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Alan Johnson

<em>Picture: A Gude</em>

Picture: A Gude

Union leaders have reacted angrily to a letter, published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, from 35 “business leaders” in support of the coalition government’s spending plans. Senior executives from Marks and Spencer, BT and GlaxoSmithKline are among those who signed it, in which they say it would be a “mistake” for the Chancellor to water down his programme for cutting the budget deficit.

The signatories, many of whom are widely believed to be Conservative supporters, wrote there was no reason to believe the coalition’s approach would undermine any recovery. “Addressing the debt problem in a decisive way” they said, “will improve business and consumer confidence. Reducing the deficit more slowly would mean additional borrowing every year, higher national debt, and therefore higher spending on interest payments.” They added that “the private sector should be more than capable of generating additional jobs to replace those lost in the public sector.”

But Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the STUC said that the letter “provides an object lesson on why business people should pause for reflection before commenting on macroeconomic issues they either do not understand or wilfully misunderstand. They seem unable to grasp that a country is not a company. The economics of this letter are as puerile as the partisanship is blatant.”

Labour has also dismissed the letter as “politically motivated”. Unveiling the party’s own plans for the economy, shadow chancellor Alan Johnson said he wanted a greater share of money for cutting the deficit to come from tax rises rather than spending cuts. He dismissed the letter as a misguided attempt to convince people there was no alternative to the coalition’s plans.

This week’s spending review will be a comprehensive assessment of which areas of Whitehall’s budget will be hit the hardest. The government is committed to cutting the £155bn deficit and the expected programme is designed to save £83bn over the next four years.

The Chancellor will certainly welcome the support of high-profile business leaders. But as Grahame Smith pointed out, “it can safely be assumed that none of the signatories actually use the public services which will be decimated as a result of Wednesday’s Spending Review. They use their vast wealth to pay for private education and health services and those with access to chauffeur driven cars don’t have to worry about public transport.

“It is a sign of desperation that a small, unrepresentative sample of the ‘business community’ including a disproportionate number of minimum wage retailers feels the need to publicly support the coalition’s spending plans. Given their concern about the public finances, are any of the signatories prepared to make a public commitment to re-examine their personal and company tax affairs to confirm that the UK Exchequer is receiving every penny it is due?”

Ed Miliband. <em>Picture: Christian Guthier</em>

Ed Miliband. Picture: Christian Guthier

During the height of the 1999 Scottish election campaign, Donald Dewar was under pressure over persistent rumours that he wasn’t really running the campaign, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was.

Dewar denied it and the story faded away until a group of hacks bumped into a young man coming out of Labour’s Glasgow headquarters one evening.

“Hi, I’m Ed Miliband, I work for Gordon Brown,” he said and that was that. From then on, the Labour campaign was characterised in the press as the “London-Labour” or “Brown-controlled” campaign.

The younger Miliband has clearly learned a great deal from that episode. Last weekend he came to Scotland and promised more autonomy for the Scottish Labour Party. London Labour should adopt a “hand’s off” approach to Scotland and let the Scottish party run its own affairs.

For the person who was ostensibly sent north to help run the 1999 campaign, that was some move.

It has also helped explain why the Ed Miliband bandwagon is gathering momentum in Scotland, particularly among the MSPs.

Some MSPs, like David Whitton, remember Ed Miliband from 1999 and were so impressed with his work, his analysis and his approach to politics from then that they are keen supporters of him to this day.

Others have seen how he has changed and adapted and taken on board the lessons he learned from his Scottish experience 11 years ago and is now clearly aware of the different dynamics in Scotland.

But there is another, far more fundamental, reason why Ed Miliband is edging ahead of his rivals in Scotland: he speaks the right language, the Labour language.

John Park, seen by many as a future leader of the Scottish Labour Party, is another Ed Miliband supporter and he believes Ed Miliband’s willingness to speak out strongly in more Old Labour terms is striking a chord with many in Scottish Labour.

Most Labour MSPs are still keeping their voting intentions to themselves but, of the dozen or so who are willing to declare their favoured candidate, seven support Ed Miliband with four backing his brother David and two supporting Andy Burnham. At the last count, there were none prepared to publicly support either Diane Abbott or Ed Balls.

Part of this strong support for Ed MIliband comes from his slightly “Old Labour” credentials. He is not defiantly Left-wing, like Ms Abbott, nor is he stridently union-backed, like Mr Balls. Ed Miliband is seen as a traditional, solid Labour politician of the sort Scots like.

There is more to it, too, though. The Blairite-Brownite axis still cuts through the Labour Party despite the departure of its eponymous leaders. As a result, David Miliband is seen by many as the Blairite candidate and Mr Balls as the Brownite candidate – something which is not helped by the Charlie Whelan/Unite backing Mr Balls is expected to receive.

Ed Miliband is not viewed through this filter at all so comes across as fresh and untarnished.

The one problem for Ed Miliband was his performance at the Scottish hustings event last Sunday. Even his supporters admit that he appeared hesitant, slightly uneasy and not as confident as his rivals. And with many Labour members in Scotland – and MSPs – still undecided, that cannot have helped.

There is, though, a tale his supporters are keen to relate which comes from the problematic Copenhagen climate change conference last year. It was 2am in the morning and the whole conference was on the verge of meltdown. All the NGOs and environmental groups were about to walk out. Somebody roused Ed Miliband from his bed. He spoke to the groups concerned and such was his passion, eloquence and commitment, they all stayed and got involved again. The conference may not have resulted in the sort-of landmark deal they wanted, but Ed Miliband’s supporters use that example to show that their man does have the leadership and debating skills necessary – even if he does not show them as readily as his brother.

He also has two other, important, factors in his favour. The first is that there is still a long way to go before the election itself.

One senior figure in Scottish Labour admitted that there was now a “caucus” on the Labour corridor at Holyrood actively pushing Ed Miliband’s chances. Even those who want Mr Burnham to succeed admit quietly they may now back Ed Miliband to prevent his brother getting the leadership.

This form of politics, building a caucus that works behind the scenes to persuade, cajole and generate support, is the sort of politics Labour members are used to but the one now growing in support of the younger Miliband is stronger, more influential and better organised than any other, particularly that for David Miliband – despite his high-profile visit to the parliament last week.

A long run-in to the leadership election will work in Ed Miliband’s favour because he supporters will use that time to build a body of backers inside the Scottish Parliament and beyond.

The second factor is the complexity of the Labour leadership contest itself. The use of single transferable vote to decide the outcome makes it more likely that the eventual winner will come from the middle of the pack.

The system has only been used twice before and only on one of these occasions was it used for the sort of widely spread field we have now, and that was the Deputy Leadership election in 2007.

Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson were in second and third place after the first round and Ms Harman never got higher than second place – until after the final allocation of the last set of transferable votes, when she emerged on top.

This means that huge importance will be placed on the ability of candidates to secure second choice support from Labour members. The Ed Miliband camp will hope to pick up second choice votes from both David Miliband and Mr Balls so that, even if their man comes third in the first round, he might be able to edge ahead because of the transfers.

There is also the Abbott factor to consider. David Miliband’s decision to give her the vital nomination allowing her to enter the contest is being widely seen as astute, because it was expected to rob his nearest rivals of vital left-wing support.

But David Miliband could end up suffering too. There may be many Labour Party members out there – particularly women, members of ethnic minorities and members who still harbour a desire for radicalism – who would have backed David Miliband as their second choice but who will now give their second-choice vote to Ms Abbott.

The only certainty at this stage is that this leadership election will come down to second and third preferences. The winning candidate will need enough first-choice votes to get a solid start then more second and third choices than their rivals.

To do that, the winning candidate has to be able to secure widespread support across the party and not alienate anybody. If you listen to Ed Miliband’s supporters at Holyrood, they certainly believe their man has both of these qualities. It will be a fascinating race.

No <em>West Wing</em> please, we're British

No West Wing please, we're British

The election campaign has lacked a palpable sense of drama. The leadership debates were a personality contest in which each contestant stuck  to script.  The Gillian Duffy incident merely served to highlight the absence of excitement.

This country will always prefer observing the flip-flopping, chaotic policy-on-the-hoof depicted in The Thick of It to the considered, idealistic spokesmen of The West Wing. There is a very British reason that our appetite for a new leader is marginally outstripped by our appetite to deface posters of him – we’re all cynics.

However, even though, on the surface, the campaign lacks drama, dig deeper and there are resonances of TV and film moments around all the major players. For instance, after each debate, those moments when all the party aides rush forward to chime “Our guy won” could be straight out a zombie movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or 28 Days Later.

All the central characters in the election bring to mind movie characters, from ITV’s Alistair Stewart bellowing on the first debate like Peter Finch in Network to Rebekah Wade and James Murdoch storming into the Independent’s offices to complain about a dig at James’ dad as if they were Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction.

Here are some of the others if  ever (and granted it’s unlikely) someone makes a movie of the 2010 UK election:

Gordon Brown
– Not since Matthew Broderick has someone struggled so much in an election. There are elements to Lear:  New Labour’s inheritance being carved by the  three heirs, with Alan Johnson, David Miliband and Lord Mandelson in the roles of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Unkinder critics may liken the Prime Minister to Spider in Goodfellas (spoiler alert), a stuttering creature stumbling and mumbling before Joe Pesci puts him out his misery.

Alex Salmond – A mirror image of Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, where a man doesn’t really want to be on a TV show that everyone is watching. The twist is that this time the man desperately does want to be on the show, to the extent that he raises £50,000 for solicitors so that he can be. In another mirror image of The Truman Show, it has an unhappy ending.

Damian McBride/Alastair Campbell/Charlie Whelan – Labour’s backroom figures would very possibly be amalgamated into one character, as is standard Hollywood practice. The obvious touchstone is Armando Iannucci and Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker. With the carrot-over-stick persuasive methods of these men, the character would have to be a sweet-talking charmer – reminiscent of Don Logan in Sexy Beast.

Andy Coulson – Other papers do not wish to annoy the former News of the World editor turned next PM’s communications chief. In fact, all negative stories are met with a conspiracy of silence. Brings to mind the classic ‘70s paranoia surveillance thrillers like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and The Parallax View, where the baddies are infrequently sighted, and Tony Scott’s near-tribute to The Conversation, The Enemy of the State. Having said that, no character in those films put on a dress to gatecrash An Audience with The Spice Girls as Coulson once did in his days as a showbiz editor.

Tony Blair – The old warhorse brought back for one more rumble, almost from beyond the grave, rather like Burgess Meredith’s Micky on Rocky IV (and V), and Jack Palance in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold.

Nick Clegg – The personality, nailed down as it is like jelly, of Peter Sellers in Being There. Fans of Andrew Niccol-penned cloning movies like Gattaca or S1m0ne might see echoes of Clegg being Cameron Lite, himself a Diet Blair. Just for the taste of it.

David Cameron and George Osborne – They could be cowboys riding off into the sunshine with Cameron whispering “I wish I knew how to quit you” to the man many think he should ditch as shadow chancellor. More than that, this pair’s Bullingdon history may evoke recollections of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited. Or Dickie Greenleaf and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley. Possibly with Boris Johnson in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role of Freddie Miles.
Cameron on his own definitely has the air of Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate. Keen to grab power but after the Lord Mayor’s Show … what else is there?