Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Real Nasty Party

The Guardian did one of their regular exposes on the BNP this week and a very nice job it was too, although it didn't show us anything hugely new about the party.

One thing it did show up is a problem that I've been concerned about for a while.

We all know that the BNP attracts support from the far-right fascists who have had nowhere else to go to raise their objections to non-white residents in the UK and have secret yearnings to wear armbands and salute their Fuhrer. One of the main aims of Nick Griffin has been to try and hide this side of the party and create a more voter friendly image in the hope of pursuing more middle-class voters.

The party's key and overriding aim is to establish deep and strong roots within our local communities... We must create a widely spread support base from which we can act as the true leaders of the communities in which we live and operate.
Nasty Nick believes that the BNP's time will come, that a national emergency will arise and the British people will speak as one, declaring that the BNP is the answer to the immediate crisis. Although I fail to understand to what crisis this little lot could possibly provide any kind of coherent response. To be honest, that fantasy from Griffin isn't what concerns me - they are making genuine inroads into a handful of what should be solid Labour strongholds.

A matter of persistent debate is how to tackle the BNP - do we ignore them or engage them? The danger is that we give the BNP credibility - you don't do that for any other political opponent, so why do it with the BNP? Margaret Hodge was right in what she said, but politically naive to say it in so public a forum
The Labour Party hasn't talked to these people. This is a traditional Labour area but they are not used to engaging with us because all we do is put leaflets through doors. Part of the reason they switch to the BNP is they feel no one else is listening to them.
In many of the outer ring of white, working-class wards in Birmingham, the BNP and their like are getting reasonable returns. Looking at a like-for-like comparison of the 2004 local elections and 2006 shows that where the BNP ran candidates in 2004, they increased their vote by around 4% across all wards, with particularly strong growth in Kingstanding (34%) and Shard End (35%), although they also experienced some setbacks in places like Hodge Hill (-21%), Kings Norton (-15%), Sheldon (-13%) and Stechford (-17%). Given that they have apparently reorganised their Birmingham operations into North, East and South branches, it will be interesting to see whether they can improve their position further and pose a genuine threat to the established parties. They are closest in numerical terms to Labour in Tyburn (746 vote difference), Shard End (696), Oscott (470) and Kingstanding (565), while they are 973 votes behind the Tories in Longbridge.

My belief is that we don't give the BNP the oxygen of publicity by attacking them on a broad front and talking them up, but deal with them on a ward-by-ward basis. While some people vote BNP because they don't like people who happen to have different coloured skin, more people are heading that way for precisely the reasons that Margaret Hodge identified.

Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, tells a story about three tower blocks where data collected over several elections showed that no one ever voted. As a consequence, the Westminster parties never sent anyone there. BNP activists knocked on every single door and the residents, long neglected by the mainstream politicians, turned out in force for the party.
We urgently need to stem the outflow of Labour members, because those are vital parts of the organisation needed in every ward to put a proper campaign into place. That's one of the major challenges facing the next Labour leadership team. Dealing with it requires strong local involvement and people prepared to do the work involved in supporting communities that feel disadvantaged and provide fertile ground for the lies spread by the BNP. There's no rocket science involved - just good, honest casework, visibility and dealing in facts. Even in wards where we aren't going to win, we need to provide opposition, because if we don't, the BNP will, no matter how incompetent their councillors prove to be.

Don't panic, the BNP aren't close to breaking through in Birmingham - they don't have the resources and seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than campaigning on genuine local issues. Like them, we need to be prepared to deal with the direct threat in a few target wards, but we also need to bear those lessons in mind in other wards. Just because there isn't an active presence today doesn't mean that there won't be tomorrow.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas every one (not you Littlejohn)

In the spirit of Christmas, I feel it would be uncharitable to pass any more comment on Richard Littlejohn's thoughtful and inspiring work on the five women murdered in Suffolk.
'in their chosen field of 'work', death by strangulation is an occupational hazard... in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss'
So, I'll leave it to Mr Eugenides to spew the required bile in the direction of the great man. Strong words and unsuited for readers of a nervous disposition, but entirely deserved where that wretched piece of pseudo-humanity that identifies itself as Littlejohn is concerned. I'd even say that I'm not sure that Mr Eugenides has gone far enough. If ever there were cause to invent new profanities, this is one.

Moving on to more festive fare, for the past couple of years, we've convinced our children that Santa exists with the solid argument that if NORAD - which has the day job of spotting ballistic missile launches - is able to track him, then surely he must be real. (We've managed to head off awkward discussions about the inability of the US and the UK to track Osama bin Laden or locate Iraqi WMD thus far). Catch up with Father Christmas' progress around the planet here.

And finally, a little stocking-filler for me this year, with the Sunday Times/YouGov poll showing that LibDem support has slid down to 15%. Now, as always, there have to be the caveats that the LDs suffer from lack of exposure outside election periods and this is just one poll, but let me dream a little today, OK? If we ask Electoral Calculus to apply that (based on an entirely imaginary uniform voting pattern) the result is a massacre of the Lib Dems. The Kennedy era could return, largely because he'll be one of just 8 surviving Lib Dem MPs.

Predictably, the Libs suffer at the hands of the Tories, but a whole host of high-profile Liberal Democrats (I know that's an oxymoron of the first order) are sent packing: Nick Harvey, Jo Swinson, Phil Willis, Lynne Featherstone, Danny Alexander, Norman Baker, Lembit Opik, Norman Lamb, Evan Harris, Sandra Gidley, Susan Kramer, Nick Clegg, Lorely Burt and Vince Cable will be amongst those looking for new jobs. Even John Hemming will have to fall back on his millions, his country estate and his job as a councillor, but at least Yardley would be free again. Sadly, the cost would be a hung parliament, with the Tories 11 short of a majority and I'm not sure that I'd wish that on my country.

So, have a good Christmas everyone. Except Littlejohn, obviously.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Snap election?

There's some speculation about the election of the next Labour leader being a trigger for a snap election.

While there are clear problems with doing that, there could be a scenario where it would really work for Labour - May 3 next year. Before you laugh too long and loud, think about it.

Labour voters are typically lazy ones - they need real incentive to turn out. Tories have stayed at home in recent years while Lib Dems have turned out reliably - hence the exceptional performance of that party in by-elections. However, give Labour voters a general election and they are much more inclined to turn up to the polling station.

Now, May 3 offers the rare coincidence of metropolitan elections in England and Wales, along with assembly elections in Wales and Scotland. The poll figures for the devolved assemblies really don't look good for Labour at the moment and control of the parliaments is genuinely under threat. A general election would be a double-whammy - increasing the turnout of Labour voters and securing control of Wales and Scotland as well as returning a number of Labour councillors in England and Wales.

Another advantage is that it would cause the Tories some grief. Cameron's been criticised for being light on policy and it has been suggested that we are around a year away from seeing any policies unveiled, depending on the outcome of various policy forums, so their manifesto should show signs of being seriously undercooked.

I'd also predict a Brown bounce in the polls. Although recent polling, offering a putative Brown/Cameron contest, has been inconclusive, I'm convinced that the Brown manifesto will offer a number of interesting and inspiring policy directions, with tackling poverty at the heart of it. He's a big Americanist, so I'd watch out for the first 100 days to show some new directions to policy. I think this will revitalise Labour grass roots and we will see an upturn in support and even active membership - providing he can shed the dour image and get the policies across to the electorate. Don't get me wrong - I'm not forecasting a return to the glory days of '97, but I do predict that Labour support will firm up noticeably after the leadership election and enough to see off the Tory revival - such as it is.

A big help would be a reasonably bloodless leadership election - one free of too many recriminations. It seems likely that Brown will not face a serious challenger, with it looking improbable that John McDonnell will secure the necessary PLP nominations to pose a serious threat. Given that Brown looks to be a shoo-in for the top job, I can't see any other big hitter - John Reid, for example - deciding to throw in the towel on their front-bench career in a mindless tilt at a windmill.

Another curious advantage would be that it would keep Blair's promise to serve a full term - nobody said that it was a five-year term. It would also be a mandate for a Brown government - flooring any objections that people had voted for Blair, but got Brown.

One big question is over the money. Antony Little reckons that Labour can't afford it. He's right - the party is the thick end of £3o million in the hole. On the other hand, bear in mind that a snap election would leave little time for buying up poster sites (the last election was signalled months in advance as parties booked their chosen sites) and the costs would piggy-back on the costs of fighting the local and devolved elections. Additionally, there would be the magnificent PR value of having the focus on Gordon for three months prior to him taking the top job as the election runs the course, to the exclusion of the Tories and the Lib Dems. It would be a stretch, but I think that the unions would come through with the short-term extra funding to support the campaign. An election in May would be significantly more affordable than a snap election in the autumn.

Now what about timetabling. If we assume a short campaign, that means that Brown has to be PM and ready to call a snap election at the end of March/beginning of April. The leadership election could be compressed into three months, so it would need to kick off early in the New Year. The final plus point is that it would allow Blair to choose his moment. The closer we get to summer 2007, the more certain becomes the date of departure and the higher the tension becomes. There is the risk that Blair would face a crisis before he resigned and could be portrayed as resigning as a result of that. I've always believed that he wants to go in his own time and not when he's under pressure. What better way of starting the New Year than by announcing his intention to stand down as leader?

Will it happen? I doubt it. Candidates aren't in place (although that could be resolved by the NEC) and it would be a huge risk. But possibly one worth taking.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lembit should resign!

No, sorry, not even I can manufacture enough bile to call for Lemsip to resign for lobbying on behalf of his new lady friend. I did try, honestly...

Although I would argue that both of the Cheeky Girls should be extraordinarily rendered to Guantanamo for their crimes against music, it IS Christmas and I can't find it in my heart to condemn the loveable Lib Dem MP (there has to be one).

Truly, it is the season of goodwill to all men.

Really, the only question is which of them is more desperate for media coverage - Lembit or Gabby?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cheeky boy!

You might have been forgiven for checking that today wasn't April 1st. Just when you think that the 'You Couldn't Make It Up' tap had run dry, another story drips out.

We knew that Limpid Optic had split from his long-term fiancee Sian Lloyd - perhaps he'd had enough of a cold front from the west overnight. (Odd that the BBC chooses the word 'flamboyant' to descrive Lembit - geeky would be better, but no matter).

That could only be trumped by the revelation that he's now been seen out and about squiring one of the Cheeky Girls.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lib Dems stand by convicted electoral fraudsters

Some of you may remember leading Liberal Democrat John Hemming accusing the Labour Party of standing by six councillors found guilty of electoral fraud back in April 2005 (one was later cleared on appeal).
Now ... what we have is Six Councillors found to have been involved in electoral fraud to the criminal burden of proof. The criminal burden of proof is "Beyond reasonable doubt". The Labour Party's immediate response is to "Suspend them". Now I would accept that if merely allegations were raised that may be appropriate. However, we have had a High Court sitting for over a month going through the cases. The question is "Where is the doubt?" ... What is holding the Labour Party back from expelling the councillors? ...It does seem that Labour are "standing by" their disgraced councillors.

So, in Burnley, we have two Liberal Democrat councillors convicted and jailed for electoral fraud. What's the party response (with a hat tip to FibDems)?
A spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrats said because the councillors were planning an appeal against their convictions the party was unable to expel them. She said they had been suspended since they were found guilty. "Until the conclusion of the legal process we cannot expel them, they only remain suspended."
By that standard, the Lib Dems are standing by their convicted criminal councillors.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happy Now?

In a sad day for the leftwards end of the blogosphere, Bob Piper has hung up his keyboard after a sustained campaign against him by a few Tories who made the effort to be offended by a picture ridiculing Cameron's new 'just like you' image.

The Tories who are doubtless celebrating the departure of another Labour blogger from the stage should take note. Climbing on the moral high ground may expose how weak your foundations are, particularly when your indignation is so palpably manufactured

We remember Bob Spink (Tory MP for Castle Point) and his 'send them back' newspaper advert about asylum seekers in 2005 or his claims that more criminals are black than white. We remember the candidate for Chester who has resigned citing issues over racism and sexism in the local party. We remember the recent North Norfolk selection meeting where a local member asked 'Could we be assured that neither of the candidates is a homosexual?' Then we have the comment of three Tory MPs to potential candidate Ali Miraj on his selection meeting, 'Good luck Ali, but I would be shocked if they didn’t pick a White middle-class male' - not racist, just that they understand how the grassroots membership thinks. At least they suspended a councillor for a genuinely racist email that she decided to forward from her council email account.

I will confess that I didn't like the picture, but I got the point behind the jibe at Cameron and I don't think that it was a racist statement. Bob isn't a racist and neither is Unity. Their loathing for the real racists in the BNP drips from their keyboards when they write about that vile party.
I'm sorry to see Bob go. It is a sad day for politics when we can't let our politicians loose in an unmediated environment, unfiltered by the lens of the media. I wish more of them would spend a few minutes connecting with us lesser mortals. Let's not have a political class dominated by bland, vapid, inoffensive technocrats. We need some people with hinterland, prepared to share their interests and their flaws so we can see that they are actually rounded human beings, not some party-trained robot.

So, don't be a stranger, Bob. Have a good Christmas and get back online in the New Year. There's Tory and Lib Dem dragons to slay out there.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Liberal Democrats

A little while ago, a fellow blogger asked for my thoughts on the Liberal Democrats as I seem to follow their fortunes closely, so I'll try to take my party political hat off for a while and let you have the benefit of my wisdom. No sniggering at the back, there.

At the core, the Liberal Democrats are oppositionists - that's their unique selling point and it is a tremendous political weapon for them. Their effectiveness depends upon building coalitions of tactical voters opposed to the current administration - hence their omnipresent graphs showing that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat the Tories/Labour (delete as appropriate). I'm not sure I buy Don Paskini's assertion that the natural vote for the LDs is around 2%, but he makes many good points in this analysis.

The party is famed for inconsistency and this drives activists from both the Tory and Labour party to distraction (one of the few occasions where we find common ground). The classic example locally, of course, is the selection of Nichola Davies as their parliamentary candidate in Hodge Hill (against the wishes of the local eminence grise, John Hemming, as I understand it). The Lib Dems have made an art form out of opposing mobile phone masts across the country and it is a great vote-winner because people don't like them and the LDs know only too well that while they are usually wasting their time opposing a planning application (as the legislation from central government will ensure that it goes through), there's votes in the issue. So, selecting somebody whose day job was working for the mobile phone industry convincing councils to wave applications through was a touch inconsistent. Jon Hunt's petition to Birmingham Council on Tuesday falls into the same category of inconsistency with their own national policy. The late, lamented LibDemWatch did a marvellous job of recording those and Yellow Peril and Fib Dems continue the tradition.

They can usually get away with this because politics is a local business - people in Erdington don't know or care what the Liberal Democrat attitude is in Northfield, for example. So in local politics, the approach works very well as they promise exactly what people in a given area want to hear. It is even effective at a national level and in by-election campaigns. Where it becomes problematic is when they actually achieve power, because being an oppositionist is a problem when you have the levers of power in your hands. Even then, Lib Dem councillors have been caught out blaming 'the council' for specific issues - conveniently ignoring the fact that they run the damn thing.

I suspect that their opportunistic oppositionalism will become a weakness. This worked in their favour as long as the Tories were as useless and disorganised as they have been for most of the past decade, but now the Conservatives seem to be on the march again, the LibDems are vulnerable to desertions from their motley crew of left and right-wingers seeking an outlet for their opposition to the Labour government. Everyone thinks of them as a centre-left party, but they have a record of hoovering up dissatisfied Tory vote. If you run the current tranche of opinion poll results through something like Electoral Calculus (and I should add the usual health warning about assuming that swing works evenly across the country), while Labour doesn't do well, the Liberal Democrats face a thorough kicking as well, with their parliamentary representation slashed to just 35 seats. This runs counter to a prediction I made after the last election - forecasting that the Lib Dems were on the verge of a breakthrough into the real big time and genuine contention for power - but the Tories have revived themselves, driven by desperation to make difficult decisions. 2005 may well prove to have been the Lib Dems' highwater mark for a generation, as I suspect that the next election will see some roll-back and some high-profile victims. Don't forget that the next election looks to be the first since 1992 when the result could go either way, so people will be less willing to cast a protest vote when it could make a difference to the Tories or Labour actually gaining power.

However, don't forget that mid-term opinion polls tend to under-estimate Lib Dem vote when it comes to an election. The third party doesn't get the same focus outside election time, so we typically see a higher than expected Liberal Democrat vote after they have some national attention during the campaign.

The party has traditionally been a bottom-up party (make up your own Mark Oaten jokes) in that policy is developed from the grassroots of the party and they have the final say through the conference system. That's perfectly fine and democratic, but the problem is that it can be a slow process when the news agenda moves so swiftly and journalists demand a party line on something or other instantaneously and not in six months or a year's time. The Tory conferences have always been occasions for the party grandees to descend from Westminster and distribute their nuggets of wisdom to the grassroots. Labour have gone the same way in the past few years, when they realised that public displays of vicious in-fighting weren't guaranteed to win votes.

The Liberal Democrat policy-making process also had the bonus for the other parties in that the muesli sandal-wearing wing of the party would find a way of slipping one of their nuttier policies past the leadership. This was a reliable source of campaigning headlines, be it porn at 16 , legalising cannabis or votes for serial killers, but one that looks to be denied to us in future as they have learnt enough to impose greater controls on what policy votes actually get to conference.

As I have noted before, their by-election machine is, frankly, terrifying. While a national campaign stretches their resources to the limit, give them a single seat to fight and no majority is safe. The tactics are tried and tested and backed up by a mass of campaigners who will descend on a constituency in a way that neither the Tories nor Labour can match. They will find a local issue on which to hang their campaign - even if it means inventing one. In the current council by-election campaign in Camden, the local Labour party highlight a Lib Dem scare story about the closure of the local police station - a story kicked into touch by the local copper. Failing that, as Don Paskini pointed out, they will run a negative campaign while trying to spin themselves as being different from other politicians.

Their image as the 'nice' party took a well-deserved beating over their treatment of Charlie Kennedy. For all his faults, he was a popular and recognisable national figure with decent approval ratings. Ming Campbell lacks Kennedy's touch and is too patrician when compared to Blair/Brown or Cameron. Small parties depend on the image of their leader - the only one who will get any sort of media exposure - and Campbell doesn't cut it.

Another change is that they seem to be trying to take over the ground occupied by the other parties - dropping the 50% tax rate and other elements of the Orangista crusade will destroy one of their strong points. The party has always been seen as a little bit different, but if it tries too hard to adopt Labour or Tory policies, then people won't have a reason to vote Liberal Democrat over either of the parties able to win a majority. A drift to the right won't win them seats.

Any more thoughts, anyone?

Amis on Cameron

"A rich prettyboy who is pretending to give a damn"


Question Time tonight.

Putting the Lady into Ladywood?

According to the Stirrer in the Birmingham Mail tonight, Elaina Cohen has been 'appointed' as chair of that ward.

Forgive me for being pernickety, but last time I checked, officers at branch and CLP level were elected. More often than I'd like, parties are scouring the membership to find people to do the legwork involved in running a political organisation rather than having posts oversubscribed, but the membership do still have a say.

Somebody also reckons that the post of branch chair gives her authority over Sir Albert.

Technically maybe, but I'm not sure he'd see it that way.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Big screen entertainment

Birmingham City Council has recently installed two big screens in the council chamber with projectors linked to a snazzy camera system that zooms in immediately on any given councillor's seat, identifying the speaker and the party. This is actually an excellent idea, although seeing the councillors in glorious colour is not an experience suitable for those with weak stomachs.

My spy in the public gallery reports that Liberal Democrat councillor Jon Hunt presented a petition containing 800 signatures against any form of congestion charging. Now councillors have to represent all their constituents and I suppose that this petition might have come up as a result of a genuine groundswell of public opinion, but I'm really not convinced. This feels like a petition generated by the Lib Dems themselves.

If only the Liberal Democrats had a policy on road-pricing.

But wait! Hang on a minute - they do!
Liberal Democrats believe road user pricing is essential...

...this issue requires robust political leadership if road user pricing is to be widely accepted in the UK. This is the challenge that the Liberal Democrats are willing to face...
Make that SOME Liberal Democrats. Others are after cheap political capital. Indeed, some of us remember the former Lib Dem transport spokesman Don Foster, who wrote to the Secretary of State to confirm the Liberal Democrat policy on road pricing, but then went on to explain in detail why it was entirely unsuitable for places like Bath. Can you guess which constituency Don represents?

The Liberal Democrats also completed the eviction of their former colleague Cllr Abdul Aziz by removing him from the Coordinating Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Naturally, you would think that they would seize the opportunity to redress some of the representational imbalance that continues to affect the council (where a large part of the Birmingham population is entirely unrepresented by the leadership - unless you count the three day a week allowance paid to Tanveer Choudhry for leading the Local Area Agreement Task and Finish Scrutiny Committee which has done almost exactly no work since being formed in July)

In any case, you would, of course, be wrong. Clearly, Cllr John Hemming MP hasn't got enough to do, so he can find time to serve on that committee as well as being a businessman, wannabe astronaut, gentleman farmer and member of parliament.

Fresh and well-fed from an expensive formal dinner with representatives from Guangzhou (I'm not sure if kidney was on the menu with the steak), Whitless was talking up the chances of Birmingham attracting the Chinese team for the 2012 Olympics, although how their swimmers would cope without a 50m Olympic pool for training is an interesting question.

Ironically, a motion was brought to the council about the decline in manufacturing in Birmingham, which gave little Bobbie Alden a chance to speak his (rather limited) brains. He blamed the problems of industry on the tax and red-tape policies of Gordon Brown, rather than accepting the unpleasant truth that volume manufacturing is thriving in places like China because the workforce will work for pennies and not demand fripperies like holidays, safe working environments or pension plans.

The Tories did themselves no favours today, catcalling and barracking Albert Bore as he tried to raise a petition in support of those British citizens imprisoned by our American friends in Guantanamo. Similarly, one of their number came back with potentially libellous remarks about Sir Albert's appointment as chair of the University Hospital NHS Trust.

A reshuffle is in the air as departmental functions are being moved around in a grand game of musical chairs. Of course, the new departmental heads will be appointed after a thorough process of fair and open selection. Or they could just be picked for their loyalty and willingness to do as they are told. Guess which path the council has chosen. This has an impact on the cabinet as well, and Tory Cllr John Lines is wandering around telling all and sundry that he will be the new cabinet member for constituencies and housing - which may come as a surprise to the current holder of the local services portfolio, Lib Dem Jim Whorwood.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Making your mind up

There are arguments on both sides for the retention of Britain's nuclear weapons and for it to be scrapped when the Trident boats are finally laid up in 2024 and I'm not going to rehearse them here (yet).

But the Liberal Democrats have a view on it. They want to take a lead on nuclear disarmament by errrm, keeping our nuclear weapons - just not quite so many of them.

In any case, Ming the Useless opines that we don't need to decide the future until 2014 - when the international threat will be clearer. Perhaps his crystal ball could give us the lottery numbers as well, because I don't understand the logic of that statement. Anyway, the expected service life of the Trident boats expires in 2024 or so, therefore waiting until 2014 would require additional expenditure to extend their operational capability until a replacement was available - something that the US has already decided on for its nuc boats. A replacement could take fifteen to twenty years to be ready for deployment and will require co-operation with the US (Trident took 14 years to come into UK service).

Aside from the usual Lib Dem attempt to sit on the fence so as not to offend anybody, this is also intriguing, as the party has yet to develop a policy on a Trident replacement, but Ming doesn't want party procedure to stand in the way. A consultation paper was put forward earlier this year and raised at the autumn conference, but it is still to go to a vote in the spring of 2007. The last manifesto envisaged
retaining the UK’s current minimum nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future, until sufficient progress has been made towards the global elimination of such weapons
Perhaps it is being a little pedantic to point out that Ming has changed this policy slightly, as the current warhead total is just under 200 split between the four boats, but this is another example of him making policy on the fly and hoping that the party follows him.

Which they will. Mostly out of curiousity.

Fuzzy logic

Badly thought-out and poorly-expressed policy? Only in loose touch with reality? It can only be a Tory.

In particular, Ellee Seymour, who brings all her professional skills as a PR person to bear on the difficult issue of what to do with knives. Ban them is her answer.

For those of you who can't spot the immediate flaw in that argument, can I recommend the ever-readable Unity at the Ministry of Truth who applies his own razor-sharp wit to her argument ands leaves it in shreds.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Partly political

Having failed in reality TV, it can't be a surprise that Jo Cameron would choose the Liberal Democrats as her party of choice in her pursuit of a seat on those Commons benches.

What is a surprise is that she's being allowed to seek advice from John 'Superstud' Hemming.

With his reputation? Has no-one thought of the consequences?

Merry Christmas Rover Workers Everywhere!

Well, at least a few members of the Phoenix group will have a happier Christmas as they pocket their share of £22 million left in the bank.

Remember how John Hemming used to trumpet his support for Rover...
He is also known for having brought together the Phoenix Consortium that took over Rover from BMW. This action saved between 40,000 and 50,000 jobs mainly in the West Midlands for 5 years. Many people who work at Rover or Land Rover live in the Yardley Constituency. In 2005, however, the DTI pushed Rover over the edge when it was on the verge of sorting out its long term future. He has been looking at possible solutions from administration as well.
But then he airbrushed the picture to spin a subtly different tale
In 2000 John Hemming brought together the community, the workforce and certain businesspeople to put together a consortium to rescue Rover. John made the mistake of trusting John Towers who went on to kick John Hemming and the
community representatives from the consortium and ran the business in the way John Towers wished to run it. In 2003 John Hemming, being aware of the way in which the directors were extracting money and assets, looked at taking legal action to remove them from overall control. The conclusion was that this would damage the business and hit the local economy were it to proceed. In 2005 the business continued to lose money and as a result of the briefings of the Department of Trade and Industry suppliers refused to supply the company. It was then forced to bring in administrators on Friday 8th April at 2005.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Go figure

With autumn comes the latest batch of performance statistics showing just how well the Tory/Liberal Democrat Regressive Partnership is performing after two long years in power. They don't make good reading for the city.

Back in 2004, the Labour administration on the council met the recycling target as set by the government, beating it by almost three percentage points. A couple of weeks back, we had the recycling figures, which showed that Birmingham is in the bottom ten percent of local authorities in the country when it comes to recycling and missed last year's recycling target. Yup, 358 councils have a better record on recycling than Birmingham and just 38 have fared worse than us on household waste (the figures on municipal waste from commercial and council sources are actually slightly worse). But don't worry, the Cabinet have a plan to get to 40% recycling by 2026. Yup, we'll catch up with Oswestry in the third decade of this century. By the way, Rushcliffe Borough Council is already past the 50% recycling figure and the document itself suggests that the national target could be 40% by 2016.

I had some hope when I read that Martin Mullaney had undergone a conversion to the cause of the wheeled bin, only to see my hopes dashed when a council officer rubbished the idea - Ian Coghill has a blind spot when it comes to wheelie bins and is determined to hold out against the change.

And if that wasn't enought, we've now had an update on the performance of the social services department. Last year, the council house was adorned with stars to celebrate the hard work of the social services team in dragging the department back from the brink (following an action plan largely devised by Labour in 2004 and funded by a thumpingly good increase in the annual grant). This year, Cllr Anderson isn't singing quite such a happy tune as the great leap forward fell rather short and the department was labelled as having an 'uncertain capacity for improvement.' In particular, there was criticism of the process for adapting houses for the elderly or disabled, with the average waiting time increasing to 74 weeks. Yup, that's an AVERAGE time of almost eighteen months - so there are people out there waiting an awful lot longer. Detailed reading of the report suggests that the department is hanging on to that star by the tips of its fingers.

Yet again, I find myself asking the council - where's the drive and vision to get us to that recycling target in something less than two decades? These problems are symptomatic of the complete lack of ambition or desire to lead that has affected the council since Whitless was shoehorned into the leader's office. Why has progress stalled on two more vital issues? Where's the leadership? Answers on a postcard, please.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Tossers, one and all.

How do I put this?

The Tory website Sort-It about personal debt was clearly devised by a whole creative team of tossers.

For example, the section entitled 'Look what my inner tosser did' has a few poor little rich kids whinging about spending £200 on two bottles of Cristal or getting a taxi home from central London to Docklands rather than spending 20 minutes on public transport with the proles or the bloke who has to buy a new Dior coat every season to fill the emotional void of his existence.

All of 'em tossers and I don't care about them. Really, I don't.

I'm more worried about the low-income families that I know who have to struggle to make ends meet. Yes, they are better off under Labour, but at this end of the socio-economic spectrum, it is a very fine line that they walk. Very often, they don't have access to the credit system that most of us take for granted - banks don't like that kind of customer - and so end up in the world of the euphemistically titled 'sub-prime lenders.' This is a polite term for those companies that are a couple of steps up the ladder from loan sharks. Virtually anyone can get credit these days, they'll just pay a high price if they aren't considered to be a good risk.

I'm not sure that painting all those in personal debt as being victims of their own personal tossers is anything other than a crass oversimplification of a serious social problem, but that's the modern Tory party for you.

Later in the week, we had the Damascene conversion (or not) of the Tory Party to Polly Toynbee's views. Of course, the whole point was that they should pick up on her imagery and not on her policy ideas, because the Cameroonies are all image-heavy, policy-light. This is a standard routine for the Tories now - political out-rider makes a headline-grabbing statement that seems to shift Tory policy onto Labour ground, then the leader makes all the right noises, but fails to offer any clear policy. We've seen this before and we'll see it again.

All sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing. This bunch of monied Etonians have no concept of poverty in our country today, but then why should they? To them, relative poverty is not being able to afford that extra bottle of champagne or to only ski for a week rather than two. Going into debt for that bottle of Cristal or the designer handbag is the extent of their problem, not feeding and clothing the kids.

Don't be conned by these tossers.

Councillors jailed for electoral fraud

Curiously, our local campaigner against dodgy electoral practices has nothing to say about the conviction and imprisonment of two councillors in Burnley for fraudulently collecting proxy votes to ensure victory. Both were sent down for 18 months.

But then both were Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Liberal Democrats - two faced?

Remember when the Liberal Democrats selected a mobile phone industry publicist as a parliamentary candidate despite their consistent opposition to mast planning applications? Here's another one for the You Couldn't Make It Up files.

William Rennie, the winner of the Dunfermline by-election threw the Prime Minister a curved ball during PMQs today

After the conflict ended, cluster bombs used in Lebanon by Israel had resulted in 159 casualties, including 23 deaths so far. In Geneva last week, why did the UK not support calls from the UN Secretary-General, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 27 nations for urgent action? In Oslo next year, will the Prime Minister push for a ban on those indiscriminate bombs, or does he agree with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, who strongly advocates the use of such bombs?
As FibDems reminds us, Wee Willie knows more about this than he's letting on. You see, Willie used to be a PR man for the company that handled the Raytheon account. Raytheon make cluster bombs. Indeed, on a recent visit to their factory in his constituency, Willie commented:
'it is easy to understand why the company enjoys such a good reputation both in Fife and further afield'

Here's the Raytheon-manufactured AGM154 delivering some of that reputation.

Still, why should he be consistent?

Lest we forget...

Happy days. I remember the news coming through on the BBC around 9:45 in the morning and then the celebrations down at the Students Union.

Damn fine day.

Here we go again...

Under an hour to go and I'm planning on watching the first couple of overs before heading off to bed.

Just like last time, I don't believe that we can do it.

And yet....

England expects.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Does Brown want the Blair blessing or not?

Here's a thought. Does Gordon really want Tony to anoint him as the heir apparent?

From here, it looks as though the leadership will be a no-contest. I really don't see any alternative challenger from any wing of the party with sufficient weight to have a hope of stopping the man from No 11. I'm not even certain that anyone could muster enough MPs prepared to sign the death warrant for their own political careers to pose a serious challenge. Hence the unseemly rush to put a case for the deputy leadership, with almost the entire parliamentary party appearing to be assembling their individual campaigns. I'm undecided as to who will get the weight of the blog behind them - I know that they're all waiting to see.

But as for the top job, that will be Gordon's (barring any last minute disasters). He doesn't need Tony's support to win and he might benefit electorally from putting some clear blue (red?) water between him and the present administration. An endorsement might prove a long-lasting embarassment.

The only question is when Tony will go. I've been pondering this for a while and I suspect it could be a lot sooner than everyone thinks. Previously, I've commented that he would go when it suited and he would go when he wasn't under pressure. By the way, despite Guido's fervent masturbatory fantasies about seeing Blair in the dock over charges of selling honours, I'd be amazed if anyone ever faces charges on that. My prediction (the value of which may go down as well as up) is that Tony will announce his departure around the beginning of January 2007. Imagine my surprise when this forecast gained support from a little outburst on that centre of political debate, I'm A Nonentity, Get Me Out of Here from Lauren Booth.
'No - he's definitely not. In fact he will go in January. He made the decision so he is standing down in January.' Her words seemed to be a definite answer from a close family member to the question Gordon Brown has no doubt been asking himself for months. Then, almost sensing the shockwaves resonate around No 10, Lauren appeared to backpedal, adding: 'No, maybe March. What am I saying? Easter.'

If Tony is going to do the decent thing before the local elections and ensure that we have a leader in place, then he only has a short window in January to do the deed, otherwise the timescale for the elections wouldn't be manageable with an election campaign to follow.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A vote for the BNP is a vote for the Liberal Democrats

Not apparently the case in Calderdale, for a report by FibDems....

Now here's what happens when you post a quick couple of lines and miss the date. This story did the rounds a few weeks back and had the Lib Dems across the web jumping all over everyone. I didn't write about it then because I'd seen the controversy and wasn't happy with the story.
Indeed, the Lib Dem group leader on the council stated that none of his people had canvassed support from the BNP for their no confidence motion. As a matter of interest, when the vote was taken, both BNP councillors were out of the chamber and as the Labour councillors voted with the Tories, the motion fell. I didn't check the date on FibDem's report and missed that it was the same press story that had triggered the initial firestorm. Usual apologies all round and I'll wipe the egg off my face.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Call yourself a leader?

How useless do you have to be as the leader of the BNP to fail to be convicted of inciting racial hatred? Didn't anyone tell you that that is pretty much the job description? In case anyone needs reminding, here's what a current high-profile BNP member thinks and what a recently expelled BNP member thought in their more private moments. (The latter was expelled from the party for anti-semitism, by the way, and nothing to do with her asking for the money collected to fund her legal campaign or an attempt to spin a more friendly view of the BNP). See, they keep the flame of hate burning.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Race to the top

As forecast, the resignation of Cllr Abdul Aziz proved a bitter matter as he attacked his former colleagues for, let's face it, racism.

The preamble to the Lib Dem constitution says the Lib Dems exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society. They can't even create a fair group, how in the name of God do they claim that they can create a fair and free society?

This is a novel policy to deal with equality and diversity. The policy is to get rid of Asian councillors from the Liberal Democrat group who can do the job of a cabinet member or be scrutiny committee chairmen and replace them with those who cannot.

Groundhog day for the Liberal Democrats, barely a year on from the last high-profile resignation from their party. Then Cllr Talib Hussain commented on his dismissal:
The reason for sacking me is my colour. I feel I have been sacked because I am an Asian.
Those seats in front of Sir Albert in the council chamber are going to get mighty crowded if this carries on.

And still we wait for the long-promised reshuffle of portfolios which will allow the mostly-male and all-white chairs of scrutiny and members of the cabinet to more properly represent the people of Birmingham.

Meanwhile, of course, the Tories are running true to form as one former parliamentary candidate and councillor decides to spread a nasty poem (she's not the only one to have been burnt by that little ditty) - although some of her best friends are Asian or German, another Tory A-lister considers whether selection committees are irredeemably racist and two investigative bloggers dig into a Tory parliamentary campaign and discover cardboard cut-out Little Englanders within.

On the Tory councillor, one MP commented that
Racism has absolutely no place in British politics and I am asking the CRE to advise on what further action can be taken.

Thank you, Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat chair of campaigns and communications. Now, I'm off to reset my ironymeter, which has unaccountably pinged off the scale.


The phrase 'hard-working families' is over-used by all politicians, but rarely can it have applied so well as to those who have been hit by the failure of Farepak, dragged down by the collapse of its parent company, European Home Retail. In a packed debate, united by cross-party anger at the behaviour of the company, Anne Snelgrove, the Labour MP for South Swindon, kicked off at the directors and named them, almost spitting the names out
They were the finance director and company secretary Stevan Fowler, the independent non-executive directors Neil Gillis, Paul Munn and Michael Johns, the chief executive William Rollason—I understand that he is soon to appear in an Australian court, possibly on a not unrelated matter involving another company—the executive director Nicholas Gilodi-Johnson, who is set to inherit £70 million, and the chairman Sir Clive Thompson, formerly of Rentokil, who is a modern-day Scrooge. He bemoaned a 30p rise in the minimum wage when he was earning more that £2 million a year, he wound up the pension scheme at Rentokil for all but the executives and then walked off with a £690,000 a year pension. No doubt Sir Clive and the directors will be eating a very big turkey this Christmas and enjoying it.

Sir Clive Thompson wrote an article a few years back entitled 'How Labour Suffocates Business' in which he complained about regulation
Witness our government's ill-advised Rip-off Britain campaign, which inappropriately tarred with the same brush the whole of British industry

There are some who would gladly see this particular industrialist - a Tory supporter a few years ago and a past president of the CBI - denied the oxygen of oxygen. He seems to know more about rip-off Britain than most.

The core of this is that this scheme hurt some of the poorest people in society, but cruelly hit hardest at those who had thought to put a little aside in advance for Christmas. Rather than fall prey to loan sharks or credit cards or some of the more unpleasant sub-prime lenders, these people placed their trust in a company that claimed to protect their cash with a security bond. Unfortunately, that bond was for a mere £100,000 and the debts could top £45 million. As this area of the market concerns goods being held for payment and not strictly a credit scheme, it escapes the regulation of the Financial Services Authority - a position that will soon be altered, I suspect. Sir Clive had a view on regulation in 1999
...the Government imposes regulations and burdens on business, increasing our costs and lowering our flexibility to respond in fast-changing markets...

Ah, diddums.

This from the chairman of a company who was content to see the parent siphon off the cash to support a failing business. A man who didn't care that his firm was taking payment from the bottom rung of the financial ladder right up until the very minute that the receivers walked in in October - only after the last payments had been made. (And don't forget that HBOS took about a million a month from the company - hence their swift, damage-limiting donation of £2 million to the rescue plan).

Sir Clive left Rentokil after a dramatic profits warning in 2004, which wiped £436 million off the share value of the company. His pain was eased by a pension pot approaching £14 million - some way short of that which the typical low-paid Rentokil employee could expect. Our very own Digby Jones described Sir Clive as 'the very best' - words he might now choose to regret.

Perhaps he might see fit to donate some of his millions to the poor folk that his company rooked this year.

It is right to praise the companies that have come forward to offer support - even HBOS - Morrisons, Sainsburys, Tesco have all offered substantial sums. MPs reported that some firms have been underwriting credit unions to allow these families to join and immediately take advantage of this form of micro-lending. Even many of our much maligned MPs are digging into their pockets to donate to the campaign.

Why should we let Thompson and his cronies cancel thousands of Christmasses across the country? Hughes Views summed it up well, referring to an Edward Heath quote.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Getting the revenge in first

Today's Post carried a story about yet another defective defecting Asian Liberal Democrat councillor. This was something of a pre-emptive strike against Cllr Abdul Aziz by his former best friend, Cllr John Hemming, the eminence grise behind all things Liberal Democrat on the City Council.

Cllr Aziz has abandoned the Liberal Democrat ship and will join Cllr Talib Hussain on the independent benches in front of the Labour Group. I understand that we can expect some strong views from him on the subject of the Liberal Democrats and John Hemming in particular.

Oh - is that promised attempt to redress the balance of representation in the executive any further forward?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

There may be storm clouds ahead...

The marriage of the year (although which year has never been identified) is off.

Lembit's split from Sian.

Don't all rush at once, girls.

Compare and contrast

'His constituents have a right to know what sort of person he is, not as a matter of salacious gossip, but so that they have an honest picture of the man ... As to the plea for privacy Gregory Barker has chosen a life in the public eye'
Mary Varrall, Lib Dem candidate in Bexhill and Battle.
I just hope now Charles can be allowed some privacy
Mark Oaten on Chuckles' resignation
He and his family now need to have their personal privacy respected
Lib Dem whip Andrew Stunell on Mark Oaten's resignation
There are lots of people who have tried to keep their private lives private
Simon Hughes on Simon Hughes

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Council jobs

This one is rumbling on.

Iron Angle in the Post yesterday had an Iron Angle piece from Paul Dale, where he told us that the street lighting DLO operation employed 51 people and had a wage bill of £2 million a year. Paul reckons that this equates to an average salary of £40k, give or take. Now, I haven't seen the figures that Mr Dale has - some of us don't get cabinet members to show us their spreadsheets and Paul might find the lawyers asking him some questions - but I'd guess that the £2 million figure is the budget line figure and that it will include the 'on costs.' You see, employers aren't just lumbered with paying the contracted wage and bonus costs, but also their National Insurance and pension contributions - the bits that you don't see on your wage slip. I think that the figure of around 24% covers both of those, so that suggests that the average gross wage (including bonuses and overtime payments) for the workers in street lighting is somewhat closer to £30k a year. As this will include specialist technicians and managers, that's a whole lot more sensible - and backs up the argument that the bloke on £90k a year is a very much the exception.

Am I going to defend these anomalous payments? Not a bit of it. But...

These guys don't just handle street lighting - they also look after traffic lights. Anyone who has seen Birmingham city centre knows just how little it takes to gridlock the traffic network. Keeping the traffic management system functioning is a core role for the city council - plunging the city into gridlock costs millions of pounds in lost productivity and damages our reputation as an international city. It is common in the private sector that if you have a mission-critical system, then the people who look after it are paid VERY well, but they are expected to keep it functioning whatever the cost and whatever the time involved. In a previous life, I worked for a company reliant on a few centrally located servers to keep the retail business and the systems technicians were earning six figure salaries - well out of kilter with their managers. The payments were huge, but the cost of having the system fail would have such a huge commercial impact that it made these wages costs insignificant.

What angers me is that this process is being used to railroad through more wholesale changes to the pay and conditions of all City workers. This is a particularly nasty campaign being waged by the Tories and Liberal Democrats running our council and it might be about to backfire severely. Either Amicus will launch court action against the council or the threat to the safety of the workforce will require the council to withdraw them from the streets.

The council has apparently launched a 'leak enquiry.' It shouldn't take long - just ask around the cabinet.

Brilliantly handled, Cllr Rudge.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Liberal Democrats get tough

They had a leader who was trained to kill with his bare hands (and one since who could bore you to death), but they currently have a councillor in Manchester who used to be a mercenary in Africa and has just been convicted of assault - dragging his wife around their home because she forgot to dry his coat. (Hat tip to Parbury Politica via Kerron)

Meanwhile, Sandra Gidley considers the manifesto upon which she fought the last election to be 'dishonest.' She's not the only one, but she's the first Lib Dem MP to admit it. (Yellow Peril - watching them, so you don't have to.)

And the Lib Dem donation saga rumbles on
A figure close to Sir Menzies [that's Ming, then] said: “The party certainly owes Charles Kennedy a great debt, and it is £2.4 million..

It seems that they are ready to face the possibility of repayment - with a little help from their friends - but are still holding up their belief that
'We would be astonished if they found that in law this company never existed and therefore we have to pay the money back.'
The Electoral Commission don't have to find that company never existed, only uphold the judge's view that the company has never traded. Apparently, senior Lib Dems are baffled. Then they should read the law.

Intelligence questions

Your Dominant Intelligence is Linguistic Intelligence

You are excellent with words and language. You explain yourself well.
An elegant speaker, you can converse well with anyone on the fly.
You are also good at remembering information and convicing someone of your point of view.
A master of creative phrasing and unique words, you enjoy expanding your vocabulary.

You would make a fantastic poet, journalist, writer, teacher, lawyer, politician, or translator.
I'm not convinced. Thanks to Andrea.

Oh, do keep up.

Dave Radcliffe, one of the select group of blogging Birmingham Lib Dem councillors, gives us his wisdom on the struggle for seats in Birmingham amongst the Labour MPs. His finger is on the pulse as always as he reveals what this blog (and subsequently the local print and broadcast media) covered almost two months ago.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Probably the worst article in the world

For some reason, the Birmingham Post handed over a half-page to an article allegedly penned by Cllr Jim Whorwood - a former Liberal Democrat Lord Mayor - to oppose government proposals for an elected mayor for Birmingham. The article was so well-argued that I've very nearly converted to supporting the idea of an elected mayor. Sadly, it isn't on the web yet.

He accuses Sir Digby Jones of closet republicanism for backing the campaign for an elected mayor - the logic being that an elected mayor would lead to an elected Prime Minister and thus to the downfall of the House of Windsor and possibly the end of life on earth as we know it. Cllr Whorwood says that there are three reasons for the interest of the 'motley assortment of business leaders' in an elected executive:
'If one person had ultimate responsibility it would be easier for central government to get its way. Taking a silly hypothetical example, if 50,000 Martians landed in the UK, central government coul easily persuade - with bribes - the Leader to provide accommodation in one of our parks. The bribe could be cash plus a seat in the Lords. You can't bribe 120 councillors.'
Cracking argument. Don't do it, because the leader might be bent. That's actually the strongest argument, only slightly ruined by the nutty line about the Martians - perhaps he's been talking to Lembit. Anyway, you don't need to bribe 120 councillors under the current system - a wad of cash splashed towards the leader and cabinet would do the job. His words remind me of Humbert Wolfe's epigram
You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.
Which brings us on to Cllr Whorwood's next concern
'The Labour Party lost leadership of the council and is very sore. To get its own back, it ignores the successes of the present administration and snipes.'

Damn right we're sore - and so are the people of our city. Thing is, we can't ignore things that don't exist, Councillor Whorwood. We've seen precious little success, a marked lack of forward thinking and a failure of leadership at the highest level that has thrown the progress of our City into sharp reverse. So yeah, guilty as charged. However, if you actually believe that the party is united behind the idea of an elected mayor as a way of getting back at the Regressive Partnership then you are sorely mistaken.
'Certain people are trying to get a top job via the back door.'
Probably true. The Post has been campaigning for an elected mayor for a while, with the ill-disguised intention of getting Digby Jones into the top spot. Mind you, there is a degree of irony in the Liberal Democrats accusing anyone of getting a job via the back door. After all, Sunny Jim Whorwood only has his exalted spot at the Cabinet table as a result of Hemming's dodgy deal in 2004.

There are far better arguments against an elected mayor, but Cllr Whorwood ignores them all.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sharon Ejected

Put two BNP activists in the same room and the odds are that you will end up with them trying to expel each other from the party.

And lo, it came to pass that their temporarily successful council candidate for Kingstanding, the fragrant Sharon Ebanks, has now been expelled from the party - at least in part for her complaints about the whereabouts of the £7000 raised for her pointless challenge to the result in Kingstanding (money raised from members who thought that it was going to support Shazza's legal costs and who might now feel that they were deceived).
It cost the council around £100,000 to get rid of the BNP squatter, money that could have been better spent if she had done the decent thing, accepted that a genuine error had been made and allowed the result to be re-declared (as happened elsewhere in the country on the same night). The BNP claim that she has been expelled for, amongst other things, her anti-semitic views. Read that last sentence again to yourselves. Bob can't believe it either.
Rumour has it that Sharon intends to hold a separate meeting for Nationalists in Birmingham (Judean People's Front, anyone?) and still intends to fight the Kingstanding seat in 2007 - which could confuse the far-right voters of that parish with a whole slew of racist candidates.


Ming is holding firm to the line that the £2.4 million is safe in their bank because they accepted the cash in good faith and conducted due diligence.

Yet again, he's missed the point. Must be his age.

I see no reason to question the Liberal Democrat's good faith over this - I don't believe that any party would have taken the money if they had known quite how dodgy Michael Brown was. It has emerged that the LDs knew that Brown had been bouncing cheques in Florida a few years back, which perhaps casts a little doubt on their judgement, but I doubt many parties would turn away a gift of that size in the run up to an election, especially from someone who had a long association with the party.

So, the Liberal Democrat hierarchy are clear of any offence relating to the PPERA 2001 - the Electoral Commission have said as much.

But that doesn't matter. As the Electoral Commission spokesperson said last week:
'It is not clear to the commission that 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was carrying on business in the UK at the time the donations were made. If not, then the donations were impermissible.'
If the donations were impermissible, then they must be returned. Ming doesn't seem to have twigged that the Commission are being polite - they have left an open door for the Lib Dems to make amends by voluntarily handing over the cash. How embarrassing will it be when the party has to troop into the local magistrates' court to witness the Commission applying for an order to obtain the money?

In Scotland, the LibDems are already nervous that their share of the repayment costs could prove fatal to their Holyrood campaign next year - the donation seems to have pumped over £250,000 into Scotland.


It won't be a merry Christmas at Cowley Street this year as Scrooge looks likely to take up residence. As foretold here some weeks ago, the Electoral Commission are about to decide whether the Liberal Democrats should repay the £2.4 million donation from the convicted perjurer Michael Brown. I don't see how they can avoid it - I suspect the public hint from the Electoral Commission is to prod the party into returning the money of its own volition to save an embarrassing and expensive trip to court.

But where to find the cash? Naturally, the clutch of millionaires currently warming their backsides on parliamentary benches beneath the gangway (Featherstone, Hemming and Huhne - amongst others) may find themselves being approached for a small donation. The Rowntree Foundation have helped out with the little matter of £2 million, although their small print says that it can't be used to repay the loan (although I suppose it could be used to replace other sources of funding that had to be diverted into repayments). The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd is an interesting beast - it regularly gives six-figure donations to the Liberal Democrats. It does make other smaller donations to anti-fascist and Labour groups, but the LDs get a huge chunk of funding - not surprising given that the board is stuffed full of Liberal Democrats. I guess they don't want that cap on individual donations quite yet, then?

Despite the dark clouds on the horizon, the party's press people still pump out the increasingly desperate view that
Our independent auditors, having seen legal advice, have been satisfied that we do not need to make any provision for repayment of these funds.
And poor old Jock Coats wheels himself out as the sole defender of the LibDem faith on Iain Dales's blog, claiming that the reopening of the case is against natural justice.

The problem isn't whether the party did adequate checks into the background of the donor - they may well have been the victims of a con themselves and rather more victims of their own desperate need for a cash injection in the final days before a General Election, but whether the donor was legally able to give that money. The party is itself safe from prosecution (unless there's some really good evidence hiding out there), but the donation itself did not come from a legal source.

It will have to be repaid, or the law will be a laughing stock.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Whitby is bored by government

To be honest, the local government white paper is unlikely to make it into the Sunday Times best seller charts. Exciting, it isn't. Important, it is. Mike has a view..

"It focuses on sterile governance issues and simply changes council’s leadership arrangements, without devolving more power from London... Sadly, this is a massive missed opportunity – what people really care about is economic prosperity and improved services – and there is little mention of that."
To coin a phrase - he would say that, wouldn't he. Well, some people reckon that deciding the structure of local government isn't simple or sterile, but actually rather important to the functioning (or otherwise) of your local council. Get the process right and there's a chance that decent leadership will evolve (we could certainly do with more than the single-celled organisms currently running Brum). This paper isn't about particular issues that face councils, but rather concerned with providing councils with the tools to handle the problems.

A couple of things spring out of the pages that are actually quite interesting. A couple of big steps forward are proposed for councillors. The Standards Board for England is due to be 'streamlined' and 'refocused as a light touch regulator' - a long-overdue reform and one of those rare occasions where you find me on the same ground as John Hemming, Iain Dale and, rather more usually, Bob Piper. This change can only be a good thing - discipline of councillors should be a local matter and ultimately the responsibility of the electorate, assuming that councillors don't actually go beyond the boundaries of the law. Additionally, the Code of Conduct is due for revision to allow councillors to speak on planning and licensing issues to voice the concerns of their local electorate. Councillors are also to be encouraged to increase their leadership role within their communities - which should be a given, but often isn't.

Councils currently face a daunting pile of targets - currently knocking around the 1200 mark - and the reduction to 200 national targets with an additional 35 individual targets for each council will prove significantly more manageable. Councils will also be able to introduce their own by-laws again without consultation with central government - returning them a freedom they last had a century ago.

There are other changes proposed. Yet again, the council's leadership model will shift. First option is the directly elected mayor. I don't believe that this is the right model for Birmingham, but I'm not easy that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories insist on retaining the veto. Secondly, there could be a directly elected cabinet of a leader and 2-9 other councillors, elected as part of 'whole-council' elections every four years. This offers the most entertainment potential, as it could offer the chance to elect a Labour executive and a Tory council (or vice-versa), which could provide no end of fun over four years.

The other model is a variation on a theme of what Birmingham has at the moment - an indirectly-elected leader and cabinet. The change would be that the leader would be appointed for a four year term, either as part of four-year 'whole council' elections or as part of the current thirds system (with elections in three out of four years). The leader could face a no-confidence vote or would have to stand down if their term of office came to an end.

I suspect that we'll end up with councillors continuing to be elected by thirds and a leader on a four-year term (at least until the political make-up changes and a no-confidence vote ensues). I'm not sure that the current Regressive Partnership will want to move to the four-year 'whole council' election model, as the current system is quite embedded. However, if the four-year leadership term is expected to pay the dividends of producing more long-term thinking, then it should be allied to a four-yearly electoral cycle, otherwise the leader could face the joys of an annual confidence vote.

The White Paper is full of the usual verbiage, but once you plough through that, you do find some new stuff and that is positive thinking about the future of local government. We'll see more when the sequel comes out around Christmas with Sir Michael Lyons' report on local government funding - the flipside to this paper about the structure and function of local politics. If we must make changes, let's make them, but it would be nice if they were left alone to bed in for a while, so that councils can be free to develop or fail without too much interference from central government. I'm not sure I hold out much hope for that, though - whatever the political complexion of the bodies involved.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The vision thing

It is no surprise that Whitless is found wanting when compared to the truly visionary, great leader that laid the Victorian foundations for our modern city. Paul Dale claims that Whitby is hamstrung by the modern system of local government - true up to a point, but when other cities are making the best of it, you can't help but feel that it is more of a dearth of ideas, energy and leadership than a systemic problem.

Dale says that Whitby has to manage a coalition, but the Liberal Democrats seem spectacularly supine and equally incompetent - focussed more on short-term political gain than on stewarding the future of our city. Why else would they pass up the chance to bring road pricing to Birmingham - a key Liberal Democrat policy at national level? Yet again, Manchester is kicking off a campaign to grab some of the government transport money knocking around and Birmingham will probably miss out. The blame can only be laid at the desk of the civic leadership.

Lord Bhattacharyya spoke soundly:

'Chamberlain saw the task ahead and knew what was needed. He took radical decisions. It seems simple now, but every decision taken then was politically controversial.

Chamberlain's actions were radical and decisive. Whether buying the gas and water companies, setting up slum clearances, or building schools and art galleries, he took risks, had failures and because of his willingness to embrace change, he got results. Chamberlain left Birmingham parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas and watered and improved.

I can't help noticing that Chamberlain was a Liberal, then a Conservative. Today we're again ruled by Liberal Conservatives, or is it Conservative Liberals? Yet I can't help but feel they have not yet provided the city with a Chamberlain.'

All we've got is a Whitby. And we're all the poorer for that.

How do you embarrass a Liberal Democrat?

Normally, of course, this would be a challenging task (think Oaten, Hughes, Hemming...) but, there is a way.
Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly Member for the area, said: "I am deeply disappointed that the deputy leader of Birmingham City Council could not make the event, both as a local politician and a Lib Dem myself, but it is his loss as we have a great day despite the rain." Richard Tyler, a Liberal Democrat county councillor for Powys, said he was "ashamed" that there was no Liberal Democrat member at the event.
Of course, I refer to the Elan Valley, which yesterday marked the first day when water flowed into the first reservoir in the area - reservoirs that have since provided the millions of gallons of fresh water that our city needs every day. While Mike Whitless had a prior engagement - gormlessly welcoming one of his new Chinese friends to the City (I wonder what gift he gave them this time - last time, the Chinese got Rover), the Deputy Leader could surely find it in his heart to attend and to show his thanks for the water that keeps our city alive.

Sadly not. Paul Tilsley of that ilk must have been busy that day. Apparently he has learned nothing from his media embarrassment (and subsequent climb-down) in July.

At least the (Labour) Lord Mayor turned up. There's nothing unusual in having both the leader or deputy leader at events with the Lord Mayor - in February this year, Whitless got his nose at the BAe dining table alongside the then Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor.

Shame, councillors, shame.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Taxing Tories.

Project Cameron has been founded on generating an image for the party. So far, the New Tories have managed to avoid any mention of concrete policies - especially as the last lot of Cameron policies resulted in their third election defeat in a row. But, the report from the Conservative Tax Reform Commission finally surfaced this week. No doubt, it will delight the Tories who hide behind the cover of the Taxpayers Alliance. It won't surprise you to learn that the report doesn't applaud government expenditure, but demands that money be returned to the taxpayer, who can apparently make better decisions as to how it might be spent.

Cameron couldn't ignore it - and probably wouldn't want to, as the merest mention of taxcutting is guaranteed to trigger an instant paroxsysm of orgasmic pleasure likely to endanger the hearts of most of the Tory membership. When it comes to suggesting £21 billion, that's pumping intravenous Viagra into the members. Cameron had to provide some support and called it
'the most significant piece of work on reforming and improving the tax system ever undertaken by an opposition'

thereby sending the message to the Tory faithful that the party still held to the Thatcherite tenets of slashing the state, but Cameron and Gideon Osborne are simultaneously pushing the line to the rest of the audience that the next Tory government will hold public services safe in their hands. Quite how they reconcile the two is a huge challenge.

The report was produced by a committee chaired by one of the many Thatcherite cast-offs, Michael Forsyth. Before he was elevated to the Lords, he used to be a Scottish Tory MP (remember them?) and was the last Tory Secretary of State for Scotland. Also on board was a member of the Centre for Policy Studies (a Thatcherite think-tank), someone from the Institute of Directors, someone from the CBI and a couple of tax lawyers (who devote their careers to finding imaginative ways to legally avoid paying tax).

In addition, they could call upon the business experience of Sir Christopher Gent, chiefly remembered for engineering the Vodafone takeover of the German company Mannesman, which resulted (after he left the company, naturally) in the biggest pre-tax loss for any UK company ever - almost £15 billion.

And then, there was Peter Reith. Peter Reith is an Australian politician - another bloody imported Aussie when you would think that the Tories would have learnt enough from hiring in John Howard's cast offs. Back in 2001, Mr Reith was the Minister for Defence in the Howard government when HMAS Adelaide intercepted a vessel carrying asylum seekers. The Liberal administration (Tory in all but name - how unlike our own) was trying to appear tough on illegal immigration and fell like vultures upon the story that those aboard that leaky tub of a vessel had thrown their own children overboard to ensure that the Australian Navy rescued them all. This was grist to the mill that those prepared to pay all their savings to people-smuggling gangs were actually cynically driven solely by the prospect of a barbie on the beach at Christmas. The get-tough policy received public support and John Howard won another victory in the Federal elections.

Sadly, it appears that both Mr Howard and Mr Reith may have had only a passing relationship with the truth over the matter, as both were made aware that the rumours about kids being chucked into the ocean were entirely spurious. Complete cobblers in fact, as a later report showed. That didn't stop both of these senior politicians from continuing to push that line until it became completely untenable.

Mr Reith also has a background in labour relations - having been an ardent backer of an Australian port company that decided to sack all its employees and liquidate all assets overnight. Curiously, this didn't stop the ports operating the following day, as new workers were already in place on lower wages and with fewer rights. Even more curiously, they worked for a different company which was owned by the same people who had owned the previous company. Peter Reith saw nothing morally wrong in this - indeed, it was the Howard government that had made it all possible, as part of an attack on unionised labour in Australia, led by Mr Reith himself.

You will note that this committee includes no representation at all from the shop floor or from the unions. The former deputy chairman of the board of the Inland Revenue does have something of a track record in looking at low pay and taxation issues, but otherwise, it is fair to say that everyone else has a history of being more involved at the top end of the income sector and on the right of politics. The commission conducted a survey amongst businessmen, but didn't ask questions of the employees - the ordinary man or woman in the street.

Colour me surprised then when one of their first suggestions was removing stamp duty on share trading and also cutting the base rate of corporation tax to 20p, while abolishing the higher rate. IHT is for the chop, along with any tax-free employee benefits (make the serfs suffer so the bosses get their tax breaks on the share options).

The committee makes the assertion that
'The complicated high-tax system is harming the economy, impairing its competitiveness. Without urgent reform, it will only get worse.'
which, as Fair Deal Phil points out
'comes on the very day a United Nations report is published showing that £85 billion of inward investment came into Britain last year, making the UK the most popular destination for investment in the world.'

Our economy hasn't been hamstrung by taxation - consider this piece by Snowflake5, who quotes Anatole Kaletsky of The Times:
The after-tax incomes for the top 1 per cent of the British population, which consists largely of financial professionals, have grown faster than ever before in modern history. They have grown far richer under Labour than they did under Margaret Thatcher
Snowflake keeps an eye on the economic stuff. Back in August, she noted that this high tax system was still leading to improving productivity - some way to go to catch up with the traditional high-performers, but we're getting there. Despite Gordon burning the midnight oil developing a thousand new stealth taxes to energise the Tories, from 2000-2003, our economic growth outstripped that of the low tax USA and the Treasury was forced to revise the forecast for this year upwards. We're doing OK.

So, the shorthand version is that despite 'the complicated high-tax system' doesn't appear to be causing major problems with growth or productivity and incomes are continuing to rise. Of course, they will never rise fast enough to satisfy these particular fat cats. Indeed, their first line is that there are 3.5 million more people paying income tax than there were a decade ago. Perhaps that's because more people are in work and in better paying jobs? A decade ago, we didn't have a minimum wage, so people were living off the state rather than contributing to it - hardly an ideal situation for the Tories, you would think.

They tell us that these proposals are 'not expensive,' but make no proposals at all for expenditure savings required to make these changes affordable at all. They define 'not expensive' as around £21 billion - which must make Chris Gent's Mannesman-inspired loss at Vodafone of £15 billion a veritable bargain. Labour have won the argument on tax by explaining the link between taxation and expenditure - showing people that their hard-earned money is being spent on the NHS, the police and education and demonstrating the improvements therein. The Tories can only win by reversing that process. They must convince us that we can maintain the improvement in public services and still cut back on the tax take.

Whatever Cameron/Osborne may claim now, don't be deceived. A Tory government would be a tax-cutting government. And where taxes are cut, services are slashed as well. You cannot have one without the other. Their beloved Margaret demonstrated that time and again.

For all their claims, they've not moved on a single inch - they still buy into the economic theories that delivered us the 1980s and early 90s. For all the Tories adore those years, some of us remember what it was like to be on the other side and we know that we can't allow that to happen again. These proposals are a solid reason to back Labour - you know it makes sense.