Saturday, May 27, 2006

Playing to lose

So the shortlist of locations for Britain's supercasino has been announced and there's one name missing from the list. Although Brent gets a look-in, as does Greenwich and Cardiff, with room for Manchester, the second city doesn't even merit a mention, despite the efforts of the council.

Now I'm not a big fan of gambling and wouldn't be visiting a casino even it were on my doorstep, besides, I'd place a small bet that the eventual site will be Blackpool, but I'm stunned that we can't even get on the shortlist.

For once, this isn't down to a London-centric approach, as most of the bids are in the regions, but it again highlights the utter incompetence of Birmingham City Council. For all of Whitless' attempts to seek refuge and pass the blame on to Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, the blame stops at his door. Peter Smallbone, the failed Tory council candidate for Ladywood reckons that the sites have been decided according to local politics. He conveniently ignores the fact that Birmingham has nine Labour MPs and Birmingham as the largest party and the strength of Labour in places like Leeds and Middlesborough, Hull, Dudley and Coventry - also unsuccessful in getting shortlisted.

It didn't help that Calamity John Alden, then cabinet member for leisure services, torpedoed the project personally by declaring his opposition to the proposal last autumn. Even as late as December last year, they were undecided which project they should support - claiming that their guidance from the Department of Culcha, Meeja n'Sport meant that they didn't have to make a choice until this summer and wouldn't set the consultants to work until April. Curiously, by mid-March, the City Council had changed its mind again and decided to back the Solihull bid.

The critical error was backing the NEC bid in an attempt to stem the losses made by that Group. The Birmingham City bid would have fulfilled one of the key drivers of the casino project and delivered a massive regeneration project to one of the most deprived areas of the City, as well as providing a world-class sporting facility able to play a supporting role in the 2012 Olympic Games and providing a focus for Birmingham. Karren Brady was entirely right to call the council's decision 'utterly stupid' amd she added
'sadly we have to wonder if we have a council worthy of running our city as, slowly, their decisions drain us of our second city status.'

Roger Godsiff, the local MP, said,
'Birmingham backed the wrong bid. I am not the slightest bit surprised at the outcome. The NEC was never going to win. Regeneration is a key criteria. How can we offer regeneration in Solihull, one of the richest boroughs in the country? Instead the council has passed up £300 million investment that would have regenerated this deprived area of Nechells due to a lack of foresight and forward thinking. This is a failure of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition running Birmingham.'

The only thing he got wrong was in the last sentence. This is yet ANOTHER failure of the Tory-Liberal Democrat administration to add to an increasingly long and embarrassing list. They are bedevilled by indecision and sheer stupidity. There is no sense of long-term strategic thought and the regeneration of my city has ground to a shuddering halt under what passes for leadership. That deal to get Hemming elected has proved hugely expensive for Birmingham.

Yet again, Whitless - you blew it. This incompetence has ceased to be funny, it is a tragedy for our city.

Campbell in the soup (again)

Iain Dale points towards an interesting story in the Spectator this week, where Kevin Maguire reveals that he overheard Nick Clegg, who considers himself to be the future of the Liberal Democrat leadership, briefing against his current boss in a phone conversation with another journalist
'Ming the Mediocre, according to Clegg, is hesitant and disorganised, commits avoidable errors and lacks momentum but - this was the loyal bit - is capable of recovering.'
There are some who regard Cleggy as a pin-up boy and I count myself amongst that group. I need something on the dartboard to replace my shredded picture of John Hemming.

To be honest, this is nothing other than speaking the truth about the Minger, whose time at the top is surely limited. His performance in PMQs this week was barely adequate and he's now decided to unilaterally reverse party policy in an attempt to appear tough on crime, something that is bound to bring him into conflict with the party, which seems to think that it has a constitutional right to decide party policy.

I'm not quite sure what point the violence register serves. We have a sex offenders register to ensure that the police can keep track of people who are a serious risk to society and have a high risk of reoffending. I'm not quite sure that the violent criminals register will actually make a difference - Inspector Knacker's intelligence people try to keep an eye on the most serious offenders anyway and I'm not sure that booking anyone who has ever been involved in a minor scuffle outside a pub will make our streets any safer.

Given their record of backing daft policies, does this represent a real change or just a cynical political stunt by an increasingly desperate leader?

Do you get danger money?

Bob Piper has been scanning the situations vacant column and may be considering a career change. Yes, Birmingham's own Liberal Democrat MP, old One Term Hemming, is looking for a constituency worker and an unpaid 'intern' to do all the dirty work for free.

Sadly, it seems that Cllr Hemming has already filled the slot. Perhaps his wife or his PA did the interview, because he's appointed a bloke.

Unrepresentative democracy

The council AGM this week rubberstamped the minor shift in the balance of the Cabinet - adding an extra Liberal Democrat in place of a Tory - but failed to deal with a key issue, that of how the Cabinet and senior council members represent our City.

These are the people who control our city - a city where a quarter of the population is from an ethnic minority - yet they are all white. Now, I'm not arguing for quotas - I don't want to see people selected solely because of their sex or colour - but there should be some effort to ensure that the council is representative.

The Tories can't take any blame - all of their councillors are white (and a large number are named Alden), but the same can't be said of the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats did appoint Talib Hussain after the 2004 elections, only to expel him after a swift kangaroo court found him guilty of assorted thought crimes.

Can it be true that not a single one of the black or Asian Liberal Democrat councillors is up to the job of a Cabinet post, nor yet of a position chairing a scrutiny committee? Or is there a more sinister reason?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wild Oaten

One certainty for the next general election is that Winchester will again become a Tory seat - and probably a rather safe one.

Part of me admires Mark Oaten for his brave attempts to salvage a political career, but he's wasting his time. The attempts are almost pitiful - the interview with the wife in Hello about how hurt she was, his own piece in the Times, the embarrassing rolling story on the Politics Show, where he's part of a cross-party group trying to get fit despite their rather sedentary lifestyles. Now he's doing a piece for Newsnight, according to Iain Dale, analysing why politicians come off the rails (catch it on Tuesday evening).

Mark - stop it. You are now just raging against the dying of the light on your political career. It is over, the body politic has given up the ghost. Let it pass peacefully into history. Perhaps you can rebuild something, but not now, not yet.

There is nothing he can do to expunge his recent escapades from the popular memory. Anytime he appears on TV, everyone's first thought will be 'Oh, that's the bloke who was doing something unspeakable with a rent boy.' He can't change that - the Oaten brand is fatally wounded.

As the saying goes in Southern US politics - never be caught with a dead girl or a live boy in your bed. Things aren't quite so bad over here, but every time Mark Oaten appears on TV trying to show us how normal he is, he's damaging himself and his party, because he's become a pantomime figure of fun and politicians' careers can survive most things except ridicule.

The party would be far better off helping Kennedy to dry out and retake his place at the helm.

Why do they bother?

One of the oft quoted slogans about Mussolini was that 'at least he made the trains run on time' - which suggests a certain efficiency and order about fascism.

Our friends over at the new cuddly BNP are working overtime to disprove that theory.

Aside from the strange goings-on in Kingstanding, where one of their number is occupying a seat despite coming third in an election (and apparently has to travel around her temporary constituency with a minder, unlike any other councillor in the city), their new councillor in Solihull managed to get his diary dates wrong and missed the opening of the new council year and the mayor-making ceremony. Meanwhile, down in Barking and Dagenham (rarely was a borough so appropriately named), the newly minted BNP opposition forgot how to vote, so when their leader moved to amend the constitution to condemn discrimination against the 'indigenous majority' (that's white folks to you and me), only one of the eleven councillors raised their hand. Barking could prove a fruitful source of stories, given that the leader made an interesting *ahem* art film a few years ago, which seems to feature a large number of young men in states of undress. Does this herald a change in BNP policy towards homosexuality?

Two of their candidates also lost a libel action against Searchlight magazine and face costs of at least £25,000, but at least they can drown their sorrows with a bottle of BNP wine (and we've seen them whining a lot, lately). For a whopping £8 a bottle, this Cornish-produced wine turns out to be made with grapes from Canada and Chile.

Over in Ilford, a BNP candidate is revealed to have been banned from a football ground following a violent incident. Heading north to Bradford, a BNP council candidate may feel the long arm of the law after two of the assentors to his nomination for election complained that they hadn't nominated him at all. Meanwhile, over in Halifax, a former councillor is arrested on suspicion of theft of anti-BNP leaflets. Across the border in Wales, five BNP leafleters were arrested for public order offences..

But they aren't all criminals, some of them just have enough screws loose to dislodge shelves in every library. Robert West has left the Tory group on South Holland District Council in Lincolnshire to join the BNP, citing his disgust at the new Cameroonie A List, which excludes white men to the benefit of women, non-whites, lesbians and homosexuals. The former lecturer in equal opportunities law (clearly not a very good one) has now joined the BNP. Doubtless, he'll bring with him the members of the church he's started in his front room, where he preaches traditional biblical values.

If they weren't so serious, they'd be a joke.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bus pass for Mr Campbell

The Minger celebrates his 65th birthday today. Doubtless he is fervently hoping for the new legislation on age discrimination to come into force to save him from forcible ejection from office.

Over the weekend, Ming deployed his forces of Liberalism to control the dissidents. That young upstart Sir David Steel reckoned that Ming would be better off without his young sidekicks calling the shots and Campbell revealed that he had had a 'free and frank' discussion with Simon Hughes. That usually translates into 'a stand-up row, possibly involving violence.' Curiously, the public bitchslapping of Hughes came after Ming himself admitted that he could do better in PMQs. Doing worse is hardly possible.

Ming is still looking decidedly weak. His performance at PMQs last week was slightly better, but the questions lobbed were hardly likely to pierce the PM's defences - asking whether British troops would have left Iraq or whether Guantanamo Bay will have been closed down when Blair leaves office resulted in the PM playing a straightforward defensive shot against both. Why he asked Tony when a foreign government might close a prison facility in another foreign land defeats me. Guantanamo is an affront to civilised values, certainly, but to believe that the PM of this country (whoever he or she might be) has any chance of changing the policy current US goverment is to endow him with superpowers worthy of one of the X-Men.

Meanwhile, another one of those worthy Liberal Democrat policies saw the light of day last week, as Chris Huhne announced that drivers of 4x4 vehicles (Hello, Cllr Hemming) would face a swingeing rise in vehicle excise duty to £2000. Why it only applies to new vehicles - many of which are actually less polluting than some of the older ones trundling about our roads - is rather odd. No comments have yet been forthcoming from either Lorely Burt or John Hemming as to how this policy is likely to affect jobs in their constituencies, so I'm sure that both can rely on the support of the Land Rover workers living there.

Calamity John gets the boot

For some time, the Cabinet of Birmingham City Council has been unbalanced.

This won't come as a surprise to any observer of the behaviour of Mike Whitless and his brotherhood of clowns, but sadly, the men in white coats have yet to advance on the Leader's office and drag him, suitably restrained, off to the nearest padded cell. The truth is far more boring.

The Tories have had a greater representation than they deserve, given their strength in the coalition (currently 41/33 and they hold 7 of the 10 places), so it has been decided to give the Liberal Democrats an extra seat at the table. This means that one of the many talented Tories had to leave to spend more time with their families. The lucky victim was the former Lord Mayor, John Alden - who is on the verge of being able to start his own political grouping on the council, with his wife and one of his sons already on the benches beside him.

John was vulnerable, following the rumours of a potential challenge to the rule of Whitby and a persistent whispering campaign that started before the elections about his series of cockups in the preceding weeks. He's replaced by the current Chair of Leisure, Sport and Culture Overview & Scrutiny Committee - the Perry Barr councillor Ray Hassall. On current form, this should make the chamber a more peaceful place. Ray's recent worthy report on Birmingham's street trees was presented in a wonderfully soporific manner and allowed councillors the time to catch up on some well-earned sleep.

As always in these cases, two rules apply.

The first is the Cosa Nostra Doctrine (also attributed to Sun Tzu) - keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. Secondly, there is the LBJ Corollary: better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in. Released onto the back benches, Alden could be dangerous, if he chose. He is more popular than Whitby - but then so is syphilis. He is a more effective performer than Whitby - as indeed is my cat. But on the back benches, he is free to operate and work in ways that a Cabinet member cannot. Whitby may have made a mistake, unless he feels that Alden is less of a threat than the other Tory ne'er do wells currently occupying places in the Cabinet of Horrors.

For similar reasons, Blair may also come to regret sidelining Charles Clarke - the time may come when Charlie assumes the role of Geoffrey Howe and savages his former friend and ally.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Testing times for Dishy Dave

The death of Eric Forth this week provides the first challenge for the new Cameroonies.

His seat in Bromley & Chislehurst is very safe, offering a 13,000 majority, so it will take a superhuman effort from any party to steal it, but then Dunfermline and Fife West saw the Liberal Democrats to come from as far behind to take the seat from Labour, so all bets are off once their dreaded by-election war machine lumbers over the horizon and besieges a seat.

In all probability, the Tories will hold on to the seat, but the first test will be to see if one of the Blessed A List will get their sticky fingers on the nomination. Perhaps Mr Rickitt will be the lucky lad to represent the good people of Bromley? Some suggest that Howard Flight, dumped from his safe seat at the last minute before last year's election, could be in with a shout of returning to the Commons as a result.

It would be a bit of a turn-round for that constituency, as their deceased member was known for his rather old-fashioned views. Naturally, the press are full of tributes to his skills as a parliamentarian, but I've always considered him to be something of a Tory dinosaur and disliked him for his love of using the arcane methods of parliament to wreck legislation. Many private members' bills have foundered in their final stages because of Mr Forth and his belief that parliament legislated too much. His other views were, to say the least, from the Tebbit side of the party.
'All this sucking up to minorities is ridiculous. There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted and they need to be represented.'
To quote further from the Guardian obituary:
After reaching Westminster in 1983, he quickly established himself as a Tebbit-in-waiting by calling for the restoration of hanging and the denationalisation of coal, rail, post and electricity. In his maiden speech he opposed the sex equality bill. He opposed imposing anti-racist regulations on the police. Having backed the Rugby Union tour of South Africa, he was invited there by its government. He was one of 16 Tory MPs who defied the whip to vote against an increased contribution to the EU budget. He opposed spending vast sums on combating Aids, which was largely "self-inflicted."

Forth was also renowned for not doing constituency surgeries, considering himself to be elected to be a parliamentarian and not a glorified social worker. Despite that, he managed to incresae his majority solidly in a safe seat. So, while I largely hold to the convention of not speaking ill of the dead, I'm not going to mourn Mr Forth's particular brand of Toryism.

Elsewhere, the parliamentary simian and Bob Piper are getting the champagne on ice for when Thatch finally turns up her toes.
Rodney told the audience of assembled Marxists, Socialists and students, “I was contacted recently by the BBC and asked to say a piece to camera to be used on the day Margaret Thatcher dies - and I told them it would be my greatest pleasure to do so”.
Bob added the lovely comment:

Rodney has been saying for 20 years, when Thatcher first referred to ‘the stakehoder society’…. “you hold her down, I’ll hold the stake”.

I'm uneasy about quite so much celebration of the death of another human being, even the She-Devil herself, but I understand the anger that many people still feel about the excesses of the Thatcherite years - I lived through them too. Even sixteen years after she left power, she still casts long shadows over all sides of the British political scene.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A List?

Louise Bagshaw, novelist and newly anointed member of the Tories' A-List of preferred candidates for vacant seats wrote in The Times the other day about her path from Thatcherite Tory Party to Blairite Labourism and thence back to the Hagueite Tory Party (insert your own jokes here about how little political shift this actually involves).

A couple of things stuck out. Firstly, she burbles that the only good thing that Tony did was to give independence to the Bank of England, which hardly comes top of the list of the popular achievements of the Labour government in most people's book. What, no mention of the minimum wage? Nothing about record increases in education and health funding? What about extra support for the elderly or to get kids out of poverty? Has all that passed her by?

She blandly asserts that Gordon's 'raiding' of the pension schemes will mean that we all have to work longer, as if a former marketing person for Sony and a best-selling novelist is about to rely on state handouts for her future. Yes, Louise, some of you may have to spend a little less on the organic shiitake mushrooms, but I'm sure you'll struggle on. She's conveniently ignored the fact that we have an ageing population that has developed an awkward taste for not dying early (thanks partly to the effects of the post-war NHS) and that's what is putting the strain on pensions. The system has always been supported by those at work - it is pay as you go, not building up an individual pension pot like a private scheme. As the ratio between those who pay in and those who draw their pension shifts, so something has to give - you can reduce the benefits or increase the contributions. People don't want to pay tax, so we'll have to work longer.
'In my late twenties, I came to accept Catholic teaching, including on sexuality and marriage'

Ruth Kelly has had to cope with questions over her ability to uphold the equalities agenda over sexuality, given her membership of the fundamentalist Catholic group Opus Dei. How does Louise's attitude go down with Opus Dave and the new, touchy-feely Tory Party? She's also at odds with Dave over Europe. He's threatened to shorten the career of any Eurosceptic Tory MP, but she slams Blair's 'Eurofanaticism.' Her political treatise even finds space to dig at the traditional Tory target - accusing Blair of instituting 'chaos instead of a fair immigration system.'

She claims that she's an unlikely Tory candidate - she's a rich, Oxbridge graduate who worked for a multinational and hails from the Home Counties where her mother was a councillor. You were always a Tory, Louise - when you weren't gloryhunting with the Labour Party in the late 90s. Louise seems less of a New Tory than an old Thatcherite.

Aside from that, it seems that other clouds are gathering on the horizon for the A Listers. A few unlucky enough not to be amongst the chosen few are reported to be gathering material to challenge the whole thing legally. In any case, Central Office admits that it can't force constituency parties to select from the priority list - the only restriction is that candidates must come from the full candidates list. Increasingly, this is bearing all the hallmarks of the New Tory leadership - this has nothing to do with a real change or policy, but is all about glossy publicity.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

You couldn't make it up

From the depths of the 'You Couldn't Make It Up' files - a bottomless pit when it comes to politicians. Mark Oaten on his new fitness series starting next week on BBC 1.
'It's been hard work getting into shape, but I feel so much better than I did. I have been playing a lot of tennis and generally eating better.'

To be fair, he couldn't eat much worse.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gone West

All good things must come to an end and last night, one of the great dramas to emerge from American TV left the screens. The West Wing finally reached the end of the line for President Bartlett as his term of office came to an end. We'll see the finale later this year on More 4, so no spoilers on this posting - just trust me that a whole number of loose ends get tied up properly by the end of the series.

Consistently one of the best-written dramas on TV (even during the poor fifth series, it was still better than most) and blessed with a fine ensemble cast - including the President that we all wish America had rather than the current incumbent - it has been proof that intelligent political programming can be interesting and entertaining. For all those who believe that politicians are all venal and self-serving, this was a part of the universe that cast a positive light. It may have been a fiction, but we are all allowed an escape from reality. People actually trying to make their country and the world a better place? Actually not THAT uncommon - most people I've met are trying to do the right thing by people. It doesn't always work and there are any number of rogues out there, but this series was a clarion call for principles and virtue in political life.

The show could make you laugh and make you cry in the same episode. Even the most boring days in the White House dealing with the minutiae of political process could be enlivened by the pace and zing of the dialogue and the strength of the individual performances. It was a lesson in political history and civics that didn't talk down to the audience and even challenged the knowledge of specialists in American politics. It hasn't changed the world, but it has had a positive influence.

Thank you, Mr President.

What's next?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Just a little bit of history repeating itself

Ming was, of course, always loyal to the former leader, Chatshow Charlie, right up until the knives plunged into Chuckles' back.

After another week's disastrous showing on PMQs, which was put down to him being more used to be heard in reverential silence than in the bearpit of the Commons, he appeared on the Politics Show today and given an easy one-to-one interview and a suitably reverent atmosphere, completely fluffed the chance to rebuild his damaged image:

'JON SOPEL: Leading our news about Tony Blair having signed this petition supporting medical research on animal testing, do you welcome that?
MING: Well, I think Mr Blair's torn now, between the uncertainty of when he's going and a determination of trying to make his mark. That's why I think it's time this uncertainty was brought to an end and we were told precisely what the date is. Not least in the in the interests of the Cabinet ministers sitting around the Cabinet table who don't know now if they're going to be legislating for Blair or legislating for Brown.
JON SOPEL: Hang on, that wasn't an answer to the question. It was a good political answer...
MING: Well, if I may say so, you're not surprised by that either...
JON SOPEL: ...OK, but I think viewers would like an answer. Do you support him signing a petition supporting testing for medical purposes on animals?
MING: I support properly regulated testing of animals for medical purposes...'

Now, it is traditional when doing political interviews to have a point that you wish to get across and to make sure that you twist a question to allow you to make your point - it is called answering the question you wished you had been asked. Thatcher was a genius at this and regularly steamrollered interviewers to make sure she made her political point, but she would always try and twist the question to suit her line of attack. Ming blew it. He just looked dim-witted and incompetent. He heard the key words 'Tony Blair' and then rolled out a pre-prepared paragraph on the PM and the succession, entirely ignoring the question as asked. Compared to Cameron, Blair, Brown and the rest, Campbell is starting to look less like an experienced pair of hands and more like an old man. It isn't good. Iain Dale pounces on a a column by Nick Cohen to explain why Ming's elevation has simply exposed weaknesses that were always there, just concealed by the media focus on the single issue of Iraq.

Remember Simon Hughes and his suggestion that the leader should get until the autumn conference to prove himself? Don't forget that Mr Hughes has been here before. Just a few short weeks ago in January, he urged the party to stick with Kennedy until after the local elections (there's loyalty for you) and gave further impetus to the campaign to evict Chuckles from the leadership. Well, the party changed the leader and still did badly. Is he starting the ball rolling again in a last attempt to capture the leadership, despite coming third in the last election? This would be a last throw of the dice - the Orange Bookers are waiting in the wings for the appropriate moment, but don't have the profile yet to challenge for the top spot, so may circle the wagons around Campbell to protect him for the time being. With Campbell gone, Oaten mired in problems of his own making and Kennedy defunct, Hughes might think that he has a chance against Huhne to portray himself as the REAL safe pair of hands. If Campbell does drive off into the sunset, then Hughes might even manage a Granita-style deal with the Orangistas to cede power sometime after 2009 - which they might find an attractive way of keeping Huhne out.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Chris Huhne could well find himself in the hotseat by the autumn unless the Minger pulls himself together VERY quickly.

Friday, May 12, 2006

And so it comes to pass...

Even under the pressure of Ming's inability to effectively pursue a badly wounded Blair, he still blames Kennedy for his poor performance..

'Sir Menzies' advisers blame the state of the party machine that he inherited from Charles Kennedy. They say key decisions were taken by Mr Kennedy's inner circle, which was more focused on covering up his alcohol problem than ensuring an efficient operation.'
This seems a little unfair, as the party was constantly pumping out press releases and generating an opinion on everything under the sun. Apparently, they're also a bit strapped for cash (as are most parties at this point) and only have four out of fifteen press officer vacancies filled, but that may be more to do with the former post-holders loyalty to Chuckles.
'Ming has virtually nobody in his office. They all quit when Charles went and, during the local elections, he has been going round the country with one man and a dog. It's amazing we got the result we did in the local elections.'
The local election campaign was apparently planned by Kennedy and Campbell just picked up the plans and followed them to the letter. Ming's excuse for his lacklustre performance at PMQs is that 'juries don't answer back' as he apologised to his rather restive group of MPs this week. I'm not sure when the knife will go in, but unless he pulls his socks up - and gets some support from the Young Turks (yes, Clegg, I mean you) who hope to succeed him, then I doubt he'll struggle through to the next election.

It is worse than I thought. Firstly, Ming's own representative on earth claims that the poor performances is because the Great Man is used to being listened to in 'reverential silence' as he casts his pearls of wisdom before the Liberal Democrat swine. Has he never been in PMQs before in all his years of parliamentary experience? And to cap it all, Simon Hughes is being his usual supportive self, telling GMTV viewers (both of 'em) on Sunday that Campbell has to 'progress' and that he shouldn't be judged after six weeks, but after six months - they should take stock of his progress at the party conference. Those sharks are certainly starting to gather again...

Ming's fate is confirmed by Lembit 'Nostradamus' Opik with his fullsome show of support for and faith in his leader.

'I was quite surprised about the opinion against Charles but that looks now like a moment of madness. It's not our style. There is no way people are going to be talking about changing the leader again.'
You may remember that Lembit loyally stood by his friend Charlie, even as all others were preparing to sacrifice him. Lembit then backed Mark Oaten. His track record this year hasn't been great - the man's a jinx.

While we're talking about the unspeakable Mr Oaten, whose position as MP for Winchester looks like a short-term contract at the moment, his attempts to revive his career continue apace as the second phase of the rehabilitation plan hit this week.

Following his wife's interview with 'Hello' the other week, describing how her husband told her he'd been up to 'unspeakable acts of degradation' with rent boys, hot on her heels comes an Oaten article. This blames his problems with rent boys on a mid-life crisis brought on by the loss of his hair, amongst other things. Go figure. Sadly for Mark, his political prospects look bleak. He wants to continue as the MP for Winchester, but last week's local election results seem to make that an unlikely prospect, as Mr Dale reminds us. The former Liberal Democrat leader of Winchester City Council laid the blame for their defeats last week squarely at the feet of Mark Oaten, despite denying that publically on Sky News.
Such are the decisions made by the electorate and based on nothing of significance to the City Council but rather on the behaviour of our MP!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Listing badly?

Aside from the political joke that is Adam Rickitt, the Tories also announced a high-profile Labour defection, that of someone alleged to be a former canvasser, Maria Hutchings. She was the one who gave Tony a kicking on Channel Five about special needs education during last year's election campaign. I am indebted to my friend Unity for a reference to David Aaronovitch and his report of Ms Hutchings further comments:
'With an increasing number of immigrants and asylum seekers, then the pot is reduced for the rest of us... Mr Blair has got to stop focusing on issues around the world such as Afghanistan and Aids in Africa and concentrate on the issues that affect the people of Middle England, like myself who pay the taxes which keep the country going... I don’t care about refugees. I care about my little boy and I want the treatment he deserves.'

Unity asks a fair question. When did Ms Hutchings join the Tory party?

Could it be that behind the new Cuddly Dave image, the message is the same as it was in 2005? Immigration, immigration, immigration?

Well, he DID write the manifesto.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ming the Clueless

Can his performances at PMQs get any worse?

Today's was appalling - a long, rambling question that had everybody in the chamber switching off. Even the PM seemed to be willing Campbell to get to the point. A couple of weeks ago, he threw a punch towards Charles Clarke, alleging that a foreign prisoner had been allowed out of a named jail that very morning - except that the story was untrue and Campbell had to apologise later that day. His profile in the local election campaign was almost subterranean. Now, he just seems to be embarrassing - he's half the leader sober that Kennedy was drunk.

Anyone care to put a bet on Ming still being in office by the next general election? Or by the party conference?
Knives that are barely clean of the Kennedy blood are being sharpened again. This time, it could be a mercy killing.

The next Tory MP for Wetherfield

No sooner the word than the deed. Here's Adam Rickitt getting on with some telephone canvassing of the electorate.

Yes, Adam is apparently on the A-List of approved Tory candidates. That's Adam Rickitt, the former Coronation Street 'actor,' who left to start a music career and promptly vanished after producing one of the most unsubtle, homo-erotic music videos ever put on tape. For reasons best known to the Tory party, he is now deemed to be a more suitable candidate than Iain Dale, a long-term party stalwart, successful businessman, fellow-blogger and friend of this blog.

Adam Rickitt?


Has Cameron lost all his marbles?

Actually, probably not. Despite Rickitt's incompetent performance a few weeks back on Question Time - by far and away the worst I've seen since Emma Jones turned up - when he was eventually cut out by Dimbles after demonstrating his lack of knowledge and thorough unsuitability for politics, there is more to this than meets the eye.

Think about it for a second. The Tory Party's biggest problem is its image - fusty, old-fashioned and deeply unfashionable. There was a survey around the last election which presented a number of policies to people and asked for their responses, without identifying the party originating those policies. The Tory policies tested very well, right up until the point when people were told who had devised them, then their popularity slumped markedly. Image is the problem, not their politics.

What to do? Make it look new - work on the image and everything else will follow. For the next 24 hours, Adam and his fellow beautiful young people will be the story of the Tory Party - people will see their pictures associated with the Tories and that is what will stick in the memory. At the moment, Ravey Davey C is all about the narrative story and changing the image of the Tories - hence the photo-ops on glaciers and riding a bike to Westminster. Actual policies can come later (if at all), but for now the only thing that matters is that Mr and Mrs Public get the message that the Tories are changing. New Conservatives, anyone?

A word of warning to Dishy Dave and his Notting Hill set. While he's slavishly following the Blair playbook - even to the point of posing today with a collection of new Tory councillors (Cameron's Coven, anyone?) - he needs to be aware of the problems that the imposition of the 'chosen ones' can have on local constituency parties. Labour have been doing it for a while, with distinctly mixed results. Blaenau Gwent is just the most high-profile example of this policy. Sometimes it works and the constituency gets a good candidate that they like and would probably have chosen anyway. Sometimes it backfires completely and you end up with the local membership - all volunteers, remember - giving up and walking away, disenchanted. In the short term, that's survivable, but in the medium to long term, it spells disaster for the local party, which will wither and die. Once that happens, the basic support for that MP disappears. We've been there, David. Feel free to make the same mistakes.

Welcome Home! Come on in and close the door....

A warm welcome back to these shores to Michael Brown, the expat businessman who single-handedly funded half the Liberal Democrats' general election campaign. Sadly, he returns by EasyJet to meet HSBC, his former bankers, and their lawyers, who are now out for blood, rather than by the corporate jet that he loaned to Charlie K. Intriguingly, although Mr Brown claims never to have been a member of the party, he decided to attend their spring conference last year - which was why Chatshow was able to cadge a lift (rather better than trying to get a lift with Lembit Opik).

Meanwhile, of course, the Liberal Democrats are quaking in their sandals at the thought that they might have to repay the money, because they've already spent it. Not only do they face a continued challenge from the Electoral Commission - who still aren't convinced as to whether the company used to funnel money to Cowley Street was genuinely trading in the UK, no matter what spin the LDs try to put on it - they are also facing a legal challenge from several millionaires, who think that some of that dough may be theirs. Even worse, given the legal structure of the party, every member may be liable to find £30 to cover the cost. (Hat tip to Yellow Peril).

The company, 5th Avenue Partners UK, was created just after the 2004 local elections and maintained a small office in the City. Back then, Mr Brown's word was enough to satisfy Lord Razzall that the donation was legal, but procedures have since been tightened - were the LibDems just so desperate for the cash?

Last October, Ming Campbell (who?) was asked if he would accept more money from Mr Brown:
'Well, now everything is out in the open, then the answer is probably yes. Why not?'
When Mr Brown was arrested, the tune changed slightly:

'We are not aware that this (arrest) has any connection whatsoever with the Liberal Democrats. Any further action is a matter for the police and the relevant authorities.'
Fairweather friends? Or just muppets?

And before visitors complain about me not covering the travails of the Labour Party, I'll get to them as well.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Follow the Leader

That time of year rolls round again and rumours are abroad about a leadership challenge. Not, for once, to Sir Albert (I'm not sure there's another credible candidate), but to Mike Whitless, the leader of the Tory group on the City Council and also the leader of the peculiar bunch who claim to run the Council. Here's the stary-eyed, grinning maniac with a terrified President of the European Committee of the Regions. This is the face of my city. No, really, he is. People voted for that man. Sometimes, the public baffles me.

The rumour is that John Alden feels that the time is right to put Whitby out of our misery and that the bearded wonder is just the man for the job. Doubtless the election of one of John's sons to the Erdington seat won't hurt the old man's chance of success and Sir Albert has been cheerfully spreading the rumour of an assault on Whitless. That could have been why someone was spreading the poison to the press about Cllr Alden in advance of the local elections and calling him 'Calamity' Alden over a short chain of errors.

The question is, if John Alden takes over as Tory leader, can the LibDem/Tory coalition hold together? Or would John prefer to do business with Sir Albert?

The Tories - and the Aldens in particular - are known to be very unhappy with their forced marriage to the philandering Liberal Democrats. Deirdre Alden is particularly unhappy as it has been rumoured that the Tories put up a 'paper' candidate in Yardley to help John Hemming win in 2005 in return for the Liberal Democrats doing the same in Edgbaston. The Tory candidate was duly appointed, did the bare minimum and continued that party's decline in Yardley, while the Lib Dem actually did some work in Edgbaston to increase the party's vote, helping to deny Deirdre her seat on the benches at Westminster.

There could be a few interesting weeks ahead.

Kingstanding Cockup

As the venerable Labour member Hugh McAllion stood down, there were two vacancies here, so voters could cast up to two votes. Shouldn't be a challenge to get right - two years ago, every ward had three votes to deal with. Only too predictably for Birmingham, the elections team here cocked up massively and miscounted the votes. The declared result showed over 12,000 votes cast - but only 4981 votes were issued, so only 9962 votes COULD have been genuinely cast and some of those would only have a single vote anyway. The upshot was that Zoe Hopkins, a visitor round these parts occasionally, was declared as a winner alongside the lovely Sharon Ebanks from the BNP.

For those who don't understand the count, the first thing that is done is that the number of votes actually in the ballot boxes is tallied with the number of voting papers issued. This is done under the eagle eyes of the party counting agents, who are actually gathering essential polling data at this point. Only after those numbers tally are the votes piled up for individuals. Multiple votes makes the counting process more complex, as a surprising number of voters don't back a single party, but can spread their votes across the choices. Eventually, all the figures are tied together on a single sheet and all the numbers should add up. There was no way that 5000 votes could add up to over 12,000, so I genuinely find it hard to understand how a mistake of this magnitude could occur.

The only more amazing thing is that this blindingly-obvious error cannot be simply corrected. As the result was legally declared, one of the candidates has to go to the High Court to have the result overturned (Labour's Cath Grundy is on the case and the papers will go in very quickly). In the meantime, the BNP have a duly-elected member on Birmingham City Council who can claim her allowances and everything else due to her as a councillor. Ms Ebanks claims that she won 'fair and square' and that anything that happened after the result was declared is irrelevant. How she can possibly believe that, unless her maths education was severely lacking, is beyond belief. The 4932 figure has been checked at least twice under scrutiny. The BNP suggest that some of their votes were removed. If that is the case, then there will be fewer than 4932 ballot papers in the storage boxes, which will show up when the court reviews the petition.

Naturally, the BNP won't let the facts get in the way of a good story. They claim that the check disproportionately affected their vote, which it did, but there is an entirely valid explanation for it. Most people vote for the party slate, so they will generally cast two votes for Labour, LD or Tory. There is a substantial minority that will spread their vote around, but it isn't a huge number, so something around 10% for each of the Labour candidates seems reasonable to me. The BNP and other independent solo candidates know that they rely on their votes going nowhere else, so will encourage their voters to cast just a single vote. Double counting of those cases will therefore lead to their vote almost doubling - which it does. If you look at the 'real' result, you will see a slight reduction in each of the vote for the main party candidates, but a massive reduction in the solo candidates - one independent exactly halves his vote. The rest are all closely banded together.

The claim by the BNP that their candidate suffered the largest loss in vote is only true numerically. In percentage terms, the Greens and the NF candidate suffered far more.

This was a cock-up, pure and simple. The other parties should have spotted it as well - keeping an eye on the maths is a simple check against these kind of errors, but responsibility has to rest with the City Council and I hope that they will be prepared to fund the expense of an electoral petition for the sake of democracy.
The biggest disaster of this is the propaganda value of the BNP victory. No matter what the legal technicalities of the matter, this will be portrayed as an attempt to rig the result to keep the BNP out of Birmingham. In the world of the fascists, reality is far less important than the rumours, whispers and lies that feed their prejudices and provide a basis of hatred for their twisted politics.

My only fear is that the court will order a rerun of the election. In that case, I'm certain the BNP will throw everything they have into winning the seat and I doubt that the Birmingham Labour Party will let that happen - I know I'll be over there to help out.

It could yet be a long, hot summer in Kingstanding.


All this news of appalling council election results for Labour seems to have rather passed Brum by. Sir Albert Bore, the Labour Group leader, can feel rather content with life at the moment - the forecast meltdown failed to happen.

As I was heavily involved, my focus really came down to a single ward, but the attitude on the doorstep wasn't that negative - surprisingly, given the run-in gifted to us by our national leadership (a word I use advisedly). What with Prescott, Hewitt, Clarke and the shadow of Blair, it wasn't a good time to be on the doorstep asking for votes. I actually found a degree of sympathy from the electorate for what we were trying to do.

Anyway, the outcome was pretty much as I expected. A couple of seats shifted around, but nothing has really changed. Handsworth Wood returned to Labour, as the councillor who defected to the Tories was swiftly ejected by the electorate and Aston came home from the Liberal Democrats. Longbridge was lost to the Tories and the Alden family put yet another member on the benches in the Council House as their son won in Erdington. Susanna McCorry, the defeated Labour councillor, blamed her defeat on the national situation, but I'm not so sure. The Labour vote held up well, only actually dropping by 10 on 2004. It was the Liberal Democrat vote that switched to the Tories to give them the seat. To offset their loss in Aston, the LDs took Moseley from Barry Henley - a shame, as Barry was good councillor and a decent bloke who put in bucketloads of work to try and secure the seat. To be honest, that was only won at a by-election last year because it coincided with a parliamentary vote, so we had that one as a bonus for twelve months and serious resource was thrown at the seat by the Liberal Democrats this time round. Sparkbrook went to RESPECT, which was no surprise to anyone around that area.

And then there was Kingstanding - see my post on that issue for details.

How did the parties do?

The problem with assessing this is finding a decent baseline figure. The ward boundaries all shifted in 2004 with all-up elections, throwing a spanner into the works of calculating vote share. While the major parties put up three candidates in all wards, the minor parties only put up the odd candidate (some VERY odd) in some wards. The method I've chosen is twofold. I've taken the votes for the 2004 winning candidate retiring in 2006 and only the next best votes for the other parties - this works in most wards, but is problematic in wards with split party representation. The other method is 'best vote' compiled by taking the top figures for each party in each ward in 2004 and compare them to 2006. My 2006 figures include the corrected result for Kingstanding.

2003 was the usual single-member election across the city and while the borders have changed internally, the overall city border hasn't, so the figures for total vote share hold up.

So, here's the voting breakdown based upon best vote in 2004:

And now the vote share figures for councillors elected in 2004 in third place and therefore up for election in 2006 against votes cast for the next best candidates from each party. The relatively low variance on 2004 suggests that these methods show a reasonably reliable guide to performance.

A couple of caveats here. The published figures for 2002 don't break down the 'Others' vote to include the BNP, but judging from the wards with high 'other vote', the BNP aren't likely to have been strong. Many wards had no candidates other than the three major parties. Note also that the BNP have been increasing their slate across the city since 2003, fielding a full 40 candidates in 2006, so the vote has increased partly because more people COULD vote for the BNP. The 2004 figures also include the disputed returns from Aston and Bordesley.

From this we can see that Labour's vote took a kicking in 2004, as expected, but has recovered over the past two years to a level closer to 2003. The Tories have also gained in the past two years, but the bad news is for the Liberal Democrats, who have lost vote since their strongest year in 2003 and at best, are trying to match their 2004 performance.

If we look at the number of wards where vote changed, we find that on the 2006 best performance figures, Labour vote declined in 26 wards, the Tories dropped in 24 wards and the Liberal Democrat vote dropped in 37 wards. In only three wards did the LD vote actually increase. It fell by a net total of 14,043 votes across the city. By comparison, the Tories dropped 4035 votes and Labour lost only 1243 votes across the city. Looking at the retiring councillors' figures, Labour actually gained a net 2865 votes across the city, dropping back in 18 wards, compared to a net loss of 1212 votes and a drop in 19 wards by the Tories and a loss of 8067 votes across 31 wards by the Liberal Democrats.

This suggests to me that the Labour vote is swinging up again, the Tories are making some gains, although nothing spectacular from either, but the Liberal Democrats had a dreadful election by their standards. Nationally, they seem to have gained a net total of two (count 'em) councillors, so that would seem to reinforce the facts presented above.

Everyone's talking about a bad election for Labour, but nobody's talking about the disaster suffered by the Liberal Democrats. They seem to have stalled in Birmingham, despite some improvements to further secure seats that they already hold - like Perry Barr. Their chance to alter the coalition has gone - if Whitless hangs onto the leadership of the Tory group, then the LDs will have to settle for their usual crumbs from the masters' table. Even John Hemming can't find much to sing about and has to rely on selective editing of figures to find a positive outcome for the Liberal Democrats (he conveniently ignores 2003 and avoids trying to calculate anything for 2004). The usual graph proving that only the Lib Dems can win here can't be far away.

Nationally, of course, they are suffering from the dreadful performance of Ming Campbell - how much would they give to have Chatshow Charlie back at the helm? He may have been a drunken sailor, but at least he knew how to steer the ship. Locally, the equally dreadful performance of the 'progressive partnership' is hurting them as well.

The Liberal Democrats look increasingly likely to come under pressure from both the Tories and Labour. 2007 and 2008 could be VERY interesting elections.