Saturday, May 28, 2005

A little fame...

Iron Angle in the Birmingham Post today (not on their website, natch) mentions John H's blog and has clearly had a glance at at least one post on this blog (a big 'Hi' to Paul Dale, if you are still reading) as well as stuff on John's blog. It is a knockabout review of our recent campaign to get John to admit that he is modelling his career on Blofeld (Ernst Stavro the Bond uber-baddie, not Henry the TMS cricket commentator - although Henry's father did unwittingly inspire the naming of the Fleming character, but I digress). Paul also mentions the 'Sutton Coldfield question' and claims that John's utterances are 'Delphic,' which is not exactly the word I would choose.

One line does concern me is that he considers that John has 'enough time on his hands to write a surreal internet blogspot.'

It may come as a shock to members of the Dead Tree Press (apologies, I can't remember who coined this phrase, but I think it may have been Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads who also has this comment about politician's blogs) that the internet isn't just a sideline to the 'real' media any more. John's blog isn't a waste of time. He's an elected representative and legislator and this is a very useful way for him to speak to the community and for the community to yell at him - both unfiltered by press editing. There is an unrehearsed, unspun air about most blogs - he gets the chance to speak his brains and a number of colleagues take pleasure in kicking him around the ether. We've never met and never planned anything about this - it just seems to have evolved this way.

I'll praise John for having the wit and the guts to write the blog and to spend the time glancing at others' views on him and taking the time to comment - it shows a touch of humanity. Would that more MPs could find the time to speak directly to us mere mortals - he's actually gone up in my estimation because of his efforts (no matter how wrong he clearly is on most subjects). Equally, I'll stand up for the councillors who blog - Zoe Hopkins and Bob Piper both contribute comments here and there are many others around the country. [EDIT: I entirely agree with Stuart Bruce's comment that politicians who aren't blogging are failing their electorate.]

Mark Lawson found the full force of the blogging community turned upon him when he reviewed election blogs a few weeks ago. I'm probably guilty of most of the sins that Lawson reports about the blogosphere, but I write because I want to and because I enjoy it. If someone else reads it and enjoys it, that's fine by me - although I'll confess I do watch the stats to feed my own ego. I aim for accuracy in the facts, but the spin, views, arguments and comment are my own (with one eye on the libel laws). They may coincide with Labour policy nationally or locally, they may not - I'm not a mouthpiece for the Labour party and nothing here is inspired by a form letter from a Labour press officer (as revealed by that poor programme on C4 this week that told us what we already knew).

So, don't be put off by the critics, John. You aren't wasting your time. Just remember that Tom Watson did it before you.

ID Cards

Given that surveys apparently report 83% support for ID cards, the on-line community isn't backing the government one little bit.

On the surface, I don't have a massive practical problem with an ID card. I already carry plenty of stuff to identify and track my movements - my credit and debit cards show where I shop, the loyalty card shows where I buy my petrol, my phone can be tracked across different cells and I have a company ID card and a driving licence with my photograph on them. If I apply for a loan, my credit history is checked and I've recently been run through a CRB check as a school governor. So, I'm not unused to checks on my identity and having one card to identify me wouldn't be a huge bind - and this simplification will be important later on.

But when you look more deeply into what is proposed, then it all looks a little less attractive. Talk Politics has been writing some excellent pieces on the whole bill - they are a little technical, but the proposal is very technical. Knowledge is a dangerous thing as far as this project goes.

One of my biggest concerns about the project is whether the whole thing can work. The track record of recent government IT projects is less than heartening:

Anthony Sampson wrote in Who Runs This Place that the Civil Service doesn't do project management, a statement backed up by the National Audit Office blaming the Home Office for 'poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and inadequate control of purchases.'

Now, don't get the idea that this is solely a government problem - plenty of private sector projects go equally over-budget and hit delays. IT is relatively simple when you have a single PC, but start plugging them together and sharing data and things get a touch more challenging.

This is going to be the daddy of all government IT projects and will dwarf the other projects and it won't work.

Add into the fact that the much-vaunted biometric technology is more fallible than you think - the face matching software gets it wrong 40-50% of the time; fingerprint checks fail 20% of the time; and even iris scans can be wrong 5-9 times in every 100. All of this comes from the trial of the Passport Service biometrics recording system, which also revealed that it took about 10 minutes to obtain this data for each participant, suggesting that registering the entire population will take a quarter of a million man-weeks.

This has the makings of being a poll tax for the new millennium. Come the next election, not only will we have the first stories about a massive overspend (place your bets now that the system will cost at least £10 billion more than currently forecast), we will also have lots of stories about the system misidentifying innocent civilians as Al-Qaeda terrorists. Anyone care to write the first headlines in the Daily Mail?

And don't think that it won't be compulsory to carry your card. The government won't need to enforce that part of the legislation for quite a while, because the private sector will do it for them by stealth. It will become the easy way for any business to check your identity and you will want a card because it will make life easier.

Want to open a bank account? Show the ID card to prove your address.

Want to buy alcohol or go into a club? That card will prove your age and stop the licensee being prosecuted, so they will be bound to demand it.

Want a job? Show your ID card to prove your entitlement to work in the UK.

In a hundred little ways, you will find your life more difficult without the card before the government ever have to force you to carry it. By the time they do (and they will), you'll have no problem with it, because you will already carry it.

By the way, Bob Marshall-Andrews on Any Questions on Radio 4 this week said that he had been told by the Home Secretary that ID cards won't have any effect on fighting terrorism or controlling illegal immigration. Is it really worth all the grief? Is it worth the billions before the government gives up? Is it worth your £93 to buy your card?

I don't think so.

Let's hope that 30 or so Labour MPs have the same view.

Liberal Democrat talks sense shocker

Amazingly, there is something upon which John H, Bob Piper, Unity and the Hack are agreed - the Standards Board for England. This sort of alignment happens only rarely and some commentators may regard it as a portent of doom....

This exists to examine the conduct of elected councillors and bring them to account for their behaviour - it can even suspend them from office, which would fatally wound most political careers. Fair enough, if you want to deal with a councillor taking bribes or stepping way out of line, but threats of complaints seem to be being used by a number of officers and authorities as a way of stifling debate and attacking the democratic rights of elected members.

John cited the the Liverpool case where the spat between the Chief Exec and the Liberal Democrat leader has escalated into open warfare amid claims that the (non-elected) Chief Exec told the (elected) leader to resign (claims denied by the Chief Exec in question).

If this is true, then the Chief Executive may have acted improperly - if he believes that there is an issue over conduct that should be raised with the standards board, then he has a public duty to do so, not to act as judge, jury and executioner and ask a democratically elected member to 'do the decent thing'.

Recently, Paul Dimoldenburg from Westminster was hauled before the board for highlighting the way the council was dragging its feet over recovering the millions owed by the disgraced gerrymanderer Shirley Porter. The interesting thing was that it was found that he had breached the code of conduct, but had decided to impose no penalty because that breach was in the public interest. Shouldn't that be a defence in itself? Surely the correct result would have been to have found him to be acting within the code of conduct as the public interest should be supreme. Paul's an experienced councillor with the backing of his local party, but things might have been different for a more junior member.

For once, I'm with John H on this issue. Deal with corruption, by all means, but ask the question whether some of the issues raised with the standards board aren't better dealt with through the ballot box.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Hemmingwatch

I did consider starting a separate blog to monitor Cllr John Hemming MP and his new life as a MP for Yardley, but I'd rather keep it in house.

Anyway, John has been a busy boy in the past few days. Not only did he make his exceedingly soporific maiden speech, he's also found time to lay down some written questions to ministers and their departments. Nothing wrong with that - the opposition exists to hold the government to account.

However, given that each question costs an average of £148 to answer, you might have thought that he could find better ones than some of those he has asked so far. [EDIT: I missed that he has so far posed some 24 written questions at a cost of over £3,550. Not bad for the first few days in work.]

A question about the number of university courses for pastry chefs - I'm sure that keeps the good people of Yardley awake at night.

A question about how many people have emigrated from the UK - something that could have been answered by a Google search for rather less than £148. This seems to have led to an attempt to convince us that the increase in emigration is down to people fleeing the terror of Labour government (an argument founded on something someone said to him during the campaign). The only person I know to have left the country because of Labour is Jim Davidson, which I'd regard as a bonus, personally. [EDIT: Bob points out that Phil Collins also left, so that's two down. So far, Andrew Lloyd-Webber has failed to make good on his repeated promises to go.]

There's also a question about Neighbourhood Renewal Fund money - intriguing, as I'm writing a piece about how John's Liberal Democrat colleagues spend this cash in Birmingham.

I'm not alone in seeing a contradiction between John being a member of Greenpeace and driving a Land-Rover Discovery around the jungles of Yardley - a vehicle which he admits is classed by the organisation as a gas-guzzler? Still, at least he now knows when he will have to pay more to fuel the beast.

Incidentally, I can thoroughly recommend the They Work For You website as a way of keeping track of your elected representatives. They even email you when your selected MP squawks or otherwise demonstrates their existence. Parliament uncut and unspun.

LD funding update

It seems that the plot thickens regarding this generous donation to the Liberal Democrats.

Not only have the Liberal Democrats argued for a ceiling on individual gifts of £50K, while eagerly accepting the £2.4 million, their election supremo Lord 'Foxy' Rennard dodged the issue when asked about a large donation. In a quote oddly missing from the online copy of the Guardian report, he said
'The figure of £3 million was put to me. That was not right.'

Not entirely open with the truth, one might say.

This is the same man who has argued that large donations could be regarded as 'buying influence or favours.'

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Party Funding

Unlike the other main parties, the Liberal Democrats do not receive funding from big business or trade unions...

So says their website as it hands round the traditional political begging bowl (we all have to do it). We already know that the Liberal Democrat idea of big business and union donations excludes the donations of £30,000 from McDonalds, £7000 from Tesco, £7500 from La Senza, £1.7 million from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust , £94,000 from Unison, £17,000 from Independent newspapers, £16,000 from Bloombergs, £32,000 from St Mary Abchurch Investments and £25,000 from Pearl Properties.

Even our own John Hemming dug into his pockets a few times here and here.

That pales into petty cash when compared to the donations from the mysterious 5th Avenue Partners Ltd, which has given the party almost £2.5 million since February this year. As the New Politics network points out, this single donor is responsible for over half of the total Liberal Democrat donations this year.

They also highlight that this company was bought out less than a year ago, has submitted no accounts as yet, is registered in the UK only with a law firm and the director is resident in Mallorca. Normally, donations from overseas are illegal, but these are being channelled through a UK firm - a handy loophole that the LDs have exploited.

Trouble at top?

On Sunday, Simon Hughes said that the local income tax policy was 'flawed' and that he found the number of seats gained a 'disappointment.'
'I supported local income tax as a change. But there was a flaw. And that was that it meant different things in different parts of the country. And that's why I don't think actually in the end it worked well.'
I always thought that meaning different things in different parts of the country was a Liberal Democrat tactic, but never mind.

Yesterday, Chatshow Charlie countered, saying that the policy would be staying and that it 'tested positively.'
We will be sticking to the local income tax. You can always look at any policy, particularly one that you've tested, and it has tested positively during a general election. There was one opinion poll showing seven out of ten in support for the basic proposition we were putting forward and we were the only party with something new to say on the issue. So we shouldn't be resiling from that, and we certainly won't be.

Although that seems to go against the promise that there would be no sacred cows in the party's review of tax policies announced on Tuesday morning.

Seasoned observers will note that Simon Hughes stood against Chuckles the last time there was a leadership campaign. Is this the opening salvo by Hughes to decapitate his own party and open up a vacancy?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

And the winner is

With the results of the Birmingham jury now in, Paul Tilsley has picked up the poisoned chalice of the leadership of the Liberal Democrat group on Birmingham council and thus, we can assume, the deputy leadership of the council itself as he takes over the position of Whitby's poodle, so recently vacated by the new MP for Yardley. Although how much he plans to be a back-seat driver remains to be seen.

Friday, May 20, 2005

John Hemming is an illegal immigrant!

Well, for those of you suffering from insomnia, here's John H's maiden speech to the House. Don't all rush at once and crash the server.

He does admit that he isn't as local as he has claimed...

Apparently, the Hemmings were kings of Denmark and came across with the Vikings, although he doesn't find room for his demands for home rule for Mercia. Not that he has delusions of grandeur or anything, but slipping a quote from Beowulf into your maiden speech is worth of Pseud's Corner in Private Eye. Aside from that, he tries to get one over on the member for Swindon by singing the praises of the roundabout on Garretts Green Lane. Anyone who has ever driven over the Magic Roundabout in Swindon will know that Birmingham has nothing to match it - fortunately.

There's still room for his one-man campaign to save the ancient community of Yardley, which is in no way connected to his desire to save his political skin come the next election.

After John wraps up and they nudge the other members in the chamber awake, Norman Lamb jumps up and adds:

Remarkably for my hon. Friend, he managed to avoid controversy, although I suspect that that may not be repeated in future contributions in the Chamber.
You don't say, Norman, you don't say.

Hoodies and the truth

On Question Time tonight, George Galloway was peddling the cobblers that the PM wants to ban hoodies - something that John Hemming also believes.

All this comes from the press conference last week, where the PM was asked about the news that morning that a shopping centre in Kent has banned teenagers wearing hoodies (oddly, following their publicity stunt, that same centre has reported a 23% increase in visitors compared to the same weekend last year).

He answered the question and concluded as follows.
And I think if that means that in situations like the Bluewater centre that they just simply say we are not going to do it, we are not going to have these people, I am afraid that is just the way it is, then I would back that up completely.

The full, verbatim transcript is here.

So does the PM want to ban hoodies or does he just back Bluewater in their decision? Make up your own minds.

By the way, John H made his maiden speech today. Catch Hansard tomorrow morning for the full exciting details and watch out for a review here later after I have trawled it for pearls of wisdom.

Sadly, John couldn't be bothered to find out that Danny Alexander is the Liberal Democrat MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey (not 'something and other'). But who needs accuracy?

Pain in the where?

Apparently Tony Blair has been treated in hospital for back pain.

I wonder how long it took them to remove the knives....

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Who's inhaled?

The Guardian's Backbencher email reports the following interesting campaign ploy by the Liberal Democrats which may explain their shock victory in Cambridge...

A friend of a friend of a - well, let's call him a contact - has passed a curious flyer to the Backbencher. Headed "Weed Legalise It!", it was distributed at a pro-cannabis rally on Sunday and bears the logo of the Lib Dem Youth and Students' division. A tear-off strip of three roaches features a suspicious-looking leaf and the yellow Lib Dem bird. Flying high, you might say.

Legalising the weed has been Lib Dem policy for three years, but they've rarely made much fuss about it. The Backbencher hopes Charles Kennedy's younger colleagues haven't persuaded him to substitute joints for his usual tobacco. It won't help him resolve that urgent debate about local taxation.

How does that sit with Law n' Order Hemming?

Or is it another of those inconvenient and embarrassing policies that he'd rather ignore?

Place your bets

It will be a shame to see John H replaced as Deputy Leader and leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the City Council, but we'll keep a close eye on him as his career at Westminster develops/nosedives (delete as appropriate).

So, the business of the week is deciding who will replace him at the top of the heap of Birmingham Liberal Democrats. Who will take that crown? We'll know at the end of the week, apparently.

Early contestants for this prize are apparently Paul Tilsley and Mick Wilkes, who seems to believe that the Freedom of Information Act is too high a price to pay for access to information. Oddly, some of the biggest users of the FOIA are Liberal Democrat campaigners.

Rumours suggest that Sue Anderson might also throw her hat into the ring, but all will be revealed in due course. The next big question will be - will the Tory/LD coalition survive this?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Snubbed?

Given that Charlie has only 61 other MPs from which he can choose and that four of the previous shadow cabinet have expressed a desire to leave the 21-strong front bench, wouldn't you have thought that our very own John Hemming might have figured in his thoughts when it came to appointing a Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government? After all, John is Deputy Leader of the largest local authority in the UK (information correct at time of going to press) and has some experience of the subject.

You'd be wrong of course, 'cos Chatshow preferred the experienced hands of Sarah Teather with just a few months' experience as a councillor behind her.

Survivors

Two fights for survival yesterday.

Only one was against the odds, so well done to the boys in West Brom.

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The other was in the hotbed of intrigue that is the Birmingham Labour Group. As noted by Talk Politics last week, Sir Albert Bore faced his annual play-off as leader of the Group. Cllr Mike Olley's team of 15 were outnumbered and outpaced by the 29 members that Sir Albert could muster as he retained the title.
His challenge was supported by the belief that he could do a deal with Paul Tilsley - the Liberal Democrat transport 'expert' being touted as the possible next leader of the Liberal Democrat group - contingent upon that position being prised from John H's undead hands and Paul being elected to it. I understand that there are other Liberal Democrats who might have something to say about that.
Mike also seems to believe that we lost power in Birmingham because of poor local services.
Nope.
Far more significant was the negative campaigning by the Liberal Democrats in the inner-cities, focussed heavily on the Iraq war - something that not even John H can blame on Sir Albert... probably...
What am I thinking? Of course he can.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Nerves of steel

Let's hope that the Tories and the LibDems don't get any clever ideas, or I too will have to resort to begging to fund a defence campaign.

What am I thinking?

I never thought I'd write those words in the same sentence - 'Tories,' 'LibDems' and 'clever.' And 'ideas,' come to that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Decongestion

Cllr Len Gregory, in charge of Transportation for Birmingham Council, has launched the Congestion Task Force and is asking road users to give him their bright ideas for cheap and 'quick wins' to improve the flow of traffic and cut traffic levels to school holiday levels (by around 15%).

He's got the wrong end of the stick - and not for the first time.

Tweaking white lines and moving traffic islands won't make that much difference. The real answer is an integrated strategy for public transport to get people out of their cars. Perhaps reintroducing those bus lanes? Or announcing that you will support expanding the Midland Metro and stop wasting money on this daft feasibility study into the blunderground - which won't fall foul of their new-found mistrust of outside consultants.

I suspect that these aren't the answers that Len and the road lobby want to hear.

Geographical inaccuracies

OK, I'm being picky, but the Liberal Democrats claim that the Tories have no MPs in Birmingham.

While the Tories in Sutton Coldfield have considered seceding from the union, at last count they remained inside the City of Birmingham, as they send a cohort of councillors in to run the city.

You can see why they chose to ignore it, though. The Liberal Democrat candidate there slid back on the 2001 results while the Labour candidate actually increased his vote since then. (Nice one, Rob).

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Labour costs you less

Further proof that Labour is cheaper.

Following a review of catering costs, it has been revealed that the Tories and the LDs don't skimp on their sandwiches in meetings. The cost of servicing the 39 Tories' demands for quails' eggs and champagne comes to an annual average of £182 per councillor. The Liberal Democrats 28 councillors get their snouts into the trough to the value of £110, but the 53 Labour councillors only spend £91 per head to sustain themselves during Mike Whitby's speeches.
Coun Alistair Dow (Lib Dem Selly Oak), who is heading a scrutiny inquiry, said the council should be getting a better deal from its suppliers. The council appeared to be inflating prices "as if it was running a restaurant" rather than providing meals at cost price, he said.
These are just the in-house costs and I don't believe that they take into account the £35 a head Liberal Democrat junkets at the Copthorne hotel, which stopped suddenly after a Labour councillor blew the whistle last year. At the time, John Hemming told us that the use of the Copthorne was substantially cheaper than the use of Council House facilities, only to have the Tories accuse him and his colleagues of an 'indulgent extravagance.'

Caption competition

John Hemming has taken Charles Kennedy's advice..

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sharpening the knives

Post-election, everyone is plotting to bring down the leader. We know that the Tories will probably have a fairly public event after Howard has fiddled the process to ensure that the right man wins (also known as the anyone-but-Davis strategy).

Labour is starting to wash some dirty laundry in public as well, but that may well take a little longer to sort out.

And what of that other mob, the Liberal Democrats? Well, Charlie K has twigged that letting a bunch of sandalista muesli-freaks set policy isn't the best plan, as it just gives the more grown up parties a stick with which to beat you. Hence policies like letting 16-year olds buy and appear in porn as well as drink alcohol and buy drugs or to give convicted prisoners a vote, may find themselves shunted swiftly to the sidelines as the policy process is changed to filter out the wacky and unpopular policies. The policies aren't the only problem, consistency is also required, something lacking in Liberal Democrat politics across the country.

But what of Charlie himself? Has he done well enough against an unpopular government? Perhaps the time has come to find a real alternative?

Mr Hemming goes to London

Pending the launch of Radio Free Yardley, to beam truth into the darkness that afflicts that poor, unfortunate constituency (Labour will return, my friends), John has launched a campaign to point out that Labour does not have a democratic mandate. He may have a point, but is on awkward ground himself.

Let's look at the last results in Birmingham's South Yardley ward last year, where the Liberal Democrats romped away with the result. There, John secured the support of a whopping 21% of the total electorate - lower than the percentage of the electorate voting Labour across the country. He did slightly better at the parliamentary level, convincing 27% of the electorate to vote for him, but still trailing Estelle Morris' previous results on the same ground.

If the system doesn't give Labour a mandate, then it certainly doesn't let John throw stones from within his own glass house. Nor does it explain why the two smallest parties in Birmingham exclude the largest political party from council decisions, silencing the electors who gave Labour 233,000 votes in the local elections in 2004.

Incidentally, why do the badly-printed signs that the demonstrators are holding mention the LDs and the Tories, but claim that the bloke in the red scarf voted for Blair? Did he live in Sedgefield or has John just forgotten the name of his own party leader? (Granted, the Tories change their leaders at least once, if not twice, in each election cycle, so forgetting whether it is Howard/Davis/Hague/Major/Duncan Smith/Cameron/Yeo etc, etc, is entirely forgiveable).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Couldn't put it better...

'I was voting for the idea of Labour and that idea is bigger than any one MP and bigger than its leader. That idea has got a bit dirty as people have handled it trying to shape it into policies and manifestos, and some even say that Blair has made it stink, but it is still the best idea there is.'
From Scribble.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Not a bad result

All in all, I'm happy with Thursday.

I think that it has sent the right signal to Tony about just how poor a decision the Iraq war was and that he needs to rediscover some of the roots of the Party. I have no doubt that one of the main reasons we lost so many seats was because of Iraq and because of his failure to resign when the truth of the argument came out. I'll give him credit for standing by his decision and it is possible that history might prove him right in the long run, but the decision was wrong and the attempts to justify it by spinning limited intelligence data were hamfisted and bad government. The hammering that we took on Thursday has put the lid on any further foreign adventures with Uncle George and the US Marines - quite apart from the military limitations of our stretched armed forces.

Half-baked ideas like ID cards and these daft 'control orders' also need to be re-addressed and junked, but Tony needs to reconnect with the grass roots of the party. We're finding it increasingly hard to get people out to do the hard graft of running a campaign and it gets even more difficult when you need people to work in between the excitement of an election. Dropping 10,000 leaflets through doors in a Birmingham council ward isn't going to set the pulse racing, but it is important in connecting with the electorate and also showing them that politics isn't just conducted on TV by an elite class of Oxbridge graduates, but by people in their own community, just like them. Failing to do that dooms the party in the long run - that ground work wins tight elections, not party political broadcasts or photo-ops by the leaders. From here on in, it will be difficult, but then we're at our best when we're fighting for a cause.

It is now a matter of when Tony decides to go. Nobody seriously expects him to serve out a full term and hand over to a new leader with a few weeks to go before the next election - the party would demand a longer run-in than that. I'd expect something between 9 months and two years - perhaps a hand over at the 2006 party conference would be appropriate.

A majority of 66/67 (depending on whether we manage to overturn Patrick Cormack in South Staffordshire when that is run in a month - not a likely scenario, I'll grant you) is still more than workable. It is more than Thatcher had in 1979 and is three times that granted to Major in 1992 and invulnerable to the vagaries of by-elections (barring an outbreak of food poisoning in the members' dining room). It does empower the awkward squad, which will be enlarged now.

If you were an MP in 1997, your chances of making ministerial office have reduced significantly - there's been a couple of new intakes and they might well have good claims to promotion. Also, we're on our third term now and the pendulum will swing against Labour sooner or later, so your chances of a ministerial career in the future don't look good. All this means that you might as well start voting with your own head rather than with that of the whips. Hopefully this will mean that some of the more awkward policies will fall. This shift can only be good for democracy, as the government will no longer be able to rely on a thumping great majority of compliant backbenchers, so expect focus to return to the Commons for the first time in a while.

Amongst all the gloom and doom, we've still put a Labour government in power for the third time in a row - another record. Even though a week may be a long time in politics, I'm also confident about our chances of achieving a fourth victory under our next leader.

A long day's journey into night

I've only really just surfaced after Thursday's excitement.

Those of you who aren't involved in campaigning may think that after all the posters are put up and the leaflets done that we leave it all to the general public to go and vote while we sit down and drink coffee, safe in the knowledge of a job well done.

Not a bit of it.

Election days typically start before dawn with deliverers scuttling around the patch dropping 'wake-up' leaflets through doors of known voters. During the day, we'll run round the polling stations, keeping an eye on how busy they are. We'll target areas and make sure that our voters get out - the days of driving elderly ladies to the polling station are disappearing thanks to postal voting. Even in the last hours, we'll make sure that our voters are getting through the door.

We had an interesting time this year. Our polling agents found local councillors standing inside the polling station and vehicles festooned with campaign posters in the car park, so a quick complaint to the presiding officer saw them moved on and off. Respect were a particular problem in Sparkbrook and Small Heath, with reports of their campaigners inside polling stations attempting to canvass support until the presiding officers intervened. Incidentally, Respect only had two candidates in the city in this election - the other was in Perry Barr. That didn't stop them plastering large parts of the city with election placards, even in wards outside those two constituencies.

After the polls close, there's time for a sandwich and a change of clothes ready for the final chapter in the election - the count. For any political anorak, this is one of the highlights - getting up close and personal with the process. It does feel a little odd to be wearing a suit and a rosette while wandering through the party crowds in the centre of Birmingham on a Thursday night, but if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined. Even though your feet ache, the tiredness seems to melt away as the count progresses. Most of us will have been up for around 24 hours by the time the result comes through, but we're still standing at 5am.

We watch the votes being counted, gleaning what information we can for future campaign targetting and making educated guesses about the result. There's also a chance to catch up on all the gossip about the various candidates and even to chat to some of the opposition.

This year in Birmingham, we knew that the Labour vote would be under pressure and there was intense interest in Edgbaston - under attack from the Tories; Northfield, because of the Rover problems; Sparkbrook and Small Heath, with the largest Muslim population of any UK constituency and subject to a well-funded Respect campaign; Hodge Hill, the site of a by-election 200 days previously; and Yardley, with John H trying yet again.

Predictably, while Labour majorities generally took a kicking (Liam Byrne took advantage of a higher general election turnout to increase his and narrowly missed being the seat that gave Labour an overall majority, losing out to Corby), we held all of the seats apart from Yardley, despite a few nervous moments.

The biggest shock of the night didn't come from Birmingham, but from our neighbours in Solihull. This is one of the truest-blue places in the country - it has returned a Tory MP for the 60 years that the seat has existed. Until Thursday, when the hard work of Lorely Burt paid off and she took the seat for the Liberal Democrats, aided by a eported increase of 400% in postal votes to deliver a slim, 279 vote majority.

The only drawback to being at the count is that you are often cut off from the wider picture, so you either subsist on scraps of information gleaned from a tame journalist or glimpses of the monitors around the place or have to wait until you get home and watch the recording. Yup, some of us are such anoraks that we actually record the damn thing.

Finally, can I thoroughly echo Eric the Unread. People get elected because of the hard work of thousands of volunteers across the country and across the political spectrum. Without people stuffing envelopes, putting up posters in the wee small hours, working door to door, taking abuse on street stalls and dragging voters to the polls, we'd be a lot poorer as a society. Thanks to all of you for making democracy work. Thanks also to the long-suffering polling and counting staff - you aren't paid enough for what you have to do.

And if you didn't vote, don't complain about anything. If you can't be bothered to get out there once in a while to make your opinion known, then you don't have the right to whinge. For all of you who say that 'my vote doesn't matter' - remember that 279 people decided that the LibDems won Solihull and 97 people gave Labour Harlow.

Friday, May 06, 2005

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

The people of Yardley have taken leave of their senses and sent John H to Westminster. On the up side, at least he's not in Birmingham.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Tories dig a deeper hole, but the LibDems are looking at the sky

The Times' tracker poll shows that Tory support has slumped to 27% - although it does need to be noted that this is only useful for showing trends, rather than predicting results. The sensitivity of Central Office to this news was shown by Liam Fox's dismissal of the poll as typical of a Labour-leaning paper. I'm sure that Populous Research won't regard that as critical of their techniques. They also ran a poll recently that showed that people still prefer Labour and Blair to the Tories and Howard.

Perhaps the sensitivity isn't solely because of the impending failure, as the polls indicate results broadly in line with 2001, but also because Howard has thrown everything into this campaign and the Tories may have to sell their old headquarters in Smith Square to try and cover the cost. Any bets on the issue of public funding for political parties coming up over the next few years?

Desperation has set in and thoughts have turned to the post-May 5 future.

Guys, you don't have one.

The battle is for the centre ground and Labour and the LibDems are about to start fighting over that again. At long last, Labour seem to be waking up to the threat that is the Liberal Democrats. They've gained ground in recent years and we can't rely on ignoring them any more, we need to attack their policies and highlight their thorough lack of principles.

They are working in a pincer movement to attack both parties from above and below. Labour is under attack in local government, as they are marginalised by the Liberal Democrats doing deals with the Tories, which provides a local power base to attack Labour parliamentary seats. When it comes to attacking the Tories, they have had a long standing truce with Labour in Tory/LD marginal seats, an agreement that Charles Kennedy only abandoned last week.

They won't make the breakthrough this time round, but the next general election will see the Liberal Democrats overhaul the Tories and become the largest opposition party. The election after that will be between Labour and the Liberal Democrats - the Tories seem determined to head further into the wilderness. To achieve this, they will need to abandon opportunism and grow up - this Observer article highlights some of the obvious contradictions within the party.

There's a new game in town and some of us are already playing it.

You can't handle the truth

If anyone can explain to me the context of Gorgeous George Galloway's nsauseating praise of Saddam Hussein
'I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability'

that doesn't make it sound like he's ingratiating himself with a blood-soaked dictator, I'd be grateful.

George accused ITN's Nicholas Owen and Katie Derham of being liars before storming off the lunchtime news on Monday. Can't take the heat, George?

The things they say..

'There's a difference between policy and what you'll do in government.'
Dr Richard Grayson, Liberal Democrat candidate for Hemel Hempstead
BBC Radio 4 Today programme 4 May 2005

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A final appeal

As we start the final sprint to the finish, it seems certain that Labour will still be in government on Friday morning. And yet...

I'm not going to ask you to vote Labour to put Tony Blair back in Number 10.

I'm not going to give you ten reasons to vote for us or vague pledges by which to judge us.

I'm going to ask you to vote Labour for these people:

For the 1.5 million pensioners lifted out of poverty

For the 1 million who have found work through the New Deal

For the 750,000 adults who have improved their lives with basic literacy and numeracy courses

For the 700,000 children rescued from poverty

For the 78,000 new nurses

For the 33,000 people alive because of improved coronary care

For the 28,000 new teachers

For the 27,000 new doctors

For the 25,000 people alive because cancer care has got better

For the 12,000 new police officers

For the 6,000 Rover workers who have seen their pensions protected

For the gay community who now have civil partnership rights and an equal age of consent

For all workers who now have a minimum wage and four weeks' holiday guaranteed

For pensioners who are now guaranteed at least £200 extra for winter fuel

For all our children benefitting from better schools and teachers paid a decent salary

Not just ten, but millions of good reasons to vote Labour.

Don't risk going back.

Don't leave it to someone else.

Don't wake up on May 6 and think 'If only I'd voted Labour, Howard wouldn't be Prime Minister.'

Read about the last time complacency and protest votes cost Labour a third term in office from a man who was there. If you live in a marginal, don't risk that protest vote. Every seat will count. Things aren't perfect and there is still so much left to do, but you know that only the Labour party can do it.

Whatever else you do this week - vote Labour on May 5.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

No. Not really.

John Hemming (on the verge of losing yet another election in Yardley) notes that the Tory helicopter which disturbed the skies of our fair city this Saturday with the banner asking us to 'Imagine five more years of Blair' is in fact a strong argument for voting Liberal Democrat.

I shall put this down to campaign exhaustion, or perhaps he has handed over the keyboard to his cat. If you don't want to see Labour in office, you need to vote Tory, because unless the polls are all wrong on a cataclysmic scale, the Liberal Democrats aren't about to threaten the Labour majority or gain power in their own right. The Tories may have lost the plot, but they haven't actually started advising people to vote Liberal Democrat.

But then, why should they?

All those Liberal Democrats elected in Birmingham last June are loyally supporting the Tories anyway.

Time to feel a little ashamed

I'm in my mid-30s, so I can't help but feel a little inadequate when I read that Michael Foot is still out there, Zimmer frame and all, campaigning against the BNP. He's 92 and was there last time Labour took on the far right in the East End.

The name's Hussain, Talib Hussain.

Another LD leaflet finds its way to my desk.

This one claims that the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sparkbrook and Small Heath, Talib Hussain, is a 'Bond star.'

That faint snapping sound you just heard was reality being stretched that little bit too far. Here's Cllr Hussain's full movie career, according to the Internet Movie Database:

  • Actor - filmography
    Octopussy (1983) .... Thug... aka Ian Fleming's Octopussy (UK: complete title)
That's it. He's only just on the acting credits list - just above those uncredited cameo roles. And not even a good Bond film, either.

Mind you, he only makes a cameo appearance in his leaflet. Charlie Kennedy's grinning face leers out at me on no less than seven occasions, with Tony Blair, George Bush and Talib Hussain making one appearance each. One of those people is a candidate in Birmingham - I'm not sure which.

It did get me wondering, though. Is John Hemming really some kind of Blofeld character? Is the plan for a Birmingham underground system just a cunning distraction from his real plans? An undercover camera took this picture in Yardley yesterday at the Coventry Road office...

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The truth is out there. As, possibly, am I.