Thursday, November 29, 2007

Events, dear boy, events

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bald men still fighting over comb

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

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

Two interesting things come out of this interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the NHS in The Scotsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

She's no lady...

David Bell reveals that Ladywood wants a woman candidate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Polishing off the family silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps a list like this might help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The end of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, but there's more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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