Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten-must read pieces from this morning's papers

1. If you're disillusioned with Obama, you don't understand how he won (Guardian)

Gary Younge says that the distance between the aspirations Barack Obama raised and his record a year on is the distinction between the electoral and the political. Now he must move beyond lofty rhetoric to make a real difference.

2. Gordon Brown's election strategy is doomed, but you have to admire the cheek of it (Daily Telegraph)

The PM's bare-faced efforts to scare Mondeo Man away from the Tories will make this a roller-coaster election, says Matthew d'Ancona, discussing Brown's speech at the Fabian New Year Conference.

3. Don't blame the Haitians for doubting US promises (Independent)

Isabel Hilton asks whether the fate of this quake-ravaged nation will once again be decided by outsiders, and looks at its history to understand the context.

4. Fear of the poor is hampering Haiti rescue (Times)

Meanwhile, at the Times, Linda Polman argues that one reason aid is taking so long to get to those in need is that American views rule amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

5. Flu, fear and floods: how to avoid excessive precaution (Financial Times)

Money spent on preparing for disasters that do not occur -- or have a lower impact than anticipated -- is not all wasted, say Andrew Jack and Clive Cookson.

6. Polls dictate the state of play. And sometimes get it wrong (Guardian)

Julian Glover looks at the British poll, saying that the possibility of error in tracking voting intentions is increased by a spiral of silence. Labour shouldn't write off the election yet.

7. Put happiness on the election agenda (Independent)

We should consider the effect of policies on people's well-being, says Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation, citing research showing that public policy which considers happiness is much more effective.

8. They know it's all over bar the shouting (Times)

William Rees-Mogg discusses a new, critical report by the Institute for Government. After 13 years of personal infighting, even this academic study says, No 10 is out of control.

9. The full, sapping cost of the Blair-Brown war is now clear (Guardian)

Over at the Guardian, Jackie Ashley largely agrees. She says there are late signs of life, but years of infighting have drained Labour of the energy, ingenuity and imagination to rule.

10. A tale of two types of city (Independent)

The Independent's leading article discusses the widening economic gap between different conurbations in the UK.

 

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.