PMQs sketch: Incapacitating Dave

Ed demanded to know whether "Calamity Clegg" was for or against NHS reforms.

It was only after Ed Miliband revealed that everyone who was anyone in the National Health Service now opposed his plans for re-organisation that the Prime Minister said he had no plans to be incapacitated.

The news came as a major disappointment to NHS staff desperate to get their hands on him having finally seen his Health Secretary Andrew Lansley off to a darkened room. The revelation came as crowds gathered for what has become the weekly ritual of Cameron-clobbing, officially billed as Prime Ministers Questions. Dave used to bounce into the Chamber in those early easy days of his Premiership; sun-tanned, sleek and superior, more than happy to face down the Labour leader. That was before Ed found the NHS. Now it's a florid-faced substitute who turns up for ritual humiliation in front of his own less-than-happy backbenchers -- not to mention the Lib-Dem part of the coalition led by Dave's deputy, more than pleased to disassociate themselves from the disaster.

Relief shone on the Prime Minister's already shiny face when Ed kicked off his PMQs session with a couple of innocuous questions about the Leveson inquiry, but it was only to draw his target into a false sense of security.

He then proceeded to read out a list of organisations, most of whose names are prefixed by the word Royal, who take the view that Andrew Lansley is probably certifiable and the Prime Minister is at least guilty by association. Ed's list was so comprehensive that listeners were surprised not to hear that the Royal College of those-who-open-the-front-doors-of-hospitals-for-those-even-more-important were on it. But it was the list of those who were which obviously left the embattled Prime Minister to realize that were he incapacitated, the transfer from home to hospital might not be all he would hope for.

To be fair to Dave he had his own -- albeit rather shorter -- list, but with considerably fewer royal prefixes than one might have expected from someone leading the Conservative Party. With one opinion poll showing Labour with a six-point lead, Ed declared that this health bill could cost Dave the next election; a comment which brought a lull into the mutual swopping of insults which marks the behaviour of MPs required to turn up in the Commons to register on their way to lunch. There was a toast to absent friends in the shape of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, whose call for industrial action during the Olympics on the morning of PMQS could not have been better timed. In the good old days this would have had Central Office and the Daily Mail beside themselves with pleasure. But despite ritual huffing and puffing by the usual suspects it never really took off, even after the PM reminded the House that Unite pick up a third of Labour's bills.

Thanks to the magic of the Twittersphere, not to mention that the next General Election is still three years off, Ed was able to denounce his paymaster in public before Dave could have a go. Nick Clegg had earlier called on Ed to "rein in" the Unite boss, and this was clearly enough to allow the Labour leader to single out his Lib-Dem equivalent who tries -- and usually succeeds -- in turning himself into the invisible man on these occasions. But he must have moved inadvertently today because Ed spotted him and demanded to know whether the Deputy Prime Minister was for or against the reforms. Having read Nick's call to arms to his peers in the House of Lords you could see that Dave, not to mention the massed hordes of his side of the Coalition, would also have liked an answer on this. Nick mouthed his support but in the general direction of the Labour benches, thereby leaving both side still not knowing where he stood.

It was this which led the aptly named Tory MP Peter Bone, who makes regular attacks on the Coalition with all the candour of a man who knows he will never be a Minister, to ask the PM who would take over if he was incapacitated. Casting an eye over his deputy, described as "Calamity Clegg" earlier in the proceedings, Dave said he had no plans to be incapacitated. Ed just smiled.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.