David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband – focus groups won’t win you our love

So nobody likes anybody. Across the entire range of parties and political leaders, there is scarcely a scintilla of approval from the electorate. The liveliest competition of the moment seems to be the race to the bottom: who can actually manage to out-do all of his rivals to achieve the nadir of voter approbation? Will Dave on his poll approval rating of minus 30-something eventually overtake Ed, currently on minus 40-something, to arrive at the ultimate wooden spoon destination of having no supporters at all?

Even given the circumstances – economic crisis requiring unpleasant decisions, coalition government paralysed by stalemate, etc – this degree of unpopularity is startling. I can’t recall a time when the entire political class was in such uniform, unrelieved disrepute that even a possible change of government seemed to offer, so far as most people appear to believe, no expectation of relief.

This is odd, when you think of it. Never before in political history has more attention apparently been paid to the systematic study of public preferences. The observation, analysis and deconstruction of voters’ opinions are now pseudo-science with a body of theoretical texts and methodology. The operation of focus groups and the design of opinion polling, as w

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RoboEd Miliband hits the mean streets to attack the Coalition from the Right

Yesterday a small but significant thing happened. Ed Miliband attacked the Coalition from the Right.

To be fair he attacked them from the Left, and from the centre, and came diving out of the noonday sun as well: “Ed Miliband targets health reforms in local election campaign” – The Guardian; “Ed Miliband targets David Cameron in local election’s campaign launch” – Metro; “Ed Miliband: The Government has betrayed middle Britain” – Telegraph.

But for a moment let’s set aside the Labour leader’s continuing inability to deploy a single, sustained narrative. Miliband has finally broken his self-denying ordinance, and actually started piling in from the Right. The first assault appeared in the Daily Mirror: “Anti-social yobs should be frogmarched back to their victims to make amends, says Ed Miliband.” According to RoboEd, police should “be able to press thugs to clean up their mess by scrubbing off graffiti or rebuilding community projects.” And all without the usual mindless bureaucracy associated with things like fair representation or due legal process.

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Voters want a story, Ed Miliband, not a hologram of your hopes

Be careful what you wish for. Had the Delphic Oracle told Ed Miliband two weeks ago that Labour would soon be 10 points ahead of the Tories and as few as four points adrift on economic credibility, the Labour leader would not have believed his ears. That breakthrough moment, so long awaited, has vanished faster than Ed Balls could swallow a Greggs sausage roll.

When Mr Miliband launched Labour’s local election campaign yesterday, he should have looked dominant. The Tories are discredited by a party funding scandal, coupled with taxes on old age and pasties. Ministerial guidance on petrol-buying has been so haughty and ill-conceived that motorists might no longer be surprised if told to fill up their cars with five-star cognac.

Yet Mr Miliband, who should be capitalising on this disarray, is hamstrung by problems that did not begin or end in Bradford West. Liam Byrne wants to stand down from the shadow cabinet to run for mayor of Birmingham, leaving a half-hatched policy review behind him. Ken Livingstone is scarcely a shoo-in for the London mayoralty, which will inevitably be branded as the next big test for Mr Miliband.

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The Wets are reclaiming the Tory party

It was David Cameron’s worst week until it became Ed Miliband’s worst week – and then, within hours, it was Cameron’s worst week again. If you blinked at the wrong moment, you missed a whole epoch in national politics. George Galloway was still strutting around the broadcasting studios exulting in the damage he had done to the Labour leadership (which was being described in excitable Labour circles as terminal) when Unite announced that there would be no – repeat, no – haulage strike over Easter, thus rendering the government-induced panic over petrol even more ridiculous. Then this comedy of ineptitude began to look more like tragedy when a woman was critically burned as a more-or-less direct consequence of ministerial warnings about an imminent fuel shortage: warnings that were transparently designed not to avert a crisis but to create the impression of one in order to discredit Labour and its trade union allies.

So much for the Tory party being in the hands of PR professionals. These were the guys who, whatever they may have lacked in vision or convictions, were supposed to be the experts at – how did it go? – managing the message, controlling the narrative, transforming the image.

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George Galloway: You have to salute his indefatigability

The questions race through the mind like Grand Prix cars pelting round a chicane, but to each the only response is a squeal of mesmerised incredulity. After a week of undiluted governmental fiasco, who could have imagined that Ed Miliband would end it looking the most bamboozled, anaemic – yup, you guessed it – pasty? Who even knew a by-election was being held in Bradford before hearing the result… and who that did had an inkling of the shock to come? What does it say about the state of mainstream politics, and what does it presage for the future? And whatever next in the outlandish public life of George Galloway MP?

For every Allahu Akbar echoing through the mosques of West Yorkshire, 10,000 “gawd help us-es” will be resounding elsewhere at his latest renaissance, though none as anguished as Little Ed’s. We all know that by-elections are momentary snapshots with little long-term predictive relevance. Gorgeous George first reached Parliament in 1987 by taking Glasgow Hillhead from Roy Jenkins, who had originally won it for the SDP in a famous by-election upset.

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George Galloway’s win in Bradford West is a humiliation for Ed Miliband and a lifeline for David Cameron

No matter how bad things get for David Cameron, there is a sense that they will never be truly calamitous until the Labour Party can get its act together.

The government has been suffering its worst week since the General Election, but just in time here comes Labour to the rescue. The sensational victory of George Galloway in Bradford West is a disaster for Ed Miliband. Galloway didn’t just sneak a win; he thumped Labour, got 56 per cent of the vote and secured a 10,100 majority.

Lucky old Cameron. Labour’s position had seemingly been improving on the back of the Government’s Keystone Kops creation of a fuel crisis, the donor scandal and a botched budget. The Opposition had opened up a 10pt lead. In such circumstances, Bradford West is the kind of seat Labour should be winning comfortably.

Labour spokesman are blaming Big Brother, ascribing Galloway’s victory to his celebrity, which results in part from him pretending to be a cat (wearing a bright red cat-suit) with Rula Lenska in an infamous scene from the dire reality TV show. Another Labour MP said it was all about Iraq. Perhaps that is a lingering factor, but the invasion of Iraq was nine years ago.

Galloway surely has a point when he says that%

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George Galloway has exposed the void at Labour’s core and left it fighting for its life

This morning the Labour Party is no longer fighting to win the next election. It’s fighting to stay in existence.

George Galloway’s win is the most catastrophic result for the Labour party since Roy Jenkins and the SDP’s challenge in Warrington in 1981. Though in Warrington Jenkins lost narrowly. Gorgeous George is again off to Westminster.

There are mitigating factors, of course: turnout, demography, local issues. But they are sidebars. In a safe Labour seat, in the middle of the worst period of austerity for a generation, following a catastrophic Budget, at the end of a week in which the Government appeared to be falling apart at the seams, Labour has lost. And, most devastatingly of all, lost to a threat from the Left.

There are some people in the Labour movement who have been warning for some time of the looming threat on Labour’s Left flank. They – sorry, we – have also argued repeatedly that Labour’s small opinion-poll leads and previous by–election victories masked a growing political and structural vacuum at the centre of the party, one that the movements more militant elements were preparing to fill.

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George Galloway and the rise of sectarian politics

Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability. It is hard not to feel a batsqueak of admiration for George Galloway. Most British people like to see mavericks beating the system, and Gorgeous George has smarmed his way through personal, political and financial crises that would have brought down almost any other public figure. His self-belief is like some inexorable force of nature.

It is none the less depressing to watch him creating identity politics in Great Britain. When candidates seek office by growing beards, proclaiming their dislike of alcohol, ostentatiously adopting Muslim phraseology and focusing almost wholly on foreign policy, they do little to encourage national cohesion.

I have seen confessional and ethnic politics at work around Europe. In little pockets across the Continent, parties have sprung up to represent linguistic minorities and irredenti communities. They are always complacent and frequently corrupt, for nothing is more deleterious to democratic engagement than the belief that you have to vote for ‘your’ party. Candidates take voters for granted; voters stop caring about manifestos.

We have so far, thank Heaven (or ‘Masha’Allah’

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George Galloway’s shock by-election win leaves Labour with lessons to learn, says Ed Miliband

The Labour leader said there were lessons to learn from the shock result in which the Respect candidate won with a majority of more than 10,000.

Mr Galloway described his victory as “the most sensational victory in British political history” while claiming the rejection of mainstream parties represented a “Bradford Spring” uprising.

Mr Miliband said he would personally visit the constituency as the party tries to reclaim its hold on the seat.

“It was an incredibly disappointing result for Labour in Bradford West and I am determined that we learn lessons of what happened,” he said.

“I’m going to lead that. I’m going to be going back to the constituency in the coming weeks to talk to people there about why this result happened.

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Donor Meat

MORNING BRIEFING – By Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

Well – that didn’t last long. Mere hours after Francis Maude popped up on Today to explain why the Government’s refusal to publish details of Dave’s dinners was “open Government”, No 10 changed tack and published the list of donors who have dined at No 10 and Chequers.

Our splash story is here . Mr Cameron will be relieved that the headlines are not as strident as yesterday after No 10 shovelled out the details. But he should note the universal view that No 10’s handling was sorely lacking. His aides say they have moved as quickly as bureaucracy and record-trawling allow while acknowledging that nothing looks fast enough in the age of Twitter speed.

They also plead with us to note the irony of yesterday’s petrol strikes announcement by Unite, Labour’s own big donor (more on that below). Labour are pressing with further questions, but will we see today one of those moments when a ‘scandal’ loses momentum because there are no new revelations, or will something turn up?

The challenge for the Tories is to resist demands for a switch to party funding, not least if Nick Clegg seizes his chance to force the issue. Yesterday, David Cameron ‘conceded’ a funding cap of £50,000, but the Labour Party wants a cap at £10,000, as Sir Christopher Kelly – the chairman of the parliamentary watchdog – recommended. Will they ever be able to agree?

FALL OUT

In today’s Telegraph , we say that donations aren’t the problem – transparency is. “There is nothing wrong with business leaders lobbying government; nor is there anything wrong with people making donations to political parties. Both are intrinsic parts of the democratic process – but both must be transparent.”

Also in the Telegraph, Paul Goodman reminds us that lobbyists and donors aren’t really buying influence – they’re buying glamour: “Namely, those who give not out of loyalty or even greed, but from another motive which, though no more noble, is arguably less harmful: vanity.”

But Mary Riddell reckons that while cash-for-access is nothing new, David Cameron’s particular association with wealth makes this dangerously toxic. “Voters already convinced that the Tories have cut the top tax rate to help their rich friends will wonder, as they are bound to, whether the Chancellor’s apparent enthusiasm for a third Heathrow runway and relaxed planning rules could possibly be driven by lobbyists.”

Elsewhere, in The Times (£), Rachel Sylvester looks at the funding question – she argues that the parties are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma. She reckons that the Tories need to accept a lower cap on donations while Labour must look at its union links. In his analysis for the Guardian , Patrick Wintour agrees – he says that: “for the first time in a generation there may be an equivalence of mutual self-interest in tearing up the current arrangements”.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail demands a cleaning up of politics to end the “cesspit of corrupt party funding”, and taxpayers must not make up the shortfall. Inside, Andrew Pierce profiles Tory Party chairman Andrew Feldman – David Cameron’s best friend and one of the most quietly influential men in the Conservative Party.

Finally, in its leader the FT (£) calls for Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations, including the £3 per voter of public funding – to be implemented. They’ll be lucky.

ASIDE – Barack’s dinners – Perhaps the PM was just learning from the President – tweeted this morning by Barack Obama: “Ever wanted to have dinner with the President? Now’s your chance—take the last seat at the next #DinnerWithBarack: OFA.BO/TpCU2Q

(though with Barack, donations start at $10, not £250,000).

BUDGET WHISPERS

Labour are sticking to their argument that last week’s Budget was an outrageous transfer of wealth to the rich ( see Polly Toynbee today for evidence). So how do we explain this?: last night, Labour failed to vote against the cut in 50p tax. Instead it was left to the SNP to call a vote, which Labour abstained on.

A senior No 10 source emails that “given the fuss they’ve made about it over the last days it is pretty extraordinary” . But Ed Balls has taken to defending himself on Twitter, pointing out that “Lab voted against whole Budget tonight. But no chance to vote solely on 50p tax. Will ensure there is in Finance Bill & vote against”.

ED BALLS OUT

Page 18 and 19 of the Daily Mirror today are on Ed Balls’s fitness regime – the shadow chancellor has given an interview to the paper explaining exactly how he’s preparing for the London marathon.

Here’s what he says: “Finishing will be enough. I think running the marathon will be a bit like the leadership election for the Labour party. It’s funny going into a race which you think you won’t win, but is still worth running.”

Oh, and apparently Mrs Ed Balls isn’t so keen: “Yvette [Cooper] thinks it’s completely ridiculous and that at my age, 26 miles is a very, very long way. She might be right.” Did she think that about your leadership bid too, Ed?

PLANNING

The other political story today is planning – the Government’s revised National Planning Policy Framework, which is intended to slim down the masses of planning laws to just 50 pages, will be published at 12.30pm. Greg Clark, the planning minister, is also expected to give a statement to the House of Commons around then.

Chris Hope’s full story on the reforms is here. Since we launched our Hands Off Our Land campaign last summer, the Government has made several concessions. Officials will have to consider the importance of “ordinary” countryside when approving developments, while an explicit requirement to build on brownfield land first will be reinstated.

However, the controversial “presumption in favour of sustainable development” is still there, and though we are assured that the corners have been knocked off, No 10 sources are stressing that this is an “unashamedly pro-growth document”. Worrying.

HEATHROW

Speaking of planning: one thing that George Osborne is very keen to build is new airport capacity in the South East – as the FT (£) reports, the Chancellor wants to show he has the “political balls” (presumably he doesn’t mean his shadow) to push through new capacity, even though his aides say that there is “no softening” on a third runway at Heathrow.

PETROL STRIKING

As promised – petrol strikes. The Daily Mail has splashed on the story, reporting that the country will be “held to ransom” by 1,000 tanker drivers, who yesterday voted for a national strike. As they report : “The walkout, which threatens to wreck the Easter break, could close nearly 8,000 petrol stations.”

So far, Ed Miliband has refused to condemn the strikers, who are part of the Unite union – Labour’s biggest financial backer. Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, and no fan of the “Blairite” Ed, said that drivers are looking for an “amicable settlement”, but refused to rule out strikes early next month. What will Ed say?

EUROGEDDON

The headlines haven’t been so bad recently, but if you thought the prospect of euro-armageddon has receded, this brilliant quote from Stephen Nickell, the economic historian who advises the Office for Budget Responsibility, ought to make you think again: “Occasionally I go and look at William Hill, they have the odds on these sorts of things. Last time I looked, the odds of Greece not using euro by the end of the year were the order of about 40pc, a bit lower after the latest Greek bail-out talks”.

That is presumably why it is a good thing that the OBR’s estimates for economic growth rule out the possibility of a Greek collapse…

DOING THE MATHS

Free Enterprise Group MP Liz Truss has a debate in Westminster Hall today worth noting: she wants a “subject premium” to be paid to schools teaching maths and further maths at A-level to boost the numbers of children taking the subjects.

According to her research, under the funding formula A Level Media Studies, Psychology, Physics and Biology receive twelve percent more funding than Maths and English, while non A-level subjects like floristry with more practical content are given even higher weightings . Liz wants this reversed – wish her luck.

HONOURED

Not all politicians are dishonoured today: Edward Heath and James Callaghan are to be honoured with memorial stones at Westminster Abbey. In today’s Telegraph , we have a column from Leo McKinstry, who says that Jim Callaghan was not our “worst Prime Minister” ever – or anything close:

“When Callaghan departed in 1979, the mess that his government left was reversible, as Margaret Thatcher heroically demonstrated. But, tragically, the same is not true today. Blair and Brown, the twin architects of New Labour, altered the fabric of our country forever.”

On the topic of honours, it’s also worth noting the death yesterday of Lord Newton of Braintree – Social Security Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and later Leader of the House. Our obituary is here .

POLL WATCH

The shocking poll is from ComRes in the Independent: Labour are ten points ahead, on 43%, against the Conservatives on just 33% (the Lib Dems are on their perpetual 11%).

Then there is also a Populus poll in The Times, which puts Labour on 38%, the Conservatives on 34% and the Lib Dems on 11%.

Finally, YouGov’s daily poll for The Sun puts Labour on 43%, the Conservatives on 35% and the Lib Dems on 9%.

In all three, the Conservatives are down sharply. So the Budget went down well eh, chaps?

TWEETS AND TWITS

Conservative MP for South West Norfolk and prominent free-marketeer Liz Truss, distracted from seriousness by a rodent: “Eek mouse alert in tearoom. Has ruined my discussion about tax policy.”

Also, he’s not an MP but the FT’s Chris Cook deserves a mention for this tweet: “Please can someone connect the Cameron donor antics to his home in London. So we can have #nottinghillgate”

TOP COMMENT

In The Telegraph

Mary Riddell: Cash for access: the scent of money has become a bad smell around David Cameron

Paul Goodman: David Cameron – smooth yes, dodgy no

Philip Johnston: A new era dawns for the grammar school

Leader: Full transparency is the best disinfectant

Best of the rest

Rachel Sylvester in The Times (£): On funding they really are all in it together

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: Self-confidence matters. This is a moment for Labour to seize

Philip Stephens in the FT (£): Baby boomers are the wrong target

Malcolm Rifkind in The Times (£): Only real secrets must be kept out of court

THE AGENDA

Today: Day II of the Seoul nuclear security summit

Today: Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at the The Social Enterprise Exchange in Glasgow

11.30am: Andrew Lansley takes oral questions in the House of Commons, before it rises for its easter recess

12.30pm: The National Planning Policy Framework is published – planning minister Greg Clark makes an oral statement to the House of Commons

2.15pm: George Osborne appears in front of the Treasury Committee with Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas MacPherson to give evidence on the Budget statement

3.15pm: Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King appears in front of the House of Lords economic affairs committee to answer questions on the economic outlook

7.00pm: Theresa May gives the speaker’s lecture, followed by a Q&A, at Speaker’s House