Thursday, March 31, 2005

More fear from Howard

A keynote speech from Howard today to launch the Tories' proposals on tackling yobbish behaviour.
'The husband and wife who no longer walk home from the local pub on a nice evening; the dad that daren't take his kid to the park to play football anymore; and the pensioners who've become prisoners in their own homes.Why? All because of the fear of being intimidated.'

Fear not helped by the lies of some political parties, Michael.
'It's time to give the yobs a dose of the fear they've been dishing out to the rest of us. Now I use that word deliberately - fear. I want to make them fear the police. Let there be no misunderstanding: I want to make yobs fear the police.'

He does like fear, doesn't he? Perhaps he wants a whole generation of young people to grow up afraid of the police. Afraid to talk to the police, afraid to give them information, afraid to ask for help, even afraid to consider joining the police service.
'We'll scrap central government targets for the police.... we'll make the police publish weekly crime statistics on the internet so that local communities can see exactly what progress they are making.'

Is it just me, or aren't these plans incompatible? We'll have the police even more focussed on figures than before, to ensure that their weekly performance looks good. Incidentally, how do you measure performance without targets?
'We will scrap the politically correct McPherson inspired form the police have to fill in every time they stop someone - that's right just stop someone, not stop and search. '

Hang on a second, Michael. The McPherson report was an extraordinarily detailed report into the events following the brutal, racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the enquiry by the Metropolitan police. It was wide-ranging and covered the institutional racism present in the police service, offering a roadmap for development and improvement. Many in the black community feel that they are unfairly targetted for stop and search, so the recording of information about each stop was made mandatory, to try and deal with this. Under the Tories, dealing with racism is just politically correct.

Lies, damned lies and... more lies

You read it here first, but at last someone has blown the gaff on the Tories lies about crime.

The Tories have been running adverts in local papers across the country 'exposing' the rapid increase in violent crime under the Labour government. Their statistics are accurate, but they cannot be compared as the recording standards for crime have been changed. Chief constables across the country are, understandably, furious. It has reached the point where the Association of Chief Police Officers, not known as a radical, left-wing group, has released a statement:

'The most recent crime figures demonstrate the success of the police service and its partners in reducing volume crime such as burglary and robbery. This has been achieved by focusing on crimes that concern communities most and on prolific and priority offenders.

'The risk of being of a victim is still at its lowest for 23 years. The British Crime Survey shows that crime has reduced over the last 10 years and that violent crime has remained stable. Notwithstanding the continued impact of the national recording changes that were implemented in 2002, our analysis of the rise in police recorded violent crime has shown that much of it represents low-level thuggery and alcohol fuelled violence. These offences, although taken seriously by the police and a priority for the future, result in minor or no physical injury but have inflated the recorded violent crime figures.

'If we want to increase the fear of crime, the selective use of statistics can help in doing that. However, we feel that it is important that all crime statistics - which forces publish regularly - should be put into context and communicated in a responsible way to the public.' [Emphasis added]

Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of North Wales, added,

'This misleading advert quite improperly seeks to stir up fear of rising crime when it is a well established fact that crime has been falling for years both locally and nationally. I'm disappointed in the extreme that it has appeared in the press in a very marginal constituency in the run-up to a general election.'

So, are the Tories apologetic? What do you think?

Dr Fox was wheeled out on Channel Four news to try and defend the nasty campaign from the nasty party.
'If you ask people across the country what their greatest fear is, fear of crime is amongst them. We have had a million more violent crimes committed in out country last year. We are seeing a massive rise in violent crime the likes of which we have never seen, certainly in the last century.'

The Tories hope to win by scaring you. Scaring you about asylum seekers, about immigrants, about yobs, about crime, about gypsies...

Don't let 'em win. If you happen to run into a Tory candidate over the weeks to come, ask them why they are lying to you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Superhighway patrol

Honourable Fiend discovered another little gem from Chris Applegate - home of the Daily Mail headline generator and the Blunkett policymaker, amongst others.

Michael Howard sings The Smiths...

Elsewhere, Alastair Campbell is apparently blogging as well. Anyone know if this is really him or a well-honed spoof? The diary entries coincide with real public appearances and some of the comments have the mark of the man (particularly the *ahem* 'direct' language that he uses).

Guido has also been delving to try and pick up the campaign structures of the major political parties. Today, he gives us the Liberal Democrats, who have had a lacklustre few weeks with the campaign agenda being entirely led by the Tories.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Flight and Fight

The Tory campaign continues to be overshadowed by their internal difficulties.

Quite apart from Howard Flight's ongoing campaign to be the Tory candidate in Arundel (remember that this man has deep pockets, so can afford good legal representation), which is opposed by the local Tory agent, the Slough problems continue.

As detailed here, the party recently dropped their second candidate for his article in the Spectator which foresaw a

'Catholic Caesar presiding over the [British] Protestant monarch... The issue of European religious union is one that has been concealed even deeper than the plans for political union, but the ratchet towards a Catholic Europe is just as real... A Catholic EU will inevitably result in the subjugation of Britain's Protestant ethos to Roman Catholic social, political and religious teaching.'

Adrian Hilton's fight apparently goes on - the local association has been suspended because they refused to follow instructions from Central Office to deselect him. He has told BBC Five Live that he has also taken legal advice and intends to be the Tory candidate in Slough. He is justifiably angered that the party apparently knew of his comments and writings when they were first published and doesn't understand what has changed.

That's simply answered. He instantly became persona non grata when the Catholic Herald told their readers not to vote for him.

Oddly, Howard has also just come out in favour of scrapping the 300 year old Act of Settlement that prohibits the monarch marrying or being Catholic. To be fair, this is a nonsensical and archaic piece of discriminatory legislation - future royals can marry Methodists or Jews or Muslims and still lay claim to the throne. Marry a Catholic, however, and they are out of the line of succession for good. But I can't help feeling that Howard's sudden profession of support for a legislative change is more to do with courting the Catholic vote than a sincere belief in ironing out a minor injustice.

Sacrificing candidates is easy, unless they choose to fight back. Michael Howard has made a disastrous error of judgment with this one.

Monday, March 28, 2005

No joke

Here's a case which I heard about this week from a reliable source about asylum in this country.

Ms K came to this country from a former Soviet republic and applied for asylum when she arrived at the airport. With her two children, she was taken directly to a privately-managed secure centre where her induction consisted of being taken to a small room and beaten unconscious by guards.

Although she would seem to have a well-founded fear of persecution - her father is dead, her aunt and uncle murdered because of associations with the former regime - her case was decided and she was deported.

On return to her country of origin, she and her Immigration Service minders were confronted by armed guards on the tarmac, who refused her entry to her country and insisted at gunpoint that she be returned to the UK.

She's now back here and has been given temporary leave to remain, as the police have decided to prosecute the two guards involved. Once the case is concluded, it is expected that she will again be deported - her case is to be decided shortly.

By the way, she is well-qualified and wants nothing more than to retrain as a nurse and live in this country. Wouldn't you give her a chance?

No jokes or cheap shots here - we've let her down and the least this country can do is let her stay.

Political Insanity

For a while now, I've wondered where the Labour campaign has been. We've had the Tories virtually running the news agenda with control of the news cycle by feeding good stories calculated to stir the loins of their friends in the print media, knowing that the rest of the media circus has to follow.

Maybe there was a calculated plan to let the Tories hang themselves. I'd like to think so, although I'm very far from convinced. (Somebody give Mr Milburn a nudge awake at his desk, would you?). Also, if anyone has any news on the whereabouts of the Liberal Democrat Party, could they please let me know, as they seem to have a lower profile than Lord Lucan at the moment.

Whatever the truth, Michael Howard has done a cracking job for Labour with the Howard Flight business. Flight went way off-message and deserved to be sacked from his party role, for the sake of party discipline and the campaign. Fair enough - even though such Thatcherite views are popular within the party.

To then pursue him and forcibly deselect him seems a little extreme. Maybe Howard just wants to appear tough and in-control, but all he has succeeded in doing is keeping the story in the headlines across the weekend AND he's wound up party members who like being able to choose their candidate. So much so that there is talk of the constituency party going freelance and backing Flight as an independent Conservative, although he denies that he plans to stand as such. In an aside, Zoe Hopkins reveals that the Tories are finding it hard to get candidates together for council seats in Birmingham and are having to approach non-members. Behaviour like this is hardly guaranteed to spark popular involvement.

As Recess Monkey points out, Flight is well-liked in the constituency and has the personal financial muscle to fight a campaign.

This could prove to be a mistake in the Tory campaign, which has been fairly sure-footed up to now in its aggressive pursuit of certain bandwagons.

And yet...

Despite all this campaigning effort, the Tories actually slid back in the polls, with an ICM poll for the Guardian and a Communicate Research poll for the Independent on Sunday showing Labour increasing their lead over the Tories. On the other hand, YouGov and MORI both indicate that this is a very close-run race.

We'll know soon enough.

Gotta no Respect?

In his little lay-by on this superhighway, John Hemming quotes from Tariq Ali's article in the Guardian about voting against MPs who supported the war on Iraq.
'"It is possible that in some constituencies the Green/Respect vote could ensure the return of a warmonger, as we have seen in the odd by-election."

This may be true. I still maintain that in Birmingham Hodge Hill, the Liberal Democrats could have won if they had not been so inept as to choose a candidate so tied to the mobile phone industry, but I digress. I'd also question whether the victorious candidate in Hodge Hill, Labour's Liam Byrne, can be classed as a warmonger, as he didn't have the opportunity to vote against the war, only being elected in 2004. John goes on:
'The challenge for Talib Hussain and Jon Hunt is that of persuading anti-Labour voters to unite behind them as the best placed candidates to beat (probably) Roger Godsiff and (probably) Khalid Mahmood.'

I do hope that John isn't implying that Roger Godsiff (Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook & Small Heath) is a warmonger. I've spoken to him about the issue and he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq - indeed, he voted against it. Curiously, John fails to continue the quotation from Tariq Ali:
'In constituencies where there are MPs belonging to the anti-war faction, one should vote for them despite disagreements on many other issues'

The funny thing is that Respect's own resolution says that they 'will not challenge anti-war Labour MPs'. So why stand against Roger who has opposed the war from the start? Could it be because the large Muslim voting population in the constituency proved too tempting for this off-shoot of the Socialist Workers' Party? Opportunistic? No wonder John doesn't like them.

Friday, March 25, 2005

You keep truthin' when you ought to be lyin' misquote Nancy Sinatra.

Following the Danny Kruger embarrassment, where the Tory PPC for Sedgefield argued for a 'period of creative destruction in the public services.' (Putting the moron into oxymoron), another Tory is looking for a new job tonight.

The Deputy Chairman, Howard Flight, admitted that they had cleaned up some of the more politically unpalatable judgements from the James Report into public spending savings/cuts (delete as appropriate) because 'whatever the fine principles, you have to win an election first' and could then 'get on with what needs to be done.'

He also admitted that the pensioner council tax rebate was 'nakedly political' and revealed that the Tories also plan to increase the income tax thresholds and inheritance tax thresholds.

A Tory called Howard being honest. No wonder he had to go.

UPDATE: Not only has he been sacked as a deputy chairman, he has now had the party whip withdrawn, which means he is currently unable to stand as a Conservative candidate and his local party will have to select an alternative candidate. Michael Howard said:
'We will not say one thing in private and another thing in public. Everyone in my party has to sign up to that. If not, they're out.'
I suspect that this could be a little bit of a hostage to fortune. Who knows what else lurks on tape...

In any case, isn't this a massive over-reaction? Sack him from his job for not toeing the party line - fine. Actually removing him as an MP? For all the accusations of control-freakery, there are plenty of Labour rebels who know that whatever Tony B may think of them, their seats are safe. Yet, if Howard failed to act, pour encourager les autres, he risked inundation with similar views being proffered by back-benchers. Dissent has been silenced in this 'libertarian' Tory party.

Cast a vote today

Seems that the Guardian has had the good taste to nominate our friends over at LibDemWatch for a Blogging award. No messing with postal votes here, just click and vote.

Recess Monkey has begged that I swing the massive support of the PoliticalHack block vote behind his award campaign. So, get over here and cast your vote for the parliamentary simian.

Drinking the night away

Remember the furore about the government's licensing bill and how it indicated the imminent fall of civilisation a few months ago? The Daily Mail would have you believe that Tony Blair was personally going out and forcing youngsters to drink vast quantities of alcopops, but the reality has been subtlely different.

The thriving metropolis that is Birmingham has been deluged by a flood of one application for a twenty-four hour licence. Just one.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Passing the buck

Our Liberal Democrat friends have a problem with CCTV.

Back in December 2000, the councillors representing Kings Heath in Birmingham were delighted when a project involving West Midlands Police, the City Council, CENTRO and the Home Office funded 14 security cameras around the shopping centre. They've been in since December 2002 and the local businesses reckon that they have reduced theft.

The funding for the initial pilot scheme has now come to an end and the local Liberal Democrat councillors now say that it is a 'financial shambles' because the Labour councillors apparently didn't budget for it. Unless they can find over a quarter of a million pounds by December, it gets switched off.

Except.... that the Labour councillors have nothing to do with it any more.

Two of the three ward councillors (in charge of the £400,000 Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending this year) are Liberal Democrat and the council itself, with overall budgetary control, is a Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition and has been since June 2004.

They just can't get out of the habit of blaming Labour, can they? They've been in power for the best part of a year and have gone through the budget process as a partner in the coalition and the NRF funding for 2005/6 should be being allocated by each ward or district at the moment. If the money isn't there, it is their job to find it or defend the service cuts. Blaming the previous administration is, frankly, silly.

The 'crisis' may be hitting the headlines because the other councillor, a Labour member, has stood down for family reasons and a by-election is pending.

I'm also intrigued by the maths. Curiously, the LibDems reckon that they need almost a quarter of a million to continue the camera operation, but the original Home Office budget of £70,ooo for the initial eight cameras for three years seems to suggest that the annual running costs for fourteen cameras are nearer £50,000 a year, something that is well within the reach of the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. (Information and comments on this welcome.)

One day, the Liberal Democrats will realise that opposition politics don't work when you are the governing party. Being in government is about responsibility.

The wheels on the bus go round and round - slowly

Remember how the Conservative Cabinet Member for Cars Transportation, Len Gregory, acted swiftly last year to deal with the menace of bus lanes on the Tyburn Road? Those annoying lanes that allow bus passengers to speed past the lone occupants of cars have come under attack from Len, the driver's friend. No matter that bus punctuality then dropped 11% and passenger numbers by 15% and don't worry about agreements with CENTRO about improving bus routes - nothing must stop the car driver.

Well, the bus users are fighting back, by sending him a petition to restore the bus lanes, backed by Birmingham Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000 West Midlands. Cllr Kath Hartley will hand the petition in at the April 5 council meeting.

Len and his colleagues are apparently still consulting on whether to make this temporary suspension permanent. Perhaps the consultants are still waiting for their bus?

One reason to vote Liberal Democrat

Possibly the only time I will ever urge voters to support the Liberal Democrats, but I agree with Jackie Ashley in the Guardian today as she comes out as a LibDem voter, but only to keep a Tory out of parliament.

The top ten list of reasons to vote Liberal Democrat are crowd-pleasers, no less than some of the policies proposed by Labour and the Tories.

An example is the proposal to bung an extra £25 on the weekly state pension and take pensioners off means testing. At first, an attractive idea, until you understand that means testing directs money towards those who need it most. Universal benefits spread the jam thinly to everybody - even to the richest pensioners who don't need it. Part of the problem with means testing is that many current pensioners remember what it used to be like. A man from the council (for it was always a man in those days) would come round and look around your house. If there were two of you and you had four chairs, he might suggest that you sell one to raise money before you would get any help. It was a degrading and nasty experience, calculated to keep costs low.

We need more imagination and joined-up thinking in government - I want to see benefits procedures streamlined. Why complete two or three forms, when one will suffice? By all means, invest some resources in guiding people through the application process, but let's make sure that the money goes to where it can do the most good.

'However much one might grind one's teeth about aspects of Labour policy, there is a consistent progressive social agenda, ranging from policy on children, through educational policy, to the tax system. It may be too timid, deformed by moments of market-mania, and sometimes shoddily marketed, but it exists.'

I will keep saying it. Is punishing Blair for the Iraq war really worth handing the country over to the neo-Thatcherites in the Tory Party? Because if you vote Liberal Democrat, that's what you are risking to salve your conscience.

Tory woes continue

While they are desperately mining any seam of votes by any means available, they still haven't changed, have they? The Tories are still the 'nasty party.'

Dr Liam Fox and a pair of Tory candidates have had to pay undisclosed damages to Labour's Martin Salter after they accused him of intimidating councillors in Reading. In the name of balance, I will point out that Oona King, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green, had to settle a libel case with George Galloway last week.

Outgoing Tory MP Jonathan Sayeed isn't going quietly - he's been censured yet again and faces suspension from the house over his response to the 'cash for tours' scandal. Not to mention his interesting attitude towards expenses and allowances.

We've already had Gerald Howarth demonstrating his sensitivity to racial issues by describing one of his Tory friends as 'black as the ace of spades.' But this is the man who described the Commission into the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain as 'an extraordinary affront to the 94% of the population which is not from ethnic minorities. The native British must stand up for themselves.' Is he in the right party?

We await the news of the first Tory push-polls with interest, especially as Lynton Crosby has his mate Mark Textor 'on holiday' in the UK at the moment.

'They will play to the basest of opinions in the coming weeks," said Bob Hogg, a former campaigner for the Australian Labor party. "There's a dark underside to any human being and they pander to people's fears.'

Monday, March 21, 2005

With extreme prejudice

The dog-whistle blows another blast against another minority group, with Howard busy stoking the fires of anger against them purely for cheap electoral gain, following hard on their blatant lies about the directive from John Prescott last week.

This is a supposedly libertarian party - remember how they back your freedom to tear small animals to pieces with dogs and proclaimed liberty as the reason for opposing the anti-terrorism legislation? When it suits, though, they are happy to promise that, 'the whole paraphernalia of Britain's discredited human rights laws will be overhauled or scrapped.' So how does scrapping the Human Rights Act actually enhance liberty?

Howard seems happy to threaten to destroy the wider protections offered by the HRA for the dubious purpose of dealing with illegal encampments. They also propose criminalising trespass, which won't have any effect on the retrospective planning applications, as the travellers own the land and you can't trespass on your own land. The police already have powers to move groups on under the Public Order Act, but rarely use it because of the risk of further antagonising the situation - would it be any different if the law were to be changed? The proposals offer plenty of sticks with which to beat the travellers, but no carrots to tempt them to work within the law.

Don't forget that the current problem with the lack of sites for travelling families is largely down to the 1994 Tory legislation that removed the requirement for local councils to maintain approved sites for travellers. The hope was that travellers would buy their own sites, which is what happened. Unfortunately, they were rarely given planning permission, with the outcome that they still buy land and move onto it to set up home before applying for permission. Given the outcome of the vast majority of planning applications, there seems to be evidence of prejudice against this most reviled group of people. They have few friends in the press prepared to give them an honest hearing - the Independent and the Guardian seem to bother, although the BBC have woken up to the issue and have a balanced report on the Minety traveller site.

There are groups of travellers that leave destruction and filth in their wake - I've seen some of these sites after they have been moved on and it is disgraceful. That does not mean that all travellers are the same. We should be happy to make reasonable adjustments to the system to ensure an equality of opportunity for all - that seems only equitable to me. I made reference a week ago to the successful policies of Fenland District Council towards this group, encouraging them to use the correct legal processes and guiding them through applications. It isn't a question of treating the application differently, just treating it fairly and without prejudice.

Demonising a small group of people for short-term electoral gain is obscene, but no bandwagon is too much for the current bunch of misfits in charge of the Tories. As seems to be the pattern over recent weeks, they go for the sound-bite and the headline to highlight their extremism, all the while promising that their policies aren't racist, just common sense.

Sometimes, the evidence suggests otherwise. After all, some of Gerald Howarth's best friends are 'black as the ace of spades.'

Remember, unless you get out there and vote, this lot could be in power.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Reasonable farce

Not so long ago, the Tories made great play about householders being scared to tackle burglars for fear of being prosecuted and/or sued.

Accordingly, they've put up posters suggesting that 'The law should protect me, not burglars' and made great play of this during the election campaign.

When their 'Homeland Defence Spokesman' Patrick Mercer got the chance to push a private member's bill through parliament, he proposed one that would allow homeowners to do anything apart from use 'grossly disproportionate force' against intruders. Michael Howard himself launched the bill and it is now in committee stage - although likely to fall because of the expected election.

Tuesday saw three Labour MPs turn up with Patrick Mercer, ready to debate the finer aspects of the bill. Three more Tories were expected, but as they failed to show up, the committee was inquorate and the bill looks likely to run out of time before the Easter break. Two apparently had permission to miss the session, but who was the third absentee-without-leave?

None other than our own Andrew Mitchell, shadow home office minister and the man charged with keeping the sacred torch of Conservatism alive in Birmingham by keeping the Labour hordes from overrunning the citadel of Sutton Coldfield.

Almost as if they didn't really care about the bill and just wanted a political stick with which to beat the Labour government.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

To lose one candidate...

'Come friendly candidates and fall in Slough'

Apologies to the late Poet Laureate, but the Tories do seem to pick 'em.

You may remember the Tories lost one candidate in Slough, after the Sun got hold of photos of him toting an AK47 in a rather disturbing manner. So, Slough reselected another anti-EU candidate.

And then, it was discovered that he wrote an article for the Spectator (again at the centre of politics in this country), where he held forth on his rather robust views that European integration would lead to a:
'Catholic Caesar presiding over the [British] Protestant monarch... The issue of European religious union is one that has been concealed even deeper than the plans for political union, but the ratchet towards a Catholic Europe is just as real... A Catholic EU will inevitably result in the subjugation of Britain's Protestant ethos to Roman Catholic social, political and religious teaching.'
As the Tories are courting the Catholic vote, this was a little unfortunate, so Slough is now looking for their third Conservative candidate in three months.

One candidate off their list is Danny Kruger, who was running in hope against the Prime Minister in his Sedgefield constituency. At the recent Keith Joseph memorial lecture, he revealed that the Tories plan:
'to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services'
So he's no longer a candidate either.

Funny, isn't it? Oliver Letwin spoke the truth about cuts in 2001 and is Shadow Chancellor. Danny Kruger speaks the truth in 2005 and is no longer fit to be a candidate, even in one of the most unwinnable seats in the country.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Whistling a new tune

Guido Fawkes makes a fine point here about Michael Howard's comments on abortion. Watching American politics, you need a finely tuned ear to catch all the nuances on policy, as the various political leaders finetune their campaigns by dropping particular words or phrases into their speeches and soundbites. To most people, they are relatively meaningless, but they have great meaning to specific groups, hence the term 'dog whistle'. Now, Guido doesn't reckon that the current political row is a put up job by the Tories - he's said as much in a comment on Tom Watson's site.

I beg to differ. Recent Tory campaigning has seen appeals to important single-interest groups - the motoring lobby, pensioners, the rich, countryfolk - who are all expected to vote. This seems no different to me.

Howard, in common with Blair and Kennedy, was interviewed by Cosmopolitan magazine for their 'High Heeled Vote' campaign. All well and good - every vote counts, say I. Each was asked a series of questions, including one on their stand on abortion. Sadly, Cosmo don't put their articles on the web (or I couldn't find it), so here's the answers from the BBC:

'However, much I dislike the idea of abortion, you should not criminalise a woman who, in very difficult circumstances, makes that choice. Obviously there is a time beyond which you can't have an abortion, and we have no plans to change that although the debate will continue.'

Kennedy said that he had previously voted for a 22 week limit, but admitted that he didn't know what he would do now with the current state of medical advances.

'I believe abortion should be available to everyone, but the law should be changed. In the past I voted for a restriction to 22 weeks and I would be prepared to go down to 20.'

[EDIT] Of course, this wasn't the truth. Howard voted for 24 weeks and against 22 weeks. Blair and Kennedy also voted for 24 weeks.

Now, that says to me that none of the three are particular fans of abortion, but I don't think there's much real gap between them. Remember, votes on abortion are traditionally 'free' votes and therefore MPs are not bound by party whips. This is an issue that has been regarded as a matter of personal morality and not party political. So how come Howard got his views highlighted?

Step forward David Davis to chip in his fourpennorth on Sky and tell us that he understood that a Tory government would allow a Commons vote on the issue. The Telegraph picked up on the Tories 'unveiling a plan' to allow government time for a private member's bill on the issue (when are they NOT unveiling a plan?). The Times has them 'pledging curb on late abortions' and the Daily Mail had Howard calling for 'tighter abortion laws'.

So, a media campaign or a result of deliberate, planned spinning by Conservative Party fixers? The other parties have, rightly, steered clear of the issue, not wanting to start a political firestorm over this, so they have been outflanked by the Conservatives. The outcome is that Howard is seen as anti-abortion and may pick up some extra votes from those for whom this is a touchstone issue. As a bonus, the Tories lead the news agenda going into Budget week.

By the way, Howard's proposed changes would stop less than 1% of all abortions - they are almost always carried out this late for medical reasons.

If Guido can't see it, I can. Just ask yourself - cui bono. This is shameless politicising of a deeply sensitive subject by a party desperate for every last vote and reeks of grubby politics at its worst.

I'd also expect more of this sort of politicking - membership of political parties is dropping because we are interested in issues, not broad sweeps of policy. We have lots of single-issue groups with no wider beliefs beyond getting their way over a particular issue. Government is about more than just one issue and when you come to vote, think over the range of public policy before you decide.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Fair and unbalanced reporting

Last week, you may have noticed the headlines screaming out of such papers of record as the Sun, Mail and Express, promising that John Prescott was about to order local councils to allow travellers to set up campsites wherever they damned well pleased. These were, naturally, accompanied by scenes of devastation and filth. The Sun declared 'war on gypsy free for all'.

Something suggested to me that this wasn't quite the whole story, so I thought I'd do a little research of my own. By the power of the internet, documents and information that used to be open to a select few policy wonks and journalists are now easily available to political freaks like me.

So, a quick glance at the ODPM site revealed a couple of things. Firstly a news release about 'Temporary Stop Notices' - exciting stuff this, I tell you. These allow councils to immediately stop unauthorised gypsy encampments and other breaches of planning regulations without the usual notice period. The problem isn't this new power, it is the press release announcing it. While this details the powers and points out that the police already have powers under the 2003 Anti Social Behaviour Act to evict unauthorised encampments where there is an alternative site available.

So far, so good - what can have got the press so riled?

Here's the key phrase:

'[The Deputy Prime Minister] is minded to direct Brentwood Borough Council to produce a Development Plan Document to allocate land for Gypsies and Travellers.'

There we have it. Evil Prescott forcing councils to give gypsies prime sites next to you. Except... that councils are already supposed to identify suitable sites for travellers. The point is that Brentwood haven't done their job, so the DPM is going to make them do it and there will even be funding to support this. The ODPM have also launched an equalities and diversity package, which includes a case study on Fenland District Council's policies on travellers (p127 in the file). This policy invests some time in working with the travelling community to identify suitable sites and seems to have resulted in fewer issues with existing residents and small communities of travellers living happily close to amenities that they need.

Needless to say, the Tories jumped in, with Eric Pickles as the rentaquote mouthpiece, spewing:
'The Government is riding roughshod over planning laws, setting targets for more traveller sites and ignoring the views of local communities. Local councils will be forced to follow arbitrary diktats for new traveller camps - imposed by unwanted and unelected regional bureaucrats.'
You might have thought that he would take the time to read the document, but that would be asking too much - far too easy to give the Daily Malevolent their quick quotation. It simply isn't true.

Roy Greenslade in the Guardian today has more to say on the reporting of this issue, but I have no doubt - the press maliciously used the press release to feed their own prejudices. 22 tabloid pages were taken up with this drivel, including four front pages, packed with lies and misrepresentations.

You read it and you tell me - does that justify the vitriol directed at John Prescott and gypsies?

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Countdown - Pt III

I've put my psephological hat back on again to take a quick trawl through the polls as the phoney election campaign drags on. A campaign that isn't exciting the voters, by the way. Although half of the electorate listen to the campaigns, two-thirds can't see a difference between the parties and 80% reckon that the parties have spent their time on attack politics, rather than trying to explain policy.

It has actually been quite quiet on the polling front for the past few weeks, although polls on the 20 February for the Guardian by ICM and MORI for the FT on the 21 February slashed the Labour lead down to 2 or 3 points - VERY close in polling terms and similar to the YouGov results at the beginning of the month.

Although this closes the gap, it isn't sufficient to offer the Tories a hope of forming a government - Labour would still have a majority of 96, according to MORI, although I suspect that is a generous assessment. The MORI model suggests that to win a majority, the Conservatives need 45% and to hold Labour to 33% and the Liberal Democrats on 18% - hardly a realistic prospect unless something dramatic happens in the next few weeks.

The ICM poll also asked whether key figures within each party were assets or liabilities to their party. Opinion on the Prime Minister is pretty polarised, with 45% of those polled regarding him as an asset and 43% a liability. Gordon Brown came out significantly better, with a 63%/22% asset/liability rating. The other good news for the Tories is that Michael Howard is now regarded as an asset (45%/35%) - his strong performances and high profile in recent weeks are paying off, although one in five voters still weren't sure. He is also the only Tory with a sufficiently high profile - the shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin doesn't register on the political radar of almost half of those polled.

Two more recent polls, for the Telegraph by YouGov and Communicate Research for the Independent were conducted towards the end of February and see the 6-7 point Labour lead restored. They have been further supported by the Populous/Times poll completed on the 6 March, which still holds a 7 pt Labour lead.

The Polling Report's Anthony Wells has picked up on an interesting fact about polling on individual policies and it isn't good news for the Tories. Peter Riddell echoes it for The Times - in blind policy testing, most people like the Conservative immigration policy, but show them the Tory branding and support falls away.

After the long Thursday in Parliament this week, it is sobering for those of us opposed to the Control Orders legislation to look at the public view of the plans. YouGov asked these questions towards the end of February, and found a majority of the public in favour of restricting the freedoms of those suspected of terrorist involvement - 58%. There is a substantial minority who have problems with the bill, but the majority seem to back it. A massive 75% of the sample backed taking action against those yet to commit an offence, but are implicated by intelligence information. So, backing the bill isn't really a votewinner - but I put it in the same class as capital punishment, in that I'm opposed to it on principle and I'll stand my ground against public opinion.

Half of those questioned didn't regard the bill as an example of an authoritarian government and 53%/29% considered that the Tories were playing politics with their opposition to the bill. This really continues the argument in the last paragraph - the voters just don't like or trust the Conservatives and that is a massive problem for them. They may win tactical victories along the way, but the war is a long way from being won - only 32% of the electorate believe that they offer a better option, unchanged since the start of the year and down 4% on this time last year.

Further proof came with the recent Populous poll. The Tories seemed to have scored a hit on Labour with the War of Dixon's Shoulder, but the polls hold no comfort for them. Aside from holding the 7% margin, the poll also showed that the Tories had failed to convince voters that this case exemplified the overall condition of the NHS, with 44% opposing and the same number supporting that view.

It doesn't seem to have dented Labour's traditional dominance of this policy area, as only 22% of the people believe that Conservative policies would solve the problems. 72% of the sample also regard these individual examples as the politicians using people's problems for political advantage - which is a salutary lesson for the Tories and anyone else thinking about trying the same trick. Sadly for Mrs Dixon, over half the survey seemed to think that her operation wasn't serious and she should be sidelined to allow other cases to jump ahead. The worst of it is that the undecided swing voters hold the same views and these hold the key to a putative Tory win.

There is some good news for the Labour party, in that the poll claims that 72% of Labour voters are still happy to vote Labour. The approval indexes for the NHS and education remain high - although there is still a 10% gap between what people think of the service overall and their personal experience, indicating that some of the negative media messages are getting through, but that people don't see those problems in their schools or hospitals.

The poor old Liberal Democrats will have to rely on local swings - there just isn't a national shift towards them, with their support trending a little upwards, but only nudging the 20% mark, which is hardly the breakthrough they need.

Veritas also has some supporters. 3 to be precise. No, I've not missed off the percentage sign - there are just 3 people prepared to admit to backing Robert Kilroy-Silk. They're all women, but none of them live in the Midlands, where he is standing, so his bandwagon isn't exactly rolling yet.

Ahead, we can hope for some more polling taking the week's events into account and I'll be intrigued to see how Gordon Brown's expected electoral broadside goes down with the voters this week.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Arthur Balfour was the 33rd Prime Minister of Great Britain

I've seen these posters dotted around Birmingham - yellow background with black text. It has exercised a few on the net and there seem to be regional variations - Scots report Spencer Perceval, Liverpool claims Robert Peel and Henry Addington gets a look in as well.

They're all Tories - so is there going to be one for Michael Howard? I'm not sure that Perceval is a PM he'd want to emulate, as that's the only one to have been assassinated.

If anyone out there knows the answer, please put me out of my misery.

By the way, somebody has defaced one of the Tory posters in the centre of Birmingham. It now reads 'It's not racist... to deport Tories.' Raised a chuckle driving past - not that I would condone criminal damage, of course.

Testing paternity

Reading Tom Watson's blog today, describing having to face the wrath of a sleep-deprived wife for not going to IKEA to purchase a wardrobe for his new child's bedroom caused me to think of Charlie Kennedy and his current problem.

He's decided to take paternity leave when his first-born arrives in mid-April. The only problem is that this will be smack in the middle of a short election campaign. On the one hand, I applaud his stand against the machismo of politics (a stand that Tony didn't really take when Leo was born) to take some time to be with his wife and child. I shall gloss over the point that entitlement to paternity leave was brought in by Labour...

The problem is that Charles is the most (some might say only) recognisable face on the Liberal Democrat front bench. If you don't believe me, how many of these could you pick out of a police line-up? (Competition not open to Cllr Hemming) He's also the best regarded of all the party leaders with a solid approval rating, so his loss for a few days in the schedule could be damaging.

So what to do? Does he take the time and risk the wrath of his party? Does he carry on campaigning and face the ire of his wife? (Trust me, party wrath is NOTHING). Or he could just hang on until after May 5, when he's not going to have to do anything onerous like form a government.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Tory Motorvation

Greg Knight, the Tory transport spokesman, seems to be rather ill-informed. Not that I'm surprised about that, obviously.

In questions to the Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, he claimed that using environmentally friendly fuels would have little effect unless the government was more pro-car.

Surely, if we can reduce overall car use and encourage the use of fuels that damage the environment less, that's a double whammy of green goodness? But you forget - this is just part of the Tory plot to lure the voters of middle England with well-designed policies at the expense of everybody else. This is about saving the poor, hard done-by motorist.

We've already had the Tory review of speed cameras. Whenever a Tory speaks of a review, you know that cuts are around the corner. The use of the word bureaucracy just hammers in the final few nails. That policy launch also saw a proposal to raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph.

This week saw an attack on traffic-calming, with Tim Yeo, shadow transport minister, drafting an amendment to stop any more being constructed. He cited a statement last year by the London Ambulance Service, which claimed that 800 lives a year are lost because of delays in responding to incidents caused by traffic calming. Never mind that research cast severe doubt on this claim or that removing speed bumps would lead to more deaths on the roads. Yeo quickly changed his mind, claiming that it was merely a talking point. Yeah.

But why should we in Birmingham be surprised by this? We've already got a council that is shamelessly pro-car. They've already suspended bus lanes, which will make their journeys into Birmingham from the Tory redoubt of Sutton Coldfield so much faster. Greg Knight went on to describe the transport policies of the Tory council in Birmingham as 'successful.' Such a resounding success that they have been criticised for backing 'dud projects', being 'anti-bus' and returning to the 1960s.

Think of what's happening to Birmingham as a warning to the rest of the country.

Interview technique

Channel 4 had an interesting programme last night as part of their 'Banned' season on advertising censorship and one item struck a real chord with me. They showed a simple, unbroadcast party political broadcast for the Monster Raving Loony Party (now rebranded as Veritas). I wasn't struck by their message, but by the background sound track to the advert.

Back in 1989, Neil Kinnock was interviewed by James Naughtie for The World at One on Radio 4 about Labour's alternative to government policy. A large chunk of the interview had to be excised because Neil objected to the way Jim Naughtie was questioning him and lost his temper, accusing the R4 presenter of trying to 'kebab' him. If you follow the link above, you can click through to hear a programme about political interviews and the segment starts at around 11 minutes 30 secs in.

Listening to the unbroadcast segment, I wasn't struck by the anger, but by the sheer passion in Kinnock's voice. Simply typing the words doesn't do justice - you have to hear his anger at the Thatcher administration and you can tell that he cared about was happening at the time. At the time, Kinnock was slammed for losing his cool, but I don't think he comes out of it badly, with the benefit of hindsight.

That's the kind of passion we need from our current crop of bland, media-friendly, career-minded politicians, although they would be helped if the media could step back from trying to summarise party policy in seven seconds of soundbite.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

You know you're a political junkie when...

You reach for your credit card to buy Party Political Broadcasts - The Greatest Hits and look longingly at the sequel American Political Commercials - The Greatest Hits.

It only gets worse when you start searching to see if you can get them on DVD rather than poor quality VHS.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Party of government

Being the party of government has never sat well with Labour. We're not used to it - this is the first time we've had a second chance at power and we seem set for a third. It just doesn't seem right. We got used to being in opposition and the freedom that brought. Opposition is easy - you can just sit there and snipe, knowing that your proposals don't really matter and you can wait to jump all over the government for mistakes and failures.

In May 1997 this country stepped out of 18 years of Tory rule with a new spring in our collective step. That next morning did feel different, didn't it? Weren't you infused with hope for the future? That excitement and hope is part of our problem now. We've forgotten that government is about compromise - the art of the possible. Being in government means that you will fail in some things - the law of probability demands it.

As a party committed to social justice and the value of society, we'll tie ourselves in knots over Iraq or PFI or foundation hospitals or the railways or whatever else is bothering us today and we'll forget to shout about our achievements. That's not to criticise the many loyal members who are genuinely exercised about these important issues, but we do need to keep our eyes on the prize.

We need to recover some of that evangelical fervour of May '97. We need to get out there and tell people what we have done and what more we will do. Plenty of people will remind you of the failures, but every time they do, remember to tell them of a success.

  • Low inflation
  • High employment - every month, more people are in work than ever before
  • Low interest rates
  • Economic growth
  • 2 million pensioners off the poverty line
  • 1 million children off the poverty line
  • More teachers
  • More nurses
  • More doctors
  • More police officers
  • More nursery placed
  • A national minimum wage - now past £5 an hour.
  • Guaranteed annual holidays
  • Paternity and parental leave
  • NHS waiting lists falling
  • Crime rates falling
  • Life expectancy rising faster than ever

These are not vague proposals or timetables for action - these are real improvements delivered by this government. We are fighting against a partisan media more concerned with minor infidelities and semi-naked celebrities than discussing politics in anything other than snappy, prejudice-fuelled headlines. We've also got our own internecine struggles going on to distract from the business of government.

We've failed to get the message across, not to deliver.

Your choice at the next election is not between the idealist party that we would choose, it is between the current Labour Party - with all its faults and successes - and the remains of the Thatcher generation currently running the Tories. Voting for the Liberal Democrats may salve your conscience over a particular issue, but if you then find Michael Howard walking through the front door of Number 10 after election day, will you feel that the punishment fits the crime?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Welcome to the major leagues, Charlie

Charles Kennedy was interviewed on the Politics Show on BBC1 yesterday, down the line from the Spring conference in Harrogate. He was getting rather riled by the line of questioning taken by Jeremy Vine, who was pushing the Liberal Democrat leader over some of the less well-known party policies:
  • letting 16 year olds become porn stars
  • taxing your dog
  • an uncosted promise to boost maternity pay by 30%
  • giving the vote to serving prisoners
These have been passed by the Liberal Democrat conference and as this is the 'sovereign' decision-making body of the party, become party policy. Charlie insisted that the party should be judged solely on the manifesto. Sorry, that's not how it works.

It isn't enough anymore to simply give the press good quotes about how poor the current government is, jump aboard bandwagons or to oppose for the sake of opposition. There comes a point, when you have to expect greater scrutiny of the policies that you offer as an alternative. To be fair, it is a kind of compliment to the national leadership for the opposition that they have presented, but it doesn't do to look aggrieved when you aren't allowed to dodge tough questions.

Still, I'm sure the delegates were roused to action by the inspiring exhortation to go back to their constituencies and prepare for opposition.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Creatively accounting for failure

When the Tories took control of the council, aided by their loyal Liberal Democrat poodles, they set about reducing the £13 million of council tenant rent arrears - a laudable aim. They started taking it out on the easiest targets and then brought payments forward to bring extra cash into the account. Then they sent threatening letters to all those in arrears, which mistakenly went out to many thousands of innocent tenants, as detailed in an earlier post of mine.

In the good old days, the council would rightly concentrate their fire on those tenants who refused to pay, but in the brave new world of the coalition, those who can't pay the whole amount now come in for the same forceful treatment. Back when Labour were in charge, if you agreed to make payments to reduce your debt - perhaps no more than a couple of pounds a week - and kept up to date, you were supported. That's the socially responsible way for a public-sector landlord to behave - indeed it is the way most lenders behave over debts.

However, as the council is now under new management, the totemic value of reducing that outstanding debt is approaching a fetish and there's a new twist to the way the books are cooked. You might think that a tenant who offers to pay a small amount to reduce their debt week by week should be applauded - after all, the council will get their money. You would, of course, be wrong. If you do it that way, the remaining sum of the debt remains on the arrears account. An evicted tenant won't pay anything to reduce the debt, but the total arrears get shuffled off to a different accounting point, thus reducing the £13 million headline total.

So, the officers are now instructed to pursue eviction in all cases where the tenant cannot make full settlement immediately, leading to large piles of cases being sent to the county court for judgement. Unfortunately, the judges are wise and compassionate human beings, so if the tenant offers to make a down payment on the spot and agrees to regular payments thereafter, the order to evict is denied. But still the cases come - in the sure knowledge that many will be thrown out and wasting the court's time and the taxpayers' money.

By the way, if you are evicted, you are regarded as intentionally homeless, so the council doesn't have to rehouse you. Nice, eh?

The council is also pursuing those who haven't paid council tax. Previously, if you were on benefit, the council would effectively amalgamate tax owed from previous years and take the maximum they could against a single debt - around £20 a month. Now, the council regards each debt as a separate entity, so pursue you for the maximum amount for each debt. This can quite easily mean that you end up paying £100 a month out of your £200 a month benefit, which is only going to drive you deeper into debt.

If you can't pay that, then the council will seek to have you locked up. This hasn't been used for many years, so some magistrates and court clerks didn't even know that they had the power to commit non-payers to prison, but the council are pushing it. So there you are - no threat to society, but being imprisoned for a debt. Victorian values in action, Charles Dickens would be proud.

You can understand how it happens - someone can lose a job or go through a divorce and the debt starts to mount. Suddenly, there are two blokes at the door and you have to choose to pay them or the council demand that has appeared on your doormat. Baseball bats are always more persuasive than red ink, so the council loses out. Rather than offering a helping hand, assistance with benefits and an agreed repayment scheme, the iron fist is cracking down on them.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Revolting Librarians

That normally placid bunch of information scientists that staff our fine city libraries aren't happy.

The Tory/Lib Dem City Council want to extend opening hours on Saturdays, but also want to save money, so they've got a cunning plan to do both by cutting the staff's wages. Normally you would try negotiation, but they've gone for the nuclear option of giving the staff notice of a change in terms and conditions. Those that don't like it know where the door is.

That's what we like. Tough on education and tough on the causes of education. That's the Tory way.

Silence is golden

The Birmingham Evening Mail claimed tonight that John Hemming had been silenced by the City Council when his evidence to an election court was censored. This court is investigating the events surrounding the City Council elections in Bordesley Green and Aston wards in June 2004.

The Mail report suggests the truth:

'The city's deputy leader admitted that his evidence of alleged corruption - ranging from a Labour vote forging factory to death threats to postmen, bribery, and setting alight a postbox containing postal votes - was based on hearsay'

More from the Telegraph:

'The rumour was...'

'Mr Hemming said that he had been told...'

No wonder that the Deputy High Court Judge said that 'Hearsay evidence cuts no ice with me.'

John has staged a long campaign to try and convince anyone that the Labour government conspired to create an electoral system from which it would benefit politically - specifically by extending the right to a postal vote. If that is the case, then the conspiracy involved the politicans (from all parties) and civil servants who sat on the Home Office committee that proposed the change. It also included the Liberal Democrat MPs who supported the bill and the independent Electoral Commission that later supported all-postal vote trials.

This idea was to increase democratic involvement and make it easier for people to vote. Ironically enough, there are Liberal Democrat councillors who have an interest in low turnout. They hold their seats by virtue of the fact that the Labour vote doesn't turn out in local elections in the volume that it does in parliamentary ones. If it did, there would be a number who would be out of a job.

John also found time to put the boot into Llin Homer, the Chief Executive and Returning Officer of Birmingham City Council, and also John Owen, the long-suffering head of the Elections Office in Birmingham. In view of some of the comments made at the hearing, I'd like to see John repeat his allegations outside court, as the ramifications could prove interesting.

The problem is that the electoral officers have no powers or resources to investigate fraud allegations at the time - that is a matter for the police after the event. At a local election in 2003, there were rumours (if that's enough evidence for John, it'll do for me) that there was a minibus travelling between polling stations to allow the passengers to 'vote early and vote often' as the old Northern Irish adage has it. Trying to crack down, the polling station officers started to ask questions of voters, but found that they are only legally allowed to ask two questions: 'Are you [insert name]?' and 'Have you voted in this election already?' If you can leap that hurdle and give the right answer to those two probing questions, you get your ballot paper and off you go.

Electoral fraud is as old as democracy and has been practised by villains of all political persuasions - even Liberal Democrats. If these councillors and their campaigners are shown to have subverted the democratic system, then they deserve to be expelled from the Labour Party and chucked out of office forthwith. There's still no reason to dismantle the whole system because of the behaviour of a few individuals, nor yet because low turnout suits some parties.

Incompetent or cynical - you decide

As has been reported elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats missed an open goal on Monday night. The government won the vote on the anti-terrorism bill by just 14 votes, as 17 Liberal Democrat MPs - including Charlie K - didn't vote. That's right, the Liberal Democrats could have defeated the government, but couldn't get almost a third of their MPs to turn up. Most spectacularly, Charlie couldn't be there because he had a TV interview to prepare for.

Mark Oaten claims that

'It was a miscalculation by everyone at every level. There was chaos in the chamber and we had no idea at all that the rebellion would be of that size; my feeling was that Clarke had probably bought off Robin Cook and the other rebels.'

Surely, with a rebellion in the offing, wouldn't you want to get every last one of your MPs through the lobbies to eat into the government majority?

However, there is another possibility. The Liberal Democrats are well aware that keeping the controversy over the bill alive helps them politically and damages the government.

But they wouldn't put liberty at risk for cheap political advantage, would they? After all, Charlie promised that 'The Liberal Democrats will take a stand on our civil liberties.'

So, incompetent or cynical?

An unhealthy interest

The Tories must be celebrating - they've finally found something with which to attack that great Labour strength, the National Health Service. The Independent has an interesting article about the genesis of the story, which does suggest that Mrs Dixon is being used as a political pawn, despite her protests to the contrary.

Remember, that the NHS treats a million people every couple of days, so there will always be cases where the service isn't up to the mark. That doesn't mean that it isn't important to Mrs Dixon and her family and it doesn't mean that things couldn't be better. However this has happened, this case by itself does not prove that the investment has failed.

In the past year, waiting lists have dropped by 12% and over the past eight to ten years, cancer death rates have dropped 12%, while deaths from heart problems have dropped by 25%. Even as late as 2001, around a quarter of a million people were waiting more than six months for their operation. That's now down to under 70,000. Last year, there were 48 people - not even enough to fill a bus - across the whole of England who were waiting more than nine months for an operation.

An interesting measure of performance is the popularity of private healthcare. People choose the private option for speed, not quality. Now, we have some doctors bemoaning the lack of private patients, Nuffield now only do contract work for the NHS and other providers are closing hospitals.

We have more nurses, more doctors and more support staff. Yet, despite the bleating of the Tories, the NHS isn't overloaded with evil bureaucrats and administrators - every business needs people to administer payroll, purchasing and do all the nuts and bolts work that allows doctors and nurses to heal the sick. The US healthcare system employs a far higher percentage of administrators and managers than does the NHS.

Massive amounts of money have been injected into the NHS, not the drip feed that barely sustained life during the 1980s and 90s. This infusion is set to continue for the next three years and the results will get better still. Eighteen month waiting lists from when you saw the specialist weren't uncommon when our Tory colleagues were in office, sitting comfortably on private healthcare plans. The aim under Labour is to reduce the waiting list to eighteen weeks - from the day you first see your GP to the day the surgeon wields the scalpel.

The Tories offer us the option of taking money out of the public system and giving it to the private suppliers. Under their proposals, if you go private, the NHS will pick up half the tab for you. You may still have to find more than £5,000 to pay your share, so I doubt that this will attract many more than the 11% of the UK population who currently have any form of private healthcare. This is a cynical tax-break - a bribe for the top 10% financed by the rest of us, as the money is extracted from our health service. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, the Tories did oppose the creation of the NHS sixty years ago and have voted against the extra money that this government have pumped into your service.

Is it perfect? No.

Is there more to do? Yes.

You can't trust the Tories to do it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Touched by greatness - or just touched?

David Cameron (oft touted as the next leader when Howard is dumped in May) was on Radio 5 on Tuesday afternoon and he was rattling off the usual Tory lines, including the old favourite,

'this wave of burglaries we've had under this government'

We've been here before, haven't we?

The British Crime Survey concludes that burglary has dropped 42% since 1997.

I keep saying it - by any measure you like, crime is falling and has fallen consistently since 1995.

If you want further confirmation, the Evening Mail on Saturday (no weblinks to weekend stories, sorry) told us that crime in Birmingham City Centre was at its lowest since 1982.

But don't let the facts get in the way of a good slogan, eh? And if you keep saying it, people will remember it and might believe that it's true.

Liberal Democrats - together in elected dreams

Charlie Kennedy is in buoyant mood on the Liberal Democrat website.

'The majority of people in this country now see the Liberal Democrats as the Real Opposition'

That's nice Charlie, but isn't the idea that a majority of the people see you as the government?

Now, I know that the Liberal Democrats have an interesting attitude towards forecasting outcomes - a glance at the various graphs reported over on LibDemWatch would suggest that they are the only ones who can win in every seat in England, Scotland and Wales, but this does stretch credulity to breaking point.

The most recent political highwater mark was reached in a YouGov/Sunday Times poll on 22 January, where the Liberal Democrats reached 25% support, compared to 34% for Labour and 31% for the Conservatives. This translates into 66 seats - 15 up on the 2001 election, but a little short of the Tories 180 and Labour's 369. Incidentally, while our friend John Hemming would win Birmingham Yardley under this scenario, Brent East and Leicester South would both return to the Labour fold and parliament would remain but a dream for Nicola Davies in Birmingham Hodge Hill.

Charles isn't too far from the mark in some ways, though. The Tories have been a thoroughly spineless opposition, far too concerned with their own navels than holding the government to account. It is only in recent weeks, when they've been able to come out with their policies based on prejudice and greed that they've shown a recovery.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Due process

There are some things that a liberal democracy should hold inviolate.

No ifs.

No buts.

No questions.

One of those is the right of human beings to go about their business without politicians imprisoning them. A vital function of the judicial system is to take the politics out of the daily administration of justice.

'No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law'

That was thought to be a good idea 210 years ago when the Bill of Rights was adopted by the United States. While we can't help the fact that the current President likes to ignore certain aspects of the Constitution, that's no excuse for us to follow suit. Other democratic countries have not felt the need to introduce imprisonment without due process and I don't feel inclined to follow the example of the Soviet Union, China or Saudi Arabia on matters of justice.

Internment in Northern Ireland didn't work, it just added to the feeling of persecution amongst the nationalist community and provided a ready supply of recruits for the cause. The last thing we need to do is to fuel disenchantment and anger amongst the Islamic community in this country, the vast majority of whom are decent, loyal citizens.

Where people are believed to have committed an offence, let's put the evidence before a jury and let's admit intercepted communications as evidence, as they are in other countries across the world.

In the long term, the answer to the generated paranoia is not locking up people on the say so of an elected minister, it is by investing time and effort in dealing with root causes. Sadly, the issue of liberty will overshadow the efforts made by this government to tackle global poverty and bring a lasting solution to the Palestinian problem.