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.

Embarrassming

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.

Kerching.

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.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The medium is the message


Given the Liberal Democrat propensity for jumping on bandwagons and going whichever way the wind blows in their shameless pursuit of votes, what better present for the Liberal Democrat in your life than a weather vane. From only £75 (plus delivery) a pop.

Rock on, Iain!

Anybody who likes the magnificent Meat Loaf (note that it is correctly spelt as two words - he's particular about that) can't be all bad. Even if they are Tories.

My copy of the new album is even now winging its little way through the post from my favoured on-line supplier. I've seen the man perform on a few of his recent tours (including his farewell tour a couple of years back - even if he does keep popping up on odd occasions) and although Iain's right when he says that the voice isn't what it was, Mr Loaf is still a fine showman.

Don't take the music seriously, even if it soars to operatic heights at times. Loaf is about fun and a little bit of nostalgia for all the hope and promise that we all had in our youth. It is gloriously theatrical - always helped by Jim Steinman's writing (a man who will never use one word in a song title when six will do instead). Sadly, a dispute over the ownership of the Bat Out of Hell trademark has kept the dynamic duo apart for this album, even if a number of the songs are Steinman originals.

Iain reckons that the album won't do as well as the first Bat. He's bound to be right on that - Bat Out of Hell spent 474 weeks on the UK album charts and has shifted 34 million copies worldwide.

All political careers end in failure...

So, Clare Short has taken herself outside the parliamentary Labour Party. She must have hoped to leave as a martyr, expelled by her own party for urging people to vote against sitting Labour MPs at the next election, but that was denied her. In the end, she's decided to go herself. I can't help but agree with Khalid Mahmood (not something I've said very often in the past) when he says that 'the party has always stood up for Clare, but Clare hasn't always stood up for the party.' Nice turn of phrase there, Khalid.

She didn't even have the courtesy to tell her constituency party before going to the media, but that's hardly a surprise as she's not spoken to them in five years.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Self-delusion

Some members of the Liberal Democrats reckon that they can defend themselves when the Electoral Commission knocks at the door with assurances that they were themselves conned by the convicted liar Michael Brown.
'At the time of the donations, the company was carrying on business. It rented premises and it had a substantial turnover. The Liberal Democrat Party acted in entirely good faith in relation to these donations.'

The party may well have acted in good faith, but a judge decided that Fifth Avenue weren't trading.

Their claims of innocence and due diligence should be enough to hold off prosecutions of party officers for accepting an illegal donation, but the fact remains that the donation is illegal - Fifth Avenue were not trading in the UK. Therefore, under s58(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission can go to a magistrates' court and seek an order requiring forfeiture of the money. No prosecution is required and the standard of proof is that of balance of probabilities - the normal standard for civil actions.

Get that chequebook out, boys and girls!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Cash for access?

Fair Deal Phil has pulled together some of the stuff on the Midlands Industrial Council - that shadowy group that has funnelled money towards the Tory party in recent years, but has managed to hide behind a house in a quiet Lincolnshire village. The Birmingham Post also had a few choice quotes:
'Mr Silk said... the organisation was simply a group that existed to lobby for a better deal for Midland businesses.'

Peter Shirley - Midland Food Group, whose new chilled foods factory in Basingstoke, Hampshire was recently opened by David Cameron, told the ST:
'I’m a member of the MIC. I was absolutely amazed that it was David Cameron who came to the (factory) opening... We tell (Tory Ministers) that if they’re
going to have policies, we would like to know what the heck they are.'
So would we.... Coincidentally, of course, David Cameron also found time in a busy schedule of photo-opportunities to open a JCB factory in India. Sir Anthony Bamford is, of course, a senior member of the MIC.
Most shadow ministers have attended MIC meetings and George Bridges,
Cameron’s head of campaigns, is in regular contact with it...
Wall, the secretary of the MIC, who also works for Edmiston’s company, said: “I’ve met almost every member of the shadow cabinet you care to mention
With these people providing the money, just how long do you think the Tories can hold out on tax cuts?

Especially as Chris Kelly (MIC member) and Bamford are also listed as supporting the Taxpayers' Alliance (a Tory front group if ever there was one, despite claims to independence), alongside Constantine Folkes (MIC), Kim Jaberi (MIC), Michael Miller (MIC), James Leavesley (MIC), Brian Pettifer (MIC), Peter Shirley (MIC), Richard Smith (MIC). Spot the pattern? They've got almost a million reasons (and counting) for Cameron to cut the tax bill. Keltruck and the Taxpayers' Alliance sponsored a 1922 Committee dinner celebrating Baroness Thatcher's career.

Indeed, before the 2005 election, a number of the MIC members co-signed a letter to the FT promising that a Tory government
'would keep spending and borrowing under control and keep taxes down.'
Constantine Folkes has his own interest in taxation:
Folkes Forge - part of a Lye-based parent group which had been in operation for eight generations - closed in September 2000. Its closure followed the resignation of Folkes Group chairman and chief executive Constantine Folkes amid an Inland Revenue probe into the tax affairs of the group. Mr Folkes subsequently paid the group £3.5 million in advance of the outcome of the inquiry.
Needless to say, Mr Folkes blamed the government for the closure.

The MIC have paid up to ensure that they have the ear of the Tory leadership to push their agenda of low taxation and low regulation. I don't believe that this is anything like a complete list of active members, but it might stave off some of the journalistic enquiries.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

How did I miss this one?

Stuart Ritchie posted on my blog a little while back
The electoral commission have completed their investigations and have concluded that the Lib Dems did nothing wrong... When contacted by the media yesterday they said that if the Police came up with any new information they would look again but as far as they are concerned the matter is closed.
Here's the statement that I had at the time from the Electoral Commission - subtly different, I think you'll agree.

Based on the information given to us by the Liberal Democrats, we took the view in October 2005 that it was reasonable for the party to regard donations from 5th Avenue as having been permissible. We will always consider any new information that might become available regarding the permissibility of donations.

If any additional information that has a bearing on the permissibility of the donations comes to light as a result of the police investigation or legal proceedings relating to the affairs of 5th Avenue, we will consider the matter further.

Last week, a High Court judge said in a judgement
There was no trading and the scheme was fraudulent from its inception, it never being Brown’s intention that the money should be used this way. Funds had instead been shunted around various accounts in Europe. It is also clear that Michael Brown tried to hide the fact that there had been no legitimate trading with the funds supplied to him.

And again, the relevant section of the PPERA
54. - (1) A donation received by a registered party must not be accepted by the party if-
(a) the person by whom the donation would be made is not, at the time of its receipt by the party, a permissible donor
(2) For the purposes of this Part the following are permissible donors-
(a) an individual registered in an electoral register;
(b) a company-
(i) registered under the Companies Act 1985 or the Companies (Northern Ireland) Order 1986, and
(ii) incorporated within the United Kingdom or another member State, which carries on business in the United Kingdom
If you belong to the Liberal Democrats, remember that you have a personal liability for the debt if the clutch of Lib Dem millionaires don't bail you out.
'While there may be nothing illegal in what they have done, it is not the way a political party should behave.'
So said Lord Oakeshott, the Lib Dem peer. It was actually about the Lib Dem demands for an investigation of the tax avoidance plan that allowed the Tories to dodge a £600,000 stamp duty bill.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Performance Assessment

The auditors from the CPA are in Birmingham, peeking into nooks and crannies and trying to work out how effective the council is.

They've been shown a successful operating community based housing organisation in Northfield, one that was described in an LSE report last year as a 'model of progress'
'in improving housing performance in terms of reduced voids, increased repair, increased tenant involvement, much intensified neighbourhood management, training of super caretakers in multi-skilled, community oriented, hands-on maintenance, cleaning and other front line care. The district has played an important role in experimenting with new ideas of neighbourhood management. Politicians of different parties and the local MP have played a supportive role in ensuring ground-level progress within a devolved structure. There has also been considerable local work on stock condition and a range of investment options.'

It has been a success, no doubt about it. The CBHO is approaching the point where it should be able to stand up as a proper Tenants Management Organisation and take the landlord functions down to a local level, where it can be properly responsive to the people.

Problem is, the Tory leadership of the council doesn't like that sort of thing. They want to roll back on the whole devolution of power idea - which partly explained this week's decision to pull the plug on the Druids Heath Tenants Management Cooperative. Additionally, the TMC has some nice land that the council needs to flog off to fund their half-hearted attempts to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

So, sadly, the Northfield CBHO may not know it yet, but a similar axe will be hovering over their heads.

New Tory, Old Danger

How is that new, touchy-feely Tory party doing in the country? Is the Cameron approach just so much soft soap and posturing?

But of course.

Chris Black, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Essex, reveals that Tory councillors were whipped into voting against parent and child spaces in a car park. Yup, the councillors were required to vote down a family-friendly policy on pain of having the whip withdrawn.

Ridiculous Politics highlights the Tory MEPs who refused to back a European project to prevent violence against women and young people - including victims of genital mutilation. We're also reminded that in June, only one Tory MEP voted in favour of a resolution on the increase in racist and homophobic violence in Europe.

Perhaps that's what Tory MP Philip Davis had in mind when he warned Cameron not to ditch traditional values to get to the centre ground.

Graham Norton, that political sage, also throws in his fourpennorth on the Cameroonian revolution
'The man is absolutely loathsome. He’s transparent & is just trying so hard. It’s like he has bought a flatpack policy assembly kit from Ikea. I just don’t think the British public will buy it.'

The Tory whips were apparently trialling a new device to ensure parliamentary obedience - electric shock collars for MPs. Rumours that Boris Johnson will be the first to receive one have been denied.

Another day, another gaffe by the flaxen-haired Boris. This time, he reckons that the US should give Iran nuclear devices.
'Indeed, if all else fails, there may even be a case for giving the Iranians the bomb - that's right: maybe it is time for the Americans to take control themselves of this unstoppable programme.'
One of the legion of Tory spindoctors employed full-time to damage control Boris said that it was merely an idea that the blonde bombshell was 'running up the flagpole.'

Touchy, touchy

Despite removing it from YouTube, Sion Simon's magnum opus, a coruscating attack on Cameron's political weightlessness, proves that on the internet, a meme never dies. Thanks to the unique way it's funded, here it is on the BBC.

To be honest, I thought that it was a pretty poor effort, proving that politicians should not, generally, do comedy. On the other hand, at least it was the party coming out fighting and attacking the vacuity of Cameron's NuTory leadership.

What was even funnier was the Tory response. The voice of youth that is Peter Luff, a leading rentaquote Tory MP told us that Sion had brought 'politics into disrepute.' Meanwhile, the Tory boy elected as MP for Sutton Coldfield (and Sion's northern political neighbour) reckoned that Sion had gone mad.

So, let me get this right. You can highlight that the Tory party is currently a policy wasteland, with just a few tumbleweed ideas blowing around. You can remind everyone that the higher reaches of Torydom is again populated almost entirely by a select group of old school chums from Eton. You can point out that Cameron has done so many U turns on policy in just over a year that he needs GPS to work out which way he is pointing. But have a go at him for wheeling his family out at every opportunity for PR purposes and that's out of order.

Truly, you could not make this up.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Know your place, citizens of Birmingham

Tuesday saw a tiny number of Birmingham residents (well, most of the live inside the city - although the current leader doesn't see fit to actually reside within the borders of Birmingham) decide that you or I won't get the chance to decide if Birmingham should have an elected mayor.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Paul Tilsley wrought revenge upon his Tory leader, Mike Whitless - who still harbours ambitions of becoming the Mayor himself (sadly, his ignorance of Birmingham's electoral makeup hasn't improved). Tilsley moved a motion that required the council to oppose any government attempt to impose an elected mayor. The fact that the goverment won't do any such thing is irrelevant. What is more, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who have managed to glue the regressive partnership together for the past few years, don't reckon that you or I are up to making that decision. The motion would only allow it if both the Council and the electorate agreed.

I've made my views on the mayor idea clear in the past - and I see no reason to shift - but I'm always ready to support a decent discussion about the whole thing.

Why won't the Lib Dems and the Tories allow it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Happy now?

I do hope that Cllr Alan Rudge is proud of himself.

Thanks to his nasty little PR campaign, he's had one of his employees reduced to tears by a stream of abuse from passing motorists.

Not bad for a few minutes work with the blokes from the Post and the Mail, is it?

And they say the Tories aren't the nasty party any more. Perhaps this is the preferred method of man management these days, exposing your staff to ridicule on the streets. Some may say that playing politics in this way is an breach of the duty of care that an employer owes to their employees.

Excellent work, Alan.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bonus balls

So, what's the story behind the focus in the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail over council workers' bonus payments?

Cllr Alan Rudge - the Tory currently holding the baton for 'equalities and human resources' - has been talking to the press. He's conducting a very unsubtle PR operation to soften up the ground and get the public angry about unreasonable bonuses paid to council staff. Nothing like a headline in the local press to poison the mind against the unions and the council staff.

Important points to remember are that this is actually about some of the lowest paid staff employed by the council. Certainly, there will be anomalous agreements that need to be dealt with properly - every large organisation ends up with a multiplicity of different contractual terms that are set up over time and some of them are bound to be unfairly easy on the employees. What you also need to remember is that behind this nasty little press war is a plan to scrap all bonus schemes. A professional approach would be to deal with the anomalies, but Rudge prefers to wield the sledgehammer to crack this particular nut.

These bonuses make up a considerable chunk of pay for some of the employees at the bottom end of the council payroll. For every union official on £91,000, there are dozens of workers doing the essential work that keeps our city functioning and not taking home anything that sum - you may scoff at the gully cleaner getting stand-by payments, but I bet you would be a damn sight unhappier if there was nobody about to deal with a flooded storm drain late at night. Note that the articles say that workers 'can' double their pay - not that they have. In order to maximise their earnings and achieve those figures, many of them would have to work hours that would put them outside the limits of the European Working Time Directive.

I see that Rudge has promised fairer pay scales from 1 April 2007 - does that mean a proper period of consultation over a new contract or will it be imposed?

Another question springs to mind - when the Birmingham Mail was shown this secret report, did anyone consider the Data Protection Issues involved? At least one individual employee ' a top union official ' must have been specifically pointed out to the journalists, along with the bollard cleaner mentioned in the reports. Somebody has broken the rules here and I think we can all guess at which desk that responsibility stops.

This isn't about resolving anomalies or even sorting out the valid discrimination issues - this is about taking money away from some of those essential workers that allow our city to function. They're angry and they have every right to be.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

On yer bike, son.

Cameron's now claiming that the Tories are the defenders of the NHS.

What can I say? Aside from 'B******s.'

Whenever he speaks, always remember that he wrote the 2005 manifesto for the Tories. Just over twelve months ago, he believed in the patient's passport - a tax break for the wealthy. Now, he thinks that this is wrong, but can't really explain what he's going to do.

Remember also that this is the same party that lied about MRSA infections in a Yorkshire hospital - claiming that it had 247 infections, rather than the actual six. The larger figure was the count for the entire NHS region.

In fact, there's little change in the policy - Howard promised that the Tory government would spend the same on the NHS as Labour (aside from the £1.2 billion siphoned off to boost the ban accounts of their mates in the private sector).

Of course, one of the close members of the Etonian circle surrounding Cameron is Danny Kruger, the same Danny Kruger who was fired as a Tory candidate last year for demanding a period of 'creative destruction' in the public services, so we have to ask ourselves which is the real Cameron?

Is it the one who believes in the NHS or the one who wants to drain it of money?

Is it the new huggy, all-inclusive Dave or the bloke who penned one of the nastiest, cheapest, lowest common denominator Tory manifestos in living memory?

Tom Watson asks some questions of Brand Cameron in his latest videoblog entry on YouTube. For all of Cameron's claims to use the web as a method of communication, he's only allowing it to be one-way. Others realise that it can be a powerful tool for debate and discussion with the ordinary members of the public - see Tom Watson or John Hemming (if you must) for people who are prepared to enter into discussion with us lesser mortals.

Daniel Kawczynski, previously only known as the tallest MP in the House, came clean on Sunday and admitted he'd been funded by the shadowy 'Midlands Industrial Council.' On 'The Politics Show', he told us that he wasn't concerned by the secrecy - it would only cause him a problem if he had ever thought the MIC would pressure him in any particular way. That rather misses the point, Daniel. Transparency in party funding is about reassuring the electorate that everything is above board. He then raised the red herring of union funding, claiming that we don't know all the intricacies of who controls the union funds. Well, we do. Union members can opt out of the political levy or even vote to stop it altogether. Union leaders are elected by their members and are accountable to them. The whole union system is pretty open to scrutiny and the unions wear their party allegiance on their sleeves. The 'MIC' isn't. We don't know who donates to it, nor what kickbacks they may or may not receive. Sure, the MIC works within the letter of the law, but is it within the spirit?

I doubt it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mr Toad rides again!

'In the mean time, however, I have been investigating more about what happens in The Council House. I find that the Labour Group offices have spent the amazing sum of over £40,000 on refurbishments including over £7,000 on each on the Labour Leader and Labour Deputy Leader's office. Indeed even the council leader has had a new fan at a cost of £657.'
So wrote John Hemming in January 2005.

As Bob Piper points out, the Tory leader of the City Council - and 'leader' of the Regressive Partnership forged when he did a deal with Cllr Hemming all those months ago in 2004 - has just spent £17,000 on his office (refurbished and recarpeted only three years ago) and a further £560 a month on leasing a brand new Jaguar. Shame he couldn't get a freebie out of Ford, much as he managed to get a free car out of Rover for so long. Still, that trip to Spain to see the launch of the Jaguar diesel (courtesy of the Ford Motor Company, the owners of Jaguar) must have helped when it came to making the sale.

Cllr Hemming has been uncharacteristically silent on this profligacy and on the snide remarks about his Yardley colleague and Deputy Leader, Paul Tilsley, who has seen his car sacrificed to ensure that Whitless gets to be chauffered around in style. Alistair Morton reckons that Paul's been a 'jolly good sport' about losing access to a car. Perhaps Paul even tugged his forelock in deference to Whitless and thanked him kindly for taking away his council transport.

The Tory resurgence means that they are starting to regard the Liberal Democrats as useful idiots who can be relied upon to cast their votes in line with their Tory masters. I suppose the Tories might be half right there.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Boris Johnson - a national treasure

And as with all national treasures, he belongs in a museum.

Sunday, Cameron wanted to let the sunshine win and praised Jamie Oliver to the skies.

Monday, the walking gaffe-zone that is Johnson said that
'If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like... Why shouldn't they push pies through the railings?'

Joining in with that other elected idiot, John Hemming, Boris has criticised the new laws requiring children to use booster seats. He was recently spotted with his two sons in the front seat of his convertible sports car and adds
'When I was growing up we all bounced around like peas in a rattle - did it do us any harm? Now this law, imposed on us without public consultation, is forcing police to measure our children.'
OK. The first argument makes as much sense as declaring cigarettes safe on the anecdotal evidence of a bloke who smoked forty a day until he was run over by a bus on his eightieth birthday. The second angle is just plain wrong. As I pointed out when I started a fight with Cllr Hemming, there has been a good deal of public consultation and there was overwhelming support for the new measures. Indeed, many of those who expressed an opinion felt that the legislation didn't go far enough. And to reiterate - the basis for this regulatory change came about in the 1993 Seat Belt Wearing Regulations, passed by a Tory government.

Just like Gideon and his autism jibe at Gordon Brown, Boris now claims that he was merely misquoted (although the BBC reporter concerned is standing by his notes and quotes). Boris is the MP for Henley, a seat so safe that it has been said it would return a donkey if it wore a blue rosette.

Apparently it did.

The Sunshine Boys

Let sunshine win the day...

Bournemouth has a thriving club culture. Perhaps Ravey Davey had been over-indulging the night before his speech. That's either a high-concept statement or just complete bollocks brought on by watching one too many Teletubbies DVDs. I suspect the latter. Eh-oh.

He's been reading Tony, though. Guess which is which:

Our party's history tells us the ground on which political success is built. It is the centre ground. Not the bog of political compromise. Not the ideological wilderness, out of the fringes of debate. But the solid ground where people are.

...most of politics isn't about politics, in the sense of meetings, resolutions, speeches or even Parties. It starts with people. It's about friendship, art, culture, sport. It's about being a fully paid up member of the human race... The danger for us today is not reversion to the politics of the 1980s. It is retreat to the sidelines. To the comfort zone.

The second quote is Tony's.

We're still not seeing any sign of real policies behind all the spin - and even the natural Tory backers of the Telegraph are getting decidedly concerned at the lack of substance behind the image-making. ITN pointed out that David changed his clothing four or five times on Sunday morning alone - if only he could fill the vacuum that is the the Tory policy cupboard at the moment. A YouGov survey for the Telegraph showed that 58% of voters thought that it was hard to know what a Tory government would be like, with almost half of Tory voters supporting that statement. Overall, that poll only puts the Tories on a par with Labour at 36% support - 3 points up on the general election, but hardly a commanding lead. An ICM poll for the Mirror only gives them a 1% lead. After all the Cameroonie reinvention, is that all they've achieved? They should be cantering ahead of a third term government riven by internal strife over the leadership.

The YouGov poll details hold more interesting information. Despite the attempts to lead on Brand Cameron (TM), the results haven't been outstanding. While 55% reckon he's doing a good job, just 18% find him more attractive than the Tory party, with 20% preferring the party and 55% not really going for either. A fatally high 63% can't see any substance behind the weasel words and 54% don't know what the Tory Party stands for. That latter point might actually be a bonus, as it suggests that Cameron may have wiped the slate a little cleaner, so now has the chance to redraw the image of the party in greater depth. Cameron's reluctance to promise tax cuts is supported by this poll - 18% want them (a figure actually down 1% on February), while 51% want public services running as they are now, but with better management and less waste.

And that's not all the bad news. Gideon Osborne showed the level of tact we have come to expect from Tory MPs from Tatton, but using 'autistic' as a term of political abuse against Gordon. Rather than admit he made a mistake, he's tried to convince us that he was being asked if he was autistic and was trying to move the conversation on. I've heard the tape and that's not what it sounds like. Meanwhile, Francis Maude brings family values to the fore by investing in the porn industry... and questions are raised about soft money being funnelled to the Tories through Constituency Campaigning Services, which is or is not part of the Tory Party, depending on which day you ask their leader. Just to show that PC Plod is being evenhanded in his interviews, a Tory backer had a little chat with the cops a while back - the same backer who is part of the team running the secretive Midlands Industrial Council, which has been the subject of press interest lately itself.

The danger with the Brand Cameron (TM) approach is that it pins everything on the leader. They had better hope that there are no nasty skeletons in the cupboard that could dent his image, because that would be fatal. If he fails, the party fails. While Blair was undoubtedly the 'brand lead' for Labour in the mid 90s and has taken that role in government, that has meant that all the problems and failures have become firmly attached to him - great news for Gordon.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Mancunian Way

What to add to the Labour Conference last week?

Blair's speech was another verblessly classic delivery - although it felt to me as though he is much closer to standing down than everyone thinks. He won't make it to next summer and I strongly believe he'll be gone before the May elections. I half expected him to bid us an immediate farewell at the conference, such was the valedictory nature.
The USP of New Labour is aspiration and compassion reconciled. We reach out not just to those in poverty or need but those who are doing well but want to do better; those on the way up, ambitious for themselves and their families. These are our people too. Not to be tolerated for electoral reasons. But embraced out of political conviction. The core vote of this Party today is not the heartlands, the inner city, not any sectional interest or lobby. Our core vote is the country.

They know there isn't some fantasy Government where nothing difficult ever happens. They've got the Lib Dems for that. Government isn't about protests or placards, shouting the odds or stealing the scene.

Gordon gave a solid, policy-based speech. He's not a performer, like Tony - but then, as I have observed, there's nobody else currently on the scene who can match Blair. Despite a bid from Dr John Reid, I don't see any other big hitter with a sniff of getting the leadership. Doubtless, the Blairites will put forward somebody to oppose Brown, with Reid being the front runner to face that all-but-certain defeat. I've spoken to a fair few activists in recent months and nobody seriously expects the next leader to be anyone but Brown, but I can't say that casting their vote for Gordon will be done with any sense of joy.

I suspect that the Chancellor has a suite of policies ready to unveil. He's a student of American politics and I suspect that we'll be impressed by his first 100 days. I just hope that he's able to get his deeply-held passion for tackling issues like poverty across. He's strong on the nuts and bolts, but a PM has to be able to provide the over-arching narrative that structures policy - can a naturally shy leader do that effectively?

The fact that he's not Blair is a weakness in that respect - he doesn't have Tony's skills in that regard. However, that's also a strength - Blair has stretched his credibility to the limit to get some policies through parliament and convince the public. Brown needs to win hearts and minds by transmitting his passion to others.

And one other thing - when Brown takes over, I hope that the Blairites do the decent thing and shut up. Mandy gave a magnificent interview to the Today Programme, a fine example of supporting the next leader and then slipping the knife between his shoulder blades so finely that you would hardly feel the pain.
The chancellor might have all sorts of flaws but his inner strength as a politician came through.
Oof.