Monday, January 31, 2005

Dodgy Advertising

The new collection of Labour adverts seem to have caused a bit of a storm. Last week, draft copies of these were emailed out to members to allow them to vote as to which was the best.

To be honest, I wasn't massively impressed with any of them, but I really didn't see any anti-semitic overtones.

Thanks for the hosting at Imageshack

Maybe it is just me, but I don't think of politicians in terms of their racial background.

I didn't see the flying pigs as insulting Howard and Letwin's Jewish faith (neither do many Jews, as I understand), nor did I spot the hidden reference to Howard as Fagin (more problematic, judging by public reaction). I just saw a fairly unimaginative political campaign focussing on the fact that the Tory spending plans don't add up. As it happens, I voted for the Howard as hypnotist one (without even spotting the apparent Fagin overtones). Apparently, these are the brainchildren of Trevor Beattie, the only man who could make swearing boring - he invented those FCUK adverts where you confuse FCUK with... never mind.

There's even been a theory doing the rounds that this is a subliminal attempt by Labour to appeal to Muslim voters by reminding them of Howard and Letwin's racial origins. Too subtle for me.

To be honest, given the low public recognition of most of the Tory frontbench, including Howard, Labour are better off running with the 'Same Old Tories, Same Old Lies' poster, rather than expecting voters to recognise Oliver Letwin.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Mr Kettle, I have a Mr Pot on the line for you

Simon Hughes, the veteran Liberal Democrat MP who came to prominence after the viciously personal by-election battle in Bermondsey has announced that he believes that political parties should be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority. Given my experience of Liberal Democrat campaigning and their well-known ability to say one thing to one group and get away with a complete reversal to another group, examples of which are detailed on Liberal Democrat Watch, this could be a dangerous issue for them.

"Decent, honest and truthful"

Not three words I'd use to describe the LibDems.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Howard - Pulling up the Drawbridge

"Anyone reading the British press might assume that the UK is in the front-line of dealing with migrants and refugees. This is wrong."

Michael Howard launched the new Tory plans on immigration today, without listening to the views of Tony Baldry, a Tory MP who serves as chair of the International Development Committee.

This has the feel of cheap and nasty politics, born of the desperation at Tory Central Office that May might prove even more disastrous for the party than the 2001 election. We expect this stuff from the BNP, that's most of their ideology, but for a mainstream political party to grab hold of this issue and use it so cynically is simply dangerous. Of course, the greatest irony is that the man pulling away the safety net is the one who was saved by it before World War II. Michael Howard's own family were given asylum by Britain after fleeing Transylvania.

Howard was on BBC Radio Five this morning telling the audience that Britain can't take all the world's refugees. Michael - we don't. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2003, Britain offered safe haven to 2.8% of the world's refugees, who make up a whopping 0.4% of the British population. Bear in mind that we are the fourth largest economy in the world, yet we only rank 9th in Europe for refugees per capita. Immigration is good for the country - people born outside the UK contribute 10% more in terms of tax than they consume in terms of public services and benefits. Many come to this country as graduates and with other professional qualifications, ready to take on jobs that pay well and pay more than their share of the tax burden (90% of UK employers would solve their skills shortages by taking on asylum-seekers). Again, I refer readers to the Refugee Council's excellent Press Myths page, which also includes the quote from Tony Baldry, the Tory (yes, Tory) that started this piece.

Mr Baldry is right, of course. Many of the tabloids seem to specialise in graphic headlines knocking asylum-seekers. Remember the infamous Sun headline reporting that asylum seekers had been killing and eating swans in the Royal Parks? According to MediaGuardian, this story was a complete fiction - the police had no record of it and no-one had been arrested. If you look at the headlines of some newspapers (I mean you at the Daily Mail and Express), you would think that there was little else going on.

Bluntly, of course, we need more immigrants. Twenty years ago, there were six taxpayers supporting every pensioner. Now there are only four and within a few decades, it will be down to two workers for each pensioner. Unless we want to face cutting benefits or increasing tax, we need more people paying tax.

This is one of the few items on the political agenda where the Tories have always had a historic lead, but it wasn't an issue for two decades prior to 2000. At the end of 2004, MORI polls showed that it was an important issue for around a quarter of those likely to vote and a YouGov poll for the Telegraph in October had 52% of respondents citing it as an important problem (behind the Labour strengths of pensions, poverty and health). 30% of the respondents said that the Tories had the best policies on immigration, twice the number who backed Labour. However, when it came to asking people about things that mattered most to their family, immigration was well down the list, well behind pensions, health, inflation and crime. Credit to UK Polling Report for the information, links and the interesting point that upwards of two thirds of people disapprove of government policy in this area.

The Tories want most asylum claims to be processed overseas - perhaps they mean that it will work like Australia, who accept refugees from UN-sponsored camps, or perhaps they expect the victims of torture to struggle into British embassies and consulates around the globe and complete forms in triplicate, or perhaps they expect other countries to host our refugees for us. Those that do make it into this country can look forward to being placed in camps - although Howard studiously avoided mentioning where these camps were likely to be sited (not in Tory marginal seats, I suspect).

The cap on asylum-seekers is plainly unjust. We've had a long tradition of helping people in trouble and welcoming them to our country. Many of those who come will eventually return to their countries of origin, but large numbers stay. There will be a cap set by Parliament on the number of asylum applications allowed - not the number granted, just the numbers who are allowed to apply. This will politicise something that should be kept apolitical and I doubt that there will be much of a political argument to increase it. Early figures suggested that around 20,000 applicants would be allowed, but this has already been cut back to 15,000. I'd also remind you that this is about asylum, not legal immigration.

Whatever the final total, if you are the 15050 person to apply, you will be turned away, no matter what your case. It doesn't matter if you are fleeing genocidal maniacs wielding clubs, you don't get a chance. It wouldn't matter if Aung San Suu Kyi puts in an appearance at Dover - she's going back home. The tragedy is that those who would be affected won't have the profile to get them around the system.

Let's be charitable and assume that Immigration don't split up families who happen to straddle the 15,000 barrier, but let's set another scene here. Imagine that you are a pro-democracy campaigner in a repressive country (without the profile of a Mandela) and you manage to get yourself onto a British Airways direct flight from your capital city to Heathrow. When you present yourself at Immigration, complete with torture scars and try to claim asylum, the new border guards will tell you that as you are the 18,000th applicant this year, you cannot stay, so you will have to get on the next plane back to wherever it is you came from. Even if you face renewed torture and possible murder, you have to go back as our doors will be closed to you.

That's the situation that the Tories are proposing - a proposal led by the son of an asylum seeker. If this is the real policy, then it is simply immoral. If they don't mean this and the proposed cap will actually be more flexible, then the whole policy is a sham, a desperate pandering to base political instincts and a close relative of the 1964 Smethwick Tory campaign slogan

'If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.'

Saturday, January 22, 2005

No coalition with Tories

Charles Kennedy has ruled out any coalition deal with the Tories after the next election.

Fair enough - but what about the other Liberal Democrats around the country who are 'propping up' the big parties? Surely they aren't just opportunists who would attack other parties for working in coalition, but then do the same thing after local elections? Surely the Tory/LibDem coalition in Birmingham couldn't be just a mechanism for John Hemming to boost his public profile in advance of his fourth attempt to conquer Birmingham Yardley?

Only the most cynical amongst us could believe that they could stoop so low.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Hitting the softest targets hardest

Back to local politics again for another dispatch from the Birmingham frontlines.

Unreported by the local media, many City Council employees are distressed by the turn that their Tory/Liberal Democrat political masters are directing when it comes to rent and council tax arrears.

One of the first acts was to issue instructions that council house rents were no longer to be collected in arrears, but two weeks in advance. Now, if you are deeply in debt or you receive housing benefit, this is of no interest, as benefit claims will be paid and those in debt are just a little more in debt. If, however, you are a hard-working tenant or a pensioner who has never been in debt in your life, this may come as a shock. The shock was worsened as the 'arrears' that you suddenly find you owe to your landlord are sufficient to trigger an automatic letter from the council threatening to seek a court order to take possession of your home.

It doesn't stop there, though.

As benefit claims can take a while to process, you may find yourself deeper in arrears - six to eight weeks isn't uncommon. The council used to agree to repayment terms - perhaps a couple of pounds a week over your normal rent to repay the debt. Not any more they don't. The new 'get tough' administration will have you in court seeking a possession order before your tears are dry on the letter.

If you can't pay your council tax, the council will take you to court and send in the bailiffs. They used to operate a policy of agreeing repayment terms. The hard men in charge of the council now direct the bailiffs to go straight to the 'Walking Possession' stage, where they identify goods to seize if you fail to keep up the payment plan (and pay their daily fee) and can then return and force entry to take the items if you don't pay up on time.

If you are on income support, receiving as little as £54 a week, the instruction is to ensure that you repay at least £10 a week. So from the remaining £44, you have to feed, clothe and ensure that you have electricity, gas and water. Take a look at your bills and ask yourself if it would be fair to ask you to pay up a fifth of your gross income.

Now, I'm not trying to defend those who won't pay. There is help out there for them and if people won't take debt advice, then they have only themselves to blame. Of course, these are tough targets to hit and require a lot of work to extract the money. By the way, on a budget close to £3 billion, the total arrears is under £50 million. In government terms, chicken-feed.

These new policies are hitting hardest at the softest targets - those who have fallen temporarily on hard times. Imagine that you've just lost your job and now your landlord is threatening to evict you or send in the bailiffs, even though the benefit system will kick in eventually.

Rather than using existing systems to help people back onto their feet and to stay in their homes, this council is making people homeless and driving them deeper into debt. No helping hand here, but a polished boot kicking them out of their front door.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The X Factor

Anything that gets people interested in politics has to be a good thing, right?

The new ITV series Vote for Me isn't.

It assembled a bunch of 60 political wannabes in the search for a new star. They've now been whittled down to six finalists and we, the public, get to pick one of them who will then be able to stand in any constituency in the land.

My biggest concern is that it trivialises politics. Already, we see political debate on issues reduced to simple soundbites and headlines. There is little room to look at the facts and policies, although we can devote acres of space to wittering on about the personalities - whether David will oust Michael after they lose the election, where Tony will put Gordon, whether Charlie will return to the Glen of Tranquility. And through all this , people's jobs, our environment, health and lives depend on decisions made by politicians. Reducing it to the level of a third-rate game show does nobody any favours.

On a minor technicality, you don't need to qualify through some sub-Pop Idol process to be eligible to stand - all you have to do is rustle up the required deposit and get some local electors to nominate you and there you are, PPC for your chosen constituency. Without the support of a local party structure or a local issue to generate that support, the winner will get a kicking wherever they stand. As someone who has stood in a council election with a tiny campaign team, I can't imagine trying to work a ward on my own, let alone trying to cover a whole constituency of three or four wards. The Representation of the People Act will also prevent much 'realtime' coverage of the winner's campaign, without giving equal time to other candidates.

Incidentally one of the chosen six, Rodney Hylton Potts is a criminal solicitor - in that he was convicted of defrauding RBS - and is disqualified from serving as an MP by dint of his previous stay as a guest of Her Majesty at HMP Brixton. Following the election to Westminster of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, criminals who serve more than 12 months in prison were disqualified from election by the 1981 Representation of the People Act. [EDIT: Thanks to an anonymous comment - Rodders isn't disqualified, the RPA only disqualifies SERVING prisoners. Always glad to correct errors.]

If they want to commit to public involvement in politics, why not produce a series of prime-time, audience challenging programmes looking at genuine issues, not news-lite or entertainment-based formats?

ITV have shown their faith in the format by putting it on at the peak viewing time of 11pm, so we can expect it to sink without trace. Thankfully.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Stop it you two!

Sometimes you feel like banging some heads together.

Tony and Gordon - lay off it. And get your mates to stop briefing and leaking.

You both owe some loyalty to a party that is bigger than either of you. You also owe a duty to the country.

Voters do not like divided parties - we saw that clearly during the 1980s and we don't want to go back to those days. Remember, we had a Tory government then? If we lose the election, those days will return. Think about that - the day after the next election, Michael Howard gets to walk into Number 10. If that isn't enough to get you to shut up and get on with your jobs, I don't know what is.

The same goes for those of you out there considering making a protest vote against Tony by voting LibDem or not voting at all. I don't support everything that this government has done and I want to see more done to deal with social inequality, but I am certain that progress on the things that matter to me will only come through a Labour government.

It won't come through a Tory government intent on £20 billion of cuts to public services in a desparate drive to pay for tax cuts.

It won't come through a Liberal Democrat government with their fuzzy policies and lack of clarity over tax and the NHS.

With all their faults, it will only come through Labour. Remember that when you go to the polls.

Tony and Gordon - don't do that.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Liberal Democrat Cuts hit the Elderly

I've not had a chance to write about this little gem that came up before Christmas.

It seems that the Tory/LibDem coalition in the fair city of Birmingham are having to get used to the reality of power. For several years, there have been problems in the social services department and it gets no stars under the performance assessment scheme, although it is starting to improve. Not surprisingly, the Tories were only too glad to pass this political hot potato over to the Liberal Democrats as part of the deal to buy power. Sorry, I meant to type "consensual politics" there, but forgot. Never mind.

The cost of the service seems to be spiralling out of control. Before June, the overspend on this budget seemed likely to exceed £20 million, but the Liberal Democrat Cabinet member for Social Care, Sue Anderson, couldn't stem the cash loss and is set to splash out more than £27 million.

So, in the best tradition of their Tory masters, the Liberal Democrats are looking for quick fixes. The brilliant scheme that they have devised is to cut home help services for 1650 people in the City. These are people who need only a little extra help to ensure that they can continue to live independent lives, rather than facing conditions that may cause them additional health problems or force them into (more expensive) council care. Only if you have 'critical and substantial' need will you continue to get home help visits.

This was bad enough, but after the Evening Mail carried the story, La Anderson responded with a high-quality piece of political spin (11/12/4).

Firstly, she reassured readers that, "We are not cutting £7 million from our home care budget" and that, "Vulnerable elderly people will not be put at risk."

Then, she continued that they plan to review, "Who is eligible for.. services and.. release up to £7 million to invest in support services."

Now, that suggests to me that the function of the review is to CUT access to services to those who currently need them. If there was to be a genuine review, surely there might be the option to extend services to some who need them, but don't get them. This is a review with a pre-determined outcome of cuts.

But, fear not elderly folk! Sue has a solution! "We envisage a much larger supporting role for voluntary organisations." Ah - now all is clear. The council will withdraw services, so forcing the elderly or disabled to beg for help from charities. Nice to see that as a policy statement.

However, perhaps I'm being too cynical. Maybe the people who will be told soon that they will no longer receive council support to help them maintain their independence in life will be happy about it. As Sue herself puts it, "Those with more moderate needs will have more choices about who can best meet them." That's true. They will have the choice whether to beg for help or whether to struggle on regardless. Thanks for clearing that up. Only the Liberal Democrats could hope to dress these service cuts up as improving choice.