Thursday, December 23, 2004

Criminal Lies from the Tories

This morning, Andrew Mitchell was wheeled out for the Tories to have a go at the new powers for Community Support Officers. Andrew isn't a big gun, more of a child's bow and arrow, but that didn't stop him telling outright lies to the audience of the Today programme on Radio 4.

Repeatedly, he describes the crime figures as 'soaring.'

Now, you may ask how you can justify this. The short answer is that you can't. The most authoritative survey on crime in Britain is the British Crime Survey. This asks almost 40,000 people about their experience of crime (around 1200 is enough to predict the result of a General Election to within a percentage point or two, so this is a BIG survey). This is done because simply relying on crimes reported to the police doesn't give satisfactory data. In some cases, there is massive under-reporting of crime. As an example, the police logged almost 6 million crimes in 2003/4, while the British Crime Survey estimates that the total was twice that.

There are weaknesses in the BCS - it doesn't cover murder, crimes against children, crimes against businesses or crimes that have no direct victim (like drug dealing). On the other hand, it does cover the crimes that are most likely to have an impact on us. Despite what you might think, murder is exceptionally rare. The most recent statistics show an upturn, but there have been two cases in recent years that have contributed massively - the numbers of people murdered by Harold Shipman and the 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in a container while being brought into the country. The BCS only provides national figures, it can't work down to local level.

Police reporting figures are unreliable, because there have been significant changes in how crimes are reported and classified and also because they rely on crime actually being reported. To be fair, they have shown increases over recent years, but there are statistical flaws over reporting. For consistency, look at the BCS.

Burglary - DOWN 42% since 1997

Thefts of and from vehicles - DOWN 40% since 1997

Common assault - DOWN 33% since 1997

Robbery - DOWN 15% since 1997

Domestic and acquaintance violence are both DOWN 45% since 1997

Mugging has only dropped by 4% since 1997

Overall, household crime is DOWN 42% since 1997 and personal crime DOWN 35%.

Now, where there is a problem is with 'Stranger' violence, which has RISEN by 22% since 1997. There has also been an increase in 'snatch' thefts from people, up by 46%. Given that every other item has dropped significantly, I don't think that these two items actually justifies the Tories in labelling crime as 'soaring.' If we are being fair to the Tories (and it IS Christmas), these falls actually started following a peak in 1995.

So why should this matter? Well, if we don't correct the lies, they will enter the common conscience as fact. Not only is this bad for the Labour Party politically, it is bad for the country. Fear of crime is worse than the reality in the way it affects lives. Older members of society live in fear of crime, yet when you look at the reality, only 5% of robberies are perpetrated against them. Almost half of the robbery victims are under 25 - a quarter under 15.

Truth matters. Together, we'll crack it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Things They Say Pt 245 - David Blunkett

"Probably my failing is that I feel I need to be on top of things too much"
The Guardian, May 2000.
'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Nicked Griffin

This week saw some cheer, with the leader of the BNP being (temporarily) under lock and key as part of a police investigation into comments he made while being secretly filmed, which may fall foul of the Public Order Act.

I don't like seeing the law used to repress political parties, but I feel that this is a special case. Like all rights, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities - you aren't free to shout 'Fire' in a crowded place, for example. By the nature of democracy in this country, it is open to all, so the moment you start to spread fear about a distinct racial or religious group, you put yourself beyond the limits of reasonable political behaviour. Inspiring racial division makes you an enemy of democracy.

The BNP are wise to the fact that attacking a racial group will being the force of the law down upon them, so they have cynically used the post-September 11th climate to target the Islamic minority in this country. The BNP seize upon a general fear and ignorance to spread their half-truths and lies in pursuit of a broader aim. They want to work at a visceral level, digging below our reasoned, intellectual processes to spark our fears of the unknown and the different.

A few years back, the BNP and other parties were the preserve of a few nutcases and skinheads, but that is changing. At the 2004 local elections, they were out in force and there are a number of smarter, more politically-savvy leaders coming up through the ranks. They now work smarter - they try to work through small local 'cells' and make great efforts to talk only to those who want to hear their brand of hatred. They promise to end the domination by 'the old gang' of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors and take up suitable local issues. Fortunately, their political successes so far have been few and seem to have a habit of ending in failure, with BNP councillors facing criminal charges, admitting that they don't understand the council budget or just not doing anything at all.

That doesn't mean that they aren't a threat to good order. Their policies and their political activity is divisive and designed to spread fear and hatred. I have in front of me a leaflet handed out by the BNP in Birmingham, which states:

"Next time you see a Muslim driver with black ribbon tied to his exhaust, remember this is a wonderful example of the positive enrichment of multi-culturalism. It signifies allegiance to the barbarian terrorists of al-Qaeda!"
The leaflet also accuses the Liberal Democrats of aiming to "destroy the moral fabric of our society." I don't like the LibDems, but even I think that's a little strong.

In case there was any doubt, the BNP post a revealing 'news item' on their website. Firstly, it points out that secretly obtained footage is inadmissible as evidence in the UK, so those arrested have to resort to 'no comment' in their interviews, hoping that no-one else present at the speech which triggered all of this will provide evidence. They also repeat an email from a senior BNP member to their founder, John Tyndall, which describes the 'Race Act' as "a disgusting piece of legislation."

So what do we do? I favour allowing them the maximum amount of rope - as they can't avoid damning themselves the more they talk. The interview by John Gaunt with Julian Leppart, the BNP London Mayoral candidate in 2004 is particularly revealing, as he seems to blame asylum seekers for traffic congestion - and everything else, obviously. I trust the British people - of whatever ethnic origin, religion or colour - to see through the tarnishing veneer of legitimacy and find the racist, fascist truth underneath. When their spokesmen fall foul of the law, shout about it - make sure that everyone knows that we won't tolerate the preaching of hatred and that we will stand up for those groups who need support and protection. If that means going to law, then let's do it. Being a politician, even an unsavoury one, shouldn't be a defence against inciting racial hatred.

Incidentally, if you want to find out the truth behind those claims about asylum seekers, try the Refugee Council's myth busting page - lots of facts, all referenced and supported.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Bye, bye Blunkett

And there goes another one, returning to spend more time with his constituency.

I feel sad about this whole thing, because it undermines faith in the political class in this country. With a few exceptions, there isn't any massive corruption in British politics. The system has faults and these can be exploited, but there is nothing like the porkbarrel politics of the US. I am concerned about the level of corporate involvement in politics - an argument for me for public funding of political parties.

This case doesn't show massive corruption. At the worst, a minister got a visa expedited for a friend of a friend - somebody he loved. Quite possibly, a civil servant overstepped the mark in helping his boss. That's it.

What we have witnessed over the past couple of weeks is the vultures of the press, snacking on the titbits of prurient information leaking from one side or the other and waiting for the main course. Not exactly edifying and distracting from the real business of politics.

Let's argue over identity cards, falling crime figures, terrorist internment or immigration, but let's not fight about private lives.

Of course, it may yet backfire - Blunkett on the backbenches will have more time to fight the case for access, so all that leaking from Kimberley Fortier-Quinn to the Daily Mail may prove to have contributed to something of a pyhrric victory. We shall see.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Stubbing it out

There are those crying foul at the government plan to limit smoking in public places.

I don't think that it goes far enough. Smoking should be prohibited in all bars and restaurants.

I accept that this impinges on the liberty of the minority who smoke, but it is a simple health and safety issue for me. If you work in any other industry, you expect your employer to protect you from hazardous gases, but if you work in hospitality, you are expected to work in a fug of carcinogenic smoke. For the sake of these people - expected to work unsocial hours for some of the lowest rates available - we should ban it.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Sound of the Blunderground

I've been covering big national stuff lately, even veering into the international arena in my own, ill-educated way. But now, let's come home, to Birmingham, Britain's second city, currently under the cosh of an ill-starr'd marriage between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (run by that darling of LibDemWatch, millionaire councillor John Hemming).

Anyway, in June the Tories hit upon this bright, election-winning idea. They decided that what Birmingham needed to make it an even more go-getting international city was an underground system. Given that we've made a start on a mass transit system with the Midland Metro between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, some might suggest that to add another type of system into the mix wasn't a good idea, but it was a BIG idea and the Tories needed BIG ideas.

So, after the elections, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats jumped into bed with indecent haste - no courtship at all - and the Tories found that they had to implement their policies by scraping together £150,000 from the stretched City Council budget to fund a study. Now, I have no problems with big ideas or massive civil engineering projects, if they make financial, political and social sense, but this doesn't. I'm not going to charge you £150,000 for these comments, you get 'em for free.

Firstly, it will be hugely expensive. Light rail systems aren't cheap - they typically cost between £20 million and £30 million a mile. However, put the thing underground and the cost rises dramatically. Take the last major underground project in the UK, the Jubilee Line. Adding a chunk to an existing underground system cost a whopping £250 million a mile. So, that's ten times as much as extending an existing light rail system. The operating and maintenance costs will also prove prohibitive. I'd predict a startup cost of around £2 billion for this scheme.

Where's the flexibility? Continuing the rail lines through the City - as they do in Manchester and Nottingham, for example, allows easy running of through services and minimal changes for passengers. The proposed system could lead to a passenger trying to get from Wolverhampton to Birmingham Airport having to make two changes in the City Centre to complete the journey.

Trams can stop anywhere they choose - if you need to move a stop for safety reasons or if the needs of the city change, then you just move it. Underground stations are permanent constructions and limit the development of the city and plans to change the layout or the business mix. We're just getting rid of the concrete collar of ring roads that stifled development - we don't need a millstone to replace them.

Construction won't be easy. While there are problems with running surface rail through the City, other cities have proved that it can work. The underground could take twenty years to come to fruition and would have to cope with the difficulties of tunnelling through the sandstone under Birmingham and the assorted services already in place - aside from the rail and road tunnels, there's a nice big underground telephone exchange deep down there as well. You could extend the Metro within the next decade, if the government can be persuaded to loosen the purse strings and allow some controlled investment.

Light rail can work - maybe it can't turn a profit, but it does accomplish a wider social goal of reducing car journeys and that is worth investment in itself. The underground may achieve this, but the costs will be massively higher and not worth the benefits.

So will it happen? Not in a thousand years. Big underground projects are only built where labour is cheap - in Victorian London, the Soviet Union and now in the Far East. We don't have a hope of raising the billions required to build it, nor the extra millions required to run it. There is a receding hope of getting any more money to fund the Metro, let alone anything more impressive. The feasibility study will take £150,000 of our money and raise all the above objections and more.

What a waste.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Heseltine makes a fair point.

All kudos to the ever-excellent Recess Monkey for digging up this little gem from Michael Heseltine, overheard in conversation with a senior Labour MP.

"Of course you will win the next election, just imagine Michael Howard on television every day for three weeks"


I hold no torch for George Galloway - I think his ego outpaces his talent by some way and his 'salutation' for Saddam Hussein makes me cringe. I also believe that his Respect party is in bed with some politically unpleasant elements, all over one issue. Frankly, I don't like the guy.

But, I have no doubt that he was wronged by the Telegraph and I think that the whole affair has intelligence fingerprints all over it. We are expected to believe that a Telegraph journalist happened to go into an ransacked building, find an undisturbed room of files and then happen upon a file relating to the dictator's relationship with George Galloway?

For what little it may be worth, my view is that one of the spooks had already been there, found the document and directed the journalist where to find it. I think it is unlikely that the intelligence boys would try and feed the Telegraph a known false document or that they had the wherewithal to plan this little deception in advance of the invasion.

So, I think that the document is genuine in a way, but not in a way to excite George's lawyers. I suspect that somebody in Iraq was taking money from the oil for food programme and this letter was used as cover.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Boris' revenge

David Blunkett isn't the only Home Secretary accused of fast-tracking documents at the request of a friend.

Newsnight's Michael Crick reported that when Michael Howard was Home Sec, he arranged for Petronella Wyatt (Boris' former amour) to have her passport replaced within 24 hours.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Tory Cuts?

£15 million in the red and counting... With six months to the election, can the Tories put up any kind of fight at all? Have their big-money donors deserted them?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Paxo Stuffing

Anyone who saw magnificent drubbing that Howard got at the hands of Paxman on Newsnight will understand the size of the problems that the Tories face. Paxman and a camera crew trailed around after the Tory leader on a weekend trip to Cornwall - where the Tories have no MPs. What could have been a shop window for Tory campaigning turned into a farce, with the leader's helicopter arriving late in a field belonging to a farmer who wasn't a supporter and was happy to say so. Even those Tories who turned out to support Howard, by waving blue balloons in the background, seemed not to know what they were doing. Frankly embarrassing for the Conservatives.

I'm still of the opinion that the best party political broadcast for Labour would be a repeat of the wonderful interview dating from Howard's tenure as Home Secretary, where he denied threatening to overrule Derek Lewis, then Director of the Prison Service, some fourteen times.

And he says you can' t trust Tony?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Humour amidst chaos

If you are an obscure congressman from Indiana and you are supporting an extension to an interstate highway in your district, you might wear a badge proclaiming that support, mightn't you? In this case, this leads to you wearing a badge proudly declaring 'I-69'. Religious conservatives want the name changed. Teenagers want more badges.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Gone to ground

After 700 hours of debate, 10 votes in the Commons and 7 years since it was a manifesto commitment for Labour, hunting with dogs is finally to be banned.

Don't try and convince me that it is a traditional pursuit - badger baiting, dog fighting, cock fighting and bear baiting have all been illegal for a while. Tradition is a poor argument for anything.

Licensing was a cop out. If we're banning it because it is cruel, then licensing it does not reduce the cruelty.

Ban it and be done with it.

And you lot in the Countryside Alliance? Stop whinging about it being a bad law and that the use of the Parliament Act was wrong. Ten votes in favour of a ban by the elected house in a democratic state, with a general election in the middle suggests to me that democracy has triumphed.

The only reason that they want to keep hunting is that they enjoy killing the animal - why can't they be honest? No part of the law will stop people gathering to dress as they like, ride their horses and use the hounds to follow a pre-laid scent. And as for the hounds being put down as a result of the ban, remember that if these are working dogs, not household pets. When they are unable to hunt, either through age or injury, they are taken out and shot.

Is is it a class thing? Well, the other 'sports' listed above were primarily the preserve of the rural working-class and there was precious little defence for those. Anyone who has seen how the hunt rampages across land - including private gardens, sometimes - knows that the landed gentry have always had the right to roam that has only just been granted to us poor unfortunate ones. The boot seems to be on the other foot for a change and they are VERY unhappy. This is not how the system is supposed to work, in their minds.

Never mind, eh?

So what are they going to do about it?

Well, the army is finding that some landowners are denying them access to land for training purposes - forcing the military to seek overseas locations for training. Some farmers are reconsidering allowing the rail, power and water companies access to their land to maintain their equipment (although this access is generally protected by law). They also plan to campaign against vulnerable Labour MPs in the upcoming general election. Bring 'em on. Let's see what sort of support the hunting fraternity can muster. I suspect that a campaign like that would energise anti-hunting support on a grand scale in most vulnerable Labour constituencies.

What is interesting is the initial legal challenge, which attacks the 1949 amendment to the Parliament Act. If that were to be brought down, the War Crimes Act would fall, as would the laws lowering the gay age of consent and the act that established the party list system for European elections. Watch this space.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

People in glass palaces

"What is wrong with people nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools. It is a consequence of a child-centred education system which tells people they can become pop stars, high court judges or brilliant TV presenters or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having the natural ability"

That's the Prince of Wales. If this comment came from somebody who had a record of involvement with state education, rather than someone whose family attend expensive public schools and walk into Oxbridge educations as a matter of right, then you might listen. If this wasn't somebody who is so sheltered from reality that he even has a servant put the toothpaste on the brush for him, it might carry some weight.

An accident of birth guarantees him the crown without training or any requirement to prove ability. Lack of ability or work has never yet stopped him from commenting on cancer treatment, architecture or farming.

Bear in mind that this was a response to a note from a junior member of his staff asking about training for graduates and you realise that this man has no idea what aspiration really means. While I would agree that everybody should be taught that success is earned through hard work, I can't see what this has to do with the 'child-centred' educational system. It is a great shame that decades of good work from the Prince's Trust is being damaged by these ill-advised comments. The fact that they were made in private is even more indicative of his personal views than any public statement he might make.

Some days, you think the French had the right idea about royals.

Tax and the Tories

Part of the Tory tax dream proposal is an interesting appendix showing the point at which the top rate of marginal tax kicks in compared to the average manual wage. However, it also includes the total marginal tax rates for a pile of countries in 2003.

Hungary 68.4%
Germany 64.2%
Denmark 62.3%
Belgium 59.3%
Finland 57.4%
Sweden 56.2%
Norway 55.3%
Netherlands 52.0%
Greece 49.6%
Australia 48.5%
Switzerland 48.2%
France 48.1%
Ireland 48.0%
Japan 47.8%
Luxembourg 47.8%
Portugal 46.6%
Canada 46.4%
Italy 46.1%
Slovak Rep 45.9%
Spain 45.0%
Poland 44.9%
Austria 42.9%
USA 42.9%
Iceland 42.0%
Korea 41.1%

UK 41.0%

Turkey 40.6%
Czech Rep 40.5%
New Zealand 39.0%
Mexico 31.7%

Yup, the marginal rate of tax in the UK (including social security contribution) is less than most of these countries.

Taxing Questions

Top marks to Roy Hattersley for pointing out that the various policies floated so far have a price tag of almost £14 billion attached.

The Tories plan to cut tax, but promise to maintain investment in services.

Remember the Tory conference? Remember Michael Howard asking the voters to trust him and the party? Remember the speech that promised everything but firm policies?

Well, the policy 'aspirations' keep coming, although the headlines seem to promise more than you actually get. An example was the headline last week promising that the Tories would raise tax thresholds. Aside from the fact that this would only benefit higher earners, it wasn't even a policy. This was in a policy paper which carries the health warning

The presence of a particular option in the consultation paper does not constitute any guarantee or promise that it will form any part of any Conservative budget.

And the plans for the Tories to offset the cost of having a nanny, part of their childcare package is actually part of

proposals now being examined by the Shadow Cabinet

So, not exactly a policy yet then.

The Tories are desperate to appeal to the upper middle class voters who have abandoned them over the past few years. That's why all their policy proposals are tilted in that direction (that word proposal is VERY important - there's no guarantee that they will ever be genuine policy).

  • Tax breaks for nannies
  • Public money for private education
  • Public money for private healthcare
  • Tax cuts for the high earners

All of these benefit those middle earners. The ordinary family can't afford private education or healthcare or nannies and dream of earning enough to pay 40% tax rates. There is nothing in these proposals for most people - don't be conned.

Answers on a postcard please.

How to win an election:

  • Start a war which claims the lives of over 1000 young Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis.
  • Don't forget to leave hundreds of tons of explosives unguarded - those insurgents and terrorists will need it.
  • Oh - and scrap any plans to rebuild the country. You don't need that. Do everything on the fly.
  • Take a budget in surplus to the tune of $127 billion and turn it into a $400 billion deficit.
  • Slash taxes. (These items MAY be connected). This tax cut should be designed so that 38% of the tax cut benefits the top 1% of earners.
  • Propose an education bill that will leave no child behind.
  • Don't fund it fully. If those kids didn't have the foresight to be born to rich parents, that's not your fault.
  • Don't forget your friends in the oil and mining businesses - move to let them dig in environmentally sensitive areas
  • And your friends in the drug companies - don't let people buy expensive medicines from overseas suppliers. You can't trust these foreigners - even the Canadians.
  • We won't leave our defence suppliers behind - plenty of juicy government contracts in Iraq now.
  • Leak the name of an operational CIA field agent in revenge for her husband not supporting your WMD claims. So what if this destroys her career, endangers the lives of her contacts and potentially adversely affects the ability of the CIA to gather effective intelligence? You can just stonewall the inquiries that follow.

What you can do is appeal to the rich by slashing their taxes and promising more. You can also appeal to the born-again Christians by promising a moral regeneration. Unfortunately, you are going to have to deliver - so that's bad news for gay people and womens' reproductive rights, but good news for coathanger manufacturers.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Bye Bye Boris

Was Howard right to sack Boris?

It isn't a nice story - he has a wife and four children and had an affair with a fellow journalist Petronella Wyatt which resulted in her having an abortion. But is it any of our business?

This story has been an open secret for quite a while - Private Eye have dropped some heavy hints about it for months.

If Howard hadn't acted, he might have appeared weak (he sacked him within three hours of the News of the World contacting Boris with their latest story).

However, he has got rid of one of the very few recognisable members of the front bench and one of the most media friendly. Boris may play the buffoon, but he isn't as daft as he looks. Eccentric he may be, but he has enough style to pull it off:

Speaking through the letter box at a pal's house last night, Boris said: "I am sorry this decision has been taken in response to stories about my private life. I am looking forward to helping promote a new Conservative policy on the arts, if only from the back benches, and I will continue to do my upmost to serve the people of Henley and south Oxfordshire. I am now going to have a stiff drink.''

Boris shows the kind of face that the Tory party needs to have - he appeals to a different demographic and opens doors to younger people who wouldn't vote for Howard and Letwin, but might listen to Boris. Let's face it, he's known by his forename, not his surname. People like Boris and the Tories need desperately to be liked. He even has a website and the best Tory blonde hair since Michael Heseltine left (Michael Fabricant doesn't count - that can't be real).

Howard may have done the right thing in the short term, but it could prove to be a strategic mistake for the party.

It might prove to be good for Boris though - it kills the story and lets him sort his problems out without too much public glare. He will also be able survive this and come back after the next election untarnished by the expected failure.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

What the....

You go to bed leaving Kerry looking set to win - Zogby calls the election for Kerry as he looks likely to squeak Florida and Ohio and only needs one of those to collect enough electoral college votes to win.

You wake up and Bush is winning.

Not good. Not good at all.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Poll Position

All the polls say how close the election is - Bush and Kerry zip up and down within a percentage point or two of each other. And yet...

Remember that all these polls have a margin of error - typically 2-4%, depending on the method. They may also miss out on the new voters - more than a million have been registered in Florida alone this year and many more across the country. Those voters will typically go 60/40 for the Democrats, just like the 3/4% of voters who are undecided.

In the end, it will all come down to how easily all these voters can be persuaded to turn out - and whether they all get to vote. I'm expecting queues at the polling places and I'm also expecting legal action to ensure those doors are closed at 7pm, when polling is supposed to end. Watch out for voter intimidation - Greg Palast did another of his reports on Florida on Newsnight a few days ago, but there will be other ways of 'persuading' voters not to exercise their rights. Rumours are spread warning that if you vote, you will be immediately pulled in for any minor traffic tickets unpaid, voters are 'challenged' by poll watchers to prove that they are US citizens and that they live where they claim. Michael Moore claims to have over 1200 professional and amateur cameramen across the swing states ready to film anything going wrong. Both sides have thousands of lawyers on standby to rush to any incident and to file lawsuits on demand.

IF the polls are fair (and that is a big if) I think Kerry will win - and the scale of the victory might yet surprise us.

That being the case, I'd guess that John Kerry can afford to grab a few hours of sleep. We seem to have escaped an 'October Surprise' this year, apart from Osama's unscheduled video released last week.

Helen Thomas, for whom the word doyenne may have been coined, has come out with a brief article warning of the darkness that could descend with another four years of Bush. Bear in mind this is the woman who spent decades as the White House correspondent for UPI and invented the style of ending presidential press conferences with 'Thank you, Mr President' with JFK. She is a voice you can't ignore.

Other voices being raised come from Republicans shocked at the path their party has chosen and prefer Kerry to Bush. State governors, people linked to the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush Snr administrations, congressmen and even capitalist gods like Lee Iacocca are supporting Kerry. Read on here.

It comes to something when Nixon's own lawyer says that the present incumbent is worse.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Immigration Quotas

This is a key issue for the Tories - not that they are pandering to the right-wingers in any way, oh no. Introducing a formal quota makes immigration a political football forever and I think it is too important to be treated that way.

They plan an annual quota of 20,000 refugees for the UK. How is that supposed to work? So, when you are in fear of torture or a threat to your life from a repressive regime and you spend three weeks locked in a container on the deck of a cargo ship, you turn up at Southampton in December and the government will turn round and send you back, because you are the 20,001 person that year to claim asylum.

The Ugly Face of Animal Rights

This is simply despicable. The desecration of the grave has been linked to a very nasty campaign by animal rights terrorists against the owners of a local farm used to breed guinea pigs for research purposes.

I don't have a problem with any legitimate form of protest and action within normal political parameters. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of medical experimentation on animals or issues like hunting - that's how the political system in this country works.

But when it comes to digging up the corpse of an 82 year old woman related to the family who own the farm, I can't think of words to describe the inhumanity of it. I'm glad to see that other protestors have distanced themselves from this obscenity and hope that they can help the police identify the criminals who carried out the action.

It has exposed another nasty streak of pro-animal terrorism, though. This farm has been the focus of campaigning for a while - the local newsagent was threatened with arson if he continued to deliver papers to the farm. Both the local pubs now refuse to serve the family after similar threats - one of the landlords stood firm against this, but was removed by the brewery. He now can't get a job elsewhere because of the continued threats to burn any pub where he works. Drivers delivering fuel oil to the farm have been followed to their homes and have had leaflets distributed locally identifying them as paedophiles. (Source: BBC Radio WM, 9/10/4).

This is terrorism. How long before these 'protestors' take their campaign to the next level and start killing people?

Friday, October 08, 2004

President Schwarzenegger?

The Guardian profiles Arnie - sometime bodybuilder, actor and now Californian governor. There's a career path already trodden by others - Jesse Ventura was a governor after a career in wrestling and Ronald Reagan made it all the way to the top job. It is clear that Arnie has similar ambitions, but his birth gets in the way.

Unfortunately, the US Constitution (Article 2, section i) requires that the President be a natural-born American and Arnie is Austrian by birth, although he became a naturalised American in 1983. It may be that most elected jobs in the US are open to all Americans, naturalised and born, so to keep the Presidency solely for 'real' Americans is a little anomalous.

Changing the Constitution isn't an easy task, though. The prime method is by passing a two-thirds majority in each house and then must be approved by three-quarters of the states. This can be quick - amendment guaranteeing the vote to everyone over 18 cleared the hurdles and was ratified in 100 days - so it can be done. However, the process is not meant to be easy and more than 100 amendments are proposed in each session of Congress. 27 have been passed in more than 200 years and ten of those form the Bill of Rights, passed only 2 years after the Constitution was written.

In fact, the amendment that Arnie seeks has already been placed before Congress - and will be again, no doubt. Getting it past Congress and three quarters of the states may prove more difficult, especially as the Democrats would know that it was only being passed to allow Arnie a tilt at the main job.

Race for the future

Do the Democrats really want to win this time round? Think about it. Iraq is a mess and seems likely to get worse and involve more military commitment than is currently deployed, the economy isn't in a good state and the federal budget is screwed. To fix these will take some tough, probably unpopular, decisions for the next President.

If Kerry gets the job, the Republicans will slam him in 2008 and he runs the risk of being a one-term President. On the other hand, if Bush gets stuck with it and makes a predictable hash of the job, the head of steam thus built up would see the election of virtually any candidate the Democrats can come up with plus a solid chance of re-election in 2012 (stand up Hillary).

Furthermore, the growing anger would give the Democrats a chance to recapture one or both of the Congressional chambers, thus gifting the 2008 winner a friendly Congress - while poor old Kerry will still be stuck with a neo-conservative Republican congress opposing him at every turn.

The real problem with this scenario is that it leaves Cheney/Bush at the controls for another four years - without the carrot of re-election to distract them from eroding the constitution, destroying the environment and destabilising regimes across the planet.

What is certain is that the US has never been so politically divided - I don't think that it was even this difficult in the late 60s/early 70s with Vietnam and Nixon.

Blue Wedge

Following hard on the heels of Nicholas Soames love of Dido and Liam Fox's admiration of Scissor Sisters, another bunch of slebs have come out about their love of the Tory Party. For years, the Tories have been able to call upon stars of the quality of Phil Collins (who lives in Switzerland, if memory serves), Rick Wakeman, Floella Benjamin (yesterday's children will remember her from BBC kid's programming in the 70s and Tim Rice. Hardly a stellar line-up, but they now have a ringing endorsement from the junior gods of pop-rock, Busted.

In an interview with Tatler (well known for pop and politics), Charlie 'Eyebrows' said "I don't really like politics but I've always grown up with their views - the Tories' way of doing things. I just prefer their way of doing things." He isn't the only one. Joining in the pop gibbon's support was Matty Jay "Yeah, actually, you know what, I am not going to be ripped off any more. From the financial position I am in now, I am a fucking Tory boy too." I'm glad to see a self-confessed LibDem voter supporting a real party, but I'm not sure that this is the image that the Tories want to project (even if it is accurate)

I should point out that Charlie is a former public schoolboy and is now extremely rich, so I guess that his support for the Tories is pretty much a given. Michael Howard jumped to celebrate this vote of confidence "I didn't know them but I am becoming more familiar with them. But I am very pleased they are supporting us." Well, somebody has to.

Excuse me, I now have to go and attack my daughter's albums with a hammer.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Visions of Tory Britain

Well, not quite.

With a general election probably less than ten months away, you'd expect the Tories to be using this week to roll out some policies - make the most of the media focus on Bournemouth.

So, what does Ollie Letwin hit us with? Does he promise tax cuts?

No. He promises that they will "set Britain on the path to a lower tax economy."

Excited yet? There's more.

"On the first day of the next Conservative Government I will freeze civil service recruitment. In the first week of that government I will lift the controls, those wretched best value performance assessment regimes, off local government"

Now, I may be wrong in this, but I don't believe that removing the Comprehensive Performance Assessment structure is a hot topic in the pubs up and down the country. I don't even believe that the CPA is that hot a topic to anyone but the most geeky of the policy wonks. Nevertheless, this is the exciting future that the Tories can offer us.

Now, I hold no brief for the Tory party and I don't want to intrude on private grief, but are these people so far out of touch that they can't understand their problems? Where's the excitement?Where's the vision? Until they can offer that, a manifesto based on reforming the local government performance measurement structure is set to be the shortest suicide note in history.

Despite changing their leader (again), their poll performance is dropping - down to 28% in the latest polls and a mere 3% ahead of the LibDems. Labour is clearly ahead on 35%. When IDS was ousted, the Tories were on 30-33%.

All the rhetoric in the Tory party seems directed at the membership, shoring up old emnities and prejudices. Let's face it, a front bench occupied by Nicholas Soames, John Redwood, Ollie Letwin and Michael Howard is not showing the new face of the Tory Party. Unless and until they can cut free of the 1980s and the 1990s, the party will continue in freefall.

Kilroy won't need to bury the Tory party, they'll do it all by themselves.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Right Wing Lite

Kilroy has finally come off the fence and stated that he wants to run the UKIP. The usually toothless Frost has managed to get him to admit that he wants the job - as if we hadn't noticed. I know that people are supposed to move to the right as they get older (although I am probably doing the reverse), but it is a massive U-turn for a former Labour MP to decide he wants to head up a party which seems to be composed of right-wing nuts and lobbyists for small/medium size businesses.

On their website, there's a piece from the Telegraph attacking European plans to scrap slogans like "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play." Apart from the fact that Mars dropped this slogan of their own accord a few years back, the actual slant of the proposed legislation is to ensure that claims on food packaging are justified. This seems fair to me - if a product is described in general terms as 'low fat', I think that we should be able to rely on it to be low in fat.

The UKIP worries me. For all their anti-European cant, there seems to be an old-fashioned rejection of progress behind many of their views. Take education: "A further concern is politically slanted teaching, especially in History, English and 'Personal and Social Education'. A major cause of this problem is dogma-driven teacher training that also promotes flawed 'child-centred' and 'progressive' teaching methods." Now, I'm married to a teacher and I'm the son of a teacher, I've been through the state education system up to postgraduate level and I'm now a school governor and I have never experienced this politically slanted teaching. This reminds me of the noises from some of the right-wingers of the 1980s and it seems to me that the UKIP are a vehicle for deeply-ingrained conservatives who believe that Britain was better in the 1950s when everyone knew their place. It goes without saying that the UKIP believe that their place is running the country.

Also, they often point out that their party represents Britons of all ethnic groupings - funny how all their MEPs and GLA members are white and male, isn't it? Indeed, there are only two women listed on their site - one member of the UKIP NEC and the Party Chairman (sic). Mind you, given the public views of Godfrey Bloom MEP, this is hardly a surprise. Their demands for 'Freedom from Overcrowding' and 'Freedom from Political Correctness' hint at a deeper, more unpleasant side to their place as the polite face of the extreme right. This is backed up by the number of key UKIP members who have close links to right-wing parties like the BNP and 'New Britain' - even leaving aside Kilroy, who was removed from his TV show over a racist article published in the Daily Express in his name. Richard Corbett MEP provides a detailed break-down here.

To round off, good to see that there's a blog out there keeping an eye on this new addition to our political system. UKIP Watch reports a tactless, if not downright offensive, comment by Mike Nattrass MEP at a conference in Cardiff: "In the same way as Chechnya is forced to be a part of Russia, we are forced to be a part of Europe. I hope we won't have to fight our way like them but I suspect we will have to fight our way out." As this came a short time after the carnage in Beslan, other politicians might have thought this too sensitive a subject, but not our fearless UKIP MEPs.

I'd laugh, but politics is supposed to be a serious business - it affects your lives for good or ill. The UKIP are a nasty force to be reckoned with.

UPDATED! Seems I may have spoken too soon - the UKIP have a secret weapon to win over the doubting voters. No less a political force than Rustie Lee has declared her intention to fight the Wyre Forest seat at the next general election.

Monday, September 20, 2004

LibDem Fudge

Here comes the opening salvo of the Liberal Democrat campaign - the pre-manifesto. Lots of promises, but no price tags - unless you are a high earner. Those can expect a tax rate of 50%. I thought Labour in the 70s had pretty much proved that taxing them 'until the pips squeaked' doesn't work. Those high earners are the ones best placed to find ways around the tax system.

What else? I almost forgot - the Local Income Tax, which is actually a stealth tax increase. They don't tell you about the problems. If your household has only a single earner, then you may well gain, but if you have two wages coming into the house, then the odds are that you will pay more. A police officer and a nurse could end up paying £600 more a year than they do on their Band D property today.

The system will also require some complex gearing up at the Inland Revenue AND some work at the Treasury to ensure that the revenue is balanced out across the country. Won't that put an awful lot more power into the Treasury than it has now?

Finally on the LIT, many people currently in receipt of council tax benefit also pay income tax - how are they going to be helped? Or is this another of those back-of-an-envelope Lib Dem ideas? Like the £8 billion saved by abolishing the DTI - which would also abolish many of the grants and other support given to science and areas in need of investment.

Any idea what's happened to the pledge to privatise the Post Office? Maybe that's gone the way of the now defunct £100 cashback deal on the council tax.

Anyone else noticed how fast the LDs have back-tracked on the 'Orange Book'? Despite it being written by a number of the front-bench team and with a forward by Charlie K himself, the LDs put up Matthew Taylor on the Today programme to defend the abandonment of some plans and explain why this book isn't important.

Still, we've got a week of high-profile LibDemmery from Bournemouth. Wonder if they'll pass any resolutions like the one last year which demanded that a LD government allow 16 year olds to take a full role in the porn industry. Maybe not a burning issue, but clearly close to someone's heart.

..and a step to the right...

If Michael Howard thinks that John Redwood and Nicholas Soames are the answers, does he even know the questions?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A bit of bad news

I'm sorry to see Estelle Morris step down. She's always struck me as one of the decent, normal folk in politics - we'll be poorer for her absence from Parliament and from Yardley.

I just hope that she isn't standing down to avoid being defeated at the next General Election.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Dubya - Why?

At last week's Republican convention, George Bush included a couple of self-deprecating comments in his nomination acceptance speech:

"People sometimes have to correct my English - I knew I had a problem when
Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it. Some folks look at me and see a certain
swagger, which in Texas is called walking."

A good line, but shouldn't we be concerned? Would any other politician running for the most powerful job on the planet admit that his language skills aren't up to those of an Austrian actor?

"You may have noticed I have a few flaws too."

Ain't that the truth, George. Like stealing the 2000 election, surrendering the environment and workers' rights to the big business interests, cutting taxes for the rich, dragging the world into a destabilising and unneccessary war, gutting education provisions, dodging military service (and going AWOL from the soft option)....

"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"
Reading the text of the speech and not just the humourous soundbites that made the headline news, I'm reminded of Neil Kinnock's famous speech in advance of the 1983 election. He said that if the Tories win,
"I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old. "
That seems to be good advice for Americans. More deregulation, environmental threats, reform to social security and protecting big companies from consumer lawsuits are all trailed in this speech.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

And they're off

The by-election for Mandy's Hartlepool seat has kicked off, with Peter being appointed to the Crown Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead.

Way back in history, serving as an MP was not an honour that many sought - remember that several Speakers of the House were executed. Since 1623, it has been impossible for an MP to resign - they have to die, Parliament has to be dissolved (as it is at election-time), be disqualified, expelled from the House or elevated to the Lords.

However, if an MP applies for a paid office of the Crown, they cannot continue to serve - as it is impossible to scrutinise your own master. The full details are on the Parliament website. The two main escape routes are the Chiltern Hundreds (in Buckinghamshire) and the Manor of Northstead (Yorkshire), although appointment as a judge would also remove an MP.

The MP has to apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for one of these posts (they are usually granted in rotation) and a new appointment revokes that of the previous holder.

Anyone care to bet if Gordon had a smile on his face as he granted the warrant?

Anyway, after that bit of anachronistic flummery, Peter is off to Brussels as an ex-MP and the writ has been moved for the 30 September - rounding off the Labour conference. Cue much flying back and forth between Brighton and Hartlepool, lots of positive press and a bloody nose for the Tories whose conference is the next week.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Iraq not an issue

Now I spent some time campaigning earlier this year in the local elections. I fully expected that the electors would give Labour a good kicking over Iraq - the issue is divisive within the party and I believed that it would be a major issue on the streets.

I was amazed at how little it came up - only a handful of electors even raised it. So the poll in mid-August for The Guardian that put it at the bottom of a list of voter priorities came as no surprise to me.

The future's not orange

No, not a reference to 'Nokia' Davies - quite the most unfortunate choice to fight Hodge Hill on behalf of the LibDems and now off to pursue the Shrewsbury seat to be vacated by the sometime Labour MP and dodgy poet, Paul Marsden. Liberal Democrats seem to be into poetry - LibDem Watch found a charming piece from Jody Dunn, the candidate in the upcoming Hartlepool by-election.

This is about the new Orange Book detailing some proposed policies for a 'New LibDem' manifesto. One of the most interesting policies is a proposal to break up the NHS, which would be independently managed and funded through social insurance. Privatising the NHS - not even Maggie tried to slip that one by us (although I don't doubt that it is on the agenda for the Tories). It isn't so long since the LDs were critical of the government over the new plans to open the NHS up to patient choice.

Now, this isn't a good idea. To allow for choice, you need to have over-capacity and I don't want to pay extra taxes to support this inefficiency. In any case, how is this choice supposed to work? The examples of choice demonstrated so far - taking parental choice in education as an example - suggest that the only people with any real choice are those at the top of society. They can choose private or state education and pay the inflated house prices to move to an area with decent schools. Most people can't do that, so they have to make do with their local schools.

I believe that most people aren't bothered by choice when it comes to healthcare - they just want to know that their local medical services are up to scratch. I'd rather see my taxes going towards improving the standard of healthcare across the board, rather than being used to provide us with a false sense of choice.

Another item on the privatisation list is the Post Office - but then this has been on the manifesto for a while. This rather undermines the vocal LibDem campaigns to save Post Offices across the country, while the plans are there for a Liberal Democrat government to fling the Royal Mail entirely into the marketplace. I'm prepared to place a small bet that this would lead to an awful lot more Post Office closures.

Another item is that they would want to rewrite the UN Charter to legalise international intervention in states guilty of repeated human rights abuses. Apart from the improbability of the UN member states letting this one by, it would have provided a clear legal justification for the invasion of Iraq.

While this is some way from becoming party policy (apart from the Royal Mail privatisation), there are some big front-bench names attached to parts of the book and Charlie Kennedy wrote the forward, so it isn't without force.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Rescuing Labour

I'd never bet on anyone describing John Prescott as the saviour of the party, but Roy Hattersley has a point.

The Labour Party - perhaps more specifically Tony Blair - is on the verge of squandering an opportunity to make a real difference to the economic and social structure of this country. We have the political power to make genuinely radical changes - not ones that merely take the ground from the Tories and try to clothe it in a smart New Labour suit.

Of greater concern to me, as a grassroots operator, is the loss of members. For the few that go out in a blaze of vitriolic glory attacking the rightward shift of the party, there are many more who just let their subscriptions lapse and never renew. We are at risk of letting the party go to seed and that would be a terrible legacy for everybody in this country.

Another interesting article from the Guardian today, from the editors of Renewal.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Ronald Reagan hits out at Bush

No, not some psychic revelation, but an interesting piece from the deceased's son.

Anatomy of a Scare

Last week, the Democratic convention ended with John Kerry 'reporting for duty' as the party's candidate for the 2004 election.

Sunday, the US raised the state of alert because of threats to financial institutions in New York and Washington and Monday saw people going to work with heavily armed police officers providing very visible security.

It seems that this stemmed from an arrest in Pakistan of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and the inspection of his laptop computer, which contained detailed information on surveillance on financial institutions in the US.

Now it transpires that the information was gathered four years ago. It also seems that the information may have been gleaned from open sources and although the file on the computer was opened in January this year, no changes were made to the data.

That was apparently thought worthy of an immediate alert.

Even if it was a genuine desire to protect the nation, it looks like political opportunism of the worst kind. And we all know that perception often matters more than reality

Monkey Hanging

It looks like being a long hot summer in Hartlepool and Guacamoleville will be there to guide you through it. The by-election has been caused by Peter Mandelson's departure for a position as an EU Commissioner in Brussels.

Peter is a very controversial figure in the party - either you admire him for standing by Neil Kinnock during the 1980s and helping to turn the party into an electable force again, or you loath him for his self-publicity and errors of judgement. There seems to be no middle ground on this, so there's room for me to occupy it.

I have a sneaking admiration for Mandy. He may be the Prince of Darkness (I suspect this is an image he has encouraged in the past), but sometimes, all political parties need people prepared to get their hands dirty. He's certainly made some high-profile enemies and has also made some very high-profile mistakes. Those mistakes embarrassed the party and the PM - although you do wonder how much attacks on Peter are really veiled attacks on the PM.

Was there anyone better than Peter to wade into the labyrinthine politics of Northern Ireland? He could have been an NI politician in a different life.

Incidentally, the Guacamoleville name comes from a (probably apocryphal) incident when Peter and his team went into a Hartlepool fish and chip shop, ordered from the extensive menu of deep-fried marine life and then Peter asked for some of the guacamole dip. For those of you not used to this aspect of British culinary life, fish and chip shops sell basic, down-to-earth food. The staff then had to explain to Peter that the green stuff was in fact mushy peas.

Whatever happens, I don't think that this will be the last we will hear of Mandy.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Running up that Hodge Hill

One all, I think.
So Labour hold Hodge Hill by 460 and lose Leicester South by 1654.
Very tough campaigns and hard fought until the last minute. The LibDems even tried to demand a recount in Birmingham - unheard of on a majority of 500 with a low turnout - but the returning officer only allowed a brief inspection of the piles of ballot papers.
Losing any seat is never a good thing, but we are seven years into government and have had a very rough year as a result of foreign policy decisions. The Tories were haemorrhaging seats from very early on in their government before there was any danger of losing their national majority. This is the second that we've lost and I'd put some money on Labour retaking Brent at the next general.
The Liberal Democrats did well in both seats, but they won't be able to replicate the level of resources deployed into Leicester and Birmingham on a national basis. I have never seen so much yellow and orange and the streets were awash with Liberal Democrat campaigners. Their choice of candidate is really at fault here - her links with the mobile phone companies cost her enough votes in this election. Sadly, we can't rely on that level of inept politics every time. Equally, how long will the LibDems be able to trade on the war to win votes?
The really bad news was for the Tories. They've held both seats within living memory - Leicester was Tory until the late 80s and Hodge Hill went Tory after Roy Jenkins went off to Europe in the late 1970s. Nobody seriously expected them to win either, but their performance was very poor, given that they claim to be ready to form a government.
Still, by-elections are strange creatures and you can't draw an awful lot from them. For a few short weeks, the eyes of the country and all the resources of the political parties are fixed on a few thousand people. Perhaps the real concern for all politicians should be the low turnout - 36% in Birmingham and 42% in Leicester. How do we reconnect with people?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

BNP racist? I am shocked.

Don't miss this.

Lovely people - particularly their candidate who thinks that campaigning involves squirting dog faeces through someone's letterbox.

Whatever else you do - vote for anybody other than the BNP. They only win where there is a low turnout, so if you have the chance to vote, go and do it.

Gordon's Spend and Save

So, that's the round of departmental spending plans out of the way and they seem to have been well received all round.

The Civil Service Unions are up in arms about the job losses, but I suspect that many of those "losses" will disappear into redeployments and perhaps the creation of new independent agencies.

The relocation of departments outside London probably doesn't go far enough - just 20,000? Why not move whole departments to different cities? The Met Office has just completed a move from Bracknell to Exeter. Why shouldn't the Home Office shift large parts of the operation to Birmingham or Manchester? I'm sure York would welcome the MoD and somebody would be able to look after the ODPM.

Dealing with sickness should also be a positive thing, if handled correctly. A good sickness policy ensures that people know that if they are genuinely sick, their employer will support them and help them back to work. If people are taking liberties - do you know anyone who has regularly has mysterious colds and stomach upsets on Monday or Fridays? With the Disability Discrimination Act in place, it can't be used to get rid of staff with genuine problems, but it should help to tackle members of staff who are letting their colleagues and the public down.

It should have been tempered by an exploration of the issues behind this absenteeism, which can be an indicator of poor morale or excessive stress.

Otherwise, good news:
- more community support officers (up to 15,000 more)
- more funding for nursery provision with pilot projects for two-year-olds
- massive investment in some of the poorest housing stock in the country with an extra £525 million for the neighbourhood renewal fund each year
- extra funding for overseas aid and the World Service with a tripling of aid to Africa to over a billion pounds in 2007/8
- the costs of unemployment have fallen to a third of what they were seven years ago, as we keep the employment levels high

My only concern is that it is easy to talk up the potential for stopping waste and reducing the number of penpushers, but actually finding jobs that aren't necessary and rooting out the waste is very difficult and time consuming. The easy way is to demand that every department cuts back on a set quota basis, without regard for services.

The Tories whinged, as they are wont to do. After all, Gordon was driving his tanks onto their turf with this opening strike in the general election campaign. They may go on about 'big government' - forgetting that they presided over a massive increase in the size of the civil service.

It takes big government to do big things.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Should I stay or should I go?

Another tough week for Tony...

Gordon getting all the positive publicity on Monday with extra spending on front-line services

Butler report published - how critical will it be?

By-elections in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester - two safe Labour seats in any normal year. The word is that we'll hold Hodge Hill with a reduced majority and probably lose Leicester to the LibDems.

So, should he go or stick around?

If he goes over the summer, he can go with his head held high and the Party will eulogise him as a great leader who chose his time to leave and laud the genuinely great achievements of the past seven years of Labour government. As Tony so identified himself with the Iraq war, much of the negative feeling will leave with him and those voters turned off by Blair will return to the fold - key to reviving a drooping party structure.

If he sticks around? Sure, we'll win the next general election with a reduced majority, but the mud from Iraq will continue to stick to the whole party. In any case, the gossip about the succession won't subside - just get worse until the whole structure of political government is consumed by it. The real issues will be completely obscured by gossip.