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


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.


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.
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.


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.


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.