Sunday, February 27, 2005

Putting the mental into fundamental.

Like fellow blogger Bob Piper, I was incensed by the intimidation that forced a small, Scottish cancer charity to refuse a UKP10,000 donation from a special charity performance of Jerry Springer - The Opera. I don't blame the charity - it is a tough world out there and negative publicity wouldn't be good for them. I do blame this nasty little group, so I thought I'd have a look at them.

Now, I'm a very lapsed Catholic, but I reckon that the Boss is probably capable of looking after his own affairs on earth without the intervention of these self-appointed guardians of Christian Voice. I would expect that an omnipotent deity is more than able to deal with blasphemers by delivering unto them plagues of frogs, locusts or rampaging theatre critics.

These aren't just a bunch of random nutters out to purify our nation's airwaves like the wonderful Mary Whitehouse. Oh no, this is an entirely different brand of fruitcake, although they are similarly preoccupied with sex in general and gay sex in particular (any psychologists out there are welcome to draw their own conclusions).

After considerable research, they have found some imaginative ways in which this country is in breach of the ten commandments. I've abbreviated the commandments, so should He not approve, expect this post to stop at any time.

1 - Thou shalt have no gods before me
Apparently broken by us joining the UN, accepting the UN declaration on human rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and joining UNESCO. (All to do with the divine authority granted to the monarch and over-ridden by these treaties).

2 - Thou shalt not bow down to any graven images
Broken by our membership of the EU and by the Sunningdale and Hillsborough agreements with the Irish Republic. Also, they don't like the 1951 Fradulent Mediums Act, which replaced the Witchcraft Act. Apparently, we aren't burning enough witches - have they thought of the pollution that would cause?

3 - Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
They don't like the Lord Chancellor losing the power to regulate theatre in 1968 and don't have a good word for the Broadcasting Act 1990. Apparently, the 1968 Theatre Act:
'opened the way for blasphemy, brutality, sodomy and other perversions to be offered on stage for the purpose of gain and amusement.' Which is nice. I look forward to seeing some more of that on stage at the Hippodrome.

4 - Keep holy the Sabbath day.
Forget those Sunday trips to IKEA. All the Sunday trading legislation is verboten - whether you are Christian or not. Seems like they've got us bang to rights here, guv.

5 - Honour thy father and thy mother.
This clause also causes problems for taxation and deficit financing (damning Maynard Keynes as a 'promiscuous homosexual who hated thrift, saving and financial prudence'). But we ain't even started. We also need to junk sex education (and state education in general, apparently), bring back corporal punishment and abandon the Children Act, which put the child's welfare first. Along the way, we need to restigmatise illegitimacy, scrap social security and repeal legislation demanding equal pay and outlawing sex discrimination.

6 - Thou shalt not kill.
Straightforward enough, you would think. Curiously, while they oppose the 1961 decriminalisation of suicide and the 1957 Homicide Act which allowed for a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, they are all in favour of state execution and wider gun ownership. Predictably, abortion and the embryo research are attacked as well.

7 - Thou shalt not commit adultery.
One version of the Bible did omit the third word from this commandment, which must have caused confusion, but these men (and I suspect they are mostly men) are straight down the line with this one. Like Richard Littlejohn on acid, the bile spews at the gay community, because being gay is a lifestyle choice and can be cured through Christian ministry. Venom is reserved for the 'anti-Christian' Law Commission and the changes in the law on divorce - rather generously, they are prepared to 'make a case' for divorce in the case of cruelty. Unpleasantly enough, they seem to actually support rape in marriage - conjugal rights should be enforceable in law.

8 - Thou shalt not steal.
The commandments are pretty straightforward laws and are not encumbered with clauses, but this apparently forbade leaving the Gold Standard. Additionally, income tax, VAT, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and leasehold reform also come in for attack.

9 - Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Traffic enforcement cameras, parking fines adjudication, legal aid and the criminal burden of proof (particularly when women are using the law against men) are all difficult areas for Christians, apparently. And the Criminal Justice Act apparently 'gave homosexual men access to teenagers' - although I don't think the law stopped Jonathan King in the 70s.

10 - Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's...
No to the National Lottery, which apparently encourages occultism as well as funnelling money to 'organisations of homosexuals, prostitutes and trans-sexuals campaigning against Christian morality.' They also don't like relaxation of laws in the area of obscene publications.

Incidentally, the blame for this goes to the very top - they hold HM the Queen responsible for the action of her governments (of all political hues).

This bunch of nutters have now got into bed (metaphorically, you understand) with Kilroy. It seems that one of the Veritas organisers, Tony Bennett (not the crooner, nor the caretaker from Take Hart) is a member of this bunch and others are just as dodgy.

So all in all, a nasty little group of bigots that give ordinary Christians a bad name. Anyone got any lions that need feeding?

While you're at it - send Maggie's Centres a donation.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Time for your medication, Mr Howard

Amazing, eh? Michael Howard launched the Tory policy on pensioners with this phrase:

'If you want to know about a family, look at how they treat their older relatives. And if you want to know about a country, look how it cares for older people.'

From that point on, Mike loses whatever tenuous grip he had on reality.

'The older generation don't appear to feature in Mr Blair's New Britain'

Which is why Labour have delivered (takes breath):
  • Guaranteed minimum income of £109.45 a week for single pensioners and £167.05 for couples (Apr 2005 onwards)
  • Basic state pension up to £82.05 for single pensioners and £131.20 (that's up £20 and £30 per week since 1997).
  • £200 Winter Fuel payment
  • £300 Winter Fuel payment for the over 75s (not dependent on some obscure weather-based formula set by the Tory government)
  • 2 million pensioners lifted off the poverty line
  • Millions of pensioners £40 a week better off thanks to the Pension Credit
  • Pensioner households are, on average, £1350 better off each year. The poorest households are £1750 a year better off.
  • Free eye tests
  • Free TV licences for the over 75s
  • Free passports for the over 75s

'And millions of pensioners have been pushed onto means tested benefits - forced to go cap in hand to the State'

I don't like the term means testing. That brings to mind the days when an inspector would call and could tell you that you weren't entitled to help from the state because you had an extra chair or two that you could sell to raise some money. 'Means testing' today ensures that the money goes to those who need it most. Universal entitlement ensures that that even the richest benefit, although it has the advantage of being easy to administer. The process for getting many of these entitlements or benefits is being simplified - pensioners apply for Pension Credit with a free phone call. There is a problem with take-up of these benefits, but this can be addressed with imaginative policies at a local level - Kent councils are working together to increase take up and this is having a significant effect.

'Many pensioners have become prisoners in their own homes - too frightened of yobs and muggers to go out even during the day'

That's it Michael - keep 'em scared. Get that fear rising. Never mind that crime is falling and that pensioners are amongst the groups least likely to fall victim to crime.

'Thousands of elderly patients - people who have worked hard all their lives - have to wait in pain for operations'

Whereas under the Tories, there were no waiting lists? Well, there weren't at the private hospitals he can afford. In 1997, eighteen month waiting lists were common - by October 2004, fewer than fifty people in England were waiting more than nine months. In 2000, over a quarter of a million people had to wait six months for their operation, now it is down to under 70,000. That's still too high and Labour are committed to a new target - by 2008, you will have your operation within 18 weeks of seeing your GP. Whatever else you remember, take that away with you - the NHS is working harder than ever and it is delivering.

I am proud to have served in a government that did more for pensioners than any other since the War

He can't spell 'less' can he? This is the government that gave us the Poll Tax, that cut police numbers, that removed the earnings indexation on pensions and tried to destroy the NHS.

Michael knows that pensioners can be relied upon to vote, but perhaps he's also hoping that advancing years will have dulled their memories of the 80s and 90s.

He's wrong.

Off the rails - again

I'm in danger of becoming a single-issue fanatic here, not something I want to do, but another report has come out showing that the Midland Metro needs to come into the centre of Birmingham to allow it to meet the passenger targets.

Evidence submitted by the National Audit Office to the House of Commons Transport Committee said that: 'The Midland Metro stops short of New Street station in the centre of Birmingham. So the key thing there is it can take you so far in some cases, but it may also need some running just to the centre of the city.'

Light rail schemes remain controversial and I don't regard them as a panacea, nor do I believe that the Midland Metro is the only possible answer to our transportation problems. I do believe that we should look at other cities - like Sheffield and Nottingham where there have been problems and at Manchester and Croydon where the Metro system has been successful.

But surely, nobody outside the council cabinet genuinely believes that an underground system would be better?

LibDems threaten workers' and parents' rights

The Guardian reports an interesting leak of a Liberal Democrat policy paper, which will be presented to their Spring Conference.

Apparently, it will be a ban on strikes in essential public services, but also 'the party proposes that in "strategic areas of the private economy, the government would be in a position to declare a strike will cause far-reaching damage to to the economy and the national interest.'

I hope that Unison will regard that as a suitable reward for the £90,000 donated to the Liberal Democrats over the past couple of years - strike action by a union is sometimes the only way to get employers to act fairly towards employees.

Intriguingly, as Charles Kennedy launched the manifesto for women, the right-wing of his party were laying plans to restrict time off for looking after children - part of Labour policy to help people balance their working lives with their family responsibilities.

The Orange Book may be a better guide to Liberal Democrat thinking than they want us to believe.

How not to be a candidate

A gift for being politically inept isn't limited to the Liberal Democrats, but at least the Labour Party didn't nominate this woman as a candidate.

Every sensible party always asks the question: 'Is there anything in your background that might embarrass the [insert name of party here]?'

Now, if this woman had political sensitivities, she might think a period as a Parisian prostitute in the 1970s worth mentioning to the Party as a potential source of embarrassment. But no..

'I wouldn't count it as a skeleton in my cupboard. We have single mothers who want to be MPs, gay and lesbian candidates, so why not former sex workers?'

Oddly, I don't regard being gay or a single parent as a skeleton in anyone's cupboard, although that attitude may explain why she is prepared to become a Tory if it helps her chances of getting elected. Now, while at least one prominent Conservative has a record of dealing with prostitutes, I don't think he'd like her in the House.

The Daily Ablution adds some more insight from the Daily Telegraph into the *ahem* interesting thought processes at work inside Ms Wheatley's mind.

'The one time Young Socialist declares: 'If I were elected, my first step would be to ask Tony Blair to appoint me as minister at health [sic] so I can take evidence on eternal life.'


'Nowadays she is a self-confessed republican and a woman seemingly obsessed with the Queen. She repeatedly asked whether the Queen was 'out to embarrass' her. Three stamped letters sat on her sofa ready to post. Each bore the address: 'The Queen, Buckingham Palace, London'.'

There's also a comment from a local party member from Copeland:

'As one of the party members invited to be at the selection meeting last weekend i have to report the woman ,and i use that term loosely,mumbled and laughed to herself through a toothless grin without a word being understood on the floor.not one vote was cast in her favour and quite clearly the woman was there for a laugh.'

Well, if the Tories don't want her, her gift for self-publicity should attract the Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Making plans with Nigel

Monday's Evening Mail had a piece about Cllr Nigel Dawkins, a Tory councillor in Bournville, part of the Selly Oak District. Apparently, new street lights on Northfield Road have been installed and Nigel is concerned that "airline pilots could get confused." This seems a little unlikely, but in the mind of a Tory, anything is possible.

So, the Mail went to the council, who said, "This is a scheme requested, approved and financed by the Bournville ward committee." For the uninitiated, this mysterious ward committee is made up of the three Tory councillors who represent the ward, including Nigel.

This improvement is actually above and beyond the scheduled programme of improvements from the Highways Department, as the Bournville ward committee (including Nigel, don't forget), specifically allocated an extra £23,000 to lighting improvements from the 'Clean & Safe' budget. This was used to improve lighting on this stretch of Northfield Road. Highways have to ensure a proper level of lighting along the road, so they used 8m tall lamp posts. To get the same coverage with 6m columns, more would have been needed, but this would have made the project unaffordable within the budget assigned by Nigel's own committee.

Checking back in the minutes of the Selly Oak district committee (which comprises the councillors from Bournville, Moseley & Kings Heath, Selly Oak and Kings Norton wards - 5 Tories, 5 Liberal Democrats and 2 Labour members, chaired by a Bournville Tory colleague of Nigel) from July 2004, we find that this upgrade was specifically mentioned. Indeed, "Councillor Dawkins spoke in support of the recommendation."

In summary, Nigel is complaining about a project he proposed, supported and for which he provided the budget. He's like a dog chasing its own tail - no wonder he didn't last long as a member of the council cabinet. At least he got his photo in the paper, eh?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Spot the difference

Two extracts here. One comes from the BNP and one comes from a speech by Robert Kilroy-Silk in Erewash on the 15 February. Answers on a postcard, please.

'We will abolish the 'positive discrimination' schemes that have made white Britons second-class citizens. We will also clamp down on the flood of 'asylum seekers', all of whom are either bogus or can find refuge much nearer their home countries... Labour, Tories and Lib-Dems conspire in election after election to offer the British people no real choice.'

'We're going to take the country back from the multi-cultural brigade who make us feel ashamed to be British. They lie all the time on every single issue. They have corrupted our political culture. We are going to change that. I don't believe there is a genuine asylum seeker. To be a genuine asylum seeker you would need to come here on a raft from Africa or a hijacked plane from North Korea.'

Imitation is a form of flattery, isn't it, Robert?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Liberal Democrat mast debate goes on

Shameless, that's me.

According to the Birmingham Evening Mail today, a mobile phone industry lobby group was giving evidence to a council inquiry into mobile phone masts. The public affairs manager of the Mobile Phone Operators Association is due to speak to the inquiry, led by Liberal Democrat Cllr Michael Wilkes.

I'm very surprised that the operators' association didn't send along their Council Liaison Manager. Or is Nicola too busy preparing her concession speech for Hodge Hill again? At least she does now mention her employers on her bio page.

Liberal Democrats - playing both sides of the street.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The things they say - Pt 345

More from Cowley Street:

Responding to the Prime Minister's Conference speech, in which he said that voting Liberal Democrat would yield a Conservative Government, Matthew Taylor MP, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, said:

'Vote Liberal Democrat - get Liberal Democrat'

The evidence from Birmingham is that you vote Liberal Democrat and you will get the Tories.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Funding boosts social services

Social Services in Birmingham has been a problem for a long time - I can't hide that it has consistently underperformed, even under a Labour administration.

The good news today is that there is an additional £20 million coming into the service this year.

This in line with the Formula Spending Share assessed by the government, who believe that social services in Birmingham need an extra £20 million for next year. (Check the facts on the FSS spreadsheet and the Birmingham budget). The FSS is the way that the government calculates the share that needs to go to each authority and isn't an instruction on how much each council should spend on any given service area.

So all the council have done is passed on the extra £20 million in central government grant straight to where it needs to go. They've done a similar trick with the increase in education funding delivered by the government, with an extra £39 million heading towards schools. Overall, Birmingham will benefit from an extra £73.5 million in the coming year, up 6.5% on the previous year - well ahead of inflation (although it is often not appreciated that inflation rates can genuinely vary from department to department because they may have to buy services or products from a much smaller marketplace). That should help to avoid any nasty shocks in the council tax department to upset the electoral applecart.

That doesn't stop council leader Mike Whitby claiming that this is all down to savings. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?

That's about as convincing as cabinet member Sue Anderson's comments last year about 'increasing choice' for users by scrapping home care services.

The Blunderground rumbles on

Once again, I return to the insanity that is the Birmingham underground plan, having started my attacks last year. It seems that I'm not alone.

Professor David Begg, in charge of the Commission for Integrated Transport confirms that the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition currently trying to run the city are backing 'dud projects' that appear to be 'anti-bus' and redolent of '1960s thinking.' The attitude of the ruling group seems likely to lead to a cut in the annual transport grant and could even threaten the redevelopment of New Street Station.

Like this column, he'd be amazed if the underground plans passed the cost/benefit tests.

These criticisms contrast with the praise for two decades of Labour administration in Birmingham from Professor Begg last March, when he said:

"Birmingham has already done so much to boost the quality of life in the city centre through adopting sustainable policies such as widespread pedestrianisation, safety cameras, and regeneration around the canal network. Investment and spending plans for the Metro, bus schemes - including priority lanes - and park-and-ride initiatives are impressive, although a lot of rail infrastructure issues remain to be resolved. These and other transport issues need urgent solutions to do justice to the needs of Britain's second City."

Tory Cabinet member Len Gregory whimpers that they're not 'anti-bus,' they just want to make it easier for people to get about using a range of transport - which explains why his congestion action group excluded train and bus users.

I'm not surprised by the Tory attitude, as they have long been pro-car and seem to bend to the road lobby very easily. However, I would expect greater support from the Liberal Democrat group. Professor Begg also said last year that congestion charging would suit Birmingham and we know that increasing congestion charging is a Liberal Democrat priority (sometimes).

"Those who have access to good public transport can and should be expected to pay more for choosing to use their cars. Charging will go a long way to stopping our cities being choked by congestion."
(John Thurso MP, LibDem transport spokesman, Oct 2003)

Their environmental policies also stress transport issues:

"Priorities for investment include... developing bus routes, cycle paths, trams, light rail systems"

So come on, Birmingham LibDems - flex your muscles and bring the Tories into line.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Historical Echoes

BBC2 have just shown the Michael Cockerell 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary about Michael Howard. It didn't have the same feel as the remarkable gonzo job that BBC3 did on Robert Kilroy-Silk the other week, but that is because Howard and those around him are professional politicians. It was too obviously plotted to only deliver the story that they wanted us to see - but this is a reflection on the subject, rather than the documentary maker. Cockerell told us the rest of the story almost in spite of Michael Howard, rather than because of him.

An opportunity was missed to show us the real Michael Howard - although I liked the story about him proclaiming his lifelong support for Liverpool FC to a Liverpudlian Tory selection committee, only to be met with the silence of a roomful of Evertonians. We learned little about his life in Llanelli as a young member of an immigrant family, almost as if he prefers to be a little distanced from those roots - too humble for a Tory leader or not Prime Ministerial enough?

The programme also contained a number of references that students of politics should pick up on - the tour through the streets of Llanelli reminiscent of the John Major election broadcast where he returned to his family home in Brixton; the brief nod to Kinnock as the first in his family to go to university; the Blair-like proclamation of his love for the people's game of football. Everything seemed a little too forced, a little too prepared - a litle too lawyerly. The moments when we got to see Howard with ordinary people - in his constituency, in Llanelli and on the streets when confronted by an opponent of his policy on the war - showed him as incapable of connecting with them. Whatever you may think of Tony, he seems more at ease with normal folk.

We saw the infamous interview with Paxman (twelve times Howard dodged the 'Did you threaten to over-rule him?' question); conference speeches where he declared that 'prison works'; the mauling from Ann Widdecombe, which raised the issue of image. Here, the sensitivity came through. Rory Bremner's vampiric impression of Howard raised a forced smile (mustn't forget to have a sense of humour, Michael), but there was also sensitivity about his accent and the way that he says words like 'people' - he can't suppress the Welsh tones there.

Similarly forced were the moments with his staff and his committee of former Tory leaders - Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Clarke (apparently there because he stood so many times for the leadership that they felt he qualified). William Hague was relaxed and open with the camera, but they looked more like the White Star Line Deckchair Planning Committee than a group grooming the next Prime Minister. Ken Clarke tried to be positive in interview, but didn't seem to be filled with the certainty of victory and John Major looked a little embarrassed to be seen there (this is a man who had an affair with Edwina Currie).

Sadly, the film just reinforced the perceived wisdom about Howard. He isn't the man to lead the Tories back to power. People may not like Tony, but they like Michael even less. The Tories need a leader distanced from the Thatcher and Major years - perhaps someone who isn't yet elected to the House.

Flattery will get you everywhere

I'm proud to see that our revered Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council (and perpetual Liberal Democrat candidate for Yardley) reads this blog. It is nice to see that my occasional rants are reaching an audience and I live in hope that he will see the light - he even links to me from his own blog - so I shall returm the compliment.

I'm not so sure that describing me as 'inaccurate and badly informed' is quite so becoming, though. Is it time to get lawyered up or do I take that as a compliment from a Liberal Democrat?
[EDIT: He's now changed the link]

All I say is that I do try and research what I write and I aim for a reasonable standard of accuracy. Corrections and clarifications are always welcome and I have and will continue to correct any errors I make.

Thanks for the nod, though John. I don't hold out any great hopes for my little lay-by on the information superhighway, but I believe that we need genuine political dialogue and an exchange of views on policy. That's got to be healthy.

Decisions, decisions

The Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition runs into yet more bad publicity, as they cut funding for local projects in a ward with three Labour councillors. Coincidentally, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet member for local services, Cllr Tariq Hussein, managed to find an additional £100,000 for his own ward (one of the few decisions he has had to take in return for his cabinet salary)

Cllr Hussein was elected in June 2004, was one of three Liberal Democrats appointed to a plum Cabinet post and is now the prospective candidate for the Sparkbrook & Small Heath parliamentary constituency - a meteoric rise for someone whose only other claim to fame was a bit part as a 'Thug' in Octopussy.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Pledge week

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Here's the new pledge card. I quite like the aspirational nature - nobody could disagree with the intentions, surely? It personalises what Labour is planning to do, stressing the positive effects of the past eight years of government and promising more of the same. In some ways, it is tougher than the original from 1997, as that specified key indicators of performance, like class size. These are more intangible ideas and we should expect to be able to test the policies in the manifesto and in the years ahead against these aims. (Yes, there are some specifics on the other side as well).

Countdown - Pt 2

We've had a handful of polls in the last week or so, with varying results. A Communicate Research poll for the Independent on Sunday and a Populous poll for The Times gave Labour a healthy 40%+ share of the vote with an 8/9 point lead over the Tories on 32% in each and with the Liberal Democrats bringing up the rear on 20/18%.

They weren't the only pollsters out and about over the past few days, as YouGov (the internet polling company) ran a couple of polls for the Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, both of which would give Michael Howard some heart as they cut the Labour lead to a maximum of 2%. The Tories collected 33% of the vote - in line with the other two polls above - while the LibDems did better, collecting 23% of the vote, a clear indication of the risks of a tactical vote against Labour. This would slash the Labour majority down to 54, largely to the benefit of the Tories, who would end up with 206 seats, but the LibDems would only take their tally to 59.

Remember that 2001 saw the Conservatives pick up 33% of the vote, but even now, they struggle to get much above that in the polls. In the run up to the local and European elections in June last year, they scratched their way to 40% a couple of times and gave some Labour Party pollsters a few shocks, but they've not had a lead over Labour at all since a single poll in September and haven't got past 34% since May. The magic figure for the Tories seems to be around the 37% mark - if they can achieve that, they are in with a chance of forming the next government in their own right, assuming sufficient voters desert Labour.

From the polling figures, it certainly seems that the only way the Tories can achieve this is if the Liberal Democrats leach the votes from Labour. With a handful of exceptions, the polls which show a narrowing Labour lead also show a significant increase in the Liberal Democrat vote. People don't want the Tories, but it certainly seems to be true that the surest way to get them in power is to vote Liberal Democrat. Even that disastrous poll for Labour in October (a News of the World/Populous poll) which saw the Labour Party dropping to third place would still leave Labour as the largest party but almost 50 seats short of a majority, giving the Liberal Democrats massive influence with their 80 seats. Even then, the Tories hadn't done enough to take a majority.

According to the YouGov poll, two thirds of the British people feel that this government has been untrustworthy, but before the Tories leap in joy, almost as many feel the same about a putative Tory administration. Tony remains the choice as the best PM, holding on to a 30-33% approval rating since October 2003. Sadly for Mr Howard, his ratings peaked in June 2004, when he matched the current incumbent and he's been on the wane since then, now only preferred by 21% of the sample, just 7% clear of Charles Kennedy.

The other YouGov poll, for the Mail, also attempts to quantify the relative importance of key issues to the sample. Given that the poll came after the Tories launched their asylum policy, it isn't surprising that immigration tops the list, with 49% of the sample picking it as a key issue. For YouGov, this holds true across the spectrum of age, sex and social grade, although it is less important to Labour or Liberal voters and figures less on the radar of the Scots than it does in England and Wales. Immigration also figured in the Communicate Research poll for the Indie, which gave Labour a whopping 8 point lead, but while most voters (71%) did not believe that the government had it under control, 56% said that it would not affect how they would vote. Populous saw it as important also, but it was significantly more important to Tory voters than to either LibDems or Labour voters. Bearing in mind that this came before the launch of the Labour immigration policy and the traditional Tory lead in this area, it isn't a surprise that the Tories remain identified as the best party to deal with it, with Labour trailing with 28% to their 34%.

Law and order also figured highly, not surprisingly as the survey came hard on the heels on the launch of the new guidance about tackling burglars, handily summarised by most papers as 'You CAN kill burglars.' Like health, this had impact across the spectrum of the sample. Populous gave Labour a narrow lead as the best party to deal with crime, but the big Labour issues of health, education and pensions continue to loom large in people's minds and the poll gave Labour healthy leads on these core issues. It should be noted that these are also important issues to the swing voters, the ones that the Tories need to target most.

Tax doesn't seem to be a huge issue for anyone. It was only seventh on the list of national issues for YouGov, but did scrape up to third place when brought to the personal level. It would suggest that it is an important issue to around a quarter of the electorate, but these are predominantly Tory voters anyway, so perhaps the constant refrain of '66 tax rises since 1997' is just preaching to the choir.

Finally, in a week when Veritas launched and picked up the biggest amount of publicity it can hope to get, Populous saw it collect a massive 0.35% support. Yes, that decimal point IS in the right place. YouGov gave it 2% and Communicate Research did their fieldwork in advance of the launch, but things look bleak for Bobbie K.

Thanks to the good work from UK Polling Report summarising the data.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

You can't please some of the people all of the time.

On the one hand, Labour is regarded as being anti-libertarian when it protects the health of poorly-paid bar staff alive by banning smoking in their workplaces or stopping the upper class ripping foxes to pieces for pleasure.

On the other hand, when it allows elected local authorities to take decisions about when bars should open in their area, it is encouraging the binge drinking culture.

You really can't win.

Anyone would think that the Labout Party's manifesto will include a commitment to get the whole country sloshed twice a week on alco-pops (but at least we don't advocate lowering the drinking age to 16, eh Charlie?).

Now, licensing committees composed of your elected councillors will make decisions about when bars and clubs in your area can open their doors. In Glasgow, this has meant that closing times have been staggered (like the clientele), so removing one of the flashpoints for violence - thousands of inebriates all hitting the streets at the same time and struggling to get into clubs for the last couple of hours of drinking time. Perhaps this will be the start of a more mature relationship with alcohol for the nation.

I doubt very much that many publicans will want to apply for 24-hour licenses and those that do will find that strict conditions will be imposed. Pubs and clubs can now be made more financially responsible for policing the results of their business - the principle of 'the polluter pays' in action. There will be more opportunities for interested parties, like the police, to put forward their views when licensees put in applications.

More of a chance for local involvement in local issues or the government encouraging the demon drink?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Howard's Way

What the hell are the Tories up to?

I'm not one to intrude on private grief - I prefer to hold a party a little way away and gawp as the Tory party implodes, but this cannot pass without comment.

The Times alleged that the imported Aussie political superstar campaign director Lynton Crosby told Michael Howard that he was going to lose the next election, even before the campaign started. The Tories say that ain't so and are taking Times Newspapers to court for libel.

Now, I don't know the truth of the matter, but I would say that if Lynton Crosby (or anyone else) was in a private meeting with the core of the campaign team and was being honest about their prospects, he would not be helping the Howards choose the curtains for Number 10. If he has led them to believe that victory is genuinely on the cards, then some might question his political nous.

I don't believe politicians suing for gossip like this. It really isn't worth it. By responding to it in this dramatic way, they've given the story new impetus and kept it in the public eye for longer. Once the writ is issued, it can't be withdrawn this side of the election, as it would be taken as confirmation of the story.

The Tories reckon that this will silence a perceived pro-Blair/pro-Labour bias in the Times and I suspect that it is also planned as a shot across the bows of any other media organisation planning to rubbish the campaign. I predict that this will prove to be a massive miscalculation. Whatever you may think of the News International stable - including Sky News and The Sun - you cannot deny their potentially massive influence. Thatcher, Major and Blair all owed debts for the support from the Sun for their campaigns. Anyone remember the election day 1992 Sun headline? 'If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.' Anyone reckon that might have influenced a few wavering voters? You need these people on-side for the duration of the campaign.

The Tories have rammed a stick straight into a hornets' nest and they will regret it - the outcome promises to be bad for the party. If the case comes to court before the election (unlikely), then expect days of politically-embarrassing testimony. If it comes to court after the election, then whatever Crosby did or didn't say will be a moot point. In the meantime, they've angered a massive chunk of the media establishment. I fully expect this writ to quietly disappear after May 5, whatever the result.

Nice one Michael.

You learn something new every day

I knew that the 1964 Smethwick election was infamous for the low politics of the Tory candidate Peter Griffiths (who held the seat for just two years and was subsequently an MP for Portsmouth between 1979 and 1997) and his campaign slogan of "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour."

Well, I'm indebted to Bob Piper for reproducing this press release from the local branch of Unite Against Fascism, because I didn't know that Malcolm X even visited the UK, let alone Smethwick.

"Malcolm came to Smethwick in what turned out to be the last week of his life, at a time when he already knew he was in imminent danger of assassination. His arrival in Britain came in a period when Smethwick had become notorious as the scene of racial conflict, fuelled by local and national politicians seeking election in the area (does this sound familiar?).In 1964 a Tory MP had been elected for Smethwick under the slogan of 'if you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour' and, over the following winter, the legacy of that campaign continued with the local Council's attempts to prevent the sale of previously White-occupied homes to Black people from the Commonwealth.Malcolm paid a short visit to the town as an act of solidarity with the Black and Asian immigrants to the area (many of the arrangements for the visit were made by the local Branch of the Indian Workers' Association).

At a press conference he said "the worst form of human being, I believe, is one who judges another human being by the colour of his skin". He was asked what he thought of the situation in Smethwick and replied: "I have heard that Blacks in Smethwick are being treated in the same way as the Negroes were treated in Alabama--like Hitler treated the Jews". Asked what he would do, he said "I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens ..."

Malcolm flew back to the USA the following day and was gunned down as he spoke to a public meeting in New York just a few days later. Twenty-two thousand people went to view his body as it lay in a Harlem funeral home.

To different people, Malcolm's visit has been a source of curiosity, outrage and inspiration. For anyone involved in the local campaigns against racism & fascism -- both then and now -- the visit of such an international figure is a welcome reminder that we are part of a global movement. The anniversary of his visit is also a reminder that the gains we have made against racism in Smethwick and elsewhere had to be fought for. But the campaign isn't over. The General Election expected in May or June this year will see the fascist British National Party contest several constituencies in the Black Country and Birmingham. Now is surely as good a time as any to take Malcolm's message seriously. "

Monday, February 07, 2005

No competence required

Well, I broke the story here first back in January and the press finally got to it, with the Evening Mail running a front-page headline story on the council housing rent problems on Saturday. Normally, I'd link to it, but the on-line edition of the Mail doesn't appear to carry it.

Anyway, following on from my story about the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition moving the goalposts on council house rents - now to be collected two weeks in advance rather than in arrears, as they have been for half a century. The reasoning for this shift? Simply to push some extra money into the housing revenue account to reduce the amount apparently outstanding in arrears.

What's happened now is that the council have issued letters to those who have failed to bring their accounts up to date reminding them that they need to sort it out. Not unreasonable, but rather than sending the letters out to the 6500 tenants genuinely in arrears, the letter was sent to all 73,000 tenants warning them that "action will be taken to recover any outstanding rent" unless it is brought up to date by the end of the month.

Needless to say, this scared the living daylights out of tenants - many of them elderly or on low incomes - and neighbourhood offices and council switchboards were besieged with visitors and callers. Offices that normally see 50-100 visitors a day were getting 50 every half hour. Tempers frayed and it got so bad that an immediate walk-out by staff at one office was only narrowly avoided. Telephone lines that deal with under 100 callers a day were melting under the pressure, forcing workers to spend their entire working day on the phone calming worried tenants.

It is my understanding that the situation is actually worse than the Mail painted it - I believe that not one, but THREE letters in a similar vein went out.

Another disgraceful performance by the council and one that can be laid at the door of the elected members, not the officers (although the councillors will try to shift the blame).

One excuse I heard was that it was a computer error. Perhaps if the Cabinet Member whose portfolio includes ICT and customer service would spend more time doing his well-paid job, rather than worrying about the price of carpets or the chances of him winning Yardley for the Liberal Democrats, it might not have happened.

A darker shade of orange?

Seems that the BNP approve of Veritas - Kilroy's new political party.

They describe it as a

"stepping stone that the British National Party needs"

Robert must be SO proud.

(No, I won't link to the BNP - it isn't hard to find on their website, as it is one of their chairman's words of 'wisdom')

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Underground, overground....

Further to my posting in December on the madcap scheme by our local Liberal Democrat/Tory masters to build an underground rail network in Birmingham...

According to the Evening Mail, the Liberal Democrat 'transport expert' (sic) Paul Tilsley believes that the people of Birmingham would never stand for the 'years of mayhem' caused by the construction of the overground Metro.

I don't know what colour the sky is on Cllr Tilsley's world, but does he imagine that building an underground system would be accomplished with no visible signs of activity above ground? Nope - didn't work like that here when they built the Jubilee Line.

The Cabinet member for transportation, Cllr Len Gregory seems to be returning to the good old days where the car ruled Birmingham. For the past few years, there has been a concerted attempt to get the people of Birmingham out of their cars and onto public transport. Remember that each bus can take the same load as 30 or more cars, which is going to reduce the environmental impact and lead to fewer cars on the road, so that those users who need to use cars can do so more easily.

They caved in to the roads lobby and scrapped a major bus lane - reducing punctuality by 11%, which has led to a 15% drop in passenger numbers, despite an outcry from Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000. He's also started a congestion forum, but not accepted groups of bus and train users. They've also reneged on a long-standing agreement with Centro and Travel West Midlands to improve bus routes.

Cllr Gregory wonders about the safety of running trams through crowded city streets. Well, Nottingham seems to cope and there's a collection of pictures here from Strasbourg, Melbourne, Freiburg, Leeds...

While they dither over this waste of time and money (£150,000 spent on the feasibility study), the millions already invested in extending the Metro are put at risk, as is the £1 billion in government funding for regional transport, as spending targets are missed.

Let's hope that we can keep this kind of Liberal Democrat and Tory expertise out of government, eh?

Coalition fails to deliver - again

I missed this one over Christmas.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto for Birmingham in June 2004 promised:

Open, accountable, decentralized governance - The City is obsessively secretive and concentrates on keeping information about problems out of the public domain rather than acting to solve problems. This must change. If you do not recognise where you are going wrong it is impossible to get it right. It is only right that this process occur in the main in the public domain.

Six months on and things have changed so much that a Liberal Democrat councillor told the Birmingham Post that:

'Backbench councillors on the whole feel disengaged and left out. Their skills aren't being utilised. People who read The Birmingham Post will be more engaged about matters than backbench councillors and that is not a good situation to be in.'

It seems that most councillors - including some Cabinet members - were unaware that plans were afoot to scrap the plan for a new city library in Eastside in favour of adapting Baskerville House.

The deputy leader of the Tory group, Len Gregory, commented that

'there were occasions when confidentiality had to be maintained and that meant not informing everyone about matters being considered by the Cabinet.'

Perhaps he should remind the deputy Council Leader, John Hemming, about that - after all, he was criticised by the Adjudication Panel for England over leaking confidential information about land prices to the press.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The ego has landed

He's had a career as a Labour MP (oh, so many years ago), a daytime TV show host, newspaper columnist, star UKIP MEP and now, after throwing his toys out of the pram because they wouldn't let him be leader, he's started his own political movement.

Kilroy-Silk is back, with his biggest vanity project to date - Veritas. The launch was long on backbiting, but short of actual policy, but certainly seems to be a right-wing, anti-European party. He accused the other parties of complicity in the theft of 'our country' by mass immigration, promising to halt the 'ascendancy of multiculturalism' and said that 'we don't want to condescend, we don't want to patronise' - which will certainly mark a change in style from his TV show. Apparently, he alone - the perma-tanned multimillionaire - can speak for the ordinary British voter who is tired of being lied to and taken for granted by the political establishment and the 'Metropolitan smartarses' of the media. The only policy on show was the prohibition of cravats and silly hats - the uniform of the 'fascist nutters' of the UKIP (no fashion sense, these lot - blackshirts are SO much more practical).

So, now there's the BNP, UKIP and Veritas all competing for a share of the right-wing vote - no more than 3%, according to the latest ICM survey, that's several bald men fighting over a very toothless comb. Although they threaten to put up candidates in every constituency, this is a massive (and expensive) undertaking, as almost all the candidates will sink without trace. Only Kilroy has the profile to make a difference, but I don't think that Geoff Hoon has much to fear. Geoff is apparently the target of Kilroy's personal parliamentary ambitions in Nottinghamshire, but then Kilroy summed it up perfectly himself: 'we haven't got a chance.'

The European elections are decided on a proportional representation system, which offers a chance to the smaller parties, but parliamentary and local elections - the engines of British politics - are decided on the first-past-the-post system.

Top marks to Anthony Wells for tracking down the owner of the veritasparty domain name, one Jonathan Lockhart, formerly of the Commonwealth Party, registered last year at the Electoral Commission and lately at the New Party. There's even a new blog for the new party, which is rather confusingly named Vote for Kilroy - confusing because it isn't a one-man party. Oh no. Whatever would give you that idea?

According to the Independent's Pandora column, Kilroy is looking for backers, rather than putting his own money where his mouth is and he went to the New Party, which is backed by a Scottish millionaire. Kilroy agreed to join them on condition that he became leader forthwith. Like the other small parties he's been courting over recent months, they refused, so Kilroy finally decided to launch his own venture, taking some members of the New Party with him.

The new Veritas website does indeed include manifesto commitments - with immigration, asylum, 'the British Way of Life' and Europe figuring large. Crime, pensions and tax also get a look in, as does a separate section on drugs and drink (I refrain from suggesting that the whole thing has a lot to do with drugs and drink).

And that name... Veritas? Latin for truth, of course, but needlessly pretentious, surely? Also a bit, well, foreign... And, for someone opposed to the concept of a free and integrated Europe or immigration, Mr Kilroy-Silk does own a rather nice villa in Spain...

There will be more - and we'll be watching.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The policy crack'd from side to side..

Nicholas Soames was questioned on the new Tory immigration policy on Radio 4's Any Questions programme. He revealed that the new limits on asylum applications would be flexible and that 'were there to be a great disaster... we would take in people'

This really shows that the new policy - for which he admitted that the details have yet to be worked out - is about cheap political gains.

Ironically, Tory Trouble reveals a story in the Evening Standard that the Conservatives imported election 'supremo' Lynton Crosby would not qualify for a visa under the Australian system. What - there's nobody in the country to take on the task of getting the Tories into government, so they have to use immigrant labour? It could just be that nobody else wanted that particular poisoned chalice.

Countdown - Pt 1

So, with 93 days to go to Election 2005, what's the current standing?

The Electoral Calculus poll-of-polls (based on all polls from 7 Jan to 27 Jan) indicates a vote breakdown as follows: Tory 32.6%, Lab 37.5% and LD 21.1% (figures rounded up). This forecasts a Labour majority of 116.

More interesting is the latest ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph, which was conducted after the launch of the Tory immigration policy last week. This shows the Labour vote dropping back to 36%, the Tories firm on 33% and the LDs on 21% - roughly in line with the poll-of-polls and forecasting a Labour majority of 98.

Bear in mind, though, that this is after the Tories have played their trump card. As mentioned below, immigration is a strong issue for them and one where the public expect them to have the best policies. Despite a week of publicity for this policy, though, 80% of people thought that this policy either thought that this policy would make no difference to their voting intentions or would make them less likely to vote Conservative.

The other key Tory strength, crime, isn't a winner either - here they tie with Labour on effectiveness on tackling violent crime, with 33% supporting each side.

MORI's January poll for the Observer comes with bad news for the Tories as well. Although the fieldwork straddles the launch of the immigration policy, the poll gives Labour a solid 6 point lead.

Also worth noting, according to Gaby Hinsliff is that Howard's personal popularity is exceptionally poor. His personal approval rating is only 22% - just 2 points ahead of Michael Foot in 1983 and 12 points behind where Neil Kinnock was in 1992. For the record, 33% are satisified with Blair and 39% with Kennedy, while 32% are happy with the government overall. Both Kennedy and Howard have 'don't know' ratings in the 30s, which isn't good news, as it indicates that neither of them figure on the political radar of a third of the electorate. The government and Tony Blair only have 10% don't know figures - you may like 'em or loathe 'em, but you have an opinion on 'em.

When it comes to asking the people who would make the best PM, then Blair is head and shoulders above the opposition. 39% back him, compared to 17% each for Howard and Kennedy - this has to be appalling news for Michael Howard.

Another interesting question asked is who would make the better PM - Blair or Brown. Overall, Brown has a 4 point lead - 39% to 35%, but Tories back him 47/28 and the LDs 51/34. Oddly, only amongst Labour voters is Brown behind, with only half of Blair's 56% support. Given that the same survey also highlights the return of 'Old Labour' values, you would have thought that the man who has been behind the increased spending on health and education and has presided over a limited redistributive tax structure would score better.

On the issues, defence and foreign affairs tops peoples' priorities alongside the NHS, followed by immigration, crime and education. Taxation, poverty and pensions don't figure hugely, but have increased in importance. Issues over the countryside and local government taxation don't stir the minds of the majority, barely registering on the poll.

The Liberal Democrats don't have much to crow about either. Although their standing remains relatively high, it only translates into a handful of seats, presuming a straight split of vote across the country. The mix of tactical voting and, I suspect, a low turnout, will throw the usual spanner into the works - with the latter being more important. The MORI poll indicates that 51% of the sample are certain to vote - I suspect a turnout in the 40s is more likely. Historically, this might have favoured the Tories, as their voters were more determined to do their civic duty, but given their current dilapidated state, I'm not so sure. My current bet is for the LDs to do better than the polls suggest, but for the Labour majority to be in the 80s.

As always, comments and abuse welcome. If only to let me know that my rants are being read by somebody else.

Much ado about nothing

For months now, we've been assailed from all corners by the legal threat that hangs over any homeowner who tries to defend himself from the army of burglars and robbers besieging our homes.

Now, police and the CPS have published advice on what reasonable force actually means. Joshua Rozenberg provides this cogent summary of the law, which is laid down in the Criminal Justice Act 1967, section 3, which provides that

a person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in the effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, or of persons unlawfully at large

This section of the law covers everything - even to the point where the police take the decision to shoot somebody. It may seem vague and overly general to encompass all the elements of self-defence and the use of force in the simple word 'reasonable', but that very vagueness is the secret of the law's flexibility.

The idea of changing the law to try and cover all the possible definitions of self-defence was always flawed. In any case, the CPS report that they can only find eleven cases in fifteen years of householders actually being prosecuted for 'self-defence' and only five cases where a guilty verdict was returned. As the BBC points out, one of those involved a man who lay in wait for an intruder, beat him up, threw him into a pit and set fire to him. Not even the UKIP are proposing this - yet.

The police won't want to push prosecutions for genuine cases of self-defence and the CPS know perfectly well that a jury won't convict - don't forget that they are only supposed to pursue cases with a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction.

One thing this does do - good for the Tories - is keep the issue of crime front and centre, just where they like it. Let's not forget the fact that burglary rates are dropping and are at their lowest for a decade. As Nick Ross keeps telling us - don't have nightmares, these sort of crimes are very rare.

As in so many things, this is an unnecessary public fuss about a tiny problem.

Will They Never Learn?

Apparently the Liberal Democrats have re-selected Nokia Davies to fight Liam Byrne for the Hodge Hill seat at the next General Election.

The LibDems have always been very vocal about mobile phone masts, so to select somebody who is an apologist for the mobile phone companies with a specific remit to convince local authorities of the need for more masts seems a little odd.

Despite what they say, the Respect campaign in Hodge Hill didn't cost them the by-election. Selecting a better candidate would have won it.

Re-selection suggests to me that the Lib Dems know that they haven't a hope of unseating Liam in a General Election, with their limited resources stretched across the country.

Shameless Plug

Not only a shameless plug, but nicked from Bob Piper's blog - I try and be honest in my plagiarism.

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