Saturday, December 31, 2005

Another year older

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the year

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

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

Never mind, eh?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pensive on pensions

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

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

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

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

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

And it was all going so well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of term reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, the bottom two don't face relegation.

Not yet, at least.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

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

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

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

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

Now this is what I call a progressive partnership

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2005

A farewell to Leo

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

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

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

Thanks for the role, John.

They're coming home...

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

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

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

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

Hemming doesn't know what's going on shocker

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Intruding on public grief

'Tis the season to be jolly...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ho Ho Ho, indeed.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Making life taste sour

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

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

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

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

Regressive partnerships - updated

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 09, 2005

Rare to see such insight in one so young

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

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

Thursday, December 08, 2005

'Tortured and assaulted'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Border disputes or parliamentary etiquette for newbies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government of all the talentless

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

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

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

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

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

Nice and sleazy does it every time.


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

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

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The day the sky fell in

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

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

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

Digby, the biggest mayor in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy ride...

Nice to see our cabbies getting extra protection.

Taxi for Hemming!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Blue Friday - welcome to the New Order

How fallen are the mighty..

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

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

And then what?

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

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

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

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