Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bad grammar

For a while last week, I thought that Cameron had found his Clause IV moment - the point where he proved to the swing voters that he was prepared to stand up against the dinosaurs in his own party.

I'm not sure that this was the right issue. Sure, nobody really believes that a Tory government would introduce hundreds of selective schools - just as nobody really believed that a post-1983 Labour government would start a programme of glorious renationalisation of Thatcher's privatised industries. Like Clause IV, this was a policy more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but it was vaguely reassuring to Tory supporters in the same way that many of them liked knowing that One Man and his Dog was on telly, but never actually felt the need to watch it. On the other hand, isn't it possible that offering an expansion of grammar schools might actually appeal to the chattering classes and to the upwardly mobile members of the working class, evoking memories of when the grammar school really did offer mobility within class barriers, rather than the middle-class enclaves that they have now become? The other catch with this policy shift is that there are a fair few Tory heartlands with popular grammar school systems and talking down these local schools does not go down well with local voters.

It hasn't been well-handled though and has simply promoted an image of a divided Tory party. This is by no means fatal and if the perception can be controlled, then Cameron may yet come out strengthened in the public's view, but it is looking shaky at the moment. The resignation of a shadow minister that nobody had ever heard of could have been said to serve the purpose of demonstrating Cameron's resolve, but the promise by another senior spokesman today that, despite promises of no more grammar schools, areas that currently have them may be allowed to open more has made Cameron look as though he is indecisive on the issue.

That indecision is the problem for Cameron. Standing up to his party or just giving in are positions that are more easily defensible. Trying to tough it out and then rolling over just makes him look weak and if that occurs on other issues still to come to the fore, then he run. Allied with the fact that he's just gone off on holiday, with this row still rumbling on and you have to question the unity at the top of the party. If this is what happens over a policy change that has been in place for over a year, what's going to happen when Cameron faces up to the other policy changes to come?

And then, with trumpets, they hire the former editor of the News of the World - the weekly comic for those obssessed with the sex lives of the famous and the not-so-famous - as their director of communications. Labour had Alistair Campbell and the Tories even manage to find someone with the same initials - Andy Coulson. Andy is available after he had to resign his newspaper job following a court case involving the royal correspondent, a dodgy private detective and access to the mobile phone messages of senior royals. What a fine choice for the new Tory party.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Deputy Leadership Update

So - where are we?

Last night saw the candidates line up on Newsnight for a more open, American-style debate. Poor Hazel Blears wasn't well served by the set. Not only was she randomly placed next to the tallest candidate, Hilary Benn, she was largely hidden behind a lectern, meaning that every time the camera cut to her, the viewer's first thought was about how little she is.

Having seen them all do their stuff at Warwick a week ago, I have to remember that this will be the best chance for most members to see the candidates perform.

Benn was better than I thought he would be - and he's doing rather well in the CLP nomination stakes, with 40 or so backing him at last count. He is a competent minister, but I'm not sure that he's got the presence to step up to the second job.

Hazel Blears still seems too bland too me, still trotting out her well-prepared spiel and I just don't see the depth in her thinking or see anything particularly exciting about her candidacy. Her CLP count stands at under 20, but bear in mind that these figures will change on a daily basis. She does count Birmingham Selly Oak as one of her supporters, though. Her Blairite loyalty is exemplary, if looking rather irrelevant these days.

Harriet Harman continues to surprise me by her ability in this - that's not meant to sound patronising, but I've heard that she wasn't the brightest star amongst the Labour firmament. I think she's been the surprise package of the campaign so far for me - engaging, ready to put some distance between herself and the Blair years and she looks competent. I think that it was also courageous to admit that she got it wrong over the vote for Iraq and she understands that we need to do politics a little differently. She's got the backing of around 26 constituency parties.

Alan Johnson did well, although he did try to shoehorn his working-class background into his answers a little. Yes, we all know that you started out as a postman and that you were more used to delivering post to the tradesman's door of Dorneywood than going through the front door. I wasn't sure either about describing himself as Robin to Gordon's Batman. 27 constituency parties have so far decided to throw their weight behind Alan.

Peter Hain remains a player, although he's reportedly falling behind, having only secured the support of a dozen constituency parties - including Birmingham Yardley and large chunks of Wales. I don't blame him for rolling out his history as a campaigner against apartheid again - although having heard it already, I got a little bored (but as I wrote above, not everyone has been fortunate to see the candidates in the flesh). He got caught in a minor cat fight with Hazel when she tried to pin the blame for new stop and question powers (Sus Laws II) on the Northern Ireland Office. Some of his answers were a little too long as well.

As for Jon Cruddas, he's got over 30 local parties behind him now - including Birmingham Ladywood. I noticed at Warwick and again on Newsnight that when he isn't the focus of the camera or the debate, the life seems to disappear from his face and he does need to remember that if he's on a panel, he's always under scrutiny. At Warwick, he spent some time apparently glaring at the audience and it was quite disconcerting, even if unintentional. He can still take a good deal of pride in the fact that so much of his campaign has been stolen by the other candidates - particularly when it comes to revitalising the grassroots. Sometimes, he can also seem rather naive in policy terms, while the other candidates are more nuanced in their policy thoughts.

Jon did make a very sound point about how Gordon can help refresh the government and it is something that has crossed my mind a few times.

Gordon needs to sell himself to the nation and I think we need to see more of the real Gordon Brown. I saw flashes of his passion for policy at Warwick and there are strong hints of it in today's interview with Jackie Ashley in the Guardian. I hope that once he takes over at the end of June, we see that side of him run free. Some commentators reckon that he'll be cautious, but I don't buy that. I think we need a burst of activity - we need some high-profile big policies and big ideas. To borrow and adapt from the West Wing - let Gordon be Gordon, only more so.

Let's put Gordon Brown, the Labour man to the core, the man driven to tackle poverty and inequality up against the product of patronage and privilege. Then we'll see whether policy trumps spin and whether the country wants new politics or more of the same. Let Gideon proclaim the Tories as the natural successors to Blair all he likes - I'm not sure the country wants another Blair. Gordon won't 'lurch to the left,' but drive forwards and upwards.

I'm looking forward to this.

Mr Toad Rides Again!

No news yet as to whether Mickey Whitless has managed to scam a free car out of Nanjing Automotive yet, but he couldn't wait to grab the headlines. No, he hasn't gone into the Big Brother house - although that can only be a matter of time - he was the first one to drive a new MG off the 'production' line at Longbridge. If that doesn't doom the car, nothing will.

There was all that fuss last week over the collected Lord Mayors objecting to Whitby's aggregation of power and attention into the Leader's office disappeared when the planned constitutional change was amended from giving the Leader primacy over the Lord Mayor in matters in his 'lawful domain' to the simpler definition of matters in the 'interest' of the Leader. As Iron Angle pointed out, that actually broadens the range of subjects over which the political leader takes precedence. James North, Whitless' brain, and his cohorts were swift to blame the chief legal officer for being over-officious. I still don't understand why the constitution needed to be changed. Was there a problem with the Lord Mayor stepping on the Leader's turf? Have their offices been fighting over publicity?

The only reason to force that change through is to allow the Leader - and Mike Whitless in particular - greater personal publicity. It just shows how supine the councillors in the Progressive Partnership are - particularly the Liberal Democrats - to ensure that the ego of one man is allowed to run free and unfettered.

Sadly for Birmingham, Whitless will increasingly be the voice and face of our City.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Soft on crime?

Former Liberal Democrat councillor Dilawar Khan got into a bit of bother a few weeks ago when he was involved in a brawl after a community meeting in Sparkbrook. He claims that he was attacked after raising questions over spending from the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and ended up spending a night in hospital as his nose was broken in three places.

John Hemming identified those responsible
'This is a worrying movement towards more violent campaigns that Respect need to be held responsible for.'
Dilawar Khan said that
'I am really, really disappointed. I am the injured party. I was assaulted in public, and spent a night in hospital. How do they justify this? I am really angry about it. I think the police have let me down. I think they are giving licence to young people to attack older people. I'm really frustrated by the police's action.'
I have done a little digging on this story, but owing to lack of corroboration and a well-founded fear of Cllr Hemming's millions and tame legalistas, I'm being a little cautious. So, here's what I consider to be safe ground. I should point out that the community worker involved on the other side of this affair denies the claims made by Dilawar Khan, but then he would say that, wouldn't he? Intriguingly, I understand that the community worker had already complained to the police some weeks earlier regarding threats made towards him.

Let's turn the clock back to March and the original story, when then-Cllr Khan told the media,
'When I came back, he met me in the foyer and started arguing and swearing at me. Then he pulled me down and kicked me in the face. The rest of the people in the meeting came along and pulled him off me.'

Curiously, those people don't seem to have been able to add anything to the evidence, as the Crown Prosecution Service declined to prosecute the case further as there was insufficient chance of a conviction as
'it was one man's word against another'
Another point to note is that the police were considering charges of affray and not assault. Affray is a charge typically used where a fight or assault happens in a public place and another person (not the victim) is left in fear as a result. Why did the police not consider charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm against the community worker allegedly involved, given that Cllr Khan had suffered a broken nose?

Inner city politics - always murkier than you first think.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What a Hunt

Even as the Liberal Democrats launched another one of their election petitions - this time whinging about how their poor candidate in Aston was treated (they really aren't good losers), a bitter little campaign is being waged over on The Stirrer's message boards.

In the real world, Cllr Hemming's whinging that Labour activists were wandering about claiming that the Lib Dem candidate, the man who changes his name and party with equal haste, Saeed Aehmed, had been arrested. I do hope that there's some evidence to back this up and not just the usual hearsay from Hemming and his motley crew. Of course, the irony is that only a few years back, it was the Lib Dems who ended up settling a libel action after one of their leaflets referred to a prominent Labour councillor as a 'whoremaster.'

Mr Hemming said he was also considering whether to inform prosecutors about other matters relating to the election. He claimed presiding officers in an inner city ward were telling voters to back Labour candidates...

Why is he merely 'considering' this? Shouldn't he have already reported this serious allegation to the authorities?

Meanwhile, Hemming, Mullaney and Jon Hunt are putting the boot into Cllr Muhammed Afzal with their own interesting interpretations of the legal process (Cllr Afzal was found to have been involved in the electoral fraud in Aston and Bordesley Green in 2004, but later cleared on appeal - a fact dealt with in great detail in an earlier post here.

Cllr Hunt shows his grasp of legal technicalities:
'In Scottish terms, the case against Cllr Afzal remains unproven. The appeal decided he had not had a fair trial, not that the allegations against him were untrue.'

Errrm. Jon - we're not IN Scotland. I've checked and note the distinct lack of deep fried Mars bars and other ethnic typecasting. What Jon is saying is that if we had a different legal system in England and Wales, then we might have had a different answer. Sadly, even that is wrong, as Cllr Afzal was cleared on appeal. How often do I have to repeat this?

The Liberal Democrats may hate him and may believe him to be guilty - they are entitled to their beliefs - but the fact remains that if you win an appeal and have your conviction quashed, no matter how technical the grounds may be - you are therefore innocent of the charges for which you were convicted. That's a fairly clear legal statement, I would say.

Here we have the Liberal Democrats once again hiding behind their millionaire leader - happy to libel someone in the sure knowledge that he can't afford to take on their crack legal team of Hemming and Cllr Ayoub Khan.

Cllr Khan has just been appointed to the Cabinet with responsibility for local services and community safety and I'm sure he'll remember the rapid ejection of the last Asian councillor to hold that post when he failed to do what the bosses demanded. According to the Mail, Cllr Khan has put his legal studies on hold for a year to do the Cabinet job - well aware that he'll only be in post until May 2008, when Labour removes the sole remaining Liberal Democrat from his Aston seat. Until then, Aston ward meetings could be rather good entertainment value, as Cllr Afzal sits beside his tormentor, Cllr Khan.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What's Margaret Hodge up to?

And more importantly, will she stop it?

Small Town Scribbles lets her own clunking fist fly. Even the Blairite Alan Johnson has been moved to criticise.

Look Margaret, immigrants don't get priority over indigenous people (BNP-speak for 'white' by the way). We prioritise on the basis of need. As Scribbles points out, we can deal with the issue not by attacking migrants/asylum seekers and pandering to the worst elements of the Daily Express/Daily Mail readership (the ones who aren't totally focussed on Diana). It isn't about changing priorities to decide who gets one of our depleted stocks of council houses - it should be about building more houses.

The MP for Barking. True on so many counts.

Another Lib Dem bandwagon rolls on by

Now, I've got no time for the amendment to the FoI Act to provide additional protection for the Houses of Parliament. It seems to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut that may not even need cracking. The Information Commissioner has confirmed that they have had no complaints regarding non-disclosure of MPs' correspondence and if there was a problem, then surely the amendment could have been limited to that issue, rather than a blanket exemption for everything related to Parliament. Personal data contained in letters would be protected by the provisions of the Data Protection Act in any case, but that's not the point of this post. Nor is it even to criticise the Birmingham Labour MPs who decided to back the bill (Steve McCabe, Sion Simon, Khalid Mahmood, Roger Godsiff - I think that you were wrong on this occasion)

The Liberal Democrats - not having seen a bandwagon for a few weeks - have leapt aboard this one with particular glee and even our own local LibDem has added a link on his sidebar to the Lib Dem campaign for Freedom of Information. So where was the man when he could have done more than just troll for email addresses for the party? Where was he when he could have done his job and voted against the changes? He wasn't voting, that's for sure.

Mind you, neither was Ming. Dan Norris puts the boot in to the old guy, as revealed by Ridiculous Politics.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gordon arrives

The stage is set and everyone is waiting - not a silent, respectful hush by any means, but we're waiting for the main act, after an interval break meeting the deputy leadership contenders trawling for votes.

And there's the man himself, large as life and half as dour, smiling and waving as the hall stands as one, cheering and applauding our next party leader and Prime Minister. Not everyone was quite so welcoming, though, and one lady was 'escorted' from the hall for shouting demands that Brown get the troops out now. The issue reappeared a couple of times during the discussion and he accepted his share of the responsibility for the decisions taken in Cabinet, but he promised to visit the region to assess the current status. Additionally, he said that he would work for a two-state solution to the problems in Gaza. Indeed, he said that he had met Israeli businessmen ready to invest in Gaza.

Gordon has clearly spent a good deal of time in training for this. His public persona involves a lot more smiling than it ever did in the past and he's even learning a few jokes. He's not on the Blair level when it comes to presentation, but that must be his selling point. Let Cameron do the lightweight spinning - Brown is a political heavyweight with policies aplenty. Many of those remain firmly under wraps, but some hints seemed to leak out.

Expect an Education Bill in the autumn's Queen's Speech and while Gordon remains committed to delivering the manifesto commitment on academies, there were hints that the programme might not expand in the way that Blair intended. Surestart will continue to expand, providing an average of six centres in every constituency by 2010. That will be a key marker for the Brown government, as he clearly wants to put child poverty and development at the heart of what he does. He also wants to expand youth provision - touched upon by Alan Johnson earlier in the morning - and wants to develop a partnership in training involving employers, young people and the government. We've increased apprenticeships from 70,000 in 1997 to 300,000 today and wants to go on towards 500,000, so as to reduce the pool of unskilled labour. Young people can also expect to be involved in deciding how money should be spent on their services in the community. While we've already increased per child spending on education from the 1997 level of £2500 a year to £5000, he wants to allow for more small group and one-to-one teaching by increasing it still more to £6500 per child per year. It is crucial that we deal with children who fall behind with reading or maths in the early years of primary education, otherwise they will not be able to catch up in time to reap the benefits of secondary education.

Even when it came to housing, he related that to children and poverty and pointed out that our society is creating some 270,000 new households a year and they need somewhere to live.

International aid will also remain important, as he understands that while we can't solve environmental problems without people taking responsibility and playing a role in reducing their own impact, greater effects are felt when countries work together. Britain is already putting £50 million into a Congo basin reforestation project. A big aim was to see if we could be the first generation when every child on the planet had the chance to go to school. He said that when Kenya was helped to provide free education, a million children unknown to the government suddenly appeared to enrol. We have the chance to eradicate diseases like polio, malaria and diptheria - six million lives could be saved each year. He also committed to persuading the UN and the African Union to take more action to deal with the great tragedy of Darfur.

Gordon's never going to be as slick as Blair, but that isn't a problem. His passion shows when he gets onto a subject close to his heart as the facts and figures spill out. He's certainly a detail man in a way that Tony never was. That may be a problem for the future - whether he can resist the temptation to fiddle with ministerial departments - but it can also be his strength. He understands the detail that underlies the big picture and will be able to highlight the weaknesses of the Tory attack. Cameron will find it hard to match that grasp of knowledge that Brown has.

I'm feeling more upbeat than I have for quite a while after today. If other members are reading this - do make the effort to get to one of these meetings if you can.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Can I count on your support?

To Coventry and the sundappled lawns of Warwick University, to hear the cheery voices of the contenders begging for our support. As promised, here's the (largely unedited) highlights. If you don't want to know the result, look away now.

First up was a question and answer session - a mix of questions selected from the audience, texts and emails.

This kicked off with a question over nuclear power. All of the candidates said that it should form part of a mix of supply options and was vital to ensure security of supply and most of them also mentioned the need for microgeneration to be built into new developments. Peter Hain was able to mention the changes he'd made in Northern Ireland - changing building regulations and requiring free microgeneration plants for low-cost housing. He also backed the development of the Severn barrage. Harriet Harman later said that she wasn't sure whether she'd rather have a nuclear power plant or the media camped on her doorstep.

Next up was student finance. Hilary Benn said that a review of the current system was due in 2009 and that the key test for him was whether it would help his poor constituents to get to university. Peter Hain didn't duck the question and pointed out that for every £2 a student pays towards their education, the taxpayer supplements it with £14. He was supportive of student contributions and preferred to see investment at the lower end of the education system. Alan Johnson said that free university education didn't help social exclusion and had become nothing more than a middle class perk - he was a defender of the current system. He was supported in this by Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears, who wanted to see more go to university. Jon Cruddas was the only one to differ from the current policy, saying that he had voted against student fees for personal reasons - he had benefitted from it, like the rest of his family. He also said that he considered that the expansion in higher education was based upon a false premise of a massive increase in demand for graduates.

Then, on to how to attack the Tories. Peter Hain wants to expose the shallowness of the Cameron project, but also wants to get under the radar and campaign hard on the doorstep - particularly by installing candidates early at all levels. Alan Johnson also highlighted the superficiality of the Tory revival - pointing out that Patrick Mercer is more representative of the Tory benches than Cameron, who is only being supported because he might win. Hazel Blears chipped in with a call for us to up our game and stop giving Cameron an easy ride - we need to reclaim the family-friendly policies for ourselves. She was critical of the 'poisonous and pernicious' media, which is the worst she has known it and called for a campaign to highlight politics as an honourable and reputable trade and one important to democracy and our way of life. Harriet Harman said that we had got out of the habit of attack and should counter attempts by Tory councils to claim the credit for Labour investment. Cruddas supported the public service ethic and claimed that Gordon Brown has changed the terms of the debate so that he was optimistic for our chances. Hilary Benn - who sounds disturbingly like his father - also had a go at the media, claiming that they hold up a distorting mirror to our society and that party politics and Labour politics in particular are the only hopes of changing the world.

Onwards, to a question about an ageing population and support for carers. Alan Johnson highlighted Labour's steps to improve the rights for carers and to recognise that they take pressure from the state, while Hazel Blears said that child carers needed more support. Harriet Harman performed well, promising a family-focus at the heart of government and to raise these issues up the agenda. John Cruddas was weak here, mentioning a couple of technical issues about adjusting the claims process and the way that payments taper. Hilary Benn wasn't much more exciting, but Peter Hain did well, reminding us that issues like this were the reasons why we're socialists (the only time the 'S' word was mentioned today). He used it to highlight the difference between us and the Tories - we care and they want a society built on individual greed and selfishness.

Anti-social behaviour was next on the menu, with Hazel kicking off and highlighting her role as a Home Office minister and architect of the 'respect' programme. She criticised those local authorities that don't use the full range of powers used and said that each had been given additional funding for youth services to the tune of £250,000 per authority. Harriet Harman backed the new laws, but said that it we also needed to tackle the underlying causes (tough on the causes of crime, anyone?). She backed putting Surestart into the mainstream and promised a major national strategy for youth facilities in every neighbourhood - another strong round for her. John Cruddas said that we had the balance about right between legislation and tackling the causes. Hilary Benn claimed to have been radicalised on this issue by the problems raised in constituency surgeries. Peter Hain blamed a lack of respect for the problems. He agreed that we need to help families in deprived areas and tackle dysfunctionality, but we have to recognise that life can be made hell for others by a nuisance neighbour. He made the point that we need to be on the side of those affected, but also on the side of the majority of young people who are decent members of society - something echoed by Gordon Brown in his later appearance. Alan Johnson wanted to tackle this through education, by raising the school leaving age to ensure that no child is left off the skills radar and to ensure that we provide more opportunities.

The next question related to how efficiently the increase in NHS funding is being used. Harriet Harman wanted us to listen to the staff - an initiative followed by most of her colleagues on the platform. She was amazed that while people's personal experience of the NHS is improving, the Tories are leading us in the polls on this issue. Peter Hain equally couldn't understand how we don't get credit for the decade of change and said that we need to communicate the message much better - communicate and celebrate our achievements. Alan Johnson said that old method of balancing the books was by using waiting lists and that reform has been essential, but that we need to develop a real social partnership with NHS employees - it is appalling that they feel badly treated by Labour. John Cruddas wanted to pause and take stock of private involvement in the NHS - their operations cost 11% more than public sector ones and he promised a moratorium on further private sector activity. Here, Hazel Blears took issue - she has no problems with using private sector or voluntary capacity to get patients treated, the outcome is what matters.

Finally, they were each asked to nominate one issue that Labour should address to energise our electorate. John Cruddas went for insecurity at work, linking it to chronic abuses by landlords and criminal gangs in their mistreatment of migrant workers. Hilary Benn hit the nail on the head and picked on affordable housing - we need to provide more homes. Peter Hain wants inequality front and centre as we address housing for young people, ensure that legislation is enforced to end the two-tier labour market - identifying that as a potentially toxic issue for community relations (something that John Cruddas also picked up on). Alan Johnson, perhaps mindful of his background, wanted social mobility as a key issue. He says that it is now harder to escape the shackles of a deprived upbringing in the UK than in other similar countries. He also picked on housing (the single issue part of the question having fallen by the wayside) and suggested that councils should be allowed to establish their own ALMOs to build new properties. At this point, La Toynbee (who was chairing the whole thing) intervened to ask how you close the wealth gap without doing anything about those at the top of the heap. Johnson said that you can by concentrating on tax credit and the use of benefits to redistribute - the poorest 20% in the UK have seen a greater percentage increase in their income than the top 20%. Peter Hain jumped in to say that it was not acceptable for a small group in the City to earn billions in bonuses and that there was a need for more corporate responsibility. Hazel Blears had a decent response to the main question, saying that it was a basket of things required to appeal to ordinary decent families - jobs, education and healthcare - and that we must not cede this ground to the Tories. Harriet Harman closed this by adding that we needed to clean up our act - no spin, no briefings, no grace and favour mansions - we're Labour, not Tories.

Each candidate then had the chance to address the meeting with some closing remarks.

Harriet Harman went first and she raised the subject of Iraq (curiously unmentioned thus far), saying that it needed to be addressed as an issue. We need new policies to take the fight to the Tories and that this was a task for the whole of the party, but we also needed to recall our lapsed members to come back and help shape the future.

Fabulous was the word of the day for Hazel, who claimed that this was a fabulous opportunity for unity and that we should celebrate our record and our achievements. She went on to say that we have transformed communities and that the role of a Deputy Leader is to be a full-time motivator to ensure that we continue to be united and fabulous.

Interestingly, Alan Johnson raised the removal of Clause IV as an example of the Labour Party removing a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the party, while the Tories' new policy on grammar schools was building one in to the heart of theirs.

Peter Hain traced his principles back to things learned in South Africa and in the cradle of apartheid, which led him to a belief in the need to change the world. For him, politics is not a career, but a passion and he wants more young people to see a natural path from single-issue campaigning to activity within the Labour Party. He wants a progressive internationalist foreign policy and made a virtue of his independence from any faction within the party.

Hilary Benn also said that he saw no place for factionalism - politics is a way to achieve things and that he was unapologetic about his values and wanting a society where we agree to put something back in for what we take out. He also wants to put justice at the heart of foreign policy and spoke of redistributing power and opportunity as well as wealth.

John Cruddas wound up by saying that he wanted all his colleagues to run departments so that they could deliver their agendas, but that he felt that he should be deputy leader without a department. The deputy leader should be the voice of the party and lead the rebuilding of the coalition that brought us to power.

Now, I went into that debate as an avowed supporter of Cruddas. He's said an awful lot of things that I would support - not least that he put the reform and reconstruction of the party at the centre of his campaign. I have to say that I left feeling rather let down by him and I'm disappointed by that. He missed a trick on the single key issue for the election campaign. While what he raised regarding employment is important, it isn't going to allow us to reconnect to our voters. It matters to the unions, but I don't think that it is a killer issue for the average voter across the country. For me, the big issue will be as it was in 1945 - housing. If we can provide solutions to the massive problems there, then we can enthuse voters of all ages with the promises of homes fit for our more modern heroes.

Hazel Blears had some good moments and spoke well, taking the audience with her on occasion and probably drawing the most decent round of applause. However, her replies lacked substance. She can talk the talk and spin the web, but I didn't feel that there was much depth to her.

Alan Johnson was OK and not a lot more than that. Some good thinking, but nothing to write home about. Hilary Benn comes over as a thoroughly decent man, but not right for the top job. Harriet Harman went up in my estimation quite significantly. She's got clear strengths on family policies and could be a real asset to Gordon in taking on the Tories in the southern seats.

The one who impressed me most was Peter Hain. He looks the part and he was the only candidate to use the lectern supplied at the side of the stage for his summing up, a neat trick that immediately set him apart from the rest of the group. With his response to the first question, he highlighted his experience in Northern Ireland and some concrete achievements in the environmental field. He didn't overplay his hand on the broader NI political issues and gave a statesmanlike performance overall.

I spent a little time picking up the thoughts of others and it seems to me that the members' vote is pretty wide open. Even after attending that hustings meeting, many people are undecided, so the next few weeks will be crucial amongst all the candidates as they seek to get their cases across to use mere voting mortals. I think I picked up a slight leaning towards Hain amongst members, but by no means enough to call the election for him and Cruddas is also doing well. There's still a lot to play for.

What is true is that despite the involvement of a Benn in a leadership campaign, there's not the rancour and division in the air that there was in the early 1980s, for example. There aren't huge policy divides between any of the candidates and I would not feel badly served if any of them (probably apart from Hazel) won the job.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

We are the masters now

Isn't amazing just how much they all love us now they want our votes?

I'm drowning in the sea of love from all the deputy leader candidates - and I've even had a personalised letter from the big man himself. It is almost as if they truly care.

There was some talk earlier in the week (Jonathan Freedland wrote about it in his Guardian column) that Gordon should loan some of his supporters to the McDonnell campaign so as to ensure that there was an electoral contest. While this would have provided a thin veneer of democracy to the almost inevitable Brown victory, the fact that the system would have to be subverted to ensure that a candidate went onto the ballot paper seems dodgy to me. Add in the fact that we would then have had weeks of in-fighting between the candidates and I believe that it would have been more divisive and thus more damaging to our electoral prospects than the eventual outcome. Yes, the Tories will portray it as a coronation and complain about Gordon not even being elected to the leadership by the members, but if the PM can't rely on the support of the parliamentary party, then he doesn't deserve the support of the members. That support was demonstrated in overwhelming numbers and entirely in line with the rules of the contest. This way, the media focus will be entirely on Gordon and he'll be able to talk more freely about the differences a Brownite government will bring, without the distraction of having to slug it out with an opponent.

The really interesting side to the contest is the fight over the deputy leadership - the Labour Party's very own pitcher of warm spittle. All the candidates have their qualities and I wouldn't be unhappy with any of them sitting next to Gordon. Clearly, those of you with eyes to see will spot from the sidebar that I'm backing the Jon Cruddas campaign and this is simply because I believe that the first duty of the party must be to reconnect with the membership (I wish Jon more success than I brought to my last leadership candidate). The state of much of the grassroots - even in normally 'safe' Labour areas - is increasingly parlous and we need somebody at a high level capable of re-energising our party members. Membership has to mean something and Jon has put it front and centre on his campaign. While he lacks experience as a minister, he's worked for the Labour Party for a number of years and is garnering an interesting level of support. Our very own Tom Watson is with him, as is Bob Piper, Diane Abbott, Frank Dobson and Glenda Jackson. He can also rely on the backing of two Birmingham MPs - Lynne Jones and Khalid Mahmood. Jon has also signed up the heavyweight backing from Unite - the combination of Amicus and the TGWU and can now add Ken Livingstone to his list. If he doesn't win, he should immediately be appointed as party chair and told to get on with the job.

Peter Hain has an excellent pedigree, combined with experience of office at high levels. Those of a certain age will recall him as a prime mover in the fight against apartheid and a founder of the Anti Nazi league (as well as a former Liberal - but everyone has skeletons in their closet). He's collected a range of supporters, including five junior ministers and Ann Clwyd, Shaun Woodward and the eternal rebel Bob Marshall-Andrews, as well as the regular contributor to PoliticalBetting, Nick Palmer. I think he's proven himself pretty competent all round - but is he perhaps a little too well-fed and perma-tanned these days?

Hazel Blears, my little chipmunk, is one of the solidly Blairite candidates on the list - indeed, she was one of the original Blair babes back in 1997. The motorcycling Hazel can count on Alan Milburn, John Reid, Eric Joyce, Tessa Jowell, Ruth Kelly, Hilary Armstrong, John Hutton, Hall Green's Steve McCabe and former Birmingham Labour councillor and now MP for Stoke South Rob Flello. She's certainly able to muster a roll-call of the great and the good - five ministers of Cabinet rank, no less - to support her campaign and it would be a positive move to have a woman near the top. However, do we want to keep that connection with the Blair years? A stronger candidate than many think, but may not play well with the unions.

The man with the strong union background is Alan Johnson, renowned for having worked his way up from the streets as a postman to run the country's education system. While that's a traditional route for Labour politicians, he's perhaps too close to the Blair years and may not find the unions that supportive to one of their own. He and Hazel should share support as people who put her as first choice will probably back Alan as second and vice versa. He certainly can't be ruled out of the running - although I'm not sure that winning the backing of Alistair Campbell will do him any good. He has probably the best credentials of any when it comes to speaking to the working-class Tory vote in the south and keeping them inside the Blairite big tent. His supporters include Frank Field, Ed Balls (a Brownite in the camp), Adam Ingram, Des Browne, John Prescott, Dawn Primarolo, Hodge Hill's Liam Byrne and Erdington's Sion Simon.

Harriet Harman is a renowned campaigner on women and family issues and is another who could play well with the southern voters. With Margaret Hodge, Patricia Hewitt and David Milliband in her corner, she can also rely on some strong Brownite support from Nick Brown, Yvette Cooper (Mrs Balls) and Alistair Darling as well as the traditional lefty Joan Ruddock and the backing of both the Kinnocks. Locally, Edgbaston's Gisela Stuart is behind Harriet, as are Neena Gill and Michael Cashman, our MEPs.

Finally, we have the last entrant to the race, Hilary Benn, following in his father's footsteps as he (probably) fails to win the job. He followed a tough act at DFID and has done a good job in a difficult environment. He'll enjoy good name recognition, but I think he'll be an early faller. Like others, he has a mix of supporters from across the spectrum - probably the only time you'll David Lammy and Ian McCartney rubbing shoulders with Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner and Mark Fisher. I can't help but wonder if Hilary's last minute dash over the line for the nomination wasn't helped by a few phone calls from his old man to some of the usual suspects to help out for old times' sake. A decent minister and one deserving of a place at the Brown Cabinet table, but not Deputy Leader material I would say.

Those are the runners and riders. Sunday brings us the West Midlands hustings in Coventry. I'll be there with my notebook and I'll let you know what I see and hear.

[EDIT - Don't know why the links/comments bit hasn't appeared. No reason and it is now corrected.]

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Flash Gordon Approaching!

So Ming had better be careful.

Tony's speech on Thursday was another fine performance from him (although he studiously avoided mentioning any mistakes that he might have made, while apologising generally for them). He was right when he said that the national joy of 1997 - a delight that transcended party boundaries - set the bar too high for the rest of the Labour years in power. It was never possible for a government to live up to the expectations of the people.

And then we had Gordon's explosion onto the scene yesterday, with his subtle hints of a different approach to government. Promises of more accountability and being prepared to listen are all very well, but they do have to be followed up by action. Let's see a government bill to give parliament the right to decide on military action. Let's see the daft proposals to limit freedom of information by including 'thinking time' in the costings scrapped. Let's see an end to the vastly over-priced identity card scheme - let's scrap our 'Poll Tax' before it gets off the ground. The report on Thursday that showed increased costs provides an excellent justification for forgetting the whole thing. He's promised to make the health service his priority - a policy area that we must ensure stays at the top of the Labour pile and one that the Tories have been trying to take over since Cameron got the top job.

I missed most of his first speech - although I agree that whoever set up the camera positions to ensure that the teleprompter screen obscured his face deserves to be shot for media mismanagement. I saw the second one in Stevenage and while Gordon is still clearly not at ease in that situation, he was making a clear effort to be more inclusive by looking around at the whole audience - even if talking to the ones behind and to his side cause his voice to drop away from the microphones on occasion. He's not the rounded media presenter that Blair is or that Cameron is striving to imitate, but that might not be a bad thing.

Gordon has to appear different and has to be different. 'Change' and 'new' were words used an awful lot yesterday, but we need more than words. The electorate seem tired of Labour at the moment, so reinvention is in order and that takes real policy. While he doesn't want to throw out the achievements of the past decade - which I'm not going to revisit at the moment - he needs to put a little clear red water between him and the Blair years.

A fourth term is there to win. It will be a fight - for the first time in a decade, the Tories will put up a decent challenge - but we can do it. We will also need to be as united as we were behind Blair in '97 - no sniping from the Blairite wing when Gordon takes office. The alternative is not worth considering.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Do not forsake me...

High Noon in Sedgefield and the end of an era.

Thanks for the joy of 1997, the success of 2001 and the record third win in 2005.

If it hadn't been for that disastrous decision to invade Iraq, we might greet your departure with more regret than relief.

But now, we have the chance to make a new start. We'll have a seven week campaign for the leadership, which Gordon will win, and the same campaign with a much wider field for the deputy's post. I've already nailed my colours to the Jon Cruddas mast, as I believe that our future success starts with the basic building blocks of the party - the grassroots membership. If we don't reconnect with them, then we won't win the next election.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Overheard at the count

Local election count, somewhere in Birmingham, May 3 2007.
Very late.

Thick-necked BNP counting agent: So, what do we do here then?

Shaven-headed BNP election agent: Just wander up and down the table glaring at the counters.

I have a theory that the reason the BNP vote dropped like a stone by almost a third year-on-year was that posters were banned. Some of their voters might be actually that stupid that they need that visual cue to remember that there's an election on.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blue Friday

Well, a little.

I think it would take an extraordinary amount of chutzpah to claim that yesterday represented a victory for the Labour Party in Birmingham. We lost four seats and regained one as the Tories became the largest party on the Council for the first time in two decades. The sight of hordes of happy Tories in the Council House in the early hours of this morning was not one that left me cheered, to be honest.

Once I emerged from my pit late this morning, I fired up Excel and had a run through the figures. Overall votes were down across the City, by about 8000 on last year. Labour again had the highest vote share - taking 32% of votes cast, up 0.5% on 2006, with the Tories taking 27.1%, up 1% and the LDs on 21.5%, down 0.9%. The BNP vote share plummetted to 7.7% (entirely unaffected by the NNP/NF fellow travellers, whose overall figures are insignificant) from 11.1% and the Greens also lost out, dropping 0.3% to 4.7%. Labour lost votes in 22 wards, the Tories slid back in 25 and the Lib Dems in 29.

The brightest spark in the campaign was that the the BNP lost ground everywhere except Lozells, where they gained an extra 13 votes on 2006. In total, they managed to mislay almost 10,000 votes in twelve months. Sharon Ebanks' threats to the BNP in Kingstanding returned just 171 votes for the wacky new NNP (almost half the votes that they gathered wherever they stood). Even in their target ward of Shard End, the BNP lost votes and managed to lose 656 from Kingstanding - where they briefly won last year.

I resisted predictions in the run-up, as I didn't want them being used against my party, but I wasn't surprised at the results in Erdington, where Susanna McCorry failed to regain a seat vacated by Renee Spector in the face of a Tory campaign spearheaded by Bobby Alden. Similarly, I expected the Tory wave to overwhelm Laura Ross in Kings Norton. I wasn't sure about the result in Billesley, as Susan Burfoot has been an excellent and popular local councillor there and certainly deserved to hold it - more so as the Tory candidate was reported as being less than effective. He rode Len Gregory's coat-tails, but failed to increase the Tory vote on last year, even as Susan's text book campaign produced 300 more Labour votes from the Lib Dems - sadly not enough to close the gap on the day, but a sterling effort nonetheless. More of a surprise was the defeat of Mike Nangle, usually regarded as part of the fixtures and fittings of the Council House, who lost his Hodge Hill seat to the Lib Dems - helped by a sizeable chunk of votes that went to an independent.

Elsewhere, there was some good news. Labour retook Aston from the defective Lib Dem/Respect councillor and held on to Bordesley Green - both thanks to the presence of the Lib Dems and Respect, who divided the anti-Labour vote between them and allowed our guys through the middle. Springfield didn't come home, though, despite some positive reports during the day. Respect dislodged Dilawar Khan, the Lib Dem in Sparkbrook, who saw his hefty pile of votes reduced to under 1000 as even the second-placed Labour councillor powered past him well into four figures.

So, the current status of the council is 44 Tory, 41 Labour, 32 Lib Dem, 2 Respect and 1 independent. This is a good result for the Tories, certainly, but where do they go from here? While they may have hopes of gaining a couple of seats held by hold-out Labour councillors in Erdington and Longbridge, they will find it hard to get much further without running into the Lib Dems.

Whitless has been talking a lot of rubbish about the results and as 'The Watchman' put it on the Stirrer message board:
Saw Whitby on BBC News 24 last night saying they had taken seats in places they had not won for more than a decade and a half. Once again the idiot's analysis was wide of the mark. They already had footholds in Erdington, Kings Norton and Billesley - all of which they won last year. Hardly the first in more than a decade. They will make a clean sweep in these wards again next year and probably take Longbridge giving a maximum 48 seats. But what will concern them behind the scenes is they failed to make the inroads in areas like Oscott, Perry Barr, Tyburn, Selly Oak - areas which they really have not represented for more than a decade and that is the problem they face. Even with the Blair government at its lowest ebb and Cameron wooing the masses they can only secure 48 seats out of 120 - they will never lead on their own. Hardly a sign of a party with broad appeal.

Labour is the only party in Birmingham that can genuinely lay claim to broad appeal as most wards in the city return significantly more than a 1000 Labour votes - our support is broad, but thinly spread. In most wards of the City, it is a two way fight - Labour against either the Tories or the Lib Dems. Rarely do we see a three-way tussle - Tyburn is the only possible there, with the Lib Dems in second place and the Tories not too far behind - or a Lib Dem/Tory challenge. Hall Green is an example of the latter, where the Tories might feel buoyed in their challenge to the Lib Dems by the disappearance of over 300 LD votes from 2006 as the Tory vote climbed by over 100. The gap remains at 700, but it is a unique ward, as the Tories and Lib Dems have carved up the city amongst themselves.

While Labour undoubtedly have problems and a few more vulnerable seats and the Tories had a good night - if not the beating that some suspected - the Lib Dems are also showing signs of strain. Their heartland in Fortress Yardley remains impregnable, but their vote share dropped across the City, by almost the amount that the Tory vote increased. Across England, they are facing further grief as they have lost around 250 councillors and suffered a net loss of five councils. Snowflake5 has kept a closer eye on the national picture than I have (one of the things about being involved in a local campaign is that your focus tends to be VERY narrow) and she reports that in Bournemouth, the 33-strong Lib Dem group lost a whopping 25 seats to the Tories. (Actually, the funniest result of the night has to be in Tony Blair's own constituency of Sedgefield, where in the New Trimdon and Trimdon Grange ward, the Tory candidate Shirley Bowes failed to poll a single vote). As I've noted before, the Lib Dems were a party of protest - a safe destination for a vote against the current administration when the opposition weren't up to much. Now the Tories seem to have rediscovered their mojo, the game is on again. I still maintain that the next general election will have a higher turnout and the key decision for voters will be who they want to run the country - Tory or Labour. The LDs face being crushed by the big players at parliamentary level, where a number of their seats are vulnerable to the Tories. I still can't see Ming the Useless still being in the hot seat come the next general election - he's had little effect on this campaign and doesn't provide the necessary spark or inspiration.

All in all, it could have been much worse in Birmingham. We still have a mountain to climb, but we haven't been pushed back to the bottom.

In the meantime, we have a leadership election to deal with (Tony, not Albert).

And comrades - remember the expression on the faces of our Tory and Lib Dem friends last night. Let that fuel your campaigning over the next year.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Vote early, vote once

So, 7am tomorrow looms and the real voting starts. I like the ceremony of the voting process - I don't like postal votes because it reduces it to nothing more than paying a bill or answering a survey. Putting a cross in the box is my chance to make my views known and I've voted in every election where I've had the chance since I was 18. Tomorrow, I'll walk up to the local school with my family to cast our votes - we've always gone together, so the kids understand the importance of voting and the need to make it a habit.

For me, it isn't just a hard-won right, but also a civic duty. The sight of the people of South Africa queuing for hours to make sure that they had their say in that country's first free election brought a tear to my cynical old eye (not THAT old, at that point, to be honest). If you don't vote, you don't have the right to whinge. Tomorrow, a third of the Birmingham electorate is expected to cast their votes for their councillors, so it could mean that just 10% or so of the people living in your ward decide who will spend four years representing you on those benches in the Council House. I don't think that's good enough, so do me a favour.

Whatever else you do tomorrow, make a difference - get out and vote. Polling stations are open 7am - 10pm and you don't need your polling card to vote. Just turn up, tell the clerk your address and they'll sort you out.

As for which party - if you don't know the drill by now, you haven't been paying attention.

Blogging has been light over the past few weeks because of the campaign, but I should return with an overall assessment of the results on Friday morning or afternoon - depending on when I surface after a long sleep. Election day is always a long day and usually kicks off at dawn and runs through until the wee small hours of the next day.
Good luck to the 40 comrades across the City.

Then and now

Back in June 2004, Cllr Hemming even-handedly laid accusations of dodgy electoral practice at the door of the PJP and the Labour Party.

Coun Hemming... put the spotlight on the Muslim-led People's Justice Party and the Labour Party, who he accuses of manipulating postal votes...

The People's Justice Party denied all of Coun Hemming's allegations. Amir Khan, a PJP candidate in Nechells ward, said he and his colleagues were simply attempting to ensure that people with a poor grasp of English understood the voting process. He added: "People don't know what the forms say. They are throwing them in the bin and think they can then turn up and vote at the polling station. It is a very awkward situation.

After the election, there was an electoral court which overturned Labour's wins in Aston and Bordesley Green, forcing re-runs in each. Needless to say, Cllr Hemming and his colleagues have made as much hay as possible about this, tarring everyone in the Labour Party with the same brush. He forgot his concerns about the PJP members and welcomed their votes them to the party with open arms - after helping them with the electoral petition.

Very early on Tuesday morning, West Midlands Police executed a warrant on a house in Bordesley Green and arrested two men - Lib Dem Cllr Zaker Choudry and Lib Dem candidate Mohammed Saeed (an ex-PJP member). Both men have since been released on police bail and no charges have been laid.

However, that hasn't stopped Aardvark going on the offensive, claiming that the raid was politically motivated and it is all a conspiracy anyway.
Superficially it appears that the police are intervening in the election itself. They arrested one of our candidates in the 2006 election. He, however, was found to have not committed any offence (the postal votes found with his wife were his, his wifes and their children).We know that some form of setup is going on because a postal vote was misdirected to the same Lib Dem Candidate's house. It is a bit like harrassing people with Pizzas and Taxis instead we have harrassment with postal votes.

What were the police to do? Delaying the raid until after the election would have been as political a decision as to do it before May 3. In any case, as the arrested councillor confirmed, the investigation is into allegations from 2006 and this year, so waiting until Friday would have been fairly pointless. Waiting until Tuesday may have been equally pointless, as postal votes have been counted daily since Monday.

He's followed that up with an interview on the Today programme, which was marred by him seeming rather distracted and using a poor-quality mobile phone. It seems the BBC have been shown documents revealing the scale of reduction in postal votes across the City. Nice to see that they are up to speed - this has been common knowledge for weeks. The City Council cancelled all postal votes earlier in the year - even those where the elector had requested a permanent vote - and asked electors to submit new requests. Surely this can't have been timed as an attempt to embarrass Labour by resurrecting the spectre of the 2004 problems?

This year, Labour activists have signed up to a tough code of conduct, which we break at our peril - the penalties for transgression have been made crystal clear. Simply put, campaigners are not allowed to encourage mass sign up of postal voters, we don't touch any postal ballots (apart from our own, if we have them) and we don't visit postal electors after the ballot papers get posted out (last Tuesday). Even though the Electoral Commission code of practice allows party workers to assist electors, we're banned from that. This year, there is a real determination that Labour should not only be clean, but be seen to be clean.

As we know that electoral malpractice is not solely a Labour problem, the other parties in the City were asked to join in with these tougher rules and to take a common stand against vote fraud.

So far as I know, the other parties have refused to make that commitment.