July 27, 2008

    Why's the DVLC a success? It employs thousands on a make work scheme.

    Abolish VED (car tax) and put it on petrol. It can't be dodged, which VED. Saves all the costs of employing people on a 'make work scheme'


  27. Grant Grant
    April 2, 2009

    Thnx this helped you have a really good voice

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