Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Expert views

'A city the size of Birmingham should have a light rail system without any problem. It is certainly big enough to accommodate it... light rail is very good at penetrating the city centre.'
So says Ton Kaper, in charge of passenger transport for The Hague in the Netherlands, speaking at the International Association of Public Transport which is meeting in Birmingham as CENTRO has the current vice-chair.

Can you hear him, Whitless?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Ex libris

Inevitably, the DCMS has decided not to put the Birmingham Library scheme forward for the next stage of the PFI bid process.

So, we're left with a creaking building which remains the most-used library in the country - more than one and a half million people use it annually. The roof is leaking, the concrete is decaying and the escalators are on the verge of breaking irrepairably. Far worse, the archives in the building, regarded as of national, if not international importance, are at serious risk of damage, to the point where the National Archive is recommending that the collection be shifted to safety at Kew and out of our City entirely.

Let's return to the consultants' report which the council tried to bury, for fear of embarrassment.

This notes that each option for replacement of the library was judged against tests derived from the policies of key players - the City Council, Advantage West Midlands, the European Regional Development Fund, the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and, crucially, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. All of these would be expected to have significant impact on funding the project - the DCMS was expected to agree to £55 million of PFI credits to support the development. Not only did it bear the policy implications in mind, the report also worked to the Treasury and DCMS cost-efficiency guidelines and the consultants note that

'the carrying out of an appropriate Options Appraisal - such as this - will be a pre-requisite of making applications to funding bodies'
It is impossible to stress how important this report is to the success of the bid process. Given that the Tories and Liberal Democrats ignored the results of that appraisal, is it any wonder that the DCMS chose not to support the bid? At this point, I'd note that all the successful library bids put the lending/reference sections with the archives - logically enough.

Instead of a detailed options appraisal, they have this cobbled-together five-page document unworthy of the council officers whose names are attached, which is long on unsubstantiated statements and short on supported fact and pales by comparison with the detailed report prepared at the start of the year.

John H accuses the Labour group of shedding crocodile tears and of not pursuing the development enough to assemble a PFI bid, loyally backing the story put about by his Tory leader. While it is true to say that the bid hadn't got to the PFI stage, it was certainly advancing in that direction at a fair pace. Oddly, you don't draw up plans for this sort of project on the back of an old envelope (unless you are a Tory, obviously), so there are a whole range of things to do to ensure that the bid submitted to the DCMS is workable and can be put into practice. Terry Grimley made note of a seven page document that detailed the progress and plans in place by late November 2003 to take the bid forward - discussions were advanced with Heritage Lottery Fund regarding a funding application. Regardless of that, there had been an international design competition so we actually had an idea of what the building might look like (unlike the new projects). Progress was only stalled by the stitch-up in June 2004 that brought the Liberal Democrats a share of the Tory power.

Even if the new council had gone with the updated recommendations of the consultants, they could have had a full business plan ready to submit in April this year, months ahead of the government deadline, rather than a bid that (in John H's own words):

'did not specify where the Library would be or whether or not it would have the archives united in a National Centre for Family History.'
The 'bid' submitted to the DCMS appears to amount to little more than a vague request for money, rather than a detailed business plan.

However you look at it, we were further down the road to a new Library of Birmingham than we are today. A year of Tory/Liberal Democrat indecision and political vacillating have probably killed the project for the foreseeable future by throwing everything into reverse. It will be increasingly difficult to obtain funding from the usual sources as the London 2012 Olympic bid absorbs whatever money it can touch. If the Tories/Liberal Democrats had been able to suppress their anti-Labour obsession, we could have been celebrating some good news today.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats may have blown this completely and they can't shift the blame this time, no matter how much they whinge about it.

Watching the consultants - tunnels and libraries

It has been suggested that the council don't want to cite the widely-trailed Birmingham Underground feasibility study as evidence for the upcoming cabinet meeting where it is expected to be kicked into touch with the smooth efficiency of Jonny Wilkinson. They've reckoned without the Freedom of Information Act, which has forced them to promise publication of the original report before the 12 September, in the face of threats to take them to the Information Commissioner for withholding information.

My source did provide a piece of information that intrigued me, though. Apparently, the City Council claim not to have a full and final copy of the report - which seems odd as they've been happily leaking the results to the press for months, softening us up for the revelation that the project would be hog-whimperingly expensive, prolonged, impractical and disruptive.

And to think, I told you that last December for the price of an internet connection. £150,000 down the drain there, then, precisely as forecast. (If I get any splashes of prescience about the lottery numbers, I'll keep it to myself).

Doubtless a similar sum was wasted on the report into replacing the crumbling Birmingham Central Library. As reported here, the Council have finally published the report in full, slipping it onto the web in the quiet season for politics. There's not a lot new in it - the gems have already been mined by the politicians and passed to their journalistic sidekicks. What is very interesting is that the proposal to split the Library was considered by the review team. When their tests were applied to it, that proposal failed to make the shortlist, so it was rejected for detailed study (although the abortive Baskerville House option was considered at the last minute after one of the Tory councillors doodled an idea on the back of an envelope).

So, after spending tens of thousands of pounds of your money on this report and employing experienced consultants to provide objective answers to the problems, Whitless decided that the report didn't give the answer he wanted and he knew better. All because the report supported the original Labour plan to build a new super-library in Eastside. There can be no other explanation for it - the report was ignored for purely political reasons.

The man's vision is so blinkered that a visit to the opticians is long overdue.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Birmingham Hall of Fame

Is the news agenda really so bereft that we have to have this self-publicising waste of time?

No, not John H, but this proposal for a Birmingham Hall of Fame (you only get the real effect if you can switch your reverb on when reading those words). Precisely what is the point? It just seems to be an opportunity for regional navel-gazing rather than looking to what Birmingham can offer the future. I'd rather see us represented on the world stage by our environment - showing off the ICC, the new Bull Ring, our great Victorian city buildings and our new world-class library.

He thinks it will promote Birmingham within the region, but then extends the Hall's reach to cover 'Mercia' - which conveniently ensures that Shakespeare gets in.

Obviously, I don't have a problem with promoting my city and my region, but I'm not convinced that this idea will do any good. On the one hand, there are the obvious candidates - Shakespeare, John Cadbury, Tolkien, Matthew Boulton, Edward Burne-Jones and Joseph Chamberlain all qualify, but there we have the historical perspective to assess their importance.

When it comes to assessing more recent candidates, however, it is more about popularity than anything. I really don't want to descend into a debate about the relative superiority of Ozzy, Duran Duran, Steve Winwood , Toyah or Dexy's Midnight Runners. In literature, do we go for David Lodge or Jonathan Coe? In comedy, Lenny Henry, Jasper Carrott, Tony Hancock or Shazia Mirza? You pays your money and takes your choice. Do we end up inducting the next winner of Fame Academy or Pop Stars into the Hall of Fame?

Rather than an interesting exhibit at Millennium Point, this will end up making us look a laughing stock - the national press don't need much prodding to dig up the old images of Brum. Expect to see Benny from Crossroads nominated sometime soon, an image that we thought was gone.

They think it's all over...

I did think of entitling this comment 'It's coming home,' but I see that everyone else has done that already.

This series just gets better and better. I spent another hour or so glued to the sofa on Sunday, not daring to shift as the fourth Test spun and seamed to a nail-bitingly close finish.

I doubt that anyone would have offered a repeat of the infamous 500-1 on an England win that a couple of Aussies couldn't resist back in 1981 at Headingley, but the way that series has twisted and turned, someone would have placed a bet on an Australian win. And they nearly collected, with Lee bowling like a demon and Warne working his special, patented brand of magic. In the end, of course, we made it - although Flintoff and Jones weren't able to provide the fairytale ending - that was left to a climactic duel between Giles and Warne. We'd expect nothing less.

Aside from me having to explain the finer points of the follow-on and the declaration to someone entirely unfamiliar with the game, I've seen kids around the area with brand new cricket sets. Even my other half is starting to take an interest in the game. That's how good it is getting.

Anyone else wonder if perhaps Channel Four are starting to regret not paying a little extra to secure the coverage? They've whinged that they can get 1.5 - 2 million viewers by putting on an old black and white film rather than paying millions for the cricket, but there aren't many films that will drag in 7-8 million viewers to the fourth channel, are there? And when we get to the Oval in a fortnight, anyone care to bet on the viewing figures then?

As Aggers puts it, this will be the most most eagerly anticipated sporting occasion here since the 1966 World Cup Final. He isn't kidding, but something tells me that the excitement in this series is very far from over. Watch this space....

Nurse!

Either Cllr Hemming MP has finally won the battle with his cat for control of the drinks cabinet or it is time for the docs to review his meds. Read his mangling of Typically Tropical's Barbados.

No, no, no, no. Stop it before the music police catch up with you.

The silly season is having an Indian summer this year.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Monkey shine

From Media Monkey in the Guardian (registration may be required):
'After all the fuss about Tony Blair's summer holiday in, er... you know where, it's illuminating to refer back to the Number 10 website, for the daily press briefing on July 26. "Asked where the Prime Minister was holidaying this summer, the prime minister's spokesman (PMS) said that he was in Barbados, having arrived there last night," the website reports. "Asked for how long the prime minister would be away, the PMS said that it wasn't our policy to comment on the prime minister's travel schedule." Er, you kinda let the cat out of the bag there, guys.'
Cracking story - embarrasses PMOS no end.

Except...

The briefing to which they refer took place in July 2004. Last year. Not 2005. PMOS hasn't shattered the secrecy then in place around the PM's holiday destination.

Save the Crown Jewels

Back in the good old days, there were certain national events that were regarded as the Crown Jewels of British life and guaranteed to appear on free to air TV. Amongst those used to be all England's home Test Matches. Then, a few years ago, there were claims that the then chairman of the ECB, Lord McLaurin, had come to a gentleman's agreement with the Secretary of State for Culcha, Meeja and Sport, Chris Smith, whereby they were removed from the restricted list, but the ECB promised to keep most of them on free-to-air.

Fast forward to 2005 and England is now engaged in the most hotly contested Ashes series in a generation. Across the country, people who have never even thought about the game are taking an interest in cricket. Over 7 million people watched the last overs of the Old Trafford Test - comparable with the Big Brother audience. 20,000 people threw a sickie to get to Manchester to watch the last over (with as many outside still trying to get in). Cricket has never been this popular - on the day the Premier League restarted, the sports pages were dominated by the rampant lion of England. Football barely got a look in that week, but the Oval Test in a few weeks will be the last time we see live Test cricket on our terrestrial screens.

It is a mantra at the ECB that Test Cricket is the shop window for cricket in this country, so I can't understand why they've decided to draw the curtains over that window and only allow access to those who wish to pay out an extra £200-£300 a year to Rupert Murdoch. For an organisation committed to developing cricket from the roots up, they've blown it for a few extra million a year.

They speak lovingly of the highlights package that will be offered on Five every evening, but this will be up against Coronation Street and Eastenders, even if you are lucky enough to be able to receive it. Cricket isn't like football, which is over in 90 minutes - these games have taken five days to develop. All the viewers will see is the wickets and the big hits - they won't see the skill of a bowler probing a new batsman (watch Warne do it for a masterclass as he walks the ball across the pitch to maximise the batsman's discomfort), nor will they see the well-timed leaves or the snatched single. The ECB are a couple of million richer, but the long term future of the game is weaker and that makes us all poorer.

Mo Mowlam (1949-2005)

Another good one gone, although less of a surprise than Robin Cook.

Respect is due to any politician who can address Martin McGuinness as 'Babe' throughout the NI negotiations.

Just a sample of the memories on the BBC website give a suggestion of the woman and Julia Langdon's obituary of Mo is here.

To quote Neil Kinnock - "One hell of a woman."

Bliar

It was bad enough that an innocent man (note that - 'innocent man') was killed in a botched 'arrest' operation. Painful as it is, when armed police officers make a mistake, it will be a big one, so we can hope that their planning takes into account as many of the risks as possible. Operational errors will always occur - information is never complete and is often wrong and confused when decisions have to be made.

Within 24 hours, the Met were confirming that Jean Charles de Menezes was entirely unconnected to any terrorist events and were apologising left, right and centre. To then have the man's character villified over a week by 'senior police sources' - because negative briefing to the press carried on when there was little doubt that he had done nothing wrong in the walk from his flat to the tube train - no breathless chase through London streets, no 'French Connection-style' leaping onto the train. He wasn't wearing a thick jacket, he wasn't 'wired up', he didn't resist arrest, he didn't 'vault the barriers' - he just happened to have the misfortune of living in the same block as somebody suspected of involvement. Mind you, the eyewitness testimony reported at the time wasn't much better and this is straight after the event with memories clear in their minds.
Talk Politics deconstructs the Blair case fairly effectively, but he didn't note a headline I saw over the weekend which claimed that the 'Gold Commander' in overall charge of the strategic operation had ordered that the suspect be taken alive. Curious, then that although the surveillance team following him did not regard him as a threat - as we know from their leaked statements and from the photographic evidence - he wasn't carrying anything, nor was he wearing anything like an explosive waistcoat. As they had some time to observe him and we can assume that they would have had covert radio communications, it would seem likely that this assessment was given to the senior commanders. In that case, why was the arrest team ordered to go in as hard as it did? This was reminiscent of the 'hard arrests' practiced against IRA terrorists, when significant resistance is taken as a given. Or is this new information just another attempt to deflect any blame from the Met senior officers and put all the pressure on the front-line firearms officers who have to make the split second decision whether or not to fire. That decision is informed by the information they received before they entered the station, so again, questions need to be asked about the quality of intelligence available. To be fair, the atmosphere after 7 and 21 July was more febrile than I have ever known and that tension works for trained coppers as much as it does for ordinary folk.

I don't want Ian Blair to resign because of the operational errors, but because he allowed his senior staff to tell outright lies to the public, through the media, about a dead, innocent man who was our guest in this country. Blair must have known that the press were getting information from inside the Met, but he did nothing to stop it, nor to comment against it, choosing to hide behind the IPCC investigation that he tried to stall, even after it was clear that there was no terrorist link to the shooting.

The shooting was bad enough, but the handling of the aftermath has been disgraceful - calculated to throw enough mud at the character of de Menezes to ensure that most people would take the 'no smoke without fire' approach and not question the police any further.

Do the decent thing Sir Ian - go and go quickly.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Putting the mental into fundamental

This seems to be a campaign that's gathering pace on behalf of the new right in the Tory party, shamelessly stolen from the Republicans in the US. They want to make the word 'liberal' an insult to be thrown at those whose views don't match their own conservative ones. (Obviously, when the word is used in conjunction with 'democrat' then they may have a point.)

This 'Cornerstone' group of vocal Tory MPs emerged blinking into the light a few weeks back, realised that it wasn't the 1950s and decided that the clock must be turned back. All the ills of Britain could be instantly solved by reverting to the morals of half a century ago, back when divorce was difficult and shameful, abortion was the province of the rich and the backstreet quacks, gay still meant happy and the ethnics knew their place. Hell, we've had the adventurist war in the Middle East, so we're part of the way there - only this time, we remembered to take the Yanks with us.

Knowing that they wouldn't spark the slightest interest outside the silly season, they are making the most of it by getting their comments into the Spectator, renowned lately for its own brand of debauchery - Boris & Petsy, Rod and a secretary, Kimberley and David (and others too libellous to mention) - I'm surprised that they haven't invited the tumescent John H to write a column. The irony isn't lost on Guido and Scribbles shoves her oar in as well, picking up on a piece by Christina Odone in the Obs last week which covers similar ground.

I made the point a while back that if the Telegraph had asked the same question of Christians or Jews, they may well have found more than 32% of them considered Western society to be decadent, so pushing it as a peculiarly Islamic issue seems a little prejudiced.

Anyway, it seems that this has fuelled John Hayes, the Tory MP and part of the Redwood Vulcanistas, into writing a piece [paid content on the Speccie website, but largely reproduced here] demanding a return to traditional conservative social values (economic liberalism is OK, personal liberalism isn't). Like Christina, he finds it easy to list the things wrong with society - homosexuality always looms large here, lager louts get their mention (as flavour of the month) and Big Brother also comes in for some flak. He's backed up by a supportive letter from a group of unknown Tory MPs this week. All want to roll back the clock, but remain are strangely silent on how this should be done and which groups should suffer - for suffer they would. They know who to blame, but not how to solve it. Politics isn't just about asking questions, but also about trying to find answers that work, otherwise you're opposing for the sake of opposition.

Do we revive the stigma of illegitimacy and treat young single mothers as a problem to be hidden away, just like we used to? You women - get back into the kitchen.

Do we bring back the good old days when gay men were prosecuted merely because of their sexual orientation? Why not go the whole hog and let's roll back all that awkward equality legislation - I can see a market for signs saying 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.'

What about bringing back the birch for those minor offenders - or the rope for the more serious ones? And if we beat or kill a few innocent members of society, that's a risk worth taking.

National Service would sort out those yobs, wouldn't it? And let's ban the internet while we're at it and give the Lord Chancellor back his power over what appears in our theatres. Hell, let's extend his censorship to films and TV as well. [EDIT: Thanks to anonymous who wins this week's prize for spotting the deliberate mistake - it was the Lord Chamberlain who had the power to control what was seen on the London stage]

Anyone who wants to outlaw abortion should watch the excellent and powerful Mike Leigh movie Vera Drake, which is hugely evocative of post-war sensibilities and morals, as well as containing a magnificent central performance from Imelda Staunton.

Aside from the issue that wise politicians regard issues of personal morality as too sensitive, lest their own failings and those of their colleagues be exposed, we've moved on as a society. Of course change and progress often bring unforeseen problems, so we should seek to deal with those rather than always trying to hark back to the myths of some hazily-remembered golden age. We need to find a path round obstacles rather than trying to find reverse gear, otherwise we'll be left behind. If this new breed of Tory can't grasp that we've shifted culturally and that they need to appeal to more than their core group of nostalgia-junkie voters, then they are doomed to longer in the wilderness than I thought.

Who's being anti-social?

John Hemming's proud announcement that he achieved a personal record for evicting somebody in his area in under 12 hours for anti-social behaviour reminded me of a couple of things. The irony that he then reports that 'homelessness remains the most intractable issue' after having celebrated making someone homeless appears entirely lost on the man.

Firstly, I recalled that the Liberal Democrats opposed the Anti-Social Behaviour legislation that went through parliament. They opposed it right up until they realised that it worked and that ordinary voters liked it. Then, they executed another one of their trademark U-turns double-quick.

The other thing it reminds me about is the City Council's current love for evicting tenants for unpaid rent - largely as part of a strategy to reduce outstanding rent. To clarify, if a tenant agrees to pay arrears at a lower rate, then outstanding debt is still counted as part of the overall arrears total. If the tenant is evicted, then the debt is effectively written off, so making the figures look better.

Anyway, here's the story. A little while ago, I was out leafleting in one of the poorer parts of Birmingham when my colleague and I were approached by this bloke. He wasn't the shiniest knife in the drawer as years of drinking hadn't been kind to him. Once upon a time, he had held down a job, but had been made redundant and taken to drink, followed by years of ill-health. He'd tried to keep up rent payments, but things had got on top of him and had fallen behind. Our lovable council had noticed this and started eviction proceedings for non-payment. As many people do, he'd ignored the letters and ended up going back to his flat that morning to find that the locks had been changed. Curious, we asked how much he owed and he reckoned that it was around the £800 mark. That's it. Your building society won't evict you for being that far behind on your mortgage, but the council, following instructions from their new political masters, have got all medieval on non-payers - not discriminating between the can't-pay and the won't-pay.

A couple of phone calls later and the process is in train to get him back into his house and refer him for benefits advice - he's not claimed anything like that to which he is entitled.

You may think 'Stuff him - he's in the position he is by his own hand.' Up to a point, you're right, but isn't it the job of society to try and pick these people up and help them? This man probably won't work again, but I'm not prepared to see him homeless when his benefits will cover his rent and council tax.

Leafleting isn't the most exciting of jobs, but we both went home that night feeling better about ourselves, even if that man never voted for Labour.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Can I quote you on that?

Googling around last night, I found the following reminder of John Hemming's glorious business background.

Liz Lynne, the Liberal Democrat MEP gave her views on the Phoenix/Rover deal:
'This is the best possible outcome both for the tens of thousands of workers whose jobs are now safe at least for the medium term, and for the economic health of the region’s manufacturing and engineering heartland.'

She went on to describe John's leadership as 'inspiring' (note that he is described in this PR puff as having founded the Phoenix consortium and played a key role in securing the deal with BMW) and concluded with the prescient comment that
'The Phoenix proposal is based on sound business principles'

Whoops.

Lest we forget, Indymedia has provided a handy archive reminding us that the Yardley Liberal Democrat webpage trumpeted John's involvement in 'saving' Rover right up until Rover went under. Then, they reversed tack faster than an Olympic yacht. Perhaps they didn't want to be reminded that '[John] Towers acknowledged Hemming's help' and that 'John [Hemming] proved to be a man of honour.'

I do hope that the chief architect of the Phoenix deal and (as he keeps reminding us) a multi-millionaire businessman has given generously to the trust fund set up to help the former workers.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

King Freddie

My fingernails really can't take much of this.

Going into the fourth day with just two tail-end wickets to take and 107 runs to play with, it should have been all over within the first half hour, shouldn't it?

Not a bit of it.

This match has twisted and turned over the three previous days, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that it wasn't straightforward. Battling performances by Lee, Warne and Kasprowicz saw the Convicts XI almost steal the victory. Flintoff, wheeling away despite the pain in his shoulder and well-tempered enough to share a friendly word with Brett Lee at the end of the match, despite subjecting him to a very aggressive spell of quality pace bowling during the innings.

And to end with a final wicket that wasn't...

Edgbaston is already known as the location of the most exciting ODI - remember that 1999 World Cup semi-final between Australia and South Africa? Now it has a claim as the home of the most exciting Test.

Any bets on this series being decided by the final match at the Oval?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and taunt some stray Colonials.

Bring it on.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Robin Cook 1946-2005

In the past few hours, I've been shocked by the news of the death of Robin Cook.

Remember his forensic dissection of the Tory government's policies on trading with Iraq - a magnificent speech that formed after just two hours of reviewing the Scott Report?

Ironically, we'll see less of that intelligent and intellectual attack more of his frontal assault on Blair''s war after he resigned as Leader of the House in 2003 - after which he received the applause of the House, a wholly exceptional event. It hurt him to resign from a Labour government, but he did so over a point of principle and there's no better way to go. Despite that disappointment, he stuck with the party, believing that things would get better and working to change things from within.

His private life was always interesting - Alistair Campbell is alleged to have advised him to leave his wife when the news of his affair with his secretary broke. Apparently, Robin was at the airport about to leave for a holiday with his wife when Alistair called him on the mobile. He was also famed for his love and knowledge of horse-racing, even acting as a tipster for the press - with varying reliability.

A principled and intelligent Labour man to the core, he will be missed.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Orange (Book) Marching Season

The Liberal Democrats are very good at whipping up a campaign storm on local issues - mobile phone masts and post office closures are classic examples. Great local vote-winners, so all the more surprising to see them proposing to privatise the post office.

This isn't anything new - a policy paper entitled 'Setting Business Free' mentioned that the Liberal Democrats
'are increasingly coming to the view that a privatised Post Office... on Dutch lines could have a better chance of succeeding than the current structure'

Although this paper was passed by a LD conference and therefore becomes party policy, that particular nugget was missing from the 2005 manifesto for some reason - must have been a printing error. I mean - they wouldn't want to hide an embarrassing proposal, would they?

Now, we need to remember that the Post Office closes branches for commercial reasons - they aren't working as a business - not because they are intrinsically evil. Once you sell it off to investors, the Post Office then has a duty to maximise the return for the shareholders (who will be the big investment houses, as the mass of private investors will sell out to them in due course, just as they did with the other big privatisation deals in the 80s). Does that make it more or less likely to make decisions that may make commercial sense but will offend local sensitivities? Answers on a postcard please to the usual address.

Post office branches close largely because people don't use them. One of the biggest changes in recent years has been a move to pay benefits directly into bank accounts, rather than through payment books. This system was always vulnerable to theft and fraud and direct payment makes that much more difficult. There's always the complaint about the elderly preferring cash. This is true, but you also have to note the changing demographics - the first generation to have been mass users of credit cards and ATMs are now heading into their twilight years. More and more retirees are happy to see their money paid into a bank account - they've had wages and salaries paid that way for years and don't want to traipse down to a cold, windy post office counter to collect their money. That's not to say we don't need imaginative ways to keep the public service offered by these post offices going in some way, but we do need to appreciate that the market is changing.

The progressives in the party are on the march again. That's the same bunch that want to remove the DTI, deregulate like it's going out of fashion and ensure that business has a say at the cabinet table (no mention of the workers, strangely). Curiously, they wanted to combine the role of a 'Minister for Business' with that of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Now, call me dense here, but is it wise to combine the tasks of a minister in charge of government finance and taxation with that of someone whose job it is to act as an advocate for business - who would lobby for low corporate taxes?

Like most LDs, they want to be all things to all men.

They promise to extend the rights of workers without imposing extra costs on businesses.

They recognise the right to strike, but also insist that key services (unspecified) should be kept working, even if the government has to impose binding arbitration on both parties.

It just can't be done. To my mind, the role of government is to regulate the market and to ensure that people are looked after - corporations are very good at taking care of themselves.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Welcome to the Silly Season

Chuckie Kennedy has rewarded that bunch of schemers comprising the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party with a number of not very prestigious jobs as spokesmen on various issues. Barely a week after making his maiden speech, the new MP for Cheadle, Mark Hunter, is appointed a spokesman on community and local government. As he was leader of Stockport council, that seems to be a fair use of his talents. Quite how he will feel working with the prodigious talent that is Sarah Teather with her massive experience of local government (12 months on Islington) is unclear, but he'll probably be glad that Charlie had heard of him.

Amazingly, Charlie has found 52 posts to fill, but even with just 62 MPs, he still has to get some wearing more than one hat - Sir Robert Smith MP has to look after three jobs as deputy chief whip, spokesman on the DTI and on energy. Our local star Lorely Burt gets to assist the asteroid-spotting Lembit 'Anagram' Opik in minding the Northern Ireland and Welsh brief, but of our other local Libidinal Democrat, there is no sign.

He's amongst the 14 MPs who aren't on the list to talk to the Today programme at the drop of a hat. Of course, he will point out that he specifically asked not to be given any responsibilities - a request to which Charlie wisely acceded. As that request came just before John H and Emily decided to out themselves as Birmingham's answer to Jude and Sienna, it looks strangely prescient. Local government or IT would both seem to be within John's sphere of interest and experience, but sadly neither came his way. He could just be keeping his own counsel and waiting to see how the chips for fall for Chatshow over the next year or so, ensuring that he is well placed when Charlie's successor takes the helm.

Thanks for that.

From the Liberal Democrats news pages:
Mark Oaten MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, responding to the rise in religious hate crimes since 7th July, said:
"These attacks are totally unacceptable in the Britain of 2005. We cannot allow this mindless violence to disrupt our communities at a time when we should be coming together to tackle extremism of all kinds."
Thanks for that Mark. Glad we cleared up that little issue, because I wasn't sure for a minute. If I didn't have your guidance, I might think that it is perfectly OK to torch the odd mosque here and there.

Pillock.

Putting the Brakes on

Never let it be said that Tom Brake is not in full control of the lumbering vehicle that is Liberal Democrat transport policy. Responding to the national roll-out of the Highways Agency Traffic Officers, he commented that the:
'The long term solution to congestion problems on our road network is a reliable and affordable public transport system combined with congestion busting road user pricing. The traffic police are nothing more than a sticking plaster.'
Errr - Tom, they aren't police officers.

More importantly, I'm still waiting for a list of sites where the Liberal Democrats believe that congestion charging would be effective. (Clue - nowhere they have any hope of winning any seats.) We'd like a reliable public transport system in Birmingham, but your Tory friends have managed to block that idea for the past year or so.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Twister and shout

I need to write to the BBC again. This time about their placing of Mike Whitby on a programme broadcast at a time when children might be watching.

Following last week's tornado, the council have come in for some criticism for not doing enough to support the local residents. To be fair, I'm not sure that this is well-founded, but people certainly feel hard done by, so after a hard afternoon sitting at a table being abused by local residents (at least while the press were around), Mike tipped up in the Midlands Today studio to be interviewed on live regional TV.

I've often wondered why Midlands Today doesn't cover more of local authority business and now I understand their reasoning. If Whitless has ever done any media training, he's forgotten everything he was taught - but then most bosses assume that they have an innate ability to connect with the media, a belief only shattered when they see their on-camera performances. One of the first rules about being interviewed on TV is that you talk to the interviewer, not the camera (although it is fine to talk to the camera if the interview is down-the-line rather than face-to-face). Normally, this is made easier because the interviewer has the camera just beside them, but this studio setting made that impossible.

Aside from the distinctly unflattering side-on shots of a middle-aged councillor slumped on the BBC sofa, Mike started off talking directly into the camera, his eyes fixed on his imaginary audience, which was more than a little disturbing. His hair needed taming, as did his eyes, which soon began flickering between the hypnotic red light on the camera and the far more attractive sight of Suzanne Virdee a few feet to his left. This swivel-eyed loon effect made him look more like a scared, cornered animal than the political leader of one of Britain's great cities. Think of a rabbit caught in your headlights and you get the idea - only without the cuteness, obviously. And you wouldn't want Whitless living in your back garden in a hutch.

Judging by some of his words, his script was written by John Prescott. Here he responds to a question about criticism from government and other councils:

'Well, we don't know who said that. What we do know is that, er, I don't know how these people can make a criticism anyway. Our emergency plan has been put into operation four times in the month of July. In fact we've been praised, we've gained plaudits for what we've done and so I don't know who those people are, so if you want to tell me which particular person from which particular council did it, however, I think first of all it's not very professional and secondly it's not very accurate.'
[Edit: Link now superceded],You just don't get to see the full, eyeball-rolling, head twitching effect on the small screen, so I've done a quick screen grab to give you a better idea:
Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

The children retreated into the garden rather than see any more of that funny man on the TV.

Rumours that the tornado was created by the turbulence from Mike's Rover racing machine have been denied.

Can't win 'em all

Although winning some would be nice at the moment.

Work got in the way of me being able to do much work in either Aston or Bordesley, the by-elections caused by the vote-rigging scandal from June 2004. I did manage to get out a little in the final week and knocked on a few doors and ran a few electors to the polling station, so I can't claim much of the blame for our defeat in five out of the six seats. I was disappointed to see that Stewart Stacey wasn't able to get back onto the council - it sorely needs people with his experience and ability and having him back would strengthen the Labour group.

There's always next year.

And Tilsley? Don't go claiming that you defeated us on an issue of principle until you know what principles are.