Saturday, December 31, 2005

Another year older

As Father Time scythes through the last few strings holding us to 2005 and we move on to 2006, time to have a look at the how things are and how they might be.

For the Tories, it has been a mixed year. They had some gains in the parliamentary elections in May, rising to 198 seats, but these came after a very right-wing campaign, which focussed on immigration, immigration, immigration. Michael Howard duly resigned and returned to the coffin whence he came and the stage was set for David Davis and Kenneth Clarke to slug it out to replace him. Everyone expected one or other to win the leadership - with the smart money going on Davis - and the conference in Blackpool was the chance for the contenders to launch their campaigns properly and try to acquire votes from influential members. Coming out of nowhere, David Cameron gave a barnstorming speech and trampled over the other contenders (Liam Fox and Malcolm Rifkind had also thrown their hats into the ring). With his arrival on the scene, a new dawn seems to be spreading across the Tory party and there is a genuine belief that Cameron might actually be the real thing - a leader sufficiently untouched by the Thatcherite past to grab the new generation of voters and bring them into the Tory fold.

I'm not convinced. The Tories do have something rather special with Dishy Dave, but he's all spin and no substance at the moment. The key for them will be whether he can translate his golden aura into votes at the ballot box and the first trial will come within a matter of months at the local elections. I think we can expect to see Birmingham as something of a key battleground in this as well. The Tories made gains in last year's local elections, but they were in the shire counties only, the metropolitans had a fallow year and return in May 2006. The shire counties are traditionally Tory and the coincidence of the parliamentary vote with its higher turnout may well have helped the gains.

For almost a decade, the Tory vote has plummetted in Birmingham - with the exception of Sutton Coldfield - and once-safe Tory seats have disappeared. Even Solihull, the epitome of middle-England Conservatism, fell to a Liberal Democrat challenger - although that may be more to do with her hard and consistent work and a relatively incompetent local Tory campaign than any gravitational shift. Selly Oak and Edgbaston were once solid Tory, but no more. Even Yardley used to have a reputation as a three-way marginal, but is now Lib-Dem/Labour. The first task for any Tory leader is to replenish the grass-roots representation of the party and we can expect Birmingham to be a key target for them in council terms as they hope to recover a couple of parliamentary seats in four or five years' time.

For the Liberal Democrats, it has been an odd year. With the Tory opposition incredibly weak and a Labour government offering opportunities for attack - not least over the Iraq adventure. Surely, this was a prime opportunity for them to exploit weakness on both sides and collect votes. Indeed, they did pick up 12 Labour seats, but lost a number to the Tories, ending up ten seats ahead of their 2001 result with 62 MPs, but was it really enough? Their decapitation strategy - aimed squarely at removing members of the shadow cabinet - only removed one Tory shadow (Tim Collins, shadow education secretary) and failed to really dent Howard or Davis, when they should have concetrated their fire on Labour.

One of the problems for them was that, with a small parliamentary team, they have focussed on their leader as the sole face of the party in the popular imagination. When that leader then has a poor campaign - highlighted by that dreadful press conference when the exhausted Charlie K (fresh from a few nights without sleep with a new baby) completely lost track of the showcase policy that was the local income tax (on a scrapheap near you soon):
'You are talking in the region of twen... twent... twen... twen... yuh I mean if you [pause] take [pause] a double-income couple uh, 20,000 each that's what you are talking about 40,000. [Somebody shouts "£40,000"] Yeah £40,000 ... sorry. Yes, £40,000'
At least that's a better excuse than the persistent rumours about Charlie being rather too fond of a drink - rumours that returned towards the end of the year as it was suggested that the latest round of leadership speculation was caused by the leader being unable to fulfil an engagement in Newcastle. It was also reported during 2004 that Chuckles had been told to ease off by a delegation of very senior Lib-Dems.

Outside the leadership wrangles, the Liberal Democrats end the year on the back foot politically - with David Cameron explicitly targetting them, perhaps in revenge for the Liberal Democrat targetting of his colleagues in May. For a while after the election, I did wonder if the Lib Dems might have their eyes on the prize of opposition after the next general election, but 62 isn't enough of a springboard to give them the 130-160 that would make them a huge force in national politics. With a resurgent Tory party, that's looking more distant than ever.

So, to Labour and a record-breaking third election victory - something to celebrate as we enter the New Year. We've never done this before and should be intensely proud - Britain is the better for it. Apart from that, there have been problems - the voter turnout wasn't good and we lost more seats than was really healthy. What should have been a triumphant year has been marred by a number of nasty domestic political fights and the continued row over the succession - the volume of which is bound to increase. David Blunkett returned to the government and then went again and the UK's turn at the rotating EU presidency ended up in a round of political horse-trading in an effort to get a budget put together.

Of course, government is more difficult than opposition - you actually have your hands on the levers of power and then you realise just how much you are controlled by events, rather than the other way around. In July, Tony was striding the world stage and delivering a G8 deal on poverty that should have been front-page news, until he was forced back to the domestic agenda by the tragedy of July 7 in London - events intervening again. That in itself has had a significant political impact, with the defeat over the terrorism bill and concerted opposition to the incitement to religious hatred bill as well. There's renewed concern over pensions and the economy is stuttering a little - so the golden glow of Labour is well and truly dulled at the moment.

On the other hand, the Tories claim to have twigged that their future doesn't lie in a rightward march, but in an attempt to retake the centre ground that currently supports the Labour rose. I know we've heard it before, but this time, it seems that they might actually mean it.

And so to the New Year and I'm going to risk a forecast or two (bear in mind that I forecast a Labour majority of 70 - not too far behind the reality). You can get good odds on Charlie K being out as leader by March 2006 and I'd put a few quid on that. Even if he survives past the May local elections, I'd be genuinely amazed if he's still there by the end of the year. He's circled the wagons (if only he'd just get on one), but there are too many questions being asked of his leadership and too few answers available. As to who will replace him, we can rely upon Simon Hughes having a go, but I doubt he has a chance. I suspect that Mark Oaten will be in place by this time next year, but I also suspect that this is the high-water mark for the Lib Dems and that Charlie Kennedy will be able to claim that success for his leadership.

The Tories could have a good year - the positive vibes will carry them some of the way and will energise those council candidates. Their first test will be in May and I'd predict some gains. Probably nothing hugely exciting, but there will be wins. Cameron has enough to carry that, but he needs to start winning parliamentary by-elections as well and that will take more than looking good. People will need to see policies that illustrate this new brand of Conservatism, not just celebrity pics with Sir Bob Geldof.

As for Labour, there are choppy waters ahead. There will be continued problems with Iraq - although I expect the British presence on the ground there to be significantly reduced by the end of the year. On the domestic front, there's still the ID cards bill, continued pressure on the anti-terrorist legislation and education. Blair's not going to have an easy time of it, with a hugely reduced majority and a number of MPs ready to give him grief and stand up for their principles - even John Prescott has publicly voiced concerns about the education bill and Gordon Brown wasn't happy about the EU deal. I've predicted Tony's demise for a while, but I think that there's a reasonable chance (60/40?) that he'll be gone by the end of the year. My suspicion is that he'll hang on into 2007, but he may well find the pressure too much this year. As I noted, he's got more internal opposition to face as his personal power dwindles and he may find himself in the unenviable position of having to rely on Tory votes to get some reforms through. Can he survive that embarrassment and then face a party conference?

Frankly, we're looking a little tired these days - hardly surprising after eight years in government - and we need to rediscover some of that energy that brought us to power all that time ago in '97. (How far away does that May dawn feel now, eh?). We can do it. We can come back and win again at the next general election, but we do have to pay heed to the grassroots of the party. Just as I expect Cameron to feed and nurture the council candidates who have the short-term job of finding the Tory vote in places like Birmingham, Labour needs to do the same. The prize is government, but if our eyes are solely on that and don't look at the building blocks necessary to get us there, we won't win next time. And Britain doesn't deserve that.

I think that there are good odds on all three major parties ending 2006 with different leaders from those that started 2005.

As for the local scene in 2006? Tough one to call. For all their shouting about their success in improving the service provided by the housing and social services departments in Birmingham (valid, but don't forget the work put in under Labour that was already bearing fruit when the Tories and LibDems took over in June 2004), the coalition hasn't had a bright year. Indecision and vacillation has been the hallmark of the coalition so far. Controversial decisions have been put off for as long as possible - ideally until somebody else makes the decision for the council or until events have moved on and taken the momentum elsewhere. The library, the casino and the metro all bear the stamp of the incompetence of the current occupants of the Council House who lack the vision that characterised the political leadership prior to 2004.

Much as I would like it to change this year, the electoral maths make it difficult for Labour to regain power as the single largest party. Too many of our current councillors will be fighting to hang on to their seats and there are too few likely gains out there to make an outright win likely. And yet... There are rumblings of discontent in various parts of the city and the dirty deal done by the Honourable (sic) Member for Yardley to ensure that he got the Deputy Leadership portfolio ahead of the parliamentary elections may be more problematic than he and his acolytes thought. As ever in Birmingham, interesting times lie ahead.

Quote of the year

'I've said we could win 4-0, unless we got a bit of rain, in which case it might be 3-0. But it might be back to 5-0 by next summer'
Glenn McGrath, September 2004

He repeated that prediction after the first match at Lords' this summer.

Never mind, eh?

We had a quiet New Year, settled down in front of the telly with a bottle of wine and Channel Four's repeat of their excellent 2 hour summary of the Ashes series. Not a bad way to welcome in the New Year - and I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I watch those last few balls from Edgbaston or Old Trafford or Trent Bridge or even the Oval.....

If you haven't already got them, can I thoroughly recommend this DVD set and this book - both excellent records of a marvellous, unforgettable summer.

And I do hope that you made the most of the extra second this year.

Finally - nice to see the boys and girls getting their rewards for bringing home the Ashes. Well deserved all round - but why was Duncan Fletcher only given an OBE? It should have been Sir Duncan.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pensive on pensions

John Hemming has decided that Labour is to blame for the demise of the company final salary pension scheme (known as a defined benefits scheme, because you know what the outcome will be).

Conveniently, he ignores the role of those company bosses who happily used Tory legislation to stop making company contributions into those pension funds - confident that the market would sustain the growth and that the savings on these pension holidays were better in the company coffers than in supporting their workers. Companies could (and did) cream off any surplus not required to support the number of pensioners at risk.

Then the market crashed and stabilised - the huge growth disappeared and the same bosses were faced with the choice of making increased contributions to cover the risk or abandoning the workers to the vagaries of the market. It doesn't take a genius to work out where they went with that decision. Note that the directors of these companies typically retain final-salary schemes for their own pay grades, showing scant regard for the future of their scheme.

John also criticises the recent increase in the levy funding the Pensions Protection Fund. Without the PPF, those thousands of employees who lost their jobs when Rover ran out of road this year would have seen nothing of their pensions. Naturally, John's former best friends - the ones who actually drove Rover into bankruptcy would have been left with their millions.

Of course, as John himself said when he wasn't hoping we'd forget his involvement in setting the whole thing up, a Liberal Democrat government would have kept Rover going for a whole extra month. The Liberal Democrat government wouldn't have had anything in place to protect the pensions, though.

And it was all going so well

Just as Dishy Davey Cameron was convincing us all that the Tory party had changed and Oliver Leftwing was coming out in favour of socialist redistribution (picking up clothing long-abandoned by the Labour party), one of the old-fashioned Tory MPs has raised his head out of the feeding trough long enough to stick his foot in his mouth.

The previously-unknown Philip Davies, recently elected as the MP for Shipley, has called for the party of small government and deregulation to appoint a 'political correctness eliminator' to tackle problems like the Somerset museum that decided to use the scientific term BP (Before Present) when dating certain objects. The museum itself states that they only intend to use the term for objects that can be regarded as pre-historic and will continue to use the traditional AD/BC designations where pieces can be effectively dated.

Quite what this PC Czar will do is unclear - aren't we just replacing a set of fairly informal guidelines with a firmly-enforced set of rules? It will simply redefine political correctness with a right-wing bias and suggests an Orwellian thought police more entrenched than anything the current atmosphere produces, putting the jackboot firmly on the other foot. However, there should be no shortage of suitable candidates to take up the post as scourge of political correctness - Daily Mail columnists, Daily Express headline writers, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Jim Davidson, Bernard Manning - all eminently qualified to lead this new campaign.

Bear in mind, also, that many of these stories are dreamt up by elements of the media seeking to grind their own axes - remember the stories a couple of years ago about councils banning hot cross buns for fear of offending non-Christians? Absolute hogwash - and the Telegraph eventually admitted it. Similarly, there was a furore in the 1980s about a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. This was widely portrayed as councils promoting gay propaganda and the resulting media frenzy helped to generate the infamous s28 of the Local Government Act. From that, you would think that this book was a set text in every primary school in the country, when in fact it was only available in the teachers' resource library and not on general release in schools.

An article by the author reveals her reasons for writing the book and also the disappointment from the journalists when they found out that the characters in the book were fictional and weren't based on real people who had all died from some horrible, sexually-transmitted disease. The journos were also saddened to discover that the author wasn't gay, which blocked off a further line of attack.

My point is that whenever someone rattles on about political correctness gone mad, I always want to find out the truth behind the story, which is usually somewhat different to that published in the media. That's not to say that people don't do silly things in the name of equality, but at least they are erring on the side of caution and generally doing things with a good heart.

I don't see anything wrong with recognising that we do have a multi-cultural, multi-religious society and seeking to make government and public services as universally accessible as possible. That doesn't destroy our traditions and our society - rather it strengthens it.

Whatever you're celebrating, be it Winterval, Hanukkah or Christmas, have a good one.

End of term reports

As promised, here's the run down on what your MPs in Birmingham & Solihull have been up to since the new term started. In order of voting performance - one of the key reasons we send these folks off to Westminster, here's the league table.

Erdington - Sion Simon - Labour
91% of votes attended
5 written questions asked, costing £670
Spoken in 10 debates

Edgbaston - Gisela Stuart - Labour
88% of votes attended
8 written questions asked, costing £1,072
Spoken in 14 debates

Hodge Hill - Liam Byrne - Labour
85% of votes attended
Health minister, so does not submit written questions
Spoken in 24 debates

Sparkbrook & Small Heath - Roger Godsiff - Labour
82% of votes attended
15 written questions asked, costing £2,010
Spoken in 3 debates

Solihull - Lorely Burt - Liberal Democrat
82% of votes attended
13 questions asked, costing £1,742
Spoken in 12 debates

Selly Oak - Lynne Jones - Labour
77% of votes attended
215 written questions asked, costing £28,810
Spoken in 27 debates

Northfield - Richard Burden - Labour
76% of votes attended
16 written questions asked, costing £2,144
Spoken in 20 debates

Ladywood - Clare Short - Labour
71% of votes attended
39 written questions asked, costing £3,886
Spoken in 4 debates

Perry Barr - Khalid Mahmood - Labour
69% of votes attended
2 written questions asked, costing £268
Spoken in 8 debates

Yardley - John 'Superstud' Hemming - Liberal Democrat
62% of votes attended
199 written questions asked costing £26,666
Spoken in 20 debates

Sutton Coldfield - Andrew Mitchell - Conservative
62% of votes attended
20 written questions asked, costing £2,680
Spoken in 10 debates

Sadly, the bottom two don't face relegation.

Not yet, at least.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we resign...

The Guardian/ICM poll yesterday showed that Charlie Kennedy, long regarded as one of the key selling points of the Liberal Democrats, is now becoming a liability. Over half of those polled thought a new leader for the Liberal Democrats would be a good idea and his approval ratings with his own party members are worse than those of the other leaders. Tony, Gordon and Dishy Dave all score in the low 80s on approval rating, while Chuckles only scrapes 76%. Similarly, his dissatisfaction rate is also higher than the others. Even LD voters themselves are split almost 50/50 on whether a new leader makes sense.

Following hard on the heels of Ravey Davey Cameron's appeal to Liberal Democrats to come home to the Tory party, there's another website to tempt the disaffected Liberal Democrat - hat tip to Bob Piper. Go on, sign the petition to persuade Chuckles to do the decent thing.

The only question remaining about Charles' future is when he goes - before or after May 2006? My money's on before.

Now this is what I call a progressive partnership

Looking at the dozens of happy couples today (even Elton and David), it seems incredible that less than forty years ago, men were jailed for having consensual sex with other men - and jaw-dropping that the law in Scotland was only changed to mirror that in England and Wales in 1980 and Ulster took until 1982 to catch up, despite Ian Paisley's Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

But now, they've got the same sort of rights that everybody else takes for granted. Until today, a gay partner had no legal standing - they could be refused access to their partner's bedside in case of illness, could be denied any involvement in their funeral and missed out on the benefits of pensions or been made homeless by having to pay death duties.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff came out (ahem) with an enlightened statement harking back to the good old days of s28, one of the Thatcher era's nastier pieces of tabloid-pleasing legislation.
'What the Government should do in terms of public policy is support marriage rather than undermine it. To put beside marriage an alternative or what appears to be a perfectly approved legal alternative lifestyle I think does not help the institution of marriage at all.'

Pardon me, but this is supporting marriage - if you regard marriage as two people making a lifetime, loving commitment to each other. While the registration irons out certain legal niceties, I don't believe that these people are doing it for an adminstrative convenience. For them, this brief ceremony is a public affirmation of who they are and their love for each other. I've been struck by how long some have waited for this - 40 years, 18 years, 16 years, 14 years, 7 years. Remember also the handful of couples registered by special licence in advance of today - including one gay couple who registered their partnership just hours before one of them died. This really does matter and is actually good for the overall stability of society.

This is one area where the government's record is enviable, but I still can't help feeling that this is less of a celebration of something new than a freedom too long denied or an injustice righted. Still, raise a glass to the 700 happy couples across the country tonight. Good luck one and all.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A farewell to Leo

Leo McGarry was the chief of staff that every politican would choose and the role of the alcoholic, former fighter pilot was brought to life in the West Wing by John Spencer, who has died of a heart attack at 58. He too was a recovering alcoholic and had a long career as an actor, typically playing a cop, but it was the role of Leo that brought him to world attention and he was utterly believable as Bartlet's friend and advisor.

When the President makes his State of the Union speech, a member of the cabinet remains in a secure location as 'the designated survivor' to protect the presidential succession - just in case anything happens. President Bartlet gives him this advice...

Bartlet: Roger, If anything happens, you know what to do, right?
Roger: I honestly hadn't thought about it, sir.
Bartlet: First thing always is national security. Get your commanders together. Appoint Joint Chiefs, appoint a chairman. Take us to defcon 4. Have the governors send emergency delegates to Washington. The assistant Attorney General is going to be the Acting A.G. You got a best friend?
Roger: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
Roger: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
Roger: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: That's your chief of staff.

Thanks for the role, John.

They're coming home...

Dishy Davey Cameron has made an appeal to disaffected Liberal Democrats to join a 'modern, progressive' party. Apparently, he was referring to the Tories.

So come on then, let's be 'avin you - all those yellow Tories, those blue-rinsed Liberals, get on over to Dave's place. He's even given you a website, which is eternally hopeful in bringing stray Liberal Democrats to the Tory cause - it even shows Simon Hughes crossing the floor. Come on, you Birmingham Liberal Democrats who followed your leader in loyally supporting Whitless' bunch of incompetents - do the decent thing and show your true colours.

You aren't the only Tories in the village, so come out, say 'I'm Tory and I'm proud.'

Scrub that - judging by the Tory vote across most of Birmingham in recent years, you might be the only Tories left.

Hemming doesn't know what's going on shocker

One the one hand, we hear about the love-in that was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary meeting this week, with (Lord) Tim Razzall assuring us of 'speech after speech' supporting Chuckles and reports that nobody raised a voice to challenge the leader (although a number of front bench spokespersons are reported to have told him to consider his position). Even 'The Merciless' surfaced today to deny that he has anything but love in his heart for Charles. Weellll - Menzies Campbell actually said that Charlie had his full support 'as long as he remains leader of the Liberal Democrats.' That wholehearted declaration of loyalty might see him into the New Year, then.

Actually, I'm not convinced that he's anything other than a stalking horse for some of the other candidates out there. Surely, Campbell has to know that despite his recent clean bill of health, he's into the twilight of his career and leading the party is a game for someone younger.

On the other hand, John H tells us that he has a different recollection of some of the meetings.
'I have actually been at some of the meetings reported in the media. I wonder if perhaps I was asleep during part of the meetings as the reports of the meetings do not accord with what I heard and saw during the meetings.'
(By the way, we had noticed that you are a graduate of the 'any publicity is good publicity' school of thought). Come on then, John - as someone committed to an open style of politics, let's hear your side of things. We've heard from everybody else, although they've chosen to hide behind journalists.

Hat tip to Niles for this quote from Charlie Kennedy:
I think people in British politics will be very pleased because they want a thirsting and thrusting Liberal Democrat party...
Charles clearly has the thirst, but who can we nominate for the thrusting? Perhaps the man who was recently described by a leading Liberal Democrat as
'A cross between Boris Johnson and Geoffrey Robinson, but without the talent.'
Rumours abound that his ever-eventful private life and ongoing legal action with Birmingham social services are both being used as ammunition by colleagues to prevent him being allowed anywhere near the Liberal Democrat front bench, let alone challenge for the leadership and that this has caused some high level discussion within the party nationally. Again.

Like a football manager who is assured that the club owner has complete faith in him, Kennedy's surely on the way out. He's going to stagger from crisis to crisis until the party finally runs out of patience. Even if those crises aren't genuinely serious, the poisonous briefings from his colleagues will blow minor disagreements out of all proportion until Charlie has nowhere left to go but through the door marked 'EXIT.' The endgame is well underway.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Intruding on public grief

'Tis the season to be jolly...

Goodwill to all men - unless you happen to be Chatshow Charlie who had to face catcalls from the Tories at PMQs today. Their shouts of 'He's behind you' are thought to refer to the party's elder statesman, Menzies Campbell, who is rumoured to be the source of some of the whispering campaign against Chuckles, not to our own John Hemming who was seated in the row behind. Now, we've all heard demands for the leadership to skip a generation, but I'm not sure that it should head towards somebody of pensionable age and who will be knocking on the door of 70 when the next election comes round.

If anyone hears a scraping sound, that's just 'Slasher' Hughes sharpening his blade.

Nice to see Lembit Opik, the human anagram, backing the boss, although a recent article by him warned that

'We seem wary of developing a visceral habit to tell it like it is. I believe that timidity is driven by a very personal political syndrome.'
In the same article, he praised Campbell but omitted to comment on the performance of the current leader.

Hat tip to Guido for the news that Mark Oaten, coincidentally, sent round an email to the faithful reminding them of his existence and his political credentials - handy if a vacancy should occur. Charlie backed the MPs into a corner and asked them if they wanted a new leader. Silence reigned across the parliamentary party - no-one prepared to wield the axe.

This blog, of course, was the first to back John Hemming for the leadership of the party, even if other commentators fail to include him amongst the runners and riders and even if the new party leadership rules require him to find another half-dozen MPs who are prepared to sign his candidacy papers (a few hours in the Members' Bars should do it). Who better to lead the Liberal Democrats into the obscurity of a coalition with the Tories?

If the Liberal Democrats are at death's door, he'll drag them through.

Ho Ho Ho, indeed.

Well, Simon Hughes was dragged onto the Today programme on Thursday morning to assure everyone that all is well and that Charlie will go on and on (I've heard his speeches and he does) - although he didn't sound completely confident in his script. Perhaps it was the gritted teeth that ruined the effect. So that's that put to bed until the New Year. I'd be amazed if Charlie leads the LDs into the next general election - unless the results in the local elections in May go well and/or Cameron screws up, Kennedy could be looking to return to the circuit of chatshows and Have I Got News for You by the summer.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Making life taste sour

In the past, I've made clear my views on the vocal minority that is Christian Voice. I can summarise it thus.

I can understand why a small cancer charity would surrender to their blackmailing threats, but when it comes to the big boys like Sainsburys and Woolworths and sales of the Jerry Springer - The Opera DVDs, I'm stunned as to why they gave in to this group of Christian Talebani, particularly as Sainsburys have received a whopping ten (count 'em - thats 10) complaints. This is the group that believes that the destruction wrought upon New Orleans is attributable to God's retribution for a gay event taking place at the time rather than a freakish meteorogical event compounded by under-investment in flood prevention schemes.

To be honest, it isn't great art. I watched it and thought the first act had some good laughs, but the second one dragged a bit, but that's no reason to censor it because of a tiny minority. Remember that the membership of this group runs into the hundreds, not thousands and there are plenty more groups more representative than Christian Voice.

I'm deeply offended by the bile and hatred poured out through Christian Voice's website, but I've yet to complain to their ISP to censor their views, because freedom of speech means that you have the right to be offended.

Regressive partnerships - updated

Yet another hint about the direction that the 'Orangistas' in the Liberal Democrats want to go.

Despite Kennedy's protestations that he wants the party to stay independent, those voices demanding plans for coalition with the Tories (although they don't rule out working with Gordon) are becoming more strident - asking that the party make initial contacts now with the new Tory leadership. Rumours persist that Chuckles may fall/be pushed on his sword before the next election comes around - the May 2006 council elections will be key to this and Charlie isn't helped by the apparent resurgence of a centrist Tory party. Sadly, the names mentioned as a potential successor - Hughes, Campbell, Cable and Oaten - don't include John H. I wonder if any of them will sign the letter to Chuckles next week telling him to shape up or ship out? The Telegraph's best line is actually the (rather accurate) caption to the stern photograph of Chatshow..

Naturally, Charlie's been spinning wildly, denying the accusations that first surfaced with Andrew Neil in 'The Week' on Thursday. More in the Scotsman today, as an anonymous LibDem colleague comments supportively

'I am becoming more and more certain that Charles will resign sooner rather than later... Cameron is another problem for him to deal with. I'm not sure he has the appetite for it any more'

Cameron's supposedly centrist agenda (although I'm not convinced that a flat-rate tax is anything other than a right-wing plan to slice public services) is a huge threat to the Liberal Democrats. They can probably take a little more ground from Labour, but they do need to steal the right-of-centre Tories who have either voted Labour or not voted at all over the past eight years. It seems more likely at the moment that those voters may feel the call of a New Conservative party more attractive than that of a wannabe Tory party in the yellow ties. The writer of the piece concludes,
'For Kennedy, or "chatshow Charlie" as he was once known, the strain is showing. His features are puffy and his manner irritable. Where once he was the fresh face, now there is a new contender who has the likeability factor: David Cameron.'
Fraser Nelson added the following biting comment that

Mr Kennedy's mission in politics is to postpone the day when the Liberal Democrats will have to decide what they stand for - so it can carry on as a club for small-state liberals and big-government lefties
In fact, not a bad time for the expansively-moustachioed Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso to split from party policy on the future of nuclear power. The fact that he has Dounreay within his constituency borders will surely not be the inspiration for this minor rebellion.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rare to see such insight in one so young

Sources tell me that the infant Isabel Cox-Hemming has already developed her analytical skills.

While being paraded around the Council House on Tuesday by her proud father, she passed judgement by gently vomiting over him.
[EDIT - Name changed for the sake of accuracy]

Thursday, December 08, 2005

'Tortured and assaulted'

Today, John Hemming announced that he was issuing a writ against Birmingham Social Services for their behaviour around the time of the birth of his child.

This is the much-maligned department that has recently managed to scrape together the wherewithal to achieve one star status, after years of problems and no stars at all. It is also rather strapped for cash - although it has received additional funding as noted by the Commission for Social Care Inspection during their visit this year. While we can thank the current council for the extra funding - not least because the government provided additional support - improvements were recorded in the inspection in summer 2004 as a result of the recovery plan from the last administration, which provided a solid foundation for the new mob to actually do some good work.

However, the service is hardly swimming with cash or enjoying high morale - something that John and Emily should both know - he as a former Deputy Leader of the Council and she as a member of the Social Care Overview & Scrutiny Committee. So, this service now has to defend a claim for £300,000 in damages from multi-millionaire Hemming and his PA and partner. If they lose, us council taxpayers get to pay for it - although he also wants the social workers themselves to cough up as well. We'll certainly end up paying for the time the team spend preparing their defence to the claim.

John claims that they were 'defamed, tortured and assaulted' and had spent time 'which could have been spent earning' dealing with the issues raised. This last point is important, as that forms the basis of the claim for damages for lost earnings - although quite how much a PA on maternity leave and an MP actually lost is highly questionable. I'm not aware of anyone complaining that John was too busy on other issues to deal with constituency matters and the parliamentary questions certainly have kept flowing.

Now, this is a fairly one-sided media scuffle, as Social Services can't really discuss the issues behind the action that they took and nor would I want them to. All they can say is
'The local authority took careful and considered actions as required by the law to investigate concerns about the welfare of a child. Birmingham City Council is confident of all the actions taken alongside police and health colleagues and will be vigorously defending the matter and its staff who at all times acted within the area child protection committee procedures and the law.'
What seems apparent is that, while pregnant, Ms Cox had a chat with her GP and he was sufficiently concerned by something she said to contact Social Services - something he is legally bound to do in the interests of the infant (who is also regarded as a separate patient). This triggered the controversial investigation by 'the Gestapo' (Godwin's law strikes again and John loses the argument for a fairly crass comparison).

Now, I have no special insight into this particular case and I don't seek it, but the following seems evident to me. If you are a social worker and a GP passes information to you involving an MP and senior councillor on the ruling group and his mistress, who is also a councillor and on the committee that monitors your department's performance, I rather suspect that you might give thought to your likely approach to entering this political minefield. On the other hand, this might be a reprehensible political attack on John and Emily or just a case of insensitivity and incompetence - these are both entirely possible outcomes.

I'm not making a blind defence of social services, as they have made mistakes, but resorting to legal action so soon after the incident could send out the wrong message and, whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, might lead to social workers avoiding the 'difficult' cases involving the rich and powerful for fear of legal action. I would have hoped that both of them could have found a better way of resolving the problems without wheeling out the big guns.

This should have remained a private and confidential matter, rather than being dragged into court where yet more dirty laundry may be aired, still less splashed across the pages of the local press.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Border disputes or parliamentary etiquette for newbies

'The British parliamentary system is founded on the principle that one Member represents a single constituency, and that her or his relations with constituents are very much a preserve other Members should not interfere with.'

In 1996, the Liberal Democrat MP for Littleborough and Saddleworth sent personalised direct mail to residents in the neighbouring constituency of Oldham Central & Royton who were about to be included in the new constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth. This was a breach of long-established parliamentary etiquette noted above and was raised in the House by the then MP for Oldham, Bryan Davies who asked the Speaker for her help:

I consider that to be the grossest interference with the rights of my constituents and with my rights as their elected representative.My constituents are clearly being misled, because the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth is not their representative and cannot carry out actions in the House on their behalf, as suggested by the material.'

He was supported by Robert Sheldon (Lab, Ashton-under-Lyme) and Barry Field (Con, Isle of Wight), who added that the

'The Liberal Democrats are a bunch of poltroons'
Madam Speaker referred the matter to the Liberal Democrat Whip and asked that there be no recurrence. It seems that the current Whip needs to have a chat with John H.

While boundary changes are awkward, the convention is quite clear - the member who is MP at the time should deal with constituency casework. Seeking casework from residents outside the current constituency boundaries is out of order.

So, why are John Hemming's acolytes sending out leaflets in the Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency of Roger Godsiff MP?

(Apologies for the dodgy quality of the scan.)
Granted, they are being sent out in the parts of the old Fox Hollies ward that will form part of the new Yardley constituency come the next General Election, but they are most definitely not inside the current Yardley boundaries.

To coin a phrase, John - tell your kids to get their scooters off his lawn.

It should be instructive that Chris Davies was the Liberal Democrat MP in question and that he lost the next election to Labour's Phil Woolas.

Government of all the talentless

Following on from the piece in the Times a few weeks back, noting the gentle moves towards convergence that seem to be afflicting the Liberal Democrats and the Tories (with which students of local government across the country are increasingly familiar), there seems to be real discussion about the options, with Chuckles being questioned on the matter again on Sky. (Hat tip to Bob for the first piece, by the way)

Mark Oaten has also pledged that the party would work with Labour and/or the Tories as appropriate, but not at the expense of its principles (if anyone can find any LibDem principles, I'd be more than grateful).

In any case, there was more about party funding revealed in the Times today.

It seems that the case of the £2.4 million received from a man on the run from the Florida police and Chuckles' forgetting to declare £30,000 worth of free flights aren't the only example of dodgy practices by the Liberal Democrats - who trade on their squeaky clean image. Now, it appears that Charlie's office has been funded to the tune of £125,000 (half of the total funding over the past four years) by Paul Church and his wife (donating under her maiden name, for some reason). He hasn't lived in the country for two decades and the donations have been funnelled through a UK company, which has no UK phone number and no employees.

Yet again, the Electoral Commission is going to ask the party to confirm that Church is a permissible donor - just like last time.

Nice and sleazy does it every time.


I had this mailed to me this week - podcasting in conjunction with the Birmingham Community Empowerment Network.

I'm a firm believer in trying everything once (except line-dancing and voting Liberal Democrat), as well as encouraging community involvement in local decision-making and delivery, so give it a try and listen to the stories.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The day the sky fell in

When you're a parent, stories about children suffering can't fail to affect you.

I've never met Matthew Engel, but he's an editor of Wisden and an entertaining writer, so I make a point of reading his stuff. His latest piece for the Guardian touches with love, hope and humour on the fragility of life and his son's death a few weeks ago from a very aggressive form of cancer that predominantly affects the young.

I defy any parent to read this and not be moved. I cried. And then I hugged my own kids.

Digby, the biggest mayor in the world.

We've had attempts to reopen the debate over an elected Birmingham mayor and now it seems that Birmingham's own director of the CBI, Sir Digby Jones, is being touted as a possible candidate.

He's hardly out of the local papers at the moment and this week, John Duckers wrote in the Post about the views of some opinion-forming businessmen in the City that there should be a role for Diggers once his term at the CBI ends. It even suggests that he should act as some kind of Chairman to Whitless' role as MD of Birmingham. That should certainly make things rather interesting, given Digby's rather public denunciation of the lethargy that passes for leadership in our City at the moment.

Our experience of having a businessman in charge of the City for the past eighteen months (in collusion with another well-known businessman, to boot) has been rather unexciting. Bob Piper notes that the response of business to the needs of their workforce has been rather negative and legislation has been required to ensure that employees are treated with a modicum of fairness, so perhaps those of us at more junior levels than the corporate 'big boys' should be a little more circumspect when it comes to putting them in charge.

With them at the helm, pretty much all of the workplace legislation of the past three decades would never have been passed. No equal employment rights for anybody, no equality of pay, no health and safety legislation, no working time rules, no right to holiday or even a minimum wage. All have been criticised heavily by our business friends. I'm not saying that they shouldn't have a role - they're crucial to the economy and clearly have particular insights, but their views are no more or less valid than anyone else's. They have no god-given right to be involved with politics and some of the big corporate beasts have less than stellar records when it comes to business.

Remember how GEC-Marconi was once a massive electronics business until the directors made some appalling decisions, the result of which was to start the company on a lingering spiral of death. Or perhaps we should look at the geniuses who ran Rover into the ground? The funny thing is that the directors tend to come out of these things OK. Sure, they lose their jobs, but the millions in their back pockets tend to compensate for the short-lived pain and their City mates are only too happy to find them a seat on another board and give them control of another company. These are human beings, not supermen.

Incidentally, why did the CBI choose a London venue for their conference rather than coming to Birmingham as they have done in recent years? You would have thought with Diggers at the helm, he'd be only too glad to show off his city. Or is he just ashamed at the thought of having to show off Whitless into the bargain?

Incidentally, I'm thoroughly impressed by the sense of justice shown by the directors who complained about the unfairness of the government's decision to allow public sector workers to claim their occupational pensions at 60 (in line with their contractual terms). These wouldn't be the same directors who have cheerfully scrapped company final salary schemes in favour of the cheaper money-purchase options for their employees, but have hung onto the final salary option when it comes to their own pensions? Oh, yes. It would.

Easy ride...

Nice to see our cabbies getting extra protection.

Taxi for Hemming!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Blue Friday - welcome to the New Order

How fallen are the mighty..

A few months ago, everyone had David Davis marked down to ascend to the top spot in the Tory party, but over the space of a few hours in Blackpool a couple of months ago, the received wisdom slammed into reverse as the young talent of David Cameron exploded onto the stage and stole the hearts of the party.

We'll know the answer tomorrow [EDIT: I was getting ahead of myself, Davey C gets the job on Tuesday and thrown into the lion's den with TB on Wednesday] and I believe that the votes will show a turnout in the 70s (not just the average age of the members) and a landslide for Cameron.

And then what?

He's been strong on image so far - he's weathered the storm over allegations of cocaine use, but there's more to leading a party than just being young and photogenic. Honest. Even Tony Blair came to the leadership with more front-bench experience and he was surrounded by people who had a vision of where the party should go and some who were also immersed in where it had come from. I'm not so sure that Cameron will be so lucky. We also have very little idea about what he wants to do and where he wants to take the party. Is he on the right or nearer the centre? Does your answer depend on what he wants you to think?

If he's wise and able, he'll clean out the dinosaurs in the upper echelons resistant to change and remove those who believe that the only future for the party is in a dash to the right. If he doesn't, he risks a repeat of May 2005 in 2009. But then the political tectonic plates will have shifted further. Labour will be running with a new leader, somebody who may possibly recover votes lost to the Liberal Democrats over the past few years. The Liberal Democrats may still have Chuckles unsteadily at the helm, or he may have been deposed in favour of a younger/more vicious candidate (something that Cameron's election may actually make more likely).

Actually, the future of the LDs is one of the things about the Tory succession. We've watched the LibDems cosying up to the Tories in local government across the country and we're now seeing attempts by the new breed to drag the party to the right. Is this courting the Tories the same way they ingratiated themselves with Labour in the mid-90s - and then found themselves cast aside as Tony's massive majority in 1997 rendered their presence in a putative coalition unnecessary? Perhaps Cheerful Charlie harbours hopes of a Cabinet place in a Tory/LD coalition government - surely the only way he'll sit at that Downing Street table. Cameron's election may be enough to kick start a Tory revival sufficient to carry them back to power without the aid of a third party, in a way that Davis probably couldn't have delivered. A resurgent Tory vote could damage the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour, don't forget. It isn't that long ago that John Hemming's Yardley seat was that rare beast, virtually a three-way marginal between the major parties. Since then, the Tory vote across the City of Birmingham has melted away and those formerly safe Tory seats of Selly Oak and Edgbaston are footnotes in history.

Cameron will have a honeymoon period, but he will find himself tested soon. There are a number of prime opportunities coming up to defeat key government policy and his first electoral test will be upon him in May 2006 with the next round of metropolitan council elections. Good PR and youthful enthusiasm can only carry you so far - then you need something more substantial to take you to the next stage. Has he got that? I don't know and I suspect that very few people know the answer to that question. Truly, interesting times.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More of a whimper than a bang

So, after months of doom-saying from the Tories and Liberal Democrats - backed by hysterical elements of the media, the new licensing bill came into force last week and...

...society didn't come to an end.

There's a surprise.

Predictably, only a thousand places in the UK have been granted 24-hour licenses and two thirds of those are supermarkets and the like. For the remainder, many will be hotels or casinos and only a handful will be pubs. Only around 1% of old license holders were ever expected to apply for a twenty-four hour license, but the true figure proved to be around half of that. I got my forecast for Birmingham a little wrong - I thought that a few might apply, but in fact, none of the 63 all-day licences have been granted to pubs. I'm not surprised - there's little commercial advantage in opening round the clock unless you actually want to attract alcoholics as your main source of trade. More likely, extended licenses are likely to be used to cover special events, such as major sports matches in other time zones across the planet.

What has been largely ignored by the press has been the new powers given to the police, council and ordinary residents to take action against nuisance venues. The police can close a problem bar for twenty-four hours - a huge potential loss to businesses often run on thin margins in a very competitive market. Local councils can draw up a licensing policy in the same way as they create planning guidelines and will be responsible to the local community. Residents can object to licenses and can even demand that the licensing committee review a decision if problems arise. (If you can dig it out, there was a very balanced article on the new Act in the Birmingham Post on Wednesday - sadly not in the online edition).

Curiously, this is one aspect of deregulation that those stern critics of business red tape in the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties (soon to be merged) can't stomach. This is actually a very good example of rights and responsibilities - the government has removed a set of 90-year old wartime restrictions to allow us to decide for ourselves how and when we drink. In return, those who sell alcohol have to do so responsibly or they will face losing their business.

The extension in hours won't make a lot of difference - the alcoholics always managed to get their booze from the supermarkets or during a lock-in with a friendly landlord. This isn't about enabling drinking round the clock, but about enabling communities to swiftly tackle shops that sell alcohol to under-age drinkers and to deal with pubs that cause local nuisance.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Own goal

Top marks to Birmingham City Council.

A tornado rips through one of the poorest areas of our city and the council eventually responded, even arranging a royal visit to the area.

Of course, they didn't feel it was appropriate for the Lord Mayor to lead an appeal on behalf of these local people, although Birmingham Foundation have since stepped in and raised £50,000 straight off. On the other hand, an earthquake in Kashmir prompted an unceremonious dash to launch a fund (not with an eye on those lovely votes at all).

Now, these people, many of whom can't afford house insurance, have been lumbered with average bills of £1800 to pay for the scaffolding supporting their houses. Excellent work from the 'progressive partnership' - the buzz-phrase used to describe the Liberal Democrat/Tory administration that is supposed to be in charge of our city.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Fairytale policy making

I wasn't expecting Charlie Kennedy to come out and back Labour's tax policies. In an interview in the Guardian today, Charlie - with Vince Cable holding his hand after the council tax debacle during the campaign - compared the tax policies of the three major parties to
Goldilocks' three bears, with the Tories too cold on tax, his own party too hot, and Labour in the middle
Not for the first time, I sought advice on Liberal Democrat policies from my children, who confirmed that according to Goldilocks, if the Tories are too cold, the Liberal Democrats too hot, then Labour must be just right.

While this sounds the death knell for the higher tax plans of the Liberal Democrats - although Vince Cable seems determined to hang on to the plans for the 50% tax rate for high earners. Rather as forecast, this is the first of the vote-losing Liberal Democrat policies to bite the dust, with more possible as this paragraph reveals:
It may also stand by controversial pledges to drop student tuition fees, replace council tax with local income tax, and extend free personal care to the elderly in England - all mocked as hopelessly unrealistic and "middle-class welfare" by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. [My emphasis added]
As Kennedy notes, tough choices need to be made. One thing remains true though, if the Liberal Democrats are looking to fairytales for policy decisions, their future certainly looks Grimm.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Denying the denier

One more thing that annoys me about David Irving is that the media keep describing him as 'an historian.' He may be many things, but he's ceased to be one of us.

Historians should have respect for facts - they shouldn't ignore inconvenient ones or deny truths. They are free to make their own judgements and arguments about why things happened or to re-examine motives and challenge conventional ideas, but they aren't free to invent history. You're allowed to make mistakes and misread things, but you aren't allowed to lie.

Once you do that, you're off the reservation, removed from the roll, no longer entitled to call yourself an historian. Irving claims to be self-taught and I'd say the quality of the teaching shows.

So whatever else Irving might be, he's not an historian.
Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.
Mr Justice Grey, summing up of Irving -v- Penguin Books & Lipstadt
Not one of [Irving’s] books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. ... if we
mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.
Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History, Oxford University

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I'm sure there's a perfectly good excuse...

The new register of Members' Interests has been published, so time for the media to pore over local politicians' activities over the past twelvemonth and point out all those exciting foreign trips our elected representatives get to go on.

Perhaps they've missed a point. Here's the terms of reference:
The purpose of the Register is to encourage transparency, and through transparency, accountability. It is "to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in the capacity of a Member of Parliament...
2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc.
This is the section for registering outside employment, professions and sources of
remuneration (of more than £590 a year
Most importantly

...the obligation to register outside employment... is absolute
So, let's look at a few entries:
FEATHERSTONE, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) [LIBERAL DEMOCRAT]
2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
Councillor, London Borough of Haringey.
HANCOCK, Michael (Portsmouth South)[LIBERAL DEMOCRAT]
2.Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
Councillor and an Executive Member of Portsmouth City Council
Two MPs who also sit on the benches of a local council, for which they are appropriately remunerated. (Can you guess where this one is going, kids?). Curiously, John Hemming appears unwilling to admit that he is also a councillor for the fair city of Birmingham (much as we wish that it were not the case).

HEMMING, John (Birmingham, Yardley)
2.Remunerated employment, office, profession etc
I am Senior Partner of John Hemming and Company; a software house.
Sole trader of MarketNet and Music Mercia International (part of John Hemming Trading).
Now we know that he has made an issue of not taking a salary, preferring to donate his salary as deputy leader to charity in return for some positive PR - as detailed by Unity over at Talk Politics a few months back.

Remember that phrase, though...
...the obligation to register outside employment... is absolute
Over to you John.

There's probably a perfectly good excuse.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ID cards help to fight terror

Well, no. They don't.

It appears that not even the Security Service like the idea unless the cards are unforgeable - which they won't be.

The truth is that whatever security measures you put onto those cards, someone will find a way round it because of the value of having access to something that is considered absolute proof of identity.

The case for the massive public investment in a huge (and probably ineffective) bureaucracy is fading by the day. Will this policy survive?

Open government (unless it proves embarrassing)

The keys to the future are... Open, accountable, decentralised governance

The City also needs to be less secretive so people can express their views as to policies that affect them and have real consultation...

Only the most geekish have sought out the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2004 local elections. I'm not even convinced that many of the LD councillors have even read it. Certainly, their behaviour as lapdogs for the Tories suggests that they don't give a damn about ending secrecy. Odd, for a party whose local leader (yes, him) once bravely faced the threat of disqualification as a councillor for leaking commercially confidential information, but attempted a public interest defence.

How times change.

Following hard on the heels of their embarrassing climbdown over releasing the Blunderground report (and my sources tell me that what was released was a cobbled together document combining two reports and thus apparently worth £300,000), the council have refused to release information on the proposed casino on top of the Wheels park in Birmingham despite a Freedom of Information Act request from the Birmingham Post.

Apparently, they've also been sitting on another request from the paper for information on the library since the end of August - a clear breach of the terms of the FoIA and the council's own code of practice. So, perhaps the Post should crack on with the next stage and lodge a complaint with the council before complaining to the Information Commissioner. Just the threat worked last time.

You see, the exemption that the council have claimed isn't an absolute one. Absolute exemptions are simple and are generally confined to national issues - things that would affect national security or the economy, for example. While an appeal to the Information Commissioner can still be made, I'd suspect that very few will get past that particular line of defence. However, there are a number of qualified exemptions available under the Act and they are subject to a public interest test. Simply, this asks if the public interest is better served by release or by the information being withheld.

Whatever the outcome, it would be interesting to see the judgement of the council being tested.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

David Blair Cameron seems to have nicked our branding.

Top marks to the monkey.


Why has John 'Yellow Tory' Hemming started turning on his former political friends by sourcing dumb quotes from Tories-past?

Is he preparing the ground for life after the collapse of the shaky Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition that attempts to rule our city? Will the Liberal Democrats abandon ship before the 2006 local elections to try and put clear water between them and their former best friends?

Although the feeling may be mutual....

At the Cameron/Davis hustings in Solihull the other night, David Cameron told the following joke...

Q: If a Labour candidate and a Lib Dem candidate stood together on the edge of a cliff, which would you push over first?
A: The Labour candidate. After all, business comes before pleasure!

Hat tip to Guido for the link. Nice to see some cross-party agreement...

Last Respects

A couple of weeks ago, in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London, in only slightly more time than it takes a Returning Officer to announce the results of an election count at a General Election, an election petition in the name of Samuel Stephen Hunter was withdrawn. Nobody was found guilty of anything but in Court No 12, in front of not one but two High Court Judges – Mr Justice Stanley Burnton and Mr Justice Jack presiding – the legal curtain was gently brought down on this insignificant, but rather squalid affair.

The end of this action itself warrants nothing more than the smallest of by-line in rich and colourful history of political corruption, the contaminated political earth from which it sprang does however warrant closer attention.

Very little is known and will probably be ever known about Samuel Stephen Hunter and why he brought this action; as he is a student of ‘limited means’ it is unlikely that his share of the legal costs incurred – a figure running into tens of thousands of pounds - will ever be recovered and whole episode might constitute Mr Hunter’s entire claim to fame as he sinks back into well deserved obscurity, his job having been done in absentia.

It is a further curiousity that Salma Yacoub, the RESPECT candidate who challenged the sitting MP and who has now become a ubiquitous spokesperson for the Birmingham Central Mosque, very publicly supported the petition - indeed, it was reported that she and RESPECT were championing the cause, now seems to have no connection with the petition at all. (The link to the original Times story appears to have been erased from the RESPECT website, but remains in the Google cache) Indeed, she wasn't in court either. Perhaps, as predicted here, there were too many skeletons in their own closet or perhaps the petition was simply without foundation.

In the wider public world, Roger Duncan Godsiff (the Labour Party candidate), who was duly elected to serve the people of Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath at the last General Election, can continue with the job he was elected to do unhindered.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Greasy polls

You may remember that earlier in the week, the Sun ran a poll claiming 90% support for the 90 day detention period. This was done through that reliable measure of public opinion, the phone-in poll. I trust that I don't need to explain to you, my faithful readers, what a load of cobblers phone-in and internet polls generally are - Bob Worcester describes these (often profitable) exercises as 'voodoo polls'? Self-selecting and wonderfully easy to fix. However, when Sion Simon claims that he had not met a single person in his constituency who didn't support the 90 days, I worried a little. Perhaps Sion should get out more.

[UPDATE] Hat tip to Unity at Talk Politics for his reference to this dissection of a Sky News/YouGov poll which guides the reader to take a particular, pro-detention position through obviously slanted questions (not that dissimilar to Charles Clarke's highly dodgy internet poll last week). I will note that Sky News is stabled in the same place as the Sun. Even with those dodgy questions, 90-day detention only secured 72% support - over a quarter of voters didn't back it, with that figure rising to 32% in a Populous poll for the Times, which asked a straight question about the 90-day limit. I was a little disappointed that Anthony Wells defended the dodgy nature of the YouGov poll in his blog, but then he is now a YouGov correspondent, so perhaps that isn't a surprise. The Sky poll was conducted over the weekend BEFORE the vote and before the massive publicity around the vote really kicked off, as indeed was the Times poll.

The Guardian have published a REAL poll in association with ICM, which indicates that only around 20% of the sample supported the 90-day period. 28 days doesn't even command a majority - only 46% of the sample backed that detention period. This survey was carried out on Thursday (after the debate) using a sample of around 500 people (I don't tend to like national polls with sample sizes under 1000, but the margin of error doesn't allow for the figures to conceal 90% support).

[UPDATE] Looking at the raw ICM data, things aren't quite so clear-cut. The questions are more to do with the political tactics of the government. 20% back the government sticking to what it believes to be right, 29% would support a compromise and only 18% reckon that 28 days is too long. From that, I suspect that my earlier comments were a little rash, but I still don't see an argument for 90% support in any of these polls and it seems a reasonable assumption to identify support of around 46% for a period of 28 days or less.

Let's flash back four years to a piece by the late Hugo Young on the US response to 9/11 for a reminder about surrendering liberty and a meeting between John Ashcroft (then US Attorney General) and David Blunkett (a now-forgotten Home Secretary).
Once in place, the act will be impossible to shift. Arguments from security are like that. There's always another hypothesis to guard against. That's what justice ministers are in office to assert. The hard rightist and once-soft old labourist are fellow spirits, hungry for power in the name of a security that piously throws to the jailers the freedom it's supposed to be defending.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back of the net, Cllr Hemming

So, on the day that the government suffers the most important parliamentary defeat since 1997, what preoccupies John Hemming, the MP with his finger on the pulse of the nation?

Locking up suspected terrorists for three months?


Whether the government have earmarked a day for celebrating the possibility of England bringing the World Cup back from Germany next year.

Not surprisingly, no plans have yet been made for this event - largely because the current air traffic control system is ill-equipped to deal with airborne porcines on that scale.

Well, that's £134 well spent.

For those of you who are counting, inane questions like this from Cllr Hemming have racked up a bill of £16,684 since he was elected in May. If he carries on at this rate and this parliament runs to a full term, he'll end up costing us over £168,000 in questions alone. By the way, he still has by far the worst voting record of any Birmingham MP (including Sutton Coldfield), having only managed to make 51% of divisions in the house (599th out of 645 MPs, as a matter of fact, according to the Public Whip). I'll knock out an end of term report nearer Christmas for the lot of 'em.

Roll of Honour

Just a note to point out that our local MPs can hold their heads high tonight - Clare Short, Roger Godsiff, Lynne Jones, Richard Burden and David Winnick - they all voted against the government bill to extend detention to 90 days without charge. The full list is here.

Thank you.

(Oh, and George Galloway found time in his busy schedule to make it into the House as well)

A view from a passenger on the Kings Cross underground train on the 7 July. (Hat tip to Chicken Yoghurt)

I'm not going to make a habit of this

But three cheers for the defeat of the 90-day detention limit in the Commons. Not often that you will find me on the same side as Michael Howard and Charlie Kennedy, but I'll make an exception.

Well done to the 41 Labour MPs who voted with their consciences against the bill - names to follow when available. They refused to give in to the barrage of tabloid headlines and a popular movement in favour of the 90-day period. When it comes to public opinion, remember that it would instantly return capital punishment, if you believe all the surveys. Public opinion also started out 80% in favour of ID cards, but that has slipped over time to 50-50. The public are fickle things and we rely on our elected representatives to give more consideration to legislation than you or I might give to a market researcher's questions or to a tabloid phone-in poll.

I also want to believe that this had more to do with principles and less to do with dumping on Tony.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Charles Clarke apologises

Not for continuing to plan to lock people up for three months without charge, but for the ludicrous survey sent out last week.

Finally, I would like to apologise for the questionnaire which was attached to the message that I sent out to party supporters on Friday. It was not intended to gauge public opinion but to start a political debate around the proposals currently being debated in Parliament. Many people have raised with me perfectly valid concerns about how the questions were drafted. I can only say that I share those concerns and give my assurance that questions of this type will not used in the future.
Thanks for the apology for insulting my intelligence - although I'm not convinced that it was designed to start a debate.

Now, can we talk about this detention thing?

The answer would appear to be no.

On the up side, the proposals now insist that a High Court judge gets to review the case every seven days, that some of the definitions will be drawn more tightly and the act will expire after twelve months unless MPs vote to continue it.

I'm not moving, even if MPs do.

90 days is still wrong.

Monday, November 07, 2005

National Insecurity

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, resorting to claiming national security as a justification can't be far off. Tony reckons that's the reason he continues to back the 90-day detention period for people suspected of involvement in terrorism. (Hat tip to Talk Politics for the Telegraph link)

That's a little cheap. Not as cheap as Charles Clarke's dodgy survey, which has rightly attracted ridicule for the blatant attempt to produce ammunition to use against recalcitrant Labour MPs, but cheap nonetheless. Apparently, the party aren't planning on using the data returned any time soon - perhaps because the answers aren't what they expected.

The thing is, the police and security services are allowed to ask for whatever powers they see fit and make the appropriate case for them. The case for 90-day detention is described as 'compelling' - not irrefutable, you would note. While Tony is quite happy to give the police whatever they ask for, last time I checked, members of parliament still owe a duty to weigh that request against the national interest and civil liberties and make a judgement accordingly - especially if the Attorney-General urges caution. You would have thought that Lord Goldsmith would have learnt his lesson after his last advice over Iraq...

Although the government ensured that the whole process would at least be covered by regular judicial review and the police assure us that there are only a few cases where it would be applied, it is certain that if you give the police extra powers, then they will be used.

The police have specific search powers under s44 of the 2000 Terrorist Act, which have been controversially used against protestors outside a defence exhibition in London, against an 82-year old man at the Labour conference, to stop veteran peace protestors from attending a legal demonstration at Fairford in 2003 and even against trainspotters on Basingstoke station. The Daily Telegraph reports that in the first year of the Act, 8000 searches were carried out, but within two years, almost 30,000 were being carried out - despite an apparent review from the Home Office. 600 people were searched under the terms of the Act at the Labour conference

Frankly, I'm not sure how effective the 90-day maximum will be, in any case and I doubt that the few days of extra detention will prevent a single terrorist attack - although we'll all be told that it's our fault when the next bomb goes off. It has been said that the current terrorist tactics of suicide bombs forces the police to make arrests earlier than they normally would in conventional criminal conspiracy cases, but I can't work out how the extra detention period would help - they will still need to pick them up early. I'd also suggest that the moment you pick up a terrorist suspect, they cease to be of practical use in any covert enterprise and that very arrest will disrupt any plans - either by bringing them to a screeching halt or possibly forcing the terrorists to play their hand early. Any information gleaned from the suspect needs to be employed very quickly - nothing is more perishable a commodity than intelligence. Yes, it does take a while to follow up international investigations or decode encrypted data, but it isn't beyond the wit of the good people at Thames House to keep an eye on a handful of suspects released on police bail pending enquries.

And how will this be received in the communities that are already the target of current interest? Will the thought of people being incarcerated for three months encourage young Muslims to raise their suspicions about potential suspects within their community? How will this look to the wider world?

So, pardon me if we're a little caution about extending the powers of the police to lock people up without charge while they trawl for evidence. There's nothing unpatriotic about standing up for civil rights.

'They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety'

Benjamin Franklin

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Look, if there's a village out there missing an idiot, we have him.
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Mike Whitby, Tory Leader of Birmingham City Council

Failing that, no sensible offers refused to take Whitless off our hands.

Please. Hell, we'll give you Sutton Coldfield as a job lot.


Saturday, November 05, 2005

Sion Simon - what's the point?

I thought I'd heard enough from Sion Simon this week (Labour MP for Erdington), following his diatribe in the Guardian about those of us who think that Tony ought to call it a day - the executive summary is that there's nothing wrong with Tony, it's all of you who are wrong.

Thanks for that Sion.

Of course, you do feel a distinct loyalty to the Leader - after all, it was the No 10 apparatus that airdropped you into a safe Labour seat a little while ago, when the sitting MP conveniently stood down shortly before an election and leaving no time to carry out the usual selection process. Naturally, that hasn't stopped you opening your mouth about Birmingham, when you gave the opposition some succour back in 2002 with your views in parliament that Labour is 'sufficiently incapable of running Birmingham.'

Of course, some of us are involved at the grass roots of the party and we have to face those voters who want to vote Labour, but can't stand Tony. We have to try and cope without the members who have left as a result of Iraq and other policies, running our campaigns on a very stretched shoestring. Look around the blogosphere - predominantly middle-class and liberal/left-leaning, to be sure - and look at the number of anti-Blair commentators who should be loyal Labour supporters and you will see the depth of the problem. This is not some rose-tinted view of what a Brown-led world might be, nor is it betraying the achievements of the government.

Tony's become a liability, pure and simple. We won the election in May in spite of Tony, not because of him.

I was out campaigning because I still believe that Labour has transformed aspects of this country in the past eight years of government - for all the faults and errors. I have no doubt that a Labour government offers the best route to Hattersley's 'justice and equality', but government is local as well as national and Tony is becoming an obstacle for the people in the wards that make up Sion's constituency. Sure, they will all return Labour councillors next May, but there will be other wards across the city that will continue to return Liberal Democrats or Tories, wards that we must take to attempt a rescue of this city from the incompetence of the LibDem/Tory coalition.

Far from accusing people like me of betraying the 'least powerful people in the land,' I'd argue that those who hold these views are defending those without a voice - many far better placed to make the argument than myself. It is because these people need a Labour government at all levels to help them that we'll get on our soapboxes to speak up.

I see the enemy only too clearly and I see how they are exploiting the weakness of our leader. I don't want to see Tony's legacy be the destruction of our party base, for that would be the greatest betrayal of all.


But that wasn't all from Sion this week. Oh no. He's back in the Birmingham Post today with a piece calling for the scrapping of the BBC licence fee.

Is it a regressive tax? Absolutely. Is it a poll tax, of sorts? Yup. Should we oppose it? Well, probably. Except that the licence fee is one of those British quirks that don't really make sense, but do actually work.

For a few quid a month - even under the planned increases, it will still be less than £15 a month - people get access to local and national radio, TV and internet coverage, with a global newsgathering organisation respected the world over for its integrity. Trust me, that's the best deal you will ever get. Sky costs you a damn sight more - I've just signed up to it to feed my cricket addiction and because I was offered a particularly good deal. Even ITV has a cost - those advertisers bung their charges onto the bottom line of all those goods we buy.

Sion reckons that the BBC will become unresponsive to consumers' demands and will get out of touch. Too a degree, that's a good thing, as it allows the BBC to be responsive to a range of consumers rather than having to focus on the lowest common denominator and feed the majority to the exclusion of minorities. Quality programming doesn't always attract high audiences - not many people will watch 'The Thick of It,' but that doesn't stop it being a wonderful programme. Would any other channel have taken a risk by commissioning The Office? Would Radio 4 have been a testing ground of dozens of comic careers in writing and performing - Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and The Day Today were all born on radio.

So leave the licence fee, with all the relatively minor injustices that go with it, well alone, for the simple reason that it works.

Defying common sense. Again

I suppose that a tiny bit of blame falls on my shoulders - and on the rest of the critics who have attacked the Tory/Liberal Democrat council over their vacillation and inaction over major projects like the new Library of Birmingham.

Still, I'd like to see them make a decision that made sense.

It seems that despite a scrutiny report heavily critical of the council's back-of-an-envelope plan to split the central library into two sites, despite a costly consultants' report that pointed towards the original Labour plan as offering the best fit between value and service delivery and despite claims from his own officers that even this plan might prove impossible to deliver, Mike Whitless knows better. Oh yes. Nothing will get in the way of this split site option and they intend to appoint a former city council officer to force the project through negotiate with the lead consultants.

The only problem is that the scrutiny committee that laughed the split-site proposal out of court is headed by a senior Liberal Democrat, who was narrowly defeated for the group leadership by Paul Tilsley a few months ago after John Hemming jumped ship for Westminster (and managed to avoid the avalanche of bad PR that has hit the council in recent weeks). This will only deepen the fractures that are being papered over to try and keep this tottering coalition together.