Wednesday, December 26, 2007

King William's College Quiz

Maybe I've missed it in the Guardian over the past week or so, but they have had a tradition of publishing the fiendishly difficult quiz set for the students of King William's College on the Isle of Man. Apparently, the pupils can choose (it used to be compulsory) to sit the test at the end of the winter term and will universally fail - typically, they get a handful of right answers and spend the Christmas break researching the right answers for a resit in the New Year. Competition is tough and the question setter is known to Google his questions to check that the answers cannot be found with a Googlewhack.

So, if there are any others out there who have missed it - here's the quiz, hot from the college.

Cricket pops up on a regular basis and the question sections usually have a connection - a Hampshire city will help you in one and an NCO in another (I think). At first quick reading, I think I can muster around 20 answers without overworking the little grey cells.

If you haven't run across the quiz before, it is an ideal chance to revive brains wearied by the festive excesses of food, drink and shopping.

Enjoy.

The answers typically appear around mid January.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lib Dem Failures

I'm thinking of marketing a partwork which examines the Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2004 and shows just how far they've come from the plans that got them elected into a semblance of power. Remember that manifesto and the promises to
afford real priority to buses across the City using various advanced schemes for bus priority... reallocate road space for bus lanes.

Predictably, that's fallen by the wayside, as has so much of Liberal Democrat policy.

Another fight about to kick off is over the Tyburn Road bus lanes. Again.

There's a long list of things that Transportation Cabinet Member Cllr Len Gregory doesn't like, but near the top come 'bus lanes.' One of his first acts was to suspend the lanes along the Tyburn Road, which helped to cut bus use - predictably enough. This was to allow for consultation on their future - which has taken more than three years to progress. Even though most people have forgotten what a bus lane is, those who responded to the biggest ever consultation on a bus lane are pretty much equally divided over whether they should be restored or not.

Well, the decision isn't due until the spring, but it looks all but certain that Len will announce the closure of the lanes for good.

And yet again, that Hemming-signed promise to open up the council needs to be wheeled out.
The City is obsessively secretive and concentrates on keeping information about problems out of the public domain rather than acting to solve problems. This must change... It is only right that this process occur in the main in the public domain.'
It took over a year and a Freedom of Information Request to bring the results of that survey into the public domain, but the council is still refusing to release papers on the options available.

Of course, Tory councillor Timmy Huxtable, could yet make a difference and back up the support he gave to the Tyburn bus lanes during the campaign this year by signing the Birmingham FoE pledge - but I bet he won't.

Downfall II - mad about the boy

Having enjoyed the spectacle of the Gorgeous George Fan Club (the party formally known as Respect, the Dis-Unity Coalition) sub-dividing, amoeba-like, to produce two similar offspring, attention now shifts to the very far-right, where the BNP are also in freefall.

Fresh from his triumphant appearance at the Oxford Union, sponsored by a publicity-hungry President, Nick Griffin hasn't had the easy ride that he thought he might get from his members. Rumours of all sorts of shenanigans and impropriety are rife - depending on where you look. Financial accusations of all sorts are flying between different sides of the battle and Der Fuhrer is in real trouble. It all seems to stem for his undying support for his sidekick Mark Collett, a shaven-headed, callow youth, who has held various posts within the BNP and must know where the bodies are buried for Griffin to hang onto him, even as the membership abandon the sinking ship like rats. Activists are leaving the party in their dozens in protest, only just outpacing the rebel members who are being expelled by the leadership for assorted trumped-up offences and the few party employees left are on half pay. Whether this affects Griffin, holed up in his Newtown bunker in darkest Mid Wales, isn't clear, but the finances of the BNP make Enron look secure - the party is effectively bust.

Even the convicted drug dealer Jock Shearer (funny how the death sentence that the BNP demand for dealers translates into membership for their own - but I digress) has left his Fuhrer's side in the dying hours. He's not fled to Brazil, but back home to Oldham in disgust after BNP people raided a member's house and took away a computer, allegedly following taped telephone conversations between two senior members. This has even reached the ears of Labour's own John Cruddas, who has raised the matter in the House (under parliamentary privilege) and asked the police to investigate allegations of illegal bugging and theft.

The scandal even reaches into the West Midlands, as the nest of vipers turns on itself. Simon Darby, Griffin's loyalist right-hand man, is stalking around denying that there is a crisis, but the senior member in Birmingham, the be-ponytailed Rob Purcell - last seen leading a BNP-inspired demo in Acocks Green - has apparently also decided to mothball his brown shirt and not renew his subs to the BNP. If he's leaving, the end can't be far off for Griffin.

And all in time for Christmas.

I'll raise a glass to all that.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Deja vu all over again

Cameron's failed to attract Lib Dems to join the Tories, so now he wants to replicate the Birmingham experience across the country and forge the two parties into a single Progressive Partnership Alliance to defeat Labour. Or 'decentralise British politics' as Dave puts it.

This plea might have had more impact after Clegg wins on Tuesday, but Charlie Kennedy was sober enough to jump on that idea:
'I don't see a great consensus between the leaders of the Tories and Liberal Democrats on Europe, for instance, we are in favour of the new EU treaty - they are against it.'
And Strictly Liberal Cable weighed in as well
'A Conservative party that wants to cut funding on public services and talks the talk on green issues but fails to deliver any meaningful policies has little to offer today's Britain... Only recently the Tories have revealed their true colours on environmental issues by supporting nuclear power and backing the expansion of major airports.'

Little to offer Britain, perhaps, but much (thousands of pounds at least) to offer Liberal Democrats in Birmingham, at least that's what we can take from their continued love-in with the service-cutting and anti-green Tories here.

Whether Clegg will take the same view after this week is a different matter. He's known to have been one of the LDs who were courted by the Tories earlier in the year, so will his leadership signal a drift to the right, or have the former and acting leaders tied his hands for a while?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Partnership? What Partnership?

Not for the first time, I ask - What do the Liberal Democrats get out of the Regressive Partnership coalition in Birmingham with their Tory friends and masters? Answers on a postcard please.

I'm tempted to offer a prize for the best answer.

Apart from a few thousand quid from their cabinet and scrutiny committee posts, the answer would appear to be the square root of sod all.

Back in 2004, the Liberal Democrat manifesto briefing promised that a
Lib Dem vote will promote and expand swimming opportunities within the city
Well, in Yellow-Peril-Infested Yardley, the opening hours at the Fox Hollies Leisure Centre have been slashed by 12 hours a week - including late opening and early closing on Saturdays and complete closure on bank holidays, further restricting access for those 'hard-working families' beloved of all politicians. Other cuts - sorry, cost savings, have seen reduced hours at Stechford Cascades. (I really must refer to my officially approved council thesaurus - sponsored by Tesco - before writing).

That same document also includes the promise
Moseley Road Baths must be kept open with seed funding from the one off funds currently available
And now it seems that despite a fine campaign by Martin Mullaney, the Baths and the magnificent building that encloses them are both doomed as fellow Lib Dem Cabinet Member Ray 'Philistine' Hassall doesn't like older facilities and doesn't see the point of spending money keeping them open. If that's the case, why was a million quid spent on reopening one of the pools? As this article points out, the baths are of national importance - there is no older Grade II* listed pool in the country and many of the original features are believed to be unique. (Yes, I have now said something nice about Martin in two successive posts - call it the Christmas spirit).

There is a feasibility study carried out into the further options for updating the baths, but we aren't allowed to see it. One of the regulars on the Stirrer message board has submitted a FOI request, only to have it turned down because the council apparently intend to publish it. (No, I'm not convinced either).
The City is obsessively secretive and concentrates on keeping information about problems out of the public domain rather than acting to solve problems. This must change.
John Hemming, Liberal Democrat manifesto 2004
Regular readers will remember that John once faced down a Standards Board inquiry over his 'release' of confidential information to the press. Let's see some courage from him and his fellow Lib Dems - put the report into the public domain now.
I won't hold my breath for the answer. They don't have the guts for the job - they're happy with their fatter pay packets and the prestige of nodding whenever Whitless demands it. Every day they sustain this incompetent administration demonstrates just how far from their 'principles' the Liberal Democrats in Birmingham have drifted.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Wheelie Good Idea

Curiously, I find myself on common ground with Martin Mullaney - something that always makes me nervous. He and I are both supporters of bringing wheelie-bins to the homes of Birmingham. I find it hard to believe that when many other local authorities have worked out that the wheeled bin is easier to handle and provides better protection for the rubbish contained within than any sort of black plastic bag. The piles of black rubbish bags dumped on our streets every day provide a fine food source for the ever-increasing population of rats in our City - indeed, some of the binmen have complained that they have been attacked by rats as they do their rounds.

Obviously, the wheelie bin may not be suitable for every home or street - but Martin explained on the Stirrer that it doesn't have to be a blanket solution. Other cities cope well with mixed collections - even on the same round, either by using vehicles designed to cope with bins and bags (the lip on the back of the truck is at a different height) or by having a bin on the vehicle that is filled with bags and emptied into the compactor when full.

The Transportation & Street Services Scrutiny Committee Report into Containers for Waste (a MAN Booker contender if ever I saw one) shows how far ahead other cities are.

Bristol collects paper, card, glass, plastic, tins and cans in weekly boxes, green waste in wheeled bins weekly, plus a weekly collection of clothes, batteries and aerosol cans. A real focus on doorstep recycling has meant that in 2006/7, they recycled a third of all the municipal waste in Bristol, while Birmingham only managed 18.3%, the lowest in the West Midlands and 377th out of 393 local authorities in this year's DEFRA statistics (no trumpeting of THAT performance indicator by John Hemming on the Politics Show this week, I notice). Only 12% of households in this city get more than two recyclable collections, compared to 95% in Bristol, 83% in Manchester and 94% in Newcastle. Incidentally, while we do incinerate a lot of our waste - which goes to produce power through the Tyseley site - 13 of the 15 authorities that incinerate a greater percentage than Birmingham does also manage to recycle more.

And the people aren't happy - the council's own survey shows that people are increasingly unhappy with waste collection under the Tory/Liberal Democrat Regressive Partnership, as satisfaction with the service has declined by twice the national average in recent years.

And yet Len Gregory, the Tory Cabinet member for street services, still has this mental block that prevents him from even considering the possibility of wheelie bins. Even though the Scrutiny Report demonstrates that after two years or so, cost savings would come in that would make wheelie bins a cheaper option, he won't have it. The matter came to council last week, with a plan to run pilot schemes in the City and the Labour benches were ready to vote as one, alongside enough Lib Dems to embarrass the coalition.

Even facing their first defeat as a coalition, Len wouldn't back down. While he knew that he couldn't stop the renegade Liberal Democrats voting with Mullaney and the Labour Party to force through a trial scheme, he realise that they weight of the coalition could throw a wrecking clause into it by insisting that there has to be evidence that the public would support a trial scheme. And you can bet that the Tories won't find any support for it.

Steve Bedser, the Labour councillor praised for his involvement in the scrutiny committee and a supporter of wheeled bins, added that
This is the last of the evidence we will hear of the work done by that scrutiny committee
and I think he's right. For all the evidence and hard work, I doubt that anything will come of it. Yet again, the right-thinking Lib Dems on Birmingham City Council - the ones who don't spend their time obeying their Tory masters like lapdogs - will find that they get nothing out of this partnership at all.

Of course, the greatest irony for those Liberal Democrats is that their very own Dear Ex-Leader, John Hemming, is the cause of all these problems (as ever). We've wasted almost four years in the run up to what might be a trial, when we could have had the answers, but John scrapped a Labour-designed pilot scheme within hours of taking possession of the Deputy Leader's swivel chair in 2004. With a flourish, he announced that Birmingham would not be getting wheelie-bins - something that doubtless cheered old Len up no end.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gone North

Apparently, Whitless' brain, the charming James North, is off to pastures new. Mike is getting the hang of this new freedom by leaping off message and speaking for himself.

Responding to a report by Ian Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, Mike has come out swinging, with a press release slamming the report as
'inaccurate, out of date or misleading'

But that could apply to many Tory statements.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Events, dear boy, events

As Macmillan wisely noted, nothing pushes a government off-course faster than events.

The past week has been an appalling one for Labour - there's no other way to describe it.

With the Chancellor being hauled over the coals over Northern Rock - although I think he'll be proved right in the medium term and the risk will turn out to be manageable. Then we had the incompetence of a junior HMRC officer sending highly confidential details through the internal post relying on the insecurity of a ZIP archive password. And we ended last week with a number of senior military officers who suddenly discovered their voices once they ceased to have any power to deliver for their troops.

Then this week, we have a General Secretary of the Labour Party who has never struck me as one of the most inspiring figures in the party, to be honest. Despite his background as a regional organiser, head of compliance and a couple of years in the top job, Peter Watt apparently knows less about PPERA 2000 than I do and surely can't be looking forward to his interview with the police. Bang to rights, son.

Gordon has done exactly the right thing by returning the donations and sacking accepting the resignation of Watt - but things look grim at the moment. There's no doubt that the Party are in a serious hole at the moment, but it can be recovered. Gordon needs to take control and rebuild that reputation for sound management and effective government. What he mustn't do is try to find a quick, media-friendly fix for some other high-profile problem. This can be put right - we're not going to have an election until 2009 at the very earliest and I think I'd be prepared to put money on 2010, frankly. Competence must be the watchword - there can be no room for cock-ups.

Keep your nerve - Tony had several 'worst weeks of his premiership.' Let the Tories and the Lib Dems get all smug about slinging their mud for the time being. Let's get all the dirty washing out now - clean our stables and then turn the lights onto the Tories and the Lib Dems (who still have the little matter of a couple of million quid of stolen money sitting in their accounts, pending the completion of a City of London police investigation which is still ongoing). No whitewash, no half-truths, because it will be uncovered. The original crime doesn't always end careers, but a cover-up will.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bald men still fighting over comb

To call the Lib Dem leadership event a 'race' or a 'contest' has seemed inappropriate until now. The whole thing has been soporific - the Question Time debate turned into a Lib Dem love-in, with the only difference being over Trident - hardly a huge electoral issue amongst the public at large. (Huhne wants to scrap it, Clegg wants to reduce the nuclear force - as if you cared).

It has been a struggle to tell them apart - at least it was until around 12:15 on Sunday, when the joint Politics Show interview suddenly reanimated the campaign - read the transcript here. As you may know, Chris Huhne's office had prepared a briefing document to highlight Nick Clegg's policy weaknesses and somebody had entitled it 'Calamity Clegg.' This version was then leaked to the BBC.

Two interesting things come out of this interview.

Firstly, Chris Huhne appears to have been less than honest. When he was presented with the briefing note, he responded that
CHRIS HUHNE: Ah hah. Well, I'm sorry, I didn't see it, so I don't know....
But then if you read the extracts of the document I've published below and a brief extract from the interview, you will notice that he appears to have absorbed a lot of the arguments from a paper he hasn't seen. Apparently he isn't alone in not having seen this briefing note - Lynne Featherstone denies knowledge (which shouldn't be a surprise), despite being in the meeting where the 'line' was discussed.

CHRIS HUHNE: Of course. Let me finish, and then of course, you can say. I don't think we know where Nick stands on issues about public services reform, he's given journalists the impression for example that he's in favour of school vouchers, he's not retracted that.

I don't think we know where Nick stands, for example on the National Health Service, because he says, he won't rule out, in an interview with The Scotsman, he won't rule out the question of continental health insurance models and then he's saying, no, no, no he's happy with party policy. So I do...

JON SOPEL: Hang on. Let, let, let Nick Clegg answer.

CHRIS HUHNE: And then finally on PR. He's said, no, no we mustn't make it the be all and end all.

Even now, he's only apologised for the title (which has now been changed) and the paper is now available for download from his website.

While Huhne can be accused of being economical with the truth, the same accusation can be levelled at Nick 'Tory Boy' Clegg. The document reveals is a Liberal Democrat who says different things to different constituencies (well, colour me surprised)

On school vouchers, Clegg has dug up a quote from an interview in the Observer - happily given to one of his friends and supporters, Jasper Gerrard:
So according to his 'pupil premium', parents would be given a voucher to spend in their referred school; but while a flaw in such schemes is often that the savvy middle class pack the best schools, Clegg would increase the value of the voucher for the needy - making the poorer child a more attractive proposition to good schools.
Oddly, when talking to the Torygraph, he was more restrictive, but indicated flexibility on private schools being able to use that voucher (a tax break for the upper middle class, in effect).
Parents should, he argues, be given a voucher for their children's education - which would be worth more for poor pupils - although unlike some of his colleagues he says he is "not yet persuaded'' that the voucher should be useable in private, as well as state, schools.
I'm not sure I see that as an earth-shattering divide in his policy statements - perhaps more of an indication of what question he was asked (both journalists know their audience). Huhne points out that Clegg has opposed means testing - which would identify those poorer pupils who need to benefit from the increased voucher value. For me, the joy is in watching Clegg drag the Lib Dems ever closer to the Tories.

On the NHS in The Scotsman

The idea to smash the centralised health service and put more power into local hands was put forward by Nick Clegg , a Lib Dem MP who is tipped as a possible future leader of the party. Mr Clegg said there should be no "taboos" when it comes to reform of the public services and the party should not discard insurance-based models adopted by other European countries.
And again in the Independent
"One very, very important point “I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service." Then he goes further, even refusing to rule out the insurance-based models used in mainland Europe and Canada. "I don’t think anything should be ruled out."
Yet his campaign manifesto shirks the issue and he has, according to Huhne, since come out against insurance-based medicine, but still wants to consider the options of funding and delivery. So is he opposed to the insurance model or not?

When it comes to that great totemic Lib Dem policy on PR, he tells Jasper Gerrard (again) in the Sunday Times that

Lib Dems shouldn’t bang on about electoral reform being a condition for support in a hung parliament
Yet, Huhne points out that

in [Clegg's] latest campaign literature under the headline Case For PR Very Strong he says: “Gordon Brown & David Cameron continue to talk about trust and reform – yet refuse to consider the one measure that would make every single vote count, Proportional Representation

All of those pieces above informed Chris Huhne's attack on Clegg - although he hadn't seen the briefing document, as he told Jon Sopel.

The finale to this little piece of criticism is a transcript of a floundering interview of Clegg by Steve Richards on GMTV, which exposes a £1 billion gap in Clegg's plans for changing funding to schools.
SR: You’d accept that you’ve got a black hole there. You haven’t found where the money’s going to come from, the other billion.
NC: Er, yes, but I mean there are other ideas. For instance there are other ideas, I mean for instance I’ve also this week been floating ideas for how I think we should introduce a 10% tax on the non-domestic earnings of so-called ‘non-doms’. In that particular case that raises about £1 billion. I would like that to go to alleviate the burden of Council Tax on those in Band A and band B properties, those on the lower rung of the property ladder, if you like. But it’s just an example of where we can be creative in trying to find that extra money in order to fulfil that pledge, and I’m absolutely confident that we will under my leadership make that fixed pledge
by the next general election.
SR: By one way or another taxing the better off, presumably. Because it has to come from somewhere.
NC: Yes, er well no, hang on, or, sorry…
SR: You said yes, so tax increase?
NC: No, no, let me correct that. I think there is plenty of scope to cut back on some of the waste in government, some of the duplication in government....
I don't think that any of these 'revelations' will terminate Clegg's campaign. It does demonstrate an interest in dragging the Lib Dems to the right - which might not sit well with the muesli wing to the party. Huhne has apparently been playing catch-up with Clegg since the campaign kicked off, but a large slice of the Liberal Democrat electorate remains undecided as the ballot papers go out this week. He's reported to be going with the old-fashioned politics of direct contact with the electorate through networks and telephone canvassing - at least that's what his campaign team several of the party's MPs told the Observer in the now traditional Lib Dem tactic of suggesting that it is a two horse race in an attempt to glean the 'anti-Clegg' votes to go with the 'pro-Huhne' ones.

Of course, here it IS a two horse race - for a party headed for the knacker's yard.

If Clegg wins - which I think he will - then the Lib Dems might as well go back to their constituencies and prepare for annihilation against the combined might of the real Tory Party. Why would the electorate back a bunch of wannabe-Tories against the real thing? Huhne offers perhaps the best chance of continued success (note that his campaign manager is Anna Werrin, the long-serving and long-suffering aide to Charlie Kennedy), but his performance over the weekend may render him as damaged goods

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

She's no lady...

David Bell reveals that Ladywood wants a woman candidate.

That's hardly a surprise - the constituency executive voted in favour of it some weeks back and the NEC has now confirmed their view. The decision, by the way, doesn't rest with the local party, nor yet the regional organisation, but with the national executive. The local party were asked for their views on whether they should have an all-woman shortlist and agreed - actually, the party rules pretty much required it anyway, as Ladywood should be a safe seat and was previously occupied by a woman Labour MP. They also said that they felt that a BME (black or minority ethnic) candidate would suit the seat, but that was a view and not a formal request. It is a view to which they are entitled, but one that carries no force.

The final decision over who will stand for Labour in the next election rests with the local membership, not the executive committee.

John Hemming can't resist giving his considered legal opinion
To define the candidate you want by their ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation is not only illegal...

Predictably, John is partially wrong in fact. It is entirely legal to define a candidate by gender, but not by ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Anyway, why is Khalid Mahmood interfering in a neighbouring constituency - rather as he did in Sparkbrook during Roger Godsiff's reselection campaign? The Stirrer is wrong on one count - this has nothing to do with Elaina Cohen - the former Tory parliamentary candidate turned Labour stalwart. She was actually militating against an all-woman shortlist in the first place - a lone voice against it - and is quite unlikely to win the nomination in any case. Penny Barber is also a long shot, as her otherwise admirable day job for the Brook Advisory Clinics would not go down well with the significant black Christian vote in the constituency.

Rumours suggest that the Mahmood faction has actually been pushing the candidacy of Ansar Ali Khan, the Labour councillor from Washwood Heath, which would explain his opposition to an all-woman shortlist.

My feeling is that the candidate who will win the nomination hasn't yet appeared on the local political journalists' radar.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Polishing off the family silver



Earlier this week on the Stirrer, a story broke about the sale of a small plot of land in Acocks Green. This isn't a story that will set the world alight, but it means a lot to a few residents and speaks volumes about the state of our city and the policies of our Liberal Democrat/Tory Regressive Partnership.

The patch isn't big, but it has a little historical significance, as part of the avenue of trees leading up to Acocks Green House. The first picture shows it as it was last year. For a number of years, it has been open land, used by local residents as a public space - right beside it are a couple of blocks of flats and some low-rise housing, full of elderly residents, who valued that little amenity. Given that, you would think that the City Council - keen to encourage use of open space and to secure the future of a tiny part of the green lungs of our city - would carry out a little light landscaping so that residents might enjoy it even more.

You would, of course, be wrong to think that, as our masters have decreed that all surplus land should be sold and that this parcel is surplus to their, if not our, requirements. Accordingly, a neighbour has bought the land and, after an attempt to fell the trees (stopped by Preservation Orders being slapped on them), he has now fenced the area off. Rumours persist that he either intended to extend his house or to use the land for car parking - neither very practical with the trees in situ. This is how it looks today.

The fence is just under the 2m height limit which would require planning permission, but is over the 1m limit which applies if the fence is adjacent to the highway. I understand that no application has yet been submitted and that the Planning Department were made aware of the potential breach some weeks ago.

So, when the story hit The Stirrer, I pointed out that this was a direct result of a policy shift within the council. Cllr (counting down the days until May 08) Hemming responded


we didn't find out until after the sale had gone through... There is a policy issue about informing local elected representatives etc. That policy (which has been in place for a long time) is something I am trying to ensure involved informing local representatives...


The policy is driven by the Deputy Leader, who chairs the Property Committee and the council have been stripping out the silver since at least 2005 - when Cllr Hemming himself held the reins (the patch of land used to fall into his ward prior to boundary changes and still falls inside his constituency). Since then, it has been under the control of Paul Tilsley - another of the Yardley mafia and councillor for Sheldon, just across the border from Acocks Green. How hard is it for Paul to let his colleagues in the constituency know that land is up for sale in their wards? How hard is it for Paul to let every councillor know about council property about to be sold off? Perhaps a swift email to those nice Blackberries?

Perhaps a list like this might help?

Every time proposals come to the Property Committee, the standard form is completed
3.2 Have relevant Ward and other Members / Officers been properly and meaningfully consulted on this report?
And every time, back comes the answer.
The Deputy Leader has been consulted in the preparation of this report. There has also been consultation with the Cabinet Members for Transportation and Street Services, Housing and Regeneration together with wider consultation with Members in the constituencies. The relevant chief and senior officers have also been consulted in relation to the proposals to declare properties surplus to requirements as set out in Appendix 1

So there is no meaningful consultation - which is supported by Cllr Hemming's statements and the report submitted to each meeting is factually inaccurate. Indeed, my sources on the ground tell me that it came as a surprise to the three local councillors (all Liberal Democrats), who at least dealt with the requests for Tree Preservation Orders on the mature trees swiftly, so they do deserve some kudos for that. I'm not being critical of them, but of the policy that led up to this.

It was in Cllr Hemming's direct power to ensure that members were kept informed, but he did not make it happen. It is in Cllr Tilsley's direct power to change the process, but nothing has happened for more than two years. Either they aren't committed to local information, or more likely they don't want to tell Labour councillors when land is about to be sold off to the highest bidder, because they know what the response would be.

When I challenged Cllr Hemming that he ought to take responsibility for decisions made by a Cabinet of which he was a member and a coalition shored up by his Liberal Democrat members, he weaselled, claiming that sales had taken place for years.

The council has always disposed of land - and there's nothing wrong with that - but things have changed in recent years. Financial year 2005-06 generated £32.6 million in income. 2006-07 was supposed to supply some £60 million and 2007-08 is targetted to beat that combined total and raise £149 million in cold, hard cash.

That's a quarter of a billion pounds of council assets being flogged off - don't you think we have a right to know more? Don't you think that the Liberal Democrats should stand up and defend a policy that they helped to push through and that their local leaders have personally championed?
Or are the disciplines of government too much for them?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The end of the world.

Here I am, stuck in the 21st century with no way back... hidden away like an
embarrassing family secret.
Quotes from Nigel's blog, but actually about his decision to throw away his vinyl LPs and go completely digital.

They could also be about his current outburst, harking back to an early age when the Tories were the nasty party and 'Enoch Powell was right.' Ironically, Nigel cites Bob Marley and UB40 as musical influences, so perhaps he was indulging in something other than alcohol - too much Red Red Wine, perhaps?

Should we be surprised? Only a few weeks back, Nigel was hinting at support for a return to the old days when we'd hang people.

Before the abolition of capital punishment, murderers were hanged. They didn’t return to haunt us 12 years later claiming their human rights have been breached because we don’t want them in this country any more... Before they abolished the death penalty, the legal system was there to protect law-abiding citizens. Criminals were treated with the contempt they deserved. The idea that they had “human rights” beyond the very bare minimum would have been laughed out of court. Today, it’s the murderers who come first... When they abolished capital punishment, the Labour Government of the day promised that a life sentence would mean just that.
Ah - the fresh air of the 1950s blasting into modern politics and he even manages to blame Labour for the end of executions. It's probably our fault that we stopped doing them in public. But there's more

European-wide human rights were only introduced because most of the EU states endured brutal dictatorships during the 20th century.We didn’t, so there was never any need for such protection here. Labour gave us human rights anyway.
Human rights, incidentally, formulated largely by Conservative lawyers after the Second World War. I'd take issue with human rights being 'introduced' - some may argue that they were previously restricted, rather than being a new idea.

Oh, but there's more.

Our politically correct PCs in their patrol cars are just glorified social workers only too happy to hug a hoodie
No, Nigel - that was Dave. Your leader? Remember?

So, demanding the return of capital punishment, being anti-EU, anti-Human Rights - so far, so old Tory. What about the smoking ban? He's agin it.

We never voted for this epoch-making change. We were never even consulted. Yet here we are facing up to the fact that from now on, our lives will change fundamentally.
And yet,

It is difficult to make a convincing case against the smoking ban except to assert the dubious merits of personal liberty. I end up saying I should be allowed to kill myself in my own way without the interference of the State.
Whereas there is a striking case to be made for the health of the workers who are subjected to people's smoke in pubs and restaurants - not least that there has already been a drop in related illnesses where the ban has been in force for a while.

Nigel has form for dropping bricks that hurt his party, though.

In 2001, I had my own brief experience as a victim of Blair's media manipulation.Alastair Campbell provided him with a series of quotes from an article I wrote. They were partial and highly-selective but deployed in the House of Commons they were able briefly to wrong-foot William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party.It was a humiliating time for me. And while for everyone else it was a brief moment in the passing show, it’s something I’ve had to live with ever since. Even now, it gets brought up and used against me.
Well, let's remind you of what the then PPC for Edgbaston, prior to the accession of the Blessed Deirdre, was quoted as saying by Tony

Yesterday, Mr. Hastilow said: For many voters and most of the media, the Conservative Party is a lost cause. On the economy, Mr. Hastilow--should we call him Nigel?--provided the answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he said that we've never had it so good . . . people are prospering, unemployment is falling, interest rates are low. There's nothing much to worry about. Mr. Hastilow provides a rather more accurate summary of the economy than does the Leader of the Opposition
Funny that a former editor of the Birmingham Post can be so incautious about what he says, really. You would have thought that of all people, he'd know better.

He still finds time to lay into politically correct attitudes as well

This is good news for the rest of us as there is only one thing worse than being an oppressed minority in Blair’s Britain. And that is not being an oppressed minority. And under the age discrimination laws, we will all be members of an oppressed minority except blokes of 37. Moslems are using the latest terrorism scare to issue new demands and no doubt our Government will bend over backwards to accommodate them. Yet, actually, most members of ethnic minority groups have never had it so good. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class, middle-aged man I am in the unusual position of being in the most discriminated-against group of all.
So, should we be surprised when Mr Hastilow makes comments like these in print?

When you ask most people in the Black Country what the single biggest problem facing the country is, most say immigration.
Many insist: 'Enoch Powell was right'. Enoch, once MP for Wolverhampton South-West, was sacked from the Conservative front bench and marginalised politically for his 1968 'rivers of blood' speech, warning that uncontrolled immigration would change our country irrevocably. He was right. It has changed dramatically... They have more or less given up complaining about the way we roll out the red carpet for foreigners while leaving the locals to fend for themselves.

He's a throwback - and should be chucked straight back into the pond by the party. Powell was wrong on this issue - he knew exactly what he was saying, but made an intemperate speech that fired up the far right in this country.

Hastilow clearly hasn't learnt that if you keeping blowing dog whistles, you can't complain if the hounds pursue you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Just a little prick

There are some things that just make life easier - an ethical roadmap, if you will.

Last week, it was announced that a new vaccine to protect against cervical cancer would be offered to 12 year old girls at school. This struck me as an eminently sensible idea, as it could save 500-600 lives each year, as almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and this vaccine will protect against the strains that cause 70% of those cases.

But, there's always someone who thinks that saving those lives isn't really important. (From the Evening Mail, 26/10/7)
A spokesman warned the vaccination programme would encourage young people to have more sex, reduce condom use and lead to more teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. National director Stephen Green predicted girls would be given the vaccine "behind their parents' backs". He said: "Since the vaccine works best before the onset of sexual activity, they will be treating these girls, to put it bluntly, like tarts, saying they expect them to be sexually incontinent, lacking in self-respect and the basic morality required to keep their virginity. The message is one of despair, disrespect and low expectations. Anyone giving this drug to a girl is telling her: 'I think you are a slag'."
Oh - hello Stephen, self-appointed spokesmoron for a tiny number of religious bigots. This man must need regular supplies of oxygen, such is the height of his moral ground. Fortunately, if he's opposed to something, there's a reasonable chance that I'm on the other side.

This is the same man who described the blanket ban on abortion imposed in Nicaragua as heroic. An alternative view (from the godless, liberal Grauniad) begs to differ on an heroic law that forbids abortion in all cases - including rape, incest or life-threatening conditions. An heroic law that has so far seen the deaths of at least 82 women in a year, including Maria.

During a visit to Managua in February she felt unwell and visited a hospital. The news was devastating. She was pregnant - and it was ectopic, meaning the foetus was growing outside the womb and not viable. The longer González remained pregnant, the greater the risk of rupture, haemorrhaging and death.

What González did next was - when you understand what life in Nicaragua is like these days - utterly rational. She walked out of the hospital, past the obstetrics and gynaecological ward, past the clinics and pharmacies lining the avenues, packed her bag, kissed her aunts goodbye, and caught a bus back to her village. She summoned two neighbouring women - traditional healers - and requested that they terminate the pregnancy in her shack. Without anaesthetic or proper instruments it was more akin to mutilation than surgery, but González insisted. The haemhorraging was intense, and the agony can only be imagined. It was in vain. Maria died. "We heard there was a lot of blood, a lot of pain," says Esperanza Zeledon, 52, one of the Managua aunts.

What makes it even worse is that an ectopic pregnancy is one of the few legal reasons for termination - as the foetus is not in the womb. Sadly, so few doctors understand this or are prepared to risk prosecution. With that sort of track record, Stephen isn't perhaps the best man to provide medical advice. He even ties the new vaccines into the myths about MMR, which have sustained even through detailed scrutiny of vaccinated children.

Actually, an argument that it isn't safe would be sustainable, but that's not Stephen's main thrust. (Ahem.) He reckons that giving the vaccine will encourage young people to have sex.

It has been a number of years since I was young, but I remain to be convinced that the young need encouragement to have sex. Look Steve - leave this to the grown-ups, you continue with your inexplicable campaign against homosexuality.

As I said, a handy moral compass.

See also the hilarious Nadine Dorries, who has become so frit that she's scrapped one of the defining elements of any blog - the comments. (Much like Deirdre Alden has done - can't risk anyone disagreeing with a leading light of the Tombstone group, can we?).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stirring

The Stirrer broke the news of a very awkward audit report into the Enterprising Communities project across Nechells, Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Washwood Heath and Sparkhill. It is fair to say that his release of that information caused panic amongst the Hall Green constituency officers, somewhat akin to the sewage impacting the air conditioning.

The report had been carefully buried since it was produced in June, with those seeking to view it being required to make an appointment and FoI requests being directed through Audit prior to release.

I've seen a copy of the report now and it makes for deeply uncomfortable reading.

Even the fact that the auditor can only give the ECP a 'limited' assurance rating is serious, as that means that there is a significant risk, which requires real improvements to be made urgently and that there are inadequate controls in place to meet objectives and that they arenot being applied consistently. This is the second-worst outcome and is a strong indicator that processes and procedures need to be tightened up to avoid serious problems.

Booked

The Library of Birmingham hasn't appeared on the radar for a few months now, but a while back, Whitless announced that Plan D? E? F? (I lost count) was the new kid on the block.


Plan A, you might remember, was the original Labour proposal for Eastside, which was making good progress prior to the 2004 election and the accession of the Regressive Partnership, whose aversion to all things Labour knew no bounds. Plan A therefore bit the dust - scrapping a plan with a design and a site, with moves advanced towards developing funding. Indeed, a review cited it as the option with the best chance of securing PFI funding.


After much consideration, Plan B was launched - the much-ridiculed split site library. With no business case behind it, this unsurprisingly fell at the PFI credit hurdle in 2005. 2006 saw Plan C being floated, which involved scrapping the Arena Central redevelopment (alongside an equally half-baked plot to put the whole thing into Baskerville House - which was too small and had just been expensively redeveloped by a private sector company). That came to nothing and another proposal was raised at the start of this year. This latest idea is to go with a new-build library sited on Centenary Square, attached to the Birmingham Rep, with nine storeys above ground and a further four beneath.

The City Council went through an 'Options Appraisal' rubber-stamping exercise to justify the original decision to scrap the Labour Eastside plan. That did consider the Centenary Square site - both as a minimum cost option and as a prestige build. It has some good points -
It is near enough to the present site that the existing patterns of use would be little disturbed by the relocation. There could be the opportunity to build an attractive landmark building on this site which could strengthen the Library’s image as one of the city's major cultural institutions, and therefore to draw in new users.
However...
There is, however, a serious concern about the site capacity. It would appear impossible to fit the library onto the site even using the land to the rear of the Cambridge Street car park.
Oh dear.

More importantly, there are other issues - the document specifically warns that the size of the site might make achieving the BS5454 archiving standards impossible as it might be difficult to separate functions in the way that the British Standards guidelines require. These are standards that most public collections are working towards - but not Birmingham, it would appear - despite the international importance of the materials currently sitting under the leaking pipes in the Central Library. The options appraisal reckoned that it might even take two buildings to make the site work in any way, which only revives the problems of Plan B.

Splitting the library functions between this site and the land to the rear of the Cambridge Street car park, would cause difficulties for users wishing to use material in both parts of the library. It would also mean that any potential savings from the more efficient operation of a new building could be jeopardised by the extra maintenance, delivery and security costs of two buildings.

The Centenary Square option didn't even make the shortlist of the Appraisal, so I think it is a fair question as to why it has been revived. There are technical issues with the site - it would need sub-basements and there are known problems there with the water table, as well as a nearby rail tunnel.

The whole process has been nothing short of a joke, which is a tragedy given the importance of the issue.

Predictably, the chain of incompetence continues. At the Cabinet meeting which rubber-stamped the decision, Albert Bore pointed out the glaring holes in the 'funding plans' (sic), whereby gains from the redevelopment of the Arena Central site had already been allocated to the extension of the Metro.

That wasn't the best of it, though. There's still a £39 million gap in the funding, which the City Council will have to underwrite. So, what plans are in place to fill this (assuming that PFI and the other plans all come together)? The director of Planning and Regeneration explained that he expected planned land sales to deliver, or there was always the alternative of 'serendipity.'

In short - Clive Dutton (for it is he) is hanging his hopes that something will turn up to chuck £39 million into the accounts to cover the costs.

I tried that on my bank manager when I asked for an extension of my mortgage. He didn't buy it.

Frankly, that kind of comment from a senior council officer is disgraceful and it is even more unacceptable that nobody seems to have challenged it. Compare and contrast with two years ago..
Cabinet leisure, sport and culture member John Alden said the consequences of pushing ahead with a new library without securing a deliverable funding package would be catastrophic. Coun Alden (Con Harborne) added: "We do not have unlimited capital. If we cannot make the new library sustainable for future generations we are providing a maintenance timebomb."
Scrutiny have called in the decision and perhaps we can hope for some common sense from them. I'm not holding my breath, mind you.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A nation mourns

We will sadly miss the opportunity to see John Hemming contesting the Liberal Democrat leadership election. In a survey of 20% of the parliamentary party, he could only find one fellow MP nutty enough to support him (he was assured of the 200 or so party member nominations).

The rules allowing MPs to nominate more than one candidate were changed after the last leadership election.

Wonder why that was?

Still, at least he'll have more time to focus on his Westminster career once he leaves the council next May.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lib Dem Spinning Lies

Whenever I've heard a Liberal Democrat on the radio or TV today, they've been anxious to point out how much they all adored Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes in particular has been blaming the media for Ming's shock decision to go.

This is frankly beyond belief.

As I noted yesterday, I don't doubt that if Ming had wanted to go, he would have announced the decision himself, rather than disappearing off back to Scotland and abandoning his colleagues to the press pack. Somebody - and the finger of suspicion points towards Huhne - told him that the game was up and that if he didn't do the decent thing, then the party would face a repeat of the Kennedy debacle. That's when Campbell decided that a quick exit would be more becoming than a slow death - although he remains 'irritated' by the course of events and, I suspect, by the lack of loyalty and support from his front bench team.

If it had been his choice to go, why spend the weekend with the party faithful proclaiming your intention to fight on until the next election?

Their problems are far deeper and won't be solved by replacing the man at the top. Unusually, I agree with Iain Dale that the best hope of the Liberal Democrats sustaining any kind of reasonably-sized parliamentary party is to seek an immediate return of Charlie Kennedy. He has a public profile and level of trust unmatched by any other Liberal Democrat.

They won't do it.

Soundings of silence

Hat tip to Tom Watson for leaking this letter from Cllr Hemming to his Liberal Democrat parliamentary colleagues. You may now laugh yourselves silly. The online betting companies aren't evening offering odds on John winning. They will offer odds on Simon Hughes winning - and he's ruled himself out.

Dear Colleague,

It surprised me just as much as anyone else when Ming resigned yesterday. We must thank Ming for the way in which he brought stability and improved the professionalism of the party although we still have further to go.

Unsurprisingly I am interested in putting myself forward for Party Leader. I am writing this note as a “position statement”. The reason I wish to stand is to be able to argue, and potentially implement, a particular strategy for the party.

The first point I will make is that we as a party must retain our system of involving party members in the determination of policy direction. I do not think all the detail should go through such a process. However, I do believe that anyone wishing to lead should first persuade the party and then persuade the country.

However, anyone wishing to lead has a responsibility to put forward the basis of the direction in which they wish to take the party.

The first question that is asked is about the Left/Right Axis. This demonstrates a oversimplification of politics. Politics is multi dimensional. One of the dimensions (which predominates the left-right axis), is whether a party stands in the interests of the poorer and weaker members of society or whether the party is moreso standing in the interests of the rich. Historically the party has been the champion of the economically weak without being in the pockets of the Trades Unions. This position has been rightly described as centrist. It would be wrong for the party to move away from this position. We must champion the interests of those struggling to cope – now a wide swathe of society.

Under New Labour life has become nastier for many people. Crime, financial troubles and debt and quality of life has deteriorated. We should clearly argue for quality of life and away from a numerical perspective. The Treasury has argued that policy should be determined by valuing options financially. We should argue for people to have the power to determine their own situation based on an assessment of quality of life. This is, in fact, another dimension of politics where we can stand alone against Labour and Conservatives

A third dimension in which we can create a distinction between our approach and that of the other parties is that of Deontology vs Consequentialism. Consequentialism, where the ends justify the means, has developed a stronger hold in the UK in recent years. On issues such as BAE and the Natwest 3 we should continue to argue that things should be done the right way (Deontology). Colleagues will be aware of some of my work in Public Family Law where Consequentialism holds sway and hundreds of people are imprisoned in secret every year. We should, however, review our approach to ensure a consistency here. Strict liability offences where there is no mens rea do cause difficulties from this perspective and how that operates to affect people should be thought through. We must also stick by our manifesto commitment to offer a referendum on the European Reform Treaty.

We do, however, need to reflect this in ensuring greater accountability in politics. That means that we should be looking to make sure that ministers actually answer questions. The UK is governed in a way that is like looking in the mirror at the car crash that happened a couple of years ago in the hope of not having a crash today. Unless we can get accountable government that will never change. We, therefore, should commit ourselves to not being part of any coalition government in the event that parliament is balanced. That will deliver a movement of power to parliament from the Executive.

A fourth dimension relates to international politics. The adventurism in Iraq arose from an acceptance of the ideas of Neocolonialism. We should stand against this. That does not mean that we should not trumpet the ideals of Liberal Democracy. However, we must resist the arrogance of neocolonialism and the assumption that military force will achieve lasting political change. That will involve the recognition that the strategy in Afghanistan is flawed and needs to change to a less military solution. We can easily win the war, but winning the peace becomes harder with every Afghani death.

The Environmental Strategy of the party remains a good one. I think we have got the green taxes strategy right. Personally I feel that “peak oil” will be an issue of developing importance that will need to be addressed by all parties. However, on this practical dimension I think we have the right direction.

We must not move away from localism. That does mean not trying to impose central policymaking on local council groups as some have been tempted to do. That is a recipe for disaster. The leadership needs to work more closely with our local government and devolution groups.

The above paragraphs relate to a political strategy and a political positioning. That positioning is not only the correct one, but also one that can be electorally popular. We do, however, need to persuade the electors that our political strategy is right.

We must make sure in our campaigning in parliament that we are talking about things that matter to the British People. Hospital Infection, Crime, Education and quality of life are all things that matter. We need, however, to aim to set the agenda as well as get into an agenda set by others. Frequently we have been too timid in not taking the risk of aiming to set the agenda. We do need to be professional about identifying the issues that concern people and making our position clear.

Everyone has been surprised by Ming’s resignation. The timetable set for a replacement in my view is too short. I have written this note as part of my soundings to find out what support exists for the above political thesis.

I am one of the few Members of Parliament who have the practical experience of having successfully led a political group from opposition to a position of power (in Birmingham). On issues of diversity I have delivered. As far as extra parliamentary considerations are concerned I am almost certainly the only successful entrepreneur in the parliamentary party that is also a member of a Trades Union. I will be taking soundings following this position statement.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Campbell in the soup (again)

I know I forecast that Ming wouldn't make it to New Year, but I did think he'd survive the weekend.

This time, the end was swift and relatively painless for the Liberal Democrats. No repeat of the elongated assassination of Kennedy - the plotters and the backroom boys have got the hang of this now.

At lunchtime, Vince Cable popped up on BBC Radio to tell us that the leadership was under discussion, but `
'I don't think it's under threat and I think the key point for all our activists and MPs and lords is that we shouldn't panic in what is a very volatile political environment.'

Within hours, Vince had reversed his position.
'There was a very open debate about this immediately that Gordon Brown made his decision to postpone the election. I think he took a fresh look at where he stood ... and decided the best thing he could do in the interests of the party was to step aside.'
Curiously, for a proud and (actually) rather respected man, Ming didn't announce the decision himself, but left it up to Simon 'Backstabber' Hughes and Vince 'Undertaker' Cable, suggesting that it might not have been as voluntary as the Cowley Street spin would have you believe. Perhaps Ming was given the opportunity to do the decent thing - the old-fashioned revolver left conveniently on the desk (the traditional bottle of whiskey having been removed following an unfortunate accident involving the previous incumbent) and a trust that the man would know what he had to do.

So, who will succeed him (a most unfortunate term in view of the Liberal Democrat poll standings)? Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg are the immediate front runners, although the party should have one eye on Huhne's exceedingly narrow majority in the face of a Tory revival. Simon Hughes may decide to have another pop at it and there's even talk of Charlie Kennedy rising from the dead to give it a run.

But, as last time, PoliticalHack can only throw his support behind one man - the time has come for the Liberal Democrat party to elect John Hemming as leader.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sharpen those knives kids!

Gordon may have denied us a general election, but a leadership change is definitely in the offing.
'The leader obviously has to do better, get better at getting the message across better, at getting the policy out better.'

No, not against Gordon, but Ming the Useless is apparently considering relaunching his leadership of the Liberal Democrats for the 392nd time and Simon Hughes is loyally backing him (right up until the opportunity presents itself for the knife to go in). This is a ship that appears to be holed below the waterline and is taking on water as fast as it is shedding voters. With the Lib Dems foundering in the polls at around 12% - which if replicated across the country would lead to a complete wipe-out of the parliamentary party. An unlikely event, but a lovely dream for many in both major parties. It certainly signals a major reversal for the Lib Dems at the next parliamentary election. As it happens, I'm not sure that replacing the leader will do the job. I suspect that the Lib Dems have performed the role of a safe receptacle for protest votes for the past decade. Now, the political weather has changed so that it is clear that fence-sitting will not be an option come the next election. Both Labour and Tory voters who may have drifted in the past will return to their natural homes and I continue to believe that the Liberal Democrats will find themselves seriously reduced at the next election - regardless of who leads them.

Just like December 2005, the briefers are out and about spreading the poison around for Campbell. History is just repeating itself now and I wonder if he'll make it into the New Year before the parliamentary party decide to no-confidence him.

Just as it did for Charlie, the clock is ticking. Everywhere he goes, Campbell now understands what he did to Kennedy and how insidious it really is. What goes around, comes around, Ming.

Not the New Nationalist Party

Sharon Ebanks, late of the BNP and briefly a member of Birmingham City Council has announced that she's retiring from politics and disbanding the New Nationalist Party - the splinter group of the BNP that she founded following her treatment by the leadership of that party (they ran a campaign to raise funds to back her obviously untenable legal fight and then tried to backtrack on the deal to hand over the money - they later surrendered and paid up).

Check out her website (work it out for yourselves, I don't link to far-right sites). Hat tip to Gary Sambrook (Brummie Tory) for the news - as he said in the email, one of the few occasions that he and I will agree.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What kind of week has it been?

Bloody awful.

It took a few years for the 'Blair's Worst Week' headlines to appear. Gordon's done it in a few months.

Now, I don't believe that this is anything like the end for Gordon. I'm confident that he can recover and that when the next election comes, we will defeat the Tories. It will take some work and some time for the public memory to subside, but today's headlines are but tomorrow's chip-wrappers. If he can return to the pre-conference helmsmanship, the ship can be steadied and steered away from the rocky shoals.

The Tory conference - Gideon in particular, but rounded off by the fine performance from Cameron - killed off the chances of an election this autumn. They haven't had a week that good in years, so full marks to them for that return. Everyone was expecting a Tory implosion at the conference, but the election speculation forced unity upon them. They've done well, but they had a series of open goals left for them - opportunities that they have missed consistently over the past decade.

The culmination was PMQs this week, where Gordon was given a thorough kicking by David Cameron, a very bloody affair, with the Tories in full cry in pursuit of Labour. I thought we'd banned blood sports. It wasn't an edifying sight, with Dave in full-on Bullingdon mode taunting the oiks across the chamber, putting the lie to a Cameron commitment to a more mature style of opposition
If David Cameron wins the Tory leadership on Tuesday, he is seeking a less adversarial style of politics, he says. The yah-boo is so yesterday. And not just at Prime Minister's Questions..

Gordon's treatment of the press over the past week has been unwise - he only took a couple of journos with him to Iraq and gave Andy Marr the exclusive on the election postponement, with the result that the media pack turned on his misfortune. If this isn't sorted, we'll be in real trouble - we can cope with a neutral media, but we don't need the press opposing us and helping to set poor political weather.

There are good things to draw from the week. Darling knocked the Tories' inheritance tax plans firmly on the head - they are now the party who want to extend an IHT tax cut to the almost-millionaires. It also seems very clear that the Iraq mess is going to be consigned to history over the next twelve months.

While the Tories have had a good week, their success is fragile. Remember how rapidly they fell to pieces under pressure over grammar schools? Can this new-found unity be sustained over the course of the next eighteen months in the run up to the election? Can they sort out some policies?

And then there's the Lib Dems, who have seemed but a minor irritation this week and are increasingly likely to turn in on themselves as Ming once again comes under pressure from those in his party who think that they would be better served under a new, younger leader. But as I say, they are irrelevant at the moment - their polling figures are swinging wildly between figures that would retur four Lib Dem MPs and others that would see a complete wipe-out.

So, let's take a step back from this superheated explosion. Things will calm down in time. Gordon can recover this situation and for the sake of the party and the country, I hope he gets a grip quickly.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

And relax...

I'm not sure what to feel.

Part of me is relieved - I've not been enthusiastic about an autumn election as I'm not convinced that the Labour vote (notoriously soft) will turn out in the wind and the rain and the dark. It does look a little like cutting and running at the most convenient time (although the Tories were demanding that Gordon go to the country back when he ascended to No 10). It was always going to be a risky job at the best of times and it would have been a thoroughly rushed job.

On the other hand, when this all kicked off seriously over conference week, we were riding high in the polls, Gordon was personally popular (this would have been the Vote Gordon election, make no mistake) and the party was increasingly up for it.

Gordon is going to have to weather a particularly rough week. The consolation is that it will get better - people will forget. We're still in government and we still have the chance to do great things.

It does make a change of leadership more likely in the Liberal Democrats - will Ming fancy stumbling on until 2009 or can we expect the knives to be out (again) towards the end of the year, in what is becoming a traditional biennial event?

There are even rumblings from the Tories. Cameron did well this week and looks very solid on TV tonight, but my source at the Tory conference says that the faithful were dutifully deferent to him, but he was not as well received as others who are also being talked about as potential leaders, like Chris Grayling or even William Hague. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the next bump in Tory fortunes could see Dave deciding to spend more time with his money.

I remain convinced that we would have won it, but at least this way, it gives those of us in the marginals the chance to have a pop at the opposition. We need our candidates selected and standing up for Labour in every constituency. Onwards!

Members Voice

In a move that ensures party involvement and also minimises the opportunity for complaint, I've learnt that in seats without a selected candidate, swift selection meetings will be held this week if the Boss decides to hit the button on Tuesday. Apparently Gordon is keen to ensure that members are involved in the process and that the party's national executive committee doesn't have to impose too many candidates.

Still no news on a decision - my personal view is that he will go for it. I think we are too far down the road now to stop. Everything is as ready as it can be, so I think on Tuesday, we will get the announcements of the comprehensive spending review, the pre-budget report and then Gordon will nip off to see HM.

I'm also putting a sly bet that his announcement of troop withdrawals from Iraq on Monday might be more dramatic than we expect. Another thousand to leave by Christmas, with a planned complete withdrawal over the course of the next twelve months?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Blue bounce

Not a bad response from the polls for what has been a successful Tory conference. Cameron threw some raw meat to the right wing with the promises over inheritance tax and the EU treaty/constitution (*delete according to personal preference). The best that Labour can look at now is something between level pegging on 38% from the Guardian and a 3-4% lead elsewhere. Either is still enough for a majority for Labour, but would you want to bet the farm on those figures?

Is it enough to stop the election train thundering down the track? I'm not sure that it is.

I'll be interested to see what the weekend polls have to offer us once the initial Tory gains have settled. Although the fieldwork for these polls was carried out in the immediate aftermath of the Cameron speech, I can't rule out further gains for the Tories if the message sinks in and is received positively. Equally, this might be as good as it gets for them. I suspect that if the message from the marginal polling is good and the national polls offer up a 5% lead, then we're still on.

Gordon is slated to announce the long-awaited CrossRail project in London - the biggest construction project in northern Europe and we've still got the public spending round to cover on Monday. Whether he might decide to sit on a decision until later in the week to see how the media covers that story and whether there are more positives in the polling is a possibility - although that would rule out a 1st November election. Saturday 3 or Sunday 4 have been rumoured as possibilities, as has Nov 8. I doubt very much whether he'd want to go much further than that, so if it hasn't been called by Tuesday week, then we're on hold until next year at the earliest.

The alternative is to wait. Sure, the Tories would slam Gordon for 'bottling it' - but that would be a minor irritation for a few weeks. I doubt they could continue to make hay over it once the spring rolls round. He does have a couple of get-out clauses. If it were to be briefed out that the current problems with the post made the idea of an election with a significant number of postal votes and direct mailings impractical, or that he had listened to the civil servants' concerns about going before the new register is up and running, then that might help to defuse things.

Waiting has a downside. Lord Ashcroft is pumping money into the key marginals across the country and that has a cumulative effect, allowing effective campaigning from the Tories all year round. Going now reduces the likely effect and commits the Tories to another four or five years of graft. Also, being cynical - are the polls going to get any better? As has been pointed out, politicians are at the mercy of events and while Gordon has weathered the initial storms exceptionally well - indeed has been strengthened by the trials - that might not always be the case. Things are good right now - how will they look in eight months or two years? The Tories are still not fully ready to fight - now's the ideal time to defeat them before they can assemble something resembling a coherent policy. The LDs are in disarray, with polls as low as 13% (which underestimates their election performance), but if they are allowed to replace Ming (who is looking tired), then a fresh, new leader could change all that. That might even serve Labour, as the LDs are better placed in a number of Tory seats, particularly in the south east.

The upsides of waiting are also there - nobody wants to be out campaigning as the nights draw in and it is questionable whether the Labour vote will turn out in sufficient numbers as they might do in a spring round. A number of seats have yet to reselect - Hazel Blears, the little chipmunk of Salford, is still formally without a seat - and many local parties simply aren't where they need to be to get on with the job.

We'll see after the weekend.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Nice performance, shame about the song

The party trick of doing a speech without notes is impressive - although Tom Watson queries quite how spontaneous the speech was, given that journalists were thoroughly briefed in advance.

We had the sly little dig at Gordon's pronunciation of Bournemouth - because there's nothing funnier than a rich kid having a go at someone born without his advantages. How my sides nearly split. You smug little git. (That may not have been quite the phrase I used, but I'm a little less splenetic in print).


Oi - Whitless! Get with the programme! Your big mate Dave has spoken:
I believe it's time in our big cities for elected mayors, so people have one person to blame if it goes wrong and to praise if it goes right


Dave's an optimist. He's going to withdraw from the Social Chapter and rely on business responsibility

we need business to be responsible in the way they market to children, in the way they treat their employees, in the way they encourage family life - all of those things will help us to get tax and regulation down for the long term good of our economy
There's a non-sequitur. The lesson of history is that businesses exist to make money and, by and large, they only do what they legally have to. The minimum wage, the new laws guaranteeing every employee a minimum 24 days' holiday a year (soon to rise to 28), time off for dependents, extended maternity leave - all of these have been brought about through legislation. Many of them have been fought all the way by the Tories - the ones who opposed the minimum wage.

He paid his dues to the swivel-eyed nutters who demand immediate withdrawal from the EU and probably a return to the Gold Standard and Imperial Measures, with a promise to campaign for a no vote on a putative referendum on the EU treaty. Dave's already had the experience of putting himself in hock to the Europhobic wing of the Tory party with that promise to withdraw from the EPP grouping in the European Parliament and to make common cause with the bigots of the even-further-right. But he's not afraid to take a step further - the Human Rights Act has to go. Don't worry that the origins of the HRA lie in post-war Europe when a group of jurists (a fair few of them committed Conservatives) drew up the original convention. Don't worry that all the HRA does is bring into UK law the articles of the European Convention (drawn up by those Tories, don't forget) and allow them to be used in British courts, rather than having to rely on them being taken to Strasbourg. And don't worry that in 1997, the British people voted for the HRA - it was a manifesto commitment of the Labour Party. None of that matters when it comes to finding a whipping boy for the ills of the country - the HRA will do for that.


And then, Lord above, Dave - the leading light of the Bullingdon Club, that Oxford society of rich twits devoted to drinking and smashing up restaurants - talks about discipline in schools.
And I stopped a boy as he was running into his GCSE exam and I said 'What's the problem?' and he said 'Well, I got completely pissed last night, I've got a hangover and I'm going to flunk this exam'.
'I know how you feel,' I said. 'I remember parties like that at Oxford.'
(That may not be an exact transcript).

if a head teacher wants to exclude a pupil ... they should be able to do so, the appeals panels have got to go.

Oh look at Freedom Dave running roughshod over the concept of natural justice. If a head teacher wants your child out of school, then tough.


Then there's the little lie highlighted by Devil's Kitchen, but repeated by Cameron
the Thames barrier meant to be lifted once every six years, is now being lifted six times a year.


DK referred to Factchecking Polyanna

In fact, the barrier had to close six times in 1990, and not at all in 1991. Nine times in 1993 and only once in 1994. Only twice in 2004 and 2005, though this comes after 18 times in 2003.

Onwards.

But you know it is more cynical than that. Boy has this guy got a plan. It's to appeal to that 4% of people in marginal seats. With a dog whistle on immigration there and a word about crime here, wrap yourself up in the flag and talk about Britishness enough times and maybe, just maybe, you can convince enough people that you are on their side. Well I say, God we've got to be better than that.
Well, you weren't back in 2005, were you?


Although he talks as though he understands the green agenda, the speech gives us nothing but vacuous promises. He praises single parents for the job they do, but still promises to prioritise the two parent family. Lots on the NHS, from the party that spent two decades running the whole operation into the ground.


That's a recurrent theme during the speech - detail on key Tory touchstones, but generalities at best. For sheer guts, you have to admire his unmitigated gall:
I went to a fantastic school and I'm not embarrassed about that because I had a great education and I know what a great education means. And knowing what a great education means there is a better chance of getting it for all of our children

Floreat Etona indeed. Yes, Dave reckons that his experience at Eton enables him to understand how the state system works.

In summary - great performance, wonderful spin, but little real substance to sustain those outside the Tory faithful.

Of course, the real question is has it done enough to stave off a general election? The first polls should start hitting within the next few hours, but we probably aren't going to see if there's a Cameron effect until the weekend. Even if there is, I suspect that we are now too far down the road for Gordon to back away without looking nervous.

The game's afoot.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An artist at work

Today's Guardian carries a reminder of the power of oratory as it took us back to the October revolution of 1985, when Neil Kinnock launched into the disgrace that was the Militant Tendency in Liverpool.

He reminded us that electoral victory is not achieved
'by pious faith or by dreams... [but by] working for it, planning for it, organising for it.'

'We know that power without principles is ruthless, sour, empty, vicious... We also know that principle without power is idle sterility.'


There are some senior politicians who would do well to revisit the lyricism, passion and rhetoric demonstrated by Neil, one of our great political speakers. Everybody else, remember those words as we head up towards the election. Whenever it comes, be ready, because we're in for a fight, no matter what the polls say.

Together we'll win it.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Bad math

The fightback starts here, so says Little Lord Daveyboy.

Indeed.

First to the barricades are the 6% who currently pay inheritance tax. Well, they would be if they weren't inconveniently dead and thus unable to vote (*different rules may apply in Northern Ireland). Yes, if the Tories win, the top 5% or so of estates can look forward to exemption from IHT under the new £1 million pound limit. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to find much sympathy for kids collecting on their parents' hard work. I'm more bothered by the kids whose parents' life expectancy is shortened by living in poverty and who can't expect to be left £1,000, let alone a million.

Homebuyers get an exemption on their stamp duty up to £250,000 - which won't buy much in the Home Counties and the Tories' policies on building new houses anywhere else (in short, they're opposed to it) means that there isn't an awful lot to buy.

All of the giveaways total some £3.5 billion, but this will be revenue neutral, so that the shortfall in public spending (to support those useless things like hospitals and schools) will be made up by taxing the super-rich who are non-domiciled in the UK for tax reasons. There are 150,000 non-doms, of whom around 114,000 are reckoned to be rich enough to qualify for this special tax payment to stop taxation on their foreign income. The Treasury reckon that there are only around 14,000 people for whom this payment actually makes financial sense, which could reduce the tax take still further. Above all, remember that these are the people with the nous and the resources to avoid the best tax lawyers in the business. If they can avoid paying £25,000 to the government of any hue, they will.

In the end, Gideon has promised to steal from the rich to give to the only-rather-well-off (while shafting those unfit to work just for the hell of it). While that may appeal to the core Tory vote, I can't see it grabbing the vote of the average man or woman in Birmingham. Especially not when you explain that all that investment in their local school or that nice new hospital may have to go so the upper middle class don't get stung for tax when their parents pop off.

Meanwhile, The Devil's Kitchen slices n'dices a Tory presentation, highlighting some factual inaccuracies - or lies, as I prefer to call them. Kerron Cross reminds us that the Tories really are lodged firmly in the 1980s with their Pacman-alike game. Iain Dale, predictably, rates Gideon's speech highly. I thought it was pretty poorly-delivered, to be honest (and there are a number of Labour figures who need to put in some practice as well) and wowing a Tory conference by promising tax cuts is about as challenging as impressing monkeys with a card trick.

Actually, the best speech I've seen so far was William Hague yesterday - once the socialist gremlins had been expelled from the sound system. If he would consider a return to the top job, then I think Gordon would be nervous, but Dave is just too lightweight to pose a threat.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Betting frenzy

Ladbrokes have apparently suspended betting on the date of the next election.

Betfair are less squeamish and are keeping going.

Some little while ago, the US government had to suspend a betting market on international events, which was running as an experiment to distill received wisdom into a usable intelligence product. In the same way, reading the runes from those betting in the online market, an election is forecast in the next quarter. Labour will win and both Cameron and Campbell will be gone from their leaderships by Christmas. Gordon isn't expected to resign until some time after 2011.

I'm increasingly of the view that we are on for Nov 1 unless something happens to stop it.

Meeting The Boss






This conference was all about The Boss. I'm fully expecting Gordon - The Movie as one of the Party Election Broadcasts, mimicking the famous 1987 PEB featuring Neil Kinnock. Gordon was desperate to show that he had a sense of humour, so regularly recycled his carefully scripted stories. These included a story of Mark Twain visiting a frontier town and saying that it was no place for a Puritan and 'I did not long remain one' - used to describe his experience of attending Edinburgh University at the age of just 16 and discovering a haven for gambling and drinking.






Mandy welcomes Gordon to the conference





'Demon Eyes' Mandy at a fringe meeting on the EU and Billy Bragg greets visitors to the blog.



It seems to be a universal truth that the quality of the food and drink at fringe meetings is directly related to how left-wing the meeting is. The pro-smoking people, FOREST, were offering champagne, while the Cuban solidarity campaign offered no nibbles and a small amount of rum. The level of socialist fraternal solidarity decreased noticeably as the rum ran out.


Some imaginative soul sketched the slogan shown left on the beach, demanding that Labour keeps the promise of a referendum on the EU constitution.

Paxo stuffing


Paxo gets delegates and visitors to predict the date of the next election. Martin Salter MP has a go sticking a pin into the board. I did overhear the Great Man (Jezza, not Martin) suggesting that an election might be an 'inconvenience.'

Snippets 1




Down on the cliffside amongst the meejah.
Conference attracts more journalists and media hangers-on than I thought possible.

Spreading the love with Jacqui Smith

One of the best sessions at conference was the Justice and Crime seminar, with virtually the entire Justice and Home Office ministerial teams present. In response to a comment from the Prisons Minister, who explained that the chances of reoffending were reduced if the prisoners had decent housing and the love of their families.

The Home Secretary has promised to see what she can do to spread more love around the country.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Defcon One

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past couple of days, but it has been rather hectic. What with the galactico range of main meetings and fringe events, it has been a packed time.

I have managed to meet the PM three times over the past four days (and I may even post some pictures). Actually, that's one of the freaky things about a party conference. It is a heaven for political geeks like me. There you are, walking down a corridor and suddenly Andrew Marr or John Pienaar appear or you trip over Tony Benn smoking a pipe or Andrew Rawnsley grabbing a quiet five minutes with someone. Ministers and other MPs are really happy to chat about things - I managed to talk at some length with Meg Hillier about ID cards and also had a few words with the Des Browne from Defence, Ed Balls from education and Yvette Cooper about housing.


Over the past week, I have heard Gordon use the following phrase at least twice in my hearing.

'I don't know when the Prime Minister is going to call an election.'

Blair used that exact phrase in the run-up to 2005.

Frankly, I think the party is transitioning with all speed to a state of readiness. We know that organisers are being employed and that everything is spooling up. I said from the start that my belief was that the name of the game was to be ready to give the PM the option to go when he wanted. At the start of the week, I was firmly of the view that it would be May 2008, but I'm now waiting, because I think it will probably be Nov 1.

Curiously, the Tories can probably decide this for themselves by having a really good, united conference next week. As the odds are that they won't and will continue their infighting and disunity, my forecast is that Gordon will hold a cabinet meeting on Thursday, quietly slip off and have a word at the Palace and then announce on the afternoon. If he's feeling really nasty, he might do the deed on the Wednesday and drown out Cameron's speech that afternoon. If he's feeling plain evil, he presses the button on Monday and slams the brakes on the Tory conference altogether.

You know something? If and when he does give the word, we'll be ready. As Lord Kinnock said on Monday night, we've got a job to do on the Tories and that's
'to grind the bastards into the dust.'