Thursday, September 29, 2005

Seaside Special (2)

So we've had speeches from the leader and a cracker from his anointed successor this week, amongst speeches from other high-profile members of the government. We should have been celebrating our third term and looking forward to the next four years and winning the next election.

Instead, in this most closely-managed of media operations, there is the disgraceful sight of an 82 year old refugee from Hitler and the elected chair of Erith and Thamesmead constituency party both being dragged from the conference hall for the crime of speaking in a tone above a hushed, reverential whisper. Can't we handle debate any more? Isn't there room for different views in this party? In the end, this has overshadowed the week and defined conference 2005. The party did the right thing in apologising swiftly and in full and reinstating Walter Wolfgang's pass. (See Tony - you CAN say sorry)

Blair and Co - you don't own the Labour Party. Despite what some may think, the seats that we won in May and the council seats we look to take are won through the hard, unpaid and often unappreciated work of thousands of members and helpers. We are entitled to our views and we deserve the respect of being heard. If the party isn't going in the right direction at any one time, some choose to leave, but others stay and stand up for what they believe, hoping to bring the party back on track. David Clark in the Guardian makes some important points about the future of the party and the risks inherent in Blair hanging on too long to find his place in the history books. I've seen this at local level and every local party agrees that it is a major challenge to get members out to do the mundane grunt work of leafleting or envelope stuffing.

We're still here Tony. We gave you your three victories. We're still out there working to try and return elected Labour members in whatever level of election comes our way and trying to spread Labour values in our communities. Remember us when you are thinking about what you want your signature achievement to be in the history books. Don't let it be the destruction of the grassroots origins of this party.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Illiberal Undemocrats

I'm indebted to that regular contributor, Anonymous, for a reminder that the local Lib Dems in Brum have form for cracking down on their internal dissidents.

Those of us who recall the heady summer days of the Hodge Hill by-election in 2004 will remember a small kerfuffle over the intriguing selection of Nokia Davies as their parliamentary candidate, despite her links to the mobile phone industry. The Liberal Democrat internal security apparatus swung into action and Martin Mullaney was out to tackle traitorous behaviour. In an email to other ideological enforcers, regarding action by dissident members
'Can we ensure that we take photos of all those that attend the 'wake' on Thursday. This is so we have enough evidence to expel any Liberal Democrat member that attends it. I personally won't be able to take any photos, since I'll be at Developement [sic] Control Committee, BUT will bring my camera for later on in the day.'

Next stop, the Orange Gulag. Or Sheldon, as we prefer to call it.

I still think we haven't heard the last of Cllr Hussain - he's got a few axes to grind yet.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Labour backs Talib Hussain

As Zoe Hopkins points out, Cllr Talib Hussain has rounded off his dismissal from the City Council Cabinet by resigning from the Liberal Democrats. Anyone sent him one one of these yet? Rumours suggest that they have. Watch this space.

Albert Bore has referred the whole grimy affair to the Standards Board
'If the Lib Dems are going to instruct officers of this council to make taxpayers' money available to organisations because of the electoral impact of those decisions, then these actions are a matter for the Standards Board'
Not only that, but Cllr Hussain says that his clinically cold removal was instigated because of racism in the Liberal Democrats
'I feel I have been sacked because I am an Asian'

It is noticeable that whatever the result of the Liberal Democrat election for the vacant cabinet post, the new member will be white (unless somebody else stands).

The Post also reveals that not only did he offend sensibilities by refusing to authorise a grant to a Bangladeshi group (chaired by a Lib Dem councillor) that had failed to submit accounts, he also refused a £30,000 grant to start a Citizens' Advice Bureau service in The Peoples' Democratic Republic of Sutton Coldfield, thus offending the Tories who own the town. I should point out that one of the immovable conditions of City Council funding for community groups is that they submit proper accounts, otherwise the money does not come.

According to the Post, he faced a charge sheet as long as your arm, guv - some 36 offences against the state.
'Haughty conduct, failing to consult, bringing the party into disrepute, conspiring to build an internal faction and being too friendly with someone thought to be a Labour supporter'
Is this from the same party claiming to be defending our civil liberties? Since when has it been an offence to be friendly with a political opponent? Sometimes it is easier than being friends with members of your own party with whom you may be in direct competition for power. These are thought crimes worthy of a Stalinist state, not reasons to sack somebody. Bringing the party into disrepute is the sign of desperation - it is an absolute catch-all charge and fairly hard to justify in most cases as a specific issue. The odds are that if you have dragged the party through the mud, you've probably done something fairly specific wrong.

The man may have his faults (he's never struck me as being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but then if you look at the Lib Dem cutlery drawer, there's not much competition), but from the outside, it smells like a nasty, dirty little stitch-up for blatantly political reasons (something that the Liberal Democrats have always claimed to be above). That's not good for the Liberal Democrats and some of those cracks in the Hemming-inspired edifice are starting to show - which can't help but cheer up those of us despairing at the serial incompetence of the current administration. More seriously, it isn't good for democracy in our city. People here are already disillusioned enough with our political leaders and sideshows like this pollute the water still further. Stop behaving like toddlers and start worrying about leading my city.

I get the feeling that there may be more dirty laundry to be washed yet.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Not so much Odd-Job as No-Job

As reported in the local press, the Liberal Democrat group running the council with the Tories have sacked the only Asian Cabinet member after a huge vote of no-confidence in him by his own colleagues.

Talib Hussain - formerly Cabinet member for local services and community safety and a one-time Bond villain - claims that he's been sacked because he refused to agree a £6,000 grant to a Bangladeshi community group during the Aston election re-run in June. He says that this group was unable to produce accounts for the council and that he was bullied by his Liberal Democrat colleagues. If only Roger Moore had known it was so easy.
'They were saying it was by-election time and I should have funded the Bangladeshi Welfare Association or delayed stopping the grant.'
Before we get dewy eyed over his steadfastness against this political pressure, we should remember that when the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund distribution was recalculated following the June 2004 elections, Cllr Hussain's own ward suddenly found the benefit of hundreds of thousands of pounds withdrawn from other areas of the city. All this was above board, of course. The deprivation index that decides the distribution was simply reviewed.

None of that helped him in the May elections when the voters of Sparkbrook and Small Heath resoundingly rejected Cllr Hussain as a parliamentary candidate.

John Hemming and his crowd attacked, rightly, the scandal of the Aston and Bordesley Green postal votes. Will he now expose those councillors or candidates who pressurised a Cabinet member to spend public money for purely political ends?

A little inconsistency

Hmm.

Chuckles was on Central on Sunday being interviewed about the Lib Dem conference. Unsurprisingly, he was asked about the Hemming September revolution that overthrew the capitalist lackeys who wanted to privatise the Royal Mail. I paraphrase, but Charlie's response was that if you ask people to take part in deciding policy, you can't complain when they speak up.

But it seems that Charlie CAN complain. Speaking to a fellow blogger, John revealed that he had been the subject of what is normally described as a full and frank exchange of views.

Hemming: "I can't tell you the bollocking I just got over that."
Recess Monkey: "Can you tell me who gave you the bollocking?"
Hemming: "No I can't tell you that either".
Recess Monkey: "But why should you get a bollocking? The party conference has endorsed your position - surely the leadership has to support you?"
Hemming: "Erm - I'll have to consult the party standing orders before I know what I can and can't say".


So Charlie wants to encourage debate, unless it proves embarrassing to the leadership, in which case he reserves the right to get somebody else to kick you around the conference centre.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Disgraceful behaviour from the LibDems

Chuckles laid into those who have been briefing against him recently...

'so full of themselves that they also think they're full of better ideas about leadership. Take it from me, how I led the party for the last six years, based on experience, is a sensible, genuine, mature way of leading the party..'
No names, no pack drill from Chatshow. Lord Greaves was a little more forthcoming and criticised the 'disgrace' of one or two unnamed MPs

'briefing against our leader ... what I say to the people who run this party: find out who these people are and serve an Asbo on them.'
Who could he mean?



This has to be some kind of record. Within six months of getting to Westminster, John's managed to alienate a large chunk of the national party. It took him a few years to do that in Birmingham, so he's obviously worked on his technique. He comes out fighting on his blog, though...

There is a report that Kennedy's Aides have indicated that I have no experience. The question is experience of what. I suppose I only have 22 years experience of running things including having taken part in running the largest local authority in the country as well as a number of commercial enterprises.
His experience of running the largest local authority in the country only extends to a few months as Mike Whitless' teaboy, really. Other than that, he's just been the leader of a loose group of Liberal Democrats. What John hasn't got is any experience of national politics and that's what he needs to stand any hope of getting the top job. He's not going to get any experience of the front bench, though, not after the way he's fought the leadership and the 'young Turks' currently guiding policy in the LDs. Unless Charlie decides that the best thing to do is to follow LBJ's view of J Edgar Hoover - that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in - he's not going to thank John with a front-bench post. Perhaps that was the idea all along - force the leadership to impose the discipline of the front bench upon him.

Sadly for him, although he is younger than Charlie K, the clock is ticking. If Chuckles were to fall under a Blackpool tram, he would most likely be replaced by the Prince of Darkness, Simon Hughes (who has apparently been forced to swear a loyalty oath to the current leader). If Charlie survives until 2009/2010 and retires after the next election, the odds would have to be on the party choosing someone like Nick Clegg or Mark Oaten. Whatever happens, it won't be John H.

Enoch Powell (like John, an old boy of King Edward's School) said that all political careers ended in failure, but it is rare to see one go supernova quite so rapidly.

'Let down' by the Liberal Democrats

'If the people who handled my donation were elected to run the economy, I would not be happy - it would be disastrous.'
Not a good comment from any party supporter. Even less impressive from a man who bankrolled almost half their election spending this year to the tune of some £2.4 million.

Now it seems that there might be problems with the legality of the donation. Under UK election law, corporate donations must be from a company trading in the UK. Michael Brown is based in Switzerland and his obscure company, 5th Avenue, does have registered offices with a law firm in the UK, but that may not be enough to qualify them as trading within the UK. The size of the donation was criticised at the time by the New Politics Network.
'When a hitherto unheard of company suddenly gives a political party millions of pounds, it is only right that we ask who they are. As it stands, this one company looks as if it funded at least half of the Liberal Democrats’ whole general election campaign.'

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Monkey nuts

This bandwagon is gathering pace.

I say bandwagon, I suppose that it's more of a space-hopper really. So let's leap aboard the Hemming EgoExpress - it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Seems that a fellow (and far better) blogger Recess Monkey ran into 'Superstud' Hemming at Blackpool the other day and 'a little bird' told him that the next leadership challenge would be between Nick Clegg and John H himself. This follows on from John's website statement earlier in the week, which has been picked up by the Birmingham Post and taken seriously.

Now we've all stopped laughing, remember John's opposition to a straightforward little amendment to the constitution which requires any leadership candidate to gain the support of 10% of the parliamentary party. This doesn't strike me as unreasonable - any leader has to have the confidence of the parliamentary group and the previous rule only required that the nominee must 'be proposed and seconded by other such Members.' Such a term is fine for a party with a small number of MPs, but the LDs are looking to a time when they head into three figures, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to impose a proper cut-off. John feels that this change is a restriction on democracy, but it would still allow up to ten candidates to run for the top job, which is surely enough for anybody. John thinks that it may allow more, as the rules don't appear to prevent an MP from nominating more than one candidate.

Perhaps it is closer to the truth that John doesn't feel he can find 7 members of the parliamentary party to support him. This is hardly surprising - he's got next to no national profile and seems unlikely to be offered anything in the near future given his stance on the Royal Mail sell-off proposals, which earned him 'a bollocking' from someone senior in the party. I rather suspect that will be as nothing compared to his public discussion of his plans to succeed Chuckles - that just isn't done. Disagreeing with party policy is one thing. Disloyalty to your leader is something else.

He does come in for a thorough kicking by a fellow Liberal Democrat on the blog over John's 'revolt' earlier in the week on the Royal Mail.

However, given the effect he's had on the Liberal Democrat group in Birmingham, I'm delighted to be the first website to offer John unequivocal support in his bid for leadership of the Liberal Democrats nationally. He wants to be the new Charlie and I think he'll be a proper one.

If nothing else, it will be worth a laugh.

Seaside Special (1)

There are distinct signs that the Liberal Democrats are growing up into a real political party this year.

Firstly, the nutty conference proposals that we all love - offering 16 year olds the chance to get into the porn industry or allowing them to join the ranks of binge drinkers, for example - have been carefully filed away by the media-savvy organisers. Well, almost - they still found time to discuss a curious plan to flog off the Royal Mail to finance bailing out Post Office Counters. Why they reckoned that this proposal would provide a long-term solution to the structural problems that beset the counter operation, I don't know, but the conference sensibly kicked the idea into touch. Bluntly, the current system of sub-post offices is in decline and there's not a lot that will arrest that. For years, these could rely on a steady stream of benefits claimants and pensioners dropping by to collect their money, but with the advent of direct payment into bank accounts, that's drying up and the traditional business of selling postal services doesn't cover the operational costs. The Liberal Democrat proposal would provide a cash injection by part-privatising the Royal Mail section of the business, but there was little sign of long-term change to revive the counter service. But I digress.

As part of their adolescence, the party is embarking on its own modernisation process - whether it wants to or not - and drifting to the right in the pursuit of power. But where does Charlie stand? With him, it's more about sitting on the fence and picking the right side to follow. Whether you approve of them or not, both Thatcher and Blair made their mark on the their parties and were associated with cultural change (yes, I know that Kinnock did the hard work first, but that's not the point). Chatshow Chuckie has a serious image problem - he's well-liked and popular, but doesn't look like a Prime Minister. He needs to lead his party more, rather than trying to please everyone until he can work out which side has majority support. He mustn't be afraid to make a few enemies if there's something he really believes in - beyond getting into power.

The other two major party leaders have been firmly stamped with a sell-by date, so the media have naturally turned their attentions to Chuckles and he's come up wanting. That's not to say that he's about to get dumped - although there were rumblings post-election and it would only take a couple of bad despatch-box performances in the Commons and a poor by-election run to start the Simon Hughes juggernaut rolling again. For that reason, there's not a huge appetite for a change in the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, although as other LibDem MPs of a newer generation come to prominence - Oaten and Laws, for example - the pressure on Charlie is likely to increase. In the country, only around 20-30% of voters (whether they vote LD or not) want to see him gone, so he's safe for the time being.

Every time he's been questioned about his leadership, he falls back on a scripted defence of 'leading a party at conference with more MPs than it has had for eighty years.' That's all well and good, but there is a danger that this could be the high water mark for the Lib Dems. Bear in mind that this election saw him up against two fairly unpopular leaders, so I think that Charlie could have expected better results. Next time round, he'll be the long-serving leader up against two new (old) faces and he'll look a bit tired by comparison. Newsnight pointed out that if progress continues at the current rate, Charlie can look forward to a Liberal Democrat government around 2081. He might be a little old to be PM then.

The whole point about this is that the Liberal Democrats need to change their image to improve their chances of garnering votes. Outside conference season, the media only lights on their policies during election time, so it is stunning that following a campaign, 60% of the public don't know what they stand for, according to the latest ICM/Guardian poll (hat-tip to Anthony Wells, as usual). What is even more intriguing is that when ITV's Dimbleby programme asked the same question earlier in the year, 52% gave the same response. It's dangerous to compare polls without checking that the methodology is comparable, so I'm not going to claim that it's actually got worse over recent months. Both the ICM and the Populous poll for the Times show that the LDs are still regarded as the party of the protest vote, which isn't a recipe for getting elected to power other than by a freak accident.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the party membership will let them head off towards those sunlit uplands of government, or whether they are happiest in opposition.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hemming's Humour

He's been shunted into a siding by the leadership of his party, but that doesn't stop him giving us all a laugh.
'I explained to the journalists that although I would quite like to be leader of the party (although I am also quite happy to remain a backbencher), I would like Charles Kennedy to remain leader for a while. After all I have only been an MP for about 5 1/2 seconds and it would be far too soon to fight a leadership campaign.'
He IS joking, isn't he?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Policymaking while under the influence

Another in our series of 'How Times Change - Politics for the Real World.'

In March 2003, during the debate on the Licensing Bill, the Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey led for his party thus:
I welcome the Government's decision to introduce the Licensing Bill. There is no doubt that a comprehensive overhaul of the legislation in this area is long overdue…
There are clear reasons for reform. We need a new regime for social reasons, to control antisocial and binge drinking. We need to give the police the opportunity to tackle the issue of chucking-out times more satisfactorily…. it is certainly the case that the balance of all lobbying by the police that I have experienced, in the 11 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, has been in favour of abolishing a common chucking-out time and enabling them to tackle problems in town centres more flexibly.
We also need a new regime for reasons of better government. It cannot be right for the Government to sustain arbitrarily imposed limits on when people can enter, and must leave, premises established to serve alcohol... It is right, therefore, that local communities should have a say in the licensing regime in their area.’
Compare and contrast with Summer/Autumn 2005:
'Commenting on the Prime Minister's speech [on respect], Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Mark Oaten MP said: If the Prime Minister had wanted to show real action he would have announced a suspension to the licensing
legislation.'

Lynne Featherstone, another of those millionaire Liberal Democrat MPs who finally won their seats in May, is also critical, claiming that the government hasn't done the research regarding the impact of the bill, joining Don Foster atop this particular bandwagon.

Curious, isn't it? The Liberal Democrats supported the deregulatory aspects of the bill and any objections raised two years ago were fairly technical and more concerned with the changes to entertainment licensing than any concern about binge drinking - the Tory David Cameron was chiefly concerned about the future of morris dancing in his constituency. I should note that the LDs and the Tories did vote against the bill - although this was hardly a determined attempt to thwart it, as the turnout was low (just half of the LD parliamentary party bothered to turn up for the division) and Mark Oaten himself didn't deem it worthy of his attention at the time. Suddenly, as the bill becomes law and the tabloid press take an interest, the Liberal Democrats go into full oppositional mode. Never let it be said that they miss an opportunity to score political points.

By the way, Nick Harvey did show some foresight when he commented that the bill as presented
'That provokes the spectre of licensing bodies sending out busybodies to drum up objections to provide the opportunity to turn down applications.'
For we only have to look at Milton Keynes to find news of a couple of councillors apparently trying to scare up complaints from their constituents. Can you guess the political allegiance of these opportunists?

Monday, September 12, 2005

On top of the world ma!

Sometimes, dreams CAN come true.

Nice one lads. You've delivered on the promise today. Thanks for the best summer's cricket I can remember and for making me more nervous than before my children were born.

And you Australians? Thanks for being good sports and putting up a fight. I spoke to a friend of mine who's moved out to Brisbane earlier this evening - he had stayed up until 4am to catch the end of the match and was looking forward to parading his England shirt to work later on that morning.

As a reward, why don't we give Duncan Fletcher the UK citizenship he wants and a knighthood to go along with it? [UPDATE - One down and one to go. It took 15 years, but Duncan's now British. Which jobsworth decided that he didn't meet the residency requirements because of his commitment to touring with the England team?]

Place your bets now on a certain F Flintoff being BBC Sports Personality of the Year - if there is any justice.

The series has been so close - I thought that it would end in an almighty Australian run-chase, such have been the twists and turns of the series and the match, but KP denied us that spectacle with his magnificent 150. It was good to see that Shane Warne (his Hampshire team mate) ran across to shake his hand as KP left the field after McGrath took his wicket. That epitomised a series that has been aggressive, but not personal. The teams have given everything out there in battle - you only have to watch Lee or Flintoff bowling, or see the rivalry between KP and Warne to understand that - but they've known when to switch that aggression off.

Thanks guys. (And also thanks to the England women's team, who started off by beating the Aussies as well).

Thanks to Richie Benaud, who has been a fixture in the sport in this country for longer than I've been on the planet and signed off today in a typically understated way - just as McGrath took Pietersen's wicket. We're going to miss your voice and your knowledge.

Finally, a repeat message to the Department of Culcha, Meeja n' Sport. Now would be a good time to stick two fingers up to Murdoch and relist home Test matches as guaranteed free-to-air. I've seen children playing cricket on street corners in the rain these past few weeks, inspired by the England team playing out of their skins at Edgbaston, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and the Oval. They won't get that inspiration for the next four years, thanks to the short-sightedness of the ECB. Sort it out. The European courts are jumping all over Sky for sewing up the rights to football, so why not pre-empt them in cricketing terms by getting Sky/ECB to sort out a different package. Perhaps the Beeb could be persuaded to use some of their digital bands to carry coverage during the daytime - wouldn't that be a good push towards the digital switch-off in 2012?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

His Master's Voice

This piece starts with a hat tip to Iron Angle in the Birmingham Post, who revealed that the council have appointed a head of communications in Alistair Morton, an alumnus of that college of management that was Rover. He was Management Development and Human Resources Manager, Business Programmes Manager before ending his career as Public Affairs Manager. This coincided with the demise of Rover as an operating company, so his track record of senior management isn't exactly great.

Nevertheless, Al has taken over as 'head of communications' at the council. The funny thing is that nobody seems to recall the post being advertised (there's nothing in the council newspaper going back to June). Some question his skills at writing press releases - Iron Angle mentions a 900-word masterpiece launching a European conference at the ICC, which reads like a management position paper (chock full of buzzwords) and not a clear, concise press release designed to get positive coverage in the press. Hell, I've written better stuff than that - and that's saying something. However, Al does manage to insert no less than nine references to Mike Whitless - devoting paragraphs to the pearls of wisdom that Mike sees fit to dispense before the swine of the press. Have a read and try to stay awake.

A well-written press release is manna from heaven to a lazy/hard-pushed (delete as appropriate) journo. Ideally, it can be slotted straight in to fill a gap in that day's paper and thus leave for time for the press to chase real issues/work on their drink problem or it might actually spark an interest in a genuine story. A badly written press release will be immediately binned because chopping it into a workable piece will take as much time as finding a real story and it is far easier to print a larger picture of Tibbles who got stuck up a tree yesterday and the firefighter who rescued him. It also helps if the press release has some relation to the house style of the target media, which this plainly doesn't. Not even The Independent on a bad day would carry something this poor. If Al can't manage that, then he should pass the job over to someone in his department who can (and there are a few there who CAN do it well) - unless they were all overcome with nausea at having to shoehorn so many references to Whitby into the text.

However, that production pales into insignificance compared to the 241 words used to record Cllr Whitby's presence at the 'Brands of China' Showcase - apparently on behalf of the Transportation portfolio for some reason - which gets five references to the great man.

Cllr Whitby joined Mr Shi Jianxin, Chinese Minister for Trade, plus officials from the Chinese and European embassies, as well as British and Chinese business leaders. Cllr Whitby said: “Everyone recognises the impact which the amazing growth of the Chinese economy has had on world trade. This exhibition is evidence of the remarkable range and quality of Chinese goods. It also provides a great opportunity to build links between British and Chinese businesses – to the benefit of both countries, and in particular this City and region.”

Cllr. Whitby has developed sound relationships with members of the Chinese government and the business community. He ventured into the new economic territory presented by China because he knows the potential it offers for Birmingham and the region. At a time when the economy is going global the vast market place of China is offers the opportunity to build a relationship of mutual respect and benefit to both countries.

To be invited to be the guest of honour of the Chinese Government shows the level of respect and trust in which they hold Cllr. Whitby. This is indeed an honour from a nation that is known for the high premium it places on good manners and trust. Cllr. Whitby’s good standing was further raised by the talks he held with the Nanjing Motor Company in order to advocate the cause of the MG Rover employees who have been the real victims in the company’s collapse.

Dear God. From this, we can draw one of two possible conclusions.

Mike Whitless could be a visionary of international trade in the mould of Edward Heath or Richard Nixon.

OR

Alistair Morton could be so far up Whitless' rectum that he can brush his teeth for him.

Answers on a postcard please to the usual address.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

'We should not be interested in prestige'

Well, colour me surprised.

Last week, I wrote that

A year of Tory/Liberal Democrat indecision and political vacillating have probably killed the project for the foreseeable future by throwing everything into reverse.
After scrapping a fully formed development plan for a replacement library, ignoring a report that did not give the answer they wanted and then knocking up an alternative plan on the back of a council envelope, our civic leaders have admitted that they might not even be able to deliver their split-site library. Apparently, a scrutiny inquiry has revealed that they need to raise almost £100 million of external funding to complete the split-site project and. This isn't news - the original plan was predicated on access to PFI and other sources of funding and no serious attempt has been made by this administration to obtain that funding. It should be remembered that the consultants indicated that the original project was most likely to draw in stakeholder funding and leave the council with the lowest share of the costs - some £50 million out of the total cost of £180 million. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that getting the money would be easy - failure was always a possibility - but the whole project was designed to ensure that it would be attractive to external funding.

As we have seen, the council ignored the evidence of several years of work plus their own consultants to plough their own particular furrow with this split site option. As this does not tick as many boxes with the funding stakeholders as the original plan - falling significantly short in the crucial regeneration aspect - it is unlikely in the extreme that a bid would have been able to raise anything like as much externally as the original plan.

The fallback position is to keep things as they are and somehow keep the rotting Central Library from falling apart a while longer. This won't be cheap - the consultants noted that maintaining the status quo costs over £2 million annually and also that the existing library requires urgent work, which was estimated at £24 million back in the 1990s and could be substantially higher now. Additionally, the consultants highlight risk factors that should be considered on this 'do nothing' basis - the building's rate of decay will increase exponentially; failures will cause unpredictable service interruptions and repair costs; and shockingly, they actually note the risk of death or serious injury caused by the building's state of disrepair.

Should they wish to invest any money in the building, that will have to come from existing budgets with little investment from external sources - the council could end up having to find twice as much as they would have to get to finance the original project.

Whether the new proposal to build an archives 'box' on Eastside will meet the requirements to store the archives safely and keep them in Birmingham remains to be seen. Don't forget that these are so important to the nation that the National Archive is minded to have them removed and stored safely at Kew following a survey conducted in 2001. Incidentally, that survey by the Historical Manuscripts Commission also noted that staff were spread thinly, so giving them two sites to run won't make life any easier. Predictably, there won't be any more staff.

I have a distinct suspicion that the Tory/Lib Dem administration regards the internationally-important archive as an unneccesary drain on City resources and would secretly like nothing better than for the HMC to cart the whole lot off to Kew, thus taking the responsibility and the cost away (and saving on this new building at Millennium Point into the bargain). The fact that this resource would then be lost to Birmingham forever doesn't appear to matter.

The opposition have come out fighting on this one, with Chris Watson, a partner at Gardiner & Theobald, who wrote the council's review, explaining that the original Richard Rogers scheme would appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, as a way of bringing innovative architecture to a regional centre.
'Creating an initiative that can stand on the world stage might be the sort of thing that Mr Prescott is looking for. The Eastside library would have set new standards worldwide.'
Sir Albert Bore laid into the Tory/LibDems adding that
'This council's leadership [sic] is living in an Alice in Wonderland world if it thinks it is going to get PFI funding for a split site library. It is dishonest for anyone to say at this point that the Rogers scheme is not deliverable.'
Despite the fact that leadership has been noticeably absent from the Council House in recent months and the Mad Hatter is certainly in residence, time is running out for the Rogers scheme and there seems no chance of those in charge changing direction. The future for the library service in Birmingham is particularly bleak.

The whole fiasco is summed up for me by the inane comments from Alistair Dow, Liberal Democrat councillor who illustrates the lack of vision that infects this current administration:
'We should not be interested in prestige. We don't want iconic buildings.'
And this man was elected to public office. To hell with it, let's just buy a couple of shipping containers and shove everything in there.

No, we don't want iconic buildings to identify our city, do we? Anyone remember the international buzz that Selfridges caused when it opened? What about the magnificent Symphony Hall - one of the finest spaces for live music in the country? From an earlier age, look at the Town Hall, the Council House or any of the great Victorian buildings around our city and see how the power that fine architecture has to inspire human beings. Cheap metal sheds don't really do it for me - how about you?

See, we CAN win something

I didn't have time to help out in the by-election in Tyburn ward earlier this week, which probably explains why Labour won with a decent percentage majority, despite a very poor turnout. To be fair, anything else in that ward would have been a huge shock and it was hardly a marginal from the off.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Taking the fun out of fundamentalism

Last night, Channel 4 repeated Jon Ronson's 1997 documentary on Omar Bakri Mohammed, now residing in the Lebanon after he was refused permission to return to this country. Aside from his rather attractive promise to have the Spice Girls arrested when his brand of Islam rules this country, he trotted out the usual range of unpleasant views - including some virulent attacks on homosexuals (putting them in the same category as people who have sex with animals). What the documentary showed was that the Omar Bakri Mohammed of eight years ago was a rather sad self-publicist (not that Rupert Allason was that much better) who was more focussed on the headlines and the media presence than developing a genuine political force.

Regardless of the religion that they claim to follown, all these extremists seem to share similar views - along with a frankly unhealthy obsession with homosexuality - some of the wackier comments of their American counterparts are noted here. And boy, are they an attractive bunch.

In a similar vein, we have the unpleasant folks over at Christian Voice, who understand that as they have a tiny number of members (around the six hundred mark), they need to punch above their weight by grabbing every tiny drop of media light that falls on them. So it was that Stephen Green, the former builder turned self-appointed representative of the Almighty on Earth (UK Division) turned up in Edinburgh at the TV Festival to speak on 'Direct Action and the power of the duty log.' He didn't miss the chance to have a go at his favourite subject of the moment - Jerry Springer - The Opera.
"If they know we may be offended by a programme, they have the chance to stop it," said Christian Voice national director Stephen Green. "But they just keep going."

Stephen. That's what we call freedom of speech. It includes the right to be offensive. As it happens, I did see the broadcast and thought that the first act was excellent, but the second act was as unsubtle as a sledgehammer and pushed the boundaries of good taste a fair old way. No-one could say I wasn't warned, but I chose to watch it. That's how things should work. And if the show does come to Birmingham, despite the national tour having been pulled because the Arts Council pulled funding, I might well go along. Not because the show is that good, but because I find 'Christian Voice' offensive - as I may have mentioned before. (I have just noticed that I used that headline twice on this blog. Whoops)

There are bigger Christian groups out there with more of a right to speak for their religion - not least the Catholic and Protestant church leaders, aside from groups like the Evangelical Alliance which can claim a million members. The only reason Christian Voice gets so much publicity is the exact same reason that Omar Bakri Mohammed got media attention - they are guaranteed to give good quote and stir up an argument. Go along and ask about their pet subjects and the output is just the same as pulling a string on a child's doll - Stephen Green will produce a number of stock, offensive phrases to order. Like his Muslim and American brothers, Stephen is also obsessed with homosexuality (psychologists are invited to draw their own conclusions on issues that he might have).

However offensive I find Christian Voice's views and however at odds they are with my own thoughts on Christian ethics and morals, I don't want to stop them shouting about it. That's the difference. With Omar Bakri Mohammed and Stephen Green, their views brook no argument, because they are based in faith and thus unshakeably immune to discussion. That's why religion should be kept well clear of politics.

Meeja folk - by all means talk to Stephen and his bunch of merry men, but do make sure that you leaven their extremism with mainstream, moderate views. Show some responsibility, eh?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Mayormaking

Paul Dale seizes upon the news of a Birmingham summit meeting with David Milliband, the Local Government Minister to push the cause of an elected mayor for the City. I think it is reasonable to say that Birmingham has yet to take its rightful place in the 'Premier League' of European Cities, but it has done much to take it into the Championship. It is also fair to say that the pace of regeneration has slowed a little since the glory years of the 90s,
'The problem is, not a lot has happened since the glorious age of regeneration, between 1985 and 1998'
but he rather dilutes his argument by continuing
'with the notable exception of pedestrianisation of New Street, the Bullring and a start on Eastside - all of which were planned in the mid-1990s.'
and relegating those three major projects to footnotes. Plans were made to take the regeneration further and to focus more on Eastside, with the new library set to take centre stage, but all that came to a crashing stop in June 2004. He also notes that the Town Hall restoration is under way, so that hardly indicates a complete lack of progress.
'It is tempting to blame the city council for dragging its feet, particularly since the change of political control, but the true picture is far more complex than that.'
When it comes to the library, the blame does lie squarely with the council. Paul notes that no application for funding was made during the first years of that project, which is entirely accurate. Actually applying for funding involves rather more than posting a letter to Downing Street asking for £x million. There is an extensive bid process to go through and the application must be thoroughly supported and extensively researched prior to submission to stand any hope of getting PFI funding. (I'm not a huge fan of PFI, but it is the only kid on the block at the moment when it comes to funding). From what I understand, the project wasn't far away from that stage in June 2004 and there was even an outside chance that it could have been resurrected following the consultants' report in February this year had the political will been with it from the Council House, but that wasn't to be. Once the council junked the existing plans, the whole process has to start again from scratch, so the odds on any library being built within the next decade have lengthened hugely.
Paradise Circus, a £1 billion scheme to cash in on Birmingham's booming professional services sector by delivering high-quality office accommodation and opening pedestrian links between New Street and Broad Street, appears to be going nowhere fast.
Fair point, but it is rather hard to redevelop the site with the rotting concrete hulk of the Central Library still atop it - so that's stalled for the foreseeable future too, unless the council decide to break up the central collection for short-term gain.

Anyway, all of this would be easier to resolve if we only had a mayor. Wouldn't it? Paul Dale and the government seem to think so.

Comparisons are often made with London and the effect that Ken Livingstone has had on city governance. The thing about London is that it is a city divided into 32 boroughs with their own individual set of councillors (not counting the City itself), yet there are overarching concerns about London as a contiguous whole. Here, having an overall authority in the GLA and a single leader for the city to run the pan-London functions makes absolute sense - abolishing the GLC was one of the more illogical and dogmatic actions of the Thatcher government, no mean achievement in a government that seemed to specialise in illogicality and dogma.

There it makes sense, but why Birmingham? The same problems don't apply within the city. We have a single authority with an existing corporate structure. There may be an argument for resurrecting the West Midlands council to handle the broad functions that operate across all the relevant council areas in the region - policing, fire and transport, for example - but that's not on offer. There have been a couple of articles about the mayoral proposal in the Birmingham Post lately, so it seems that the office is back on the agenda again.

Paul points out that
Other projects have become bogged down through a mixture of political uncertainty and the complexities of dealing with the many "partner" organisations that have a hand in running Birmingham. How many bodies, for instance, are involved with the proposed redevelopment of New Street Station? The answer would surprise and shock most people. There is the council, obviously, plus the Department for Transport, the Strategic Rail Authority's successor DfT Rail, the West Midlands Transport Executive Centro, the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, the Government Office for the West Midlands, the City Centre Partnership and the owners of the Pallasades shopping centre.
Fair point, but that's always going to be an issue.
'Mr Blackett [Policy Director at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry] said: "We held a seminar recently, attended by senior figures from the business world, and it is the case that having an elected mayor in Birmingham, a Mr Fixit figure like Ken Livingstone, has a real gut feeling and attraction about it." Business representatives feel the decision-making structure in Birmingham is complex, difficult to understand and a direct contributor to the delay in getting things done quickly, according to the BCI.'
Of course business people would like to only have one organisation to deal with - it would make their lives so much easier - but wouldn't actually resolve the core issue (short of electing a dictator). All the proposal would do is to add another tier to the structure - none of the functional agencies in the New Street example above would come under the mayor's office. Again, there is an argument for a regional executive, but still no argument for an elected mayor for Birmingham.

David Milliband adds that we need to decide
"What sort of relationship do you want to have with central government to help you make the most of yourselves? There are no holds barred.” This could include a directly elected mayor, said Mr Miliband. “The drive for decentralisation doesn’t stop with Scotland, Wales and London. I think many people outside London are looking at the Greater London Authority, and Ken Livingstone, and thinking ‘how do we have that sort of drive in our city’” It was also important that different parts of the region worked in partnership, he said.
Further pressure comes from Phil Woolas in a speech at the ICC on Friday (although he did stress that he wasn't expressing a personal opinion about the merits of mayors)
"Birmingham is interesting in important ways because it is by far the largest local authority in the country. If Birmingham did go for an elected mayor I think Manchester and Leeds would follow pretty quickly."
I just don't see what we'd gain by it. We already have a system where the executive is answerable to the electorate through local councillors and this would devalue their role and elevate the mayor to a worryingly centralised position of local power. For me, the answer to the problem lies in reinvigorating the power of local government and attracting bright people to the demanding job of local councillor, rather than considering a Birmingham 'beauty contest' to decide the mayor.

Additionally, local leaders need vision and an idea of where they want to take the city. This has been one of the most disturbing issues for me over the past twelve months, as I can't see any coherent thinking behind the policies and long-term thinking from the council. It may be that this is beyond me or it could just be that there isn't any coherence to be found. As there is a long lead-time on most major projects, so there is also a delay before the public see the damage that this vacillation and indecision does. I did see with Labour some thought about where the city was heading (although the Digbeth coach station cock-up cited by Paul Dale is entirely valid - why we can't have a decent transport gateway to the city eludes me completely).

My suspicion remains that Whitby and Hemming almost fell accidentally into control of the council and arrived unprepared with policies or plans for development. They were afraid of the bad publicity that accompanies change - for in any change and development, there will be elements that go wrong and Hemming knows above all the ammunition that mistakes provide to oppositions. In a general election year with Yardley looking vulnerable, bad publicity would have been disastrous. Accordingly, they chose to do nothing of any significance and actively shied away from the big projects with all their pitfalls. As an example, Hemming moved swiftly to cancel the contract signed by Labour to run a trial with wheelie-bins in various parts of the city. Dozens of local authorities across the country - those with outstanding records on recycling - run on the fortnightly collection system based around a wheelie-bin (one week rubbish, the next week recyclables) and it works. Because of unease whipped up amongst a number of vocal residents, the scheme was scrapped within days of the coalition coming to power, ensuring that suburbs are still blighted by damaged bin-bags leaving rubbish all over our streets and providing a ready food source for vermin and stray animals.

More than a year on and this has become a way of life - all the more as the May 2006 elections start to loom ever larger ahead. There's also the problem of the coalition itself - some of the policies of each side would be anathema to the other, so trying to enact them would shatter the air of agreement.

There's nothing a mayor can do that a decent leader of Birmingham can't, so let's ignore the pressure to elect one and get on with electing councillors who can select their own leader and exercise control over that leader.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Signing off

As Bob Piper comments, one of the great cricketing voices will lay down his microphone for the last time after the Oval Test next week.

Richie Benaud, a top-notch Australian spin bowler and even better commentator, takes his leave to enjoy a well-earned retirement from the game. He's one of the best TV commentators, as he knows when to talk and when to shut up and let the pictures tell the story - so that when he speaks, you know that it is something that you want to hear. A man from a distant era, he is the master of understatement and occasionally sharp wit. With his encyclopaedic understanding of the game, he can spot the little signals that tell if a batsman is in form or if a bowler has a niggling injury. Two years ago, Wisden asked the question as to who had seen the most Test matches and they calculated that he had seen 486 - almost a third of all Test matches ever played.

He's going to be missed by the millions of British cricket fans, but I rather suspect that his televisual successor is Mike Atherton, who has flair and intelligence when he comments on the game. The baton has been handed over, but we won't see 'em until 2009 at the earliest, because of the ECB's insane decision to hand the broadcast rights to Sky. 8.4 million people watched the closing moments of the Trent Bridge Test - half of the viewing audience at the time. Next weekend will see even more people tune in to catch the last overs of this match, many of them new to the game and for many of them, this will be their last exposure to the game for four years.

So, goodbye and good luck to Richie. You've chosen the right moment. Two years ago, he cited the 1981 Headingley Test match as his favourite commentary-box match, but this current series has 'shaded that.' Ain't it just, Richie, ain't it just.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Smokin' KC joins the race

Well, not so much racing as ambling affably along.

Ken Clarke is pretty much universally regarded as the one Tory leadership candidate that the Labour party really fears - someone who can attract support from the swing voters that the Tories need to regain ground against Labour. Anthony Wells over at UK Polling Report has reviewed the figures on Ken's potential leadership - he's been touted as the leader for the past decade or so - and come up with some interesting points from the survey.

Ken gains from being recognisable - some people know who David Davis is (those who don't confuse him with the badger-striped sports presenter of the 80s or the BBC reporter turned FA administrator of the 90s), but only real propellor-head policy wonks could pick David Cameron out of a line-up (possibly not even his family). This is important, but not crucial. Any leader elected now has four years to get his image across the press and will be recognisable by the time the next election comes around.

While Ken is liked across the political spectrum, he's not well-regarded within the Tory Party. It would seem that Ken would gain voters from the swing categories, but there is a risk that the core vote might decide to go elsewhere. I'd say that this is actually an acceptable risk, as by the time 2009/10 comes around, the core Tory vote (that which has not shuffled off this mortal coil) will be so desperate that they would support a re-animated Ted Heath if it means getting within distance of the levers of power. The European issue - a weak spot within Tory ideology for Ken - seems to be going off the boil as the constitution lies listing in the water and the Euro sinks beneath detection range of the political radar in this country.

However, the next election is a while away and whoever leads the Tory party then will (in all probability) be facing a certain G Brown across the floor, not TB. As has been pointed out, Ken Clarke is currently 65, so will be knocking on the door of his 70th birthday by the time the next PM decides to go to the country. Labour will also be able to rerun their 'Back to the 80s' style campaign attacking Clarke for his involvement in the Thatcher government. How effective that will be when a significant chunk of voters will have no memory of that decade remains to be seen. Ken's close association with the tobacco industry could also be a negative point - he's reputed to have made a million from his involvement over the past few years. This is at odds with his former position as Secretary of State for Health.

Malcolm Rifkind showed that he had the fine grasp of the political process by launching his campaign today and being completely ignored in favour of Ken. He promised that he would add more backers to the four nonentities already signed up. I'm not holding my breath.

Ironically, although we have a fair idea of the field of candidates, we still don't know how they will be chosen, which promises to be the most important issue in selecting a leader. I don't think it simply a fortuitous coincidence that the letter in the Torygraph demanding that the rank and file members choose their leader came out as Ken declared his candidacy - I sense the hands of other contenders in the mix, there. KC knows that his best chance lies with convincing MPs that he's the candidate most likely to bruise TB in debate, as the membership don't trust his Europhile views.

Other parties have accepted the idea of members voting on their leader - seems a reasonable democratic solution to me, as it seems distinctly unfair to completely disenfranchise members who live in non-Tory constituencies. These are the ones who have the most to gain from the right leader - they might get a Tory MP as a result. Those who live in Tory constituencies are only slightly better off, as they have to rely upon influencing their MP to vote in a particular way - and that's no easy task. The MPs might whinge about getting a leader they don't want, but the party leader has to represent the whole party, not just a tiny proportion.

For all that, I doubt Ken will win. The Tories need to move on from the 80s and 90s and that can only be done with a new leader untainted by that decade. The force seems to be with Davis, but whoever wins has a mountain to climb to restore the faith of the electorate in the Conservative Party as a force for good government. Changing the captain of the Titanic won't stop it hitting the iceberg.